Posts Tagged ‘travel’

It was half term a few weeks back. The SSF was away (on some sort of endurance test to northern climes, as it turned out) and I had unmitigated freedom to contend with. On a whim, I set about redecorating the kitchen. I like painting and I like orderliness. I was orderly. I was methodical. I wrapped my brushes in cling film every evening. Things were going surprisingly well until, after flicking through a few home design magazines, I had the brilliant notion of a ‘feature wall.’ I tried a few test pots out on designated wall, creating a Kandinsky-ish effect. The results were hideous. None of the shades I had chosen remotely resembled those advertised. This spontaneous need for colour injection had slowed my progress. Hastily I covered the mess with a calming neutral and decided an outing was required.

I have a list of Places-I’ve-Been-Meaning-To-Visit. Checking through this by now extensive directory, the thought occurred that several sites I had highlighted belong to the National Trust. So, quicker than you could spit at the mention of Michael Gove, our new Environment Secretary (latterly the destroyer of our education system as we knew it), I performed a complete moral U-turn and decided to sign up for membership. I can’t believe I’m even admitting this, so critical of this institution have I been in the past. And still am and probably still will be.

It didn’t start well.

To explain fully the signing up scenario I’ll have to confess to a recent personal event. I had a birthday. A fairly monumental one as it happens but one that comes with a few welcome perks such as free prescriptions and eye tests, a national rail card and reduced price entry to practically everywhere. Everywhere it would seem, except the National Trust.

After a lengthy drive eastwards to deepest Kent one morning, I arrived at my first planned property intending to join up there and then. However, wielding my driver’s licence as proof of age cut no ice with Miss Twinset who filled in my particulars. She very sweetly and ever so slightly smugly told me that to qualify for a Trust discount one has to have been a member previously for five consecutive years.

Unusually I held my tongue, bit my lip and whatever else most people do in situations such as this while thinking that with age must come acceptance. I imagine if I’d have had a membership of anywhere for five consecutive years then the chances are I’d have done everything on offer pretty much to death anyway: what would be the point of a monetary enticement?

I kept quiet. The new old me signed up meekly and, clutching my temporary pass in my gnarled old hand, I picked up a welcome pack which, I was horrified to discover, included an emblematic sticker for my car. I had now well and truly joined the ranks of those who frequent gift shops to buy local jam and tins of themed biscuits.

I had arrived at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, former home of poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat and author husband, Harold Nicholson. The couple bought the place in 1930 and set about making a home for their family. Vita developed her love of gardening here and took delight in planting, designing and experimenting. She lived a fairly wild existence, had many liaisons with other women and a decade long affair with Virginia Woolf but always remained married to Harold.

 

 

When she died in 1962, Harold decided that her legacy should be preserved for us all to enjoy and left the place in the hands of the National Trust. I have to say, they’ve done a good job. The place is beautiful. It helped that the sun was shining and the day warm, but I spent two or three hours just wandering around the gardens and taking the long walk around the lake.

I even had time for a quick lunch in the ubiquitous cafe before heading off to the next place on my list. But that’ll have to wait for another day. This membership thing may well catch on.

 

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There’s not much I can add to what has already been documented and enthused over about the place we visited last weekend on a celebratory city break. And anyway, as I’m feeling inordinately lazy and undisciplined at the moment, I thought a few snaps might suffice.

Well, snaps and  some quotations I’ve come across from various people that I reckon sum it up pretty well.

It’s definitely somewhere to visit at least once in a lifetime: it’s magical, surprising, expensive and indulgent. If you go, enjoy to the full.

Fino ad allora…

 

“In the winter, imageVenice is like an abandoned theatre. The play is finished, but the echoes remain.”

(Arbit Blatas, sculptor and painter) 

 

 

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“If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is — Venice is better.”

(Fran Lebowitz, author)

 

 

 

 

 

 “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

(Truman Capote, author)

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(…or even this wonderful asparagus, seen at the Rialto market).

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“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”  (Henry James, author)

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“Streets flooded. Please advise.”
(Robert Benchley,
 journalist and humourist)

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The Grand Canal

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And of course, a selection of Venetian glass beads

So when will you be booking your tickets?

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I don’t have an official bucket list, do you? I have a few items that would be on such a list, should I choose to write one, but the trouble with lists is:

a) They get lost.

b) There is pressure to tick things off.

c) You feel obliged to keep adding to them.

There was something I’d wanted to do for ages, and had never got around to organising which, I’m pleased to report, is now mentally ticked off that imaginary list: a trip, by boat down the river Thames, as far as the Thames Flood Barrier.

I mentioned this to a friend who was keen to join me in spite of having to dose herself with sea-sickness pills beforehand.

So it was that recently one morning, we were standing on a bracing Festival Pier, waiting for our launch and feeling like tourists. We even had our cameras. Festival Pier is adjacent to the South Bank Centre  which includes the Hayward Gallery and Festival Hall, opened in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. The whole complex has been tagged the ugliest set of buildings in London, which I think is a bit harsh. Over time they have become part of our capital’s ever changing landscape and represent a particular style of post war modern architecture.

Once on the water, the boat’s captain kept up an entertaining and opinionated running commentary of the sites as we sailed by.

The first thing I learned was that there is no advertising of any description allowed along the Thames. I’d never thought about this before, but imagine how awful the riverside would look if it was covered with advertising hoardings. However, one ingenious company managed to get around this law. (There’s always one, isn’t there?).  Around 1928, the Oxo Company took over a building originally built as a power station for the Post Office and rebuilt it in art deco style, for use as a cold store. A tower was constructed with four sets of three vertically-aligned windows, in the shapes of a circle, a cross and a circle. Co-incidence? I don’t think so.

London skyline , Oxo Tower  to the right

London skyline , Oxo Tower to the right

Now called the Oxo Tower, the building houses galleries, shops and a restaurant (which does have fabulous views if you manage to book well ahead and get a window or balcony table but don’t expect fabulous food – admittedly it was a few years ago that we had lunch there but found it disappointingly underwhelming).

As we sailed eastwards down the Thames we passed places that I’d never viewed from the water; Somerset House, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe. This reconstruction of the original theatre was founded by film director Sam Wanamaker. The guided tours on offer there are well worth taking, as are the plays which are performed during the summertime only, due to the open roof. You need stamina for these, too – seats are as the originals (hard), or you may stand (for up to four hours) in the audience pit, where you’ll get an authentic Shakespearean experience.

Just beyond the Tower of London, (London’s busiest tourist attraction),

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge with The Shard, London’s newest landmark in the distance

we had to change boats at St Katharine’s Dock which gave us time to admire Tower Bridge.

These boats do have a schedule, but like all transport in London, timetables are open to interpretation. As we stood on the swaying pontoon for longer than necessary I was conscious that my friend’s seasickness pills might be wearing off but she remained stoic as we boarded our next craft which took us past all the old docks (now renovated into expensive apartments), down to Greenwich where we were able to get back on land, walk past the newly restored Cutty Sark and refuel with caffeine (me) and mineral water (friend).

Equilibrium restored, we boarded the next boat eastwards which took us past the shimmering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, London’s new business centre and the O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome). There was no commentary on this boat and our journey was eerily quiet. On both banks are vast areas of old dockland in various stages of redevelopment although no sign of life is apparent.

The Thames Barrier

The Thames Barrier

The Thames Barrier looms out of the water like a pod of majestic synchronised whales. Finished in 1982 as London’s principal defence against flood tides it has only been needed once so far (in 1983 – so that was well timed). The boat trip turns around here, giving all passengers a good opportunity to view the Barrier. There is a visitor’s centre but strangely, this has to be accessed from terra firma. I can’t help thinking that their marketing strategy needs an overhaul.

We returned to Greenwich where there are two other places which should be on my bucket list: The aforementioned Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory: but they will have to wait. With the weather closing in on us, we decided to take the Docklands Light Railway back to Waterloo. This was another first for me, the route taking in Canary Wharf. This is the hub of London’s banking empires where deals are won and lost, where people spend all their working days in boardroom meetings or, by the looks of it, enjoying corporate lunches. The place oozes perceived wealth; it is pristine with avenues of perfectly trimmed trees in pots; restaurants, cafes and bistros shelter beneath towering structures of steel and glass alongside man-made canals.

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf

Here we had to change trains, and as we walked to the underground station my friend said, “Can you smell that?”

“What?” I asked.

“Money,” she replied.

The whole place is like a scene from a computer game; the people there are the players. I’m glad I’ve seen it but it’s not my London. My London is a mish-mash of old and new buildings, a little worn around the edges, a little grubby, if I’m honest. There’s a smell to my London and I was relieved to sniff its reassuring aroma when we emerged from the tube station at Waterloo.

What would be on your bucket list?

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I know people who love flying. They even get to the airport extra early to soak up the air-conditioned atmosphere.  How anyone can enjoy partially undressing in public and stuffing all 51DnwMhVBqL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_[1]their possessions into a plastic tray to be filtered through an x-ray machine while being frisked by surly ground crew is beyond me.  Once through this ritual humiliation it’s time to mill around a glitzy designer shopping mall looking at merchandise you are never going to buy, avoiding hundreds of other displaced persons with wheeled cabin baggage, the size of which is a contentious issue when you get to the boarding gate. Once there, you’re fixed with an icy stare from mission control who tells you smugly that your miniscule handbag, worn slung across your body, counts as a piece of hand luggage and  must be put  inside your case. A mental note is made to ensure that on the return journey, however hot the temperature at the foreign airport, you will wear your Pac-a-Mac with pockets jammed full of handbag essentials.

Once on board and the scramble for seats established, it’s entertainment time in the form of the safety procedure run through. The phrases, “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water” and “do not inflate your life-jacket until outside the aircraft” never fail to amuse. The first, assuming the plane makes it across the channel and is not travelling further than the south coast of mainland Europe, displays either blind optimism or complete ignorance of the geographical features below. The second presents the comedic image of a plane load of passengers wearing inflated life-jackets bobbing into each other like crazed particles at a Michelin Man convention.

The only advantage to being claustrophobically encased in the body of a jet aircraft is that it allows you to read solidly for a couple of hours during the day without feeling the least bit guilty. It also forces you to read the book you’ve decided to take on your travels, which, after the first few chapters you realise that were you at home you would have chucked in the recycling and opted for something else.

While struggling to keep focussed on the less than enthralling “thriller of the year” William, aged around two, sitting behind with his two siblings, continually kicks your seat, or, when not doing that, he’s standing on his fold-down table, wiping sticky fingers on your paper headrest while his oblivious parents are sitting on the opposite side of the aisle knocking back their duty free gin and tonics.

The two protagonists in the book you are reading, who alternate chapters and are both despicable, unreliable narrators, are beginning to make you lose the will to live when that numbing blocking-of-the-ears sensation lets you know that the descent has begun and there will soon be an end to this misery. This is when the seats you have chosen for their proximity to the front exit, thereby ensuring first in line at the car hire queue, prove futile as the doors refuse to operate and you are forced to leave the plane by the rear exit.

Eventually beyond passport control, the words “bienvenue, monsieur, madame; we’d like to upgrade your car today, free of charge,” are music to your still throbbing ears.

Having a wonderful time – wish you were here…

Picture: Usborne Books

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that you hadn’t crossed the Channel when you arrive in Arromanches, nestling between cliffs on the north Normandy coast. There is a distinct English atmosphere, underpinned by the permanent flying of union flags alongside the tricolour and it evokes, for me, an amalgam of childhood seaside towns. The place bustles with a constant stream of tourists ready to fill the plethora of bars and cafes, or, if you feel like a treat and want to splash out, the hotel on the seafront serves fantastic plateaux de fruits de mer. There are souvenir shops selling Calvados; crepe stands and ice cream parlours; shops selling all the usual beach paraphernalia – buckets, spades, flip-flops, sun lotion and postcards. In the corner of the small car park is an old-fashioned Carousel, which whirls around all day, tinkling out fairground tunes. Arromanches–les-Bains, to give the town its full title, appears to be a typical seaside town.

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

But look out to sea, over swathes of flat golden sand rippled by Channel tides and you cannot fail to notice the huge concrete monoliths, strewn in the shallows like a pod of beached whales; lasting souvenirs prompting a visual reminder that this modest little seaside town has an extraordinary history. These benign marine sculptures are remnants of the Mulberry Harbour, built by British engineers, creating a port to facilitate the supply of weapons and ammunition to troops during the battle for Normandy, code name: Operation Overlord.

Nick-named Port Winston, the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches was one of two artificial harbours towed across the English Channel in pieces and put together off the Normandy coast, after 6 June, 1944 – D-Day. (The other was further west, off Omaha Beach). Port Winston, off Gold Beach, was fully operational by 18 June and was capable of moving 7000 tonnes of equipment each day via six miles of flexible steel roadways floating on steel or concrete pontoons.

The construction of the Mulberry Harbour has been heralded as one of the greatest feats of engineering during WW2 and can be studied in detail at Le Musée du Débarquement* in Arromanches, right on the sea front, opposite the Carousel. With plenty of information and artifacts, it is well worth a visit.

With your appetite for historical knowledge well and truly whetted, it is but a brisk walk up the easterly cliff road to Arromanches’ 360 Cinema. Perched high on the cliff top this is a cinema like no other: it shows a film called The Price of Liberty, screening real war-time footage interspersed with how the battlefields look today. Viewers stand in the middle of nine massive screens as the film unfolds all around them. The film runs on a loop lasting thirty minutes and, I would say, should be compulsory viewing for all.

So, Arromanches is a seaside town with an incredible recent history.  Its people are welcoming and willing to talk about their town with pride. The celebrations that go on here to mark the D-Day anniversary are echoed right along the coast, with firework displays that go on after midnight.

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would've thought?

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would’ve thought?

This year marks the 69th anniversary of the day that changed history. Our son will be there, somewhere, watching those fireworks. The first time he stepped on to Gold Beach at Arromanches, he was fourteen months old.

Now, is that destiny?

 

 

 

*For anyone considering a trip to Normandy, I’d recommend purchasing the Normandie Pass which allows visitors discounts on Museum entry fees. It only costs 1€ and can be purchased at the first place you visit. It lists all the participating partners and any seasonal promotions being offered.

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I have a mobile phone, obviously. I hate the damn thing. I use it rarely, even though last year, I fell victim to fashion and technology and exchanged my old-fashioned, easy to use brick for a streamlined smart version. Smart? Only as smart as the user who, in this case, remains stubbornly Luddite. The child who served me in the Mobile Phone Store was very helpful and reeled off a complicated spiel as to the merits of one phone over another; explained the ins and outs of having a contract over pay as you go, then asked me how many text messages I send in a month. On average. Give or take. When I replied probably less than twenty, his expression was one of pity followed by a glazing over of the eyes as it dawned on him that the lack of commission made from this particular sale was hardly worth the bother.

I left the store with my new phone, on the cheapest tariff available which didn’t include a user’s manual but gives me 100 minutes of call time, 500 free texts a month and 250 MB of mobile internet.

The efficacy of this new bit of kit is questionable. Apparently I can download as many apps as I like – whatever they may be – the cost of which goes straight through and inflates the account I was forced to set up, but I can’t get through to people I want to speak to on account of poor network coverage. I concede that texting is useful and I do use the facility, usually in reply to someone else or to confirm an arrangement, but as far as chatting goes, I prefer to do that F2F. (text-speak for face to face, FYI).  While the Sofa Loafer holidayed in America it was good to know that he’d reached his destination safely. Or it would have been had he been able to get a signal in El Paso. I received a one word text – ‘here’ – when he landed at JFK in New York and then nothing for six days. For all I knew he had been kidnapped and bundled across the  border to Juarez, which, as he was so fond of reminding me before his trip, is supposed to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. As no ransom request was forthcoming during the next few days, I assumed that he’d met up with his friend.

I have two theories; the first is that mobile phones are contributing to growing anxiety prevalent in today’s society. The fact that Sofa Loafer had his phone and I expected him to keep in touch just served to make me more nervous when I didn’t hear. Later during his trip, after I had received a few brief but reassuring messages, I received a text in the middle of the night to tell me he was stranded at Atlanta railway station, the tone of which, I felt, implied that I was somehow culpable. Great! Four thousand miles away, all I could do was offer sympathy and advise patience. He discovered that American trains are even less reliable than British ones, and that having a decent book while travelling is essential. When my husband and I travelled around India in our early twenties, would it have been any comfort to my mother to know that I’d contracted Delhi-belly on the first day and that our hotel was full of cockroaches?

My second theory is that far from making our children more independent, having a mobile phone clamped about their person at all times actually makes them more reliant on someone at the other end of the phone telling them what to do. Whatever happened to initiative? Oh, sorry, not on the National Curriculum. Interestingly, Multi-Modal Language is. I’ll be picking this fascinating topic to bits in a future post. BFN.

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