Tag: Photography

Our friend from the South

Our friend from the South

After a week off work entertaining my friend from the South, I can now sit back, relax and reflect on how it went.  I don’t means in terms of my hospitality or ability to entertain for three nights of course, I mean in terms of how I think the North faired on its judgement from the man in the South.
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St Mary’s Lighthouse in the half hour of sun from day one

Day one and I met him at the train station and we got the Metro to ‘The Coast’ as it is named on the Nexus maps (Nexus being the operator of the Metro system).  This caused a little bit of humour on the visitor’s behalf, the idea that there is only one coast that earned the definitive article title.

We dumped the bags and walked the dog through a local park and along the sea front.  The weather wasn’t the best, but it was shorts and hoodie weather for me. The Southern guest was cold and complained that it was colder that it was on Christmas Day in the South.  Bless him. His complaints were, I think, offset a little by the warmth of the fellow dog walkers that we chatted to and exchanged pleasantries with that warmed his heart a little, if not his hands.  He was certainly warmed by his first ever sighting of a previously unknown dog breed to him, the Bedlington terrier.

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The dog walked, we set off with my kids for dinner or ‘tea’ as we call it!  We headed to Turknaz for a kebab.  Before all of the Northerners panic and think I’m mad and the Southerners tut and think I’m scummy, this wasn’t a 2am-post-ten-pints kebab, this was a posh kebab.  So posh in fact that they won the best regional kebab award 2018.  
 
We had a lovely meal and he got to know my kids who he was meeting for the first time.  We left full of kebab, hummus and falafel as well as the sickly sweet Baklava and ice cream.

Day two and we headed to the Northumberland coast.  We followed the coastal route from Blyth up to Bamburgh which, ordinarily, would give us amazing views.  However, on this day, the one where I wanted to show off my patch more than any other day, my luck ran out.  There was a fret that sat on the sea all day and capped visibility to no more than 500 metres. However, it turns out that fret is a Northern term that meant nothing to him so let me translate, it is a sea mist that is very localised to about 1 km inland at most.
We stopped at Amble for a break and wandered around the little gift shops that line the walk down to the harbour.
There is the usual tat, cheese, sweets and inspirational messages written on driftwood, but the main take away from the man from the South was the fact that so many people were wearing shorts and/or T-shirts.  I tried to explain that it wasn’t that cold and that people in the North tend to dress for the season, not for the weather it actually is.  He wasn’t having it so, walking past the pensioners enjoying their coffee outside, we went for a coffee indoors.  

We dropped into Spurreli’s Boutique Ice Cream shop and it was rather lovely.  It was confirmed that the prices were more on the Southern end of the scale than North but, as I found out since, it was voted one of the best ice cream parlours in the country so I guess that explains it.

We jumped back in the car and headed back North up the coast.  The mist was so intense that we really didn’t see too much but the castles that suddenly jumped out of the mist were, as always very impressive.  We ploughed on all the way up to Bamburgh then headed inland to Alnwick to see if we could avoid the sea mist.  We had fish and chips that were lovely in the town centre and, once again, had terrific chats with the staff.  What the North East let me down with in terms of weather, the people were certainly making up for it.
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As full as a gun we headed to Barter Books www.barterbooks.co.uk.  It is a second hand book shop in the old train station and is a Mecca for book readers that swarm from miles around.  Personally I find it expensive and over fussy, but the people who love it absolutely love it as the bun fight in the car park seemed to back up.  With the sun peeping through the clouds, it looked as if the fog might be lifting slightly and so we confidently set off again to the coast.  As we headed back down south on the A1068 Coastal Route the sun was shining on the delightful coloured houses at Alnmouth.
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We turned and headed for the sun and had a quick wander along the beach amongst the dunes and golden sands where the sun made a brief but most welcome appearance.  Feeling the cold again, we had to have an emergency warming coffee for the Southerner and were made to feel most welcome at The Village tearooms.

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Alnmouth giving us our daily allowance of sun
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Alnmouth driftwood
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Alan the Alnmouth Snail

It was getting later in the day and we were worn out but it was a lovely village that I had never really explored before, I have marked this down as one to head back to at some point soon, as there seemed to be some lovely independent shops and full of foodie heaven shops.

As we headed back home, I though it might be nice to show off a part of the North East that I love, North Shields fish quay.  We parked up in the harbour car park and took in the sights of the highlights and low lights, walked through the old walls and then watched a fishing boat dock in the fish quay as the huge car transporter, filled with Nissans, passed us on the way out to sea.  The fishermen on the boat, there were two of them, unloaded their catch without once touching the cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.  Their constant endeavour looked like back breaking work, add to that the dangers that these guys faced at sea and it really did look like a hard way to make a living.  

We talked to some people that worked for a charity that rescued seagulls and took them into their care. They were there to collect the scraps of fish from the fisherman to use as food. They told us that the mist we had suffered from all day was in fact a Haar. This is a very localised term, used on the east coast of Britain, to describe a mist that forms between April and September when warm moist air moves over the North Sea and condenses as it cools and is blown back inland.
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The weird thing was that, after we wandered through the fish quay, we bumped into a lady who asked us questions about fishing boats as if we had a single idea what any of the kit or hardware was. We exchanged stories and the little information that we did know and probably chatted for about 15 minutes. She told us all about how the mist was called a Haar. Having never heard the phrase in my life, I heard it from two different and unconnected people in the space of 20 minutes.

We decided to have a quick drink down on the quayside, an area that I had never been to for drinks, only fish and chip takeaways. We stopped at the Salty Sea Dog pub, it was very trendy and hipster.  The focus was on gins (isn’t it everywhere right now?) and real ales and had a Shoreditch hipster feel.  I half expected a penny farthing parking bay outside to be honest.  They did tapas snacks such as Chorizo and scotch eggs and the clientele was mainly smart young females. It was the last thing I was expecting for the building opposite the fish landing site.  I was very pleasantly surprised.

It had been a long day, full of travel and fresh air and I slept like a log.

On the Thursday, myself and my visitor both had other appointments and so we went our own ways and didn’t catch up until the afternoon. We took a trip along the coast and enjoyed a coffee in Cullercoats at Beaches and Cream.


I have always had nothing but good service and food there and so when I looked to get the above link I was surprised to see more than a handful of quite negative reviews.  We were served happily and, yet again, ended up having long conversations with two members of staff and the couple at the table next to us.  It would have been perfect, sitting outside watching the traffic and people pass by, if only there had been blue skies and the sea view.  The Haar, which was still persisting into day three, spoiled the sea view. 

I explained that there was a cafe called ‘The View‘ overlooking King Edwards bay that would have been lovely any other day.  The fact that there would be no view and that the service and food don’t have the best reputation meant we stuck with Beaches and Cream.

My man from the south was very impressed at the aspirational name of The View as we hadn’t seen more than 200 meters out to sea all week! In fact, he was asking in the local shops if we could get postcards of local landmarks that were a bit more honest and showed the Haar and mist rather than the clear blue skies.

Unperturbed, we walked along to the headland between Tynemouth and Cullercoats and, low and behold, the sun burnt through for a half hour and we could just about make out The Grand Hotel and The Priory at Tynemouth and enough sea to appreciate its power and rolling splendour.  It is such a shame that the weather gods didn’t smile on us, but we got a feel for what we could have won at least.  We watched a young man of around 25 years of age leave his partner and baby and decide to walk on the perilously narrow ledge onto the craggy rocks out at sea.  We were both blown away by his stupidity, he was half a slip away from being a dead man at the foot of the rocks some 30 feet below him with waves crashing over his body.  As he made it back, we felt a little cheated and disappointed that we had not seen natural selection in process so we headed home for showers and a change of clothes.

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As a thank you for being his tour guide and driver for the last few days, my friend wanted to take me to 21 for dinner.


This was way smarter than my usual restaurant and I had never been but I was well aware of its reputation of its head chef, the Michelin starred Terry Laybourne.  We were warmly welcomed for drinks at the bar and we were so well looked after, it was like walking into the restaurant on the TV show First Dates.  We were shown to our table and were very politely and professionally served Crab Lasagne with Chive Butter Sauce and for meGran Reserva Iberico Ham and Toasted Tomato Bread for starters.  

Mine was exactly what it said on the tin, two slices of toasted bread topped with tomatoes and a plate of ham.  I am not totally sure that it came out of a tin, but it was fantastically tasty.

For mains, I had Braised Shoulder of Beef with Two Celeries and my guest had Roasted Northumbrian Venison, Salt Baked Beetroot and Fresh Asparagus – Goats Cheese Croquettes.  It was every bit as pretentious and delicious as it sounds.  The beef fell apart and the gravy/jus was simply perfect.  The service was second to none, the staff were on hand but never interfering or in the way.  Perfectly mannered and perfectly drilled on how to look after the customers.

It had cleared into a warm and pleasant evening and so we walked along the Newcastle quayside and over the Millennium bridge.  It was such a pleasant evening and it was so nice to see so many people walking along the quay.  I heard all sorts of languages and saw all ages, sizes and shapes enjoying the warm, calm evening surrounded by the contrasting but beautiful buildings. Newcastle really is a nice city to call home.

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My guest was on the train back to the deep South on the Friday morning and so we just had time for a coffee with mid morning cakes!  We headed into Whitley Bay to try Kith and Kin.

I had been a few times before for breakfast and lunches and it really is quite lovely and quite London.  You know the sort, they sell things that contain halloumi, Chia, Avocado and almond milk and don’t think it’s funny.
Yet again, we were welcomed in with happy faces and warm welcomes.  I asked for a hot chocolate and was asked if I wanted dark, milk or white. They used real chocolate to make the stuff, not powder, and the idea of a white chocolate drink seemed too good to miss.  I wish I had missed it.  It was like drinking liquid milky bar, but more sickly, and by the time I got to the bottom of the cup it was just hot milk. Not the cafe’s fault, mine for a bad choice of overly sickly drink!
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My companion was dropped off at the metro, heading into town to get the train, and I think he was impressed. I’m not sure what he was expecting, nor was I really.  It did make me realise how nice my patch of the country is. There were so many places that I could have taken him to that we didn’t have time for.  There is no shortage of quality in terms of attractions, cafes, restaurants and views.  For every bit that the weather let me down, the famous northern hospitality certainly didn’t let me down….well, I hope it didn’t anyway!

Catch Up

I can believe that it was way back in January since I last posted.  It feels like so much has happened in the blink of an eye.  Let me bring you up to date!

You may remember that I had a bot of a health scare back in January.  Shortly after that, I had the return of the foot pain that I had suffered from in November last year, all be it a few toes further along.  I decided to skip the GP and go and see a podiatrist and he referred me to get X-rays at the local hospital.

It turns out that the injury last year was a stress fracture as, apparently, is obvious by the below picture!  Apparently it has healed perfectly, despite the fact I was told it was ‘probably a strained ligament or something’ but they had no idea what was wrong with my new injury and suggested limping or not whinging.

I had set myself a target of running 350km in 2018 and not being able to run for the best part of two months has been a real pain.  I am happy to say that I am back on the road (literally) in that respect and managed to tick of a slow and painful 10k last night.  Progress!

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Foot Knack

I regularly walk past my camera as I walk out of the house and think “I should really take more pictures” and I feel really guilty that I never do despite loving it so much.  So, I dragged Titchy and the kids to Bolam Lake and took a few shots.  I never claimed to be any good, I am just in awe of how the camera does so much work on my behalf!

What else has been keeping me busy?  Well, we got ourselves a pair of cats last year, Dusty and Smudge.  I seem to spend most of my life being distracted by their lovely little snuffly great faces. Just look at them!

 

 

Oh, and in other news, we have booked our summer holiday.  We are heading to Sermoneta, which is a little village between Rome and Naples.  Pretty excited to be getting the family away and enjoying some Italian living for a week and the trip to Pompeii will be a highlight I’m sure.

 

To SLR or not SLR, that is the question.

To SLR or not SLR, that is the question.

First of all, many thanks to those people who have been kind enough to get in touch and thank me for posting on this blog, it really has been quite an eye-opener that anyone is actually reading this, never mind thinking that it is any good!

I started writing this blog mainly for myself, so that I could look back in years to come and remember how I felt at the time about the trips that I take.  I just wish that I had started it years ago as I have only very distant memories of a lot of my holidays and feel like I missed huge opportunities to capture my time in Shanghai, Sydney and New York, as well as countless other less exotic trips.

I was asked by one person what camera I used to take the pictures on the blog.  The honest answer is that I can’t always remember!  I use both an SLR camera and an iPhone 6 and the mobile phone camera is so good it is often very hard to recall which I captured a particular image on.

I think that the speed at which you can whip out your phone and get a picture makes it so much more convenient and the new features such as slow motion, time lapse and Pano mean that a lot of the features that used to be SLR unique are now tucked in your pocket.

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One of my favourite pictures from my European road trip

Having said that, if you have the time to set up the SLR on a tripod and spend some time getting the settings right and taking time to frame a show, then the results can be stunning.  Let me be clear here, results that others get can be stunning, my pictures very rarely get anywhere close to being stunning and I am happy with amateur or average!

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Another of my favourite pictures, this time of the Alps.

I have added two pictures, one from each source, and wonder if you can tell the difference?

The camera that I use is a Canon EOS 500D which is the entry level camera or at least it was when I bought it probably ten years ago or more and, I am pretty sure, it cost me around £500.  I have quickly checked the interweb and it looks as if the prices have dropped a fair bit.  You can pick up the newer, fancier and more compact version for only £299 now.

When you compare that to about a grand for the new iPhone handset, then it doesn’t feel quite to expensive to buy an SLR.

One of the other questions that I was asked about the European road trip that I recently completed was “What would you do differently?” If you recall, one of the main reasons that I went on the trip was to drive over mountain passes and take in the stunning views while zigzagging up a mountain road.

I just wish that I had some decent footage of that as recording it on my phone while it was clipped to a phone holder on the windscreen gave some pretty poor pictures!  I hadn’t realised how cheap it was to get your hands on these fancy dash cams.  For £35.99 I would have snapped your hand off for this before I left!

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That’s enough from me now, thanks for reading and thanks so much for your comments and questions.

PS – Just in case you were wondering, the picture of the Alps is SLR, the picture of the church at Bourg-en-Bresse is taken on a iPhone 6

 

 

Day 10 – D Day

Day 10 – D Day

 

On June 6th 2017 I woke up, on the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, about 100 meters away from the sea at Lion Sur Mer. I would quite like that to be on my gravestone if possible, that’s how excited I was about this coming day ahead.  I had slept with my window open so that I could see the grey English Channel as soon as I woke up and try to image what it would have felt like, as a French Citizen living in that time, to see the huge armada closing down to provide deliverance.

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My Morning View. Perfect

Showered and ready for the big day ahead, in the most overly complex and useless shower I had ever seen,  I packed up and checked out of my room.  I was just about to set off when the hotel owner, who must have anticipated how useless I was, had been into my room to make sure I had left nothing behind, bellowed at me out of the window and threw my blue tooth speaker down to me below. Suitably embarrassed, I headed for Arromanches as the hotel receptionist had told me that was the centre for events that day.

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Over -Complex Shower

As I made my way along the coastline, my excitement really built up. Pretty much every village had a green that had been turned into a makeshift campsite that was filled with period military vehicles such as jeeps and trucks, each one surrounded by enthusiasts dressed up in military regalia. There were English, French, Germans and Americans and there were soldiers, paratroopers and nurses. It all felt like I was in the middle of the preparation for D-Day on the other side of the water.

I followed the sea road west until the road turned sharply to the left and there was a car park on the bend full of trip buses and hundreds of cars. I didn’t stop but slowed enough to see what all the fuss was about. Opening out below was the town of Arromanches and there, quite clearly visible still in a broken semi-circle out to sea, were the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.

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Mulberry Harbour Section

This was a giant floating harbour that was built in the United Kingdom and dragged over to France just after the D-Day landings.  Without a port or a harbour being liberated, there had to be somewhere to land supplies to keep the advance powered.  It would take a long time to liberate these strongholds and so we decided to bring our own with us in the meantime.  Here, 70 odd years later, I would say that 15% of it still stands.  Yet again, I felt like I was slap bang in the middle of history.

I followed the road down into the town and quickly found a overfull car park full of motorhomes and men with interesting beards and even more interesting sock and sandal combinations.  I got lucky and managed to pull straight into a space as someone was leaving, I didn’t see one other person in the next 20 minutes get parked in there.

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Period costume and a lovely couple to chat to

I was as close to the centre of town as I could have been as the centre had been cordoned off to make it a pedestrianised zone.  There were security guards rummaging through bags, no doubt with the recent attacks in London and Paris still in people’s minds.  The centre was alive with people and I stopped and got a croissant and a coffee and spent 20 minutes people watching.

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The high street was full of two things, cafes or gift shops; the only thing breaking them up were the two museums.  In terms of people, there appeared to be five groups:

  • ‘Allied’ tourists, like me, there to pay their respects and feel part of history.
  • ‘Axis’ tourists that, in my mind at least, seemed to be tip toing around and not being too German in case it upset anyone.
  • Veterans that were being dropped off on coaches and delivered by London black cabs. They wore blazers, caps and their medals with huge pride and, the majority of them at least, seemed to wear dubious stains on their trousers.
  • The military fancy dress enthusiast. I would class these as military re-enactment types that take things seriously making sure that look as authentic as possible.  Not to be confused with;
  • Fancy dress types that buy a camouflage jacket from a gift shops and walk around as if they are in the army for a day.

It was group 5 that annoyed me the most.  If I had been one of the veterans, there to remember my lost comrades and show my respects, I am not sure I would have been too happy to see people trying to get in on the act by wearing a polyester cap and desert fatigues.   Anyway, who was I to judge?

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The dressy up familly

My coffee finished, I watched the Dutch military marching band come down the main street and form up in the town square.  Shortly afterwards about 20 jeeps turned up with reenactors waving at the crowds.  There was then a short ceremony and speeches in the town square and a moment’s silence and reflection.

I wandered around the shops and picked up a few gifts and, no, I didn’t wear anything remotely military all day.  Outside of the museum there seemed to be a crowd gathering and so I wandered over to see what was going on.  There was a veteran sitting on a bench with his hands over the head of his walking stick looking like a sorcerer staring into his crystal ball.  He was just telling his D-Day story and had a crowd of maybe 50 people around him in raptures.  I say ‘just’ but it was totally remarkable hearing a first-hand account of the day.

He was laughing and joking and making it sound like a lads’ day out by saying things like ‘We got a hell of shock when the bastards started to fire back at us, we didn’t think that was fair’.  But you could see an underlying pain in his eyes that were, I’m sure, slightly filling up.  God only knows what sort of horrors he saw and how many friends he lost on that day and the months that followed.  I felt uneasy, like I was intruding on his grief, and so walked down to the sea front and walked on the sands for a while and just took in the emotion of the day.

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An honour to hear his story

I didn’t want to be stuck for accommodation again that night and there was a break in the proceedings so I walked back to the car and headed back along the coast to the east.  I had passed a campsite on the way into town and thought it looked ok so there, on the main road at Asnelles, I headed into Camping Quintefeuille.

The guy behind the counter did not speak a word of English and so I tried my very best to speak to him in French. It didn’t make the transaction any quicker, but it was a good test and I seemed to make myself understood.

I got my tent put up and headed back down into Arromanches. My prime parking space gone, I parked on a farmer’s field just outside of town and wandered back down into town.  I took the longer route to walk along the sea front and watched the dozens of jeeps and various other vehicles form up on the beach for a parade.  Pretty much the second the last vehicle formed up, it began to lash down from the heavens to such a degree that you could see rivers of rainwater forming on the sand.

I stood huddled into the sea wall until the downpour passed and then made my way for another coffee in town.  Heading back to the town square, I passed another crowd which had formed around a veteran.  I missed his story, he was just finishing when I arrived, but realised that he had a Geordie accent.  I waited until the crowd had gone and introduced myself as a fellow Geordie and shook his hand and thanked him for his service.  It turned out that he worked in the civil service and had taken a few trips to a stately home very close to my house and, although he didn’t live in the North East any more, seemed touched that I had taken the time to chat.  Maybe it’s true what they say, a true hero has no idea that they are a hero.

Making my way around the sea front, there was a guy dressed in full on English country gent fancy dress: yellow pants, tweed jacket, checked shirt that only farmers wear and yellow brogues.  My first thought was ‘bloody hell, a French Nigel Farage’.  It wasn’t until the news crew following him came around the corner that I realised that it was him!

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Standing to attention

I followed him back down onto the beach as there was clearly something going to happen.  I got chatting to a veteran as we walked across the sand to the piece of the Mulberry Harbour that had been detached and washed up on the beach.  Right next to this, around nine or ten veterans had gathered with a lady dressed in black.  It turned out that her father had been coming to these celebrations for years but this was the first one that he had missed as he had passed away.  Words were spoken by his daughter, salutes were made by the veterans and a minute’s silence was held as his ashes were spread on the golden sand.  With white topped waves crashing in the background and the wind whipping up the beach, one chap just said, ‘Lie in peace, back with your mates’.

It was one of the most emotional things I had ever witnessed.

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A touching moment on the beach

As I walked back up the beach I chatted to one of the veterans and said that I thought there would be more things happening in and around the town, that it was supposed to be the centre for activities but there was very little organised.  He explained that the organisers didn’t have enough money for anything else as they were saving up for the 75th Anniversary in 2019.  As each passing year goes by, the numbers of veterans that are alive and fit enough to make the trip dwindles. It was a privilege to be there and see them.

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Peace at last

He also told me that the vast majority of the veterans in town that day were ferried there by London taxi drivers as part of an annual charity event. They drive in convey from the UK and are looked after by the drivers.

With no further activities organised for the day, I made my way back up the hill to my car and headed back to the campsite.  There was to be a firework display at midnight and it should have been visible from the sea front just down from my campsite.

Heading back east along towards the campsite, I spotted an older guy hitchhiking and I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t stop.  He jumped in and I drove him along to his hotel as he had been separated from his sons.  It turns out that he was a taxi driver living in Portsmouth but was born and raised in Sunderland, it really is a small world.

Back in my tent, I relaxed with my book and a brew and sampled some fine dining (bread, butter and a tin of beans) and relaxed until it was time for the fireworks.  I walked down to the sea front and was surprised to find myself alone down there and, in typical French fashion, to see all the houses down there in pitch darkness and looking as if they had just evacuated in anticipation of a super storm hitting the beaches that night.

I walked about a mile up the beach, it must have been 12.15 by the time I gave up and got back to my tent.  Just as I was undressed and tucked into my sleeping bag, the fireworks started.  I leapt into my walking boots and pulled my shorts on and ran down to the sea front just to catch the last few whizzes and bangs.  Shivering and with tears in my eyes, caused by sand being whipped up from the beach rather than emotion, I walked up to the tent and had the best night’s sleep of the trip so far.

Day 8 – Sunday Funday

Day 8 – Sunday Funday

I woke up all confused in a bed, my head a little foggy after my handful of beers. The sound of heavy rain hitting the bonnet of my car made me smile as I was in a motel and not a tent.  I had forgotten to eat last night, the thought of trying to order food and getting it 7 hours later made me sad. So much for eating an authentic Italian meal made by a Grandma!

Breakfast was included in the stay and so I filled up on pastries and coffee.  The two young girls looking after the breakfast room hurried around picking up and cleaning and smiling.  They were dripping in fashion labels from head to toe and looked every bit the classy and stylish Italian stereotype.

As full as a gun, I packed up and set off heading for better Alps!  I was heading for the Aosta Valley and into Switzerland and wanted to see Mont Blanc.  As the hotel was right on the motorway, I was straight off on the road and ready to rock.  The Italian motorway system had other ideas.  I spent an hour driving back and forth along toll roads trying to get the right exit to head into the mountains.  I was feeling glum.

Eventually, after many swear words and many burnt Euros, I was on the way.  Again, I was on the flat, but this time south of the Alps, and could see the mountains starting to form up on the horizon.  I was starting to get excited again. Maybe this was the day that my ‘proper’ mountain drive would happen.

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As I made my way towards Aosta we were following the River Po up the valley. It looked cold and grey but in full flow.  It looked like it was an artery coming out of the alps and was bleeding heavily; just waiting for winter to turn up to help scab it over and stop the flow with its ice.

On my left-hand side, was a small mountain and from about half way until about 90% of the way up it was covered in cloud.  It looked like the mountain was trying to hide in the clouds but failing. Like a giraffe hiding behind a tree with its big daft head sticking out.

It looked as if someone was standing on the top of the mountain throwing enormous handkerchiefs down and watching them float to the bottom of the valley but it wasn’t, it was paragliders.  Maybe about half a dozen of them floating down. The views they had must have been stunning.

I was getting close to Aosta where I would be forced to make another route call. North into Switzerland or north west into France? I realised I had still not eaten a meal in Italy, other than a hotel breakfast.  I decided that I would take a rest in Aosta and work out the next steps.

I pulled up outside of Restaurant Caesar; a busy looking pizzeria with tables outside looking out onto the wide and clean street.  All the tables were busy with families enjoying their Sunday launch and that’s always a great sign.  I picked my pizza. It was like a quattro stagioni but it was salami, red cabbage and fresh basil and it was bloody lovely.  It was so nice and the service so good that I followed up with a load of ice cream.  I was as happy as could be. I finally had my authentic Italian pizza, it was a lovely day, and I was about to attack the Alps.

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Yes, I took pictures of my meal.

It was at that table that I decided I would head into France instead of Switzerland.  Switzerland would be expensive and the roads expensive and it’s so……well….neutral.    I may not like France too much, but at least they try things rather than spend their entire existence sitting getting splinters in their backsides.

With fresh excitement, purpose and desire (and a few extra dough-based pounds hanging about my midriff) I hopped back in the car and headed for the mountains along the E25.  A few miles from the border, I stopped for a diesel top up and pottered around the gift shop inside the petrol station.  It was mainly filled with Ferrari and Italian football memorabilia but there, right in the middle of the Juve scarfs and F1 key rings, was a thing of absolute beauty.  Titchy feet loves Limoncello, I had already seen a bottle in the Duty Free on the ferry over and was planning a bottle for the way home as her gift, but she would be blown away by the splendour of this. 1

IMG_9348The fact that is was filled with glorious golden yellow liquid maybe made it stand out like a golden nugget in a wall of shit but, there it was,  a bottle of  limoncello in the shape of Italy.  Priceless. I felt like Indiana Jones and was worried that as soon as I picked this glorious gift up, it would set off booby traps the would force me to prove myself worthy of such a classy gift.

I took a turn off at Chenoz and zig zagged over the mountain passes and worked my way up to the peaks.  Words don’t even begin to do justice to the views and the scale of beauty that I witnessed. Eight hairpin bends later, I ended up following the traffic into a car park rather than up the road.  I didn’t want to admit my mistake and turn around, so I was pleased when I realised that I had accidentally arrived at a Passerella Panoramica, (panoramic footpath according to my Google translator), so I grabbed my camera and set off walking.

https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g776105-d5828050-i96416362-Sentiero_panoramico_lungo_l_Orrido_di_Pre_Saint_Didier-Pre_Saint_Didier_V.html

On the forest walk to the gantry, you could hear a rumble and roar that grew louder with every step. Eventually the path opened and you could see a drop of maybe 100 meters to a narrow V-shaped valley that was alive with white rapids.  The summer melt was clearly in effect and the noise was amazing.  I was as happy as Larry that the view was free to get down to and wasn’t too busy at all.  Happy with my lot, I continued along the path and as I turned a corner I stopped in my tracks with my mouth wide open.

IMG_9394The view point wasn’t for the rushing water in the valley below, that was just a warm up act. The main event was a suspended walkway that curved away and out from the hill side in an arc of maybe 200 meters.  Looking down, there was nothing but air between the see-through walkway and the ground 160 metres below, but you didn’t look down, you looked out at the most beautiful view of Mont Blanc.

I honestly think that I spent about an hour just taking it all in. Splitting my time between taking photos and trying to burn the sights into my mind in case my camera got stolen before I got home.  I just hope that the attached pictures do it some justice.

IMG_9383Walking back towards the car park I got chatting, in terrible French, to an old lady that must have been in her late seventies. She had been left to sit on a seat with her small dog while her daughter walked down to the gantry I had just left behind.  She was adorable. I told her (the best that I could) that she should walk down as the view was stunning. She told me(again I think she did anyway!) that she had lived in the town below all of her life and that she was too old to walk any further. Bless her. It was hard to work out if she was happy that I had taken the time to chat with her or if she was laughing at my terrible French.

IMG_9399Back at the car, I continued my way along the SS26 towards the Little St Bernard Pass.  The next stop was La Thuile. I stopped to take pictures in the lovely little alpine village. I had just missed the Bataille des Chèvres (goat fight) but the town was all dressed up in its finest still and looked lovely.  Back in the car, continuing up towards the peak, there were hairpin bends and just the most perfect views and the cleanest, crisp fresh air. I stopped every so often to walk up hills and take more pictures and, again, I just hope that they do the place justice as it was stunning.

IMG_9392I crossed the border into France with smatterings of snow all around me, then started my slow and winding drop into the valley that opened up below me.  Bourg Saint Maurice looked like a miniature town way down below, it just didn’t look real, but with each hairpin bend, it got more and more real until the Alps were just a beautiful view in my rear-view mirror.

IMG_9380I had been listening to a podcast on the way over the mountains and it came to me that the anniversary of D-Day was only two days away.  I checked the maps and realised that I could make it there if I didn’t muck about on my way through France.

I decided that I would get on and drive as much as I could. It would be around 600 miles from the Italian border to Normandy and so the more I drove in my great mood, the easier it would be tomorrow.  I ploughed on and I was sent on a massive detour as the Tunnel Du Chat was closed.  The views of the Lac Du Bourget would have been an acceptable compromise for the extra miles and time taken on any other day, but I had been spoilt by the earlier miles over the Alps.

I was frustrated and tired by now and started looking for a campsite around 7pm.  I had another 30-minute detour looking for a signposted campsite that, when I arrived, was shut for the night.  It was getting dark and I was getting tired and so I pressed on further, happy to pay for a hotel and take the extra time driving and getting well rested in a room rather than on a damp floor in my tent.

Eventually, after a fair bit of swearing and grunting at the lack of hotels or bed and breakfasts that had been plentiful all of my day until I wanted one, I ended up in a hotel in Bourg-en-Bresse.

It was too late for food and so I had a beer and bag of nuts as I caught up on the news.  I sat and watched the updates coming in from London of the terrorist attacks and found it all very upsetting.  I had experienced such a beautiful day with amazing sights and met some lovely people, yet lived in a world where hatred and anger like that could live side by side.  I went to bad happy and tired but disappointed at some of my fellow humans.

Day 7 – Saturday, Champion!

Day 7 – Saturday, Champion!

I woke up all excited. Today was the day that I was going to drive over the Alps.  It was a bright but crisp morning and I enjoyed the red hot shower and a breakfast of nuts and coffee.  The tent was packed up in no time at all and I was back on the road, deliberately looking left all the way so that I wouldn’t realise that I was driving PAST a theme park at 9.30 on a Saturday morning.

The sun quickly burnt through the clouds and it turned into a glorious morning as I passed through little German villages, each of them looking more idyllic than the next.  It was Saturday morning and everywhere I passed through, people were heading to their local butchers, bakers and, probably, candlestick makers.  There were very few major supermarkets, it all seemed very old fashioned but beautiful to see.  Parents with kids on the back of bikes, or older kids on their little bikes peddling away like mad to keep up, but all on very safe and very well respected cycle lanes at the side of the road.

I say well respected.  I stopped at a little supermarket to pick up some bread, more nuts and some jam for lunch but as I pulled out of the car park my warning lights started flashing on the dashboard as my boot was still open.

I quickly pulled across to the side of the road as I was convinced that my tent and the rest of my gear was going to fly out across the street.   I pulled right in front of a guy on a bike that was, understandably, furious with me for pulling such a stupid manoeuvre and his mood wasn’t improved as, not realising at that point what I had done, I opened my door and nearly wiped him out a second time.

I learned a few new words in German, none of which I would like to try and repeat in polite company.  Poor fella.

I had passed through Mindenheim, Mindelweg, Kaufbeuren, Marktoberdorf and a town called Roßhaupten when I started to feel a bit peckish as it crept towards lunchtime.  I turned the corner and a beautiful scene unfolded in front of me.  Lake Forggensee looked like it was the equivalent of the Lake District as there were lots of walkers, cyclist and day trippers floating around and loads of water sports taking place on the lake. It turns out that it was manmade, formed by damming the River Lech to better control the melt water coming off the Alps, but it was a beautiful spot.

IMG_9330It looked very much as if the flat lands were now over and I was about to start my trip up into the Alps.  As the scenery panned out in front of me it looked like I was travelling from the centre of a very large plate pie and I was just coming up to the built up crust round the edges, all jagged and angry.

The backdrop was stunning and I was very excited as I ate my bread and jam and let the warm sun kiss my face.  I was surrounded by maybe 50 people sunbathing and playing around in the water and it all felt very out of place seeing this with snow and mountains in the background.

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This is not my Picture, it’s from Google, but its a good one!

I set off again, full and happy, and headed towards what I had been looking forward to for longer than I could remember.  My trip over the Alps; winding roads and stunning views.  This was it!

Maybe I was tired, maybe I was over excited, it’s hard to say, but the next few hours were really disappointing.  Rather than the tight hairpins and fantastic scenery I had in my mind’s eye, I sat on a motorway through mountains with high barriers and pretty dull views.  I made my way through Austria and stopped for petrol at a place called Fernpasse Rast.  It looked like a Bavarian hostel and all the staff were wearing traditional dress.  Again, maybe it was just my mood but it felt like hell.  There were about half a dozen trip buses, and about 250 Chinese and Indian tourists dismounted, each with a selfie stick in one hand and some seriously strong cigarettes in the other, and filled the toilets and shops with stink and excited chatter.

I pushed on to the Brenner pass and jumped over the border into Italy.  This part of the trip wasn’t what I had hoped for and I was starting to feel glum and then I remembered that it was Saturday.    Champions League final Saturday!

I quickly tried to recall who was playing and remembered that it was Juventus playing Real Madrid.  I would be able to watch an Italian team in the Champions League final in their home country.  Suddenly, my zest was back.  I parked up and had a quick review of the maps and realised that I could probably make Milan in time to get showered, booted and suited in time for the game.  Maybe wear a crisp white shirt and have some pasta made by a 95-year-old grandma that would welcome me into her kitchen to watch the game with her family?

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I felt like I had passed over an imaginary line from Northern to Southern Europe.  Suddenly, the clean perfection of Germany and Austria was replaced by scatty looking buildings, graffiti all over and a general feel of everything being half finished, or maybe half started.  Everything looked grim including the vehicles around me.

It felt like every 20 minutes I passed a pay station for the motorway.  I don’t even know how much I was charged at each station as the shame of having to get out of my car, run around to the passenger side to pay and then run back to jump in before the barrier came down was too much for me! It blows my mind that the rest of Europe still drive on the wrong side of the road 🙂

Lots of angry drivers and 4 hours later, I was near Milan.  I was tired, it was raining and I felt miserable.  I felt as if I had made the wrong choice and should have headed any other direction except Italy.  I didn’t want to fight my way into the centre of a town, never mind a city the size of Milan.  The driving was crazy and aggressive on the motorways and the city would have been a million times worse.  I felt like I wanted out of Italy and wanted to be close to the way out when I set off.

I pulled off the motorway and pulled up at a motel AS Cambiago.  I could pretty much park my car inside the bedside table and was happy to be in a bad and limitless hot shower.  I was washed and refreshed and my towel was on the bathroom drier faster than you could say ‘Forza Juve’.

I walked down to the bar, was served an ice cold Peroni and picked my seat for the match just as the teams were lining up for the anthems.  Perfect timing.  I exchanged nods and tuts with an Italian chap who was clearly a huge Juve fan and watched the first half happy that I was getting in the vibe with the locals.

Ronaldo scored on 20 minutes and it looked like it was going to be a horrible night but then Mandzukic scored an unbelievable goal to level it up and set up the second half to be a real spectacle.  I asked my new friend, let’s call him Mario, if he wanted a beer and he happily nodded his agreement.  I then spent the entire half time break and the first five minutes of the second half waiting to get served.

Let me be clear, there was just me stood at the bar.  There was no crowd and no fight to get to the front of a queue, just me, standing there with a 20 Euro note wafting it to show I intended to spend it.  The barman filled up peanut bowls, he wiped glasses clean, he moved papers around, he did anything he could find other than to serve the only customer he had.

I was starting to fall out of love with Italy.

Eventually I was served, gave Mario his beer but he was too engrossed in the football to thank me I think.  As Real Madrid slotted in a second, third and fourth goal without response in the second half I think Mario also forgot how to get the rounds in and say goodbye to me as he just got up and walked off never to be seen again.

Maybe he wasn’t a true friend after all?  That’s why I don’t feel too bad about naming him Mario.

 

 

One night in heaven (with a mosquito)

One night in heaven (with a mosquito)

In my last entry, I left you at Barragona beach, enjoying life and the paradise that I found myself in.

Over dinner one evening I was talking with one of my new work mates about his home country, Costa Rica.  He informed me that it is the safest and most developed in Central America as many of the other countries, such as Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua  are ravaged by gang warfare, chiefly around the drugs trade.  Costa Rica on the other hand is relatively gang free.  I have to say that in the two weeks I have been in the country, I have never once felt unsafe.  When I asked why that was, he explained that the country had abolished its army in 1948 and instead, focused the funding on education.   This has resulted in a very skilled and motivated workforce and has seen huge multinationals such as P&G, HP, Intel and Oracle set up in the country?.  With an educated population and good career prospects there is not the pull of gangs for desperate kids and so it hasn’t faced the problems of the rest of the region.

They found it very hard to understand that the United Kingdom, with its overseas dependencies such as Gibraltar and The Falklands, couldn’t go without an army but the idea is an interesting one.  How much more developed would the world be without conflict I wonder?  Or, maybe the question should be, how much less developed would it be?

Our host was keen to show us a hidden beach at Samara and, after driving over a bridge that he told us had crocodiles under it, we found the dirt path down to a beach, It didn’t look too hidden to me, but then we had to follow him around the corner of the bay on the volcanic rocks.  Unfortunately the tide was already in, and coming in even further and fast, but it looked amazing.  We were told that when the tide was out, the volcanic rocks became a natural swimming pool above the sea, but a very calm and tranquil one with an infinity pool feel about it.  It was stunningly beautiful as it was, but we only had a few minutes to enjoy it for risk of being cut off by the tide.  On the way back, literally my last step before being back safe on the beach, I lost my footing and ripped a hole in the bottom of my foot on the sharp rocks.

I didn’t cry, I’m a bit tough like that, but was a bit worried that the scent of my blood would bring sharks to the bay so I made a quick exit back to the car.  On the drive back to the main beach in Samara, my driver did something that was typical of the Costa Rican way of life.  He stopped his car in the middle of the main street, wound down his window and started chatting with his friend that was working in one of the bars.  He was holding up traffic but having a good old chat then a guy in the car behind peeped his horn at him.  The look of shock on his face was priceless.  He looked at me and said with shock and surprise  “This guy must be from out of town, what the hell does he want me to do?”  I didn’t have the heart to respond “move out of the way?” it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do!

The main beach, unsurprisingly, was beautiful and I ate nachos and supped a cool beer while watching the sun gently slide below the horizon.  The surf board gangs were slowly giving up and walking home; each of them looking like underwear models and putting me to shame with their bronzed and toned bodies.  I bet they can’t handle a spreadsheet like me though, so think about that and cry yourself to sleep boys!  The whole place was relaxed with the whiff of magic smoke in the air adding to that relaxation. It really didn’t need it.

The only problem, if you can call it that, was sleeping out

in the open air.  I was going to say that the local mosquitos really enjoyed eating me, particularly around my joints, but I prefer to think of it as one very satisfied mosquito that couldn’t get enough of me.

One evening, our host had paid some of the local lads to arrange a fire on the beach for us. It was made of three tree trunks, maybe 6 feet in length, arranged into, what looked like, a funeral pyre.  The area Inside the three trunks was filled will smaller logs and branches and, the most flammable item in the world, dried palm leaves.  As a special treat the lads has also put a few coconuts in there too, just for devilment.  Once they heated up they exploded like hand grenades.  All good fun.  Someone had brought down a bluetooth speaker and there were mystical tunes being played and  a lot of mystic dancing going on around the fire.  Not by me though.

I just stood and watched and wished I had some marshmallows.