Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Spanish Steps... and the rest

Last day in Rome, and we took a gruelling route around as many of the things we hadn't already seen as possible. This was extreme tourism. Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps (pictured), Pantheon, Trevi fountain, Trastavere, Colosseum (again). We walked for eleven hours until are feet and out backs failed.  

The highlight was - I don't know - it was all wonderful. But we sat on the Spanish Steps for a long time watching the antics of the rose grifters. We were the first victims so we knew how they worked. As you walk into the piazza the smiling young man swoops. Couples are his favourite. He thrusts a bunch of roses into the lady's hand.There is no refusing. The flowers are yours. "For the beautiful lady." Then he walks off. A few moments later he is back. "Take your photograph? With the roses?" And then you know that he is not going away until you pay. So the male half of each couple is pestered and badgered. I relented after a few minutes and handed him two euros. "Not enough," he says. So, in each case, the lady tries to hand the roses back. He doesn't want them, he just wants money. Only paper money is enough. He didn't get paper money from us so in the end we were left with one rose, the consolation prize. All up and down the Spanish Steps there were couples with roses - a badge of gullibility. It really was fascinating to watch the subtleties of how he and his many colleagues worked.

The rest of the day was no less fascinating, and we had learned how to stare-down the street vendors in a way that sent them scurrying.  We ate ice cream. We watched rain pour through the hole in the Pantheon roof  (the only time it has rained during our trip to Rome). It stopped again as soon as we went back outside. We threw money into the Trevi Fountain - two coins to ensure we return. I really hope there is something in this. We have every intention of returning.

Tomorrow we fly home. I have a gig in the evening. The wonders of air travel, hey? But this is the 'Travelling in a Box' blog. We'll be hooking up the box and heading for the hills again soon. But our trip to Rome goes right up into the top five of the holiday league table. It has been a cracker.  


Tuesday, 25 October 2011


Headed out of Rome today to see the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. We felt we needed a rest and some chill time.

First off we were mis-sold our BIG ticket, and given one that only covers inner Rome. So when we arrived at Ponte Mammolo where we had to change from Metro to bus, we had to buy another ticket, and it wasn’t obvious where to go to do this. We returned to the bus station, tickets in hand, to find the bus packed full. We chose to let it go rather than stand all the way to Tivoli.

So now we were first in the queue. The bus arrived ten minutes later. It’s the first stop on the route so at this point there’s nobody on it. Only half a dozen people are waiting in the queue – but then from nowhere there are hoards, barging and elbowing and pushing, and within seconds the bus was damn-near full again. And we were still outside on the pavement. We need to get the hang of the Italian school of queue-jumping.

We did get on this bus and (only because of a bit of late seat swapping) managed to get the last two seats.

The bus ride to Tivoli is about one hour. It’s not one of the world’s great public transport experiences. Neither was the trip on the Metro for that matter. Derelict factories and graffiti daubed roller-shutters – it’s pretty depressing.

Anyway, after fifty minutes or so the bus leaves the industrial wasteland and winds up into the mountains through groves of olive trees, and all is forgiven. The Villa d’Este itself is tranquil and restful and full of water: fountains, waterfalls, cascades. Really magical. Smaller than I had expected and twice the price printed in the guide book, but worth the visit. The main fountain (pictured) is worth the trip alone.
The bus journey back home, though, was an ever-present demon waiting in the wings. This time when the bus arrived we tried using elbows and rudeness, but we are English and we just don’t have the technique mastered yet, and again we were lucky to get a seat.

The journey back involved going downhill. There were hairpin bends. A UK bus needs considerable work to pass its annual inspection - just a single missing length of seat-trim is enough to fail it. The downhill slalom from Tivoli is the point when you realise you are in a vehicle that would fail even to get into a scrap-yard back home, there being so few serviceable and salvageable parts on it, not the least of them being the brakes. We went hurtling down that hill, and on every bend the seats – apparently not anchored to the bus floor – were tilting and swaying and rocking and always threatening to cast us into the minging, greasy darkness of the bus aisle. It was almost a relief to get back to the mobile graffiti hoarding that passes for the city Metro.

It was good to get back into Rome. Most cities tend to be noisy and threatening, especially at night. Rome is the opposite. Even quite late after dark it is friendly and feels quite safe (unless you are crossing the road.) It seems it is outside the city where you feel vulnerable and at risk.

Tomorrow is our last day. There’s a lot in the city of Rome that we haven’t yet seen. We’ll stick to the places our feet will take us.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Leonardo da Vinci

On the northern side of the Piazza del Popolo, part of the Complesso Monumentale di Santa Maria del Popolo, there is a small museum that currently has an exhibition of the machines and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci.
Someone has studied Leonardo’s notebooks and built, from wood, many of the things the great man designed: the helicopter, a glider, instruments to help fly his flying machines such as an artificial horizon. There is a bike for heaven’s sake. This was designed in the 1400’s and it is, for all intents and purposes, a modern day bike complete with a chain and sprockets.
Many of the smaller engineering solutions such as those for transferring the direction of motion and for reducing friction: gears, ratchets, bearings. There is an excavating machine – a fifteenth century JCB.
This exhibition is a joy. I knew nothing about it. So to just find this and wander in off the street was a thrill, and that is understating it. Leonardo da Vinci has always been something of a hero of mine, particularly for his inventions. Okay, so he was also a bit of a painter and knocked off the odd picture, like the Mona Lisa, say. But what an engineer/architect/designer/scientist he was too. Many of his things didn’t quite work because they were about 500 years ahead of materials technology. Imagine what he might have come up with had he been around today. What a guy.

Earlier in the day we had been to St Peter’s. Bit of a disappointment. The piazza was ruined because it was two-thirds filled with barricades and plastic seats, so the sense of space was gone – wrecked. 

We also picked a bad day because it was closed the day before and the basilica wasn’t due to open open until one-thirty. The queue went twice round the outside of the piazza. The best entertainment was watching how many brazen, hard-nosed people just bunked in right at the front of the line, and the fights that nearly started as a result. We toyed with using yesterday’s trick of skipping the queue by joining a tour, but this would have set us back nearly a hundred Euro’s for the two of us and, well, we decided to save that until next time we come to Rome.
Because there will be a next time.  

Rome Day2 - Part B

Aha! I have at last figured out how to get photos from my phone into the blog. Not as good as the ones in my camera but they'll do for now.

So, after the Colloseum and the Forum we needed toilets again. Sorry to keep harping on about this but in Rome it is an issue, because there are none. A good standby has always been museums, but I suppose we have become a little spoilt living in the UK because for us the museums are all free.

We came upon the pallazzo della esposizioni which was a bit pricey, only because we had none of the requisite money-off items such as bus tickets or vouchers. Anyway, we hit the toilets, recuperated in the classy cafeteria in the basement, then went to see what the exhibition had to offer. (Actually this isn't quite right. We'd passed many of the paintings on our way to the toilets and were blown away, so in fact we were itching to see the rest.)
Realismi Socialisti - grande pittura sovetica 1920 - 1970
Soviet art on loan from galleries in Moscow, St Petersburg and a few others across Russia. It was fabulous! Well worth the 12.50 Euros we paid to get in. These were big pictures. So much detail. Our favourite was a scene from inside the early Soviet parliament, with Lenin holding forth to a hundred or so members. Each face was unique and detailed and had an emotion all of its own. One face in particular was staring out of the scene straight at the artist. It was quite disconcerting, like being spotted watching something you shouldn't. A wonderful painting. I wish I'd made a proper note of the artist and the painting's name.
One that I did note, though, was a painting by Aleksandr Laktionov, showing a hero of the Soviet Union visiting a tank commander's academy. It is the light and the fine deail in this one that is so astonishing. The way the rug is kicked up by a nonchalant boot. The way the light from the window shines through the paper of the banner that has just been painted. It really is a spellbinding work.
And they just kept coming. Vast canvases. Image after image. One of the best exhibitions I have ever seen. Some seem tantalisingly familiar. Other were completely new. Stumbling into this gallery in Rome was one of those rare serendipitous moments that come along only once in a while. If this is a touring exhibition I hope it comes to the UK, because we'll be there, for sure.
So then we found a lovely little trattoria and had pizza, and a sensational day was complete.
And now it's Monday. What wonders are in store for us today?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Rome day 2: Colosseum

Started early today to get ahead of the crowds. But the crowds started earlier. It appears the Collosseum has been closed for a few days following heavy rain. The queues were immense. It transpires that if you pay 12 Euros you queue for three hours. If you pay an extra 15 Euros for a tour guide you get to jump the queue, you get a friendly and informative guide who tells you stuff, then you get into the Roman Forum afterwards and get a tour with another guide. And you jump another queue. No contest.

So, the Colosseum. Wasn’t sure what to expect. If it’s like visiting castles, I thought, then you get the best view from the outside anyway. It turns out the Colosseum is not like visiting castles. Inside it is awesome. This is a stadium that once seated 50,000. In its day it was faced with marble and statues and bronze shields and it was covered over with a roof of canvas. And the whole thing took just eight years to build. They’ve taken longer than that, apparently, cleaning four of the arches. They’ve taken longer than that just talking about a new stadium for Liverpool FC.

As a quick aside, be warned. The toilets are a bit iffy. Plastic phone boxes with no tardis-like features. Locks that don’t work. Very dark. Very very dark if you are wearing sunglasses. I bet the toilets were better in Trajan’s day.

That’s my only gripe, though. The Colosseum is fabulous. How must it have looked filled with 50,000 blood-crazed fans. And
here’s another thing. They built it without mortar. The slabs were pinned together to allow slight movement, because the Romans knew this was an earthquake zone. And it worked. It was only after the stone was pinched for other civil engineering projects, then replaced with bricks and mortar that bits stared falling down during the odd tremor. Two-thousand years old and they knew how to make it earthquake proof. That’s how to build stuff!

So then we headed for the Forum in the company of Greg, our new guide. This is where we learned of the racetrack inside the Emperor’s home. Of a five story palace that would have been 100 metres tall. And next door, Circus Maximus, another stadium. A really big one. This one used to hold 300,000. If it had remained standing it would still be the biggest stadium in the world. Think about it. Rome must have been a wonder to behold in its day. It still is, but you need to use your imagination a bit. It’s hard to picture because time has given us glimpses of many pasts here. You have to look at each one in turn or it all becomes too chaotic to get straight in your mind. It’s also hard to think of what two-thousand years really represents. It’s too big a number. Two thousand years and they were better at some stuff than we are. Makes you feel kind of insignificant, does Rome.

Also makes you feel a bit knackered. Eleven hours of sightseeing today including a gallery visit - more on that one another time because right now I’m ready for bed.

October in Rome

I might have fallen in love with Rome.

We haven't brought the caravan - this time we decided to cheat and use the big silver cheap Irish bird. (It took two-and-a-half hours. If we'd have been towing we'd be leaving Kent round about now.)
The flight was fine, apart from a poor lady who had what appeared to have been a stroke in the seat in front of us. I really felt for her daughter, her travelling companion. What a way to arrive in a strange city.

Anyway, we jumped a coach from Ciampino airport and were in Rome by lunchtime. We're staying at the IQ Roma hotel, which is a fabulous mix between swanky and budget, with all the right elements from each. There's an automated bar on the roof terrace with reasonably priced beer, wine and hot drinks. It's a lovely place to take a book after a hard day on the tourist trail.

Yesterday afternoon we did a recce. Just enough to find that we'd brought all the wrong clothes and not enough of the right ones, but for all the right reasons. It was sunny and hot. The light is extraordinary.

Highlight of the day was the Palazzo Venezia. Apparently the locals revile this monster of a building. I was agog. It is an incredible edifice. It's a monster. Can't help but admire it. I'd show you a photo but I didn't bring my camera. My wife broght her camera but I can't interface it to my net book. Hey ho.

Friday, 26 August 2011

France Diary: Friday. Chalon-sur-Saône.

Only one free day here, so we headed into the city of Chalon-sur-Saône. Easy parking in an underground multi-storey (I love these. Wish we had more of them in England). This looks to be a splendid city for a day of shopping and sightseeing, with the stately Saone river running through it offering plenty of opportunity for walking and picnics.
Unfortunately we only managed half an hour before it a) started to rain and b) closed for lunch. I still can’t get over the way that, in France, huge cities like this can become ghost towns in an instant once it gets to lunch time. I just don’t understand the economics. How does anyone ever make any money? Even the markets are packed up and gone by 12:30.
     So, with the city closed down and the rain putting paid to our riverside picnic plans, we adjourned to McDonalds. The rain got heavier. We hung around McDonalds for an hour then squelched over to the Musée Denon. A free museum and art gallery, staffed by friendly and helpful people but in need of a bit of a cash injection. Still, they made the best of what they had, and it kept us amused and dry for another hour.
     On leaving the museum it became apparent that the rain (and the thunder and lightning) was not about to stop, nor was the city going to reopen. We left.
     It was a sad way to leave Chalon-sur-Saône. There were a lot of things we hadn’t seen (the botanic gardens, the islands in the river, the Parc de loisirs Saint-Nicolas) and who knows when, if ever, we might be back. But the weather (temperature down to 14°C and rain becoming biblical) had defeated us.

France Diary: Cote d’Azur to Chalon-sur-Saône

Thursday. We left early. 7.30 am. Sad to leave the Med, but anxious about traffic. Traffic was heavy, especially through Lyon, as expected, but only about 30 mins delay. Nothing like the nightmare we witnessed from the other side of the road, coming down. Other than Lyon, today’s move has been a doddle. It’s interesting to see that the weather stayed hot – Mediterranean climate – until Lyon. Then it turned into a warm but English climate within a few miles. No obvious gradient. You can almost draw a line on the map.
     We stopped at an Aire de something for a sandwich lunch, then decided to have something cooked when, delighted, we saw a notice in the buffet lunch section advertising Assiette Vegeterianne. Vegetarian plate? I am now pretty cocky about my French – almost a native speaker. This was a thoroughly safe bet. Whatever this veggie dish might turn out to be, we could not go wrong. Could we? 12 Euros later we found ourselves holding a bowl of chips each. Crappy chips. And they were, as near as damn-it, cold chips. I should have taken them back. I should have argued but I don’t know enough French words to argue. More wasted Euros.
     So we stuffed down some of our cold chips then hit the road again.
We arrived at our two-night stopover site (Chateau de L’Eperviere) before four. Pretty good going, I’d say.
     First impressions of the site: looked good. Nice duck pond. Good shop. Two small, but clean, pools. Free Internet/WiFi in the bar. In fact, this site seems to tick every box with a little gold star next to every tick.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

France Diary Days Eight, Nine, Ten… ah hell, whose counting anymore.

Okay, so I guess I’ve fallen for the Cote d’Azur. I love being warm all the time – never having to go out packing a cagoul, umbrella, wellies and all the usual paraphernalia of UK outings. I love the patisseries. I love going in the pool on the site and swimming under a forever-blue sky.

We’ve been to St Raphael; Cannes on the train; the Gorge du Verdon; Grasse…  I can’t decide which place I’ve enjoyed the most, although the gorge was way more impressive than I expected (and I expected a lot). But then Grasse, clinging to the side of an Alp, with its narrow streets and the Fragonard Gallery, which was free and utterly brilliant. And the opulence of Cannes. It was great to see the hand-prints of the stars, just like Hollywood, and the expensive yachts tied up in the marina.

I’ll keep this short, for once. The holiday is, at last, going well, and I am conscious of the sad fact that good holidays make rotten tales.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

France Diary Day 7. Chatelas en Bois to Roquebrune-sur-Argens

The last leg. A hot one. Temperatures were soon pushing 35C. We passed a Crocodile Farm right next door to a Nuclear Power Station, Complex Nucleaie du Tricastin – OMG is that a setting for a story, or what?
Soon we were heading east. Our southerly journey was over. The miles wound down. We arrived at camping Lei Suives at about three. We were nervous. We haven’t had too many positive experiences thus far. But the site entrance was good; well maintained, lots of flowers, good security, even a girl in the car park to make sure there were no issues with congestion for arrivals. Check-in was efficient and we were given a nice, roomy pitch. Job done. We pitched, did a lap of the site, and headed for the pool.

France Diary Day 6. Langres to Chatelas en Bois Mk2

This time the caravan lights worked. Woohoo! And we needed them. An early start and we had thunder and crackling fork-lightening and skies that were black black black. We hit the rain as soon as we joined the autoroute and it stayed with us for 100 miles. Temperature stayed down in the mid teens. There was no scenery. Everything obscured by a curtain of water. To my eyes the sky was grey all the way to Provence.

But then there was a gap; a patch of white cloud on black. The rain eased, then stopped. We went through/under Lyon and at last I had my temperature gradient. We were driving into a new climate. Soon we were pushing 30 degrees.

This was a short leg, only 260 miles, but it seemed long, somehow. Long and hot. Just south of Valence we left the autoroute and began heading cross country, into the Alps. Fabulous scenery! Through the painfully beautiful villages of Saou and Bourdeaux, and at last to our site, Chatelas en Bois, an idyllic setting half way up a mountain.

But there were bad things. I don’t want to think about them. Things like having to park on a blind hairpin bend on the road because someone felt okay about abandoning his/her car across the site entrance. Things like being charged three nights’ fees for our single night because we hadn’t phoned in time for the jobsworth campsite owners to be humane enough to wave their stinging rules. (We had phoned, but the restauranteur who answered played on his lack of English and my lack of French to their advantage.) I should had told them to stick it and stayed, instead, at the municipal in Bourdeaux, but I was tired and willing to shrug it off and throw money at my problems. And I don’t have the words to argue properly in French. It’s a pity, because it was a nice site and I now feel duty-bound never to return. And I was upset because this was such a stunning location, worthy of serious exploration, and we had only a few hours instead of three days. Ah well.

We walked over the hill to the village, walked back before it went dark, had macaroni cheese out of cans, for tea, instead of eating in the restaurant, because of, you know, the resauranteur (and because we glimpsed the state of the chef smoking behind the kitchen). We went to bed, got up, and left.

Friday, 19 August 2011

France Diary Day 5. Still in Langres

Not a good day for stress levels. The therapeutic effects of a holiday need to kick in soon or there may soon be demented, axe-wielding Englishman on the loose in the French countryside.

The car is repaired. The lovely Lauren arranged for another F1 taxi this morning. And the Directeur de rip-off at the Opel garage reunited us with our car in exchange for 200 euros. 200 euros!! They had fixed a fuse and billed us three hours. I am in the wrong job. I want a job where I can spend three hours fixing a fuse and then charge at sixty quid an hour.

Anyway, we got back, driving at my pedestrian speeds, at lunchtime it was too late to move on. So we paid for another night in Langres with the intention of moving on tomorrow.

As a side issue I started getting warnings from my car about unequal tyre pressures, so thinking a blow-out on the autoroute, tomorrow, with caravan in tow might somehow compound our disillusionment, I went to a garage to buy diesel and inflate the tyres. We came upon a fancy piece of kit that allows you to input the desired pressure and the machine does the rest. Unfortunately it was calibrated in bars and I only know the correct figure in pounds per square inch. Had I thought this through I should have realised that pounds per square inch would be somewhat rare in Europe, but I didn’t, so instead I ranted for a bit, and then looked at my mechanical pressure gauge, calibrated in both, and so once more I managed a rough translation.
By 3pm all our mechanical duties were done, so we spent a couple of hours sitting by the lake, reading and pretending we were having a relaxing holiday.

In the evening we sat on the terrace and I attempted to use the WIFI key I had bought earlier in the day. But the WIFI was down. They’re waiting for the engineer (I wonder what he charges an hour), so more euros go flushing down the pan, which is why this blog will not go online for at least another day.
And then, in the bar, the karaoke started, which is why I have just chugged down my drink in one, and legged it, and why this blog post isn’t even finished...

France Diary Day 4. Langres to Chatelas-en-bois (Mk1)

Blue sky. Sun shining. Up early ready for the next 250 miles. But then we connected the caravan to the car and the lights didn’t work. This has never been a problem before. Today it is a problem. Our old caravan has let us down. So I crawled around in the early morning dew, tracing the wires from the front to the back. Everything seemed okay but clearly wasn’t. Out came the toolbox and the WD40. An hour later and I’m no further along.
     I did the thing I have dreaded most of all, I called Europ Assist. I spoke to Lauren. Very helpful. Very friendly. A mechanic is on the way.
A young French family who were camping opposite came over and also offered help. He spoke little English, I spoke little French. But we each managed to communicate just enough to share the problem.
     Then the mechanic phoned. He too spoke no English, but on the phone, where my lexicon of auto-electric French is less than zero, I was in big trouble. My French camper friend came to the rescue taking my mobile phone from me and explaining everything. The guy was brilliant. He even then went to the site entrance, unknown to me, to meet the mechanic and bring him to our pitch. Then he explained the problem to M. Blanchard, the mechanic, who was as baffled as I.
     Then my French camper-friend had an idea. He backed his Frontera up to my caravan and attached the lighting cable to his car. Genius! The caravan lights worked. Voila! The problem was not the 30-year-old caravan but the 30-week-old car.
     But I had detained my new friend and his family long enough. He had to go home. It was the last day of his holidays. I wish I had asked him for his name. He was a hero. I could/should have hugged him.
     Now it was just M. Blanchard and I. Communication continued to be a problem, so I called Europ Assist and my new friend Lauren did the translation. M. Blanchard would be back in two hours to take my car to an Opel dealer.
     Today we would be staying in Langres.
     After lunch I climbed into the cab of M. Blanchard’s truck and we took my car to Chaumont, 30kms away, to an Opel garage. Here there were lots of jovial mechanics and the friendly proprietor and not one word of English. Why should there be? How many English mechanics ever spoke French? The problem, and the fault, was all of my own making. What kind of a nutcase did I think I was coming to this land with only the barest smattering of the language? Assuming I ever get home, would I ever come back? At this moment I’m, thinking, not on your bloody Nelly.
     So again my friend, Lauren, at Europ Assist stepped up and did the translation thing. The car would be kept overnight. She ordered me a taxi. Half an hour later I was in an old Mercedes, blasting through the French countryside at 120kph, overtaking into the maws of oncoming trucks. Had I been of a religious nature I would have been clutching my rosary beads and giving it loads to the almighty.
     At last, back at the caravan. Sarah is relieved, she knows nothing of what has happened since I left in the breakdown truck. And now here we are, 680 miles from home, in a caravan, in France, without transport. Our car is in a garage somewhere else in France, somewhere far away.
At this point things look pretty bleak. But I have met some lovely people: My camper friend, alas I don’t know his name; M. Blanchard the breakdown truck driver; the owner of the Opel garage in Chaumont, alas I know neither his name nor that of the garage; the friendly but lunatic taxi driver from the Alain Prost school of taxi-driving; and of course, the lovely, life-saving Lauren, somewhere on the other end of a phone in England.
It has been interesting.
So what now? Beer sur la terrace, je pense.

France Diary Day 3: Langres

Rained all night. Drizzling this morning.
Langres is a medieval fortified town up on a hilltop. You can see it from the camp site on days when the cloud cover is higher than 15 metres.
We drove into Langres with our raincoats and brollies ready and the rain stopped and, although the sun stayed well hidden it turned out to be quite a good day.
First thing, the car park was free. Good car park, right in the town and there was no charge. We searched for hidden, secret ticket machines or camouflaged wheel clampers but no. Free! Gratuit!
It was very quiet in Langres. All the shops were closed, except for the small supermarket. We thought they’d open later, but the only status change came at lunchtime when the supermarket closed. It didn’t reopen. Nor did anything else.
     Still, there was plenty to see. A circuit of the town walls was entertaining enough. There’s a tower where they used to keep pigeons for delivering messages before the internet, and pretty much the whole town can be encircled on foot by staying on the walls.
Then we found the Art Gallery (which is 2 for one entry if you pick up the discount leaflet from the tourist office, which, for once , we did – so 2 Euros each.) And the Art gallery in Langres is a gem. I’d never heard of any of the artists represented here, but there were some really wonderful paintings, many of them in the narrative style that Sarah and I like so much. It was quiet, just like the rest of the city, we were the only visitors, but it was open and for this we were grateful.
Then we found a patisserie, also open, with a salon de thé in the back where we had a fine pot of tea for two, made properly, with a jug of milk and everything.
Things are looking up.

France Diary Day 2: Calais to Langres

Part of the excitement for this holiday, our first caravan run down to the south of France, was of being able to actually see the climate changing. The idea of driving from wet, cold Britain down to a simmering Mediterranean sun seemed quite tantalising. So I’ve been keeping a temperature chart so I can record the change.
We left home in 17C and sure enough saw the temperature climb to 24C by the time we reached our overnight stop in Kent.
Driving off the ferry in Calais the next morning it was 18C, grey and damp, but hey, early morning, yes? As we piled on the miles the sky became greyer and the thermometer fell further. By Arras, at lunchtime it was raining and 16C, colder than home. No worries, a long way to go, yet.
     We stopped at a services some time after Troyes but couldn’t leave the car, the rain was too heavy.
     So to Langres, and out site at Lac de la Liez. It’s a lovely spot, just like the lake district... without the mountains... and the scenery. But with the rain. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but it’s kind of disappointing after 660 miles driving south. I’ve planned the route using the street view from Google (to be sure the roads I picked were okay for caravans) and every frame showed roads baking under a cloudless azure sky. So it looked kind different. I’ll try to be more positive. It can’t get worse.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Heading for the sun. Up at 3am tomorrow for a ferry to Calais. Then we'll be taking a few days to drag our trusty tin box down towards Frejus on the Riviera.
Today we tackled the UK motorway network to reposition in Kent, and only had a 45 minute delay on the M25. Must be some kind of record, that. Enough. Need an early night, I think.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Church Stretton

Having a caravan weekend in Shropshire with the fine folks of Chase DA. This is really a shakedown before we embark on our epic tow down to Nice and Provence in a few weeks time. We are compiling a list of things we need to fix before we go. It's going to be long list.
Right now, though we've taken a break from damage assessment and we're heading up onto the Long Mynd.
(Correction, there was no mobile signal up there so we've been up and come back down since I started this) So right now - really right now - we're back at the caravan and I'm feeling pretty knackered. An early night sounds like a good bet. Early as in half past seven-ish.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Some Photos of the National Botanic Garden of Wales

Words not required. Just how awesome is this place? Here's the link, it's well worth a visit.

Llandeilo Weekend

Having a quick one-nighter in South Wales. Went to see the Welsh National Botanic Garden and we were completely blown away. (Pictures to follow when I get back online) This place needs more publicity. We stopped off in the Co-op a couple of miles up the road and the tourist info display didn't even mention it. We only learned of the garden's existence after a chance encounter at the Hay Festival earlier this year.
Anyway, highlights: the walled garden, the touring fungus exhibition, the meandering water feature down the main pathway and of course the magnificent glasshouse, the biggest single-span glasshouse in the world, apparently.
I have to give a plug to the hotel we've been staying in, too, because it was lovely. The Cawdor in Llandeilo. Very friendly staff and probably the most comfortable bed in the world.
We kind of fell for the village of Llandeilo, too. It has a real buzz about it. There's a sense of pride here that seems to be missing from too many towns and villages these days. A pity we're only here for such a short time. But I reckon we'll be back.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Cheshire Weekend

Morning Campers. I see our neighbours found a tree to lash their aerial to last night. Must have happened in the dark, I missed the fun. That's one hell of a length of coax they're carrying round with them.

Weekend over for us. I'm off today but poor wife has to go to work at 12. Ahh! I get to unpack.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Uncomplicated Life of the Caravanner

I've been watching the caravan opposite for the last hour trying to get
the TV aerial sorted. At first they tried various configurations of
attaching it to the roof rack on the car. Then the wife was sent out
again, armed with a mobile phone to enable instant feedback of the
results, where she has been trying to attach a 20 foot pole to the
hedge.They're still trying. We started watching when we came back from
a walk. Since then we've had soup, sandwiches, fruit, nibbles, washed
the dishes, put away the table, fetched water from the tap and still
they're at it.What strikes me about this little performance is that it
is the wife who does the aerial work. The husband is in charge of the
more technical aspect of sitting by the TV coordinating the operation
via his mobile phone.I'm loving this. I wonder what they want to
watch....ooh, ooh! I was about to sign off, but there's been a
development. The wife is out there with pliers, straightening all the
twigs on the aerial. I'll give her this - she doesn't give up easily.

Back in the Box

It’s a new season and we’ve had a couple of outings in the van. Right now we’re at a site near Congleton in Cheshire. This is part of a plan to discover areas close to home that have so far slipped beneath the radar, and Cheshire is definitely one of these. Cheshire is a place we drive through rather than to.
It’s raining, so, there we have it; it rains in Cheshire just like in Wales. The site we’re on is basic, no electricity, not much of a mobile signal, but it is so quiet. The noisiest thing here is the tweeting of birds. When a car goes past we look up and raise an eyebrow and say, “There’s a car just gone past.” It really is something unusual.

 We are not far from Brereton Heath, where there’s a small lake and a wood of oak and ash and even a caravan selling decent coffee. Give us a bit of sunshine and this place would be fabulous.

We had a trip into Congleton yesterday. We ate in a little oldy-worldy place, all lopsided black and white timbers. Just an sandwich and a coffee, but they made a real effort and we would go back for more. Congleton seems the kind of market town that has been battered by the big Tescos outside. Most of the survivors are charity shops, which is a pity, because it is quite a pretty little town. There’s a country park outside of town around Astbury Lake, and the pity there is that there are not many signs to tell you where it is or even that it’s exists at all, and, like the lake at Brereton, it’s worth a visit. A lap of the lake is just over a mile and it is a very pleasant stroll.

So, Cheshire. It’s on the map, now. We have a list of things we want to see here so we will definitely be back for more.