Sunday, 29 November 2009

Mum's Gone to the Ball...

Stretching the truth calling it a ball, if you ask me. The annual shindig at my son's former primary school has upped its game over the last few years due to a vigorous PTA committee each year trying to outdo the efforts of the previous team. Of course this means the price of a roast turkey dinner and a glitter ball disco has nudged up from £25 to £40 a ticket...each.

The kids should do well out of the fund-raising event this year as the school split the cost of the marquee hire (lovely white lining material disguising the breeze-block walls) with the local Caledonian society who are having their do the night after. Hubby decides to wear his kilt for the evening but is then subject to a great deal of ribbing from everyone suggesting he has come on the wrong night. He drily retorts that he's attending both and saving himself the cost of a taxi by not going home overnight.

We're running late as son is attending a disco at his current school so we have to drop him and his two hoodied mates off first. Rather taken aback by the lack of clothing on the girlies attending from other local schools but the three hormone-stuffed and African-Lynx-smelling boys tipping out of our car seem to perk up.

Five minutes later we arrive just in time and are greeted at the entrance by the Christmas Gift Tree. For a flat tenner you can pick a numbered bauble off the tree and claim your gift. The list looks enticing: a session in a glider (let's hope I can give that one back if needs be), a night off the ironing (possible, but do I really want another mother seeing the grey collars in my badly-washed laundry?), dinner for six (yes please) and flowers every week for a year (that'll do nicely). So what do we end up with? A bottle of pink plonk priced, I reckon, at £3.99. We join our friends only to discover that between us we have amassed a gardening apron, a woolly hat and a bottle of champagne...... made out of chocolate. Though we do infinitely better than the owner of the local garden centre who wins a 4ft potted poinsettia.

The disco is woeful. A dotty old bloke with a playlist from the sixties and seventies seems unaware we are a pretty lively bunch. As the dance-floor remains empty one of our party can't stand it any longer so "has a quiet word". For 20 minutes we show how "bang on trend" we are, doing a bad mum and dads' shuffle to Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and, our favourite, Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire" (known to our group as Socks on Fire - one offspring's name for the song). DJ makes the fatal mistake of putting on a slow JLS number next, we all sway a little for three seconds then throw in the towel.

I remain firmly sober for the duration, mainly because I am a governor at the school and have to try and keep up some semblance of propriety but also I need to keep a check on my dress in case of nipple escape if tit-tape comes undone. Hubby is under pain of death not to embarrass himself so sticks to beer and suffers my eagle eye all evening as I count the number of pints consumed. He's well-behaved, thankfully, unlike some other festive females who are drawn to the swirling pleats of his kilt on the dance-floor and enquire as usual what he's wearing underneath. He threatens to show them, catches my eye digging into the very depth of his soul, and smiles enigmatically.

PTA committee obviously not having much luck with the gift tree, now offer them with a free drink. My man is won over by this so wanders off to the foyer to have another go....and returns with a 2 ft lop-sided penguin made out of twigs. Twiggy takes pride of place on our table, resplendent in the woolly hat.

A final fling on the floor before we call it a night. Husband is getting terribly hot in all the wool he's wearing so we mouth our excuses to our friends and point to his sweltering shins: "Sorry, got to go folks.....socks on fire!"

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Berlin - Squabbles on the Spree

The teenager's preferred activity when on holiday....

In order to encourage our son, Rory, to get his body out from under the duvet, we try and lure him with the delights of the hotel breakfast buffet. However, after three days of urging him to do the decent thing and fill his plate with every item available (like his Dad does), it dawns on me that his hunger is of secondary importance to his wish to be immobile. So I have to revert to Mummy-mode and while he sits hunched over the table, squeezing packets of sugar and flicking the cutlery, I queue up at the omelette station for him. It pains me to say that bringing the food to the little prince certainly works....though the words "rod" and "back" spring to mind.

Sightseeing without putting one foot in front of the other can be a little difficult but our hotel is on the river and there are numerous river cruises available. We reckon teenage son can manage the hotel elevator and tumble gently into a boat for our last day in Berlin. Of course with husband choosing which cruise to go on I should have realised a scotsman would pick the cheapest, so we have a 7 euro guided tour up the River Spree, in German. No headphones to translate, just us three dimwits and a very jolly group of German tourists. At times I gather the commentary is rather amusing.

Unfortunately Berlin is not awash with moving pavements so for the remainder of the day our son has to learn to walk again. We have a fruitless trek to find a street which is supposedly full of post-war Russian architecture (we couldn't find it so had an argument) but our mood lifts when we see a put-your-face-through-the-hole cardboard cut-out of a German soldier. Hubby, as you can see, can't resist this; it's just so "kiss me quick".

In the evening we decide not to do our usual which has been to have dinner at the hotel - such a lazy choice, I know, but the restaurant Heat, with its "asian-fusion" cuisine (curries and noodles to you and me) is pretty damn good and with a post-prandial cocktail in the bar while son disappears to text his pals from his room, there are definite advantages. But tonight husband has other ideas and we try to find a recommended steakhouse. Well he has us trudging round the seedier parts of Berlin, next to the railway station, past some very unsavoury aromas, until we have a bloody fine bust-up on Friedrichstrasse. Son decides to side with me: as is his usual way, he drifts towards the winning corner and says:

"Yeah Dad, where is this place then?"
"Don't you interfere", says Dad, "this is between your mother and me"
As the argument is now three-way it now looks like we might be heading back to the hotel for a tandoori chicken but luckily for us, en route we discover a gorgeous traditional German restaurant, underneath the beautiful Opernpalais. The Schinkel-Klause has the biggest juiciest steaks, the atmosphere is warm, the waiters make a fuss of our son and he, in turn, becomes conversational and tells us lots of funny stories from school. All is forgiven.
"Now, my lovely boy", I smile, "what can I get you for breakfast tomorrow?"
October 2009

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Berlin - typical teenager?

Bored teenager at the Ishtar Gate. "Yeah...whatever...s'alright"

A day of culture for the family today and already teenage son, Rory, is pulling a face. Gone are the days when we could take him to museums and he would run around pulling levers and pushing buttons ad nauseam. Now he's too cool to do anything "suitable for children" but nonetheless exudes an attitude of "Go on, impress me!".

It's my choice to go to the Pergamon museum as I think both husband and son will be impressed with the magnificent thumping-big chunks of ancient history: the Pergamon altar from 160 BC, the Roman Market Gate of Miletus and the jaw-dropping Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon. Thankfully husband Dougie is suitably amazed and listens intently to the audioguide to all the details. Rory, however, shrugs a lot, fiddles with the buttons on his headphones and declares he's hungry. So my vision of a couple of hours soaking up the atmosphere turns into an almighty gallop round the main features before tipping out onto the streets in search of lunch.

Lunch is found at a nearby Italian restaurant and is cheap and cheerful. Strange to find the laid-back attitude you would normally associate with an Italian restaurant replaced by exemplary German efficiency: we are processed, in and out, in half an hour.

Now that son is fed he cheers up a bit but digs his heels at yet more culture. So we make the brave decision to leave him in the hotel room; mobile phone, tube of Pringles and TV remote in hand, while we have an hour exploring on our own. On our return he is still in the same position and thankfully hasn't emptied the mini-bar.

Steel and glass cupola in the Reichstag
In the evening we return to the Reichstag in our second attempt to go inside. Queue is a little shorter but still seems interminable. It's well worth the wait. Sir Norman Foster's fantastic dome makes us very proud that a British architect was instrumental in transforming such a famous German landmark. The good mood continues as our son thinks this place is "awesome" and we watch and smile as he excitedly runs up and down the ramps....

Friday, 20 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Berlin - Rain at the Reichstag

It's raining. That persistent drizzle, not heavy enough for an umbrella but the sort that leaves your hair frizzy and your demeanour miserable. I'm not good with rain. I'm not that good with cold and wind either. Get a grip woman, you're on holiday. We leave our lovely room, warm duvet and coffee machine and head out for some sight-seeing.

The walk up to the Brandenburg Gate is very manageable from our hotel. We have a few side roads to cross and soon discover the Germans are very obedient of their traffic signals. We get a few stern looks as we nip over the road with the red man still flashing and decide to behave ourselves for the rest of the walk, which is probably just as well as I am the world's worst road-crosser: all last minute dashes which must put the wind up drivers.

The new embassy buildings around the Brandenburg Gate are spanking new: Berlin's post 1989 showcase. Quite astonishing to think we are standing in what used to be No-Man's Land, where desperate East Germans were shot in their attempts to reach the West.
The Reichstag is next, a powerful symbol of the German Reich. Though it was destroyed by arson in 1933 and bombed during World War II, the reconstruction by Sir Norman Foster has transformed it into a stunning, modern parliamentary building. A popular tourist attraction, the queue to get in is long and, unfortunatey, stationary. Conscious of our family inability to wait more than ten minutes for anything, and the feeling of dampness at my neck, we avoid a domestic incident and continue our walk.

The most haunting part of our day is spent at the Holocaust Memorial. Prolonged controversy surrounds the construction of this impressive memorial to the European Jews who were victims of Nazi genocide. The "Field of Stelae", a maze of grey concrete blocks of varying height on an undulating concrete floor, covers the area of an entire city block and creates the sensation of a wave-like form. The whole area is very tactile, in fact very family friendly. There is something quite heartening to hear children laughing, playing hide and seek between the pillars. That seems appropriate to me.
The remainder of the day is spent walking too far. An interlude at the New National Gallery is a high point for me and offers some relief from the drizzle. When we eventually flop back at the hotel, Hubby decides to go on a "crisp and wine" expedition. He is away for ages, having found it nigh on impossible to hunt out a supermarket in the vicinity. He's nothing if not persistent and returns triumphant, having crossed Alexanderplatz with a bottle of wine in each pocket...that's class!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Berlin - coffee and keycards

Marx, Engels and Husband!

20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall seems a fitting time to visit the city and encourage a sense of history in our teenage son. Mind you, bargain Ryanair flights play their part in influencing this decision to have a half-term city break. £3.99 tickets don't seem quite so cheap, however, when we decide to pay the extra for hold baggage rather than carry-on cases. I'm sorry but a girl needs shoes!

Some passengers at East Midlands airport don't quite understand that "ONE PIECE OF HOLD BAGGAGE" means precisely that: any extra handbags or laptops have to be included within the one bit of luggage. This causes quite a stir at the departure gate as much furious re-packing occurs: scanties are flying everywhere with last-minute shoving of handbags into groaning cases. The advantage of putting luggage in the hold however, taking into account the extra fiver per flight, is the fact that as there are fewer people checking in bags, the queue is pretty short. You can wander around the terminal without trailing your case behind you, the race to find a free seat on the plane is easier and, best of all, when we get to Berlin, the bags are on the carousel before we even get to the baggage area so we aren't delayed at all. Top result!

We decide to get a taxi from the airport which, being a no-frills airline, means it is in Poland. I jest, but it is a little way out of the city centre. As we near our hotel, Dougie intelligently questions the taxi driver:

"Is that the remains of the Berlin Wall over there?"

"Nein, eez just a wall with graffiti. Ze Berlin Wall eez a leedle bigger".

Oh how I laugh.....quietly.

Hotel is a fab find, Radisson Blu, chosen by me because the rooms have a Nespresso coffee machine in them. I can't recommend this coffee enough: I should get a job working for them as extolling the virtues of said coffee is one of my favourite pastimes. This place is a dream and I make the most of it by secreting a few "extra" coffee capsules into my bag to take home as...ahem...souvenirs. Well it beats nicking the toiletries!

The room isn't ready when we arrive so we take off for a stroll to Alexanderplatz - a huge square, the heart of the city before World War II and only now starting to recover from the years under Soviet rule. There is a cold, slightly threatening air about the place, not helped by the number of beggars. But, as elsewhere in Berlin, great things are happening on the building front to bring the eastern parts of the city back to life. The restoration of 18th century Nicolaivertel, Berlin's oldest quarter, is beautiful and quite a constrast from the chilly, brutal architecture a few steps away.

Revived by coffee and cake, eventually one of the bedrooms is ready. We pile in and wait for Rory's room next door to be ready too. This requirs a bit of hassling, not helped by my husband's request for an extra key card for our son's room. A reasonable request, to have access to our own son's room, but the receptionist isn't best pleased:

"Vy are you vanting a second key?" she interrogates.

Hubby tries to explain there isn't a second child and that no, we would not be paying for an extra person for breakfast as there is still only three of us. Ah it is a perfect example of German intransigence versus Scottish belligerence. Belligerence wins.

Mum's Gone to Italy - Looky looky

The pretty town of Lazise

Despite the heat I am keen to see more of the other towns on the lake. We could get a local bus or try the ferry: the problem seems to be we would spend an hour or two getting somewhere then have to wait for a few hours for another ferry back. We don't really fancy spending hours in the heat of the afternoon sun just seeking shade. I suggest to Dougie that we contact our rep and go on a couple of organised tours. Hubby initially very wary and I have to coax him into trying not to imagine his worst organised-bus-trip nightmare of being herded around with a lot of Brits in socks and sandals. Eventually we plump for a night cruise to Lazise and, gulp, a full all-day lake tour.

The night cruise consists of a trip to see the Bay of Mermaids and then a stop in Lazise for an hour or so. I'm not sure what I expect of a "cruiser": it looks a bit small to me and we are all seated whereas I had somehow imagined myself wafting around on deck. Not quite sure why we really need the services of TWO holiday reps, but the running commentary from Angel (I kid you not) was unintentionally amusing nonetheless:

"Hi, my name's Angel and this is Robin, but he doesn't like to be called Robin so call him Rob instead...Ooh there's a family of swans: there's the female swan called a...a...yeah that's the mother and the baby swans...what are they called again...hmmm yes well the eggs hatched in five weeks and you can see they are still brown, you know they can go white overnight. When we get off at Lazise...what's the proper word for that Luigi?...oh yes, disembark, yeah well when we get back on again the boat will either be on the left hand side or the right hand side"

Thankfully young Robin (sorry Rob) is a nice chap and goes round the passengers handing out glasses of Asti Spumante (no expense spared). Our son is also given a glass and makes sure he glugs it down pretty quick in case someone changes their mind. He is in a lovely mood after that.

The town of Lazise is gorgeous, especially at night, so we have an hour or two to explore before we are whizzed back to Bardolino. Not a bad evening at all: Dougie is warming to the idea of someone doing it all for you, and his impressions of Angel keep us all chortling for the rest of the holiday so that's worth the money in itself.

Compare the meerkats......(no I have no idea why they were in a little Italian lake town)

Our second excursion, the dreaded all-day bus trip, is organised by a local firm and the courier, Katya, really knows her stuff. Our first stop is Sirmione, a beautiful town perched on the end of a peninsula jutting out into the lake. No sooner have we got off the coach then we are jumping onto a motorboat for a 30 minute tour of the peninsular with our captain, Umberto, a wizened chirpy little fella whose grasp of English consists mainly of a few chosen phrases:

"You see over there....very nice hotel...five star...500 euros a senoritas...beautiful beach...very private....topless ladies...looky looky...very nice...."
After a hilarious 30 minutes with Umberto he turns the engine up to full speed for the last few minutes and we speed into the harbour. Fantastic. An hour in the lovely town is enough to persuade me I'd like to come back again in the future.

A long drive next to Limone where we arrive on market day so it is heaving. We are on the cusp of having a bit of a domestic due to the heat, dehydration, and inability to decide where to eat. This isn't helped by having to follow our guide for ten minutes so she can show us where to meet later. A group of tourists following a woman waving a pink umbrella is just the thing my husband was anxious not to have to do. Thankfully war is evaded in the nick of time and we have one of our nicest meals looking out over the more mountainous areas in the North of the lake.

A swift ferry trip to Riva nearly goes awry as Dougie doesn't realise there is a stop before ours and is happily about to disembark at Torbole until he is spotted and dragged back on.

Before we reached our final stop we drive along the piece of road that Daniel Craig had whizzed along in his Aston Martin during the opening sequence of Quantum of Solace. We also see where the stunt driver had driven through the barrier into the lake, writing off said Aston in one leap.

Our final stop is Malcesine, another achingly picturesque town, and as we sat eating gorgeous 1 euro ice creams on the harbour front we decide this is as good as it gets for holiday locations. Even clambering on the bus behind the man in beige socks can't ruin our happy mood.
August 2009

Mum's Gone to Italy - Bardolino Nights

The contestants in the Miss Italy regional final (now where am I!?)

The days in Bardolino are lazy and fairly uneventful but as the sun set over the Dolomites and the wine loosens our limbs, we saunter into town most nights to have dinner. We did eat in the hotel until one evening when the service was so slow and chaotic that we nearly gave up and returned to the room to raid the fridge. Dougie had adventurously ordered swordfish "Sicilian style". When it arrived it was a rolled-up, breaded, overcooked concoction that looked as it if had never been near the water. Hubby reckoned it must be called Sicilian style because they had taken a contract out on the swordfish and murdered it.

The evenings out are a joy. A ten minute walk into town and there's a huge number of restaurants to choose from. There's always pasta, pizza and grilled meats on the menu so the choice of venue can be made purely on location and ambience. On one night we hunt out a little place called La Strambata which has been given good reviews on Tripadvisor. It doesn't seem that impressive to me when we eventually find it until I see my husband's eyes light up and realise the waitresses are, to a girl, young, nubile and dressed in teeny shorts. Funny but we went back to La Strambata a couple more times: Dougie reckons their spaghetti carbonara is exceptional.....

My favourite restaurant is the Loggia Rambaldi: great location at the harbour and everything we have is delicious. Hubby has Venetian liver one night which I thought an unwise choice after the debacle with the swordfish. I dare him to ask for some fava beans and a nice Chianti to go with it. He declines, thinking it might lose something in translation.

On Wednesday nights there is always some entertainment in the main square. We hear beautiful music on the first Wednesday and follow the sounds to see a small orchestra playing in front of the main church. We are impressed with their musical ability so look for a poster to find out who was playing. The poster reads " Berkshire Maestros...from Newbury Music Centre". Supporting our compatriots, we give them an even bigger clap after that.

The second Wednesday we are treated to the Bardolino Philarmonic Orchestra and choir. A huge number of musicians and singers fill the church steps and entertain us with songs from the shows. Dougie and Rory despair as I am naturally excited about this, being a bit of a Musical Theatre amateur myself. The choir do a very unusual Mary Poppins medley in Italian and then one of their number dons a bowler hat and has a go at Cabaret. The conductor informs the audience they will now sing "Time to Say Goodbye". A pretty good rendition follows, everyone cheers then naturally disperses only to hear the conductor announce,"And now we will sing Love Changes Everything". A largely depleted audience claps as best they can to compensate for the unfortunate programme order!

Never a dull moment on the shores of Lake Garda, we are also lucky enough to see one of the Bisse boat races on the lake. Four men rowing in each boat but standing up as if in a gondola. Think Steve Redgrave with a cornetto and you get the picture. Boats from all the towns compete against each other, having paraded through the town before racing on the black lake, lit up from the shore. Quite a bizarre sight.
But I have to say, the favourite night for my two boys has to be the final evening in the neighbouring town of Garda which is playing host to the regional finals of the Miss Italy contest. Despite the fact that it is starting late even my lazy son perks up at the thought and quite happily walks all the way to the town. The contest is held in the open air with seats for everyone to watch. So for a good couple of hours we watch 31 Italian hotties strut up and down the catwalk. I keep thinking they will whittle them down to the final 15 or so, but the same 31 are shown in dresses, swimming costumes and bikinis. When another round starts with clothes being added this time, the lads decide theyve seen as much as they are going to so we toddle off. But Number One Son is mighty pleased that he'd wandered down to the front with the rest of the press corps and got some great pictures he can post on facebook to make his pals jealous. I'd seen quite enough pert bottoms for one night, thank you very much!
August 2009

Mum's Gone to Italy - Lazing by the Lake

The thing about self-catering apartments is that because you have the facility to fend for yourself, there is an urge to do just that. Despite the fact that the hotel has a lovely restaurant a few metres away, a sort of camping mentality sets in. Well, if I'm honest, it does with my husband. Never a morning person at home, Dougie is up with the larks to do a supermarket run before it gets too hot. These jaunts into town are nothing if not eventful. On the first day he walks for 15 minutes to the Migross supermarket (nice name!) but gets there before it opens so decides to walk another mile to the next one, Lidl, only to find it opens even later, so is forced to return to the first one, by which time he is sweating and swearing profusely. Another day he gets stuck in a lift (yes, how odd, a lift in a supermarket) and spends 15 minutes going up and down without the doors opening. A third time, already tired after a walk to the neighbouring town of Garda, he decides we need more wine and dithers in three different shops before getting caught in a thunderstorm on the way back (the wine was lovely though). Oh and how can I forget the rigmarole of buying suncream. We ran out of Ambre Solaire in the second week and its replacement was a weird orange bottle of lard we were stuck with for the remainder of the holiday.

Our son Rory is quite delighted that he can have a lie-in every morning - no breakfast times to adhere to and no maid service to shame him into getting out of his pit. We usually peel him off the mattress sometime around 11, and dear old dad rustles up something from his morning catch. Mind you, it's an effort to cook in these tiny kitchens. For a start the cupboards are already full with the most bizarre cooking utensils so there is no room to actually put the groceries. In order to find room for the crisps and cereal I have to clear out a selection of varying-sized salad bowls, two different coffee machines, microwave bowls with lids and two huge saucepans which would be useful if we were cooking pasta for the neighbours too. An extremely inefficient toaster (called Super Douglas....I did laugh), no draining board, no washing up liquid, no dishcloths but 6 of every sized glass (of course you always hanker after a glass of sherry on your hols). With all this, Dougie manages to cook a very nice omelette.

The routine of the rest of the day usually involvs lolling by the pool. They have two: a noisy one for kids and a "quiet" lagoon-style pool for adults and languid teenagers. They are rather strict about the dos and don'ts at the latter: no excess noise, no ball-games, no inflatables. Most of the guests are Dutch, Italian or German with a few Brits. Very entertaining watching families of all the nationalities flouting the rules. Middle-aged dads in particular floating on lilos only to be caught by the manager coming by and wagging his finger at the offending article. Dad sheepishly swims to the side and hides his inflatable (!) and as soon as the boss-man has gone, all the parents leap into the pool with balls and frisbees, teenage children despairing of their parents' pathetic gung-ho fight against authority.

The temperature is over 30 degrees every day and this soon puts paid to all the ideas I have about sight-seeing. It is an effort to turn the page of my bonk-buster paperback never mind get a bus to Verona to see Juliet's balcony: I could sit on my own balcony and watch my very own Romeo hoofing it up the path, not saying "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun" but more usually, "Open the door you lazy tart, I've got three bottles of fanta and a six-pack in this bag and I'm knackered".
August 2009

Mum's gone to Italy - Lake Garda - Tellytubbyland

This year's summer holiday caused a bit of disagreement in the Burgess household. I was adamant I didn't want the adrenalin hit of Iceland in 2007 nor the satnav frustrations of the fly-drive round Canada of 2008. Don't get me wrong, both holidays were fantastic in their own right but this year I didn't want any stress. I wanted a normal two weeks in the sun lolling about. No car: just a transfer bus with lots of other lazy Brits like me and a squeaky-voiced rep, clipboard in hand, directing me to coach number 43 and promising me an over-diluted complimentary cocktail at the Welcome Meeting. Ah, yes, the simple pleasures of the package holiday!.

Hubby was still up for a bit of adventure and was keen on the Italian Dolomites: hiking up the hills with a bunch of Happy Wanderers. I wasn't keen, so cleverly persuaded him that the Italian Lakes might be a better option. Lake Garda is located between Venice and Milan, just South of the Dolomites, but the fact that mountains surround the lake means it has a very mediterranean-like climate and vegetation. The towns around Lake Garda have history, culture and are extremely pretty. An ideal compromise I thought. It was left to me to do all the booking so I plumped for the town of Bardolino, staying at the Parc Germano apartments

When we get on bus number 43 at Verona airport we are met by smiley Jake, our rep. He regales us with stories about the impressive castles around the lake which were constructed by the Scaligeri dynasty who made their fortune in ladders. Fancy that. For the 40 minute transfer to Bardolino I am happy in my vegetative state and even control-freak hubby allows himself to be hustled onto the bus and leave his wish for independence safely at home. We spotted some hiking-booted, scratchy-socked people at the airport and thankfully didn't have to join them in the queue for the hire car.

There is much talk from Jake on the bus about how Lake Garda looks like a witch's hat. Other say it is similar to a violin. Please!!! Are they looking at the same map? I'm sorry but we're all evading the obvious here: Lake Garda is most definitely phallic. Plain and simple. Our lovely town of Bardolino is in the testicular region!

Our hotel complex is unlike anything else around the lake. Whereas other hotels look very Austrian and ski-chalet-ish, ours is a new eco-friendly resort, designed to blend into the surroundings. It looks like Tellytubbyland! All green undulating hillocks and little paths, low level bungalows built into the hillside with grassed and shrubbed flat-roofs. From the top of the resort you can look across to the lake and have no clue that there are apartments hidden beneath. Our apartment iss on two floors so from the upstairs balcony we have a gorgeous view of the lake and the mountains.

Hubby manages a quick run to the mini-market - "Take your rucksack love, then you'll feel like you're on a hike..." I quip.

He returns with milk, pastries, some ham and a bottle of Bardolino wine. The local plonk, at around three quid a bottle, is heavenly, and sets us up nicely for a walk into town. Dinner at a lovely restaurant on the harbour-front (6 euros for a yummy pizza) and all thoughts of trekking up the mountains start to drift away.
Published Date:11/08/2009
Modified Date:11/08/2009

Monday, 16 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Tenerife - the low point

The thought of amusement parks always fills me with dread, ever since the toggle on my anorak got caught at the top of a helter skelter when I was about eight years old. But when husband and son are getting over-excited about going to Tenerife's newest waterpark, Siampark, I dutifully go along.

A beautifully clean, well-designed park with the usual assortment of terrifying chutes and rapids but thankfully a gorgeous white sand beach (imported from somewhere else as the sand in southern Tenerife is black, volcanic stuff) so I set up camp on a sunbed and send the boys off to run around silly. I get landed with finding lockers so they can beat the queues.

They return after an hour with great tales of rides I should go on and, against my better judgement, I agree that I will try a couple out if they take me to the gentler ones. Now the name of this ride should really have given me an inkling as to its ferocity but I queue for "The Dragon" for a few minutes and soon we are standing in front of a black tunnel. The three of us share a big yellow rubber ring contraption and Hubby helps me get in so we face the middle, with our legs on top of each others. He warns me that I should lie back a little so my bottom doesn't dip too far through the ring, but I musn't have heard this bit as the next thing I know we're hurtling at full speed into the darkness and my backside is hitting the slide all the way down. Apart from the pain in my nether regions, the utter fear I experience is even worse than when I went white water rafting in Iceland (and that was no picnic). It's pitch black for some of the ride, though it wouldn't have made any difference as I have my eyes shut all the way, but it seems to last an eternity and all the while I'm thinking I'm just going to die, thrown off an inflatable into the deep abyss.

I don't die. We emerge into the splash pool and I stagger to the side. Both boys are shrieking and laughing but I'm not best pleased. However, as I have survived I seem to lose my mind momentarily and am taken up to join the queue for "The Volcano" which is just as scary but I keep my bottom up higher so it doesn't take a battering on the way down. One final ride, the "Jungle Snakes" and I think I'm about to drown as we hit the water at the bottom, only for the assistant to hold my hand and show me the water is only waist high.

My sense returns and I scuttle back to the safety of my book and sunbed. The boys spend the rest of the day on Naga Racers, The Tower of Power and Mekong Rapids, and leap about through the 3m waves by the beach. But I get sweet revenge when we get back to the hotel. Husband, oblivious to the fact he's only been wearing swimming shorts all day, hadn't put any suncream on. Granted it was cloudy but he really should known better. He is a wonderful shade of pink and his nickname becomes John West for the rest of the holiday.
April 2009

Mum's Gone to Tenerife - more highlights

I'm surprising myself with my ability to find a second post's worth of chit chat from our lovely lazy holiday and have to dedicate it to that wonderful pastime of people-watching, my favourite holiday activity.

On the whole, this being a smart gaff, the people are very civilised, quiet and stylish and I just love admiring other women's clothes, bags, children etc. However, around the poolside I'm reminded of a phrase of my husband's Scottish Auntie Jenny, who used to say, "Aye, the sights you see when you've nae got a gun!" That thought passes through my mind when at a neaby sunbed a middle-aged Spanish woman proceeds to merrily pluck away at stray hairs on her thighs with a pair of tweezers. My husband is fearful the plucking might go higher so he turns his bed round a little to focus on some younger totty to his left.

My favourite couple are the two very stylish gay chaps who look fabulous at breakfast and then come down to the pool in their bathrobes, sashaying along as if they are on the Milan catwalk, before disrobing with a swish of their shoulders, to reveal fetching speedos and well-maintained bodies. Wish I could say the same for "strangely-dyed-ginger-haired man" who walks round the pool in a tiny pair of lime green lycra pants which sport a handy zip at the front!

Whilst I'm not averse to snaffling away an apple or two from the breakast buffet to keep us going during the day, one French family just take it a step too far. The wife is dripping in jewellery, tottering on astonishingly high heels and nearly wearing a teeny top from which her siliconed chest makes a determined effort to escape. I reckon she must have spent a fortune on Botox and lip-plumping too. Her husband, with no perception that this really isn't the done thing, proceeds to butter five baguettes and fill them all with an assortment of meats. He wraps them all up in the hotel's linen napkins and trophy wife stashes them, with great aplomb, in her white leather statement handbag. My poor husband, who has hoofed it already to Netto and back for a packet of ham and a couple of rolls, can only look on with amazement at the sheer audacity of the whole operation.

Even worse, a carbon copy of Roman Abramovich is strutting around the hotel with an entourage of thick-necked heavies and his young family who are there for his every need. He sits at breakfast with a large glass of lager and his daughter (?) has to fetch and carry for him and even puts his sweater over his shoulders when he's a bit cold. I'm not awfully good at watching people surreptitiously, (Hubby says I could never be a spy) so I gawp as Roman slurps his lager and plunges his croissant into a mug of cappuccino before shovelling it into his mouth.
Pass me the rifle, Auntie Jenny
April 2009

Mum's Gone to Tenerife - Highlights

Just returned from a very lazy week in sunny Tenerife and even I can't do a daily blog of my holiday when the most it would involve would be "get up...have breakfast....have a bit more breakfast...grab a sunbed....lie in the sun....turn over....turn over again....have lunch....lie down again....dip toe in pool....remove toe as pool freezing...lie down again....shower....dinner....lie down again"

Having said that, there are some moments that might be worth sharing so I'll start typing and just see where it goes!

Peter Kay on the plane.
Well not really but the spitting image of his creation, Geraldine McQueen, the Irish winner of his spoof "Britain's Got the Pop Factor"...., along with her parents and grandparents.
"There's not much leg-room" they complain, when unfortunately it wasn't the length of their legs that made sitting in the tiny seats somewhat problematic. But I have to smile when the stewardess announces there are some Mars Bar ice creams available for purchase but in short supply. Oblivious to the hordes of little children waiting expectantly in the rows behind, the whole McQueen family help themselves and slurp away, loosening their belts a tad more.

Arrival at hotel
Hotel La Plantacion del Sur, in the resort of Costa Adeje, is one hell of a classy place so I have to pretend like I belong. Very nice receptionist cheers our son up when she announces that the hotel has an internet room with free access. Of German nationality, she struggles a little with her English, but says to our teenager that he shouldn't spend all day in the room, but should get some sun as he has "a cheesy face". Surprisingly our son finds this very funny but the poor girl realises her error and we try to think what the English equivalent must be for a pale complexion...pasty maybe, though he does look a little like a wedge of Wensleydale I have to admit. So Cheesy Boy it is for the rest of the week, though he came home looking rather more of a mild cheddar with Babybel cheeks.

Once a Scotsman...
Lovely room but no tea and coffee making facilities and therefore no complimentary biscuits. The packet of Pringles is half the price of the ones in our hotel in Nice, however, but still not cheap enough to tempt us. There is, however, a free bottle of wine in the room which we naturally drink before going down to dinner so that we can get by with only ordering a bottle of water during the evening meal. But even my Edinburgh-born husband is highly amused by the Scottish couple at the next table who ask if they could order water by the glass!

The next morning, Hubby does his hunter-gatherer thing again and, counting the pennies too, decides to get up early to hike a mile to the nearest Netto to get provisions for lunch. Returning heavy-laden with bread, ham and butter he gamely chucks stuff out of the mini-bar to make room for our frugal lunch. He is absolutely exhausted as the hotel is on the top of a steep hill, but his little face at lunch-time, providing for his family by trying to butter a baguette with an attachment from his Swiss Army knife, well it's quite touching really....Later that evening, San Miguel beer in hand, we talk on the balcony about holidays in the past and some of the flea-pits we'd been in when we were hard-up.
"Do you remember that place in Majorca?", Hubby reminisces, "we used to get stuff from the local supermarket and I had to slice the baguettes open with my pen-knife.............. !
Plus ca change...
April 2009

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Nice - Day 5-7 - Miserable in Monaco

In preparation for our trip to Monte Carlo today we box clever with the room service breakfast and make sure we order ham and more bread so we can make up our sarnies again! A five minute walk to the main bus station in the town centre and a few minutes later we're on a bus heading for Monaco. For a 45 minute journey we can't quite believe it only costs 1 euro each: in fact it's 1 euro for whatever distance so we could have stayed on to Menton, another 45 minutes away, to see the lemon festival but the boys are adamant that they've had quite enough of parades and festival stuff and would rather see sports cars and yachts, so I'm out-voted.

Feeling very cold today because the sun isn't shining so Monte Carlo doesn't grab me. We wander down to the harbour to look at the boats and amongst the big whoppers there are some real cruddy ones. Sit like a real sad family on the wall eating our pack-up, picking out our favourite yachts and looking at some hideous apartment blocks that surround the harbour: huge 1960s monstrosities that just look so out of place (discover when we get home there's a nicer marina just around the bay, but we never got that far!).

The casino opens at 2pm so we sit outside the Cafe de Paris, supping a fairly expensive espresso, to watch the cars arriving. Admittedly there are one or two ferraris and a lamborghini but there are plenty of scruffy old bangers from which people clamber out, handing their keys to the drivers who whisk the cars away. I expect it all looks more thrilling in the sunshine or in the evening when people are all dressed up. As it is, it all looks a bit tawdry and I'm so cold we decide to get the bus back, not before I get splattered with bird droppings. My mum always said that was a sign of good luck and money but I'm not heading back to the casino to try my hand at the tables whilst covered in guano!

Back in Nice we find a lovely restaurant for dinner then leave Rory in the room while we have a nightcap in the hotel bar. It doesn't last long as son soon sends a text saying "Come back, I'm bored!". There's only so many foreign quiz shows he can watch apparently.

The final day of the holiday is very relaxing but it's soon time to get the train back to Lille. At the station in Antibes a sweet old lady gets on carrying yet another little dog in a bag. Dog waves goodbye through the window to old lady's husband and all three of them look very tearful, which sets me off snivelling. Then the little pooch makes no sound at all apart from a little snoring for the whole seven hours to Lille. Bless....
February 2009

Mum's Gone to Nice - Day 4 - Baguettes and Brazilians

Pinch me...I'm dreaming

In an effort to persuade teenage son to get out of his pit this week, we decided last night to fill in the room service menu for breakfast. Now this is something I've never done in a hotel before, partly because it's always cost more money and partly because I feel uncomfortable being "served" in such a way. But we were told when we arrived that as the normal dining room was being re-decorated this week, they were happy to provide room service breakfast at no extra charge. So having ticked lots of boxes before we went to bed, we are very excited to know what will turn up today.

Spot on time, nice man arrives with trolley which folds down to create a table. We had chosen what sort of bread we wanted: I'd gone for chocolate croissants and Dougie had picked country-style bread. When four croissants and four big chunks of bread arrive, I'm instantly a big fan of room service. Fresh fruit, cereal, yogurts, gorgeous tagines full of scrambled egg, hot coffee and a big flower in a vase! The little prince in the room next door gets a huge tray filled with sausages, bacon and a whole french stick. As he picks at his food whilst staring at Sky News on the TV, I have a Road to Damascus experience........with all this food we can create a decent packed lunch without the usual smuggling of rolls in my handbag routine. So half of Rory's french stick is buttered and filled with bacon and sausage, croissants are wrapped in tissue and five of the eight tangerines we've accumulated are whisked away. You see I may be living a life of luxury for a week in a lovely hotel but I'm just so common at heart, and a free lunch is a free lunch not to be sniffed at!

The rest of the morning we wander round the clothes shops and look at all the sights around us, including geriatric ladies in impossibly high heels and a curiously large number of men carrying little dogs in pooch-carriers. In the afternoon we return to the room with a bottle of wine bought from the local Spa. Unfortunately as we seem to have no bottle opener, we have to buy one from the supermarket and it costs more than the wine!

A lovely few hours is spent chilling in the room, drinking wine, eating the remains of breakfast and watching the flower parade from our balcony. Must admit, I expected something more impressive and I reckon our Spalding Flower Parade is much better. In our parade we decorate the floats with cut tulip heads; here the floats are small trailers pulled by Noddy cars and the flowers are simply arranged on a central backboard on each float. So once you've seen one you've seen them all. Rory gets bored and decides to lie on the bed watching the Italian version of Deal or No Deal, followed by a French Wheel of Fortune! Meanwhile we brave the elements on the balcony as it's now gone very cold. Feel rather sorry for the dancers that intersperse the floats as they must be freezing. Some groups have come from South America to join the festivities and, not wearing very much, they must be feeling the chilly sea breeze. Dougie looks at one woman shaking her booty at the front of one group and asks me,

"Is that a Brazilian?"
"I'm not sure", I reply, "but I'd say yes by the high cut of her leotard!"

Dinner tonight is at Lou Nissart, which is a traditional Nicoise restaurant. Hubby and I decide on the set menu to get the full experience and can hardly move after eating a special onion pizza tart thing, roasted peppers, ravioli, beef stew with gnocci and a big pastry pine-nut concoction. It's all very tasty but far too much and I'm regretting being so greedy as we walk home.

As we fall into bed, Rory comes wandering in saying,"Look what I've found in my mini-bar?"
"What's that son?"
"A bottle didn't need to buy one after all, Dad"

He has a lot to learn: you don't tell a Scotsman he's just wasted 6 euros on something he could have had for nowt. It's the travel adapter all over again!
February 2009

Mum's Gone to Nice - Day 3 - silly string

Nice Carnival : these floats are massive and sit in the town square ready for the procession later in the evening!

After the usual difficulties getting son out of his bed to go to breakfast, we head off into the sunshine to have a walk around Nice. The main Promenade des Anglais stretches for 4 miles from the airport in the west, curving round the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) to the old town. Constructed in the 1820s with money from an English clergyman, it's now a very wide strip along the sea-front filled with walkers, rollerbladers and cyclists. What fascinates me is the large number of beach restaurants that are dotted along the beach just under the promenade; quite unlike anything I've ever seen in the UK or even in other Mediterranean seaside resorts: the tables are set with linen napkins, tablecloths,sparkling glasses, good china - no plastic chairs or wipeable surfaces here. It's a chilly February morning and yet couples are sitting here facing the sea having their breakfast - croissants and pots of coffee, and the morning paper. How very civilised!

We are heading to the Colline de Chateau, a 90m hill overlooking the town. Nice was founded on this site by the ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC. They called it Nikaia, meaning victory, and set up an industry of sportswear ;-) All that remains of the fortress on the hill are a few ruins but the area is a beautiful public park and once you climb all the steps to the top there are some fabulous views. The three of us are just enjoying the peace up here when an almighty boom frightens the life out of us. A little late I remember reading about the cannon which is fired every day from the top of the hill. When our heart rates return to normal I tell the boys about the story of the noon cannon - apparently a retired English colonel from India started the custom to remind his young wife, who was always late, that it was time to come home and cook him his lunch. Husband and son think this a fine idea whilst I'm fizzing at the audacity of the old fossil.

One of the reasons we came to Nice this week was to see the annual carnival, a series of parades which last for about a month. There are two parades this week; a flower parade tomorrow and an illuminated night parade at 9pm this evening. No health and safety jobsworths here, you can stand where you like even if your feet are likely to be mown down, and please feel free to squirt as many cans of silly string as you like at each other and everyone on the floats! The town is already covered in the remnants of silly string and confetti from the last procession but as soon as people start gathering, everyone starts squirting each other. I have to say the adults are by far the worst culprits; demure old ladies shrieking and laughing as they cover passing strangers with luminous goo.

There are about twenty floats measuring up to 60 feet high, designed by international cartoonists and sculptors, interspersed with Notting Hill style dancers. I get excited with our local Spalding Flower Parade every year but this is something else. Rory's favourite is a huge dragon/dinosaur thing which breathes smoke and moves about using some amazing technology. I like the one designed by a British Financial Times cartoonist - a tattooed man sitting on a huge motorbike. An hour or so later, covered head to toe in string and confetti, but unable to feel my toes, I nudge the boys and we make our way back to the hotel.
Rory and I are able to brush off the string quite easily as we had put raincoats on but daft old Dad has to spend a good while in the bathroom picking the stuff off his jacket. Can you imagine that being allowed in Britain - there'd be letters to the papers about ruined clothes, compensation claims etc, whereas here in Nice everyone has a good chuckle and a bit of a rub down with a wet flannel.
February 2009

Mum's Gone to Nice - Day 2 - TGV heaven

I start the day fighting with the hotel hairdryer. What is it about these stupid contraptions that are attached to the wall of the bathroom and only work when you press the button down constantly? If your thumb releases pressure it immediately cuts out. It's a safety feature but it makes really hard work of drying your hair. Marginally better, I suppose, than the hairdryer hidden in a drawer with a cord so short it doesn't reach the mirror. So begins my day, with a hopeless blow-drying attempt, followed by the discovery that Hubby has packed a travel adapter which doesn't work: so I can't even rescue the hair disaster with my straighteners! But lovely chap disappears after breakfast, ostensibly to buy some baguettes for the journey, and comes back what seems like hours later, with a working travel adapter. What a sweetie!
However, as it has taken him so long to locate said adapter in the huge Carrefour supermarket, we're now too late for me to do anything with my hair, so quickly check out of the hotel and leg it across the road to the station to get the fast TGV train to Nice.
The platform for the train is only announced a few minutes before departure so we are all fidgeting at the starting blocks before everyone suddenly heads for the escalators en masse. I tell Hubby that our tickets needed stamping in a special machine before we get on the train. He reckons we don't. But as we approach the escalator we see the little machine and hold up all the other passengers by validating our tickets at the last second! I don't say I told you so but chalk it up in my little imaginary "got one over on you there" book. His mood isn't helped by the escalators not working so he has to wrestle with our two cases, which have the combined weight of two sacks of potatoes.
It's a long journey down through France to the South coast, over 7 hours, but it is so relaxing it's like a holiday in itself. We have a table seat at the end of the carriage and, as we have upgraded to first class for not much extra expense, the seats are comfy, wide and reclining. Spend the next few hours reading, playing cards and mostly just looking out of the window. As we approach Nice station I leave it to the last minute before paying a visit to la toilette and get stuck in the aisle behind a lovely old deaf Frenchman whose wife tries to explain to him that he needs to move as madame needs pee-pee. He misunderstands, assumes she is ordering him to have pee-pee himself, and promptly shuffles into the loo, leaving me with no choice but to hold on until we get to the hotel.
Hotel Palais de la Mediterranee is absolutely gorgeous. Very art deco, bang slap on the sea front, and very relaxed, charming staff. For once we splash out and get an interconnecting room for our son. He's now nearly 13 and it's getting a bit much for the three of us sharing rooms all the time. He thinks this is amazing, he has his own big fluffy dressing gown, slippers and, unfortunately, access to his very own minibar. Minibar prices are even more outrageous than normal thanks to the poor exchange rate, so Rory is under pain of death if he so much as looks at the mini pack of Pringles priced at 7 quid.
We are spoiled for choice as regards eateries and, as Nice is very near Italy and was under Italian rule for many years in the past, their Italian restaurants are excellent. Find a gorgeous one in the old town, La Favola, have bowls of pasta, lovely bottle of plonk and saunter back along the sea front.
Back in the room I discover that the only reasonably priced item in the minibar is, surprisingly, a travel adapter. About the same price as the one my poor stressed husband had bought at the supermarket in Lille this morning, causing us to nearly miss our connection. He doesn't seem awfully pleased when I tell him: can't think why.........
February 2009

Mum's Gone to Nice - Day 1 - Priests and Hippos

Now I know some of you are thinking, "Is that annoying woman always on holiday?". Well not really but I always find a few days away are the source of plenty of blogging material, whether it's arguing with a French satnav in Canada or flirting with hotel managers in Barcelona to get a decent room.

As a change from the usual stress of a cheap far-too-early-in-the-morning flight from Stansted or East Midlands, we decided for our half-term break to let the train take the strain. So this morning we leave the house at a much more reasonable 9.30am to drive to Ebbsfleet to pick up the Eurostar. Ebbsfleet is in the middle of nowhere just off the M25 near Dartford and must be the quietest train station I've ever been to. A huge car-park with too many free spaces initiates the usual inability to make a quick decision from my better half. Eventually we settle on a spot miles away from anyone else and still can't get between the white lines without a bit of extra shuffling. Ravenous at this point, we unpack the bacon rolls I made up before we left and start scoffing. Two minutes later a car pulls up and parks right next to us. How dare he! I imagine he is probably more embarrassed than we are, especially as his wife is looking at him with a face that says, "Of all the spaces in the whole car park, and you have to park next to a car full of picnickers!".

Have a fine time people watching in the departure lounge. A beautiful leggy blonde takes my hubby's eye and most of the male populus in the vicinity, including a cluster of priests who tussle with each other as to who's sitting where. Eventually one who looks very like Ernie Wise, complete with outrageous comb-over which begins at the back of his collar and ends just above his eyebrows, bags the seat next to the blonde. Head honcho Priest, extremely handsome and somewhat malevolent in a Da Vinci Code kind of way, has the job of getting snacks from Caffe Nero for his godly posse, and returns with an assortment of trendy crisps a la Kettle style, a few bars of Green & Black's chocolate and a tray of cappuccinos. The sight of a dozen priests, head to toe in traditional black garb, immersing themselves in modern day cafe culture, brings a broad smile to my face.

A very quick Eurostar journey ends in Lille, our stop for the night before we get the TGV train to the South of France in the morning. Dougie goes walkabout as soon as we arrive to find somewhere for dinner. It's cold and raining when he returns so our brisk walk into town en famille finishes abruptly at a restaurant quaintly named "Hippopotamus". There's nothing like authentic French cuisine to make you feel you're on your holidays....and this is nothing like authentic French cuisine. But we can't complain as the steak, chips and Ben & Jerry's ice cream go down a treat!
February 2009

Friday, 13 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 15 - Liquids in luggage

The last day of a holiday is always a bit awkward. We don't have to get to the airport until about 6.30pm which means we have to check out of the room at midday then hang around for the afternoon. It's a scorcher of a day so we laze by the pool for an hour or two then, as I'm getting a bit twitchy that we might get lost going to the airport (just a hunch, heaven knows why I might think that!!), we get changed and pile into the car for the last time.

I've already keyed into the satnav the address of the Alamo Car Rental Depot at Montreal airport and it's reassuring that, as we get close, we can see aeroplanes in the sky. Have to rely on our GPS pal today as Dougie, throwing caution to the wind, has packed all the maps into the suitcases. Has he learned nothing from this holiday? The roads seem rather quiet as we get to within one minute of our destination: funny that, it being an international airport! We realise why when our lady of the satellites tells us to turn left and then confidently announces;"YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION".

I'm not so sure. No car rental depot is visible, no other cars in the vicinity. In fact it's just a very quiet saturday the freight section of the airport. The address doesn't seem to exist in real life, we try keying it in a few more times and satnav lady still believes we're at the garage. So we both yell at her, in a combination of English, French and some choice Scottish lingo. Decide our best option is to "drive around a bit" until our lovely son spots an Alamo sign. Unfortunately it's their regional office and it's closed; fortunately there is a map on the door directing hapless fools like us to the proper returns desk. It is, of course, at the main airport terminal, like all other car rentals usually are. We park up, hand the keys over and I'm very close to bursting into feminine tears of pure relief.

The garage area is noisy and busy and we have to lug the cases to the departure area, which seems to be only accessible by stairs or lift. The lift has dozens of people waiting, so Hubby, fuelled by inner strength borne of utter frustration, carries the cases up to the third floor, knocking women and small children flying as he goes, only for Rory to tell him when he gets there that "departures is on the first floor, Dad".

We faff about at the British Airways computer terminal to get our boarding cards and seat reservations then queue for a blissfully short time to drop the bags off. There is a feeling of wonderful elation as the cases disappear from view, only to be replaced by Dougie's face suddenly dropping:
"You know what we've still got in the hand luggage?"
"Two bottles of Ice Wine!"
"You're joking?"
"Nope, I didn't think when the woman was talking about have you got any liquids etc etc, blah blah.."

Okay, so we have in our hand luggage two lovely bottles of special wine we've been carrying around since Day 3. Regulations say we can't take liquids onto the plane and our cases are already somewhere in the bowels of Montreal airport. We have three options:
A: Pour them down the sink
B: Give them away to someone
C: Drink them before we go through passport control.

Dougie favouring option C but I can't face slugging down two bottles of syrupy dessert wine before getting on a plane and risking being chucked off for drunkenness. So we consider option B and walk back to the BA desk where a really nice chap had helped us at the computer terminal. We explain our dilemma and, as we are about to offer him the booty, he speaks to his colleague at the desk. She calmly picks up the phone, rings someone and five minutes later a little man appears wheeling one of our cases! Dougie opens the case, revealing all our dirty washing to the gathering crowds, and slips the bottles in between the more fragrant items. I am utterly amazed at how helpful they were and how easy it all was. Thank you, thank you, British Airways. Ah it's good to be coming home.......
August 2008

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 14 - No credit in Montebello

Montebello on the North shore of the Ottawa River.

Our final destination, Montebello, should be an easy drive from Montreal. It's our last stop, for one night only, and we feel confident we know where we are going, particularly as we passed the resort some days ago when we took the scenic route to Quebec. Surely our GPS will have no problems, it's only just over an hour away and mostly motorway.Well it's all going tickety-boo until we hit some roadworks. Now do you think our satnav actually knows there are roadworks? Has anyone given her instructions overnight to tell her a few bollards are in place on Route 15? The screen is telling us that the turn off to Route 50 is a kilometre away when I notice a big yellow sign, weighed down with sandbags, indicating the junction is 100 metres ahead. Does my lovely husband believe me when I tell him to turn off? No, of course not!
"No, it can't be 100 metres away, the satnav says one kilometre. You mustn't have read it right!"
So we carry on and I just know we're doomed. Ten seconds later we're in a huge traffic jam and we crawl along miserably and in absolute silence. Then our oblivious GPS woman says,"In 250 metres, turn right".Funnily enough, in 250 metres, there is no right turn, just more bollards which we pass extremely slowly. However, the irritation of being in the traffic jam is more than compensated for by the satisfaction of knowing I was right. God that feels good!
At last our final hotel, the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello: a bit of a mouthful but an absolute cracker of a place; like a huge log cabin. Must be fabulous in the winter as it has a massive fireplace in the middle of the reception area. As usual, the desk clerk asks for a credit card for a deposit. Dougie hands over his card but the machine won't accept it. A bit odd, as have had no problems elsewhere. So we try my card, which is a different number but uses the same account. Same problem; no can do! Thankfully I have a second credit card I don't use much so we try that, I somehow remember the pin number, and it works. However this is all very disconcerting and we realise we can't just wait til we get home to sort out the problem. Twenty minutes and a hell-of-a-lot-of-dollars later, we are told that by our credit card company in the UK that my card has been cloned, hence the block on both cards. Apparently someone back in the UK has tried to book into a British Hotel using my name and details but changing the name from Patricia to Patrick! The chap on the phone is very reassuring and tells us we can sort it all out when we get home, but the whole experience is very unsettling and affects the rest of the day as we try and work out where I'd been using my card before the holidays!!! Hmm, where shall I start?
August 2008

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 13 - Drunk in Montreal

Chilling out in Old Montreal

At this stage of the holiday we're all getting a bit tetchy with each other - not quite sure what to do today, getting tired, running out of clean clothes, T-shirts and pants hanging from every available hook in the bathroom. Rory in particular is having Le Strop today and as we walk to the Fine Arts Museum he drags his heels like most boys would do at the thought of having to go to the Yves Saint Laurent special exhibition. So I whizz round it at double-quick speed and the boys sit outside huffing.

We then make the inspired decision to ignore the museums for the rest of the day and that lifts everyone's mood. We sit in McGill University's gardens just enjoying the sun, mooch about the old town eating ice-creams and return early to the hotel by mid-afternoon. Though Hubby feels this is a bit of a waste of a day, I tell him if we were at home we would quite happily spend afternoons doing nothing. So he sits on the bed with Rory watching the TV while I pop down to the Starbucks in reception to buy cookies and Danish Pastries.

For the third night running we decide to eat in the hotel's restaurant. I know it seems lazy as there must be hundreds of different places to try but after the first night we loved it so much we had to come back. The main reason, apart from the fantastic food, is the waiter. He is a lovely Italian chap called Ezio: probably in his 60s, looks a bit like Des Lynam. From that first night he worked his Italian charm on us and we were smitten. Tonight is no exception. He asks us how the Rod Stewart concert went, makes a big fuss of Rory, and tells us that every dish we choose is "an excellent choice!". I choose a bottle of Italian wine which Ezio obviously approves of and we get steadily sloshed as the evening progresses. Rory finishes his meal early and takes the key so he can go to the room and watch the telly, so we decide to order another bottle of wine. There aren't many in the restaurant tonight apart from a couple who are the spitting image of Mr Dudley and Ting-Tong on one table and a love-sick couple on another who keep pawing at each other until he brings out a jewellery box and proposes to her! I think she must say yes as the pawing continues for a good while longer until they thankfully get a room!

As our vision deteriorates we are entertained by a violinist, accompanied by his strange wife on the piano. It's okay when he's by the piano doing a passable "Volare" but then he starts working the tables, just like you see on comedy sketch shows. Dougie reckons he could be thyrotoxic as his eyes seem to be bulging in a rather off-putting way. The eyes, together with the demonic grin as he plays just a little too close to us, make him look quite alarming. Dougie feels very awkward, smiles a bit and then looks down at his food. I meanwhile, completely out of my tree at this point, start to join in as he Begins the Beguine. I get a kick from Hubby under the table and then of course the giggles start and we have to try really hard to suppress them and just hope he goes away and bothers Mr Dudley...which he does.

We polish off the second bottle of wine, say our goodbyes to the lovely Des Lynam and stagger up the stairs. We knock on the door and Rory lets us in, tutting at his drunken parents and wondering where on earth we've been, do we know what time it is and have we been drinking?!
August 2008

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 12 - Rod in Montreal

The problem with having a free museum pass, and having now purchased a three-day travel pass to go with it, is that your whole focus is on how many times you can use the Metro to go to as many attractions as possible to get your money's worth. Or is that just us?

Rory is getting a bit sick of sight-seeing so we have given him the list today: he has free rein on where he wants to go. So we hop on the Metro to Old Montreal for a visit to the Science Centre. I'm not really convinced that museums designed for children actually offer any retainable information. They always seem to be noisy places and the interactive elements are just a collection of buttons and levers for hyperactive children to hit and pull as they race around, paying no attention to the information that goes with each activity.

Back on the Metro, we get off at the Lucien-L'Allier stop as we have to pick up our concert tickets. Before we left the UK I discovered that Rod Stewart was performing at the Bell Centre in Montreal while we were staying in the city. In a rash moment I ordered tickets for the three of us as I realised that the venue was very close to our hotel. Thought it would be great to see a legend like Rod without having the hassle of travelling and parking in Britain. So with my email confirmation in hand, we get off the train, find the box office and pick up our tickets early for tonight's performance.

Next on the list of included attractions is the Planetarium. We like planetariums. They have comfy seats and you can lie back and look at the stars while a calming, soporific voice talks about black holes and asteroids. The best planetarium is at the National Space Centre in Leicester because the chairs recline to almost horizontal. The chairs in Montreal aren't quite as plush but they still send my hubby to sleep and the explanation of how dinosaurs may have become extinct is accompanied by his gentle snoring.

Another rest back at the hotel, an early tea and we walk to the Bell Centre for the concert. Hubby and son most impressed by my ticket selection: 10 rows from the front on the stadium floor. Rod's support act is a chap called Josh Kelly who is very good and warms us all up nicely. Then, after the stage is transformed to a very stark but chic white background, and two huge white drum kits are pushed into place, we hear the sound of the bagpipes. That's a lot of bagpipes we've heard on one holiday, having had a good dose of them in Ottawa. The pipes and drums whip the crowd up then Mr Stewart struts onto the stage and does his stuff.

Great night! All the old favourites - You Wear it Well, Maggie May, First Cut is the Deepest, Hot Legs - all performed by the legend himself, looking amazingly good for his age. Most of the audience were my age or older: poor Rory was certainly the youngest there by a mile. Although the audience was mixed sex, a lot of women of a certain age were very embarrassing. Hundreds of leopard-printed old dolls were waving at their hero and blowing him kisses, with their weary husbands seemingly unaffected by the cringing display. "God I hope you'd never act like that!", says Dougie. "Heavens No", I reply, "....well not for Rod Stewart anyway, I never really fancied him".
August 2008

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 11 - SatNavs

Marriott Chateau Champlain hotel in Montreal. The hotel has the nickname "The Cheese-grater".

Get back in our little car today and take the quick, not-so-scenic route to Montreal. As usual I sit surrounded by maps and guide books, trying to make sure I know which way we're going, as I'm not completely trusting of our GPS system. I wonder, though, why most SatNavs have female voices. I think it's meant to be calming for the driver though Hubby is convinced it's to make the driving experience more realistic. He is happy to shout and curse the SatNav woman because he says it's the same as shouting at me when I give him wrong directions. As is often the case, I read out bits from the guide book a day late. "Ooh we could have gone on a steam train in Quebec", as we're 100 miles or more in the opposite direction.

Discover that we could also have gone on a whale-watching expedition and this makes me shudder, remembering the disastrous experience in Iceland last year when the mixture of seasickness and the previous day's dose of laxatives, lead to a very unpleasant three hours in the Arctic Ocean. My book says that while the whalers of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe were out hunting, their wives were expected to lie perfectly still at home in the hope that the whales would become equally docile. Now that's the job for me, "Just stay at home and lie down, darling, until I get back this evening."

Dougie tells me to put the books away for once, get my face out of the maps and just enjoy the scenery (what scenery? We're going the direct route.)

"Trust the SatNav", he declares, "she knows the way to Montreal."

It's all going very well until the last ten minutes. Montreal is on an island in the middle of the St Lawrence River so we know we have to go over the river at some point and head towards the Downtown area which is full of skyscrapers. SatNav woman takes us over a fantastic bridge and then, just when we think we're nearly there, the stupid woman directs us through a huge tunnel in the middle of the city. The signal for the satellite gets progressively weaker until it disappears altogether. Just at that moment, in the middle of the tunnel, the road splits left and right.

"Which way do we go?" Dougie asks me.
"Don't ask me, you told me to put my maps away, told me to trust the SatNav."
"Which way do you think then?"
"Erm, err, hmm, well I don't think it's right as that says University, so let's try left", I say with the conviction of a woman who has no idea what she's talking about.

We turn left, come out of the tunnel and are now travelling on another bridge back out of the city. GPS lady most confused, wakes up from her slumber and issues some ridiculous "turn left", "turn right" commands one after another as Hubby frantically yells and shouts at her, me and the world in general.
"Re-calculating, re-calculating, make a U-turn where possible"

As Dougie rants at her, like Basil Fawlty with his Mini, we drive away from Montreal for some time before she can get her bearings. We park up, have a big shouty session, then try again. This time, SatNav woman gets it right and we eventually pull up to the hotel. Valet parking awaits us again and a doddery old chap in a peaked cap looks like he wants to take our cases. Dougie reckons the old bloke would have a coronary carrying all my shoes and is so fired up anyway, he grabs the cases, hands the keys over, and stomps inside. I think he would be happy never to see the car again.

Once settled in, we decide to start making use of our free 3-day Museum Pass with a trip to the Biodome, which used to be the Velodrome when Montreal had the Olympics. The great thing about the hotel is that it has its own Metro station! We take the lift down to the basement and come out in the Underground. We discover there is a huge network of stations and walkways underneath the city and they are all linked to each other so that in the winter no-one need to go above ground: shops and restaurants too, all underground. In the Metro I take charge. Having lived in London many years ago, I always feel comfortable getting around another city's underground system. I seem to know instinctively where we need to be and which escalator to take. Dougie says it's a pity I don't have the same innate sense of direction when I'm above ground...

August 2008

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 10 - More Quebec

Beautiful Quebec City:

Another lovely day in Quebec where we go some way to discovering why the city and the state itself have remained so staunchly French. We visit the Quebec Experience which is a 3D sound and visual thing: a great way to learn about the history whilst being entertained by water, cannons and rifles coming out of the walls. No wonder the French here are not as friendly to the English as they are in the state of Ontario. When we hear about the battle on the Plains of Abraham and how the British took over the city it's a wonder we weren't garotted as we entered the city walls. They aren't rude to us as such but certainly there isn't quite the same warmth as we have experienced elsewhere. And the waiters definitely don't regale us with stories of their Great Aunt from Inverness!
Mind you I think we must be the only Brits in the city as I don't hear another British accent in the three days we stay here.That reminds me: we saw a great road sign coming into Quebec the other day. A blue sign with a single white question mark and the distance, 1km or 200m etc. We kept seeing it but had no idea what it meant. It was as if this French lot were saying,
"There is something of interest in a kilometre but, huh, we don't want to tell you what it is: go have a look and find out for yourself".
It took some time before we realised it was the sign for tourist information. Thanks for telling us tourists that's what it meant!
August 2008

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 9 - Les Mis

On the boardwalk in Quebec.

When we arrived in Quebec City yesterday evening, the roads were packed with cars trying to get into the centre and the police were directing traffic to ease the congestion. Yes, yet again we've come to a city whilst there's a carnival on. Celebrating its 400 year anniversary, the whole city is packed with visitors and this weekend in particular they have street entertainers and people dressed in traditional garb. Although Dougie went on a walkabout when we arrived, we wait until this morning before we take a closer look.
Can't quite believe how different again it is from Toronto or Ottawa. It really is undeniably French. As it is a walled city and at the mouth of the St Lawrence river, it is exceptionally pretty and somehow I feel as if I'm in a French seaside town. The weather is perfect, lovely warm sunshine but not too humid for tramping round the city walls. Five minutes walk from the hotel is a gorgeous theatre, Le Capitole, and I notice they have Les Miserables on at the moment. One of my favourite musicals, Dougie and I saw it years ago in London and loved it. The box office is open so we tentatively ask about tickets. To our surprise, there is a performance tonight and there are tickets available. We book three seats there and then, though our son is not exactly overjoyed with the decision. The thought of sitting through nearly three hours of a musical is bad enough, but when we tell him it will be in French he has a bit of a strop. We try and change the subject and buy him an ice-cream; he says we owe him big time!
At the theatre that evening our seats are quite high up in the balcony but the view is still good. Very unusual seating arrangements in the stalls; the seats are arranged around tables, like a cabaret show. In the minutes before curtain up, everyone downstairs is tucking into their dinner!
Try gamefully to translate the synopsis for the boys but I realise I'm making it up as I go along so tell them I'm sure they'll get the idea as it gets going. The show is unbelievably good. At times I'm not quite sure what's happening but the music is beautiful in any language and so emotional that I cry from beginning to end. The quality of the singing is superb and I am in awe of their talent. Fascinating to hear how they translate the songs so that the rhythm isn't lost. "On my Own" becomes "Mon histoire" meaning "My Story", "Bring him Home" (I sobbed rather loudly at this one) is "Comme un homme" meaning "Like a Man" and, oddly enough, "Castle in the Cloud" is "Une poupee dans la Vitrine" which is "A Doll in the Cabinet".
The audience are rather tentative during the performance, they have no idea when to clap, especially when the music carries on after a song. To make up for their dithering, they positively explode at the end. The whole theatre gets on their feet, shouts, cheers, applauds wildly. I don't think I've ever seen such a standing ovation at a British Theatre. We pour out into the street after 11pm and the night air is balmy. Five minutes walk and we're back at the hotel. Rory and Dougie are eating crisps and watching the Olympics; I'm wringing out my hankie, still sniffing and snivelling but singing my heart out.......
August 2008

Mum's Gone to Canada - Day 8 - Hot Dogs

Our longest drive of the whole fortnight, we have 300 miles to travel from Ottawa to Quebec City. The instructions from our travel company suggest the scenic route north of the St Lawrence river. "The region is home to an abundance of immense lakes and picturesque villages". Sounds a bit more interesting than hitting Highway 20, south of the river, and seeing nothing of our surroundings.

Our satnav woman has other ideas. Obviously not keen on the scenic route herself, she refuses to take us over the river to the French side and the machine is so basic there isn't the option of keying in "avoiding motorways". Everytime we try and just follow the road signs she's yapping on at us,"recalculating, recalculating....turn around where possible". We end up hopelessly lost in the suburbs of Ottawa at a petrol station. "Yeah, well I needed to fill up anyway", Dougie says nonchalantly, as he squeezes a few dollars worth into the tank.

An hour or so into the journey and it seems hours since breakfast so we start looking for somewhere to eat. As usual we drive past plenty of suitable dining options because we're "not sure" until we're desperate and plump for a place not half as nice as the dozens we've already passed. However this place looks cheap and cheerful and has signs saying PIZZA so it will suffice. Having had a week's worth of smiling "How can I help you, Sir?" americanised charm, we suddenly realise we're in French territory now and a Gallic shrug is our welcome. Rory decides he would like a hotdog and that seems simple enough: the international language of fast food should help us out here.
"Un hot-dog", I say confidently.
"Oui", says our waitress at the counter, then follows this up with an incomprehensible question which sounds like "schrweeveeooroowerstee?"
I'm flummoxed. I have no idea what she's saying. She stands and looks at me and just repeats the question, with no attempt to make it easier with any hand gestures. I seem to recognise the word "ou" in the middle of the phrase, it being the French for "or", so I presume she is giving me some sort of choice pertaining to the hotdog.
"Maybe it's with or without onions?", Hubby offers.
"No, it's not that, I know the French word for onion, it's oignon!"
"Avec une baguette?", I say, wondering whether she's asking if he wants it in a roll or not.
"Oui, avec une baguette, mais schrweeveeooroowerstee?"
Not being that knowledgeable about the intricacies of hot dog cuisine, I'm at a loss. The waitress then turns to the three evil-looking cooks, brandishing their pizza cutters, and asks if they can translate. All three of them look at us as if we've questioned their parentage and say, "NON".

I'm about to give up and just order a pizza when a knight in shining armour gets up from a nearby table and says,"How can I help you folks?". My hero, an English-speaking Canadian who isn't about to boil me alive. I explain the dilemma and the watiress repeats her question."Oh, she wants to know whether you want your hot dog steamed or roasted?"To be honest, I'm still unsure how to reply and have to ask this nice chap what is the more usual method of hotdog preparation. Apparently it's steamed! So steamed is what we order.

Our helpful diner then tells us that we're off the beaten track and that they never get English speakers in this part of Quebec state and certainly never people from England itself. Quite staggering to think we're only a few miles over the border from the English-speaking state of Ontario and yet we could be on a different continent. Dougie is not happy staying here a moment longer than necessary as we're not "local people" and he reckons we could be lynched. Rory's schrweeveed hotdog is shoved down his gullet at speed and we hot foot back to the car, turn the satnav back on and follow her directions to Quebec City by the quickest route possible.
August 2008