Friday, 30 March 2012

Son's gone to the south of France

Rory has been home from his French exchange trip for a couple of weeks now and it dawned on me that I hadn't told you all how he'd got on. Time to put that right.

As he left in the minibus which was taking them to St Pancras I was rather fragile. This wasn't helped when one of the dads mentioned to the driver that the small 'jockey' wheel, on the trailer transporting their luggage, wasn't properly hooked up and would have probably burst if our friend hadn't spotted it. This put the wind up me, as you can imagine, as I now began to think other things hadn't been fixed properly. Once I'd received the text saying they'd reached St Pancras I could breathe a little easier and let the train take the strain.

We had agreed that Rory should text us once a day to tell us his news. This daily text went something like this:

"Am at JP's house. Family seem nice. Lots of cats."

"In Avignon today. Really hot. Nice place."

"Aix en Provence very pretty town. Bought some new drumsticks"

"Spent afternoon playing pool in Irish pub"

"Marseille today. Decided to wear my shorts. Turned cold :-P"

"Went to house of girlfriend of another French boy. Climbed really big hill"

"Slept all morning then had a nap in the afternoon. Going for meal out later"

"Great meal last nt in gastropub. V busy then realised it was St Patrick's Day. LOL"

"Can you pick me up in ten minutes?"

I think those messages sum up his week quite succinctly.

He returned home happy, with a light tan and, thankfully, keen to tell us all about the trip. His case had been neatly packed, there were no hideous surprises and, as it was Mother's Day, he handed me a bar of soap he'd bought at a local soap factory. 'Yeah,' he said, 'our teacher gave us the nudge that we should all probably buy our mums something from the factory shop so here you are.' Lavender. Not my favourite scent, if I'm honest, but hey it's the thought that counts, or, at least, the thought of his French teacher. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur.


Monday, 26 March 2012

Inspiration Initiative: Who, When, What and Where

There's much head-scratching going on amongst travel bloggers at the moment as they consider their travel inspirations for Easyjet's Inspiration Initiative. I have been tagged by Heather, from Heather on her Travels, to enter the competition where the prize is an iPad2 and a 5* holiday, courtesy of Easyjet.

Some of you who have been reading this blog for some time may just have an inkling as to what my inspirational moments might be:

Who: My Father

Once my father had persuaded my mother that not all family holidays needed to be variations on a beach theme, we bit the bullet and tackled more cultural breaks in Italy, Denmark and Norway. As an architect my dad had a natural fascination for buildings, ancient and modern, but his enthusiasm for them inevitably meant he would be striding ahead of his family pointing out a fine example of a flying buttress as we dragged our feet and whined for an ice-cream. I still remember his thrilled expression when  he saw the Pantheon in Rome for the first time: my mother, brother and I all had a bit of a Eureka moment and shared in his delight. Years later I took my own son to Rome and realised how my father's passion was infectious.
Mum's Gone to Rome: Skeletons and Spaghetti

Dad died in February 2011 but I have become inspired to walk again in his footsteps as I read the unfinished but lovingly hand-written memoir he has left me. His trips to Scandinavia during his University years certainly influenced our Easter trip to Copenhagen last year and our holiday this Summer is booked: a fly drive around Sweden. I rather think Dad would be extremely pleased about this.
Mum's Gone to Copenhagen: Danes just wanna have fun

When: 1987

They say holiday romances don't last but I can vouch for the fact that sometimes they do. I spotted my future husband, Dougie, across a pool in Tenerife and after the first few attempts at chatting up at the water's edge, I realised it was more than just a dose of prickly heat which was increasing the temperature. We returned to England a week later, continued to keep in touch and married in 1990. The fact that we met on holiday I believe has a bearing on our continued enjoyment of travelling together now. We did go back to Tenerife in 2009 with our son in tow. The magic was still there.
Mum's Gone to Tenerife

What: A Room with a View

Florence view

The book by E.M. Forster was always a firm favourite for a romantic teenager but it was the Merchant Ivory film of 1985 which really left its mark. I suspect much of that was due to the Puccini arias which accompanied the stolen kiss in the Tuscan fields and the stunning views of Florence from the 'room'. I eventually saw the views for myself when my husband and I took a tiny Fiat round Tuscany and Umbria in 1995. With visits to Florence, Pisa, Orvieto and San Gimignano, our days were filled with the beauty, good food and wine of Italy. We also brought home a little souvenir from our holiday: nine months later our only child was born. Rory has returned to Italy with us, enjoying his city breaks in Rome and Venice and a chilled fortnight on the shores of Lake Garda. In Italy I think he feels very much at home.
Mum's Gone to Venice: Pizza and Pigeons 
Mum's Gone to Lake Garda: Bardolino Nights 

Where: Iceland

My blog came to life following a family adventure holiday in 2007 to the ever-bubbling country of Iceland, where I felt a Geography text book had been opened up in front of me. The trip was far beyond what I had imagined it could be: the glaciers, waterfalls and geysers were quite breathtaking but the highlight was Thingvellir, where the fault line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs through the middle of Iceland, tearing it slowly apart: a mystical place and an inspiration that will last a lifetime. I was compelled to write my first holiday diaries, 'Mum's Gone to Iceland' and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mum's Gone to Iceland - Day 14 - Golden Circle

View of Thingvellir in Iceland

My task is to now choose five travel bloggers, resident in the UK, to join in with this competition, details HERE.

Now it's your turn.

It's a Small World After All
Kids Travel 2
Adventure Mum
Mums Do Travel 


Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Fabergé Big Egg Hunt

The weather looks as if it's going to stay warm this weekend in the South East so if you're near the capital and looking for inspiration for something to do with the kids, then joining in with the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt is well worth considering.

I had heard a little bit about it before we went to London last week. In a nutshell (or should that be eggshell?) there are 200 beautiful, individually-designed egg sculptures hidden across London in 12 special egg zones. You can hunt for the eggs by downloading the zone maps, then just text the keyword on each plinth and you could win The Diamond Jubilee Egg worth £100,000. The more eggs you see, the better your chances of winning. The Egg hunt will raise money for Elephant Family and Action for Children. It continues until Easter weekend and there is also an online auction where you can bid for the eggs.

If we hadn't already planned our days' activities, this would have been a fantastic way to see the city. I know Rory would have loved this when he was younger: treasure hunts and ticking things off lists were always a great way to add excitement to an attraction.

I only thought to take two photos of the eggs, even though I saw plenty on our walks. Did I think to text the keywords for a chance of winning?....No. Might have to bid for one instead: would look good at the bottom of the garden.

The two large photos were eggs I spotted myself. The other little images are from the Big Egg Hunt's website. 


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Mum's Gone to the Premier Inn, County Hall, London

For our recent trip to London, the accommodation was complimentary, courtesy of Premier Inn. The County Hall hotel is one of the group's finer hotels and it's not hard to see why when you consider the location, right next to the London Eye. We found it ideally placed for walking into the West End in the evening: a short stroll over Hungerford Bridge to reach Northumberland Avenue and Trafalgar Square. The walk back is even quicker if you've seen a good show: I was fairly skipping along after Singin' in the Rain. The only time I stood still was to gaze over the river towards the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament lit up at night; quite breathtaking.

If you need to use public transport, the Premier Inn, County Hall, is very near to Waterloo, Westminster and Embankment underground stations but we walked to most attractions from the hotel.

Check-in was both speedy and quite novel with special self-service machines. However the personal touch was still there as very helpful, friendly staff were in the vicinity to guide us through the procedure. The lifts were nearby to take us to the third floor. At first I thought they were extraordinarily slow until another guest came along and knowledgeably popped his keycard into the slot, which called the lift. Yeah, I knew that.

Premier Inn room, County Hall, London
Our double room was very spacious for a London hotel and was spotlessly clean. More often than not hotels let themselves down with dusty skirting boards or little patches of mould in the bathroom. I couldn't fault this place. Granted it has a corporate look about it so is missing the touches of individualism that can make a room special. It may not have sex appeal but the sensible lack of flounces and dusty bedcovers at least meant Dougie didn't start sneezing as he is prone to do when there is too much boudoir bedding.

Room amenities, Premier Inn, County Hall
My favourite bit of the room was the area which housed the TV, kettle, safe and wardrobe. The hangers would have been easier to use if they had been turned 90 degrees but full marks to Premier Inn for providing a hair dryer next to a mirror and with an extra socket for straighteners. How many times have I been faced with a hair dryer fixed to the inside of a drawer with a flex too short to reach a mirror? And another gold star for providing hair dryers which don't need me to constantly keep my finger on the 'on' button. It's the little things....

Other facilities in the room included 30 minutes free WiFi a day or a fixed amount of £3 for 24 hour provision. Dougie loved the fact that the room was properly lit with a decent ceiling fitting; saved wandering around at night doing that interminable flicking switches routine. The shower was great: powerful, hot and didn't water the whole bathroom. The toiletries were in large dispensers: impossible to sneak off with but far easier to use.

Food? Breakfast was relaxed on the Friday morning but a bit frenetic on the Saturday. It must be quite frustrating for hotel staff when everyone turns up together at 9am. The staff here were constantly on the ball, finding extra tables and keeping food stocked up. An all-you-can-eat buffet was £8.50 and children eat free.  (children under 16 can also stay free of charge in the family rooms). We tried the dining room in the evening and it was an attractive room with very attentive staff. The food was reasonably priced, with plenty of meal deals such as two courses for £12.50. The quality of the food was a little hit and miss: Dougie's steak was a bit tough but my chicken fajitas were gorgeous: over all, decent fuel after a long day sightseeing.

Although Premier Inn pride themselves on providing reasonably-priced accommodation, it's worth remembering that this hotel is in a prime spot and therefore not a £29 a night hotel. Saver rates are available from around £99 and our room, for the time we booked it, would have cost an average of £139 a night. This is still a good price for the location and it is certainly worth considering, especially for a family.

Premier Inn have a Good Night Guarantee: you are promised a good night's sleep or your money back. Damn it. We did have a good night's sleep, thanks to the comfy bed and the solid construction of the hotel - no creaking corridors or slammed doors. Dougie did snore a bit. Do you think that would have counted?


Monday, 19 March 2012

Two nights in London with John Prescott and Frank Skinner

view of London Eye at night
Dougie and I were supping G&Ts in the bar of the Palace Theatre on Thursday night when John Prescott and his wife Pauline walked in. They joined us in the stalls to watch the new musical revival of Singin' in the Rain. This wasn't the first time we'd bumped into him; a few years ago we saw him in a diner on the A1 tucking into a full English.

On Friday night comedian Frank Skinner sat in the row in front of us in Wyndhams Theatre where we had gone to see veteran comic, Jackie Mason. Having looked at the back of Frank's head for a couple of hours I can now say with some authority that he must have a very good barber: what a lovely cut! And a very handsome profile. As we followed him out of the theatre, he pulled on his rucksack and left with his friends and I was tempted to tag along as I reckon he would have been excellent company.

outside Palace Theatre for Singin in the rain
Two great nights of entertainment, regardless of the celebrity spotting. Singin' in the Rain was a fabulously joyous show: full of colour, brilliant dancing and, naturally, all those great show tunes. I had booked seats near the front, Row D, which came with the warning that we might get wet. I should really have taken note of this and not worn a white top as, just before the interval, Adam Cooper performed the title number, kicking up waves of water into the front stalls. I walked to the bar looking like a Miss Wet T-Shirt contestant.

Show over, I was in heaven and skipped all the way back to the hotel, wishing it had been raining so that I could have splashed about in the gutters. Dougie enjoyed it too, though I could sense him fidgeting at bit at some scenes: "They could have easily cut half an hour out of that!" Philistine.

Jackie Mason's show was a hoot. Performing without any support act at the ripe old age of 75, he entertained for two hours, mainly poking fun at the habits and peculiarities of his fellow Jews: the crowds of Jewish supporters in the audience lapped it up. We gentiles loved him too as most of the topics resonated with everyone.

During the day we walked...and walked...and walked. For the first time in my life I went to the National Gallery and wondered why on earth I had never been before. And oh how easy it was, so unlike the major art galleries abroad where there is a charge and a queue and a bag search. Because it was free there was no need to spend hours in there getting our money's worth. We cantered around a few rooms, happily coming across major works from Constable, Gainsborough, Van Gogh, Manet and Canaletto. Coming out into the warm evening sun in Trafalgar Square we paused to watch a man squeeze himself through a tennis racquet.

Wee soul sculpture by Alison Bell

On Friday we visited the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea. Affordable in so far as the works ranged from £40 to £4000. I did look but couldn't see the 40 quid one anywhere. However we did spot a tiny bronze sculpture, titled 'Headstand',  in one of the galleries. From a collection called 'Wee Souls' by Scottish sculptor Alison Bell, the figures were of children and as Dougie and I were missing our own boy who was off gallivanting in France, our hearts melted at this little character.  We bought him.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Guest Post: Our romantic trip to Belgium

Dougie and I haven't disappeared to Belgium this week but my niece, Jessica, has just returned, having had a short break there with her boyfriend, James. I asked her if she would like to write about their visit for my blog and she agreed. Here, with photos, is Jessica's review. I'm very tempted to book a trip there for myself.

Our romantic trip to Belgium
Jessica Grinsell and James Procter

We decided to go to Belgium for our two year anniversary. Why Belgium? Because Ryanair had tickets at only £35 pp return - bargain! We were convinced to book it because of the two things everyone said about Belgium - fantastic chocolate and fantastic beer!

Our first port of call was Brussels - which we loved. You literally stepped out the main entrance of the hotel and you were in a fabulous square with lots of bars and restaurants and a daily market. However as soon as we discovered the chocolate shops that was it - we were in our element. There were dozens of wonderful little chocolate shops, each selling unique products. We struck lucky finding a lovely shop which seemed much cheaper than the others, and the chocolate was exquisite. And they had samples - bonus. I would highly recommend it.

My favourite shop in Brussels

We headed to the Grand Place that evening for somewhere to eat, and were surprised by how much it felt like we were in Spain with the bustling streets where vendors were trying to convince us to eat at their restaurant "Madame your smile is so wonderful, I shall give you our best table". So we decided to walk out of the area, and found an Italian Bistro in a little side street. Unfortunately it was disappointing. Next time we would research a good restaurant. Back in the hotel we finished eating our chocolate and had some beer in our 24 hour bar - a perfect end to a busy evening trailing around the city.

The next morning we discovered Brussels properly; we had arrived late on the Friday and it was consequently hard to explore fully in the dark. We found a great little coffee shop which did perfect hot chocolate, went to a pub, which in English is called 'Sudden Death', where we had a few beers, and then wandered around looking at the beautiful architecture - which my Grandad would have loved - and bought more chocolate in my new favourite shop.

Like I said … fantastic hot chocolate!

Enjoying a beer with stunning
views of Bruges
Our next stop was Bruges which we reached later that day. We were relieved when it was as beautiful as we hoped it would be. The train had passed through lots of run down areas; we were amazed by the amount of graffiti everywhere - very Banksy. But fortunately Bruges is as quaint and picture perfect as past visitors had said it was. Again my Grandad would have adored it - Grandma has told me how he visited Belgium when he was a young man, which made our trip even more special.

Our hotel looked onto a stunning canal and bridge, and was only two minutes away from everything. The weather made this location even better; it was belting it down with rain so we could still explore without having to go too far and getting drenched. The weather cleared the next day which meant that we could properly wander around the city - seeing parts outside the normal tourist areas as well. We also found, you've guessed it, a fantastic chocolate shop, a fantastic coffee shop which sold fantastic hot chocolate and many fantastic beer shops. Literally on our doorstep was a bar and shop, which sold over 2000 beers each presented in their own glasses. My boyfriend, James, was overwhelmed by the amount of beers and we regretted not booking extra luggage for our flight home.

On the Saturday evening we had a stunning meal. As we had booked in advance, i.e. we popped in around 5pm to see if we could get a table for later, we were given an excellent table and service from the top waiter despite the fact that we were not seated in his part of the restaurant. Situated by a lovely fire we had a beautiful dinner and it fulfilled the romantic vibe that we were expecting from Bruges. By Sunday night however we had run out of money and had to eat chips from a takeaway for dinner! Not so romantic …

Would we recommend Belgium? Definitely. Why? Hazard a guess - Fantastic chocolate and fantastic beer! 

View from our hotel in Bruges


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Book Review: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

Headline Review sent me this book to read and I accepted, even though it was the fourth book in the series and I hadn't read the other three. I haven't even seen the musical Wicked, which was based on the first book of the series. But I like the music: isn't that enough? I've even sung the opening number, One Short Day, trying desperately hard not to continue with the words, 'in the haemorrhoid city'. Emerald, must sing emerald!

This was also going to be a doubly difficult task as I can't say I'm a particular fan of the fantasy genre. However I merrily waded in, back to front and completely out of my comfort zone.

Much to my surprise, this was an extraordinarily good read. It's clever, inventive, very witty and although it did take me quite a long time to read it (all 580 pages of it) I kept with it to a satisfying end. I was grateful that the author took me by the hand and provided a synopsis of the first three books, some useful family trees and a comprehensive map of Oz at the beginning of the book. However, there was much flipping back and forth in bed at night which drove my husband quite mad.

In Out of Oz dear old Dorothy of Kansas returns to the story. I won't spoil the surprise but I thought the way the author brought her back to the proceedings was pure genius. The once peaceful and prosperous Land of Oz is bubbling with social unrest. We see Lady Glinda (the good witch) under house arrest, the cowardly lion (Brrr) is on the run from the law and although the wicked witch, Elphaba, has passed into legend, her boy Liir and his wife are in exile.

Although the tale is fantastical, with talking animals and oodles of magic, the themes are universal: love, compassion, war, loss and fear. The enjoyment for the reader comes from the author's wonderful way with words. They are fresh, frothy, seemingly nonsensical but always just right: "Well, stuff him with a rippled rutabaga"

I suppose now I know how it all ends I could just move onto something else but I'm tempted to try the other three just to soak up more of Maguire's talent. But should I read backwards: the third, second then first or just follow the yellow brick road and see where it goes?

Out of Oz, by Gregory Maguire, is available in hardback from Headline Review at £18.99


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Sur le pont d'Avignon

The second leg of the French exchange trip began this morning with an early alarm call at 5.15am. As we went to bed last night Rory said he wouldn't need a call in the morning as he has an effective internal body clock. Oh how his father and I laughed at this, reminding him of his inability most weekends to surface before noon. Not the same thing at all, he countered.

I went into his room at 5.15 this morning and he told me he had been awake for half an hour so his internal alarm system must have worked. No, I replied, it was the fact that half an hour ago I had been poking about with the boiler as we'd forgotten to set the water to come on early, so he must have heard me.

As we drove him to school I worried we might have the largest case. We had struggled to keep the amount of clothes to a minimum, mainly because I was fretting about temperatures ranging from 4 to 20 degrees for the week, so we had to cater for all possibilities. The fact that the 4 degrees is probably at night didn't seem to occur to me. I needn't have worried because, of course, there were teenage girls on the trip and some of their bags were huge.


I tried to make sure Rory had enough socks and pants to avoid Madame Jean-Pierre having to do a midweek wash as I had to when JP was running short. Heaven knows what she would make of Rory's boxers, as he has a favourite brand, Bawbags. For the uninitiated, 'bawbags' is Scottish slang for underpants as they are 'bags for yer baws'. We came across them in Edinburgh once and then noticed a local shop in Peterborough stocked them. I buy them online now. Great pants, silly designs and they wash well (and no, I'm not getting paid to say that, more's the pity).

The other consideration I had to make was what gift to include for JP's maman. She had been kind enough to give me a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil from a local provencal source. I thought long and hard about what to send in return, something typically English but easy to transport in a teenager's over-stuffed luggage. In the end I nosed about in a local delicatessen and bought a fig and apple chutney plus a weird lemon and whisky marmalade (for the Scottish connection). The fact that nobody in our family has actually tasted them before is now making me nervous. I am picturing my son having a dollop added to his meals as they probably imagine it's a family favourite. Should have bought her a bottle of ketchup.

I'm rather envious of Rory's itinerary this week. He was travelling down to the south of France today via Eurostar and TGV (train). Should be getting picked up about now so I'm hoping for a text before bed. The rest of the week involves the English students going on visits in the area, while the French kids stay at school (they had a similar arrangement here). He will be visiting Avignon, Aix en Provence and Marseille; pottering around the markets and even an afternoon at the beach. They do seem to have one day of classes so there's a chance of a slight improvement in Rory's conversational French while he's away.

He's back home next Sunday evening. It will be Mother's Day and I can't wish for a better present than to have my lovely boy back home again.

If you want to read about the first leg of the French Exchange then click on 'The French are Coming' , 'La Plume de Ma Tante' and 'Au Revoir, Jean-Pierre'. 


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Turning my travel snaps into a photo book with Pixum

I'm pretty good at remembering to print out my digital photos every few months so I can keep hard copies of my memories. However they do just sit in photo-sized boxes on a shelf so maybe I'm not making the most of them.

So when I was asked by Pixum to test out their photo-book software, I thought I'd give it a go. The software took a few minutes to download and the process was relatively straightforward. I don't count myself as a techno whizz but then again, I have learned a bit about computers over the years. I suppose what I'm saying is that I was able to create a photo book but I wouldn't ask my mother to give it a try.

The software is designed to give the user plenty of options and if you want to create something very special, all bells and whistles, then you can have hours of fun experimenting with templates, adding text etc.

I decided to create a book of my favourite Iceland photos. I uploaded my Iceland photo file onto the Pixum site, chose a suitable size and shape (small, landscape) and began to shuffle the photos around.

Here's a screenshot to give you an idea of what was involved:

I decided to keep it simple with no text and a maximum of three photos to a page. If any of the photos were too grainy the system warned me that the quality wouldn't be good enough so I was able to swap them around or make them smaller.

The best thing about it? Paying a little bit extra for a hard cover and realising the Pixum process allowed a photo to be used to wrap around the front and back.

The book I chose had 26 pages and cost £17.99. Postage was £3.99. There were special offers on the home page offering discounts, so it would probably have cost less than this but I was using a £25 voucher given to me by the company.

I was delighted with the result. Fast delivery, high quality paper and just look at that cover, using my all-time favourite Iceland photograph. Now I have the memories of a special holiday as a keepsake. It brought a tear to my eye when I opened it, soppy old thing that I am.

photobook by Pixum of Mum's Gone to Iceland


Monday, 5 March 2012

March Travel Round-up on BritMums

The latest round-up of travel posts is now live on the BritMums Blog.

I've found some great posts this month including trips to Vienna, a review of The Hoxton Hotel in London and an eventful trip to Manchester to see Peppa Pig.

If you have any recent travel posts you would like to add to the article, there is a linky there too.