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Tim

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  1. Evening 1: Lyon

    Whilst Clare was writing today's blog, I was off in search of some snacks to bring back to the hotel. After steak for lunch, neither of us felt like another meal but there was the occasional hunger pang, so we thought that tracking down some cookies or something like that would be handy. Whilst I was out, I noticed that the basilica was illuminated, so I gathered Clare's phone (it takes much better photos than my camera) and popped out to get the odd image. The sight I saw coming out the door confirmed that this would be a worthwhile mission: And it didn't take long to establish that more than the basilica was illuminated: The side of the rivers looked lovely too: The cathedral looked pretty too: Especially with the basilica behind it: The bridges played their part too: All in all, that was a pleasant way to spend 15 minutes
  2. For novelty's sake, we went out for a walk on Friday morning, heading to the market. Whereas the others were interested in their fragrances and knock-off trainers and wallets, I only cared for books. As it happens, the man with the second-hand book stand told me he had a shop in town, so I set off. Oh, how I cursed my linguistic ignorance -- there were whole sections of books in Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. But I sort of know enough now not to buy books in languages I don't speak; I have three months to learn Portuguese before we head over there (I already have a bunch of novels in preparation), plus it's my job to learn Finnish, since Lapland has become our new-year tradition and I've not even made it to chapter 2 of the Teach Yourself book. Plus the one language I wish actively to learn, which is Romanian, has been on hold for months so that I can get ready for this trip to Spain and, before that, theoretically learn Finnish. Anyway ... there's lots of room in my case (I have an allowance of 23kg but only 12kg of luggage), so I might have bought a few books. The afternoon was no different to every other afternoon; it was spent by the pool. Over the last few days we've been joined by Max, Mia and Oscar in the grown-ups' pool too. Lots of good progress. Dad had booked us some sessions of tenpin bowling in the onsite amusement area, so we split into two teams for that. Pam's dad, Terry, whooped the rest of us, with his daughter, Rosy, coming a close second. Even the niblings had their own gos: We decided on the spur of the moment to go to a restaurant, particularly to thank Mum and Dad for bringing us here. (In something of an unusual approach, they decided that since they'll turn 65 this year, they'd give the rest of us £500 towards the cost of the holiday.) We didn't account for the OAP-factor, however; they decided that eating at 20:00 wasn't for them, so declined to come. (I don't think they were aware that it was intended to be a treat for them.) So we set off without them and found what looked to be a nice restaurant. Indeed it was. The staff were very attentive, the food was delivered at more or less the same time, and everybody was very happy with what they received: Considering that people had been eating steaks, the bill was wonderfully reasonable for, say, ten of us. It came to around 150€. Whilst we were working out how much to pay (I'm a big proponent of splitting equally so that we all put in a little something for the niblings, though I always seem to run into resistance, usually from the niblings' parents), Rob ran off and paid the whole lot for everybody. I knew what he was up to and ran after him to try to stop him, but he was too quick for me! I tried to shove a 50€ note into his hand, and then into Shanie's, but it was a lost battle. Nice fella, my brother. The next morning started with some learning. Max had been asking me during the previous evening's meal to tell him about wolves, cheetahs and a few other things, so he came up to my room after breakfast and we made use of YouTube. In the afternoon most people headed to play golf, minus poor Max, who blew his top at not being invited, especially after he managed to get twice as many shots as everybody else the previous time, so thought he was the best! We'd agreed to go out for a meal again, this time at 18:00 so as not to exclude Mum and Dad. Whilst the boys played pool and the girls went off to have their feet picked by starving fish, Mum, Max, Oscar and I set off to find the place. Max's good eyes spotted where we'd eaten the previous night: This time we were all nineteen of us and they still took wonderful care of us: The bill came to, I think, 260€ -- wow! I may have overestimated in the heat of the moment what my cost was (I handed over 50€ and then after calculated that mine came to about 17€) but the staff ended up with a 40€ tip and they really had taken excellent care of us, so it was worth it. Afterwards we walked to the beach for one final visit: Since the tides were out there were plenty of rockpools to explore: In the distance the Isla de los Lobos was visible: We briefly managed to get Oscar to be still for a family photo! And then we set off home. Oscar and I were the first back (except for the cheats who took a bus!) and, most importantly, he saw two buses on the way home. He has a thing for buses -- there's always one within reach: One of the reasons we got back so much earlier than the others was that they stopped at a giftshop. The niblings presented me with a surprise present: Fatboy wine! So, that's the end of our holiday. It wasn't much of a secret that lounging around a pool isn't a typical holiday for me. And I don't cope well with hot temperatures. Or people. But it's worked. It turns out the all-inclusive really does mean that you can grab food or drink as you please. The apartments have been perfectly fine. (People keep telling me that they're old fashioned, but I can't complain. I suppose I did have to explain to Alfie that the big black box in the room was a television.) And it's been lovely spending time with the niblings and seeing how much fun they're having. And that's the important thing; three of them had never flown before, so this was a real novelty. The family are now discussing locations for next year. I pointed out that I didn't think I was particularly well equipped to recommend something for children. I don't know that I'll be back as early as next year (I've missed Clare terribly and a week on a sun lounger is a week not doing something else) but I'm not against the idea, and I'm glad to have come this time.
  3. Today's alternative to spending the morning as well as the afternoon by the pool was minigolf. Alfie had played it once and Max never, so we had two novices. There was also James, who regularly plays golf and happens to be extremely competitive too! It took maybe 20 minutes to reach the course: In the distance we could see the water park: Because there were ten of us, we split into groups and staggered the starting hole. I played a round with Shanie and Rob We finished pretty quickly and so retired to the 19th hole whilst waiting for the others, whom we could see in the distance: After a few minutes the others caught up with us: It turns out that James had the course record, finishing at three under par! And, of course, we all had to here how his first shot (he started on the third hole) was a hole-in-one! Then we headed back and ... spent the afternoon by the pool. I don't think we're in danger of being thought terribly original
  4. Day 6: Perast

    Perast is lovely. And that photo you got with the fortress reflecting is amazing -- I hadn't even picked up that the bottom half was a reflection until I read the caption!
  5. This could be the shortest blog entry ever: more of the same, minus playing with Kitten. I kept to myself in the morning to do some work, and then joined the others at poolside in the afternoon. The big news is that all the niblings moved into the adult pool, including two-year-old Oscar! Whilst I was being boring, the others went to the local water park: There's an onsite restaurant here, besides the usual buffet. As long as you book your place in advance, you can eat there free. We'd reserved our places for this evening, for what was Asian cuisine. We had two long tables to ourselves: There were probably under ten people on site except for us, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. There was a lovely view of the pools from the restaurant: And after food was over, everybody relocated to the pub. I may join them but I'd like some time to myself ... and these blog entries don't write themselves!
  6. I got up, walked downstairs, and called Kitten. Out she came, scampering towards me and skipping around me feet. Lovely little thing. Alfie had built her a little nest, so we played with her in it: We tired her out so she was soon getting ready to have a nap: And when I finally had to leave her, I handed her to Alfie, and she fell straight asleep again: I grabbed breakfast, came back, and saw that she'd settled down next to Shanie: Oscar joined in too! A contingent of us then walked to the harbour. We were going to visit La Isla de los Lobos, which means The Island of the Wolves. That sounds scary but the truth is that there aren't any wolves there. There was once, however, a colony of sealions, known at the time seawolves. That's where the island got its name from. We caught the ferry by the skin of our teeth and set off on the short hop to Los Lobos, leaving behind Corralejo: After about 20 minutes the island appeared and we pulled in: From where we were standing we were able to see the golden sands of Corralejo: The island itself is reminiscent of a lunar landscape: There wasn't much besides rocks. The water and the distant sands provided the contrast: After a few minutes' walk, we reached a shallow pool, which had wonderfully coloured waters and the golden sands in the background: We then headed back whence we'd come, knowing that there was a beach on the other side of the island. There was a single monument standing out on the landscape: After about ten minutes we found the beach: The others claim that the shallows were even warmer here than the paddling pool at the resort: We weren't planning to spend too long on the island. There wasn't much to do and if we didn't catch the ferry that was departing about 90 minutes after we arrived, we'd have had to wait a further two hours. So we set off with a view of Corralejo in the distance: This boat had much larger glass screens in it than the earlier one did: We were going to be too late for the buffet at the resort, so we stopped off at a restaurant and split some pizza, fries and garlic bread, and then got back in the early evening. That was when I was given some awful news from Pam: a cleaner had seen Kitten and come back with a manager, who took Kitten away, walking through Pam's apartment and somehow disposing of her. We checked the bins to make sure that he hadn't broken her neck and thrown her away. Fortunately, there was no sign of her in them, so we're hoping that he dropped her over the wire fence out here, which separates our resort from other locations. I spent a while calling her and trying to break into the garden, but I didn't get a response. I checked the following morning too, but there's no sign of Kitten. I don't suppose we'll see her; she was with her sister on the first morning and we haven't seen the sister since. Poor Kitten. In the evening, we went out to a restaurant for Pam's birthday. I think it was OK, but they staggered the meals, which caused a few fraught tempers. Probably justifiably; it's pretty silly for someone like me to have finished eating after 30 minutes whilst other people still hadn't been served: And then we all headed back, stopped in the bar for a bit, then all went our separate ways. The niblings will be visiting the water park the next morning. I'm still not feeling 100% and could do with some time to myself, so I'll probably get on with some work.
  7. The day got off to its customary start, breakfast for Kitten and then the buffet breakfast for us. I think people are starting to get a little bored of sitting around the pool all day, so Matt, Lucy, Rob, Shanie, the niblings and I decided to go off for a little walk; what would transpire to be a slooooow walk, full of stops and starts. I'm certainly missing Clare; when we walk we simply surge. This time around it took four hours to get to 10,000 steps. That's normally about 90 minutes' worth. We eventually ended up at the beach, a little further on from where we joined it last a couple of nights previously: The waters ran from clear to green to blue. We could see hundreds of fish swimming in it: The niblings came across a rockpool and so started exploring: Then it was time to sit down for a drink to cool off. It turns out that Oscar takes after the boys in the family: Max and I surged ahead on the walk home. On the journey, he found an apron which made him giggle: We grabbed lunch just before the buffet closed at 15:00, and then went back to see whether Kitten was hanging around. She was, so we continued Operation: Fatten Up Kitten and then played with her. She's got such a cute little face. I'd take her home if I could think of a way of getting her past security. I was very boring in the afternoon. What started as a dry cough the evening before had become a chesty cough with accompanying headache, so I retreated to my apartment for a few hours, emerging in the evening for food (a date with Mia), and then joining the others at about 22:30 in the pub, where some of the world's worst karaoke was on screen. And that's without me volunteering anything! It's not really possible to converse in that atmosphere so I spent the hour throwing Mia and Oscar about, and then talking over a potential break away with Rob. He's something of a WW2 buff and would like to visit some of the most important sites of the conflict, such as Berlin and Auschwitz. And he's a smart fella and good company, so I'd be happy to go with him. Maybe even Clare could come and we make it a nine-day break in 2018. Something to think about, anyway.
  8. Day 4: Dubrovnik to Kotor

    I don't think ever met a nice bus driver on that journey, have we? I love the view from the bathroom
  9. Today's adventure was an excursion to find the local market before the weather got too hot. So we finished breakfast and headed out the reception. This is the view as we exit: And the market requires us to walk past this sort of faux-Moor-style buildings: It didn't take long to confirm we were on the right track: And soon we were at the market: There was the traditional store selling friendship bracelets. For some reason I got the impression that the couple working on the stall were British expats: It would've been possible to buy two for Oscar with his full name! It was taking a bit long to do not much, and I'd spotted a supermarket earlier, so I decided to head off on my own. I wanted to buy some cat food. Why? Because I've adopted one. I was hoping it would be two because two identical girls were our companions on our first morning but I've not seen one of them since. I hope nothing's happened to her. Oscar and Mia helped me feed her today: And then she had a nap on her new dad: I had a quick drink and a read of a newspaper and then headed in the direction of the pool, where I spent the afternoon: And I left our new cat sleeping on the bed we've made for her. There's some chicken in the fridge for tomorrow morning too
  10. I got invited to attend my brother's birthday party last year. And my own birthday party too, even though I didn't have one. Confused? He and I share a birthday and his wife threw a surprise party for him, so I was invited to attend. And on that same night I was invited to attend something else which all my fellow members would attend; a holiday to Fuerteventura. It was presented to me as a joke, a "we're all going but we didn't invite you because we knew you'd say no so I'm just making you aware so you don't feel left out". Well, my father was correct; I haven't done a beach or resort holiday since I was a child and we max out our holiday dates every year, so there's not much spare. But there was a little voice in my head telling me that seeing my niblings on holiday could be fun, and Clare had earlier suggested that she might like to take her parents away for a week, so ... ... so I became the 19th person on the holiday, and six months later, here I am, whilst Clare is with her parents in Croatia and Montenegro. Everything so far has gone according to plan. We were 19 boarding the plane and 19 coming off it four hours later (having been, I suspect, the annoying family he stand in the aisle and swap seats a lot), and 19 boarding the coach, having successfully navigated the imaginary passport control. Issued with picnic hampers by the receptionist, the next challenge was finding our rooms in the dark and without the aid of a map. Somehow sister-in-law Shanie's homing beacon navigated us without a hitch, and soon we were all in our rooms. They're certainly a good size with a large living room: a roomy bedroom: and a terrace too: Here's the view from it: I haven't noticed any air-conditioning in the apartment, besides a fan, but it doesn't need any. In spite of the outside temperatures, the rooms are totally cool. The door to my apartment is on the side and leads to a short walkway between me and my neighbours (sister-in-law Pam's parents, Terry and Lil). It's a pleasure to walk up: The buildings are a lovely terracotta colour: And it's not long before the first sapphire blue of a swimming pool emerges: There are three separate pools. One is for swimming in lanes, one is a regular pool running from shallow to deep, and the other is extremely shallow and, as I discovered, much warmer than the other two because of it: That's where our group spent its first two afternoons. I'm being boring and getting my work done (thanks to buying a week's worth of wifi log-in for €20) but popping out for a couple of hours later in the day. It didn't feel particularly hot on the first day, except for odd ten-minute spell where the temperatures noticeably rose. The next day told the story, though; half of our party are red raw. Ouch. It turns out that all-inclusive really does mean that you don't pay for anything. I thought it would be a qualified use of the expression, but no, there really is a large breakfast buffet from 07:30 to 10:00, lunch from 13:00 to 15:00, and dinner from 18:30 to 21:30. And the gaps are filled by more options too: from 10:00 to 18:00 the pool bar is open. Help yourselves to the drinks, including beer and wine. There's a snack bar open from 13:30 to 16:30 (get your hot dogs, burgers, ice-cream and so on) and a bar open from 18:00 to 23:00. And yes, the drinks are free there, too! It's astounding, considering that the cost of this holiday is about £80 a day ... and that's without me subtracting something to take into account the travel! There's a programme of events which people can attend, which started with pool aerobics on our second morning (not for me, naturally) and a kids' dance session in the bar in the evening. Or you can make your own fun. We decided to head out of the resort after dinner yesterday. I could see the sea in the distance: Nephew Alfie immediately spotted the oversized cactuses: It wasn't long before we found an unexpected site: And after half an hour or so's working, we found the beach: Soon it was 21:30 and the light disappeared, so we headed back to the resort and to the bar, where I abandoned everybody after concluding that I didn't have the energy that they did. I don't know what's in store for the next day. I'm typing this 30 minutes before breakfast closes, so I'd better run and see whether I catch the others en route!
  11. Clare and I have been a couple for ten years now. I don't think many, if any, people would consider me to be a romantic, and it's true that I usually get the date wrong but I was well aware that 2017 would be tenth anniversary. And so in June last year I thought to myself that it would be nice to take Clare away for a surprise to celebrate, reminded myself that since I think the anniversary is January 22nd then it's really the 21st, and had a look on a calendar to see on what day it would fall. A Saturday? Great! I would've been prepared to go to just about anywhere if the price were right but my first preference was Paris. That's supposed to be a romantic destination, isn't it? I bit of Googling and I found that it would be possible to fly from Birmingham, our local aiport, leaving in the morning of the Saturday and returning in the evening of the Sunday. Magnificent! No particularly early start and no late finish. So I booked it, half a year in advance. I've never been so prepared in my life! Not long afterwards, I sourced the hotel. It involved a bit of work finding out which arrondissement was where, but I found something at a reasonable price in the fifth or, more descriptively, bordering the south side of the Seine not far from Notre Dame. Now the trick was making sure that Clare didn't want us to make plans to go away ... Clare was still concerned in December about how busy January would prove to be and it put me in an awkward spot. Would it do more harm than good to take her away if she had work to do at weekends? So I adopted the best tactic I could think of: I approached the subject of going away for our anniversary whilst we were eating a meal and she was most of the way through a bottle of wine, knowing that she wouldn't read too much into it. As it happens, she felt that she'd be OK ... but then, of course, I had to point out that she needed to leave the weekend free because I had something in mind. She asked me a few times and, as usual, can't read past my dead-panning, so she went into January believing that we would be travelling to Rhyl to watch a darts match. She put a brave face on it but, I suppose fairly, wasn't too happy that she wouldn't be allowed a lie-in on the Saturday after a heavy week. To be fair, she didn't know that we were catching a flight at 09:15. We set off, with the aid of a satnav, not long after 07:00. I had told Clare that we could stop en route to get breakfast, then decided to get a McDonald's breakfast anyway, ready for when she woke up. That proved to be useful because the ice on the windows was so steamed up that it took over ten minutes to clear. At least I could do that whilst Clare was in bed, and not get caught out whilst we had a plane to catch. Clare did question whether I'd got the details entered correctly into the satnav: I'd told her that we had to be on the road at 07:00 and a lie-in wasn't possible, yet we appeared only to be travelling 18 miles. Fortunately, she accepted my answer (which was truthful, though should've led to more questions) that we had to go somewhere else first. That somewhere else was the car park. "Are we getting a flight?" came out of her mouth as we pulled up, and I asked her whether she'd remembered her passport. I had it really. One quick check that she didn't need a toiletries bag later, we were boarding the bus and she had a Paris guidebook in her hand. One wholly uneventful trip later, we touched down in Paris, barely an hour after having left Birmingham. Everything seemed to be going well, although we weren't to know that the airport had decided to have just a skeleton crew manning passport control. We and the people from several other flights spent a lot of time standing still, wondering why nearly every booth was unattended. This would prove not to be a one-off problem. We bought train tickets from the airport (10€ each) and got off, about an later and having seen some gritty, industrial neighbourhoods, not far from where our hotel was. The first thing we saw when we emerged above ground was Notre Dame, excellent confirmation that we were indeed in Paris and not far from where we needed to be. And so we headed off with our hotel in mind, but with a slight detour: our map indicated that the Panthéon was nearby and, having seen the Roman equivalent last year, we thought we'd compare. It unexpectedly required us to head uphill but we didn't mind once we turned a corner and caught site of it: Pretty big! And then we headed downhill in the direction of our hotel and checked in, dropped off our bags, and headed out again. Our first destination was the Jardin du Luxembourg, which meant we were crossing into a new arrondissement already. Maybe Paris isn't that big? The Jardin is owned by the French Senate and would normally be a beautiful sight. This was January, though, so we had to imagine what it would look like when life springs back: The Senate meets in the palace: The basin is supposed to be home to model sailboats. There was no chance of that at the moment, when even the majority of the water running from the fountain had frozen! We'd caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the misty distance, so decided to head to it via the Invalides. The dome confirmed we were in the right area: We came to a temporary standstill because of an anti-Trump march but later continued back along our original route, which took us to the Parc du Champ de Mars. As with the Jardin du Luxembourg, it doesn't look at its best in January, but it did its job of helping Paris's most prominent landmark stand out: We headed across the Seine and saw the tower from the other side before beginning the walk to the Arc de Triomphe. It and the Eiffel Tower look close together on a map, but it takes a while to cover the distance. We got there in the end, though: And then began the very lengthy walk down the Champs d'Elysée. Again, January didn't do it any favours, and we were there at the point when the light is fading but the street lights aren't on yet. With no leaves on the trees, it wasn't particularly impressive. We enjoyed seeing Cleopatra's Needle, though it is dwarfed by the Wheel: And then it was time to stroll through the Tuileries before capturing a glance at where we had just come from: The end of the Tuileries was marked by the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel beyond which lay the Pyramide and the courtyard of the Louvre: We hadn't eaten in around ten hours, so we were feeling hungry. The first job, though, was to find the FNAC store and buy some Astérix books. I'm a collector and the fact that the FNAC was marked on our map made it hard to say no. It wasn't the easiest place to find because it was part of an underground shopping centre called les Halles, the foreground to which was a building site, but we got there in the end and Clare kindly bought me the missing volumes to finish my collection. And then we crossed the Pont Neuf, stopped to admire the view, and headed in the direction of our hotel but intending to find a reasonably priced restaurant en route. Restaurant choices happened to be few and far between so we ended up spending a fair bit, but after covering over 13 miles that day, we were happy just to be able to sit down for an hour. We then headed back to our hotel where I, even though it was only 20:30 back in the UK, fell asleep for the night. Clare managed an hour of reading before tiredness got the better of her too. The next morning we got up and went looking for breakfast, rather than pay the extortionate price that the hotel charged. This shouldn't be a problem in France, should it? It was for us in Carcassonne last year, and we noticed here too that most brasseries and restaurants were closed. I suppose that's part and parcel of these establishments being small and privately owned; the people have to take a day off at some point. We came across a place after five minutes' walk or so and had a traditional French breakfast, before strolling back to our hotel to exchange anniversary presents (since I'd fallen asleep before we could the night before) and check out. Clare got me several novels in Spanish (in preparation for a holiday to Fuerteventura I'm going on with my family later this year), and I got her a proper engagement ring, so that she didn't have to continue wearing the ringpull I'd offered her eight years ago when I had even less money than I do today. Our hotel was opposite the National History Museum, so it made sense to pop by for a visit. Botanical gardens aren't much to write about in winter though: We didn't have any intention of doing anything ambitious. We'd pushed our bodies too hard the day before, so we settled on heading to Montmartre. And that meant passing by Notre Dame again: The sky was much clearer than the day before so we got some better views across the river: Plus clearer views of the Louvre: One thing that you can't say about French breakfasts is that they power you for long. And we had barely eaten the day before, so we decided to track down lunch. As was the case with breakfast, we passed lots of establishments which were closed until chancing on an open one, in which we spent an hour or so. (An hour or so too long for Clare, who was repulsed at the presence of gherkins and vinaigrette on her starter.) And then we left to find Montmartre. It took a fair bit of walking uphill but we got there in the end: We still had plenty of time to spare, so we settled down for some wine in a café and then began our trek to the airport. And that's where a nasty surprise was in store for us. Clare and I aren't strangers to travelling. If you're reading this site, you should know this. We're also not new to travelling without luggage and know full well that if you check in online in advance, you don't need to be at the airport as early as you do if you've got luggage to check in. So we didn't leave the usual two hours that passengers travelling with luggage are advised to. This approach has never caused us any problems. We reckoned without Charles-de-Gaulle airport, though, which saw fit to have a single, solitary person manning passport control. Well, one person for the EU passports, and three everybody else. And ours wasn't particularly fast, either. Our queue became longer and longer, until emergency action was taken. The second person was much faster, but we were still too far in this queue to benefit quickly. We finally made it through and then found out that our gate was different to the other ones, in that we needed to catch a shuttle. We did this (one arrived within a minute) but were stuck on the spot for several minutes before the doors closed and it took off. We raced from there into security. There were still maybe 30 minutes to go, so although things looked slightly concerning, we weren't desperate. We weren't until we realised that the airport had taken the same approach to staffing the security as with passport control. There were 20 gates, and only two were manned. The minutes ticked by, ever more frustratingly as we heard the same requests made over and over again: "Any liquids? Computer? Please take your boots off. And your belt. And put your coat in here." Sure enough, half of the people in the queue didn't have the common sense to realise that these rules also applied to them and so were holding up the queue. And as we were about to get to our turn, our hearts sank: the boarding pass on our phones deleted itself. There was still ten minutes or so left but the message seemed clear, that boarding had ceased. We explained, were eventually let through and ran to our gate. Too late. We'd missed the flight home. We were sore and frustrated. We'd never come close to missing a flight before. And we'd never been in an airport which was so chronically understaffed. If there had been even two people on passport control rather than one, we'd have been fine. If there had been three gates on security open, we'd have been fine. The end result was that we had to buy another ticket. And the cost of those was astronomical. We spent over £500 to get the next aeroplane, instead of overnighting in the airport and taking another flight in the morning. That was £500 that we hadn't bargained for and which really put a downer on the weekend. We're trying to look at it positively. Ten years ago, that £500 would have been a huge problem for us. We're now comfortable enough in life where the only real impact it has, aside from the frustration, is that it's £500 less that we'll be putting into savings or making as overpayments on the mortgage. It's not the crippler that it would've been a decade ago. It still hurts, but at least has served in a philosophical sense to be grateful for what we have and the progress we've made together as a couple.
  12. Today looked set to be the best day of the holiday, even though we only arrived in Äkäslompolo yesterday. Why? Because it was my favourite day last time we came — the day with the huskies! It's only possible on certain days and today happened to be the only chance we would have for the 10km session, so we booked it as the first thing we would do. I was really looking forward to seeing Hannibal again, the puppy I became friends with when we were here on New Year's Day. As is usual, we got off to a slow start. What's the rush when the sun doesn't think about appearing even slightly until about 10:00? We knew we were going to get picked up at 12:25 and we knew roughly where that would take place, namely a short distance away, so we were in no rush. During our casual, relaxed start to the day we eventually noticed through the window that there seemed to be some considerable snowfall. No, it's not that we're necessarily inattentive, just that it's so dark outside. But it soon became clear to us when we got outside that there was not only a snowfall, but a blizzard: A beautiful blizzard with some extremely large snowflakes: They had the effect of creating unspoiled virgin snow. Unfortunately for us, we needed to be the ones to put our feet through it without actually knowing where the path was usually, since we were moving in the opposite direction to our usual travel. That meant a tiring walk because there was no well-trodden route, and the odd moment of putting a foot wrong and ending up with snow around our thighs. We eventually arrived at our bus-stop. I accept that you'd be hard pressed to know! Twenty minutes after the time our bus was supposed to be there, we were still standing forlornly at the stop, wondering how long was a reasonable time to wait before trudging off or making a phone call. About 25 minutes later than expected, our bus arrived and a familiar face met us — it was Rita, who took us snowshoeing last year! There was no acknowledgment of being late and we didn't ask, just took our seats and sat back. There was one more stop after ours, a hotel holding people on their package tours. And then Rita made an announcement, that if anybody needed a jacket or trousers etc, they could let her know and we'd turn the bus round and pick some up from her office! Surely nobody was going to say yes, right? Who would be in Lapland without something like that? Tourists, that's who. We did the u-turn. At the point we arrived, the dogs were already in position and howling away, desperate to be off, so we had the quick introduction from Ben, the fella who carried this out last time. And then we met our six dogs. We were at the front of the queue and ready to set off. It wasn't long (about five seconds) before I carried out the husky equivalent of an emergency stop. Dog 3 had got his cable caught around his leg in attempting to swap positions with 4. He got his own way — he wanted the right-hand side and that's exactly how the staff member set him up, even though it didn't look quite right from where we were positioned. And soon enough we were off on the run. It wasn't easy for the dogs. As back at Äkäslompolo, there had been a blizzard where the dogs were, and the result was that there was lots of fresh snow which the sled was having to be pulled through. When we finished I noticed that so much snow had piled on to the brake that it was partially applied too, really making life difficult for our four-legged friends. They braved the still-falling snow, though, and did their best to make us move: They built up quite a pace even though most of the first half of the trek was uphill: We had the impression that number 5 was taking things a bit easy. He never seemed to give more than a casual trot, and 6 snapped at him a few times. Here he is having fun when we paused: As you can see here, whilst he's rolling about, poor 6 is having to cool down with mouthfuls of snow: We later realised that 5 wasn't being lazy. His cable was always taut so he was pulling perfectly. It's just that he was a lot stronger than 6 and so looked to be taking it easy in comparison, since they could both only run at the same pace. We set off again, the trees bent over under the weight of several inches of snow indicating just how much snow had fallen: No matter how tired they got, they still kept pulling, especially 1 and 2 at the front, who are in charge of steering: They hated resting, though. There were times when the panting was audible but within ten seconds of resting they were trying to pull us away again! We knew we were most of the way back and so thought we'd try to be very modern and take a selfie whilst the dogs pulled us along. And yes, I am indeed wearing short sleeves and no gloves in Lapland! Had I been able to, I'd have taken off the hat and neckgator too! Even though they'd run nearly 10km and had already done that much earlier too, they picked up speed when they knew they were within reach of home! And within minutes the sled was tied up and the dogs got their treats and cuddles: And we got to sit in a tent by a fire, drinking some hot berry juice and eating ginger biscuits: And after all the adventure had finished and we were suitably refreshed, Ben said the magic words: "Who wants to see the puppies?" This young lady begging to come out is Hannibal's sister. I think her name is Hurra and she's probably coming up to 18 months old now: And that was the end of the day, and people made their way to the coach. It was then that Ben grabbed me: "Do you want to see Hannibal?" And with my affirmation, he led me to the next batch of dogs who were hitched together and desperate to leave, and there was my buddy, one year on no longer a puppy but a big strong boy who earns his own living: And that was the end of a lovely day. Tomorrow we're going cross-country skiiing.
  13. Today was the final day of our holiday. We had arranged with our landlady that she would collect our keys at 11:30 and then drive us into town to save us the journey with our cases. That gave us time for a leisurely stroll around Carcassonne again in the morning. It proved to be delightful! There were no people around, which meant we got those normally busy restaurant areas and crowded narrow streets entirely to ourselves: The bridge leading to the chateau looked beautiful in the light: As did the countryside, which opened up to us as we headed out the Porte d'Aude: The archways provided a beautiful frame: And soon we were walking downhill towards the Porte Narbonnaise: Looking back at where we'd just walked from presented us with a lovely sight too: And soon we were approaching the lap, heading back towards the Porte d'Aude: We were conscious of running out of time and knew that we would have to go into the town to find breakfast. That meant a walk downhill and across a bridge. It's normally only in fairy tales that you get the backdrop that we had on the Pont Vieux: Breakfast proved elusive and we really had to penetrate deeply into the town until we found somewhere open. Breakfast was a simple affair; the breakfast option for Clare (an orange juice (to be drunk by me), a coffee, and a croissant), and a baguette for me. Paying for breakfast proved tricky, though. The man working there was a hard worker but a little slow on the uptake. I handed him 10€ to cover the cost (6€ for Clare, 3.50€ for me) only for him to try counting the items up individually. Unbelievably he came out with a smaller number than it should've been, even though you would expect the meal option to be cheaper than buying everything separately should be. I pointed this out to him so he said he would speak to the boss. Then he came back with a totally different figure, which I had to amend by pointing out that the orange juice wasn't a separate item but part of Clare's breakfast option. "It's six euros for her breakfast, plus three and a half for my baguette. 9.50€." Off to the boss he went, then he came back with a massive number, saying the the baguette I'd eaten wasn't part of the breakfast option, so it was going to cost more. "I know! There's one breakfast option. One! Hers! Mine isn't a breakfast option. It's just a baguette!" Then he started trying to count again and I had to help him. Eventually he hit the magic number 9.50€, and we were able to head back, a little behind schedule. Still, a destination is always nearer when you know where you're going and before long we were walking back across the Pont Vieux and through the narrow streets. We knew we were getting very close when the end of the street looked like this: We were back in time to shower and pack. As 11:30 arrived we said goodbye to our appartment with a shot of the view from the window: And then we descended the stairs to wait for a landlady and say goodbye to the medieval town. And then something wonderful happened: The lady had taken a liking to us and so, instead of dropping us into town and leaving us with "nothing to do", she arranged with the shopkeeper next door to look after our cases, giving us the option of catching the shuttle to the airport from the car park instead. And just like that we ended up with a bonus four hours there! And then we found a lovely little restaurant outside of which to eat: And we helped ourselves to several pichets of wine there: And that was the end of a lovely holiday, which was very, very relaxing. Although time didn't seem to lag, we kept catching ourselves by surprise by saying that "X was only a week ago" at different stages in it! I had the bonus of seeing some old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in fourteen years, and Clare got to meet a Russian friend of hers who by coincidence had a few days in Toulouse which coincided with hers. We'll definitely be coming back and, as I said to my friends, won't be leaving it fourteen years this time!
  14. Day 3: Stockholm

    Today was our third and final day and it was going to be a full one. We'd learned the day before that the McDonald's breakfast (which we eat every now and again on holiday as a treat) are only served until 10:00, so we had to vacate the ship about twelve hours before flying home. That was fine, though; Stockholm is bigger than we originally thought, not least because of Djurgården, an island on the city's east, which was originally the royal game park. The sun was shining, which meant that we, for once, had a lovely blue sky behind our photos: and shimmery reflections on the water: We knew we were on the right track once the imposing Nordic Museum appeared: And so we walked around for a bit enjoying the greenery and scenery, and found the Estonia Monument. The Estonia was a ship which sank in 1994, leading to the deaths of 852 people. The main attraction is Skansen, an open-air museum of life as it was a century ago. We were pleased to find it exactly where we expected it to be: And so in we went. We saw flowerbeds in the village: And two little huts by an allotment: The postmaster's house appeared into view. He and his wife lived here with their six children: A tunnel of trees made for welcome shade: As did the summerhouse: Before long a windmill sprang out of nowhere: Over the following hour or so we saw several animals, including sheep, cows, and pigs: And more animals in the zoo, including brown bears, and wolves: And once that was done we were nearly back to the start. We saw a Sami tent: Plus some huts: And what may have been a church: After that we strolled to the end of the island before crossing a bridge and beginning the scenic walk back to the main bit of town. We had plenty of time to find food and then head to the airport, though not without a shock when there were too many people for the bus. Fortunately, the bus company seemed to know this would happen and had a second one following five minutes behind. As it happened, we could've waited for the timetabled next one anyway; our plane was delayed. Stockholm was fun. We were particularly spoilt for weather on that last day. So far, it's our favourite Scandinavian capital, although we haven't tried Copenhagen yet. We'll be heading there in August!
  15. Norway 2016: Planning

    Fitting trips abroad into bank holidays was a new idea for us last year and worked very well, granting us bonus trips to France, Sweden and the Czech Republic on top of our usual holidays. And so we were keen to do the same thing again, but this time with a twist; we decided to gift each other a surprise trip for Valentine's presents. Clare's holiday was the first bank holiday in May, and she chose to take us to Bergen, Norway. We'll be flying out at 08:40 on the Saturday and returning at 19:10 on the Monday, so, as with last year's breaks, we'll have three whole days to fill. The Saturday will be spent in Bergen itself, Norway's second-largest city. Fortunately, a city only has to have 250,000 residents to attain that title, so we don't need to worry about being overwhelmed! We've identified a couple of things to do, including heading to Mount Floyen to get a nice view of the city, and taking a cable car. We'll be up early on the Sunday morning, taking a bus to Flåm, a lovely, tiny village inside some fjords. We'll spend a bit of time there before taking a cruise on the Nærøyfjord and heading to Gudvangen, another village. That's a day which will be full of beautiful scenery! On the Monday we'll be retracing some of the previous day's steps, in that we'll be off to Flåm again. This time we'll be journeying from there to Myrdal, a tiny place with next to nothing in it. The reason for the going there isn't to get to Myrdal in itself, but because the journey from Flåm to Myrdal is one of the most scenic in the world.
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