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Tim

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  1. Tim

    Day 4: Kraków

    Today was our final day. I hadn't given much thought to what we'd do, thinking that we could arrange something together whilst we were in Zakopane and knew the lay of the land. My suggestion was Nowy Sącz, on the basis that it was the nearest large town. Matt came up with a much more reasoned suggestion: 'We barely got to see Kraków and we've got to go to the airport near Kraków, so why don't we go to Kraków and see a bit more of it?' That made so much sense that it's exactly what we did. The 65-mile drive was very easy for nearly the whole distance, since it was on a motorway, which offered occasional pretty views: A little after 12, we'd arrived, choosing to park by Wewel Cathedral, which was immediately visible to us upon exiting the car park: It was immediately apparent that the Vistula was a wide river: we hadn't seen it before because night had fallen when we crossed it previously: We walked around the wall and soon encountered a dragon: A little past him was a ramp upwards, which we followed: Soon we saw the cathedral: It was very pretty up close: Around the corner was a statue of the region's Karel Wojtyła, better known as Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years: We were running low on time at this point (the contract with the rental company stipulates a fine of 500€ if we don't return the car on time!), so headed down rather than linger. After roaming for a couple of minutes, we walked up a street with a pretty church on it: Directly opposite was a lunchtime cafe, and that's where we decided to stop for a quick bite to eat. We exited to the view of the church, retrieved the van, and returned it to the company with five minutes to spare, before walking the few minutes to the airport for our first of two flights home.
  2. Tim

    Day 3: Zakopane

    Our base for the final two nights was Zakopane, a ski resort in the south of Poland. I spent a week here in 2005 during an Esperanto event, although shamefully have no recollection of the mountains. By the time we arrived night had fallen. Our landlady told us where to find a good, local restaurant, confirming that it was open, since we'd noticed so many others closed for Independence Day during our travels. We ate well and returned to the chalet. Yes, I said chalet. We have an amazing location with a bedroom each. It looks beautiful from the outside: The inside is equally stunning: This morning started off with a streetwide powercut, which the landlady had informed us about the previous evening. Fortunately, Dad and I had got our showers in beforehand, and there was a gas cooker in the kitchen, which Matt used to make sure that everybody had coffee. We had a particularly relaxed start to the day with people free to get up and come down when they wanted. Our plans were limited to using a cable car to get to the top of a nearby mountain. Without any travel ahead of us, we could afford to take our time. As it happens, we never got around to having breakfast because it was past eleven when we left the house and drove to a place called Kuźnice, from where we were going to use a cable car to reach Kasprowy Wierch, not far from the summit of the highest mountain. Unfortunately for us, the cable car was closed down for technical review prior to the ski season, so we were stuck where we are, albeit in pretty surroundings: Rob, James and Matt went off for a little stroll: And came back down perhaps twenty minutes later: With little else to do and having had no breakfast, we decided to head into the main town and look for lunch. We ended up parking alongside pretty surroundings: Including Poland's largest ski jump! It didn't take long to find somewhere to eat and so we settled down for an hour or so. Afterwards, we had to think about what to do, given that our plans had gone awry. I had the intention of taking a five-mile trail to see a glacial lake called Morskie Oko but I was conscious that this wouldn't be everybody's cup of tea. In the end, we decided that Matt would explore the town and then make his way home, Dad would spend some time in the chalet, and Rob, James and I would go up the trail by the cable car. The first 20 minutes were very difficult, walking up a steep cobbled incline. Things suddenly became easier and we were soon rewarded by a view: A few minutes further, and things really started to look pretty: We decided that it would be worth walking on to see whether we could get any closer views, so off we set: The track led through a pine forest: There was soon a steep section: It had become drizzly but we were soon encouraged by the promise of a view: And soon we were there: It had taken a shade over an hour and we weren't far from twilight, so we decided we'd earned a rest, and headed back down to the car, taking a slightly different route on the other side from where we had taken some photos earlier: And then we headed home. That's also what we'll be doing tomorrow. Since we're flying from Kraków and didn't get to see much of it when we were there, we've decided that we'll stay there for a few hours before driving off to the airport.
  3. Today is Armistice Day. It also happens to be Poland's Independence Day. This isn't a coincidence: the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires in 1918 simultaneously heralded the rebirth of the historical Poland which had been divided up among those larger powers. A little over 20 years afterwards, the Second Polish Republic ceased to be when it was invaded by a remilitarised Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Slovak Republic. That action was incipient of the largest, most damaging conflict in the history of the planet, which would leave perhaps 85 million corpses in its wake. Poland's soil was the site of the most infamous depravity, Hell on Earth: its name was Auschwitz. Although I had booked free tickets in advance, it became clear that for only £12 we could join a group led by an English-speaking tour guide. That proved to be a bargain, as we spent over 3 hours being educated about the horrors inflicted on people who's only crime was to live. This blog isn't the place to find detailed information about Auschwitz. There are plentiful better sources. I'll just stick to what we saw. From our starting point, we could see barbed wire and the infamous gates: The title was, of course, cruelly ironic. Nobody was going to get out of here alive. People were going to be worked to death, assuming they were judged capable of working. Those who weren't were disposed of immediately. There was no mistaking that this was a prison: In each of these blocks between 700 and 1000 people were housed: It was clear that Auschwitz was the end destination for Jews, political prisoners, priests and other undesirables from all over Europe. 1.3 million people were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz during the five years that it was operational. 1.1 million of them were killed there, 90% of whom were Jews. The original crematorium could incinerate 5000 bodies a day. It became clear that this wasn't enough. In the first block we entered, there was a monument to the murdered people. The urn contains ashes taken from the crematoria at the death camp, Birkenau: The mass murders were carried out when the prisoners were herded into showers. Through a vent in the ceiling, pellets of a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon B were dropped in. 5 to 7 of them were enough to kill everybody in the room within 20 seconds: The sheer scale of murder at Auschwitz meant that even though so small a supply was needed for each group killed, the Nazis got through hundreds of canisters of the stuff: We walked past similar piles of pony tails, shorn from female prisoners, whose hair was used for stuffing in mattresses, bombs, and ropes and cords for ships. Likewise, we saw mountains of suitcases with names painted on them, glasses, and personal effects. I don't think anything could out-shock the site of toddlers' shoes and clothing: These weren't an isolated few cases: I don't think most people in our group had heard of Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death. He was infamous for experimenting on prisoners, without using anaesthetic. He had a particular fascination with twins. He would regularly inject one twin with a deadly disease, and keep the second alive. Once the infected one was dead, the healthy twin would be murdered so that he could compare their organs. A photo on a wall shows two of Mengele's twins, Eva and Miriam Mozes. Eva was the one infected but survived the resultant infection, and both twins made it out of Auschwitz alive. Eva visited Auschwitz annually to share her experiences and died in July of this year, aged 85. We soon exited into a courtyard where prisoners were put up against a wall and shot: There were also posts featuring hooks from which prisoners would be suspended by their hands, bound together behind them. This was effectively a death sentence, since most prisoners arms would be ruined by the torture, meaning that they ceased to be of use to their captors: A short distance away was a special set of gallows erected for hanging prisoners in front of other ones: We soon reached the end of the camp. It's surprisingly small considering the enormity of its infamy: Around the corner and on the other side of the barbed wire was the villa of Auschwitz's commandant, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss. I can't imagine that anybody shed a tear when he was hanged for his crimes on gallows erected especially for him: People aren't aware that Auschwitz refers to several sites. The one that most people think of, the one with the infamous gates, is Auschwitz I, the concentration camp. The site of industrialised murder, however, is a short distance away at the death camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We borded a bus to take us the short distance to it. It looks bleak from the get-go: Prisoners would arrive sealed in trains which could hold up to 70 people. At times they were filled with 130: Exiting the wagons, the prisoners would be directed on which side of a doctor to pass. Those deemed fit for work would be on one side. The elderly, infirm, and young would be placed on another. They wouldn't survive the day. The Nazis tried to destroy the crematoria as the Russians approached. The ruins still remain: A monument stands at the end, featuring plaques in those languages most common among the people murdered, including Judeo-Spanish: Here's the translation: The one remaining site was the women's accommodation. It was abject: The buildings were supposed to hold 700 women. With some quick mental arithmetic, we worked out that this meant that 6 people would share each compartment. That includes the bottom one, the floor to which was soil. Rats would scurry about eating the deceased. If they didn't know whether a body was dead, there was an easy way for them to check. The extreme cramping may actually have been useful to the prisoners. Temperates in this part of Poland can reach minus fifteen in winter. You can imagine that the Nazis weren't interested in providing heating. They were barely interested in providing toilet facilities. The women were herded into a toilet block twice a day, and were given 30-40 seconds before being forced to leave. Clothes were changed every few weeks. Showers were rare but when they did happen, the prisoners would return naked and wet, including in the dead of winter. All together, our tour lasted an hour and forty minutes at Auschwitz I and a further hour at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, immense value at only £12 each. We chatted with our guide a bit on the return journey to the first camp, and then began the journey to Zakopane, where we'll be spending our final two nights.
  4. Since I spotted that Kraków had a Zamenhof Street yesterday, I really didn't have much choice this morning than to get up earlier to track it down before breakfast. It took a while to cover the ground but the street appeared into view. A word in orange on the facade of the shop across the word looked familiar: Sure enough, it read how it was supposed to: There were proper street signs, of course: Plus a plaque: Returning back across the road, I saw some very attractive buildings: They were particularly nice close up: Everything appeared to be quite pretty: By the point I'd finished taking these photos, I was going to be late for breakfast, so I had to dash back. We had a big day ahead of us; one which deserves its own blog entry, because it was a visit to the most infamous site in the world, testament to the darkest depths of depravity to which the species has ever plunged: Auschwitz.
  5. Tim

    Day 1: Kraków

    My brother asked me quite some time ago about the feasibility of doing a WW2 roadtrip, taking in Berlin, Munich and Auschwitz within the space of a few days. The answer to that was that it was totally unfeasible, which has led to a refinement; we're now in Poland with a view to visiting Auschwitz on Armistice Day. Our group has swollen from us two to include our other brother, our father, and our brother-in-law. Getting here relied upon that universal constant, the very early start, and two aeroplanes. In something of a novelty for me, we flew from my local airport, Birmingham, with KLM to Amsterdam, and then caught a connection to Kraków. Having landed and exited without needing a passport check, presumably because we flew Schengen to Schengen, the next trick was to track down our rental car, a 9-seat monster. It's a good job I bought external insurance because the prices here are through the roof; a scratch on the bumper will set us back 367€, according to a document I was asked to sign. We registered Rob as an extra driver since he too has experience driving in Europe. He was soon thrown into the deep end in a downpour, since it occurred to me that he's driven around Europe in vans bigger than this one, whereas I've only used small cars and never driven a van in my life. My logic missed out on an obvious flaw once we pulled off though (having waited around fifteen minutes for someone to come and manually open the gate to let us out): Rob's only ever driven right-hand drive. Whoops. He did a really good job and we were soon in Krakow, having spotted our hotel and attempting to find a place to park. In the end, it seemed easiest to complete a loop and return to the hotel to drop the others off, whilst Rob and I looked for parking. Approaching the hotel, we noticed a spare place on the corner of the street, and Rob drove into it. As it happens, the very friendly staff at our hotel helpfully informed us that this was illegal, since although that particular spot, like the others on the street, is free to park in, it's only available for residents, who are identifiable by a sticker on their windscreen, conspicuous by its absence on mine. Not all the visitors seem as amicable as the staff, however, judging by an entry I spotted in the guest book: After we'd all checked in, Rob and I headed off to find a private car park, with me driving this time to make up for debuting him to left-hand-drive earlier in the day. Inner-city driving is horrible on your first day, as I learned in Tenerife a couple of years ago. Once back, we all convened and decided to go for a stroll. We're staying in the old Jewish Quarter, and that soon became clear when we saw the shop names: We'd peeked into a few restaurants on our journey and noticed that the prices were very reasonable, although they all seemed to be narrow affairs limited to two-seater tables. We were now into a bigger square where we noticed the inverse: the restaurants could comfortably seat us but the prices were notably more expensive: At the very end there was one with decent prices and which allowed us to get out of the rain, which was bucketing down. Whilst we were waiting to place our order, I pulled out a map to help plan what to do next. Regular readers who know of The Curse will have no problems guessing what the first street to jump out at me was: Yes, Esperanto again in the form of another Zamenhof Street! I was highly tempted at the thought of goulash but its accompaniment sounded very unappetising: cabbage pancakes. I gave in, prioritising goulash, and buying a portion of chips as back-up. It turned out that I didn't need them because the cabbage was rather like Rösti or hash browns: I'd wanted to visit Wawel Cathedral but we were approaching 16:30, when the sun was supposed to set, and it would've been a bit of ground to cover. We decided instead to remain close by and head in the opposite direction to see Oskar Schindler's factory. The journey, again under a barrage of rain, involved crossing the Vistula: Rob navigated us using his phone but all we could see was an art gallery where the factory should've been: It was then that Matt's eagle eyes spotted something: the factory was preserved within the exterior of the gallery! It was extremely dark at this point, and so it was time to leave, in the hope of finding somewhere drier. As we were leaving, the others read a plaque by an otherwise unassuming piece of brick wall. It turned out that it was part of the Gdansk shipyards which were the source of the Solidarity protests from the early 80s: On the way back from home, Matt led us to an Irish pub he'd seen. We popped in but it was cramped and my glasses steamed over with the heat, so Dad and I left other three to enjoy their time there whilst we headed back to the hotel. My clothes are now drying on the towel rail whilst I write this blog. I think it might now be time to try tracking down the other three, since there's a pub next door and I have a few złoty in my wallet. But if I can't find them ... well, that leaves more for me, doesn't it?
  6. Our two-night stay in Veliko Tarnovo coincides with Unification Day in Bulgaria, celebrating the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria in 1885. It's a national holiday which falls on September 6 and in Veliko Tarnovo happens to feature an elaborate sound-and-light show. We set off in the evening and straightaway saw that the fountains in our nearby park were illuminated after darkness had fallen: They colours changed every few seconds: We'd soon paced through the town, past the Hanged Rebels Memorial, which looked a lot more noticeable in the dark: Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the fortress in the distance: We needed to get a lot closer, which meant passing the cathedral: Some of the fortress walls were extremely bright: Eventually we reached the entrance and were standing with a crowd: The lights were dimmed... ... and then various sections were lit up... ... one after the other... ... until the whole complex was glowing: We were spoilt for choice with colourschemes: Soon the fortress was shooting lasers: Until hitting the best colourscheme of all: After that, the scene turned red and the sound recording accompanying the display stopped: You can get to experience a similar display thanks to a recording which somebody uploaded: And with that, we and the thousands of other people watching dispersed. Today's been a long day but fortunately we don't have to check out until noon tomorrow for our afternoon trip to Bucharest, and the bus station is only a two-minute walk away, so we can have a lie-in in the morning to recover before heading on our first ever visit to Romania!
  7. We're safely back home. Here's how the weather was on the day our flight was due to leave: We travelled through a very aggressive hailstorm on the train earlier in the day.
  8. Some people like surprises. And what could be a nicer surprise than finding out you've got an extra day on holiday? Alas, we didn't enjoy finding out about ours. Arriving at the airport, we knew that our flight was slightly delayed. No harm there. A little later, we noticed something of a commotion in front of our gate, three hours before the revised take-off time. We ignored it but a little later Clare overheard a man explaining to his wife, who was sitting next to Clare, that there was a problem and that the plane might not land. I made a point of going up to the gate to hear for myself. That's when we got confirmation. The plane was not only en route but was also on time ... and always had been. It had been circling above the airport looking for an opportunity to land. Madrid, in the centre of the desert that is Spain, was experiencing inclement weather. We'd already seen the downpour ourselves arriving at the airport. It happened that the weather was so bad that it wasn't possible to land a plane safely. The staff informed us that the plane had been diverted to Barcelona to refuel and that Head Office would later make a decision on whether it would come back afterwards. The best-case scenario was that it would arrive at 01:00 if it were allowed to return. This was no good to us personally, since we wouldn't be able to retrieve our car until 05:00 at the earliest, making it very unlikely that we'd be back at time for work, especially for Clare's early-morning work commitments, which required her to be suited and booted. The staff were trying their very best to be helpful, especially given that they didn't know anything beyond the information which they were passing back to us. They informed us that we would be given food vouchers for a restaurant, although they didn't know which ones at that moment. In spite of the total innocence of the staff in this matter, some passengers seemingly couldn't resist taking out their frustrations on them with infantile outbursts about wanting a flight rather than a food coupon. The news later came in that the flight wouldn't be returning soon from Barcelona. The latest update was that it would leave at 08:00, and that the airport would arrange overnight accommodation and food. At least, I thought that's what was being said; people seemingly couldn't stop grumbling such that those of us trying to get accurate information could clearly hear it, and the staff members were soon inundated by a queue of people all asking the same questions and getting the same answers. We waited until the end and then spoke to a staff member, who was taken aback at somebody being polite and even said 'Thank you for your kindness!' Things became a little unclear once we'd retraced our steps back to Terminal 4, 20+ minutes away, and, as instructed, had joined the chaotic customer services queue. Nothing was budging there for half an our until finally a woman told people that there was a bus outside to pick us up, and off we headed. Well, not quite all of us. There were people for whom Madrid was a connecting airport who were complaining that they couldn't retrieve their hold luggage. If they'd been listening up top, they'd have heard a gentleman informing everybody that hold luggage couldn't be returned so late at night because of security reasons. We waited at the bus stop without much happening. Business Class passengers were allowed to get on board the bus but for seemingly little benefit; they were sitting down in the dark with nothing happening whilst we were standing. Meanwhile, the sky was flashing, followed by extensive roaring and rumbling. I think we probably all felt better being on the ground than in the air! Eventually, a second bus pulled up and we were allowed to board, after which we were transferred to a hotel. We received coupons for the restaurant whilst we queued and then checked in. The lady doing so stated that there was no news on when the next flight would be but if it were early, then we'd all get wake-up calls. Otherwise, we could pop down casually after breakfast and check to see whether any information had been printed and posted. We could see some posters for a rescheduled flight to Berlin, so the process seemed easy enough. At this point, it was 00:30, with the restaurant closing at 01:00, so we didn't spend long in our room. Our first impressions were very good: There was plenty of food and we weren't slow in finishing it, so soon were back in the room ready to sleep. I woke up at around 6 and headed downstairs to see whether there was any news. The lady who had checked us in hadn't heard of anything. My phone had, though: Oh, crikey. That's a lot longer than we were expecting. Getting to work really wasn't going to be possible today. And there was the problem of our cats; they hadn't had fresh food since Monday morning, when their feeder had discharged the final of its four offerings. They were now going to go without for not only Monday evening but all of Tuesday too. I thought of a solution but it was too early to act upon it. Their regular catsitter, who visits daily when we're on longer breaks, has a key, and so I texted her as soon as I thought it possible to get away with it, which was 07:00 UK time. She's a star, who did an emergency visit and made sure they were well loaded for our return. The breakfast spread was a very generous one, although neither of us was particularly hungry having eaten dinner only a few hours before. The morning then became one of idleness, with us having nothing to do but wait for our bus, which was due at 12:00. I bought an obscenely overpriced book at the airport yesterday evening anf managed to resist the temptation to read it because I didn't want to have to spend another 20€. We got to the airport with no fuss but then hit a roadblock: our flight wasn't mentioned anywhere on the boards. A quick check with a staff member was fruitless, and she recommended we go to customer services. More queuing followed, accompanied by the frustration which always results when there's no movement and you can't understand how everybody being served could possibly need so much time. We finally got through and got some fairly uncomplicated instructions: retread yesterday's steps and at some point your flight will be on the board. This we did and thus it was, although rather unhelpfully it was yesterday's flight details and an indication that it was cancelled. We knew that we were entitled to a food voucher and so set off to find someone who could give us one. The answer to that request was initially no but magically turned to yes within minutes and, eventually, we were able to get the required paperwork. We headed off and ate a fairly standard meal. And now we're sitting near our gate. It's two and a half hours until our flight is due to leave. Let's hope we don't get another bonus day in Madrid.
  9. My day was going to be an early write-off. We arrived at our spectaculary good apartment at about 16:30, around half an hour after finishing a colossal steak which was far more than I would normally be able to eat but the expense of which compelled me to attack. In a sweltering hot country and with a beer and some wine in me, that was a recipe for a food coma, and so I was immediately asleep as soon as the host left us. More or less. Clare wanted the photos for the blog preparing first, so I did those with my eyes partially closed and then had a cold shower. It didn't work and I was soon a curious combination of asleep and feeling sorry for myself. Clare is much more disciplined than I am and set to work on the blog. When it was finished a couple of hours later, she asked me whether I felt it was time to go out and see the town. As far as I was concerned but it wasn't fair to give her cabin fever, so I agreed to go out too. cursing myself for still being too full to be able to even consider buying some beer or wine to enjoy on our rooftop. It turned that I needn't have felt so full at all. You see, when we arrived around 2 o'clock looking for a meal, we went to the only place we'd encountered stating that it was a pizzeria/restaurant and tried to order. It wasn't open, aside from its cafe. So I asked the lady whether there were any other places open. In her opinion, that was very unlikely, although she suggested we head down the main road. That was how we found the restaurant offering our very expensive meal. It turned out all she would've had to say is 'There are about a million restaurants in the Old Town. Why don't you head there?' We didn't even know there was an Old Town until we headed down the main road this evening and went further than the restaurant we'd visited earlier! We espied a spire in the distance and so headed towards it: We saw a sign pointing out that there was an Old Town and so headed into a side street: And look what we found: a busy square! The mountains in the background were a sight to behold: It had a large clock tower: There was a small section of portici: And the church whose spire we'd glimpsed earlier: We headed down a street in the direction of the castle: There was a couple getting married: We thought we'd leave them to their privacy. Or didn't want to pay the entrance fee. Delete as applicable. And so we turned around and headed back to the square: Emerging from that direction presented us with the mountains again. We'd driven along them earlier to get to Castelbuono: And so we began the journey home, heading up a small street with an attractive tower beckoning us: Soon we passed a lovely fountain: Before we knew it we were a two-minute walk from our appartment with an ice cream store next to us, so we picked up a large mint ice cream apiece and retired to our rooftop to see the soon fade away behind the mountains: I'm really glad that we ventured out ... but can't help but feel slightly aggrieved that the lady we spoke to earlier in the day didn't tell us about the Old Town. I'd have loved to see it in proper daylight, plus we wouldn't have been compelled to eat so large a meal that we were effectively denied the chance to sit on our rooftop with a nice bottle of wine to end the evening. There's always a wineless tomorrow morning, of course, when I inevitable wake up early and need somewhere to sit whilst reading!
  10. Tim

    Evening 6: Enna

    Today was such a full day that we were wiped out and didn't want to do much other than go to bed once the blog was finished. We started the day with a guided tour of three churches in Naro, had a lengthy stopover at a garage when it transpired that we were within 120km of the car breaking down, drove for a couple of hours to Villa Romana di Casale and saw perhaps 30 or 40 mosaics, drove to Enna, were sent up some very steep streets by Google Maps, which were so narrow that we eventually had to reverse because our car was too wide, so instead had to park the car elsewhere and then follow Google's indications up those same steep streets for over a kilometre with our backpacks and suitcases. Nonetheless, we hadn't actually seen anything of Enna since we got here so forced ourselves to go on a stroll. Our hotel is on Via Roma, the main street. The main street that we would've reached had Google Maps not taken us on a 'shorter' detour. From our window we could see that some lights had been switched on: We followed the lights, which soon became a second type: We soon reached a square: It overlooked the old town. You might get an idea of how narrow and steep the streets we'd been driving earlier were: We turned around and left the square: The next stretch of road featured lights in the shape of candelabra: We then reached the Duomo. Unfortunately, it's all covered up for the renovations so there wasn't any point in photographing it. On the other side of the road was a square named after and featuring a statue of Giuseppe Mazzini: Via Roma is a one-way street because there is another road running parallel to it. We walked through an archway to get to it: We're quite high up! The building in the distance is the Palazzo del Governo, so we headed down to see it: And with a quick crossing of the road, we were back in our hotel two minutes later.
  11. Tim

    Evening 5: Naro

    Clare worked hard to bring you today's blog and then after a day of 35-degree heat and accummulated sand needed a bath, so I had plenty of time to do some reading. It's a shame that I'm so slow at it though; I'm two pages from finishing so will get there before lights out! Having moved our car from its temporary location to the square recommended by our host earlier (and having conquered again the one-way system and streets which were narrower than the car), I had noticed how pretty the yellow stone looked illuminated by the streetlights and suggested to Clare that we nip out for a stroll. Just standing in the doorway, we were treated to a sight: And our street was very pretty too: After a couple of minutes, we passed our hire car: We knew we'd hit the local hub when the street became wide enough to accommodate cars in each direction. There were a couple of cafes open but I quite liked the sight of a pizzeria on the street corner because there was lots of empty space. We ordered a jug of wine and a large beer: I was feeling a little peckish so ordered a burger. The server called it a 'Luxembourger', which confused me, until I realised on the second occasion that she was saying 'deluxe hamburger'. It was big: So big, in fact, that I couldn't fit it into my mouth. It was sliding all over the place, most of it finishing on my hands and face. Fortunately the waitress had seen it all before and brought me out a stash of serviettes. There was an unfortunate moment when a freak blow of wind blew up the paper sheet she'd added as a second tablecloth, which began a chain reaction starting with an empty beer bottle toppling into a wine glass, the contents of which spilled, with the result that a poor ant which we initially believed had drowned was a few minutes later zig-zagging across the table. We chatted for a while and then I asked for the bill: 10.50€! Yet again, we'd benefitted from paying the price the locals do by speaking the language! I'm not sure it's much of financial return on the hours invested but I always love it when it happens. We then had a slow walk home, culminating in the lovely yellows on our door step: Today was a busy day with lots of road driven and a few towns stopped in. Tomorrow promises to be much easier. Because there's less on the agenda, we didn't have any qualms in accepting the offer of a post-breakfast guided tour from our host for tomorrow. Fingers crossed I'll have finished my book by then.
  12. After our full day's adventure at Tsarskoe Selo and knowing that we're heading to Moscow tomorrow, you might have thought that our plans for the early hours of the morning were limited to being in bed, as they would be for sensible people. That wasn't the case for us; there was still more adventuring to get in and so at 23:20, Clare, Helen and I headed out of the hotel in the direction of the Fortanka to get on a boat. Not just any boat. This one was advertised as being romantic and featuring a saxophone player. In spite of that, we still chose to go because this was going to be a night-time cruise featuring the raising of the drawbridges! Because of Moscow's international status, it's easy not to be aware of quite how important St Petersburg is. It was the Empire's capital city until 1918, an important port on the Baltic Sea and Russia's Window to the West. Large ships need to travel through it, even though the bridges spanning the Neva and main canals aren't large enough to let them through. The solution involves a nightly process of raising 22 bridges across the city according to a timetable, allowing the larger ships a temporal and physical slot to pass through. It was the ceremonial raising of the drawbridges which we came to see. Leaving the hotel, we noticed that streetlights were on, although they didn't really need to be. St Petersburg is sufficiently northerly that there was still a fair bit of natural light even though the midnight hour was approaching. The red church we regularly pass was perfectly bright in spite of the time: The Fortanka presented a perfectly lovely sight too: We arrived at our ship with plenty of time to spare and were rewarded with even more spare time by the lady in the ticket office informing us that our boat, set to depart at 00:10, was no longer running. But that was alright because we had been moved to the 00:30 departure, so we sat at a little table for the next forty minutes or so as more people arrived. After boarding, we proved to be one of only three little groups to take a seat inside; everybody else was sitting on chairs on the deck, leaving us with the impression of having the room to ourselves: We were sitting at our corner table as the boat pulled off: We had 360-degree vision because of all the surrounding windows: But the best views were provided by popping up to the deck. I was quickly rewarded by the sight of the circus: What a beautiful building! Soon we had passed through a bridge and had left for Fortanka for the Neva: We were surrounded on both sides by illuminated grand buildings: We passed several familiar buildings, including the Winter Palace: And the Kunstkamera, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography: We travelled as far as the Admiralty, and then turned back. Within a couple of minutes we were part of a fleet converged on a bridge, gently bobbing on the water whilst people lined the banks: And then music struck up and we were treated to the following spectacle: That was amazing! All too soon, we had passed under the bridge and were leaving it behind: The Winter Palace looked wonderful as we drifted past: Why were we drifting? So as not to get to the following bridge too early and miss it being raised! Soon we'd passed that too! There wasn't much of the journey left as we turned back down the Fortanka. Still enough time to grab some wine whilst the saxophonist continued his somewhat lonely vigil. Before long we'd disembarked. This was approaching 2am and the sun was on its way back! Human engineering ingenuity had presented us with some remarkable and memorable sights over the course of our evening, but Mother Nature had a trick in hand too. Look at this remarkable gradation in the sky, preceeding from a very deep blue to a pale dawn. You can't notice the difference between one strip of sky and the next but spanning from side to side, you see how intense the colour change is: And so began a totally relaxing stroll back to the hotel in the tourist-free early hours of the morning. Tomorrow we leave Saint Petersburg for Moscow!
  13. Tim

    Day 2: Kiev

    As usual, I hadn't updated the time, so we really arrived home at 18:17, a full eight hours after we'd left!
  14. 2019 started with a lie-in for me and Alfie because we were going husky-sledding, courtesy of my parents, who treated Alfie to this for Christmas. Clare didn't fancy being a driver, so instead set off snowshoeing in the woods, leaving us behind. There was fresh snow on the ground, which always gives a lovely crunch when you walk on it: For once, we didn't walk in the direction of the supermarket but instead took the opposite turn walking uphill to our bus stop. The scenery is just as pretty: We got there with plenty of time to spare, nearly half an hour before the bus was due. I remember from last time that it's not the easiest bus stop to find but we were there within minutes and awaiting 12:30. We ended up waiting longer; the bus arrived at 12:43, forty minutes after we did, but was still earlier than last year. We boarded and there was only a family of four there. I thought our luck was in! Not quite so. We drove to the main office whereupon the guide explained that we were picking up some more people and that we were free to use the toilet, get a drink and even pick up some equipment. He made a point of suggesting to me that I might quite like to borrow a jumpsuit to protect me from the cold. Clearly he's not aware that this is the man who forswears gloves and a jacket at minus 17 if he's required to do any form of exertion! Alfie asked me how long this was going to take. Theoretically, it shouldn't have taken any time at all; the information on the ticket stated that we would be picked up at 12:30 and that the event would start at 13:00. However, we didn't leave until 13:20, arriving at 13:50. It was a lovely journey, though. We were quickly welcomed off the coach and given our safety instructions. There really wasn't a lot for passengers to learn, other than sit down and keep your extremities within the sled: Drivers had a bit more to learn, including hand signals for stop, go and slow down, and how to brake: We were even further delayed because the safety instructions were being translated into Spanish. I grew a bit restless and had a peek at some typical Sami accommodation: The dogs were all tied up and ready to go: There are 160 dogs at the farm. Although they're there to work, they each have names and personalities. Some of them bark in excitement because they want to run, others are more restful and have a quick nap between tours, whilst still others pull at their leads to try to get the tour started earlier! We happened to have the first sled in line and were soon off with our team of six: Sometimes there are eight dogs in a team for when there are more people on the sled. The dogs might have liked to have another couple added to their number once we hit the uphill stretch! The dogs are partnered alongside the dog they live with. Usually the whole team are neighbours. If the team works well, the dogs are kept together but changes are made if required, such as if the dogs fight. It's rare but it can happen. Our own team was soon broken up because of a problem. It didn't involve fighting though: Ours was a team of five boys and a single, solitary female. Apparently a "heat team" had been out a couple of sessions before and it gave two or three of our males ideas about the female in our group, so she had to be removed and replaced! Soon we were off and running again. The dogs nearest the sleigh are wheel dogs. They tend to be males, since this position requires the most strength, the dogs taking weight on their shoulders. The dogs in the middle are the fastest. The first dogs are the leaders, the brains of the team, planning the route. Usually these are females. Don't worry about the cold and how much you would hate to be out in it. The dogs live outside and love Arctic conditions, tolerating up to minus 45 degrees. Optimum weather for running is minus 20. When they get hot, they just grab a mouthful of snow on the move to cool off: One of the few things you have to do as a driver is apply the brake when bends come up so that the dogs, in taking a corner at pace, don't end up swinging the sleigh off the track. The guide on the snowmobile gives you the hand signal to slow down, which you then relay to the people behind you: Before long, darkness had descended and the dogs led us home: Everything looked beautiful with the magnificent sky behind it: Our own dogs were too keen on grabbing a drink to want to play with us, so we went and said hello to some of the dogs who were already in place for the next tour. There were some really friendly dogs there! We then got a chance to warm up by a fire: Our guide served us some hot berry juice and gave us some information about the farm and the dogs there. She explained that the dogs don't eat in the morning because their guts might twist when they run. In the evening they get a kilo of raw meat and dog pellets. They work quite hard in the winter, running 20 to 30 kilometres a day. The season starts in early December until mid-April. In summer the dogs get to play outside because they don't do any running in the heat. Training for the new season starts in August. After that we got to meet the 13 puppies, born and raised there according to a strict breeding programme, where males are matched to females! Sometimes, however, there are surprise puppies. Otto, who is 14 and the oldest dog on site, used to escape by scaling a wall and then would open the door of the cells of the bitches in heat. You know what happened next. The puppies are kept as pups until they're one. They start training for a year and join a team at two, racing until they're ten. Old retired dogs typically live with the puppies, doing grandparenting. Sometimes they get a new home because there are people in the area who collect retired sled dogs. Once they get a taste of it, the puppies love running. The relative calm can quickly be broken by puppies chanting in unison once they catch sight of another team getting ready to head out! One final look at the farm with that wonderful combination of snow and sky, and then we were back on board our coach, returning home after a really fun day out!
  15. Part 3 of turning 40 was the big event, a medieval banquet at Coombe Abbey. I'd invited my family and Clare's family, plus my best friend and his parents. That made us 19 in total. By the time we arrived, darkness had already fallen, which made for wonderful scenery amid the Christmas decorations: There was even a reindeer in the courtyard: Clare and I arrived early so that we could go to our room and get dressed up: Clare's family similarly decided to wear period clothing: Our parents hadn't seen each other since we moved into our house in 2009, so it was probably time to reunite them! And then we were off for the meal. It consisted of four courses. I'm told that my mother assumed that the waiting staff had forgotten the spoons when the soup was served. Alas, no; this was a genuine medieval experience. The food was fairly good and the courses were interspersed with comedy spots and singing from a band of actors, encouraging lots of activity from their guests. The evening passed rather quickly, I felt. Not a bad sign, then. As everybody else left, Clare and I retired to our room: And that was that. A day of celebration from start to finish, starting with the two of us plus Heidi and Pebbles, a surprise party with the younger members of the family, and a feast with the grown-ups. It was a lot fun and I'm really pleased that everybody gave up their day to come and join us. We're lucky in how life is going for us and I still hold no regrets about turning 40 (complete with a reasonable head of hair in spite of the genetic curse!), although I noticed the next morning that you appear to feel not quite yourself, a bit sluggish or queasy once you turn 40. Oh well; still no regrets!
  16. I'd managed to arrange something for many of my family members to do to help celebrate my 40th birthday, but five were unable to go. I call them my niblings; it's to nephews and nieces as siblings is to brothers and sisters. Such a cute word; I used it with the first when he was little and the only one (so "my nephew" would've been enough) and it never went away. I remember being at my younger brother's wedding and it was time for the younger generation to come up for photos. One call of Niblings! and up they came in the blink of an eye. There are currently five of them: Alfie (11), Max (7), Mia (5), Oscar (3) and George (1). I didn't want them to miss out and I didn't want to miss out on them either, so I asked my sister to arrange for them to throw me a surprise children's party. I was late, of course. That goes without say. But Clare and I arrived to a quiet house, met by Matt, my brother-in-law, informing me that nobody was there but he was sure they'd be back soon. Well, I'd just have to walk through and wait for them, wouldn't I? Surprise! Great! They were all there and so was I! Time to start playing then! We started with pin the tail on the donkey. Alfie needs to learn that at about eight feet tall, he's going to have to crouch if he wants to get anywhere close: Oscar gave it a good shot: Mia ... eh, not quite so good: Max is a cheater and got busted feeling the edges! Judge Shanie dealt with that problem: One thing that's good about being a hobbler is that you're bent over quite naturally at just the right height: I think George won overall: We celebrated with some lollipops: Then came my favourite game: pass the parcel. It was a bit of a near miss; Oscar and Mia had decided to start attacking the parcel not long after I arrived but Lucy wrapped up the outer layer again. George was chuffed to win Thomas the Tank Engine: Alfie's present didn't bring quite the same sense of fun as the others' had but they'll come in very useful when he's in Lapland in a fortnight's time; they're grips to prevent slipping on the compacted snow: I learned that all the niblings are cheats. Look at how they tried to tear the parcel out my hands before I barely had a chance to touch it! "Party's over; I've got to do some reading now!" We played musical statues. The rules are simple; when the music stops, you have to freeze. The first one to move is out. I might not have won but at least I wasn't the first eliminated! And then out came the cake. James and Pam had done the homework for this one: Happy birthday, Uncle Tim I had to recruit Oscar to help me with the job of blowing out the candles: I'd have needed all five niblings if there'd been 40 candles on there! All five of them were briefly quiet enough to pose for a photo, though George wasn't fully signed-up to the idea of smiling: That's my five-a-side team! I thought that was the end of it but no, I'd forgotten that other great part of children's parties; getting presents! I soon unwrapped a box of beer but they had saved me a very special present till last. It seemed a bit tricky for an old man's fingers, so I recruited Mia and Oscar to help me: What was it? It was my favourite present, that's what! That's what my grandfather used to call me. The name's not been mentioned in over thirty years until Rob thought it would be funny to teach it to Oscar. Or Robert Yogurt, as I perhaps should say. That's going to take pride of place on a wall once I get organised! The day wasn't over yet, though; there was a table set, complete with triangular jam sandwiches, dinosaur serviettes, crispy cakes, and crisps. The niblings were all seated and there were two free spaces. It also happened to be James's birthday (he was a gift from my parents on the day I turned seven) so we were the guests of honour: For the avoidance of doubt, James is the grown-up that looks and acts like a grown-up. Blimey! I was tired after all this and needed to get ready for the main event in the evening, so had to leave. But this was tonnes of fun and everybody had done me proud. If they're not totally embarrassed of me by then, we'll have to try it again for my fiftieth!
  17. I seem to be one of those curious creatures who likes growing older even if I don't actually celebrate the fact. The last birthday I did anything for was my 30th, and that, my first celebration since 21, consisted of nothing more than asking three friends from different points in my life to meet me down a pub for a quick drink, the sort of thing that most people probably consider being a normal part of their week, a purely routine bit of socialising. I was quite looking forward to turning 30 and consigning the waste of time that much of my twenties had been to memory. It felt good to have a sense of focus: I'm going to grow a beard, get a mortgage and settle down. It all seemed far more positive than the largely aimless vagaries up till that point had been. Oh sure, I'd got my degree, lived abroad, was functionally fluent in two foreign languages, had even got an ultimately valueless MSc but nothing was established, no career in mind, no savings made. 30 was going to be the point when I turned the corner. In practice, the thought was a lot easier to realise than it might have been; I'd already met Clare at that point and we were coming up to our two-year anniversary. Not much by many people's standards but a record by a long shot for me. And my thirties have gone largely to plan, chiefly down to Clare and her support, and equal parts luck and hard work. I still have the beard, resisting the urge to shave it off because it's become a trendy thing in the intervening years. If I were still in my twenties, that beard would've gone. But no, I was doing a good job of being in my thirties, and so it's stuck with me and I to it. I head into my forties feeling positive. I'm not in a hurry to leave a decade behind as I was last time but I like the idea of being older. My thirties introduced many new people into my life; Clare's family have been wonderfully welcoming and treat me as one of their own. My interests have introduced me to many new people, nearly all of whom are very nice, and social media makes it easy to keep in touch with little effort. Most notable, though, are the people who weren't alive back then. I enjoy spending time with them and seeing them grow up and I'm looking forward to seeing more of the same. I can't do that without getting older. I decided it would be nice to offer something to my nearest and dearest, and so, though I wouldn't normally have done anything for my birthday, this time around I decided to throw a party and invite them to a medieval banquet at Coombe Abbey. It cost a fortune (topping £1000) but two days removed from the event, I'm glad I did it. We had a full turn-out and everybody got on very well. Our parents haven't met each other since the day we moved into our house, and that was very nearly a decade ago, so it was probably time! The younger members of the family weren't allowed there but I didn't want them to be left out, so I asked their parents to arrange a surprise party that they could throw me and then we'd get them involved that way. That will be part two of this blog but first we have to get from the morning to the point of driving to my sister's house. I got up earlier than Clare, which is fairly normal. I don't need as much sleep as she does and she works so hard that she often doesn't have a lot of fuel left in the tank, so I was out of bed long before her alarm was set to go off. I started the day with a mug of hot chocolate and a read of my current newspaper, The New European: That mug of Ludoviko Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was a nice personal present from Clare's sister, Helen, years and years ago. It usually sits in my office as a pen-holder but I decided to give it a one-off outing today. Once Clare was up, it was time to serve breakfast. Again, nothing out of the ordinary for many people but we particularly enjoy the bacon from a local man, such that we can't buy the cheaper stuff from supermarkets anymore. I love his pork pies too and although I discipline myself from buying them usually, today was an exception and I had a few slices: We split that equally between us just in case you get the idea I might have somehow wolfed down the lot! We're not the only people who live in this house: Heidi and Pebbles do too. On their birthdays and at Christmas, they get prawns for breakfast. I decided to treat them today so that they could join in: Clare's parents and sister had kindly sent me some gifts to open on the day, so that's what I started with. Her parents know me very well and so treated me to a trip for two to a cat café: Helen is the queen of thoughtful presents and so, on top of contributing to the trip to London to eat among a host of feline friends, provided me with a little stocking filler. It was a pin from a previous World Esperanto Congress. In itself, that's probably not terribly special; you can often find them on eBay easily. But she'd taken the personal approach, which becomes clear when you look at the date: Much better than an old newspaper... That was from the year in which I was born, which makes this a very special present! At this point it had been all of a few minutes since I'd fed the girls and both had empty dishes and were looking at me expectantly: This is an old phenomenon whenever they have prawns so I served them the rest of the pack, knowing full well to give Pebbles the lion's share because she would force down every last one whereas Heidi would stop when she was full: Regular as clockwork. Once her own mountain was consumed, she wobbled over and finished off Heidi's too. After this brief interlude, it was time to open presents from Clare: With Christmas coming so soon after my birthday, it can be a little unclear what to offer me. I suggested that it would make sense to have some light reading to do in the week before Christmas and to save the bigger presents until then: Not random either because this range covers several geeky interests of mine that go back decades. And to cap it off, there was a thoughtful final present: What's so special about a pen? I became a published author a couple of months ago and a couple of people have asked me to sign their copies of the book when I see them. I'm going to be in an environment in a few months' time where other people might ask the same service of me, so I need to have something a bit more glamorous than a standard ballpoint on my person. Even better is this feature of it: So the morning was off to a flying start. Now we had to jump into the car because I had a surprise party coming up with some very special younger people.
  18. Tim

    Day 2: Rauma

    - Rauma is not just famous for being a world heritage site but also famous, among speakers of Esperanto at least, for being the place where the Manifesto of Rauma was signed, during an Esperanto Youth Congress in the town in 1980. https://completeesperanto.uk/articles/t-rauma-for-the-traditionalists/
  19. More images of the olm/human dragons: They're blind and without skin pigmentation. They will never naturally come into contact with light and so haven't developed eyes. Although they're primitive, they have some features which would be useful to us. For example, they breathe through gills but have some basic lungs which allow them to breathe air out of water for a while. Most impressively, though, is that once they've eaten, they can go ten years without food!
  20. Today was our final day on the island of São Miguel. It's been a hectic one but very satisfying in that we finished it having achieved everything we wanted to do during our stay. I was in a fairly good mood because we'd got back our deposit left with the apartment owner. That was never really in doubt but the second deposit -- for the rental car -- was. Every car on this island has scuffs on its alloys. It's not possible not to clip curbs when you're driving down very narrow streets in old towns and another car is coming the other way. Our car had gained two sets of scuffs since I took over. Worse that that, it had gained mirror-image scratches on each side's rear doors. The cause of those scratches is very simple; there's a lot of wild flowers here and sometimes they grow overshooting the curb. If you happen to be on a mountain road with a bus coming the other way, the car drives through them. The upshot was that I was convinced that these new marks would be pointed out and mysteriously the cost of repairs would equal the excess. That's not to be sniffed at when it amounts to 800€ which has already been taken as a deposit. I was in luck, though. The man collecting the car wasn't the one who had dropped it off so he didn't have the same knowledge of which scratches were already in place. He checked that I had left sufficient petrol then asked me to sign to say I'd handed it back without a mark! He didn't even query the orange warning light being on on the dashboard. He then cancelled the transaction which had been pre-authorised for my deposit. Result! That just left us with the very pleasant job of going out for an evening meal. We took one last walk through Ponta Delgada and headed to the restaurant we'd had a quick and cheap lunch in on Sunday. I'd noticed that though everything else was cheap, there was one particular steak which wasn't. It was clearly a local speciality, so that's what we had. It was delicious, as were the desserts: chocolate mousse for Clare, and a local cake for me. Wonderful stuff. We exited and walked for the final time across the main square: Lovely, isn't it? It's now time for bed, since our flight leaves early tomorrow and we'll be carrying out a first of walking to the airport. We've reviewed this holiday over dinner and are clear that it's one of the top ones we've ever had with no day whatsoever being wasted. It seems that we'll be coming back on another occasion, only for a two-week break and with the intention of doing some island-hopping too
  21. We had a heck of a day today finally, after three visits in three days, getting the photos of Sete Cidades that we'd booked the flights to get. Unexpectedly, the cloud had cleared and a blue sky emerged in the late afternoon, which gave us cause to think we should make hay and visit some more places, but fatigue dictated that we head back to the apartment. We couldn't stay in for long, though. The sun was shining and we hadn't actually seen much Ponta Delgada besides a visit under the clouds on Sunday, so we thought we'd go out to a stroll. Even though we'd walked this street before, we hadn't noticed either this building or the massive cactus growing in its courtyard. We had, however, seen this beautiful blue building before: It was at the back of the garden with a beautiful tree whose flowers were blue a few days ago but which had now become purple: The whole garden was as vibrant as we remembered it: Soon we'd headed to the square which featured the colourful monastery: I hadn't noticed this previously but there was a rather elderly tree (look at the supports its branches need) which seemed to be sporting dreadlocks: Not far from there was the main square: We found a cafe nearby and decided to stop off for a drink: Whilst we were sitting there, the church became illuminated: It looked great! The whole square looked pretty because of it: It became clear that other places we'd visited earlier had had their lights switched on too: And not long afterwards we were back at the apartment, hungry because we'd skipped lunch again. But it was worth delaying dinner by an hour to see Ponta Delgada without clouds!
  22. It's been a long day, not least because we've travelled from one island to another and back again. Add on the time it takes to upload photos from your phone when the whole thing seems determined to time out, then the requisite time to put together a blog entry and BOOM before you know it, night has fallen. In which case, it makes sense to head outside for a stroll, don't you think? We'd noticed that lots of churches and large buildings had lightbulbs draped around them, so figured we'd get to see the landmarks illuminated. That wasn't the case; since it's still winter here, at least as far as the pricing system goes, maybe it's deemed that not enough eyes will be on the buildings. But even in the standard lighting, things looked lovely: Buildings like the Palace of Justice looked suitably impressive, even in the lack of natural light: And it was easy to make out the old-style British telephone and postboxes: As best we could tell, the only thing missing was the royal insignia, although we'd found some pre-independence GR ones. St John's Cathedral wasn't being left out: And the national library looked fabulous too: The same can't be said of the parliament: The locals call it the Cheese Grater. You can see why. In the corner of the photo you can glimpse the Triton Fountain. We headed towards it. It looked great! We soon realised that it was changing colour too, although only subtly: Up close it really was an impressive sight:
  23. All good things come to an end. That's the case for our latest visit to Lapland. It didn't get off to the most auspicious start, with my luggage staying in Helsinki and the apartment company giving us the wrong code for the keysafe (twice!) but that's all in the past and the week has been exceptional. I think we're getting this down to a fine art now. Since it was the last stroll we'd do for another year, we thought we'd head out in the evening for a stroll across the lake. (It will never not feel wrong typing that!) In contrast last night, we were the only ones out there on a cloudy night. Suddenly the sky changed to the west: A bright orange light appeared! It could've been sunrise: It would've needed several suns, though, because the same thing happened in other parts of the sky too: There was a hint of green between splashes of orange, though it was faint: Sometimes the intensity made it look like there was a searchlight: After admiring for a few minutes, we took one final glance and went home: We'll be up early tomorrow for a day of travelling. It's all worth it to come here, though. We're already making plans for next year!
  24. Today's activity was centred on skiiing, one year to the day since our previous attempt. As with snowshoeing, we'd decided that we'd try it ourselves by renting our skis, rather than pay for a class. We weren't sure how well we'd remember what we did last time, but it was cheaper to rent the skis for the week rather than pay for a lesson and we liked the idea of doing it by ourselves rather than as part of a group. Clare knew that there was a beginners' course on the lake, so that's where we headed off to, once we'd worked out how to put on our shoes. If we'd been experienced skiers we could have joined a trail as soon as we stepped out the door but since we're not, we had to carry our skis with us the kilometre or more to the lake. No mean feat! Clare's skis were soon on and she was ready to go: This was about 11-ish, so the red tinge noticeable in the background is the sunrise: Slow and steady wins the race. It was slow going at first but we reached the end of the first leg: The skies were clearer today, so we could see the fens from where we were standing: Then it was time to come back. You can see that Clare had picked up a bit more confidence: Soon enough she'd made it back to the start: I soon found it relatively straightforward: My Fitbit wasn't happy, though, noticing the increase in heart rate and ordering me to relax! We did the same trip several more times. Clare became a lot more at ease with it, although stopping was still a bit nerve-wracking: Soon she felt happier: 'One more time' became 'one more time' several times, until we'd spent an hour and a half going backwards and forwards. After having done the final final leg and turned the corner, Clare rightly looked rather pleased with herself: We were considering resting for an hour and then coming back to do some more but as soon as we got home we realised how sore we were. The good news is, though, that since we've rented the skis for the week, we'll be back out in a couple of days' time to do some more
  25. This afternoon I casually fired up Amikumu, an app for finding Esperanto speakers nearby. As it happens, I know a Finnish fella who speaks the language and I haven't seen him since 2004 ... and guess who our nearest neighbour happens to be? My mate, Pekka! He's moved from where he used to live, a town in the far north called Enontekiö (I've remembered the name from how it was enscribed on a pen he gave me) to Rovaniemi, which is the town that most people will have visited if they've been to "Lapland" but which is now no longer part of the Arctic Circle because that zone is shrinking. I contacted my buddy and explained that I know getting a message to meet up on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day 150 kilometres away with no notice would probably be tricky for a man with a family, but since we're coming back next year I could give him a bit of notice next time. He seemed happy with the idea! (I love Pekka but I'm going to have to have words with him about moving from Enontekiö before we had a chance to get that far north!) Clare and I decided to go for a stroll this evening, since we hadn't done a stroll in the darkness so far on this break. We stuck to doing what we know by walking in the direction of the supermarket, which meant we passed things which we already know: We hit upon the idea of walking a little further once we reached the supermarket. After all, we didn't know what lay beyond our self-imposed idea of the town limit and the weather was a comparatively mild minus 2. It didn't take more than a couple of minutes to spot what appeared to be a tower in the distance, so we headed towards it, across a river. We found an attractive display: The building with the bridge was a jewellery shop and the whole site was a caravan park: There was also a Christmas tree in the parking area:As is usual for car parks, there were piles of snow amassed:And then we headed home for a glass of wine. Tomorrow we'll be breaking out the skis!
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