Monday, 29 December 2008

Christmas

Quiet christmas, back at work today.

Alice gave all appearances of having guessed her christmas present - a DS Lite - beforehand, I don't know if she'd gone rooting or not. I used to have great fun doing exactly the same as a kid.

So anyway I came home early on christmas eve and christmas officially started at about 6 o'clock. I must say that I couldn't have felt less "christmassy", a main reason for this of course is that I am basically working through this year. I have big tax bills I need to pay, plus I suspect the client is grateful to have a technical expert around as most of their other "tekkies" are taking holiday.

Christmas Eve itself was quiet, surprisingly we managed to get Alice to bed at a reasonable hour, and not too excited. There has been decidedly little talk of Father Christmas this year, I reckon she thinks she knows what its all about, but she doesn't come right out and say anything just in case she wakes up and there are no presents! So we got Alice's presents wrapped (organised, that's us!) and had a relatively early night ourselves.

The downside of going to work each day was that on Christmas Day, I was awake at six o'clock. This was partially due to forgetting to switch the alarm off, but also due to Maisie deciding it was time for breakfast. So I got up the enjoy the quiet, although not for long as Alice came into the lounge with armfulls - and sackfulls - of presents. All very exciting as I watched her open her presents. There was the DS Lite and a couple of games, also some jigsaws, DVDs, vouchers (iTunes and Vodafone) from us, plus a load of craft stuff from Santa. There was even stuff from other people. Of course, when you see it piled up it is all way too much (not least Jacqueline tells me she was moaning today that she was bored!). Apart from this, Jacqueline cooked a delicious, traditional Christmas Lunch, though we are all a bit health-conscious at the moment and really the only unhealthy thing we ate were the roasties (unhealthy indeed, since Jac had bought goose fat in which to roast 'em!). Aside from this, Alice verged on the unbearable all day - she was understandably excited but I drew the line at some of her cheek. Still, we cut her some slack and I think she got sent to her room just the once.

The TV on Christmas Day seemed very poor, so we treated ourselves to a Box Office movie after lunch - the Indiana Jones film from last year. I thought it'd be difficult for a sixty-plus Harrison Ford to carry the role, but in the end it was nicely entertaining and a good film. Aside from that I had the laptop on my knee and was sorting out all the photographs that I hadn't bothered processing yet. As well as a few hundred from the trip to France, I also found loads from days out that had never made it off the PC.

As regards the photographs, the French ones in particular were taken in dull, grey skies and were totally underwhelming, though I did a bit of playing with the software and discovered that these same pictures, when passed through a black and white filter, took on a new lease of life. Quintessentially Parisien, even though I do say so myself.


[La Tour Eiffel, viewing from the Panthéon] 

 


[Panthéon]


[Place de la Contrescarpe] 

Having said this, one of my favourite photographs was when Sylvain (Isabelle's husband) hit the shutter release by mistake, resulting in a delightfully blurred photograph which could only ever come about by accident.


 
Despite the generally more pleasant weather in Rouen, I tried the same black-and-white technique with some of the photographs, and in fact while we were there I did do a quick tour around the city centre with the fish-eye lens, to add a little spice. I've included a couple below (all of the "presentable" photos are in the Family Album section if the site, if you want more).


[L'Eglise Saint Maclou] 

 

[Place de la Cathédrale] 

And there we have it - Christmas Day. I was clearly so inspired by the excellent quality of the photographs that Boxing Day (with Jac still in bed and Alice watching the TV) I took advantage of the glorious, clear skies to go out for a walk down by the river. Beautiful "winter" shots of the River Avon, really worthwhile despite the bitter cold. Here's why:

 
 

I'm afraid to say, however, that that was pretty much Boxing Day for me - we all stayed in the rest of the day, Jacqueline with a dicky tummy after her Christmas extravaganza. By Saturday, though, she was right as rain and in fact it was she who was out early, to West Quay shopping centre in Southampton. She was back by lunchtime - with shopping bags galore - telling me how wise she had been to get there early, as the traffic she saw when coming home was horrendous. Still, she'd obviously had some degree of success because the clothes she'd bought were all rather good. She's really chuffed (sometimes to the point of obsession) that she's lost so much weight in the last few months, and of course being able to buy sexy, elegant clothes is all part of the dividend.

As if one lot of shopping wasn't enough, we went into Salisbury this time, somewhat later in the afternoon, primarily so that Alice could spend some of her Christmas money. As it happened, our first stop after parking the car was to visit Great Western Outdoor where both Jacqueline and I got some bargains in the sale. In particular, Jac got hold of a couple of pairs of summer walking trousers which were really good quality (North Face) and outstanding value. But as I say, this trip was really for Alice and so we visited Woolies and then the Entertainer, but she found precious little of interest in either.

We hatched a plot, then, for Alice to visit Toys 'R Us in Southampton on Sunday, and fortunately here was somewhere she was able to spent her dosh! (I happened to get a remote-controlled helicopter also, but we'll say nothing about that!) We'd spent so much of the last three or four days just lazing around, however, that we really felt we needed some fresh air, so we hit one of our favourite New Forest locations at Bolderwood. Another photo opportunity, this time I walked around with the big lens to see if I could catch any distant deer. I did, fortunately, but even more spectacular were a couple of robins I managed to photograph. Now they look really good - I take lots of photographs and most of them are average, but every now and again one pops out just perfectly...





I had to do quite a bit of post processing on these photographs, because at the shutter speeds I was using (I was shooting handheld so needed to shoot quickly) the results tended to be quite dark. I'd love one day to get one of the really fast Nikkor zoom lenses, but these things cost thousands, would end up being very little-used and all in all would be a frightful waste of money!

So, back to the client's today. Very relaxing, with no-one faffing about, plus I actually achieved something I'd been trying to get around to for a while. 'Course, the "getting up" bit at the very start was painful, but I compensated by leaving early.

And the reason for this? Well, dear reader, today is my birthday and a (hopefully) delicious supper awaits me. Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me...

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas Cheer

Wow, we've been up to a lot this last week. Wednesday night we took the ferry across to Normandie for a short break before christmas. After spending Thursday morning mooching around Caen, we headed on to Rouen in time for Flunch, and our hotel.

We stayed once again in the Mercure, a great little hotel right in the centre, plus we got the room at an excellent rate because I booked it way back when we stayed there in August. Hotels such as these are excellent because you're never more than 10 minutes walk from them, so when you need a break they're close to hand. Plus the Mercure itself is very comfortable. The only perceived drawback is that they don't serve any proper food, although for a hotel right in a city centre, with probably 20 restaurants within 5 minutes walk, this is hardly an issue.

Anyway, Thursday afternoon was spent chilling and mooching - Alice and I gave up after a while and went back to the hotel, but Jacqueline was in her element - all those shops! Unfortunately with the weakness of the pound at the moment, all those shops were very expensive, so for the most part she was window shopping. Thursday evening I'd booked a table at a nearby restaurant, just picked it out of the Michelin Red guide, and was not disappointed. Fresh, gastronomic food - I would not hesitate to recommend Les Petits Parapluies if you happen to be in the area. Jac and I both had the most tender lamb you could imagine, while Alice devoured her favourite Saint Jacques in a delicious asparagus/parsley sauce. All rolled together with a wonderful Provencale Rose wine, and topped off with an unbelievable chocolate dessert. Excellent!

Friday again was just spent at leisure, going around the shops and a decent walk around Rouen - further away from the centre than we've been before. In the afternoon, Alice went ice skating - once again this year the Christmas Market was set up in front of the cathedral, complete with rink and merry-go-round. All very christmassy! Took a couple of photos, but the weather was just so grey I doubt there'll be many good ones. Also did some shopping, got Jacqueline's christmas present.

Friday evening we planned to go to a restaurant that we always visit in Rouen, in the old marketplace, only to find that it was no longer there! A great shame, they always served lovely, homely food and quite reasonable. Also unfortunately, the restaurant we eventually went to was not brilliant. Alive had Saint Jacques once again, but this time in a "Provencale" sauce that was pretty poor. Still, she did have chips with it and was happy (Scallops and Chips - what would Gordon Ramsay say??). Jacqueline and I both had Boeuf Bourgignon which was essentially just stewed beef. No lardons or chalottes, not even a hint of wine in the sauce. Pretty poor.

Big day Saturday, we got the train up to Paris and spent the afternoon - starting with an excellent lunch at the Founti Agadir Moroccan restaurant - with an old friend and her family. This was down by la rue Mouffetard and brought back some wonderful memories. My friend, Isabelle, and I met when we shared digs in Oxford. I was there working, she was doing her year in England as part of her degree in English. Isa studied at La Sorbonne, and it wasn't long after she left Oxford that I accepted her invitation to visit her in Paris, and stayed in her apartment for the week. Her apartment was just off Mouffetard, and marked the beginning of my association with the area. All this must have been in 1993, I think. Isa moved on and out of the area (to live with her boyfriend, who is now her husband), but I liked it so much that whenever I visited Paris I made a bee-line over there. I found a small, decent, cheap hotel which served me well. When I met Jacqueline I took her over there also, she got to know the area as well and especially liked the street market. Especially the cherries in the middle of the summer.....

Anyway, it'd been a couple of years since we visited (I haven't actually stayed in Paris for a good seven or eight years now, nor have I seen Isabelle for over a year), so we seized the opportunity. Lunch followed by a stroll from the bottom of rue Mouffetard up to the Pantheon, then back again. An excellent way to spend an afternoon, and of course great to catch up with an old frield. Of course it helps that she has kids just that little bit older than Alice, but I reckon we'd still be mates in any case.

We left Isa and family to continue their christmas preparations, and we headed over to the Opera - Jacqueline wanted to pick up some coffee from Nespresso - but were totally unprepared for the sheer volume of people there. We literally had to hold on to each other in order to stay together. At that point we had our only disagreement of the weekend. Jacqueline saw the grands magasins and despite the enormous amount of people, wanted to shop. Alice was tired since we had already walked quite a bit, and there was I, stuck in the middle. In the end Jacqueline relented and we walked back to Saint-Lazare, still, I might add, surrounded by thousands of people. Totally unpleasant. I was quite miffed that Jacqueline was sulking because she hadn't been able to visit the shops, and I thought this was totally unreasonable and said as much.

To cap it all, we arrived at Saint-Lazare just in time to jump on a train, but found it full - standing room only - throughout. Taking an executive decision I dragged the family off the train, saying we'd get the next. Very flustered. However, the next train was only a half-hour later, and we were the first people on it so although it too became packed, we sat in relative comfort. Fortunately on the journey home Jacqueline reverted to her normal, lovely self, and Alice was contentedly playing with a present given to her by Isabelle, so the family was at peace once more.

Crowds again on Sunday, when we took advantage of all the "overtures exceptionelles" to do our main food shopping before taking the ferry. From Rouen (we had a very leisurely morning and didn't check out until noon) we headed to Barentin, to visit both Decathlon (quite quiet) and Carrefour (totally manic!). Anyway, €250 of food shopping later, we were on the ferry heading home.

Doesn't time fly when you're having fun? But at least we have lovely French groceries for christmas!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Making Amends

After an all-round shitty day yesterday, I got home last night to find the house in darkness and a note left on the front door. (Unfortunately because it was dark, I couldn't read the note, but we'll gloss over that!)

Anyway, the door was unlocked so I went inside, and when I reached the lounge I was greeted by a cry of "Surprise", and Alice flicked on the christmas tree lights. Clearly, she'd been working hard since coming home from school on decorating the tree, and to her credit it looked beautiful.

I then got to read the note, which basically said she was sorry about all the grief she'd given me over her homework. Even better than that, however, we sat down and actually finished the homework. In just 10 minutes, and given a little help she was able to work out the right answers. I'm not sure she understands everything fully, but the barrier we had on Sunday had definitely lifted.

At the clients yesterday I spent the day working on a single, trivial problem for them. I must have spent over 95% of the time setting things up so that I could actually see the problem - thoroughly demoralising since it was extremely fiddly to find, even moreso because things had to happen in a certain order and if I forgot to do something it'd all fall down and I'd have to start again. I hate computers. In the end of course, the change I had to make to their system was trivial, but I was far from happy at the overcomplexity of it all.

I suppose after yesterday's blog entry, yesterday was never going to be a brilliant day, but after the day at the client's too (it is seldom exciting there but I am generally able to close my eyes and think of the mortgage!), I was pretty down.

I'm looking forward very much to the weekend, we're meeting up with just about the oldest friend that I keep in regular touch with. I met Isa in 1993, I think, when we shared digs in Oxford, and of course since then we have both gone and done the career and family things, etc., and generally gone down our separate paths. It'll be good to catch up since I haven't seen her now for over a year, and of course it is close to christmas so the kids will all be excited.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Bad Homework Day

Well it is seven o'clock on a dark Monday morning and I am thoroughly fed up. Whilst weekends are normally a time to recharge the batteries, this weekend has just drained me, thanks solely to Alice and her blasted homework.

Yes, we had another session where fifteen minutes' worth of homework turned into a three-hour slog. In the end I gave up - it was pointless her trying to answer questions about bus timetables when she couldn't even work out what the time was an hour before 3:45pm, for example. Not only was this truly easy stuff, but it is easy stuff she's covered before.

Unfortunately, I have to admit, I am such a poor teacher that I ended up getting frustrated and shouting, which clearly didn't help (though I'm not sure it particularly hindered her either).

I find this the most difficult part of parenthood. I started with nothing and anything that I have achieved in my life has been largely due to what's sitting in between my ears. It is profoundly disappointing that my daughter simply can't or won't engage her brain in any way, save for sitting there with the Argos catalogue and pointing out £300 toys she would like for christmas. All this despite knowing how tight things have become money-wise.

I am so fed up with it all. I can't help looking forward to when she is sixteen - if I am still alive then - and she can finally, legally, go out into the world on her own. And I can't help thinking that any half-decent parent wouldn't have thoughts such as these.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Jean Charles de Menezes

It is worth mentioning the news today, the jury in the Jean de Menezes inquest has returned verdicts which are quite damning for the police.

For some reason that I don't understand, the coroner refused to allow the jury to consider a verdict of "unlawful killing", which to be honest stinks big time. So, faced with returning either a rather weak "open" verdict or one of "lawful killing", the jury not only returned the "open" verdict, but on a dozen specific points (again, questions directed by the coroner) were as critical as it was possible to be toward the police.

I suppose my first reaction should be relief. Had the shooting been categorised as lawful, then the precedent has been set. It is then Ok for a policeman to walk up to any of us and not just to pull the trigger, but to execute any of us in a cold and calculated way. We can't forget that the people who shot Menezes didn't just fire a shot in the heat of the moment, but pumped him full of seven bullets over the course of a minute or so. A cold-blooded execution.

But it is more than relief. For a long time now I have thought I have been in a very small minority of people who have grave reservations about this so-called war on terror, about the fact that our liberties are being eroded in the name of our security (if anything I feel less secure, not more), and yes, about the fact that the police can target people and snuff out their lives on a whim. But now I know that there are people out there who agree. And even though the coroner prevented the jury from looking into the possibility that the police acted illegally, they still went as far as they possibly could within the constraints of "the system".

It is comforting that there are other people out there, who when the police and the politicians say "Trust us", will turn around and smell the bullshit.

Of course we should now be asking how the police witnesses came up with such a common story, which they failed to sell to the jury. Collusion? Perjury? I wonder how far they'll take that one? No, I think I can guess.... Shades of Hutton, I think.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Clear Skies?

I just spent a very pleasant Saturday morning walking around a wood near Whiteparish. With wonderful weather and amid beautiful countryside, I tried my hand for the first time at Field Archery. This was the culmination of a four-week evening course I've been taking - the course, I hasten to add, in a well-lit church hall!

It has been really quite good fun learning to shoot, though clearly in such a short time I have only picked up the basics. The next step to improving is to get my own kit and to join the local club. I have to say, I found the experience very similar to golf, in that as you aim your shot there are five or six things that all need to be in place for the shot to be good. Very similar to a golf swing. Also like golf, there is a huge variety of kit available to the unwary buyer - I suspect if will cost me something like £200 to get kitted out with a bow, some arrows and the necessary accessories, though looking on web sites it looks easily possible to spend over a thousand on the bow alone. Plus, of course, you go along there as a novice and you really have to trust the merchant's judgement on what to buy.

Anyway, that's all for the spring. Hopefully by March I'll have paid all my tax bills and will see the way clear to buying some stuff and checking out the local club - a spot of target archery on a warm summer evening sounds wonderful, though I'm not sure how competitive I want to be. For it to work for me it'd have to be a relaxing expereince and I very much got the impression from the coach that there were plenty of people at the club who were more than just "social" archers. We'll see. Hopefully - unlike golf - the club subscription fee will be sufficiently small that I can just pay it and write it off if I don't like it

So Saturday was a busy morning, because before the archery shoot I had to drop my car off for its annual service - I currently have everything crossed that they won't find anything wrong with it. But anyway, I was out of the house for eight o'clock (there is something very wrong about having to get up so early on a non-work day), but what a beautiful day, and being out just after sunrise too. I wish I'd had my camera with me.

I did have vague plans to get up early on Sunday with the camera, though when push came to shove and the alarm went off, I turned back over. A pity, because there had been a thick frost overnight, and Sunday too was cold, cloudless and sunny. I should have headed into the forest.....but there again, it is nice to be able to lie in on my days off.

Sunday remained good and we capped it off by visiting the Christmas Village in Winchester, complete with ice skating. Of course Jacqueline didn't take part at all, preferring to go shopping, which was a pity since it was her idea. I did skate, at least, but only really for fifteen minutes. At twenty, I had a girlfriend who was a mad-keen skater, and from her I learned a lot, but these days I just feel stiff and awkward, and am afraid of falling over and damaging myself - time off sick means lots of money lost. It is sad, I know. Alice, on the other hand, gets noticeably better every time she skates, and seems to really enjoy herself. Maybe she has found an outlet for herself?

Worth noting that because we'd planned to go skating I left the camera at home once again, a great shame because the whole village would have been great to shoot as the sun was going down in the brilliant blue sky. Would have needed a flash and a tripod to do it justice, though.

Maybe next weekend I can go out with the camera and get some decent winter photographs, though next Saturday we also have to buy a very important christmas accessory - the tree.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Ob-la-di

No entries for a while, mainly I'm afraid due to the fact that I haven't been bothered.

On the work front, my clients have had a massive drop in their budget which has resulted both in a cull of employees and the early termination of many consultants' contracts - they have been very secretive about the exact numbers so I would guess that they are sufficiently large to make people think, "Goodness, I didn't realise it was that many."

Fortunately they feel they need my company's services still. Overall this is good news, I suppose, although they did take the opportunity to renegotiate the rate we charge - downwards of course. In the current climate, they obviously feel they can get away with it. It was really quite nice to be told that our services were considered critical, though of course this comment needs to be taken with a pinch of salt - we'll see how critical our services are in three months' time if the slide continues. I mainly deal with middle-managers at the clients, and I do get the feeling that they are quite genuinely distressed by all of this. Clearly there is the personal aspect of their own little empires diminishing but I think there is more to it than this. Not least they must have doubts about their own safety.

Haven't really been up to much else. We did go over to Tower Park in Poole a couple of weekends ago, and had an excellent game of bowling, the first time in a long time. Alice in particular enjoyed it, I guess since it was so out-of-the-ordinary for her. Quite expensive, I thought, though. Alice ticked me off for getting too upset at my poor shots (I played the first game really well, with one of my highest scores, but deteriorated badly in the second.

Last weekend the weather was absolutely awful - the temperature hovered just a couple of degrees above zero and so we just had grey with rain on both days. To celebrate this we had some fun on the Wii - the Mario Karting was particularly enjoyable, though I don't think Jacqueline really "got it"!

As we found when Barney died, Maisie has become more friendly now that she has the house to herself once again. She's always been a tiny thing and I guess Carlo kinda dominated things. We have decided not to have any more cats, though maybe to think about a dog as and when Maisie pops her clogs (which we hope will be many years into the future). Although we are all cat-lovers, it just seems sheer irresponsible to bring a cat into such a dangerous environment as where we live. It is ironic that my mum lives in a big city and has had two cats since I was a child, both of which have lived to a ripe old age (one of which is still going aged 16 now, I think), whereas we live in the middle of nowhere in what at first sight would be paradise for a cat. Needless to say Carlo's loss is still painful, especially for Alice, but we buried him and planted some bulbs over his grave, a small token. Things will get better over time of course but it is scant comfort to talk about this right now.

Apart from that, working hard for the taxman at the moment. Got an old bill to pay and another one in February. Whoopee!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

My Boy

Of course we all had a terrible night, with plenty of tears.

The first task of the day was to bury the boy. Alice was kind enough to stay up really late - I doubt she slept much anyway - decorating an old shoe box for him. We all wrote a little message in it and then said our goodbyes. Now he's asleep under the Magnolia tree.

Goodnight boy, rest in peace. I'll remember you always.


[Carlo (2006-2008), taken March 2008]

Friday, 7 November 2008

Carlo

I can't believe it, the boy has gone.

Jacqueline let him out earlier tonight and quite shortly afterwards there was a knock on the door. He'd been knocked over and died instantly. It wasn't even the driver who knocked, but a passer by.

I can't believe I'll never got to watch (or write about) his antics ever again. He was only 2½ and with all the leanness of youth. Absolutely full of life. Alice is devastated of course.

Back to the clients this week after the holiday to see all of their managers scurrying around. As a consultant I am very much an outsider and they are playing their cards close to their chest, but from what I can gather redundancies are in the air. And getting rid of permies is the next step beyond getting rid of consultants. All told I reckon I'll be lucky to be with them by Christmas.

As weeks go, this one has been totally shitty.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Home Again

Got back this evening, after a long journey back from Wales.

Had a pleasant enough day coming back down through Ireland, good weather, and stopped at Cahir for a visit to the castle and for lunch. Both excellent, the castle in particular only had about two other visitors so there were no pesky tourists to get in the way of my beautiful photographs! Onward down to Wexford, which was quite a nice town. Of course, we didn't get there until fourish so didn't have a great deal of time there, but pleasant nevertheless. Again, there were lots of little boutiques as opposed to the UK High Street chains. I got myself a new winter coat (a lovely, warm Regatta yachty-type thing) quite cheaply. (I broke it in today on the deck of the ferry and it was great - totally windproof.)

We spent last night at the St Helen's Hotel right by the harbourside at Rosslare. A strange hotel, it was a once-excellent building - at dinner last night we had a great view of the ferry loading up for the night corssing - however the room itself was very cold and the place could have done with a good deal of modernisation. Okay, I suppose, but dinner, bed and breakfast came to £150 so by no means a bargain. They even wowed us with the promise of some live music - after the excellent music on Friday night, we were well up for it, however the music turned out to be a Country singer. Now, as things go, Country Music ranks pretty high on my list of things to miss. So I made my excuses, returned to our (cold) room and settled down to watch Match of the Day. However, 'twas not to be. Jacqueline and Alice came back to the room shortly after and whined sufficiently about having football on the TV that I turned it off. I'd heard that Everton had actually won for a change and wanted to see the highlights, but I guess I'll have to make do with the BBC's web report.

(Actually since we got home and I now have the magic of the internet once again I have learned that they beat Bolton in midweek and are an incredible seventh! Last time I looked they were third-from-bottom - I must go on holiday more often!)

Anyway, up early for breakfast and an 8am departure. The saving grace for the hotel (apart from it having a half-decent leisure centre) was that it was only five minutes from the ferry. The weather back was beautiful, and I got some especially good photographs of the Welsh coast (at least I think I did - I can't be bothered getting them off the camera tonight). But oh, the drive from Pembroke was terrible. 2½ hours to Cardiff, where we stopped for a walk down by the bay followed by a lovely meal at the Old Orleans, then another 2½ hours home - the roads were really busy all the way. Still, back by 8:30pm and time enough to get the computer out and to catch up on everything I've missed in my sad little virtual world! (My only consolation is that Jacqueline is no better - as soon as we'd unloaded the car she had the TV on to catch up on the hours and hours of crap she's recorded during our week away.)

Ah, well, work tomorrow. Back into the routine. Not sure I can face getting up at a quarter-to-six, but the taxman calls...

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Dolphins

Yesterday proved to be the highlight of the holiday. We'd held out all week for good enough weather, and finally yesterday it arrived. In the freezing cold sunshine, we drove a massive 2½ hours out to a village called Carrigaholt, on the south side of the Loop Head peninsula in West Clare, and took a boat out into the mouth of the Shannon to go and watch the dolphins. A first for all of us, and an amazing sight. We probably saw three or four pods, maybe twenty or so animals, with the most playful swimming alongside and then under the boat. But boy, you've got to be quick to see them - of course I was fully armed with camera, and haven't downloaded the shots yet, but I suspect that most of them will show a patch of sea where a dolphin was a split-second earlier! But hey, I took something over 200 photographs so I'm sure at least one will be good.


Despite the long drive, I made sure we got to Carrigaholt in good time, so much so that we had time for lunch beforehand, and the pub, the Long Dock, was well worth a mention. Coming in from the cold to a massive open fire, my liver and bacon was delicious. This particular pub has won awards and I'd have to say that the standard was excellent, especially so for a pub out in the back of beyond. But then Carrigaholt itself really was my kind of place. This is really desolate country, where the elements for sure dictate the pace of life. If ever I achieve my ambition of becoming reclusive (damn, I forgot to buy a lottery ticket again last night!) this is the type of place I'd be. (Well, maybe southern France would be in with a shout!)

So anyway, if you're ever in the area I can highly recommend a meal at the Long Dock followed by a trip out with Dolphinwatch - but make sure you wrap up warm!

We got back into Carrigaholt just after four (now that the clocks have gone back it is getting dark really early), and we were back in Dromineer for 6:30pm. While I think on, one surprise we did get yesterday was when the woman who runs the place came over and read the meter - a massive €70, for just a week's power. If ever there was a statistic to damn electric storage heaters, (we have used the oven a little, but only these god awful heaters and the immersion over long periods) this is it. But still, we didn't come on holiday to sit in the cold, so I had to cough up.

Overcoming my shock, however, we celebrated out last night in Dromineer by taking Alice out to the local pub for a meal. They had live traditional music on, which was excellent. Alice, of course, loves anything musical and protested quite strongly when, at 10:30pm, I said that we had to come home to bed. An excellent meal once again, but way too much. Poor old hostess looked offended when she saw than none of us had managed more than half of our meals, but what could we do? We needed to save some room for pudding!
Today I'm up early, the rest of the house is still in bed, because I wanted to get this entry done. Packing, for the most part, is complete, though the woman yesterday told us that there was no hurry to get out since we were the last visitors of the year. But in any case I'd like to set off sharpish since we've tentatively said we'll go to Cahir Castle, then have a look around Wexford on our way back down to Rosslare. We've certainly seen a lot of Ireland this week and I'd love to revisit at some point. Excellent.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Irish Times

Ah, so where were we? Well, we spent Monday driving around Lough Derg. Very beautiful, again we had blue skies and sunshine interspersed with heavy showers. We've seen rainbows every day, and of course when the sun shines it makes the ground look green and full of life. The trees, however, are very autumnal, shades of gold everywhere.

So Monday was fine, we thought we'd drive until we hit Portumna, then have a spot of lunch. All was well until, approaching Portumna, we found the bridge across the Shannon was closed ro repair work. So near, but yet so far. A minor inconvenience? Well, we took the recommended diversion, but in this part of the world bridges across the Shannon are few and far between, and the diversion took almost an hour before we finally hit Portumna. Can't really complain, since we drove through beautiful countryside, but by the time we arrived we were all quite hungry and were disappointed further to find that everywhere seemed shut up. I know it was a bank holiday, but I'd have thought I'd still be able to find some open cafés. Anyway, on we drove around the lough, planning to stop at the first place we saw. As it happened, the western side of the lough is even less developed than the eastern side (I wouldn't mind but we saw an excellent-looking pub/restaurant in Terryglass, before we knew about the diversion. If only we'd known...) and we didn't find anything until we reached the town of Scarriff, where a small supermarket was open. So we had a belated lunch, al fresco, sitting by the small harbour at Scarriff. Chilly but beautiful, and very quiet. As we continued around the lough, there were some wonderful views, especially once we crossed the Shannon again at Killaloe, when we drove onto high ground and had a tremendous view of the lough below. To cap it all, we saw a really bright rainbow, probably the brightest I've ever seen, which made the view almost magical. Unfortunately we weren't able to stop quickly enough to take a photograph, but the memory will stay forever in any case. It was that time of day, that we drove around into Nenagh and had no trouble finding an open coffee shop for a yummy cake and latté to round off the day.

Tuesday we went for another drive, and the roads were much more lively after the bank holiday. Drove down to Tipperary, where we stopped only briefly. It was raining, plus the place didn't look particularly attractive. We drove on to Cashel for lunch (found an excellent café) and a visit to the famous Rock of Cashel. We had blue skies and fluffy white clouds by this time, so I should get some half-decent photographs. Excellent views across to the Galtys in the distance. Very windy and cold once again, though. Some places had snow forecast...

After visiting the old cathedral, we pressed on to Thurles, a charming little town, where we stopped for an hour. Thurles is the home of the Tipp county hurling team, so I couldn't resist getting a souvenir polo shirt with which to remember the visit. On then to Nenagh once again, where this time there was time enough not just for a coffee (we found an excellent deli) but to have a look around some shops too. It was dark as we did this and there was the smell of smoke in the air - lovely. I have to say that Nenagh is possibly the most charming place we have visited, and it is right on our doorstep too. A lucky choice, given we didn't really know anything about the area when we booked.

Yesterday we fell back to "Plan B", the weather really was awful so we just headed for the nearest city, Limerick. Now, I had been warned that Limerick was a bit of a dump, but if the truth be told I was pleasantly surprised. The best thing - and this seems typical of Ireland so far - is that you see plenty of independent shops, not just the normal High Street chains. So, all in all, a pleasant day. No photos though!

Today we ended up doing something similar, although the weather was a little better so we drove right down to Cork. All was fine until we actually arrived, when it took something like thirty minutes to park. Unbelievable. The city looked good, though this time we saw many High Street chains. I suspect if we'd had longer there we would have found the smaller shops in the smaller streets, but of course we were visiting for an afternoon only, plus there was a freezing wind. I think I'd probably go back there and visit again.
I have to say I've enjoyed Ireland immensely. It is like England in terms of scenery, but more charming in terms of the towns and the people. We've been quite lucky having been so close to Nenagh, the flip side being that it took us a couple of hours to get to the coast the other day, and a couple of hours to get down to Cork today. I think possibly next time we may locate ourselves in Clare, for example, and have most things a little closer (though of course visiting places like Cork would then be out of the question). But yes, it'd be good to come back.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Not again...

Ah, well, it has been so long since I last wrote anything that I can't even remember what I wrote. Suffice it to say that nothing has happened that was worth writing about! However...

Way back in June or July, when I was desparate for a holiday, I had the idea of getting a last break of the year in. Somewhere not too far from home (last year we headed up to Scotland having dumped Alice at Grandma's, the year before we visited the Yorkshire Dales), and somewhere new. We settled on.... Ireland.

So, I was up at my normal time on Friday, ready to check the crossings (the previous day they'd been cancelled due to stormy weather), pack the car, the family and the cats, and then to start our latest holiday.
Fun and games started almost immediately, the first stop being to drop the cats off at the cattery at half-past-eight. Knock, knock. No answer. "I arranged to bring them early", says Jacqueline. Knock, knock. No answer. Give them a ring. No answer. Even the woman's neighbour helped at one stage. At a quarter-to-nine, signs of life. "I don't open until 9", she says, "Early? I've nothing written in my book". Anyway, by ten-to-nine we're on our way. Me, stressed out because we need to be at the ferry for 2 o'clock, and Tomtom is warning us of a four-and-a-half hour journey ahead, so not much slack to play with.

In the end, of course, I needn't have worried. There we were, sitting on the quayside at one o'clock, blessed by good driving conditions and, for the most part, with Demon Jac behind the wheel. Anyway, onto the ferry for a lunch of fish and chips - first food since 7 o'clock in the morning so I was ravenous. Next priority was to get some sleep. Fortunately the ferry was pretty quiet, and in a coffee bar I found a deep, three-seater sofa with my name on it. Choppy? Errrr, you could say that. I could hear continuously car alarms going off on the deck below, and the ship was fair rolling around. But did it stop me sleeping? Not a bit of it. And Alice spent the crossing playing, too. Only poor old Jacqueline sat there feeling sea-sick!

On schedule, we made port in Rosslare, and set foot on Irish soil for the first time (apart from a holiday and various business trips to Dublin). The first night, we were only headed as far as Wexford, so literally twenty minutes off the ferry we were checking into the hotel. After the long drive to Pembroke, I didn't want to have to do any more that day. Still quite tired, Alice and I want for an excellent supper in the hotel restaurant while Jacqueline (who is still on her diet) visited the health club. After that, bed. Knackered. We felt quite high up in the hotel, and throughout the night we could hear the window rattling, for the wind was certainly picking up. True enough, by the time we checked out on Saturday (after a hearty Irish breakfast - my first cooked breakfast for ages!) we faced quite horrible conditions for the drive to our cottage.

According to Tomtom, the drive ahead of us was not long, so we stopped for a couple of hours at Waterford. More by luck than good judgement (the road signs/layout was terrible, something we found once again in Limerick yesterday), we found Waterford Crystal and as obedient tourists went on the factory visit. I have to say it was excellent. They had an exhibition of some of the one-off trophies that they have made, including Wimbledon championships and many golf tournaments. We even bought some of our very own (well, Grandma's christmas present actually, hope she doesn't read this!!). In all, well worth the visit.

Onward and upward, though, and as the weather became worse and worse, we passed through (the former cyclist) Sean Kelly's home town of Carrick on Suir, on our way up to deepest Tipperary. A village called Dromineer on the edge of Lough Derg. Really, the heart of Ireland. Despite the rain, Jacqueline and went out for a walk, and whadd'ya know? We found a pub. And whadd'ya know? They were serving Guiness. So, of course, I felt obliged.... (Jacqueline was still very good, sticking to mineral water.) Of course, when we arrived back at the cottage, Alice was very jealous, but there again, it was she who had declined to come with us in the first place. So, anyway, that was Saturday. Fortunately the cottage was warm, for the storm outside was a bit furious.

Sunday, however, we woke up and the sky was a lot brighter. No rain either, but quite a biting wind. Having had an extra hour's sleep, we then went for a walk around the harbour, en famille. Saw the castle ruins and had a good old walk. Very wet underfoot, though. We were sufficiently optimistic about the weather that we decided we might just get a good day out of this, so we headed west. On the car radio, the forecast was basically "sunshine and showers", and that's exactly how it turned out. Having said that, when we arrived at our destination - the Cliffs of Moher - in the middle of a hailstorm and gale-force winds, we almost didn't stop. But the rain stopped, the sun came out, and all in all we had an excellent couple of hours there (followed by another good hour or so in a Rock Shop we'd seen close by). I haven't checked the photographs yet but there are bound to be some quite spectacular shots. But I simply couldn't get over the wind. Okay, that was the Atlantic out there, but it really felt like if you didn't keep your balance you were going to be blown over. I saw one unfortunate couple who tried to put up an umbrella...

Ultimately, well worth the four hour roundtrip, although I'm not sure we'll venture quite so far today. We were back at the cottage for 6:30pm, of course the clocks having gone back it was dark, and Alice and I had hot dogs for supper. Real "holiday" food. To cap it all, today is a Bank Holiday in Ireland, so the rest of the country is on holiday too. It has just gone 10 o'clock and I've hardly heard a peep from outside. But the sun is once again streaming in through the window, it is about time I got a shower and discussed with the womenfolk what to do today. I could quite fancy a drive around Lough Derg, I'll see what they think.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Autumn on the Way?

Well, the weather has certainly turned over the last 24 hours. I came out of the house this morning to driving rain, and on the journey to the station saw lots of leaves being blown about. Perhaps we're finally at the start of the cold season. In contrast to this, the weather beforehand had been wonderful. We enjoyed an excellent day out in Poole Harbour and on Brownsea Island two weekends ago, all of us dressed very much for summer. Brownsea was lovely - a really good place to go for the day to just tramp around. We saw a couple of elusive red squirrels - I was struck by how much smaller they are than the greys - which were sufficiently quick on their toes that the only in-focus photograph I got was of one running away pretty sharpish! There was even an overly-friendly pheasant who insisted on following us, presumably in the hope of a share of the picnic! Very different from the pheasants closer to home, whose main goal in life is to avoid humans, and more specifically lead pellets! But the overriding memory of Brownsea will just be the sheer tranquility next to the sea, shimmering in the sunlight.






"No photographs!"



Then last weekend, equally fine weather but this time spent among the crowds at Portsmouth. The goal was to visit the Spinnaker Tower, which I have to say was expensive, disappointing and probably best seen from a distance. From the expense perspective, it cost something over £20 for the three of us. Our photos were taken at the start of the visit, to be processed in time to offer us a souvenir at the end of the visit (for the princely sum of £8 - we declined!) only to find, when we got to the viewing platforms, everywhere glassed in and in the full glare of the sun. Even the topmost platform, the so-called Crow's Nest, was open air only by virtue of a small skylight exposed to the elements - but still enclosed in walls of glass. So, between fingermarks and reflections, all in all lugging my camera around was a complete waste of time. Well, almost - I did get a couple of good images of the tower, once we'd descended.


We hadn't realised it, but the site of the Spinnaker was slap-bang in the middle of Gunwharf Quays shopping centre. Whilst, as shopping centres go, the harbourside location is very pleasant on a fine day, this fact meant one overriding thing - queues. In fact, it took a full 90 minutes to get to the place, a journey I would ordinarily expect to complete in 45, and the queues coming out were even worse. But still, as I say, overall quite a pleasant experience, complete with boutiques such as Molton Brown, L'Occitane and Kipling to keep Jacqueline happy (though as it happened it was me who bought things). We must go back there, but perhaps when it is quieter.


What else? Well, I finally took the plunge and upgraded my laptop. Dell Outlet really is good for that kind of thing. You're a bit constrained by choice, because these machines are returns and cancellations, but the prices are excellent and they come complete with standard warranties etc. As it happened I got one of the most powerful machines, but which was a bit short on memory and on disk space. All for under £500. An extra £85 for another memory chip and a massive 320GB hard disk (not from Dell, I hasten to add, they're very uncompetitive for this stuff), and I have a top-of-the-range computer. I have decided that this machine is to be admin-only (documents, accounts, email etc.) since I know from experience how cluttered things can become once you start putting "tekky" stuff on there - the tools I use for my day-to-day consulting work. And, this is my first proper experience of Vista. It looked quite different to previous Windows products from a distance, but close-up-and-personal it becomes familiar very quickly. But then (imo) Windows' weakness has never been look and feel (on the contrary, that's its greatest strength), but things like security, stability and general "enterprise" features. So, we'll see how that goes.


Not a great deal else going on. The turmoil in the markets still (thankfully) appears to be quite some distance away, and if anything the trouble Bush is having getting his aid package through congress is giving everything a farcical gloss. Under the slick veneer, there really does appear to be little substance, and this is borne out by this rescue package, which is vague indeed. Who can really blame congress for requiring "due diligence" when it comes to dishing out that much money? The sad thing is that neither of the presidential hopefuls seems particularly tuned in either. Still, I hear today that as EU president, Sarkozy is putting together a summit of the main European players, to work out how best to weather the oncoming storm.

Troubled times...

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Hot hot hot

We're having an Indian summer here at the moment, beautiful weather the last week or so.
The last couple of Saturdays have involved gardening, including a three-hour stint yesterday cutting back the laurel tree. Its hard work and there's still stuff to do but the garden is looking the best it has in years. I got a new, tall step-ladder just before we went on holiday (getting it was hassle indeed!) but it was absolutely brilliant for reaching into the tree.

Last Sunday we had a lovely day out, somewhere we've never been before, a place called Dancing Ledge on Purbeck. We had to walk for a mile or so to get there, but well worth it. Dancing Ledge is a former quarry, right on the edge of the sea (they used to barge the stone away), whose distinguishing feature is a swimming pool having been cut out of the rock. For once, I've got a photograph ready to show:




Today, we're going to head over to Brownsea Island for the first time, and in fact I'm going to have to stop writing in a minute to get showered so we can get out in time. The weather is, if anything, brighter than last week, so I'm hoping for some good photographs.

Life at the client's has been unusually quiet - some software I built for them got released and it has gone incredibly well. On the plus side, they have offered to extend the contract for another twelve months, and given the current market conditions it will probably make sense to accept.

Talking of market conditions, HBOS has gone belly-up this week. It just about sums up the farce that is the market, when speculators can condemn what is probably a perfectly healthy company. It has been bought up by Lloyds TSB, something that the competition commission would never have allowed in "normal" times. The resulting colossus will become the third largest UK bank overnight. Great news for Lloyds shareholders, I'm sure. Probably not so good news for the customers.

Anyway, as I say, a farce, though you could say I am somewhat bitter and twisted at all of this, having lost a heap of money in the markets after 9/11. Fortunately I learned my lesson and have very little invested in stocks any more.

Time for a shower and to wash yesterdays toil down the plug-hole!

Monday, 8 September 2008

The Usual Stuff

Been back a week now, and last week was quite tough. Back to the client's on Tuesday, and three of the four days I didn't get home until 9 o'clock in the evening. It would have been four, except that I just dropped everything on Friday and headed off.

To make matters worse, I must have spend a couple of hours each evening going through the holiday photographs, tagging them and correcting them etc. This doesn't take long per-photo, but over the two thousand or so photographs I took, you can imagine it takes a little time. Plus, of course, even though very few of these photos ever get published in the album, they all need to get stored away someplace... (This break alone generated 20GB of images.)

Anyway, suffice it to say that after a marathon session Saturday, all the fiddling was done, and after an overnight batch job so too was all the sorting and storing. The published photos hit the site at 7 o'clock on Sunday morning.

Sad, eh?

Anyway, apart from messing around with photographs on Saturday, the weekend was pretty quiet. We headed over to Bournemouth yesterday, where Alice and I enjoyed fish and chips for lunch. Jacqueline abstained, she started a new diet yesterday which seems to involve drinking nothing but cup-a-soup! I jest, but it is costing her quite serious money and is all actually quite high-tech. She's pushing me to go on it too, although I think I'll wait and see the outcome first.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Twenty Six Thousand Words

Okay, after several days effort I finally got the holiday photographs onto the web site this morning. Very relieved. Of course, it also allows me to put a couple of pictures onto the blog. So, here's our holiday in pictures...
We stayed for a week in a chalet...


...in the Val d'Abondance.


This is in the Haute Savoie region of France, in an area of lakes...


[Lac de Montriond] 


[Lac Léman] 

...of ski lifts...

[Le Morclan]

...and, of course, of beautiful mountains

[Dent d'Oche] 

[Pointe de Dreveneuse] 

[Dents du Midi] 

[Dents Blanches] 

[(distant centre) Roc d'Enfer] 

[Mont Blanc, viewed through les Dents Blanches]

As well as visiting some wonderful mountain villages such as Les Lindarets...


...we also visited Switzerland a couple of times, including Geneva...


...and a day trip to Zermatt...


...and of course, up to the Schwarzsee to admire the Matterhorn...



...where we realised that there are people far more daring than us!



At the end of our week, we headed north through Alsace, for an overnight stop in the beautiful village of Riquewihr...







...on our way to a short stop at Disneyland Paris...








...one of the highlights of the visit being the end-of-day firework display.







Before returning home, we had a couple of days at the seaside in Le Touquet. Unfortunately the weather deserted us, but Alice didn't mind

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Home

Ah well, that's us finished for another year.

We did eventually see the sun at Le Touquet - on the morning of our departure. I had to take a few snaps of it, but poor old Alice wasn't able to play on the beach since we had to travel. Despite staying relatively close to Calais for a couple of days, we were due to sail back from Le Havre, so we drove south once again for a last night in our favourite hotel in Rouen (the Mercure), where we visit two or three times a year in any case. So we left Le Touquet mid morning (packing all the things into the car was a work of art!) and arrived in Rouen in time for lunch.

Normally, we just wing it with the car, but this time, with the bikes and all, I booked ahead to leave it in the hotel's underground garage. A wise move since it was nice and secure and was only a lift-ride from our room. Lunch at Flunch, which we all like (again, it is a shame somewhere like this doesn't exist in the UK), followed by an afternoon at leisure. I think all the travelling (and the rediscovered summer heat!) had got to Alice, since she ducked out and stayed in the hotel watching TV and playing on her mobile, while Jac and I went shopping. Call me a bad parent, but there is something very liberating about leaving kids behind! I just wish it were possible more often.

So there we were in Rouen, and with no spare room in the car we were essentially restricted to window shopping. For me, I restocked on some toiletries. I had intended also to get some Eau de Toilette from Printemps, but was very surprised when the sales assistant, having served the guy in front of me, just walked off and left me standing there. So, I dumped the scent and I too walked off. Not a word to me, very ill-mannered, and I must admit that this has happened to us a couple of times on this holiday. I already mentioned the cafe in Strasbourg, but while we were in the hotel at Le Touquet, I was waiting to speak to the receptionist about something when this old chap sauntered in front of me, and butted in. In that case, I waited until he had finished and then blocked his route. When he was looking disrectly at me I told him (in my best French) that I had been in front of him in the queue, and that he was a very rude man. But it takes a lot of effort and I must admit my French vocabulary is not strong in the area of "polite" insults. But still, I wasn't going to let it spoil the holiday.

Saturday evening in Rouen, and we ended up at a restaurant we've been acouple of times before, called Le Comptoir de la Place, and again we received an excellent meal at a reasonable price. A stroll back to the hotel and an excellent night's sleep. Fun and games, though, this morning, when none of the lights would work. So, we ended up having a shower in the dark and I missed my shave altogether. The original plan was just to spend the morning at leisure in Rouen, then to head somewhere for lunch and to amble along to Le Havre, but the lack of light (plus it was very overcast and in fact was thundering when we left) made us check out soon after breakfast. We tentatively agreen that we'd go to Deauville for lunch, although en route we had an impulse change and instead visited Port Audemer. We had of course passed by many times, but this time we stopped. And this proved a good move, as we found an excellent little restaurant in which to lunch. I had a gallette, my only one of the holiday, and Jacqueline had a meat dish which I'd never seen before. They brought out some raw meat (beef and lamb), and a really hot stone on which to cook it. So, she sat there cooking her own lunch! Smelled lovely, tasted good too according to Jac.

After lunch, cruised up to Le Havre, avoiding the autoroutes, and in fact had time for a last half hour on the beach (albeit the weather was somewhat overcast) before heading for the ferry. We were fortunate and got on really quickly, though the ferry soon filled up and looks absoultely rammed whenever we venture out of the cabin. We've hardly seen Alice since we set sail - she has gone to the kids' zone and when I checked on her was playing happily down there. Jacqueline is dozing on the bed, and I've just been to the shop (where I picked up th eau de toilette I was after, and 5€ cheaper than Printemps. I have a day's grace tomorrow, then its back to the grindstone on Tuesday.

Watch out for some photos when I get around to it.

Friday, 29 August 2008

To the Seaside

From three days' of good weather outside Paris, Wednedsay lunchtime we headed north, this time to the seaside for real at Le Touquet. We stopped here once before, six or seven years ago, as an overnight stop before heading back through the tunnel. This time I decided to have a three-night break. We picked the same hotel, the Novotel, and indeed Jacqueline's birthday present (which she took yesterday) was a pamper day in the Thalassotherapy institute next door. I think she was impressed, although the hotel in general does not seem as nice as it was on our last visit. We went down to the pool on Wednesday evening and the changing rooms were in a disgusting state. Not just dirty, but also looked like they were in disrepair. Paint has been allowed to peel and from te beach, the hotel very much resembles a concrete bunker.

Still, the rooms are quite large and comfortable, and we have a balcony overlooking the beach, so it is good to go to sleep to the sound of the waves. Breakfasts are good and the meal we had on our first evening was passable (though we ate out at the nearby Cote Sud restaurant last night and had a far better dinner).

Alice, of course, loves it. The day we arrived she got to go in the salt water pool, and yesterday she spent about seven hours on the beach, two of which in the sea. She has no feeling for the coldness of the water - I got as far as my calves and was almost frozen! And she loves it. She could happily spend all day, every day, playing on the beach. Jacqueline, of course, had her pamper day yesterday and so I had to look after Alice. But to be honest, apart from the time she was in the sea I was happy to watch her from the room. From there, I could fire up the computer and check out some of the photographs I'd taken (I'd uploaded them but hadn't had time to look at them), and could use the hotel's WiFi to catch up on emails, do a bit of surfing etc. etc. Sad, eh?

In fairness, I did head up to Boulogne yesterday afternoon - I wanted to get my shampoo, shower gel and tea (none of which I can obtain in England, and I'm a fussy bugger!) and took a trip to the Decathlon up there to get a suitcase, of all things. We got a smaller one in Thonon and it was excellent, so I got a larger one today. The plan is to try to pack everything into one bag or another, rather than into the car. Also, our cases are pretty old now, so these will act as replacements. That's my excuse, anyway!

Unfortunately, our luck has run out with the weather. Despite leaving Disneyland in sunshine, we have not seen an ounce of it since arriving on the coast. Nor any blue sky. We've had three days of dull, overcast weather, though thankfully we have been spared any rain. When we look at the weather forecast we can see that we're getting exactly the same weather as we'd be having at home. But still, better to have this dull weather now than to have had it last week (though in fairness the Savoie also looks to be getting good weather this week too!) Still, given the choice of sitting at home with grey skies and sitting on the beach with grey skies, guess where I'd sooner be?

This is our last day now. This afternoon we're going to get the bikes out and cycle into the town centre (the bikes have hardly been used this holiday and have been pretty much a waste of time), I must hit the web again to find a restaurant for this evening, then we must pack ready for one final night in one of our favourite cities, Rouen, on Saturday. Not that we can buy anything however since the car is already bursting!!!

Survivors

Well, we survived Disneyland - just about!

After an event free journey west, we arrived at the Sequoia Lodge around lunchtime. Although we were a little early for the room, it was ready so they let us check in, and essentially it was then just a case of getting our things out of the car, into the room, then heading for the park. As it happens, the secret held. The only suspition Alice had was that she could see we were heading for Paris, yet I'd told her we were going to the sea side. Now, she realised that Paris is nowhere near the sea... But as it happens she didn't suss out exactly where we were until after I'd parked the car, on the way into the hotel, we passed a bus stop with "Disneyland" plastered all over it. But I'd have to say, apart from the initial excitement which was a joy to watch, she was a complete bastard for the rest of the day.

It was very much a case of "I want, I want", and although we were in the park from around one o'clock until gone eight o'clock, there was no let up. As one might expect from mid-August, the place was rammed full of people and even the most trivial ride involved queuing for a while. The "ride" highlight was on some real cars - complete with accelerator and steering wheel - on which Alice took me for a ride. A great idea, basically the further down you push the pedal, the faster you go. Take your foot off the pedal completely, and you stop. The cars were on a kind of monorail so there was a limited amount of movement allowed from the steering wheel. All in all, quite realistic. Alice loved it, despite the 45 minute wait, though as I say she was generally a pain in the ass that day. Lots of walking, then, and not very many rides because of the amount of people. But we got our bearings and also learned that the hotel was actually a lot closer to the park than we originally thought - first time around we'd got the bus, but after that we learned that walking around the lake was just as quick.

Back to the hotel for supper. Alice had been so tiring by then that we'd said that we were going to leave the park the next day - not least she'd told each of us that. we were ruining her holiday. And when I think back to when I was a kid, how a visit to somewhere like this would have been a dream come true. Anyway, by the end of Monday I needed a breakvfrom it all, so at eleven o'clock I went out and took some photographs in the darkness - as one may imagine the place becomes a neon city by night. Had a heart-to-heart with Alice and made her realise that next day, things would have to change. And the scary thing is - they did!

I can hardly remember any bad behaviour for the whole remainder of the visit. And the irony of it is, of course, that Alice herself got a lot more out of it - not just little presents etc., but the fact that Jac and I were happy to take time out to talk to her. I mean, there was still quite a lot of selfishness - she made us go into the Disney Studios just so she could get her face painted, then immediately wanted to go back into the park, despite the fact that I know Jacqueline would have liked to have looked around more. For me, I was a little more realistic and realised that this was really Alice's treat, and it was entirely possible that I might just follow her around for the day. I did try to give Jacqueline some time to do what she wanted to do when I took Alice for a swim in the hotel pool, which was a good break from the park for a couple of hours. But really the park held most of the excitement. The disappointment of not being allowed to go on the Indiana Jones rollercoaster was more than made up for by the thrill of going on the Space Mountain ride (which to me looked every bit as scary) twice!

An excellent day continued with supper at the Rain Forest Cafe - I had been avare that there is one of these near Piccadilly Circus but have never visited - and we had an excellent meal, with cocktails and the works. From there, we had literally twenty minutes back at the hotel room before we went back to the park yet again, this time to see the firework finale. I, of course, was all kitted out with camera, tripod and flask gun, and despite the fact that the place was rammed still I managed to get some excellent shots of the fireworks. I just made sure I had the castle at the right exposure, then left the shutter open for a couple of secnods - and the results were some really spectacular pictures.

Our last day, Wednesday, I needed to get the car packed up and told everyone I wanted to be on the road for lunchtime. We got ourselves sorted and headed over to the park shortly after it had opened, although I think basically we were all too knackered to do much. For me, all I wanted to do was walk along Main Street and look in the shops (I had deliberately told Alice that I wouldn't buy anything until we were just about to leave). In the end, I probably ended up spending a couple of hundred euros on various bits and bobs, presents for grandparents etc.

The verdict? Well, to be honest this kind of place isn't really my scene. But if it were, it isdifficult to imagine anyone doing things better than Disney. In the park in particular, everything was "just so". Shame that there were thousands of other people there. Next time, it might be worth looking at paying extra to get some kind of pass (if they exist, I don't think they do) which allows the queues to be bypassed. The hotel, again, was comfortable enough but the rooms were quite dated. The fact that both days we had to queue for breakfast was a big turn-off and reminded me of a cheap package tour to the Costa del Sol. But, once we were in the restaurant (we had two breakfasts and one evening meal) the food was excellent, even though the buffet format again, is not my style. The hotel was absolutely enormous - six floors with over 100 rooms on each, plus the fact that the rooms contain beds for four made it popular with families - we saw loads of toddlers and pushchairs about the place. Total cost, including two night's bed and breakfast and three days admission to the park (for the three of us) was £561. That sounds like five star prices in probably a two star hotel, although I did learn that a day pass into the park was €30 per adult, so over three days it adds up. Plus, everywhere else we've stayed has charged around €12 per person for breakfast, so that too adds up.

I guess the big question is, "would I do it again?". Well, certainly not in August, I'd pick a quieter time. And certainly not until Alice is of an age where I could safely say to her in the morning "Here's your pass and I'll see you tonight". And I'd maybe look to stay in a different hotel. But all these things aside.........its possible!

Monday, 25 August 2008

No Let Up

Well, since Friday morning we've kept up our somewhat pacey holiday - or maybe it just feels as though its all going too fast?

We started off Friday by basically asking ourselves if there was anything we really wanted to do before we left, and Jacqueline had mentioned a couple of times a gorge we'd passed several times during the week, the Gorge du Pont de Diable just a short way up the Val d'Aulps. Being the intrepid photographer that I am I failed to realise that a gorge might well be quite a dark place, and so left behind the wonderful new flash I'd bought just a month before coming on holiday - it would have been ideal. I haven't looked yet at any of the photos, but I seriously doubt that any are publishable - I didn't take the tripod either so anything that was taken was a case of me dicking around with as many settings as possible to try to get a shot that was both in focus and exposed.

Still, we don't live for photography, do we?

Friday continued with a trip up to Evian, and from there the ferry across the lake to Lausanne. Very grey and showery across the lake, and we arrived in complete ignorance of the place. Consequently we walked up from the port, must have been the best part of half an hour in the rain, until we got to the shopping streets. A spot of lunch at an excellent Salon de The, and even Alice was in fine fettle. A couple of hours walking around the quite pleasant Lausanne - we had sunshine by this point, and it was warm enough for a Slushie later on - and it was time to head back. This time we took the bus (yeah, I know, we walked up the hill and bussed back down it, that's how daft we are!). Across the lake the weather closed in once again and we ended up getting back to the chalet in heavy rain.

Of course, there was more to do once we'd got back because we were leaving the next day. Pack, pack, pack. But everything went well - apart from the hot water cutting out - and I was able just to get up on Saturday and lift the cases into the car. Apart from the enforced cold shower (brrrrr!), very stress free.

Drove north up through Switzerland, again in heavy rain and almost as heavy traffic, and crossed back into France at Basel - we were about to embark on our first visit to Alsace.

Stopped at Colmar in time for a late lunch - it was gone 2 o'clock and I'd promised Alice a MacDonalds, although I have to say the burger I had was pretty awful. Still, mooching around Colmar put us all in a good mood, what a beautiful town. And, of course, Saturday means shopping and so both women of the family were happy. (Alice these days makes bee-lines for places like Sephora.)

After Colmar we had just a short drive to the hotel, which I had just picked out of the Michelin Guide. And what a result! The hotel itself was nothing special, but it was in the beautiful wine village of Riquewihr, truly charming. Even better, when I discovered that the hotel
had no restaurant, and asked the receptionist for her recommendation, we ended up eating at the sumptuous Grappe d'Or, for a truly superb meal. Very memorable.

A good (alcohol-aided) night's sleep and I was up early the next morning at seven, leaving the family fast asleep and exploring Riquewihr in the sunshine armed only with a camera. Being out that early has two advantages: first, the sun isn't up properly yet so there are normally a fair amount of shadows; even moreso there are hardly any bloody people about! I think I got some good shots, though as yet they're still on the card so I'll have to check when I get to upload them.

Back to the hotel for breakfast, then a further exploration "en famille". By now all the (tourist) shops were open, and the place was becoming crowded, but of course I didn't care since I'd already done my snapping. All in all, then, a wonderful day in Colmar and Riquewihr, we have already decided that the area warrants a week's visit at some point.

Further north, up to Strasbourg, on Sunday afternoon. Again, a great time, although Strasbourg is of course a large city, and although the architecture was wonderful it hasn't managed to retain the charm of some of the smaller towns. For example, we sat at a restaurant for about fifteen minutes, waiters bustling all around us, without being offered even a menu! (We walked, but presumably some other tourist would have been along five minutes later to take our place.) When we finally did sit down for a meal, I ended up waiting fifteen minutes between asking for and receiving the bill. I almost walked then too, but of course I would then have been in the wrong. Compare this with the excellent service the night before...

So there we were, yesterday evening, heading west along the A4. We stopped just outside Saint Avold, and again I know very little of the place other than its location as an ideal stopover. This time, however, there will be no exploring, since we want to continue our travel toward Paris, for the biggest surprise for Alice on this holiday - a couple of days at Disneyland Paris. And right now, she hasn't a clue!

Friday, 22 August 2008

Further Adventures

Well, as I alluded to in the previous entry, I was feeling under the weather earlier on in the week and now have, of all things, a stinking cold.

Wednesday, we took a pause to catch our breath. For me, this meant getting up quite early, having a spot of breakfast, then going back to bed! As it was, I didn't get up again until one o'clock and we didn't get out until two! But hey, I'm on holiday! When we finally did get out, we headed over to Geneva. What should have been quite a short journey turned into a marathon, with detour after detour. (In fact, there have been lots of them this week especially down the Val d'Aulps, though presumably the summer is the only practical time to work on the roads. A pain nevertheless.

Anyway, lots of traffic in Geneva, a real pain getting parked, but I did eventually park quite close to the city centre, and we had a nice mooch around the shops. I'd forgotten what an appealing city Geneva is! The last time I was there I just needed to get away, and booked something without looking twice, ending up in a hotel slap bang in the middle of the red-light district. This time, we kept to the shopping routes! Alice found a large toy shop. Not quite Hamleys but good nevertheless. Of course, I had to buy her something...

No trip to Geneva would be complete without checking out the Jet d'Eau, and we ended up having a lovely stroll in the park alongside the lake. Some very good photographs, even moreso since the forecast grey weather actually turned out sunny. Apart from the storm Tuesday evening, we have been really lucky with the weather.

This luck continued again yesterday, with brilliant blue skies once more. One thing I have been following quite closely this week has been the weather, since being up in the mountains it is obviously best to keep the good weather for the outdoor things. From the start of the week, Thursday had been forecast as one of the best day, and I had a full plan for the day. I gee-ed everyone up and we were out of the house for ten o'clock for the short journey across to the next valley. Destination was a télésiege I'd seen on the map named Mossettes, which went up to the 2277m peak, the Pointe des Mossettes, just over the Swiss border. From there, there should be some excellent views on a fine day. And so we headed over that way, along the valley then up, once again, past the Lac de Montriond and the Cascade d'Ardent.

We eventually arrived at a charming Alpine village called Les Lindarets, which had stunning views. Clearly, someone had taken a decision there to generate income by tourism, and the main attraction was a herd of goats roaming the village. Of course, these were a big attraction and the place was rammed full of tourists. Indeed, of about six shops, four must have been souvenir shops (selling, amongst other things, goat food!) and the other two restaurants. But a beautiful setting and great for kids, we had to stop and let Alice feed them. Some good photos.

Still, onward and upward - only another two minutes in this case, to a car park at the foot of the walk to Les Broschaux, the start of the ski lift. Yes, very inconvenient, we had to walk! Still, it had become a beautiful, warm day , and the half-hour walk should have been no problem at all, especially given our stunning surroundings. I'm not sure we'd even got out of the car park before the whining started, "How much is two kilometers?" I wouldn't mind, but from halfway there it was even possible to see Les Brochaux and the ski lift, so that should have spurred her on. As it was, however, she simply gave up. Bad parents that we are, we were damned if she was going to spoil our day, so we gave her the car keys and headed on.

And boy, was it worth it! The ride up to the top was listed as 8 minutes' duration but it felt longer, further and higher! Eventually I sttod on the summit, a singleton by now (Jacqueline gets scared unless she's actually inside a cabin, so sitting on an open seat was just that bit too much! In any case, there was lots to see at Les Brochaux, and a café to keep her occupied.) So there I was at the summit, with mountains in all directions. Mont Blanc was clearly visible in the distance, unbelievable from here that it could be more than 2½km higher than us. Also clearly visible, les Dents du Midi and les Dents Blanches (which weren't very blanches!). (I must have mentioned the GPS gizmo I got for my camera - this even has an electronic compass to show your heading. That would have made identifying the different peaks very straightforward. But unfortunately my camera does not support this, only the current position, so I'm going to have to try to remember the relative positions of the peaks, and look them up when I get home. Even then, the high-detail map I have of the area is the French IGN map, and stops abruptly at the Swiss border. So, I can feel a trip to Stanfords coming on!).

Anyway, I won't talk any more about boring old mountain tops, but will publish some photos and let them speak for themselves.

Back to Les Brochaux, where Jacqueline was waiting for me in the café complete with a cold bottle of Evian (what else?). I stroll back to the car (much shorted when going downhill!) to see the enfant terrible. She'd obviously had the opportunity to calm down a little bit and was in quite a good humour by the time we got back. Best of all, because we'd left so early it was still only about a quarter-to-two. Because we were in the vicinity, we headed over to Avoriaz. By the time we got there we were unfortunately too late for lunch, so ended up having a sandwich from the supermarket while we stopped to take the place in. Avoriaz is basically a custom-built resort and was very quiet (although totally open) in the summer. I'm sure it comes into its own in the winter, but this "manufactured" feel was not for us. We left after barely a couple of hours.

Back down the winding pass into Morzine, it must be said that Avoriaz looks far better when viewed from afar, perched on the cliff-top, than it does close up. Because we'd left there sooner than I thought, I let Jacqueline drive us back to the Lac de Montriond for a crepe and and ice cream. We stopped at the same café as the other day, though of course then it was becoming stormy, and now it was bright sunshine. The lake was full of kayaks, even the odd (brave!) swimmer. During our gouter, we hatched a plan to head down into Thonon for a trip to Decathlon.

Despite its small size, Decathlon kept us occupied for a good hour, and I ended up spending €180 (which makes something like €400 in Decathlons so far, although we visited the Decathlon in Dijon with a stated aim of buying Alice some new clothes. My Fidelity Card will be going into overdrive!) Yesterday, the main spends were some luggage (a replacement for an old and battered bag), some walking shoes for Alice, and some North Face walking trousers for me. The strangest purchase was a present for Alice, who for some reason had decided it would be a good idea to own some goggles, snorkle and flippers! So, having explained that €27 was a lot of money, and that this would probably be her main present of the holiday.... (all to no avail - she wasn't going to budge).

Hopefully she'll make use of them next week at the seaside, though if I remember Le Touquet rightly she'll have a right old hike before she can even get them wet!

Ah well, our last day today, and we're going to head down to the lake and maybe take a boat trip. I'd better get in the shower - taking care not to damage Alice's diving equipment on the way in, if course!!!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Chalk and Cheese

After yesterday's perfect weather today started a little cloudy, but no matter. We'd resolved to have a lazy day and consequently didn't leave the chalet until after 12, heading via the Col du Corbier to Morzine. When choosing a holiday in this area, I was actually prodded toward the Val d'Abondance over the Val d'Aulps, because it was more unspoilt.

Turns out this was perfectly true. Morzine was nice enough, but definitely had a more of a "resort" feeling than our valley. Plus, there was lots of English being spoken, which is generally a bit of a turn-off for me. Anyway, a mooch around the shops and a quick pizza for lunch, and we decided that since we were in the area, we'd press on to Les Gets. Les Gets was far more charming, and by the looks of things far more to do - very geared toward kids, they had some ski lifts open and the facility for kids to climb to the top of a hill and either come down on their bike, or in a go-cart. For her part, Alice wanted to try a bungee jump, where she was harnessed in while standing on the ground, and catapulted some thirty or forty feet into the air. She seemed to enjoy it - she's been on similar things in England but never quite so tall.

By this time I was quite tired - still feeling under the weather - so we commenced the journey home. I took a short detour to the Lac de Montriond and the Cascade d'Ardent (waterfall). We stopped for a quick Orangina, but by now the weather had started to close in and it was getting quite dark.

Indeed, not long after getting into the car the heavens opened, and at one stage we were driving back through cloud. Still, good old Jacqueline took the wheel and got us back safely. So, right now we're in this beautifully warm chalet with thunder and lightning outside, listening to rain pattering onto the roof.

The forecast is for the same weather tomorrow, if so I might not bother getting up!

Mountains!

Well, we've had a busy couple of days.

Sunday, the weather didn't start off too brilliantly, but wasn't too bad. Alice kept on mentioning about going up on a chairlift, so that partially brought about a decision to just head down the valley to Chatel. From there, we headed up the Super Chatel, then the Morclan ski lifts, to the summit (1970m) of le Morclan. The first of these lifts was an actual "télécabine", so Jacqueline felt safe, however the second was simply a chairlift (télésiege), and that proved too much for her, so Jacqueline stopped halfway.

Just after we reached the summit I must admit I myself was left wondering whether this was such a good idea, since we got caught in a shower (which at our altitude came down as hail stones). However, five minutes passed, and so did the shower, and then we were filled with sunshine. So, some wonderful views, not least back along the Val d'Abondance, although the higher peaks around us all had intermittent cloud.

Back down in the valley, we took a wander through Chatel, which was a charming little village, obviously centred on skiing but busy in the summer with tourists nevertheless. Very picturesque.

Still in grey weather, we decided that the rest of our exploring might be safest done by car, and so we headed on into Switzerland, then took the motorway back up to Lake Geneva (Lac Léman). During the journey, the weather improved a lot and by the time we drove into Évian we were in bright sunshine. Took a stroll through Évian (us and a million other tourists), which was a beautiful, almost seaside resort. Took in our first ice creams of the holiday, and a walk along the lakeside. Alice didn't behave very well, which spoilt things a little, but Jacqueline and I just ended up strolling on, leaving Alice to follow at what she considered to be a safe distance.

Out of Évian, the evening weather was still sufficiently bright that I suggested taking the scenic route home, and so we headed for the village of Bernex and saw some wonderful views of the nearby Mont Cesar and the Dent d'Oche, in almost clear blue sky. Even Jacqueline was into this, though Alice decided to wait in the car. Upon arriving back at the car we were about to head back to the chalet when I mentioned to Jacqueline that it was possible to drive on and get an even better view of the Dent d'Oche, and so she suggested doing so. And so a further fifteen minutes along a windy mountain road brought us to le Pré Richard. Clearly this was a ski area, with many (non-operational) lifts, but one of the things that was operational in the summer was the café. So, there we were, at 6:30 on a sunny summer evening, enjoying a beer and staring at the beautiful Dent d'Oche.

The weather was so good in the evening that the omens looked good for the next day, and this was backed up by the weather forecast (I've been paying quite close attention to the forecast to try and pick out the best days for sightseeing, since we're forecast rain for some of the days we are here). So I announced that I wanted to be out of the house early so we could head over to Switzerland for the day.

So there we were on Monday morning, out of the chalet at an unbelievable 10 o'clock, heading over to the resort of Zermatt in perfect sunshine. Although we didn't arrive until lunchtime, all soon agreed that the effort was worth it as we found a beautiful town (much expanded since I was last there, and even now blotted with several large cranes). After a bit of a dodgy lunch (I didn't felt right for the rest of the day afterwards) we headed up more ski lifts, this time to take us to the Schwarzsee for stunning views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding peaks. Words cannot begin to describe the feelings of awe, power and purity up there. Just as well I took so many photographs then! The only downside of being up there was this ignorant waitress bellowing at me in German as I tried to order some drinks in both French and English. But I got there in the end, this helpful woman even pointing out to me what I should have asked for (heissige wasser!).

Back down into the town for a further stroll, back to the station. Because Zermatt is car-less, one can only travel as far as the next town in the valley, Täsch. So, we needed to take the train back to the car park, then on home. Each was was almost a three hour journey, so all in all it was quite a long day - about 11 hours in total, though fortunately Jacqueline drove us back. Atfer we returned, I just about had the energy to upload the day's photographs, then I was all in.

We're still not decided what we'll do today, though one thing is for sure we will take things a little easier.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

About Time

I think I start every holiday blog with the words "Its that time of year again". Well, not today.

We are very late this year by our own standards, something borne mainly from the fact that we thought Alice would be changing schools last year, so we wanted to ensure that we didn't take our holiday during term time.
But still, we're here now. And where is here? Well, we took the ferry from Portsmouth Thursday night, and Friday drove south for five hours for an overnight stop near Beaune (at the charming Chateau de Challanges). Onward on Saturday, cutting south east, past Geneva, and ultimately arriving at a chalet in the charming village of Vacheresse, in the Val d'Abondance. So, we're still in France, just like every other year, but in a part we've never visited before in the Haute Savoie, close to the Swiss border.

I actually booked the chalet back in January, so have had plenty of time to prepare. In all that time, though, I could find precious little written about Vacheresse, and our gite in particular. I mean, with most places nowadays, you get an address and you look it up on Google maps, and within seconds you're sorted. The only thing with Vacheresse is that there are no street names, so all we really knew was that the gite was called "Les Pierre a Julien". In actual fact, I got some directions from the Gites de France people, and further directions from the owners, plus after all that the chalet was quite easy to find, so all told no great hassle. But for someone like me, who loves pouring over maps, it would have been nice to know exactly where we'd be. But still, here we are in the end perched on the mountainside to the north of Vacheresse, with outstanding views over the village. According to the GPS on my phone, we're at 46.3284N, 6.6829E, at an altitude of 1048m. So if anyone on the interweb ever books this chalet, there you go!

Still quite tired after the travelling, but at least we've now had two good night's sleep. As I said, the Chateau de Challenges was absolutely delightful. Very peaceful and tranquil, and only five minutes from both the centre of Beaune and the autoroute. The only downsides were firstly being so close to the autoroute we could hear it from the garden (though not from the room), and the hotel had no restaurant. Although only a few minutes from Beaune, it would have been nice just to eat and crash.

The gite is absolutely wonderful, clearly has been renovated quite recently All wood, so quite creaky! But very comfortable and with the most amazing views across the valley. There are lots of photographs of mountains, which the owner said he took himself. I forgot to ask if he was a professional, though he certainly might have been. Hopefully by the end of the week I'll have some decent photographs of my own, although if the weather so far today is anything to go by...

Note quite sure what to get up to today. As I said, the weather isn't brilliant so far, so we might end up just going down the valley for a drive. But first, its a shower and then breakfast.