Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

For trips to the UK, always start with the Lake District.

Wait for me.

wait for me

Check the walls.

Typical northern dwelling and evening fayre ūüėČ

It’ll need a big coil ‘oil…

Hallowed be thy game.

Scraping a pre-season 2-2 draw against the mighty Glossop North End.

The masses have braved Woodhead Pass for this feast of football. 

Should probably take the kids to the smoke. St. Pancras has scrubbed up well.

Interesting use of space. But is it art? No, it’s just the way in to Tate Modern.

Nice doggy.

Crossing the river in 45 minutes. Feels like a millennium.

Is Liz back?

Just one more visit.

South Yorkshire.

It’s a state of mind.


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Spare a thought for the Bergschrund family who drew into Iceland this morning. Tragically, their cruise of a lifetime came to an abrupt end.

The rest of the carefree cruise passengers ran open-armed towards the feisty geysers for their day off the boat.

Meanwhile, the Bergschrund family were pushed down the gangplank with their plush suitcases tossed unceremoniously after them.

Reykjavik will be their last port of call. They will not be returning to the boat.

Last night, Mr and Mrs Bergschrund¬†chanced their luck in the ship’s casino. Mrs B, keenly sensing an abject¬†lack of fortune, quit the tables early, leaving Mr.¬†B with his dwindling chips and rapidly replenishing glass.

What happened next remains something of a transparent mystery.

At 5.30 a.m. this morning, the  captain made a ship-wide announcement:

“Would Mr Bergschrund of Cabin¬†251 please call zero on any phone.”

At 6.15 a.m. – in tones of rising desperation:

“Would Mr Bergschrund of Cabin¬†251 PLEASE call zero on¬†ANY phone.”

6.30 a.m. – a more authoritative and more sombre announcement

‚ÄúAll crew involved in the search procedures please begin standard initial ship sweep and all guest services will be suspended.‚ÄĚ

7.00 a.m. РAu revoir to the glitz and glamour of this particular cruise: 

‚ÄúLadies and Gentlemen we have been unable to locate Mr Bergschrund, who has been missing since 4 a.m. this morning. We are turning the ship around 180 degrees and will be ready to perform Man Overboard procedures. Meanwhile all crew please conduct stage 2 of the ‚Äėbomb search‚Äô procedure.”

8.15a.m. –¬†Hint of extreme irritation:

‚ÄúWe have located the missing person and all services will be resumed as normal. Our arrival in Iceland is likely to be delayed several hours.‚ÄĚ

The upshot was that Mr Bergschrund had drowned his sorrows with gusto in the casino after his wife had gone to bed.

Sometime in the unthinking small hours, he repaired¬†to the cabin of a ‚Äėnew friend‚Äô, passed out¬†and slept through the procession of announcements.

He was found during the stage 2 search (the combing of every cabin and waking of every guest at 7am)¬† draped on his new friend’s couch in a state of complete nakedness and insobriety.

Mr Bergschrund had remained blissfully unaware of the chaos all around.

Captain’s log:

The ship covered an additional 35km at a fuel cost of $518 per km. Four coastguard helicopters were scrambled. Two other ships began diversions to cover the same track. 

Estimated cost – forty thousand dollars US.

Mr Bergschrund and his family were dumped in Reykjavik this morning and left to find their way home (or to wherever Mr. B will henceforth be banished).

Just when you think the chips are down…

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August fust – Yorkshire Day ageean.

Fuh this un, thuz mooah chance ter celibrate. This year, tha kun ‚Äėoist t’flag in thi own back yard un nobbdi kun do owt abart it.

Int UK, t’Flag Institoot regulates wot flags tha kun raise wiart evvin ter ask fuh plannin permission.

Up ter nar, t’iconic white rose ont blue backgrarnd wornt reco’nized us un official flag.

But nar, aftuh a Sproxton bloke kicked up a fuss a few year aguh, thev gid in. Bart time un all.

Ah woh lucky enough ter spend a month in God’s Own County this summuh.

Tha cahnt beet it can tha?

Sing t’anthem wi a bit uh pride!

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¬†The recent Toronto snow storm put paid to my Friday night flight, so I was on the first Saturday morning hop to La Guardia. My 4:00 a.m. cab driver was just finishing a twelve-hour shift. Hurtling north on the 427 to Lester B. Pearson Airport, he pointed out the spot he’d done several 360s during the November snow storm. Then, he¬†recounted the hour earlier in the day stuck in a snow bank. “Ever thought about going into PR?” I wondered.

In New York, where my wife had arrived two days earlier, we had tickets for the opera: Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia. I called¬†The Met¬†in the hope of pre-ordering intermission drinks. I was officiously informed that “only members of the Guild” would be served drinks in the “Decidedly Huffy Room” at the intermission. “Enjoy the line-up, sir.” was the main idea. I thanked her for taking the time to patronize me so effectively, and found myself looking forward to more brazen snobbery.

deep in shallow thought

Since I needed an afternoon nap, we were late having dinner, so took a cab from lower Manhattan. Unlike Monaco’s annual event, New York boasts a daily Grand Prix of “F1 and all” taxi drivers. With the lighter traffic of February, this made for an exhilarating dash up to the Lincoln Center.

The jockeying for pole positions does not end at the curbside. Sidewalk blasts of abuse and more refined¬†over-the-shoulder “tuts” are a Manhattan¬†art form. On the sweeping staircase¬†of the Met itself, a haughty opera type attempted to cut me off en route to the water fountains. I opted not to brake and cede passage. Big sniff in my direction.

The lead performers could sing Rome into ruins. Even we, plain unseasoned opera runts as we are, could see that. Despite this stunning artistry, the classic operatic warble of Jose Manuel Zapata was humorous enough to provoke¬†the odd¬†giggle fit from my wife. This meant we both suffered from bouts of shuddering shoulders at inopportune moments. Slightly embarrassing as this was, at least we didn’t break our chairs, unlike the oversized German lady on our left after an intermission snack or three. Luckily, the warble and the lurching clunk failed to coincide.

Elina Garanca, playing Rosina,¬†has a voice crafted by angels. I couldn’t hit a note if it grabbed me by the ears and blew a raspberry in my face, so, to¬†me,¬†voices like hers just defy comprehension.

A night at the opera demands a hearty breakfast to follow. Luckily, New York is one of the great breakfasting cities. We settled on the relaxing atmosphere of French Roast, whose Mexicana omelette was superb: think fresh herbs, salsa, and just the right amount of egg liquidity.

best mexicana omelette

After a stroll around Chinatown, we stumbled into the immaculately scrubbed streets of Little Italy. I wonder what level of coercion is needed to keep up that level of cleanliness. At least, you don’t worry about sullying your dropped cannoli.

the master

Ten degrees of warm spring-like sunshine, a day at the MoMA, and a night at the Met. Still, it’s always good to get home.

bowed boughs

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A stroll down verdant cliffs above the English Channel, a ten-minute drive around a headland topped with a twelfth-century castle, a misty amble through the medieval alleyways of a sleepy Auvergne town – I’ve enjoyed some decent commutes.

scarborough castle

My current daily trek pretty much props up the pile: A 40-minute drive through suburban blight along 18 kilometres of eyelid-drooping roads. Head north, lurch west, and jolt north again, trapped in the aural hell of Radio WNKR.

I could take the bus, of course. Even Mississauga has a bus service. Door to door, including the walk to the bus stop, I’d¬† be looking at 90 minutes each way. That’s right, 180 minutes a day to travel a total of 36 kilometres.

Average speed: 12 km/h or, in olde English, 7.5 miles an hour. Which is more or less my running pace.

So, forget the bus.

Since this is merely the sixth largest city in Canada, with a smattering of just three quarters of a million people, naturally there is no mainline railway station in Mississauga.

Granted, there is a suburban train to Toronto (the optimistically titled GO train – is “non-eponymous” a word?).

There’s one train an hour. Plus a couple of one-offs at “peak times.”

I’d love to be able to cycle, but there are several reasons why I won’t consider this: winter roads, the survival instinct, and a healthy appreciation for the driving “inconsistencies” of many fellow residents.

Blissful memory flashback: I fondly recall my daily cycling commute in Tilburg, Holland. Here a network of cycle paths, largely independent of the road system, snakes in silence throughout the city.

Southern Ontario is flat like the majority of Holland. So why not here? Real winter only lasts a couple of months these days.

The Greater Toronto Area is finally waking up to how woefully inadequate its transit systems are.

As Steve Munro, Toronto transit activist, notes, “population growth vastly exceeds our plans for providing more and better transportation services, and the public is getting fed up with excuses for what we cannot do.¬†”

At the Mississauga Summit 2007, transit was at the heart of residents’ concerns. This report from The Toronto Star pointed out that:

“a majority of the Mississauga Summit 2007 focused on how to make transit a viable option for car-dependent Peel Region residents.”

There are even talks about talks about a feasibility study for a light-rail transit link running north-south through Mississauga.

Sadly, should this project along with the rest ever reach completion, I suspect the pull of verdant headlands, downtown cycling networks, and pedestrianized medieval town centres, will have proved all too strong.


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Swiss is the life

Every morning I woke up, a cloud seemed to be floating at eye level fifty metres in front of me. As I walked towards the back entrance, the cloud would follow me, as I checked windows and unlocked heavy wooden doors.

It was the summer of 1987, and I was working at a Swiss hotel, perched halfway up a mountainside above the alpine resort of Davos-Platz, now famous for hosting annual World Economic Forum meetings.

Back in¬†the 1980’s,¬†an organization in London called Jobs in the Alps recruited young Europeans to staff the summer hotel season. Since I spoke half-decent French and¬†a smattering of German, they naturally sent me to Swiss German-speaking Graubunden.

I was the night porter. It was possibly the best job I’ve ever had. This was a typical night’s work:

2100: Start work

2100 – 2330: Sell a few chocolate bars and stamps

Answer the phone and operate the switchboard.

Operating the switchboard was the only minor stressor of an otherwise summer breeze of a position. The stress partly stemmed from my less than rudimentary command of obscure alpine dialects. Many of these had their phonetic systems coated rooted in phlegm and melodic ululations.¬†“But I don’t speak Phlegmatic” often came to mind.

Also, the switchboard itself was a spaghetti nightmare. Frau R, the diminutive hotel Kommandantess, had given me operating instructions on day one. Sadly, I had lost my bemused sketches detailed notes almost immediately.

Still, I managed to connect most people with their loved ones. Or possibly with someone else’s.

2330 – Being somewhat elderly, all the guests would be tucked up in bed by this time and I would have the main floor to myself. At this point, I was required to vacuum the main halls and dining area – this would take around half an hour.

2400 – Eat chocolate bar

Arriving back at reception, pull-along vacuum snapping at my heels, I was faced with a cascading array of Swiss chocolate delights.

For the first couple of weeks, I would limit myself to the slightly cheaper luxuries at the foot of the cocoa pile. By midsummer, however, my midnight feasts were focussed on the top-shelf, liquor-filled chunks of chocolate bliss.

0030- With silver wrapping paper scattered on floor, I would curl up on the camp bed in the reception alcove and sleep. Among all the other expat night porters in town, I was the only one allowed to doze off.

This supreme bonus gave me nine hours of free time from lunchtime onward.

0530 – Greet the morning floater (i.e. the valley cloud) and open all main doors.

0600 – Head to the kitchen. Draw a pot of delicious Italian coffee from the huge urn in the kitchen. Make toast, slather with fruit-laden jam, and repair to my alcove. Breakfast heaven.

0615 Р0800 РCough up a few Gruezis to early risers. Sell a few stamps. Ignore phone.

0800 – Finish shift

0830 – Have cooked breakfast with the rest of the resident staff.

After this, I would go to bed for the rest of the morning, have lunch, and head for the mountains to hike all afternoon.

Nine hours of free time every work day? Where’s that phone number?

“Guten Tag – Ich bin Nachtportier. Ich kann sehr gutes Phlegmatisches sprechen!”


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A glance at France

Fresh pains au chocolat, perfect coffees, devotion to a slower pace of life, emphasis on food, family, and friends, masses of good cheese and wine: all marinated in a heavily-scented cloud of lavender.

It’s easy to slip into a clich√©d view of Provence. This is also very tempting, especially when¬†your visit is a brief two weeks. So, for this post, we’ll follow the Wildean maxim, yield to the temptation, and ignore the day-to-day irritations that actually living in Provence might entail.

This is a corner of our pool at a villa near Aix-en-Provence.

pool palms

And this is the bedroom wing seen from the front driveway.

villa bedroom wing

For me, Provence is all about the villages and the landscape. I’m not interested in the boats and beaches of the Riviera. Some of the villages are stunningly beautiful. Ventabren is one of them.

provence view

And you can’t beat Provence for steps!

provence steps

Really, you just can’t.

more provence steps

We enjoyed many delicious meals. Some we cooked at home, other memorable ones were in Marseille, Fr√©jus, Antibes, and at Le Passage in Aix-en-Provence. This was my starter: Saumon mi-cuit au gros sel et fenouil marin√© √† l‚Äôhuile d‚Äôolive et herbes fra√ģches.

salmon starter

Several courses and carafes later, Aix looks like this.

aix by night

I just like this picture, taken somewhere close to St. Raphael. The flag looks great.

flag at st raphael

The Pont du Gard is well worth a visit. Over on the western edge of Provence, it was built by the Romans almost two thousand years ago to carry water onwards towards N√ģmes. Surprisingly, it took just five years to complete – that old Italian work ethic for you!

le pont du gard

le pont du gard

Outside the middle of summer, driving in Provence is generally a pleasure. Marseille makes an interesting contrast, especially when your rental vehicle has been upgraded to a huge scratch-free Mercedes people mover.

But along autoroutes like the A8, every other service stop is a green rest area where nodding motorists just tumble out of their vehicles and doze off in pine-scented glades. I’m laying it on just a bit thick here, but you get the picture. There’s even a fitness trail through the woods to loosen up the limbs or whatever it is the French do in the forest.

Or you can just enjoy the flower show along the central reservation. At this point, I think we’re moving into the realms of the seriously civilised.

les fleurs de l’autoroute

Streets like this I could wander all day. Not just because they have shedloads of charm, but also because when you get to the end, there’s usually a decent caf√©.

aix side street

Where you can spend several hours building up the energy to set off exploring again. And so it goes on. Unbeatable.

aix cafe

But all too soon, this view greeted us. Still, it was a great holiday, the mantra-chanters worked their magic (ta!), and I have some appealing sabbatical ideas to think about.

(very) nice airport


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