From the Blog

Our travels about in Europe and further afield. UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Ireland, USA, Austrailia and of course, New Zealand.

Our first night was spent in Kilmore Quay, just half an hours drive from the port, where we had our first encounter with the friendly southern Irish men and women. I don't think the size and population of Kilmore Quay has altered much in the past 150 years despite its prime location to plentiful fishing grounds in the Atlantic - commercial fishermen fish out of the sheltered harbour and seriously recreational anglers come over from the UK en masse to hire out launches from the new marina. Nothing appears to be processed in the village so it retains its small sleepy-fishing-village atmosphere completely unspoiled. After settling into our pre-booked lodgings, part of which were the original Telegraph Office, we prepared to inspect the 3 or 4 restaurants within the tiny village and struck up conversation with an English lady who'd also just checked in with her husband. She thought we were Irish and was amazed at how easy it was to understand us, until she asked us which part of Ireland we were from. After discovering her mistake, her husband finished doing whatever he was doing inside and joined us outside so she asked him what part of Ireland he thought we were from. He replied, "Sounds like South Island to me." They had been to NZ in February.

Anyway, they ate at Kehoe's Pub and had a wonderful evening amongst the locals while we ate at the Silver Fox, which offered more of a fine dining atmosphere to the pub. Their menu obviously favoured fish dishes; we both couldn't resist Fillet of Cod wrapped in Smoked Salmon and stuffed with prawns, served with a light cream and chive sauce. Each fillet was absolutely enormous and I regretted ordering Seafood Chowder as a starter. Pete managed to eat all of his but I certainly couldn't eat all of mine. We had a Hunters Sauvignon Blanc with the meal; don't think we have ever seen Hunters wines in England.

Next morning we decided to take the back roads (more accurately described as pot-holed, narrow lanes) back to the N25 (the main drag to Cork) via a different route to that which we came in on the previous evening, and just on the outskirts of the village is Forlorn Point overlooking the great sweep of Ballyteige Bay, but renamed by the locals as "The Graveyard of a Thousand Ships". They have created a memorial garden in the shape of a mooring bollard containing a 'stone ship' and a Vigil Sculpture of two grieving figures looking out to sea. A plinth is engraved with the names of those lost at sea. A close-knit community who have undoubtedly known more than their share of tragedies through losses at sea.

Waterford is not an overly inspiring town although it is apparently the oldest in Ireland. We parked in a quay-side car park that floods at certain times of the day at certain times of the year, and went off to investigate 'safe' in the knowledge that the car park wasn't going to flood that day. Apart from some intriguing medieval cobbled lanes twisting about in narrow alleyways, the town centre presented in just as an homogenized appearance as town centres throughout England so after a quick latte we carried on to find the Waterford Crystal factory where we spent about an hour choosing a couple of pieces as tokens of our visit to the famous lead crystal works. (See photo attached with Pete's choice.) data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAIAAAAAAAP///yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7
I had acquired a map of the streets of Cork before going to Ireland but when we reached Cork, the map and the physical layout were somewhat disparate! As usual in these sorts of situations, Pete dived into the first car park building he could find until he could recce the place and get an idea of where everything is. I've since heard that the Irish don't take too much heed of the 'No Entry' or 'No Right Hand Turn' notices and this would explain why traffic flow was a total mystery to us; and Pete uses it as his excuse for blatantly driving through a red light, much to the incredulous disbelief of the mad Irish drivers. He told me he was just following the bus in front of him because we were sick of going around in circles over the various bridges linking the city with the mainland (Cork is built on an 'island' where the River Lee splits and joins up again much further downstream).

On our second day, Saturday, in Ireland we decided that we might as well go and kiss the Blarney Stone even though it's a total tourist have but we're glad we did. Blarney Castle is a crumbling ruin but remnants of its former glory and importance in fighting off Viking marauders and Cromwell's slaughter-men are evident in what's left of the main keep and battlements. At a cost of 7 Euros each to get in, you walk through park-like grounds beside a babbling brook to reach the castle, climb the spiral steps to the battlements where the passage becomes so narrow towards the top that we had grave misgivings as to whether the 2 hefty ladies approaching the castle as we were leaving would make it to kiss the stone. When it is your turn to acquire the gift of eloquence, you sit down with your back to the outside wall, grasp the iron bars behind you and lean backwards until completely upside-down. Some 200 feet below is the ground, but you wont crash to your untimely death because they have put in safety bars to prevent such a happening, and there is a jovial Irishman sitting beside you to hold and guide you. Because of a constant line of tourists, the process is over before you've had time to register that you have just dangled upside-down from a great height and, if you really did kiss the stone, have probably just contracted AIDS or some other ghastly disease. It's all great fun.

Our next port of call was exactly that; we drove to Cobh (pronounced Cove). For many years it was the port of Cork and has always had a strong connection with Atlantic crossings. The Titanic made her last stop here before sailing into shipping history all too well known to even us present-day jet-age travellers, but most importantly to Pete (and I), Cobh is from where Patrick and Johanna Coffey sailed to New Zealand, establishing a new dynasty which, in time, produced the amazing Peter Douglas - the rest you know. Patrick and Johanna were mere specks in the epic tale of the Irish Diaspora; the mass emigration of the impoverished working class and Potato Famine victims, and previously, Cromwell's expulsion of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians who were sold into slavery, followed by tens of thousands of convicts transported to Australia and 4000 orphaned girls taken from the workhouses to resolve the problematic lack of mates for the male dominated colony. I read somewhere that this port must be the most tear soaked port in the whole world. Needless to say, our visit to the Heritage Centre was quite moving.

Coming up next is the gorgeous South West Coast in County Kerry - next to New Zealand, perhaps the most scenic part of the universe (mind you, we haven't seen it all yet!).

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Killarney claims to have been a tourist town since the mid 17th Century but it wasn't until the 18th Century that Lord Kenmare developed it as a centre for tourism which attracted royals and dignitaries from around Europe. Back in the mists of time dating from the Neolithic period, Killarney was an important Bronze Age settlement where copper ore was mined. It was a sub-kingdom to Cashel (also known as the Rock of Cashel, which was the centre of power in Ireland) during the 4th Century, and became a stronghold of the O'Donoghue clan - if you happen to be a descendant. In the 7th Century, Killarney became the focus of Christianity when St Finian founded a monastery on Inisfallen Island in Lough Leane (Lake of Learning).

West of the town stands St Mary's Cathedral with a huge tree in the front lawn. The cathedral was used as a hospital in the 1840's, and during the Famine it acted as a refuge for the destitute - the tree marks the mass grave of those who died. At the northern end of High Street is a memorial to Famine victims erected in 1972 but the inscription reads: "This memorial will not be unveiled until Ireland is free." The quest for a united Ireland, subliminal or otherwise, knows no appeasement.

Present-day Killarney has few individual attractions unless you are one of the hundreds of thousands who use it as a starting point for the magnificently scenic Ring of Kerry, whether you self-drive it, take a coach tour, walk it or cycle it. In which case, Killarney is second-renowned for having more registered accommodation than anywhere else, after Dublin.

The Ring of Kerry is not the only attraction outside the town. You can fish for trout and salmon in the Rivers Flesk and Laune and in the lakes in Killarney's 10,236 hectare National Park. Also enclosed within the park is Ross Castle, the residence of the O'Donoghues and the last place in Munster to succumb to Cromwell's forces.
Nearby is Muckross House and Gardens built in the Victorian style and donated to the park (I just forget the details of the benefactor without looking it up). Muckross Traditional Farms are reproductions from 1930's Kerry farmhouses complete with chooks having free range to the houses and gardens. Visitors are encouraged to talk to the traditionally dressed labourers as they work on the plots growing food and crops organically, husbanding the animals in the ways or yore, practicing apothecary, making vegetable dyes and cooking by traditional methods. And there is also a Muckross Abbey, founded in 1448 and burned by Cromwell's troops in 1652.
Three to four kilometres on, you come to the Meeting of the Waters. This is the point where the 3 lakes meet - Lough Leane (the Lower Lake or Lake of Learning), Muckross (or Middle Lake) and Upper Lake, which doesn't have the added distinction of being named after something inspiring or famous. Just plain Upper Lake, which hardly seems fair when it is no less functional or picturesque than its contemporaries.
A hike through oak and yew woodlands lead to the Mangerton, Torc, Shehy and Purple Mountains and by all accounts, the Torc Waterfall is a sight worth the rough climb.
Red Deer are known to have been in Ireland for the past 10,500 years - from the end of the last cold period in fact. The Killarney Herd, numbering around 700, is the only wild herd of native Red Deer remaining in the world and naturally, they are fiercely protected.

All this history and splendor was not mine to absorb and admire unfortunately, as time was of the essence, not to mention my beloved's aversion to strenuous exercise! Lonely Planet said to consider the pocket-sized village of Kenmare as a more sedate base so we left kitschy Killareny in our wake and proceeded south east.

The road to Kenmare skirts part of the National Park and took us through an enchanting ancient Yew forest where a thick carpet of emerald green moss up to 6 inches deep in parts covers rocks, roots and trunks; past lakes glistening in the late afternoon sun under whose refracted surface lurked wily trout; and over precipitous rocky passes where hairy (rather than woolly) sheep scramble about the rocky slopes like goats.

Pete discovered that the saying about English, American and Irish drivers is positively true - the English drive on the left, the American's on the right and the Irish drive down the middle of the road! Meeting oncoming locals in the centre of the narrow bumpy 'poor excuse for a road' didn't do his heart a lot of good.

I attach pictures of this stretch of road, which illustrates in part how captivatingly picturesque it is, in addition to how hazardous. data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAIAAAAAAAP///yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7
View from the topKenmare was all that was promised. Not so much pocket-sized as Mary Poppins carpet-bag sized, it stands in a basin between Mangerton and Knockboy Mountains, where 3 rivers empty into the great Kenmare River (more of an extended bay really). We drove into well laid out X-plan one-way streets lined with colourful fronted shops, pubs and B&B's bedecked in flowers, and a triangular market square in the centre. On the outskirts of town, we found a series of guest houses snuggled against rolling leprechaun green hills, quietly and unhurriedly basking in the late afternoon sun - who said it always rains in Ireland? Kenmare street

We chose Druid House as our overnight shelter, attracted by the Celtic name and the promisingly eccentric look about the place. When you have stayed in as many B&B's as we have, one develops an eye for recognising the tell-tale signs between a private residence and a home offering a bed for the night. And B&B connoisseurs such as ourselves have also developed a preference when it comes to choosing the type of environment created by the host and/or hostess. Druid Cottage appeared to have just the right ingredients; hutches crouching between the drive and hedge that possibly housed chooks for the provision of fresh eggs at the breakfast table, an unruly assortment of flowering plants in containers rather than a highly disciplined formal garden pruned for inspection, white resin deck chairs with their backs to the stone wall in order to take full advantage from the sun's rays and the heat absorbing granite, and most interestingly, about 4 pairs of shoes all turned up-side down along the wooden edging separating the car park space from a strip of lawn. What did the up-side down shoes signify? We were intrigued. Despite its unorthodox appearance, Druid Cottage looked inviting so I walked up to the forest green painted door, knocked expectantly and waited to see what lay beyond.Druid Cottage and our Host
The third and, I hope, final chapter will follow but I will try to make it sooner rather than later. The good news of today was that the All Blacks beat England again. The game was only televised on Sky TV, which we don't have so have had to rely on a written report on the internet.

Looking forward to hearing from you....  
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I quote, "There is an old Welsh saying, now almost forgotten, that God made Wales first, and with what of beauty He had left He made the rest of the world. In the great scheme of things, if that be true, the beginning must have been made in Merioneth."
 
We stayed in Dolgellau in North Wales - Merioneth is the parish. It is a place of green rolling slopes in the valley's, woodland in the foothills, crag-strewn in the mountains; rivers rushing, lake surfaces ever changing, waterfalls tumbling and secluded pools.
 
As usual, the B&B was of a high standard though they tend to run bed and breakfasts like hotels over here. The daughter (we presumed she was the daughter for no introductions were forthcoming) welcomed us and showed us to our room, pointing out that breakfast was served between 8.15 - 8.45 and would we tell somebody the night before whether we wanted the cooked breakfast or not.
 
After settling in, we wandered into town on a reconnaissance mission.  A handful of pubs and restaurants, a bakery, the Welsh equivalent of what we know as the corner dairy (complete with resident cat reclining on the iceblocks freezer), one single Takeaway all but hidden from sight in a deeply recessed old stone edifice, a ladies apparel shop, bike shop, lighting shop (see photo attached) and a couple of other assorted places of business which serve the 3,000 - 4,000 inhabitants between trips to the modern-day supermarkets and shopping malls in the bigger towns and cities over the hills and far away.  If it hadn't been for the two dozen or so tourists or visitors like us, the only signs of life would have been the young local girls baring as much flesh as they can get away with prancing up the single main street for the benefit of the young local boys congregated around somebody's hotted up pride and joy on 4 wheels.
 
Our dinner that evening in the Dylanwad Da (restaurant) was superb. Turned out the owner had been to New Zealand a few times as he has family in the North Island but he has done a tour around both islands with particular interest in the wineries.  His wine list complimented the menu and we went for a relatively expensive Lebanese red from the Bekka Valley in which we could taste the notes of cedar wood that Lebanon is famous for.
 
Next day dawned cloudy with a stiff westerly breeze puffing in from the Irish Sea and up the valley.  We (or, at least, I) had decided we'd take the gentle Mawddach Estuary walk which proved to be a flat, well constructed path suitable for wheelchairs nearly its whole 15 km length. The weather improved markedly and the rest of the day remained nice and sunny.   Halfway, Pete decided to go back and drive the car to Barmouth to meet me there so that we had transport for getting back. I duly crossed the 125 year old Fairbourne Rail bridge at the mouth of the estuary and had to pay a toll before passing into Barmouth. Luckily, I had my purse in my 'rucksack' (they're not called back packs in this country) - I don't normally carry money with me when out walking.
 
Pete and I passed the rest of the afternoon lunching alfresco beside the harbour watching the seagulls scavenging and the holiday makers strolling, then when the waitress was wondering if we were going to sit there all afternoon without buying anything else we explored the rest of the town, which culminated in me taking a dip in Cardigan Bay in my shorts and t-shirt. The water was warm and exhilarating - the last time I swam in the sea was in Spain 2 years ago in the Mediterranean but it nowhere near compared with the North Atlantic waters.
 
I had a change of clothes in the car in readiness for eating out in the evening but getting changed was rather a public exercise held in the seafront carpark!  Gentleman Pete wouldn't even get out of the car to hold the towel up while I stripped off - he thought my predicament was terribly funny.
 
Our meal in Barmouth that night was in a fish restaurant, which of course it had to be since Barmouth was first a fishing village and now a seaside resort, but while the fish was straight out of the sea and on to our plates, the wine list had been selected off the supermarket specials shelves and the three waiters were just boys doing their best but with no finesse or proper training. We dubbed them Harry Potter, a slimmed down version of Billy Bunter and The Artful Dodger.  It all adds to the character and memorability!
 
Long distance walking plays havoc with Pete's left foot and he woke up a veritable cripple the following morning.  So, after breakfast we made for Porthmadog (pronounced: Port-maddock believe it or not) to catch the Ffestiniog Railway steam train to journey to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the slate mines above it, in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.  The railway began in the early 1800's as a narrow-gauge horse tramway for getting the high quality roofing slate down the mountain more efficiently than pack-mules and carts, to the sailing ships in the harbour, for transport to Europe's expanding cities.
 
Slate is made up of mica crystals measuring 1/2000th of an inch in length and 1/6000th of an inch in thickness. Blaenau slate, 500 million years old,  is noted for the fineness to which it can be split. At a competition in 1872 a quarryman split a block 2 and a half inches thick into 45 layers. Today, it is common-place for splitters to produce about 35 sheets per inch when making delicate slate ornaments, such as fans, using a chisel adapted from a table knife and blocks of fine quality Old Vein slate.
 
We heard on the radio, in a slate souvenir shop in Blaenau Ffestiniog, about the failed bomb attacks in London on 21 July.  The day was gloriously hot, sky cloudless, and being so high up in the waste tip hills surrounding Blaenau, London and the recent horrors of the 7/7 bombing seemed a world away, as if it had all been a dream, even though it had only been a fortnight ago. It had that same sense of unreality as when we heard about the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers while holidaying on the Isle of Islay in Scotland in 2001.  The news and the thought of what carnage there might have been had the bombs not failed to detonate sent a chill down our spines and tainted the day somewhat.
 

To top it off, when we were ready to go back down so that we had time to visit Port Meirion, the 3.15 train was not running because it had broken down somewhere along the track. We didn't have to wait too long till the next train and the ride back gave an even better spectacle as we went down through rugged mountain ranges above which buzzards glide lazily, through black as pitch narrow tunnels, into woodland of larch, wild rhododendrons, pine trees and ancient sessile oaks, emerging at unexpected clearings with dizzy views down in to the deep Vale of Ffestiniog or breathtaking panorama of the river meandering towards the Irish Sea with Harlech Castle on a headland in the distance. The train stops at several stations along the way, either to let tourists off to enjoy the many miles of woodland nature trails and mountain tracks, or to let residents off who live in numerous townships lower down.  It is truly amazing to consider that the track bed was hewn by hand over 170 years ago and is still in good repair.

It was a short walk to our very nice hotel and another short walk into town where our sight-seeing began in earnest. The open-top tour took us past 89 sights of interest, starting from Kurfurstendamm, referred to as 'Ku' Damm' by the locals, whose two-mile length offers cavernous shopping malls and boutiques, cafes, restaurants and bars, cinemas and theatres while many of Berlin's luxury hotels are situated around this centre of non-stop bustling activity.  
 
It was very warm in Berlin with a haze (could have been pollution) overhead but after whizzing around town all afternoon, we both ended up with sunburnt faces. The former West Berlin is almost completely rebuilt with East Berlin now undergoing restoration on an impressive scale. The difference being though, that much of the pre-war architecture is being preserved in the east while it appears that the west were anxious to remove all scars from WWII bombing raids and any reminders of Hitler's reign of terror. The entrance to his bunker where he holed up with Eva Braun as the Allies approached and where, after their suicides, their bodies were burnt according to his instructions has been built over and no plaques or statues or any symbols of recognition mark the spot. It's as if the German people want to wipe him from memory and would like the rest of the world to also. A different story at Auschwitz but that will come later.
 
In a perverse way, I was impressed with Berlin; it signifies what the German people are known for - an appreciation of art, a love of nature and an obsession for precision and efficiency. If the time-table says that the train will leave at 11.02 - it leaves at precisely two minutes past 11. Here in the UK, if we are running 10-20 minutes late for the station there is a very good chance that the train wont have left yet because there is also a very good chance that it hasn't arrived yet!
 
Despite all the efficiency and beautiful buildings and parks, an eerie atmosphere pervades which is difficult to describe. Even the sight of nude sunbathers in one part of the Teirgarten and families enjoying afternoon BBQ's in another had a strange feel about it. Five days later, as we were passing it again in the early evening on our return from from Poland, I mentioned to Pete that I wouldn't fancy walking through the park at night - it looked sinister.
 
The train trip to Krakow on Tuesday 24 August took 10 hours. For much of the journey we were passing through Polish countryside which near the border had an impoverished look. The settlements were fewer and further apart, forests abounded where the soil must have been less fertile judging by the scrubby plants growing on their edges and the houses appeared dilapidated  - I thought some must have been abandoned altogether until glimpses of washing hanging on sagging clotheslines, dejected dogs and ragged chooks scratching in the dust or a motionless figure standing in a doorway enviously watching the train slide past proved otherwise.    
 
Then we were passing acres of arable land where crops were growing, predominantly corn followed by beetroot. Settlements became towns, albeit little evidence of department stores or 'bright light' night entertainment. Heralding the imminent approach of a town were allotment gardens backing onto the train tracks. Each allotment was an oasis of greenery and profusion of coloured flowers. It was as if each allotment owner combined all their desire for beautiful surroundings with a practical need to supplement their diet in their individual small plots. The high rise apartment blocks people and families were obviously crammed into were stark and ugly. I couldn't help comparing the attractiveness of the Polish allotments with the untidy hotch-potch of English allotments (which are a dying tradition in any case due to people pinching the produce at night and councils wanting to build more low budget terraced houses on the land to house the flood of Eastern and European immigrants in).  
 
Only after a good 8 hours of travelling did any hills come into view. Until then, the terrain was completely flat. Nonetheless, I found the scenery interesting and the numerous stations we either flashed by or stopped at amazing. (See attached photo!)
 
As dusk approached, we drew into Krakow station - the most civilised looking station throughout our journey with Katowice perhaps second. Until my trip to Berlin and Auschwitz, I'd never heard of Katowice.
 
To be continued....
I was expecting quite a culture shock but found the citizens of Stockholm to be warm and friendly without exception who all spoken perfect English without any discernable accent, and the city has the air of a well run and efficient system. The four inches of snow already lying across the city didn't impede vehicular progress at all and nor did the further 6 inches of snow that fell on Friday cause traffic to grind to a standstill on streets and motorways as it did in the UK on Wednesday. I left work at 5 pm on Wednesday thinking 30 minutes would be ample time to get to the doctors surgery for my appointment - but FOUR HOURS LATER I finally skidded my way into Kepwick. 
 
It started to snow at 4pm so everybody downed tools and made a mad dash for their homes. At first, there was only snow on the roads which isn't  such a problem to drive on so why it took an average of 10 minutes to get round each round-about, while remaining stationary for long periods of time along the V and H roads, I really don't know. But by 7 o'clock, it began to freeze and then the roads were  a bit tricky so the dumb poms went even slower. I couldn't get through to Pete to let him know where I was because the network was overloaded. He and Bryan left work at 7.20 and came up the A5 which wasn't half as bad. They had to drop an auditor off at the station which delayed their relatively trouble free run home, arriving here just before 9pm.
 
To while away the time as I inched across town, I listened to the radio, tried ringing Pete and Kristian alternately, nibbled on a packet of mixed nuts from my handbag and tried not to think about the increasing need of toilet facilities. I heard on the radio that the M25 wasn't moving in either direction and Luton and Stansted had cancelled several evening flights.
 
We tried ringing Ryanair but we couldn't get through and they shut down their phone service at 10 pm anyway. So we had a quick tea, made sure the boys were OK and left for the airport just after midnight. It took 4 hours to get to Stansted; sleeping bodies were scattered throughout the terminal as they waited for rescheduled flights while early morning flights such as ours were leaving almost on time.
 
Needless to say, we had a terrific time in Stockholm. The temperature there had warmed up to a more comfortable -2  since the week before when it was just a tad too chilly for their liking at -13. Out of doors we wore our thick padded jackets, Russian fur hats bought from Northampton, gloves, woolly socks and boots and I wore long-johns under my black pants. We were toasty warm within our insulation and because we walked everywhere, even worked up a sweat. When it snowed, the air was dead still and the snow flakes were dry and powdery. As you will see from the photos, it was magical.
 

We have eaten reindeer stew, meatballs in lingon gravy with juniper berries, pickled herrings, herrings in mustard sauce, rye bread in varying recipes and tomato ghoulash as well as more familiar dishes. The food tasted so fresh and wholesome in sharp contrast to the stale, stodgy food that the UK has to offer. Wine is not their preferred drink of course and since the sun is well over the yard arm, I think now is an appropriate time to address our wine deficiency! Alcohol is horrendously expensive in Sweden but then the government encourages people to moderate their consumption in the interests of their health, which they regard highly. They tend to drink beer or Schnaps with their meals - alcohol is not served before mid-day and the drinking age limit is 20.

It was just on dusk as we were ascending the spire but becuase we were packed in like sardines and also the steel framework, our view was partially obscured going up.  It is 1050 feet high.  We stayed up there for a good hour watching Paris fade from a geometric design of grey/brown buildings and streets to a glitter of lights spread almost as far as the eye could see.  Pete and I used the vantage point to pick out familiar landmarks from our visit in Sept 2000 and to further orietate ourselves ready for the next day's sightseeing.  The River Seine is outlined in street lighting and the tour boats that ply the river appeared as sea green steaks of flurescent light moving up and down.  Lietta was suitably impressed and especially awed by the size of Paris.  She commented on how she used to think Christchurch was big from when she first saw it from the Port Hills but in comparison to Paris, Chc is just a village.

 
The following day, we headed off to a particular market we had stumbled across last time, Marche Levis (or Levi Martket to us), and stumbled across one or two others along the way.  It was interesting to watch the housewives doing their shopping as it is in such contrast to the British housewife or house husband.  The French buy most of their groceries as fresh produce as opposed to the pale skinned, sickly looking Anglo Saxons across the channel who buy 90% of their groceries in processed form (low in sodium, 95% less fat, no additives, not genetically modified etc but processed non-the-less).   Beggars and street people are everywhere you go, employing all manner of gimmicks to get us to part with our money.  One guy had a clarinet and a Suzy dog who sang! 
 
We had a bit of a shopping spree.  We bought perfume, aftershave moisturizer, shoes, leather handbag, clothes and souvenirs between us.  Pete and I used our Global Plus card which has been lying dormant for the past year or more.  We had enough air points for a flight to Australia (from NZ) but after the Paris trip there should be just about enough for 2 free flights.  We will send a £100 cheque back to the BNZ every month and have it paid off in no time - well, that's the theory.  We had a beautiful dinner in a tiny wee restaurant just across the street from our hotel that came to 92 Euros - on our credit card statement, that equates to $191.50!*@"#.
Actually, we thought of you guys that evening because I made another 'delayed action' clanger.....  Everything was written in French (you don't have to state the abvious because many were in both French and English) and Lietta and I were having trouble deciphering some of the words.  We had already made eye contact with the couple sitting opposite us and they seemed very nice and friendly so I decided to ask them to translate the menu for us.  The lady handed it to the man, who studied it carefully then said in English with a German inflection, "No, I can't read it either".  From then on, Pete said everytime we went into a cafe or brasserie, "Where are some Germans to translate the menu?"   He also said he must tell Bruce.
 
Oh, but I love Paris.  We will probably go back again next year.  In the meantime, Tuscany is on hold.  Don & Jill were having to bring the boys because they are just a tad too young to leave on their own for a week, especially easily-lead Hayden, therefore it meant we had to have our holiday during the school break (August).  We started making enquiries into the price of flights and renting a villa for 7 days and the buggars double their prices for the school holidays.  Pete and I still very much want to go and since we have another 2 weeks leave to use this year we may still be able to go on our own in September.  In the meantime, Don's colleague at the radio station has a villa in Spain that he has often said to Don he is welcome to hire (reduced rate) any time.  Pete & I had talked about doing Tuscany this year and Spain next year so it doesn't matter which way around we do it - they should still be there for awhile yet.
 
Transport What-ever-they-call-themselves in Palmerston North faxed over a copy of my Certificate of Particulars and with that I am about to send away my application for a UK licence with my Passport showing that I'm an illegal immigrant and hope that they give me a British licence.  It;s great having Pete to drive me around everywhere because it's so scarey driving in this crazy country but there are times when I could do with the car for myself.  I'm going to ask one of the managers at work to sign the back of my photo and complete the form solomnly declaring he has known me for a least 2 years and if he has told lies he agrees to go to jail and/or pay a huge fine.  I'm sure Paul will do that for me.  Nothing is easy over here.  If you think the government like making it complicated in New Zealand, try Great Britain!
 

Pete and I are going walking in the Cotswolds tomorrow.  My friend Trish and her husband Nigel were supposed to be coming too but they have both been crook last week and don't think they will be able to handle 14 miles.  Till next time then.....  It wont be so long as last time because I have told Pete he has done enough work on the work web site in his (our) free time and he can tell Terry, his boss, that he has been ordered to spend more time with me AND let me use the computer for 5 minutes.  Pete reckons they are scared of me at his work but Terry has only once done what I told him to do.  That was invite partners to the Christmas doo.

The first thing we noticed as the taxi took us to our lodgings in Iona Place was how much tidier Dublin was compared to English towns.  Practically all handkerchief-sized front gardens were as neat as pins and while small, each one was enclosed in a smart, shiny black wrought iron fence.  The streets were virtually rubbish free and there seemed to exude more of a sense of pride in the city.  We later learned that Dublin is famous for it’s front doors, covering all the colours of the rainbow.  Each householder vies with the whole street to have the brightest painted door and indeed, the doors looked as though they get a fresh coat of paint every year.

After settling into our hotel room, we headed into town but I can’t remember if we took the bus on this first occasion or if we walked.  I think we did take the bus, which dropped us near McConnell Street, the main artery of Dublin city.  I do remember that we walked to The Old Jameson Distillery thinking it wasn’t too far away but by the time we found Arran Quay, the distance was quite adequate.  The only way to see through the old distillery is to pay £3.95 (Irish) each for the guided tour.    

The tour was very interesting – Pete and I didn’t know a great deal about Irish Single Malts, our speciality being Scottish Single Malts.  The Irish distil their whiskey 3 times, the Scots twice and the Americans once.  Naturally, the Irish consider their whiskey to be the most superior and Pete and I have to admit that by comparison, it is smoother than the Scottish whiskey.  However, it is a matter of taste, as was proved at the end of the tour when 4 people from the tour were asked to be tasters.  They had to blind taste 3 glasses of liquid and choose the one they liked best.  Then, they had to taste a 4th glass, which turned out to be American bourbon, and although one taster quite liked it, they had to concede it was very rough compared to the more civilized twice and thrice distilled malts of Scotland and Ireland.  Lastly, the tasters were asked to pick their overall favourite ‘drop’ and 2 chose the Bushmills (an Irish whiskey now owned by Jameson), 1 chose the Jameson and the 4th couldn’t make up her mind between the Jameson or the Scots single malt.  She had to have further tastes and despite good-natured reminders that she was in Ireland and in the Jameson Distillery, she finally chose the Scots.   We were all given a small glass of Jameson to sip while the taste test was going on. 

By this time, it was approaching tea-time – or, at least, time to start searching for a nice restaurant.   Pete had heard about Temple Bar, an area of narrow cobble-stoned streets that is famous not only for its European restaurants to traditional Irish pubs but also for its art galleries, recording studios, second-hand clothes shops and craft shops.    I think we picked up a brochure in one of the souvenir shops with a map marking the tourist spots.  The Temple Bar was on the other side of the River Liffey, the famous river that cuts the city in two and over which numerous renowned bridges span.  One such bridge is The Ha’penny Bridge, which got it’s name by merit of the fact that for a number of years, people were charged half a penny to cross it to pay for the cost of building it and although the bridge was named the Wellington Bridge, the Ha’penny Bridge stuck.  A cast iron footbridge only, it arches gracefully from one side of the Liffey to the other, the preserved Victorian lamps spaced at intervals evocative of the Olde Worlde era.

After wandering around the Temple Bar area checking out the many restaurants, we decided on a Sicilian establishment.  It was small, looked new and was on the outskirts of the area but the waiters were tripping over themselves to serve us, with the utmost politeness.  Best of all, it was a non-smoking restaurant and for us, it was such a pleasure to eat our first meal in a public place without the stench of cigarette smoke.  All over England, everybody smokes and the pong of stale smoke is ingrained into the wood, the carpet, the curtains…  

The night was still young after our lovely meal and we went looking for night-time entertainment amongst the pubs and clubs.

Next morning, we went back to O’Connell Street, a 50 metre wide boulevard, the centre of which is lined with bicycle stands, trees and monuments.  The most impressive monument is the O’Connell statue, in honour of the man who was responsible for campaigning for a Catholic voice in parliament at Westminster.  Before Irish Catholic’s gained the right to stand for election as member’s of parliament though, they first had to fight for the right to vote and O’Connell spent his life doing this by passive means.  The rabble, of course, wanted to take up arms (pitch-forks etc in their case) so he had a two—fold job in convincing them violence wasn’t the way to winning their cause, while showing the English and Protestant land owners the Catholics were human beings with the right to respect and equal opportunity.  I’ve read an historical account of the potato famine and have discovered how politics and bigotry contributed to the suffering of millions and death to hundreds of thousands, whereas before, I just thought it was an agricultural disaster.  Not so.  I have a photo of Pete wearing his £99 (NZ$300) leather jacket, standing in the foreground of the statue, honouring this eminent man of Irish history.

As you were – we had walked to O’Connell Street to find breakfast for, although we could have had it back at the guest-house (not included in our tariff), we had seen some promising restaurants advertising all day breakfasts.  The one we chose was almost as good as the Casino in Chc.  I had traditional Black Pudding with mine, which was very tasty.  Now why can’t England provide a good place to eat breakfast?

The day before, we had booked a coach tour on the Wild Powerscourt Tour.  We had to report to the Gresham Hotel near the Information Centre at “One t’irrty” for our pick-up.  In the meantime, after breakfast, we visited Christ Church Cathedral dating from 1230 and lavishly restored in 1875 at the expense of a wealthy Dublin whiskey distiller, St Patrick’s Cathedral standing on the site of a Celtic Church of Saint Patrick probably founded by that saint, where we met 2 French girls on holiday, and we found more parts to the Temple Bar in the daylight, including some wonderful souvenir shops. 

At one t’irrty, we reported to our pick up spot and a Mercedes bus duly pulled up to collect the small group that had joined us.  We got a short tour of the city as we called at another couple of hotels to pick up more sight-seers and as we drove down one particular street in the rich part of town where many of the diplomatic residences are, our driver told us how they dug up 600 Viking soldier’s bodies during construction of the road.  They gathered them all up and buried them elsewhere. It leaves us to ponder why so many Viking bodies were buried in one place because our image of them is one of plunder, ravage, burn and kill; the idea of 600 big, strong, barbaric conquerors being slain on the spot doesn’t fit somehow. 

After the city tour, picking up strays along the way, we headed south along the coastal route with our driver pointing out sights and places of local and historical interest.  At Sandy Beach, the only bit of sandy beach near Dublin, he told us how it was once reserved for gentlemen only to bathe in the nude.  Chauvinists!

We stopped overlooking Killiney Bay, said to be Dublin’s ‘Bay of Naples’ for it’s beautiful outlook towards the Irish Channel and home to the rich and famous.  The average Joe Bloggs couldn’t afford to buy the garden shed in even the smallest of properties and we were suitably horrified when the driver pointed out houses of varying sizes, telling us how many million punts (Irish currency) each was sold for within recent months or the last two years.

We had a choice of driving past Bono’s mansion or Enya’s castle and the loudest chorus was for Enya, much to the driver’s (pretended) relief because he reckoned he got the bus stuck in the narrow and hilly road down to Bono’s house the week before.  The roads were terribly narrow and he drove with less caution than we would have, taking into account the long drop down to the sea on the left side.  I dare say our gasps of terror relieved his boredom from doing the same run, saying the same things, 3-4 times a week.  

We arrived at Powerscourt House where we could get off the bus for an hour and learn about its history and admire the beautiful gardens.  It has been a fortress since Viking times but like most castles that managed to escape destruction in the early centuries, it eventually became a residence from 1300 to whoever last invaded it or was awarded it by the king.  I don’t have any literature on Powerscourt and can only give you the basic facts as recalled by Pete and I.  By the 1900’s, the house was in danger of being sold due to successive heirs gambling and wasting their inheritances but the last heir married into the Slazanger family.  The house was rebuilt and restored to it’s former glory through the investment of millions and millions of the Slazanger’s money and on completion in 1974, they threw a party.

 During the evening a chimney caught on fire but the servants managed to put it out without disrupting the party too much.  The guests who weren’t staying overnight left around 1 a.m. and the rest retired to their rooms.  Mrs Slazanger was an insomniac and stayed up late reading.  About 3 o’clock in the wee small hours the lights went out for a moment but she didn’t worry too much when they came back on, assuming the servants, who were still cleaning up, had seen to it.  But later on when the whole household was asleep, she heard a crackling noise and thinking there was definitely something wrong with the electrics, she went to investigate.  What she found however, was a fire.  The earlier chimney fire had been extinguished but some sparks had got in between the walls and smouldered away until the heat had been sufficient to burst into flames.  She raised the alarm and evacuated the entire household – no one was hurt but the house burned to the ground.

The Slazanger’s still own the house (Pete reckons they bought it but I seem to remember reading or hearing in the video that they married into the place so don’t quote me {but I’m sure I’m right!}), which they are slowly rebuilding yet again.  The fabulous ball room has been restored and can be hired for weddings or other occasions requiring to make an impression, the gardens are cared for to within an inch of their life in exact layout to their design by a garden-mad heir from 100 or more years ago, and framed on the horizon overlooking the park-like garden and lake is The Great Sugarloaf, highest peak in the Wicklow Mountains. (Mentioned because of Sugar Loaf Hill in Christchurch, NZ and not dissimilar in shape.)

When we arrived, we all had to dunk our feet in a trough of disinfectant because this was still around the time of the foot and mouth epidemic.  A portly American woman lined up like the rest of us but she declined to dunk her feet when it got to her turn -  because she didn’t want to ruin her fancy shoes.  Too bad if several thousand head of stock had to be slaughtered because of her fancy shoes.

Further south from where our tour took us is a little village called Avoca in a valley of the Wicklow Mountains.  It was famous for centuries as a centre for handweaving but is now more famous as TV’s Ballykissangel, complete with Fountain Bar or otherwise known as ‘Fitzgerald’s’.  We will see it another time.

Back in Dublin, we left our bus and went back to Temple Bar for dinner.  We have learnt to eat early over this side of the world because most restaurants start closing from 9 p.m.  Pete was tickled pink with a place called Luigi Malones – an Italian Irish restaurant.  So we ate there.  We took a table in the underground section and one of the features at Luigi Malones is an almost complete tile dating back to the original wall built around Dublin in the days when invaders came from all points of the compass.  The red tile is called The Devil’s Tile and, reputed to be the oldest relic of the wall, is in situ where it was found during excavations for the present day building.

The name Malone is synonymous with Molly Malone, the infamous street trader of the 18th century.  We saw her descendants in Moore Street market with their prams and battered baby carriages filled with fruit and flowers or toys and bric-a-brac.  The street traders of today are as renowned for their good humour, loud voices and sharp witted banter as in the days of Molly Malone, all of which we saw and heard for ourselves with much amazement and amusement.

The bus driver had told us where to find “Diddilly-Doo” music if we were looking for authentic Irish singing and dancing.  The entrance to the Arlington Hotel facing the River Liffey looked very ordinary from the outside and we had by-passed it the previous evening giving it the thumbs down.  Inside, the cavern-like pub was lit with hundreds of candles and muted  red glowing lamps; it was huge and crowded and very warm.  We asked a couple of similar age to us if we could share their table, to which they happily agreed, then Pete fought his way to the bar to get drinks.  I ordered a pint of Guinness, brewed using the crystal waters of the River Shannon – when in Ireland, do as the Irish do.

 Presently, the band arrived and took half an hour or more to set themselves up, all the while, the already crowded bar filling up more and more as people squeezed into every available space.  Once the band got going w e thought they were quite good but our new friends told us they were not.  However, with the place filling up to around 400 people according to Pete’s estimation, and the Guinness going down very nicely by me, 2 girls and a bloke took the stage for some Irish jigging – or Riverdancing as we now know it.  The crowd were thoroughly enjoying themselves and after the dancing finished, the stage was dismantled in a smoothly practised operation, the music kept going and everybody was either singing or dancing or both.  The whole atmosphere was fully charged with liveliness and friendliness; half the patrons seemed to be Irish and the other half tourists like us.

Again, we walked back to our guesthouse late at night, seeing no sign of trouble and feeling no threat to our person, as on the previous evening.  Dublin leaves an impression of easy going people who enjoy life, love their country, remember the suffering and hardship of their past history and perhaps as a result of that, are open and hospitable to visitors.  The tourists are pouring into Dublin apparently and so they will, for the shops are open every day, you can get a cup of tea whenever you want without having to walk the whole town finding a place that’s open and they have plenty of good restaurants and pubs. 

It is a city of great historical and cultural interest.  As the birthplace of renowned writers such as Jonathan Swift (Dean of St Patrick’s from 1713 to 1745 who led an ‘interesting’ domestic life), Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, Dublin often featured in their books.  However, Jonathan Swift felt himself, “dropped in wretched Dublin” and George Bernard Shaw complained of  “a certain flippant, futile derision and belittlement peculiar to Dublin”.  W B Yeats called it “the blind and ignorant town” and James Joyce seemed to agree yet despite all the abuse, a number of truly great writers became part of Dublin’s heritage.

Our ferry back to UK mainland was a mid-morning departure on our last day.  We got back to Holyhead, sailing on the James Joyce ‘slow’ ferry, to a brilliantly sunny day on the Angelsey coast.  We took the A5 home, whose route takes us through the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.  This route first of all takes you through the town with the longest name in the world – Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!  Translated, it means; Church mary a hollow white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool church saint’s name cave red.  I asked the lady in the gift shop to say it for me and although she wasn’t born in Wales, she could say it but has to kind of sing it to get the rhythm.

The road through the Snowdon mountain pass was very picturesque with many little quaint villages nestling in valleys, tumbling rivers splashing harmoniously down rocky riverbeds and scraggy pine-like trees foresting the steep hillsides.  Nothing could have been in greater contrast to the gently rolling green fields, sluggish widely expansive muddy bottomed rivers and clusters of terracotta tiled roofs over earthy red bricked houses packed closely together in hollows of Mother England, and this must be how the British Isles came to be made up of separate countries.   Parts of Wales reminded me of the barren side (Canterbury side) of Arthur’s Pass and Lindus Pass, other parts had the look of the Otago side of Haast Pass just beyond Lake Hawea and still others resembled Lewis Pass. 

The A5 is the old London road to Holyhead that has seen a constant flow of traffic over the centuries between Ireland and England.  Politicians, noblemen and royalty have rattled over the same ground backwards and forwards on matters of state, observing the same scenes, without the modern highways, as we were on our way home to Milton Keynes, passing almost right outside our front door. 

Today, Krakow is known as the city of students - over 100,000 study at the numerous universities although as you walk about the streets, there is no obvious evidence of it being a university town. Not like Christchurch or Dunedin, or Oxford or Cambridge. The inner city streets are quiet cobbled lanes and the outer streets are even quieter tree-lined thoroughfares. One could imagine they had stepped back in time and that is precisely how I felt throughout our 3 days there.data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAIAAAAAAAP///yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7
 
On arriving in Krakow, passengers leaving the train must descend underground to pass below the multiple railway tracks leading into and out of the station. Along the subterranean  corridors the walls are lined with stalls offering old books, toys, cheap cosmetics, L.P. records (once the bee's knees of home entertainment - or the mainstay of one of Bronwyn and Kerry's parties!) and the ubiquitous pretzel stall every few yards. The sharp eyed vendors wore a mixed air of pleading that somebody might hand over a few groznys for their battered wares, and hurt pride, as if to say, "I don't have to do this you know but it's something to do."  
 
Above ground again we had to pass through the station building, a bit of an 18th Century relic of a once dignified era when steam train travel was the height of sophistication.  Now, the pre-loved grand chandeliers high up in the ceiling of the spacious marble floored main entrance provide an undisturbed roost for the pigeons as modern day travellers hurry through with heads down intent on their busy lives. Pete was busy lecturing me on not talking to people who will inevitably approach us in the street for they will be asking for money. We crossed the foot bridge spanning the road beneath when, our hotel only a short distance away on the next block, a swarthy complexioned man caught my eye but I quickly looked away because I could see he was going to speak.
 
He called, "Excuse me?" but I kept walking, assuming Pete had realised and was doing the same. But the man ran after us calling out excuse me's until Pete (who is getting deaf in his old age) finally heard and stopped. The man was holding a creased and torn map of Krakow and once he had Pete's attention he asked if we knew where such and such a university was. Because Pete had been to Krakow before, he thought he might be able to direct this bloke but he didn't know the place and said, "Sorry, don't know". The man tried to engage in conversation, asking us where we were from and asking again if we knew where this place was, his eyes darting around the street. We realised he was up to something - I mean to say, it was obvious we were tourists who had just stepped off the train by the fact that Pete was dragging a suitcase and we both had backpacks on our backs.
 
As we edged away from him,  two other men suddenly swooped down on us, one holding out a wallet with some kind of badge on it similar to what the police have to carry. He didn't do the talking - the other guy bombarded us with questions such as, "What were you talking to this man about?", "Did you give him any money or did he give you money?". "Show me your passport." (Pete's Irish passport is written half in Gaelic which often confuses checking-in staff at airports). "Where are you from?" I had my hand ready to unzip my bag to get my passport out but he waved me away and said he didn't want to see mine. "What money are you carrying?" Both the swarthy complexioned man and Pete produced their wallets; the swarthy one had a heap of American dollars in his and Pete had ten Euros!  He demanded that I hand over my purse then and all I had was my Switch card, credit card and a handful of Euro coins.  "Show me your credit cards?" he asked Pete and the swarthy one. "What is your PIN number?"
 
At which point, Pete laughed without humour and said, "No no no. Not a chance" and we made to move off.  "We're just doing our job" the two guys muttered and thankfully let us go. As we approached the hotel door, two authentic Polish cops, decked out in distinctive uniform and armed to the teeth, were walking towards us. Whether they had been watching our little exchange or not we don't know because we almost knocked each other over in our rush to reach safety inside the hotel.   "And you were saying Peter......?"
 
The Main Market Square has been the centre of the city's life for centuries. The Rynek (Market Square) was laid down in 1257 after the Mongol hordes had swept through Krakow. It was 'an emporium of the Black Sea trade' and a place of festivals and public meetings. The aristocracy built their palaces around the square and these now house cafes, restaurants, pubs, shops and museums.   
 
data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAIAAAAAAAP///yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7Dominating the square, Europe's largest medieval market place, are the Cloth Hall in the centre and St Mary's Basilica on the north east corner. The architecture of the Cloth Hall is unusual in its semi-Spanish semi-Gothic design. Long and narrow in shape, each outer side has archways opening onto a 'porch' sheltering the shop fronts. Down the centre of the building is an open thoroughfare lined with wooden stalls which I believe are original. This was where people from the East came to barter their spices, silk, leather and wax for Krakow's textiles, lead and salt,  while the merchants traded from their shops.    
 
St Mary's also looks somewhat incongruous, situated on the edge of the square. Its two towers are of unequal height, as if it was damaged in some bombing attack, like the Kaiser Wilhelm Cathedral in Berlin or Coventry Cathedral in England, and never fully restored. But when the evening sun bathes the red brick exterior the church glows with a warmth and softness that enhances its strange formation. We didn't go in to the church but from all accounts it is apparently 'crammed with gold and studded tombs'. Pictures of the alter show a richness bordering on vulgar (in my opinion) but nonetheless the 14th Century stained glass windows are reputed to be among some of the worlds most magnificent, especially with the sun shining through them during the day. 
 
And this is a good place to entertain you with one of Krakow's touching legends. From the higher tower of St Mary's, a bugle call is played every hour where the sound carries to the four quarters of the world. But it is poignantly interrupted, as it was hundreds of years ago. This is a tribute to a watchman who warned his fellow Cracovians of an approaching Tartar invasion by playing an alarm call. The brave fireman-bugle player paid for it with his life, as he was shot in the neck by a Tartar's arrow.
 
Pete is listening to the bugle call in the early evening in the attached photo. You can't quite see the bugler in the top window. 
The second photo shows you what the Cloth Hall looks like.  I wish now that I had taken a photo inside it showing the stalls. They all sold amber ornaments, amber jewellery, Russian dolls, hand embroidered traditional costumes and more amber jewellery. It was abit like an Aladdin's Cave; very colourful and busy.St Marys and the Bugle, Krakow
 
We ate in a traditional Polish restaurant, Wierzynek Kawiarnia, on our first evening - sitting outside at tables under huge umbrellas. It started to rain before our meals came out but most of us simply pulled our chairs closer together under cover while extra hands held an umbrella over the waitress's heads as they rushed about with plates of food from the kitchen.  I had Pieczen Wieprzowa - roast pork with garlic and plums in beetroot and bacon sauce with a touch of Zubrowka Vodka, served with cabbage stuffed with pearl barley. Pete had Chateaubriand - both meals were delicious.
The rain didn't last long and people were soon promenading around the packed square again in the warm refreshing evening.  Armed police patrolled in pairs; it was both comforting to know that anyone trying to cause trouble wouldn't last long, and worrying that such a show of force was necessary.  I commented to Pete that I thought we'd stick to the well lit areas.
 
Next installment will be about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau but we just have to dash off to Tuscany for a week so it will be a little while in the writing.

 

Although hugely enjoyable, trips to Calais are characterized by very early starts and late home-comings. Saturday, 23-April was no different despite our two day fare and at 0300 hours in both the O'Douglas households situated in Milton Keynes an alarm sounds to summon us from our beds. Checking for the umpteenth time that we all have our passports and Don has the tickets, we set off in the darkness on a two-hour journey to Dover port.  The sun rises directrly in our eyes just as we reach Dover, our first destination.

Passing through Border Control entirely un-hindered by vigilant security guards we find ourselves so ahead of schedule that we manage to get on an earlier sailing.  SeaFrance Ferries, I'm afraid to say, please clean up your act!  The facilities were a disgrace, customer service non-existent and the over-priced breakfast was unpalatable, to put it nicely.  Never mind, the trip across the channel takes a mere 55 minutes or so and soon we are leaving behind the only disappointing aspect of the Road to Rouen (Road to Ruin.....get it) trip, as we have dubbed our short break.

First stop - the Carrefour hypermarket at Cite Europe to purchase a few obligatory supplies, namely 1 litre bottles of liqueur difficult and/or expensive to find in the UK, some interesting French wines perhaps, Normandy cidre for Pete and exotic real ales for me and our good friends in Leighton Buzzard, Trish & Nigel.  Pete likes to spend some time in the Gadgets department spying out new 'tech' or comparing prices, while I drool over the dispaly of cheeses (fromage) in the huge delicatessen section. I can tell the seafood is fresh from the smell but we can't buy any because it would go off before we get home.   In the fresh produce section the lack of packaging is conspicuous by its absence; it worries me how much plastic is used to package fruit and vegetables in the British supermarkets.

Feeling light-headed through lack of a decent cup of tea or coffee, we make a bit of an exhibition of ourselves out in the car park but decide to press on, in a hurry to reach Rouen and the undoubted abundance of fine cafes and restaurants where we can eat and drink to our hearts' content.  In the early hours of the morning, while Pete was in the shower, I had made a thermos of coffee since the ferry 'hot' beverages are notoriously foul, and as we cruise down the French A16 motorway Pete suddenly takes the off-ramp leading to the Aire Autoroutiere de la Baie de Somme (or, Bay of the Somme service station).  The French service stations are more than a petrol pump and convenience store mostly full of confectionary; they often provide landscaped picnic areas and all the amenities long-distance travellers need or want. 

Set back from the motorway, behind the petrol pumps, an unobstrusive delightful surprise awaits that not even the presence of a lone, stark-white windturbine standing sentinal alerts us to what we are about to find. It's a picnic area - with a difference.  An ecological wood and glass mini-mall surrounded by duck and fish ponds blends into the surrounding daisy-pied meadow (Katherine Mansfield expression) with paths bordering the sedge-lined water channel enticing motorists to stroll along and stretch their legs. Everything is designed to be environmentally friendly and although the windturbine doesn't supply all the energy the complex needs, it helps to reduce running costs and usage of the national grid. 

After an impromptu picnic on the grass at which an army of uninvited furry caterpillars try to join in, we tarry awhile longer in order to take advantage of the views from the Lookout Tower.  A photo opportunity with all four of us in the frame together turns into a prolonged pose while Pete tries to set the camera on timer. The sunlight is so bright he can't see what it says on the display screen - so he tells us. 

Taking in the 360 degree vista from the Lookout one is struck by how flat the lay of the land is and I try to imagine WWI soldiers endeavouring to keep a low profile in muddy trenches, that must have existed almost 100 years ago near where I'm standing, in what has become famously known as The Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded (1 July to 18 Nov 1916). At the end of the battle British and French forces had penetrated a total of 9.7km (6 miles) into German occupied territory at the cost of 1.5 million lives. 

The bay is too far away to be able to see even from this high point and a shiver runs through me as I compare the tranquil scene before me with the horrors of yesteryear. It's obvious even to an untrained eye such as mine that today the area is an important bird, water-fowl and wildlife sanctuary. Also, Baie de Somme, I've since discovered, has a much earlier significance to English descendants; the invasion fleet of William The Conqueror assembled in the Bay in that famous year of 1066. Further exploration is warranted at a later date I feel.

Fully refreshed, just as Destination Baie de Somme intended, and with an empty thermos flask stowed away, we continue south to Rouen, arriving around 1 o'clock.  SatNav guides our driver through the outskirts of the expanded part of the city, down an extremely long and steep hill to where our hotel sits on the banks of the River Seine. Nobody has any idea of what to expect from Rouen; we are merely prepared for the un-expected, whether good or bad.

First surprise is a Gospel Service going on in the bar attached to the hotel.  The temperature is in the high 20's, un-natural for the time of year even for Rouen, and all the windows are open but with curtains drawn.  Barely able to hear ourselves think, Jill is our interpreter with her "smattering of English" (another in-family joke) and over the din of chanting Hallelujahs from next door she arranges keys to our rooms 2 floors above. The quaint little hotel lift is only big enough for 2 people to get into at a time so thereafter we take the stairs.

Having come totally unprepared, we don't even have a map of the town so Jill speaks to our concierge once again and he produces a tourist map (shouldn't he have offered us one when we checked in?). Serendipiously, we discover a superette just around the corner and because we don't know whether the shops will be open on the morrow, Easter Sunday, a brief conference is held on the footpath resulting in a concensus of opinion that we should stock up with snacks and any other essential supplies now. 

That done, and the spoils ferried back to Don & Jill's hotel room, which is on the shady side of the bulding, we point our noses in the Old Town direction.  Two blocks later we turn a corner, only to be pulled up sharply in sheer wonderment of surprise - for we have entered the first of many market squares flanked by tall half-timbered buildings.