H is for Handbag

I am a serial loser of handbags. I’ve left one in Italy (on a train), Norway (in a mountain cabin), Scotland (in a distillery). Then there was Canada.

We headed along Highway One, the Trans-Canada Highway, a straight line into the distance.

‘You’d think the Romans had been here,’ my husband said.

Not the Romans but the early pioneers, going west, not knowing what lay head. We knew. We were going to the Rocky Mountains. The land was flat as we left Calgary. Then we saw the ski jumps, challenging monsters for other brave men, a legacy from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. We stopped to take photographs and have lunch in a café.

Then on again. We drove slowly, taking in the ever more spectacular view. At Canmore, a ski resort near Banff, we stopped to look around.

I reached for my handbag by my feet. Not there. Nor on the back seat. I froze as I re-lived the last hour of my life.

‘I left my handbag behind at lunchtime.’

My husband’s face was eloquent. There was much he could have said, but didn’t.  Instead we simply headed back east.

He didn’t need to berate me; I was giving myself a bad enough time. We listed the bag’s contents: passports, credit cards, $500, glasses, mobile phone.

The return journey was unpleasant. The scenery irritated us with its slow passage. The 90 kph speed limit mocked us.

I ran into the café, to the table we’d used. No handbag. Jumping the queue, I told my story.

And there was my bag, handed in by a customer. Thank you, honest Canadians!

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From Tango Shoes to Wet Knickers

Patagonia! A magical name and the trip didn’t disappoint.

We started in vibrant Buenos Aires with a tango show. My fears that it would be tourist rubbish were unfounded. The standard was professional, the venue old-style glamorous and the food and drink high quality and generous. Anyone who has watched ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ knows all about the Argentine tango. In Argentina it’s even more athletic and dramatic. What I didn’t know was that it was originally danced by men, the gauchos coming into the city. While awaiting their turn with their chosen ladies, they would tango. You never know where a tango will lead you!

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Men’s tango shoes

We wondered how welcome we would be in Argentina. However, it seems the Falklands war is a dim memory and people are more focussed on improving conditions nearer home. The mausoleum of Luis Vernet, last governor of the Falklands, is in a neglected state in the Recoleta Cemetery, not far away from that of the much more revered Eva Peron.

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The tomb of Eva Peron (née Duarte)

We liked Buenos Aires, from the eclectic mix of styles in the centre to the colourful streets of La Boca (where we saw more tango, danced on café steps).

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La Boca
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Street tango

On the ‘wrong’ side of the railway line, visible from the motorway, are the slums, a strange assortment of cubes built on top of each other, separated by narrow alleyways, where the poorest live.

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The slums from the coach window

In contrast, Porto Moderno is super-rich. Our guide called it ‘Money-Laundering Land’. Politicians live here in huge apartments. There is much corruption.

We flew from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego. It was called the Land of Fire by the early explorers who saw fires burning on the shores. The early natives lived naked so needed fire to keep warm. An amazing visit to the prison in Ushuaia, now a museum, told us of British influence – the Argentinians sent their convicts here just as we sent ours to Tasmania for punishment.

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Ushuaia prison

We took a trip on the Beagle Channel, saw sea lions and cormorants, and were amazed that early sailors ever found their way among all the islands. The weather is unreliable here – usually only around six days a year with cloudless, blue skies. We had two of them! Boats leave from here for Antarctica. We really were at the end of the earth.

Patagonia stretches across both Argentina and Chile and so we set off on a 12 hour bus journey to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For much of the time, the scenery was flat and uninteresting – the Argentinian Steppe – but the Park is worth the journey. Our guide told us about mate tea which the locals drink. It’s a caffeine-rich infusion, traditionally made in a calabash gourd and drunk via a silver straw. It’s passed from person to person, a social ritual they all seem to enjoy. Our guide handed his mate round for us to try. Far too bitter for me.

We stayed in cabins with snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes around us just outside the National Park, a lovely position.

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Torres del Paine National Park

There was the option of a 23km trek the following day. We decided to go for it although our local guide nearly put me off with her severe warnings (Health & Safety prevails!) It was difficult at the top, steep and rocky, but a real achievement to get there.

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The often seen Firebush

Another long drive back to Argentina – you can fall asleep and when you wake, the scenery hasn’t changed! Lots of guanacos scattered about – they look like llamas. We headed for El Calafate, a pleasant if touristy town. This was our base for the Perito Moreno glacier. A spectacular 70 metre wall of ice, calving from time to time into Lake Argentino, shone bluish white in the sunshine. The system of walkways and viewpoints is excellent and we took a boat trip to get an even closer look.

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Perito Moreno glacier

Off to El Chalten the next day, stopping en route at an old ranch, La Leona, now a café. There were pictures of Butch Cassidy on the wall – apparently he stopped here for a month when on the run to Bolivia. Who knows if it’s true!

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Poster for Butch Cassidy at La Leona

Another long walk to a view point in the Fitzroy Massif the following day. Our luck broke and the wind and cloud made the final part of the walk impossible. But we’d seen the Fitzroy mountain the previous day, so shouldn’t complain.

We now had the final stage of our visit – the Iguazu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Someone said the temperature there was 37˚C (actually, it wasn’t). I had no shorts with me so chopped the legs off a pair of jeans. No time to shop! Yet more travelling including the chaos of Iguazu airport with an IT failure and no systems operational!

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Iguazu Falls seen from the boat

The Falls are wonderful, probably best from the Argentinian side. There is a compulsion to take photos constantly – I have more than I know what to do with!  (Some people still seem to find selfies more important than the spectacular scenery…) The highlight was a boat trip to the foot of one of the cascades. They said we’d get wet – they weren’t lying. It wasn’t just the spray – a wave landed in my lap. I was in my denim shorts. Not often do I need to wring out my underwear!

We were well-sustained by the amazing Argentinian beef and Patagonian lamb throughout the trip. We’ve never eaten so much meat but it was good. Then there was King Crab and spicy prawns when we were near the sea. Empanadas for lunch. Add to that, the Argentinian Malbec and a Pisco Sour or two…

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Argentinian beef
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Barbecued Patagonian lamb

All superb. I am now dieting!

 

Wild, Wet, Windy, Wonderful Wiltshire

Four days walking in Wiltshire, three different B & B’s, six of us who frequently walk together, coordinated and organised by Carol, our ‘Leader’.

It rained on the first day, exactly as forecast. I had my waterproof over-trousers with me (they are the most hated item of clothing I possess) but I couldn’t be bothered to put them on. So my legs were soaked. As was my rucksack. My feet were dry (new boots) but Barbara and Dave had leakages. We were a pretty sodden sight. Still, it was only eight miles and the rain eventually stopped. We went to Barbury castle, an iron-age hill fort, and ate our homemade cake.

Trudging in the rain

There were a few navigational issues and when we realised we had gone round in a complete circle, revisiting the sights we’d seen a few hours earlier, eight miles turned into twelve. Neville blamed himself and insisted on buying the wine at dinner. We were well lubricated by bed-time.

The following day, it was Avebury and Silbury Hill. We walked to the Long Barrow and went inside.

Silbury Hill

The sun shone for the Autumn Equinox. This attracts interesting people. One girl played her guitar and sang beautifully. As we left, she blew us kisses and said we were angels. She wished us a good trip. I think she and her friends were already on theirs.

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We passed a couple lying close and immobile on the grass and another girl cutting herbs outside her decrepit caravan. There was the sound of haunting music around the Avebury stones and peaceful people soaking up the energy. It was a good day.

Unfortunately, the landlord of our B & B for that night kept us waiting around an hour on his doorstep as he’d needed to shop for our dinner. This was worrying but the food was good even if the service was slow. Minor problem when Tony failed to notice the shower head in the bathroom filling his wash bag with water. Oh, well.

The following day was lovely. Good weather again, we walked to the white horse at Alton Barnes.

The Alton Barnes white horse

The dyke that separated the old counties of Mercia and Wessex centuries ago was still clearly visible. Rolling hills, easy going.

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The dyke separating Mercia from Wessex

‘I wonder if we can see Stonehenge from here,’ Carol said, as we gazed at the view.

‘Not if you look in that direction,’ said Tony. ‘It’s north from here.’

‘No it isn’t, it’s south.’

‘Bottle of champagne on that.’

‘You’re on.’

I asked Tony if he was sure. ‘Would I bet a bottle of champagne if I wasn’t?’

It’s comforting to know my husband’s super sense of direction occasionally lets him down. I don’t feel so bad about mine. He’s off to buy the bubbles.

Final day, and a walk around the Chutes. It was the sloe walk. That isn’t a spelling mistake. There were loads, an additional weight in the rucksacks but we look forward to tasting Barbara’s sloe gin at Christmas. It was meant to be a short, easy walk. Something went wrong again, we missed the path and ended up plodding uphill through a rough field with holes to grab the unwary foot. This brought us to a road but no gate or stile. Fortunately the wire fence was neither electric nor barbed. We clambered over it inelegantly, only one of us falling. No damage apart from wounded pride.

We’re looking forward to our next walk. Carol insists we’ll take the champagne with us. That’s bound to help the navigation.

 

Peace and Love

A Tribute to the British Virgin Islands

Two years ago, some kind friends invited us to join them sailing in the Caribbean. I was expecting smart boats and cruise liners, friendly people, good seafood, clear turquoise sea and sunshine.  I got all this but what I wasn’t expecting to find was a throw-back to the late fifties/early sixties. Sydney’s Peace & Love Beach Bar and Restaurant was just that.

We moored our boat on a buoy in Little Harbour, Jost van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands. Looking for somewhere interesting to have an evening drink, we took the dinghy to the nearby beach. Sydney’s was there – but, alas, not Sydney who died in 2010.

Memorial plaque to Sidney

His daughter, Strawberry, ran the place exactly as he did. When we asked for rum punches, she showed us the rum, the punch mixer, the ice and the plastic beakers. We served ourselves and simply told her how many we’d had before we left. Trust worked. The price was good – there were no bar staff to pay.

The pillars and rafters were painted white and covered with names, dates and messages from the hundreds of visitors over the years. Having no indelible pen, we had come unprepared to add ours, although finding space would have been a problem. The other decoration was T-shirts – all types and sizes, hanging everywhere.

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There was liberal use of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ symbol and hearts – Peace and Love. I was back in my youth.  We sat at plastic tables on plastic chairs which were anything but luxurious. But we got the atmosphere we wanted as the sun went down.

I wonder if it survived Irma? It was a shack on the beach. Somehow I doubt it.

A Donkey in the Drawing Room

Thirty years ago our son, Joe, had an exchange visit with a French lad, Paul. The boys kept in touch for around five years then communication lapsed, although I remained in Christmas card contact with Paul’s parents.

When Paul’s father died, I felt guilty we’d not been to see them for so long – there was a standing invitation to their family home near Grenoble. So we made the effort; there was a reunion this summer.

The large, almost-chateau they live in accommodated Joe, his wife, Vic, and their three boys, together with Tony and me with no problem. It has the dilapidated grandeur of a home that has been in the family for years, possibly centuries. Huge, elaborate pieces of furniture sit side-by-side with bits and pieces of the modern world.  It was a continual surprise to see if anything came out of the hot water tap. And the tangle of electrical wires would have sent Health and Safety into a panic. It all added to the charm.

Christine's home
Christine’s home
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…in its grandeur

Christine, Paul’s mother, offered us aperitifs in the large drawing room before lunch. French windows were open on two sides of the room but it was too hot to sit outdoors. The nose of a donkey peeped in. They have many animals among which are two donkeys, gentle, friendly beasts who like human company. Normally they remain in their paddock but when there are children around, they are allowed to wander up to the house, as entertainment. The boys were thrilled.

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The guilty donkey

After some delightful Sangria, we moved into the adjacent dining room. Christine was serving her homemade gazpacho when there was a horrendous crash. Paul went to investigate. He came back shrugging his shoulders as only the French can do and laughing. One of the donkeys had entered the drawing room, skidded on the polished wooden floor and fallen. Paul sorted out the problem. No-one seemed bothered. Vic could barely contain her hysterics. She whispered to me, ‘This is surreal!’

Much wine flowed with the main course, cheese and dessert (in that order, of course). There was no question of helping to clear up afterwards. The staff did that. We were expecting to wander around the estate after lunch – it is truly an estate, acres of it – but there was a surprise planned. Paul offered to take us up in his smaller plane (he has two). He gained his licence twenty-five years ago, the youngest pilot in France at the time, and has been flying ever since.

Paul’s plane

Tony and I went up with him first. My fears of air-sickness were happily unfounded as we did a twenty-minute tour of the area, passing low enough over the house to see the boys in the outdoor swimming pool. I saw one of them wave. Joe and Vic went up next, a trip to Alpe d’Huez where they stopped for a drink before returning. Both Tony and Joe had been allowed to take the controls for a while in the plane.

Such generosity! We’d all had a wonderful treat. Vic’s face was a picture of stunned amazement. She could not believe what was happening and the world she was in.

Paul invited us to aperitifs at the home he shares with his partner, Sandrine, before dinner back at Christine’s Domaine. It was another delightful place, an old family home and barn on land they owned, tastefully restored with a new swimming pool in a natural garden surrounded by mountains. It made the view from our garden in England pretty insignificant.

Eating dinner outside at a granite table in a perfect temperature finished the evening. We spoke in a mixture of French and English that worked well. My French started to disintegrate with the wine – champagne with the dessert finished it off. But we communicated and that was what mattered. Paul and Joe decided they must not lose touch again and were discussing Paul visiting later in the year. He would come by plane – his own, of course.

We left the following morning after breakfast, one of the dogs having stolen much of the brioche.  Christine said she hoped we would return again next year.

I expect we shall.

Ups and Downs

 Walking the northern part of the Cotswold Way.

Pam and Martyn; Tony and Linda.

June 2017.

 

We thought it would be relatively easy after the Coast-to-Coast walk. Around fifty miles on five days, no day longer than twelve or thirteen miles. Easy to be seduced by numbers.

None of the hills is as high as in the Lake District; there is no rocky clambering. But we went up and down a lot. All four of us noticed that.

We decided to travel to and from the walk by train and bus – it solved the parking problem – and ate a picnic lunch on the way there. Tony managed to lose a crown while munching. Not totally lose it – we wrapped it in cling film only slightly smeared with mayonnaise from the sandwiches to keep it safe. There must be a dentist somewhere along the Cotswold Way who could glue it back in.

While enjoying the fruits (or rather the cakes) of a coffee shop in Chipping Camden, we investigated dentists. After some googling, Tony booked an appointment in Winchcombe for two days hence.

While sorting out our rucksacks ready for the start of the walk, we had a major triumph. Our spare car keys, missing since April, turned up in a deep, zipped pocket. As they would have cost around £400 to replace, I announced at dinner we were now £400 better off! We didn’t, however, buy a bottle of best Bordeaux.

The start of the walk in Chipping Camden
The start of the walk in Chipping Camden

The pattern of the days established itself. Was there anywhere we could stop for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea? Pam was on the case and found us somewhere every day.  The walk started on June 8th – the election – and we saw folks going to the polls. The result gave us plenty to talk about the following day. When we had enough breath, that is. Martyn had been complaining about his balls. The balls of his feet, I should add. Changing to a different pair of boots did the trick and he was fine.

It was a shorter day and we felt good.  Luckily we got to the B & B in Winchcombe just before the torrential rain arrived. Our son, Tim, who lives near, picked us up and we had a lovely evening and dinner with him and Jessi. Idris, their one-year-old, had been sick that day but we said we’d risk it.

We were now a further £90 better off. The dentist’s receptionist had phoned to say the cost of replacing the crown would be £90. Tony was not in pain so he cancelled. His own dentist, who fixed the crown in the first place, would do the job for nothing. The money was mounting up!

We needed to order the following morning’s breakfast. I asked for a bacon sandwich.

‘What’s that?’ The landlady replied. ‘I’ve never made one.’

Not sure if this makes her posh or deprived. She made an attempt for me but I suggest she doesn’t try again.

The view from Cleeve Hill

It was Cleeve Hill the next day. Windy but what views over Cheltenham! There was a double marathon coming towards us – some runners doing it in one day, some in two. Had a coffee and chips at the Cleeve Hill Golf Club – very naughty! Felt we shouldn’t complain about tiredness after seeing marathon runners. Puts distances into perspective. Lovely stop overnight at Detmore House in Charlton Kings. It wins our award for the best B & B of the walk.

Encouragement – for the marathon runners!

Day four and a lot of ups and downs. A group of Charity walkers came towards us, totally shattered, having started at midnight and still with miles to go. Such admiration! The final climb up to Birdlip seemed to go on forever and I wasn’t feeling great. No details, but Idris’s bug got me. However, missing a meal always has its positive side if I lose a pound or two.

Final walking day – and I felt well enough to do it. It was the day of the mud. Rain, which we’d mostly missed, and the pounding of marathon runners’ feet had churned up the path making it hard going. We plodded on, the end in sight. We passed both the bottom and the top of Cooper’s Hill where the famous cheese rolling takes place. It’s steep!

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Cooper’s Hill Notice

Finally, pretty Painswick with its churchyard with ninety-nine yew trees. Legend says the hundredth will never grow.

Yew trees in Painswick churchyard

We thanked Martyn for carrying the unused trowel the whole way (if you’re caught short, you have to bury it…) Celebrated our achievement with a bottle of bubbles – only Prosecco, in spite of the financial gains of the last few days!

A super walk – now planning the southern part …

 

 

The Challenges of Iceland

‘Is this the bus to Hotel T10?’

‘No. This bus goes to Hafnafjörður Hotel. Get on it.’

‘So this is the right bus for Hotel T10?’

‘If I take your luggage and tell you to get on the bus, you get on the bus.’

This was our somewhat curt introduction to Rekjavik, Iceland. We rode to the unpronounceable hotel. No-one seemed to know where our bland-sounding hotel was. Turned out you could see it if you looked the right way.

It was a block. T10 was written in huge letters on its side. Fortunately, it was more attractive inside. It would do for the three days we had in the country. We wandered out to find somewhere to eat. There was little choice. We were in the suburbs, a bleak, flat area with no trees and no style. A Taco-style bar fed our needs.

Back in the hotel, we abandoned the television as it had three channels only, one in Icelandic, one in German and a cartoon channel. Perhaps we were in a black spot for reception.

Our plans for an early trip into Reykjavik the following day were hampered by it being Sunday. The first bus wasn’t until nearly 10am so we wandered around in the cold by the bus-stop. It would have been useful to have a bus timetable provided, to know in advance no change is given on buses and that there was a 50% reduction for seniors. A kindly American staying at our hotel paid for us and we reimbursed him later. An expensive ride otherwise.

Rekjavik was another, better world. A mixture of old and new buildings, trees, green areas and a decidedly more pleasant environment. We loved it. The modern, plain cathedral was beautiful and the Concert Hall a joy. Our guide, an opera singer, sang us an old Icelandic song in one of the corners just to show how good the acoustics were.

The Cathedral
The Cathedral
The magnificent Concert Hall
The magnificent Concert Hall

We had lunch in an excellent local restaurant called ‘Fish’. No prizes for guessing what we ate.

'Fish' restaurant

In the evening, we went on a Northern Lights Mystery Tour. The mystery was whether or not we’d see the Northern Lights. We set off in the rain with little hope. But we saw them – at around 1am. However, numerous people set up tripods and eagerly photographed moving clouds before the real thing appeared. (We were a bit smug as we’d seen the Lights before, in northern Norway!) It was a good display, worthy of the whoops of joy it generated and the extremely late night.

The following day, it really was Iceland. There was no snow in the hotel area but there was sheet ice. Crampons would have been useful to walk the short distance to the bus. I had visions of discovering how good A & E was in the local hospital. We were heading for a round trip to see some of the sights.

First we went to Pingvellir where the North American and European tectonic plates are separating at the Continental Divide. Serious geology! It’s also where the Declaration of Independence from Denmark was signed in 1944, an important place for the Icelandic. On to the waterfall, Gullfoss, where there was snow, ice and extreme wind. Staying upright was a challenge. Oh, for the crampons!

Gullfoss
Gullfoss

And then to the Geysir area. Steam was rising from the ground all around us. The original Geysir was not erupting but Strokkur spouts around every eight minutes, a cascade of warm water and small stones.  Impressive.

Strokkur erupting
Strokkur erupting

Luckily everyone speaks English. Icelandic is an odd Nordic language. It’s complicated and has its own rules, pronunciation, grammar – and a few additional letters. I hoped to understand a little as I speak Norwegian (badly), but apart from a few words I was lost.

It was a short, enjoyable Travel Zoo trip. Just a taster. A good way to get a feel for the country, an expensive place with friendly people (in spite of our initial impression!) I’d love to see more.