On to Sunnier Parts

The weather has turned gloomy and drizzly as we leave Unterager and head towards Italy. Lake Lucerne is shrouded in mizzle, its frame of snowy peaks almost obliterated.

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We drive through the St Gotthard tunnel, waiting in line for our batch of vehicles to get a green light [presumably this is to avoid jams inside the tunnel]. Then it’s a short hop to Lugano, which holds a promise of stunning views as we travel through the pretty town and suddenly we are alongside the lake itself, adorned with intriguing towers, villas and churches. A quick glimpse and we are winding up hairpin bends, through tunnels and the border is upon us, vestiges of the old controls still there in the customs sign and the checkpoint.

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The weather brightens and soon we are driving into Porlezza, our first stop in Italy, a large site on the shores of lovely Lake Lugano.

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The town is a tiny, little known gem, with narrow, cobbled lanes against a backdrop of steep cliffs, a miniature square, a little church painted with frescoes on the walls and ceiling, bars and cafes along the waterfront, where I’m surprised to see a terrapin swimming alongside the ducks!

Rain sets in overnight and for half the next morning, before clearing enough for us to set off on along an old railway track turned cycle path towards Menaggio at Lake Como. As it’s a rail track we think the gradient can’t get too steep and to begin with it isn’t, leading off through the back of town and along the side of pretty Lake Piano, a nature reserve.

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The track climbs-and climbs. It becomes a relentless, knee-numbing challenge. We are overtaken by the inevitable E-bikes, prompting teeth-gnashing and finger gestures [from ourselves of course]. I begin to run out of gears. At last we reach the top and begin the descent, during which my hands become numb from holding the brakes on. We come to an abrupt halt at a road which snakes down in hairpin bends into Menaggio and I decide that’s enough, since mixing with Italian traffic on steep bends is not my cappuccino.

Then it’s back up again; up and up, and more up.

And then down.

The next day is to be devoted to Lake Como. We’ll drive to Menaggio and get a ferry across to Bellagio. Easy! But there is nowhere to park a van along the steep sides of the lake and we don’t find a car park until we reach Cadenabbia, which is ok because the ferries cross from here.

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Bellagio swarms with tourists, its steep, narrow lanes lined with designer outlets and gift shops. But it is pretty and worth the effort. After a wander up and down the streets and an ice cream we return to Cadenabbia to drive up the lakeside and find a site. Easier said than done!

 

 

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More Hopeful Travels

Here we are, off again as we pack in another Europe trip before the dreaded ‘leave’ date of October 31st. When we park our camper van up at aires and sites we are surrounded by the usual mix of Dutch and German couples, our age or similar, making the most of the mild September weather and the cheaper prices.

They are their usual, friendly selves, smiling and greeting as all we travel pensioners do, yet I feel some sense of embarrassment for the way my own country is behaving; ungrateful, idiotic, stupid-and yes, a little ashamed to be British. As yet nobody has initiated a conversation on the subject of our leaving the EU. The Germans are most likely to do this and I’m waiting for it to happen. When it does I will be apologetic and honest, as I was three years ago. I can find no explanation for the decision to leave. It can only do our own country serious harm-and damage companies in Europe to boot.

But we travel hopefully as always, heading this time towards northern Italy via France and Switzerland. The first day is traffic torture, the second insufferably hot, but we arrive to Basel and a convenient [if extremely expensive] camp site with a tram site outside the exit. Switzerland is expensive, but at least free tram travel comes along with the pitch.

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The tram takes us straight into the heart of the city, through the enormous, international station, during which an announcement in English informs us the station is Swiss, German and French, [being on the border of all 3]; and I can’t escape the irony of how English is used as their common language.

But the city, bordering the mighty Rhine is beautiful, with a stately, red cathedral dominating the bank and a quaint Rathaus building the focal point of the market square.

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Behind the market square we find the famous Christmas shop and soon there are a couple of tiny additions to my tree decorations.

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A small, unmotorized ferry attached to an overhead line takes us across the Rhine. We wander back and take the tram up towards the theatre with it’s forecourt atttraction, the ‘Tinguely’ fountains.

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Then it’s time to relax with a beer outside in the sunshine on a busy corner, watching the world-and its trams roll by before we head back to the site.

Switzerland is not a large country and remains, to me, something of an enigma. They are not in the EU; were neutral in the war; keep much of the world’s wealth safe in their vaults. They are known for cuckoo clocks, chocolate and army knives. There are 3 [or is it 4?] languages spoken. It is not cheap!

We leave Basel next day and make a short hop towards Lucerne and the lake of Agerizee, where, at Unterageri there is a lakeside site. We have our first Brexit conversation with a charming Dutchman who seems to be following all the grim UK news closely.

We don’t like the EU as it is’ he tells us. ‘But it is not good to leave.’ No. We know!

 

A Forest Stay

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Last week we took our camper van only a few miles away to spend a couple of nights locally at a New Forest site at Ashurst. The New Forest is well-known as a tourist destination for visitors worldwide [ about  ]and we consider ourselves fortunate to live within cycling distance of this historic National Park. The camp site lies between picturesque, touristy Lyndhurst, with its bustling shopping street full of gift emporia, coffee shops and restaurants and sprawling Southampton with its cruise terminal, IKEA, shopping malls and docks.

Here there are the usual useful services: showers, washing up, laundry, water and emptying, although no electric hook-up; neither is there a play park [there is, however an excellent one at the adjacent pub] a swimming pool, organised ‘entertainment’ a bar or a restaurant.

What there is, though is a wealth of natural play options-from riding a bike around the site tracks to building dens; from ‘hide-and-seek’ to ‘cops-and-robbers’. And there is no shortage of happy children to demonstrate that pools, play parks and organised entertainment, despite having their place are not essential components of children’s happiness. Here at Ashurst they make their own entertainment, gathering together to create games, chasing, cycling, discussing, learning to organise and be part of a team.

Then there are added distractions. Here in The New Forest, gangs of cows or ponies roam wild and free, the camp site being part of their territory. They are expert opportunists, taking every opportunity of campers’ absences to forage inside the accommodation, strewing the contents of bags and bins over the grass in careless abandon to the amusement of onlookers.

For this short break close to home we’ve brought a small guest with us, a grand-offspring, coming along for a first taste of camping life. From the moment she arrives she takes to it all, loving the camp site, loving the safe freedom she can have. She cycles, apprehensive at first and then growing in confidence. She rides a circuit again and again, singing at the top of her voice. She wants to ride everywhere-to the showers [which she loves], to reception [from which we obtain a nature trail sheet], to the convenient pub [which serves perfectly acceptable food].

Next morning she is up and out straight away, cycling. If she were to become bored we could walk or cycle up the road to the New Forest Wildlife Park to see otters, owls, dormice, badgers, deer, wild boar and many more creatures in their natural habitat; or we could visit the adjoining Longdown Activity Farm, get a tractor and trailer ride or pony ride, feed the goats, scratch the pigs’ ears, stroke the donkeys, feed the calves and cradle tiny, fluffy chicks or baby rabbits in our hands. But none of this is necessary because the van guest is perfectly, ludicrously happy to ride around and around until she goes to sleep.

Climbing the Novel Volcano

How it goes:

  • You think you can write a book. ‘Everyone has a book in them’, don’t they? You toy with the idea. You start. You stop. You think again. Maybe you start.
  • You plan it, idly. One rainy day you write a beginning. It’s rubbish. You bin [delete] it.
  • Another idle afternoon you begin again. Maybe you write 500 words!
  • You continue. Maybe you have a chapter.
  • You’ve got going. You become absorbed. You write. And write. And write.
  • You stop. Months pass. Life intervenes. The boiling has slowed to a simmer and become still. The words lie gathering [virtual] dust in a file somewhere on the PC.
  • Months later, in between scribbling flash fiction, blogging or writing Tripadvisor reviews you come across the dusty file. You read it.
  • ‘Hm’, you think. It’s not that bad! You apply yourself. You have another couple of chapters. Hooray!
  •  Life intervenes once more. The file languishes unloved in the depths of ‘documents’. Months pass.
  • One day you mention it to someone. They express an interest, thus re-kindling your own enthusiasm for the project. You get going once more. Hooray!
  • At long last you complete the first, raw, ragged draft of a novel. You feel accomplished/uncertain/satisfied/unworthy/confused/conflicted.
  • The someone wants to read it. Hooray/ Horrors!
  • The someone likes it!
  • You know you need feedback. Another someone suggests you try a shared edit. You try this. The someone likes it. Hooray! But they want you to rewrite the plot. Bleurgh!
  • You edit. And edit.
  •  Enough editing. You consult the Bible [aka the Writers and Artists Yearbook] and find a meagre handful of possibly sympathetic publishers/literary agents.
  • You must write a synopsis. This is the writer’s bete noir. You think about it. You lie awake thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t want to be published anyway?
  • One rainy day you apply yourself to synopsis writing. You consult online advice. Horrors! You know it’s crucial. Maybe you don’t want to be published?
  • It is still raining. You make a start. It’s terrible. You get a cup of tea. You start again.
  • It’s hopeless.
  • You read it aloud to your writing group. It sounds rubbish.
  • You return to the task. You edit. It’s still awful.
  • You rest the hopeless synopsis and attempt a cover letter. You write a blurb. You read it. It doesn’t sound like your novel at all. Perhaps getting published is not all it’s cracked up to be; Waterstones’ window can probably survive without your best seller…
  • In the night you make promises to yourself: I will submit the work to a publisher before I make my next trip away. I will complete the synopsis tomorrow. I will get up now and write the cover letter. You fall asleep.

 

 

A Tiny Touch of Luxury

The village of Sonning in Berkshire, UK is a small chunk of old England sitting beside the River Thames, chocolate-box-ful of red brick, period houses, huge, half-timbered piles, tall, hexagonal chimney stacks and a multitude of leaded light windows.

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In this showcase village The French Horn hotel, nestling by the river, is a centrepiece and the Mill at Sonning, with its dinky theatre is the topknot.

Into this home counties haven I arrived with Offspring for our shared birthday treat-a small slice of one-night luxury.

Regular readers of Anecdotage will be familiar with my customary mode of travel-[a campervan]. Hotel stays are rare and are usually taken for practical reasons like pre-flight nights; and even then the option tends towards budget. Once in a while, however it is fun to splurge and bask.

Next to a busy road, the main hotel is a grand old building, full of hunting trophies, squashy armchairs and faded rugs, a huge log fire burning-in August! We were shown across the busy road and along a path, dodging weeping willow strands as we went, to a row of terraced cottages, one of which was to be ours for the night. It consisted of a downstairs living room complete with fireplace, river view, TV and minibar, a bedroom with river view and TV and a vast, shiny bathroom-also with fireplace-and with large, fluffy towels, shower, bath and two basins.

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I searched everywhere for tea/ coffee making equipment without result, but we were to cross the bridge to the mill quite soon and determined that a pre-dinner cocktail might suffice…

The tiny theatre inside Sonning Mill is almost unique in being a ‘dinner theatre’, so an evening spent there constitutes a substantial package of enjoyment, especially when you include a well-stocked bar and a post-show pianist into the mix.

Thespian lovey and larger-than-life National Treasure Brian Blessed directs a number of the plays at Sonning Mill but though his rounded tones can be heard on a tannoy instructing us to turn phones off we are not graced with his huge physical presence on this occasion.

The pre-show meals are delicious and the service friendly and so it was with an overstuffed sensation that we took our seats in the small auditorium for Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’, a period detective romp.

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Then it was off to the bar for a quick drink,  serenaded by a pianist before we stumbled back across the Thames to our cottage. There we found a tray resplendent with kettle, cups, milk and tea. Hooray! We had a quick cuppa while we selected our breakfast items on a card to hang outside the door. Then slept.

Having discovered that checkout time was at the civilised hour of 11.30am, we lolled about, taking our time over breakfast, which arrived on trays to our accommodation [this is a first for me] and embellished with gleaming silver covers to the plates.

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At last we felt ready to leave, trundling up into the village and marring the upper class dream slightly by finding a bus stop for our return to Reading. Back to reality!

 

 

 

 

Towpath Tales [part 3]

We were down to our last two days of cycling before we’d need to trek back up to Caen for the ferry.

There was a convenient parking spot at Pont d’Oust, where a bend in the canal is host to a few houseboats, a picnic place and a mooring for leisure boats or smaller craft.

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We lunched, squeezed into paddy-pants [essential cycling gear], applied sun block, applied insect repellent and set off towards Redon. It was a busier day on the cycle path, being a Sunday, especially in an area where the canal and river merge and there is a gorge with steep cliffs, popular with climbers, leisure boats, picnickers and the rest.

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On our arrival to Redon we were treated to the surreal sight of a parade of amphibious vehicles around the town, followed by their launch [as we set off back] into the canal. We’ve seen collections of Citroen 2CVs and various other vehicles in France before but never a sight such as this.

The municipal site at Saint Martin d’Oust is immaculate, with sparkling new showers and a quiet, canal-side location. Better still, a busy, picturesque bar-restaurant by the flower adorned bridge serves delicious Breton cider. As often the case, reception was closed when we arrived but we followed the instructions to choose a pitch and pay later. We parked, made a meal and went for pre-dinner drinks.

Next morning, having visited the boulangerie, we left the site and breakfasted at the canal-side.

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Then it was off back to Le Roc St Andre for our very last cycle of the trip, short, breezy and not too difficult.

We’d come to the end of our trip. When I reflected on it I realised that one of the aspects I’d enjoyed was seeing the numbers of entire families out on their bikes, carrying or pulling all their camping gear and cycling together; trailers with small children or a dog, paniers loaded, heaped up cycle carriers. Sometimes there were young children riding bikes piled high with sleeping bags and mats. They would arrive at a site, the parents unloading and putting up dinky tents and their children still with energy to burn, cartwheeling over the grass, racing to the play park or cycling round and round as if they’d only just risen from bed. The parents made meals using rudimentary cooking equipment, sitting at a site picnic table or setting up lightweight, fold-up chairs-or simply sitting on a blanket.

I was in awe of these parents, who were confident and competent to undertake travel this way with their kids.Those children made no complaints. They played, ate and slept. Next morning they were up, packing, ready for the new day. When they return to school they will have towpath tales of their own to tell-and memories to last them into adulthood.

Tales from the Towpath [Part 2]-The Re-appearance…

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Last week’s episode described how, like an old Brian Rix farce, Husband beetled over the canal bridge and I, in my ever-present need to take the easier option, scooted around a narrow, lumpy path that wound underneath, resulting in each of us losing sight of the other.
I ploughed on towards Josselin, searching the verges and benches for Husband, or at least his bike. When the turrets of the chateau appeared above the trees I felt sure he’d have stopped at the fence where we’d locked the bikes on our previous visit [from the opposite direction, you understand]. But no-neither Husband nor the bike was there, neither was he installed in the nearby bar, cold beer in hand [an obvious place to look for him].
I gulped some more water-the temperature was continuing to climb at 8.00pm-and turned back. I stopped a few people and asked if they’d seen ‘un homme avec un T-shirt noir et un velo rose’ and was met with negative responses from all. I’d spot the glint of a lone helmet in the distance and think it was Husband but many lone cyclists passed by and still no sign. I cycled back-and back.

After what seemed an interminable peddle back towards Le Roc St Andre, and after seeing no-one as the sun began to dip I caught sight of a cyclist approaching-dark T, black helmet and sweat-soaked-and yes-it was Husband.

We downed what was left of the water, by way of celebration [we are still able to celebrate finding each other after all these years] and peddled slowly back, stopping at a hostelry not far from our site, on a bend in the canal, to throw back a medicinal cold beer or two.

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The following morning, following a sticky, uncomfortable night, rather than easing, the temperature at Le Roc soared higher, climbing through the 30s and tipping over into the 40s. Many resorted to the site’s tiny pool, many others [including ourselves] squidged into any bit of shade available, lounging, sprawling, sleeping. It was a disquieting insight into how things may become as summers heat up. Cycling seemed less appealing, but we gamely prepared in the late afternoon and set off in the opposite direction to Josselin, achieving, perhaps, 100 metres or so before Husband’s bike, the improbably named Charge Cooker came to a standstill, the back wheel having seized up.

Reception directed us to a repair shop up the road, which turned out to be splendid at repairing lawn mowers, ‘le patron’, a humourless, moustachioed gent, redirecting us to a cycle shop at St Congard-a small village that was easily included into our itinerary. We returned to the site, me gliding down and over the bridge, Husband half-carrying the recalcitrant Charge Cooker on its one functioning wheel. At this point an ice cream seemed a fair alternative to a cycle in 40 degrees. We spent another uncomfortable hot night and moved on next day to St Congard-first stop the bike shop.

Here, the proprietor, a jovial woman who clearly loved her job dealing with everything bike-related told us that the extreme temperatures had caused the brakes to swell and jam the wheel; that we should pour cold water on it. Simples!

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We stayed at St Congard’s small municipal site for 11E and I undertook a short, solitary cycle to Malestroit, all of which was unremarkable except for the pair of beautiful otters I spotted on the return. Tiny St Congard’s one and only bar was firmly closed.

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En route to St Martin sur Oust we paused to look at Rochefort en Terre, alleged ‘most beautiful village’, which was indeed beautiful, but also wanted 5E to stay in a car park without water, emptying or anything else. We’d have liked to have purchased items in the shops but came to the conclusion that the stores must be part of the decor, since nobody seemed inclined to serve us. The poor citizens of Rochefort en Terre must be starving, since baguette availability was nil [we were offered a half of a baguette in a restaurant and decided to scarper before we were told the price]. After a quick look we moved on to a less pretentious place, and back to the canal!