How We Roll Back…

We’ve spent a lot of time visiting south west France now, which means familiarity with the route, as well as the entire area. Nevertheless we still search for new ways to get there and back [avoiding motorways and their tolls]. A few weeks ago I wrote how we set off, where we like to embark, the entire routine.

So then, after a few weeks ‘bimbling’ [Husband’s word], we have to turn the van northwards and consider how we might return. We select a day. On this occasion, Husband came up with a plan to return overnight in a cabin, which appealed until we discovered that the ferry sets off late, leaving little or no opportunity to schmooze in the restaurant and bar. Who wants to drive on, locate the cabin, clean teeth and get straight into a berth?

These days it is neither necessary nor desirable to scramble up the length of France in one, long day and we prefer a gentle, staged journey – still attempting to find hitherto unexplored places.

We opted to return from Ouistreham [Caen] knowing there is a very convenient aire next to the ferry terminal for our last night. We decided to spend a couple of nights at Dinard, which is only a couple of hours away and left us time to explore as well as execute the all-important pre-return shopping spree that is obligatory at the finale of all trips.

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Dinard is situated across the bay from St Malo and probably suffers for it’s glamorous, historic neighbour but we’ve stayed at St Malo enough times. A look at one or two lacklustre ACSI [off season discount card ] sites confirmed that the municipal site at Port Blanc would be a good choice and so it was-with an uninterrupted view of the beach and bay from our van.

The weather by this time had become blustery and drizzly-a reminder that we were on our way home.

The site offered  a bar and pizzas-surprising at this end of season period but not an option for us [I am unable to eat pizzas]. A five minute walk up the road led us to a lively area with bakeries, bars and brasseries. On Sunday afternoon a small stage was hosting a display of line dancing-

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The restaurant we chose was old fashioned but proved popular, as after we’d been seated every table was occupied.

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Dinard is a hilly seaside town reminiscent of Scarborough, with an air of faded elegance-enormous old hotels, a smattering of art deco, luxuriant gardens and promenades as well as ice cream parlours and bars. There is evidence of an interest in the arts, with a film festival running and some impressive sculptures dotted along the prom.

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We walked back to site via a path around the sea wall which wound around the town cliffs, narrow in places and in a bracing wind, but thrilling and with dramatic views.

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We left Dinard to scoop up items on our wish-list from a Carrefour complex the size of five football pitches then drove up our well-trodden route to Caen and to our customary spot next to the ferry. We dodged the motorhome-bore [‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man’], showered and went to get a meal. next day the ferry’s engines woke us at 6.30am, just right for packing up and trundling the 500yards into the check-in queue. Drive on, climb up to the coffee bar, grab coffee and croissant, settle into a couchette. That’s how we roll back…

Mangez comme les Francais!

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One aspect of life the French have perfected is the art of dining out. And anyone who wishes to observe the French at this only needs to visit a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon to understand how seriously mealtimes are treated. Every bistro, brasserie and café is packed.

But restaurants are not the sole venues for the French penchant for large, family gatherings to share food and company. Any park, aire, picnic area, seaside bench, canal side or car park will be packed with groups of friends or family sharing a meal.

And this Sunday meal will not be some hastily wrapped cheese and pickle sandwich, a packet of Golden Wonder crisps and bottle of coke. Oh no. This will be a proper full-on, sit-at-a-table, cloth, knife and fork, wine and glasses, side salad, napkins, several courses kind of meal. During a cycle ride from Jard sur Mer to La Tranche sur Mer we passed a large family party seated at two tables [one for adults, one for children] made up of all manner of picnic tables. Everyone had a seat and a laid-up place-and all under the trees in the woods by the beach.

So how, then did the French acquire their reputation for sylph-like, uber-cool, modelly bodies? It is my theory that they [the women, especially] chain-smoked their way to skeletal skinny-ness. In any case the same cannot be said these days, for the French are no longer slender wraiths like Coco Chanel and Francoise Hardy but have become as chubby as every other nation.

Their haughty, sniffy attitudes to cuisine have taken a slight tumble, too since they embraced MacDonalds and took to fast food. Yes-you’d still be hard-pushed to find a better cooked steak than in France, but along every street there is a pizza joint, a burger bar, a kebab shop, ice creams galore and the inevitable chi-chis, galettes, crepes and doughnuts.
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And what is more-the French are not averse to strolling along with a bag of chi-chis [for the uninitiated these are strips of fried dough rolled in sugar-sometimes dipped in melted chocolate] munching as they go.

Pockets of resistance do exist, though. A mayor on Isle d’Oleron, Gregory Gendre is fighting to keep MacDonalds off the island [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/24/choose-a-side-fight-keep-france-ile-doleron-mcdonalds-free ]

Most days we endeavour to choose and buy fresh produce and prepare meals in the van, [see last week’s post for the shopping experience]. We like to make the most of such delicious items as the huge, luscious tomatoes, sweet, juicy melons, smooth, creamy cheeses and salty Toulouse sausages, sometimes using the deli counter to buy slices of thick quiche or pork cutlets.

But when in France it would be sacrilege not to dine out on occasion so every few days we do. I indulge in my very favourite French menu: oysters/steak/crème brulee, and very delicious it almost always is.

 

 

 

An English Forest Weekend

The New Forest, in Hampshire, southern England featured in a lot of my childhood. We were all three born in a village on the edge of it. My father travelled across it every day for work in Southampton and we went often for picnics and recreational activities like those family cricket games of the fifties or accompanying scout camping trips.

Of course as children we were accustomed to seeing the animals of the Forest roaming free and were used to marauding bands of ponies invading our garden and enraging my father, who would storm outside in the middle of the night with objects like biscuit tins to bash and banish them from his precious vegetable beds. They always returned-until cattle grids were installed across all the entrances to the village, when to my immense disappointment the night visits ceased.

What a contrast East Anglia seemed when we re-located there! Even as a young child I was shocked at the impoverished fenland landscape, my mother compounding the sensation by telling me I’d have had my own pony ‘if we’d stayed in The New Forest’.

I was not to return to live next to The New Forest for another nineteen years, during which time it had altered considerably and had begun to assume its reputation as a tourist magnet.

Nowadays the Forest has National Park status and is thronged with visitors of all nationalities. Cheffy restaurants, trendy hotels, gastro-pubs, tea shops and costly gift emporia have proliferated in the towns and villages but it remains, to us a precious resource that we still love to walk, cycle and camp in.

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What better location to spend a weekend celebrating an anniversary and birthday? We park up, go for a hot, dusty cycle, return, shower and make for the convenient station where we take a tiny train to yachty Lymington. Here there are ferries to the Isle of Wight but we are interested only in the Lobster and Burger Bar where we feast-but not on burgers.

Next morning we have guests expecting breakfast:

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And we retreat inside the van until they give up. The ponies, cows, donkeys, deer and pigs of the Forest are a delight but need to be treated with caution. The Forest roads, terrain and flora are all theirs and humans must bow to their superiority, whether it means waiting in a traffic queue for them to shift from the centre of the road or going the long way around to the shower block on the campsite.

After another sweaty bike ride we get ready and set off to The Pig, favourite for Sunday supplement features and writers of restaurant columns.

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I’d say we aren’t The Pig’s average customers as a quick glance reveals that few would have travelled here from the camp site-many will be staying in one of the artfully ‘shabby chic’ rooms or have arrived in convertible sports cars, their pastel sweaters slung casually around their shoulders, their stilettos tap-tapping on the wood floors.

It’s nice, although the food is not quite as stunning as I’d been led to believe. But outside the gardens alone are worth the visit, immaculate, symmetrical veg beds and a path leading to a voluptuous pond area.

Next day we BBQ with old friends and enjoy a good gossip under the shade of the pull-out. All good!

Last Gasp-Germany

There is much to love about Germany; black forests, picture perfect , historic towns, grand rivers bordered by gorges and fairy-tale castles, exciting cities like Hamburg and Berlin, charming, engaging and eager-to-help citizens. But not the motorways-oh no. The motorways are strings of roadwork-riddled tedium, clogged with miles of crawling, wheezing lorries spewing fumes and large, gas-guzzling speed machines reduced to inching along with everyone else.

The drive to Wurzburg was one such journey, with roadworks every 10k and frustrating traffic queues at every junction. And once we’d arrived there was further idiocy from the Tom Tom, which led us around the city in ever decreasing circles with no sign of the camper stop, even though it was flagged on the tiny screen. At that point when we were about to give up I spotted the parking place-beneath the bridge and by the river, a smattering of vans and motorhomes in position.

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But it was perfect. And at the end of the parking lot was a restaurant serving German favourites, fat sausages, pork cutlets and servings of sauerkraut-an antidote to the annoyances of the day. Across the river the lights of Wurzburg twinkled and now and then a seemingly endless barge chugged past.

Next day we set off across the idiosyncratic footbridge into town.

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Wurzburg is home to ‘The Residenz’, [more here], a baroque folly of huge proportions which Husband visited many years ago in a previous life, BM [ie Before Me], and of which he has eulogised on a number of occasions.

Since we are not great breakfasters we strolled the picturesque town a little and settled on coffee and apple strudel at an outside table on a pleasant corner before tackling ‘The Residenz’. Our coffees came though not the strudels. We waited, expecting a slice to appear and after a few minutes two large, rectangular plates arrived laden with warm, sticky slices of strudels, pots of ice cream, pots of cream and a small heap of fruit compote. This is how you know you are in Germany-they are not into skimping where desserts are concerned.

We waddled along to The Residenz and yes-it is an impressively large edifice, matched by a suitably sumptuous interior that reminded me of Hampton Court-boudoirs within bedchambers within salons within chambers, the lot embellished with more golden curlicues than you can shake a stick at. The vast, ornate stoves in the corners of every room took my eye but of course with high ceilings and rooms of such size they’d have been essential.P1050621

The gardens were as expected, formal, dotted with statues and fountains and a labour of love.

Next morning we were off again, following the Main River to Ettelbach, a jolly town where pigs seem to be a theme. The heavens opened on to our riverside site but the expedition was drawing towards the end as we headed on to Belgium, Luxembourg and Calais.

Back again at the new camper park adjacent to Calais’ ferry port the evening sun beat down and we took ourselves to the sea front for a last supper while the ferries came in and went, disappearing over the horizon into a pink, candy floss sky.
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Waiting in the ferry lines and seeing the arrivals pouring down the ramp gave me a pang of regret, for while I was looking forward to going home and familiarising myself with our house I knew I’d miss the thrills and spills of exploring.

So it was ‘au revoir’ Europe. Can’t wait for next time…;)

 

The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!


					

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

Trolling Through Norway

I can’t recall the last time I visited a European country for the first time. [I say ‘European’ advisedly, owing to the fact that ‘Europe’ has come to mean a variety of things in these times; but here I’m using the word in the old, traditional sense-that of the collection of countries immediately surrounding our own, squidgy little UK.]

I have not ventured much into Scandinavia, except four or so years ago to Denmark, so this expedition to Norway is a new departure. I love to see new places. I want to know what grows, what people do, what their homes are like, what they like to eat and how they fill their leisure time. Here are some conclusions I’ve made about Norway so far:

  • The country consists almost entirely of rock, water and trees-with a bit of farmland and a few cities thrown in.
  • Owing to these constituents it is an obscenely beautiful place-that is for fans of snow-capped mountains, vast lakes, cascading waterfalls and gushing rivers. If your preference is for deserts, shopping arcades and uniform rows of parasol-clad beaches I suggest it is not for you. Go to Dubai instead.
  • The weather is a little capricious. It is capable of warm sunshine although this cannot be guaranteed. You might say the changing weather patterns are part of its charm.
  • In order to get anywhere by road you have to accept that tunnels and ferries are a huge part of the deal. There are nearly 1000 road tunnels and more than 100 ferry crossings plus numerous bridges. Some of the tunnels are spectacular in themselves, housing junctions and in one we encountered a fully-blown roundabout, all lit up in blue like a spaceship.
  • Pizza and hot dogs are ubiquitous and popular offerings getting an enthusiastic take-up by travellers and locals alike. This was told to me before departure by my friend Anne-Marit and she was not wrong! We have not ventured into any restaurants due to my next observation, that…
  • Food prices, while not as expensive as we had feared are dear, as is alcohol. Norwegians are bound by strict rules regarding booze. Fresh food items such as vegetables and meat cost the most but staples like bread are not so prohibitive.
  • Living roofs are everywhere-green swards peppered with wild flowers covering every building from barns to homes to bus shelters to public toilets to mail boxes-often entire communities sporting them-everywhere as are…
  • Trolls-probably too many, to be honest-

What else? There is a good deal of graffiti in the cities-but very little in the way of advertising hoardings-nothing along the roadsides or in fields. Most homes are constructed in wood [of course] and many are self-builds. There is a glorious profusion of wild flowers which includes lupins [at least-now in summer!] and the clover, in particular is enormous. Everyone speaks fluent English –and all are pleasant and welcoming! What’s not to love?

Check This Out!

It would be an understatement to say I flounder in the waves of new technology. No sooner do you begin to get a grip on some gadget, software or device then some new upstart replacement arrives and you must begin again. Nevertheless there is the odd innovation that I do, after some tuition and practice start to get the hang of-even derive some satisfaction from and appreciate.

Take automatic check-outs. At last, after studious avoidance, suspicion, trial, many failed attempts, instruction and practice I am able to process my shopping through the complicated business of self-check-out totally unaided [sometimes]; I am able to bag things without the strident voice admonishing ‘unauthorised item in the bagging area!’ I can manage to tell it I have my own bags and collect the points on my loyalty card. Even so there are blips, like this morning’s debacle of the machine refusing to acknowledge my bananas.

I can see the benefits of self-check-outs. They cut down queues, take up less space and time and negate the need to engage with real people. Wonderful! But actually I am getting to an age where I’ve begun to enjoy those mini conversations, those minor snippets of small talk-with the person queuing in front of me or behind me; with the baby sitting in the trolley, with the person sitting behind the check-out or the boy scouts helping to pack the stuff. And if those of us who have company at home want to speak to others-what of those who lead solitary lives, these moments of minimal chit-chat the only conversational encounters in their day?

And what will those check-out workers do when the machines finally edge them out of employment? Nobody wants to be labelled a Luddite or to stand in the middle of the road of progress, but what are the employment options for manual workers whose occupations are being usurped by machines?

The Japanese [who else?] have designed and manufactured a ‘drone waiter’; a flying tray that delivers meals to diners. I don’t know if it is programmed to intone ‘Enjoy your meal’ or ‘have a nice day’ or to return and ask ‘is everything all right for you?’ but I doubt if it can process the reply. What if your steak is underdone, your side salad hasn’t appeared or the wine is corked? What on Earth are all the resting actors to do to support themselves in between roles, if waiting at tables becomes a redundant job?

Technology has come a long way, no more so than in the field of communication; but the future holds a bizarre vision. Silent people queueing to commune with machines, restaurants full of silent customers jabbing at screens. Will we lose the power of speech and the ability to look anyone in the eye? Perhaps our personal machines can take on our communication for us? Why not? Get your mobile device to speak to your friend’s mobile device. Get it to select and order your meal-why stop there? Get it to eat the meal, tip the drone waiter, call the driverless cab and go home. Who needs people anyway?

What’s Cooking on the TV?

In its wisdom, the BBC has opted to schedule on Channel 2 a big, blockbuster ‘food season’. This is much heralded and promises to inform in ways we have never before been informed about-food. Yawn. Really? How many more programmes about food can we take? And how many more times must we be told that refined foods, salt, fat, fast food, takeaways, sweets, chocolate and the demon sugar will be the undoing of us?

Let me see. ‘Masterchef’, ‘Hairy Bikers’, ‘Nigella’, ‘Saturday Kitchen’ and on and on-the programmes exhort us to produce more, varied and extravagant meals using more, varied and exotic, unheard-of ingredients. We sit and watch, munching our takeaways or our toasted cheese sandwiches and nodding-‘mm, yes, that looks nice’. How many viewers rush out to the supermarket next day for Tahini paste, syrup of nasturtium seed or essence of wild boars’ scrotum? How many search online for a high temperature vacuum bath or a freeze-drying machine? Heston Blumenthal has much to answer for.

It was all vastly simple decades ago. My childhood diet followed a weekly timetable that varied little beyond which meat to cook for a Sunday roast or what was available in the back garden vegetable plot. Mondays would yield up something with the remains of Sunday’s roast, the remaining days repasts would revolve around Spam-with mashed potatoes, with chips, with beetroot or eggs from the hens at the end of the garden-omelettes, fried eggs and mash or chips. We children never questioned or grumbled. We had no dislikes and would clamour only for an orange or a banana since these were prized items [rationing was not yet a distant memory], although as I’ve mentioned before we were only permitted a banana if it was accompanied by a slice of bread.

If the first course was a little sparse there would be a vast rice pudding or a suet sponge for the purposes of filling us up. Meals always consisted of two courses. Not only did we survive on this regime, but we were relatively healthy and never became in the slightest bit overweight, still less obese, even though the occasional day out to the seaside would conclude with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.

How ironic that the more elaborate and fiddly TV chef meals become, the more the population capitulates to fast food and fry-ups, snacks and sweet treats.

Here in Portugal, where we have fled to escape the UK’s wintery temperatures we de-camped on our first evening-after five days of driving- to the village restaurant where we were shown a box containing assorted, gargantuan fresh fish, from which we selected our favourites. They were taken away and grilled with a little salt and served with a salad, crusty rolls and a plate of fried potatoes. No sauces, ‘beds’ of anything, snotty-looking foam or those stupid drips and smears dotted around the plates. The result? Completely delicious.

Home Alone?

                An item on a radio magazine programme recently concerned people who, by accident or design will be spending Christmas alone. Listening to these individuals explaining their situation, one stand out feature came across. The women had made a deliberate choice to spend the day in solitude, whereas the men felt themselves to be ‘shut out’ through no fault of their own and felt aggrieved. Some of the stories were painful to hear, such as the father who’d split from his wife and would not get to see his only son due to his ex having a new partner.

                There is a strange irony to all this. Even in this era of [slowly] increasing emancipation it is, at best unusual to see a woman sitting alone at a bar or a restaurant table, whereas a man in such circumstances would not be considered out of the ordinary or an object of speculation. The Dad who felt abandoned could simply take himself off to a hostelry. He might not know anyone but would at least be able to observe the revelries from the fringe or even get involved. The women in the programme had all planned their solo day already. They would not be leaving their homes, but knew exactly what they would eat, watch and do, and all were eagerly anticipating and expected to relish their time alone.

                During a mid-life period of singledom I took the bold step of booking, not one but two holidays as a single traveller. Although this rash action was partly a result of a messy relationship break up I forged ahead with the first- a week long skiing trip- not without a modicum of self doubt. ‘Think of it as a course you are going on’ encouraged a friend [I was a virgin skier]. I will never forget boarding the coach to the resort and explaining to the puzzled holiday rep that there was one in my ‘party’, or descending to the dining room at the hotel and forcing myself to ask if I might join a couple at their table when there were no empty tables available, then the continuing, painful experience with a lone breakfast supported only by a book as a prop. When I descended to the basement to join a beginners’ ski class the holiday underwent a miraculous conversion. My fellow beginners were a charming, friendly, inclusive bunch who invited me to join them for meals, après-ski, breakfast and outings for the entire week. The encouraging friend came to collect me from the airport, finding me cheerful, refreshed and hopeful-hopeful enough to approach the next lone exploit with confidence.

                I went to The Gambia, without the support of a ski class, but with a ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I engaged fellow travellers in conversation, chatted to fellow diners, went for tea with stallholders in the market, booked excursions, including a two day trip up river to stay in a thatched hut with a party of Netherlanders. Everyone I met was friendly and kind.

                These days, as blog followers know, I travel, dine and spend Christmases with Husband, a companion who, on balance, I prefer to be with than without-but I wonder when lone women diners and travelers will ever be a natural phenomenon?