Posted in cycling, Travel

Microcosmic

The Ile-d’Yeu is a 30 minute ferry journey from the French mainland, off the Vendée coast. 

vendee - 4

The Vendée is my favourite part of France: a different kind of landscape, with (I seem to recall) the second best microclimate in France. The Cote d’Azur gets first prize for sunshine, and has the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean and its beaches to boast of; but it also has overcrowding, endless traffic queues and nowhere to park. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to an island off the Southern coast, and encountered a fabulously beautiful beach on the clear turquoise sea which was a long but thin strip of sand — and there was not enough room on it to lay down a towel.

vendee - 6.jpgThe Vendée has a long coastline on the blue Atlantic (Le Grand Large) with vast sandy beaches interspersed with rocky sections which have tidal pools full of sealife. It’s a great base for a more traditional seaside holiday, for both sunbathing and rockpool exploration, for kite-flying, beach tennis, body surfing, and more. It would also be a great base for a biology/geography field trip, what with the life teeming in the rock pools and the different types of vegetation in the sand dunes as they progress inland. Best of all, even in the peak of summer season, the beaches are not so slammed that you can’t move. You can in fact spread out without finding your face in someone else’s crotch. In the South, if you manage to fight your way through the traffic and the wildfires to get somewhere; and if you manage to find somewhere to park; and if you manage to find a postage stamp sized patch of beach to sit down on, you are also surrounded by the strutting and preening of the Beautiful People (ugly oligarchs) and their giant yachts.

I love the architecture of the Vendée: white houses with red tiled roofs, blue shutters. There are variations on this, and people paint  their shutters different colours, but the traditional Vendée house has two small single-storey sections joined to a two-storey central section. The best of them squat in the dunes, or among the pines, and the sun bounces blindingly off the white sides, and there are no gutters because there’s a collective self delusion that it never rains.

vendee - 1The Ile-d’Yeu has a small port on one side, several sandy beaches, and a rocky coast with a ruined castle. Like a society, it has rules. Visitors are allowed, but not with their cars. Only islanders are allowed to have cars.

I was naively optimistic about this. Far too many beauty spots are ruined by the motor car. Let’s face it: everywhere is ruined by the motor car: towns, cities, countryside. But it’s especially jarring when you visit somewhere ancient and mediaeval, somewhere quaint and relatively untouched by modernity. I remember visiting the hillside fortress village of Gordes and being depressed by the unending stream of noisy traffic. And wherever you go, its a universal truth that even the pedestrian zones, the zones pietons, are blighted by the eternal presence of the busy-and-important person who decides  they are the exception, and so you are always dodging cars and vans as they edge forward at an ironic walking pace and you are forever encountering that peculiar sense of privileged entitlement which is a constant reminder that you live in a capitalist dystopia.

So! I was excited at the prospect of an island with very few motor cars and where everyone hires a bike. An egalitarian utopia of pedal power!

Every island is a microcosm of society

But of course, was disappointed. Of course, the people with cars, the locals, the islanders, asserted their privilege aggressively and selfishly, with no sense that they were part of a society. They treated bicycles as a nuisance to be dispatched, and were they ever determined to overtake — even if there were another 15 bicycles in front of the one they passed dangerously close — even if there was another slow-moving car in front of those 15 bicycles — and in front of that car another 15 bicycles, and so on, all the way into town. It was bicycles all the way down. But no! They must get past, because such is the privilege of car ownership. And of course, the tourists, bless them, mostly unused to the cycling life, were pathetically deferential to their superiors on four wheels and simply accepted this state of affairs, while I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, vous roulez a la vitesse d’un vélo, ou vouz achetez un vélo! Often, overtaken, I would pedal harder, catch up, overtake them, and then act as a rolling roadblock, sitting in front of them with my middle finger dancing in front of their windscreen. Fuckers! It’s not that I hate motorists; I am a motorist, after all. But I hate people who think they are more entitled, and there is no escape from them, ever. Up against the wall! Oh, okay, I admit it: I hate motorists, including myself.

vendee - 5Even worse, it turned out, that as well as hiring a bicycle from one of the myriad hire shops (including the horrifically named Bi-Clown), you could also hire shonky old cars, most of them vintage Citroens and Renaults. For a mere €80 par jour, you could lord it over the cyclists like a rich second-home owning Parisienne. What a way to conspicuously consume! Belching black smoke from a shitty old chugger for a week for the price of a half-decent bicycle. And while you’re at it, park on the pavement, why don’t you?

Eye-watering

It’s an island, so I personally don’t think longer than a week’s stay is necessary. There are only so many things to see, and the town is both small and expensive. I saw some wonderfully colourful cotton shirts, but at €70 apiece in the sale, they were beyond my means, as were most other things you saw in the shops, from tinned sardines to nautically-themed t-shirts. They did a nice line in branding: the island’s name shortened to an assertive YE on everything from polo shirts to wet bags and keyrings.

vendee - 3.jpgThe house we were renting was a  miracle in packin’  ‘em in. Including bicycle hire, we’re talking €5000 for the fortnight, split between a number of families. The first week, three or four families shared, and then we changed over for our week with four more. Each bedroom was constructed with a mezzanine, so that a poky room for two became a poky room for four. I think there were five bedrooms and at least three bathrooms. We got an ensuite bathroom to ourselves, which was a solid reminder to me that the ensuite bathroom or toilet is an abomination that Shouldn’t Be Allowed. Not with walls that thin!

The ethos was that everybody ate together, most of the time, which led to some late mealtimes as everyone drifted in and eventually got around to lighting the barbecue. If you’ve never cooked regularly for 15 people, here’s an example: one day I barbecued 2.5kg of chicken breasts with four trays of sausages, thinking this would be an excessive amount of food. The leftovers were enough to half-fill a cereal bowl. A huge pot of moules (mussels) was accompanied by four bags of oven frites. If I had my way, we’d have done our own thing, eaten when we were hungry, and not had to deal with such catering at scale.

There was lots of seafood, on which I’m not keen. Freshly caught tuna was sliced into steaks and grilled: good, especially with my improvised sweet/sour sauce made with apricot jam, vinegar, and chilli/ginger. But the next tuna brought in was eaten raw, sushi-style. Not my thing. There were also mullet, grey and red, and other huge fish (hake, I think, merlu in French), all caught locally. I would have liked the time to cook and prepare these creatively, but they were just cooked whole and consumed in scraps by the multitude.

As for bread, apparently the local bakery produced wonderful baguettes, of which 8-10 were dispatched daily. I even found a couple of fresh GF loaves on the island, and these were much better than the vacuum packed supermarket breads.

Things you realise they got wrong in Jaws

vendee - 7Jaws is set on an island, and they got right the idea that the “islanders” tolerate visitors only as an economic necessity. They also got right that arrival scene: with the hordes of people arriving by ferry from the mainland. But, in reality, most of the “islanders” are just rich people with second homes. They’re visitors themselves, and they should ride fucking bikes and stop trying to lord it over the rest of us. And the arrival scene is happening all the time, every 30 minutes, another boatload gets off to stay, and another boatload gets on to leave.

Chief Brody wanted to close “the beach” but on an island there is never just one beach:  there are lots of little beaches, and if there was a shark, there would be lots of places for it to operate, some of them — even on a small island — isolated and wild. And if there was a shark, it would probably feed 15 people.

Islands are hills in the sea

One difference between the Ile-d’Yeu and the mainland of the Vendée is that the island undulates a bit. Nothing too dramatic, but whereas much of the Vendée coast was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch geo-engineers hundreds of years ago* and is therefore mostly flat until you get about 15 miles inland, the island itself is a hill in the sea, which is higher in the middle, and has a rocky coast that does rise and descend steeply in places. None of this was beyond the ability of even temporary cyclists, but the nature of the bikes that you can hire made it harder than it ought to be.

vendee - 10The geometry of the bikes we hired was simply terrible. Even a mild incline would cause burning pain in your backside. I don’t know: the saddle wasn’t far enough back from the  pedals or something. So although you never really cycled more than a couple of kilometres at a time, you felt it in your legs when you arrived. Our longest ride was a circuit of about half the island on a day when the Atlantic swelled and there was wind and drizzling rain. It was bracing, though the younger you were, the less fun you found it. The kids and I were dreaming of a Mars bar and a coffee, and we came across a man with a van in an isolated cove who was offering both for €1 apiece to our unalloyed joy. But the youngest kid, their cousin, went into a steep decline. Problem with a cycling holiday, though: if you’re tired and you want to go home, you still have to pedal to get there.

*St. Benoist-sur-Mer, for example, is a few kilometres from the sea, these days.

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Basel

basel-1We went to Basel. Strange that we’d never been before, because it’s only 88 kilometres (55 miles) away, an easy enough drive. Closer than Strasbourg and Freiburg, about the same distance as Colmar, a little further than Mulhouse. But Basel is in Switzerland, so there’s that.

Anyway, we were thinking of going to the Christmas market in Montbéliard, which is fairly close, but also tough for parking, and someone recommended Basel instead, and an underground car park under some kind of retail space.

We didn’t need our passports. This, in spite of the fact that Switzerland isn’t in the EU, and another reminder that Britain is a shit country with a shitty, xenophobic national character and I wish I didn’t live there. Another piece of good news is that our phones (on the Three network in the UK) continued to have a data connection in Switzerland at no extra cost. The list of countries that you don’t pay roaming charges in on Three is now pretty comprehensive. So Google Maps kept working, and we sat-navved our way into the centre of Basel (Bâle in French), and parked in the underground car park.

One Swiss Franc (CHF) is worth 79 pence, so fairly comparable to the €uro (85 pence). There’s an Apple Store in Basel, so I’ve now realised we could have bought my daughter’s new laptop for 1999 CHF (£1584) instead of £1749. I guess exchange rate smoke and mirrors would take care of the rest. Anyway, some places would take €uros instead of Francs and give you change in Francs, a good deal for them.

But we weren’t there for shopping, and our only transactions were for blow-your-face-off mulled wine, pretzels, and bratwurst. We were there for the market, and the lights, and to wander the streets. I’m assuming there’s one big Chinese town that supplies all the tat for Christmas markets? There can’t be that many artisans making laser cut wooden ornaments and suchlike. We saw truffles for sale at CHF 3.33 per gram (so, um, 33 francs for 10 grams), and enjoyed wandering around the Harrods-like food hall of the Globus department store.

The Christmas market was defended by strategic concrete barriers, and I noticed the police turning away all commercial vehicles from around the area – even a van was not allowed.

Apart from that, what was most pleasant about walking around Basel was the almost complete absence of cars. Trams everywhere, lots of them, quite old-fashioned looking, but charming, and frequent. But everywhere else, you could pedestrian without being molested by the Busy-and-Important motorist types. Now, there are pedestrian zones almost everywhere, but in my experience, you almost never walk down a pedestrian precinct without having to dodge multiple delivery/service vans, and a seemingly endless procession of people who, for whatever reasons, have decided that the No Motor Vehicles sign doesn’t apply to them, and that they are therefore perfectly entitled to drive their car up and down the narrow cobbled streets. Everywhere you go, there are mini Clarksons with sharp elbows and rumbling engines, telling you that they’ll relinquish their cars when you pry their cold dead hands from the steering wheel.

The other really nice thing about Basel was that there were lots of places to sit. I mean, benches and seats and all kinds of sitting-down surfaces were everywhere. And no spluttering exhausts. Sure, your stereotype of the Swiss would have them exceedingly well-behaved, and the streets were remarkably clean and (unlike Berlin) almost graffiti-free, and there were no visible homeless people, all that, but it was just really nice to walk the streets without being annoyed by cars. And cars, as we should all by now have realised, have basically ruined everything. Without cars, everywhere is a nicer place to be. It’s just one of many reasons to look forward to the apocalypse.

 

Posted in cycling, musings

60,000 steps in Berlin

Berlin was a compromise city for us. Because we weren’t going to France this holiday (Bruce Springsteen this Friday), the family wanted a short city break so we weren’t hanging around at home like animals. (I should add that my personal preference would have been hanging around at home.) Barcelona was mentioned; Rome; Copenhagen. In the end, almost out of the blue, I suggested Berlin. This was because I knew Roy had been there more than once, and because I noticed that a four-star hotel in Berlin cost about the same as a three-star in Rome/Barcelona.

So it was booked. In spite of the anti-depressants, I was very anxious about the trip, but took it all one step at a time. We flew out from Luton early in the morning, and stayed two nights at the Winters Hotel, which is actually fairly near the star at the centre of the Berlin map. Flying Easyjet is a lot less stressful now they allow you to reserve seats on the plane (for a fee). Given this, I wonder why so many people still pay the extra for speedy boarding – but they do. Maybe it’s a class thing.

Anyway, we landed at Schönefeld at around nine in the morning. My first rookie traveller mistake was in finding directions (via TripAdvisor) to the Mitte area rather than specifically to the Hotel. This meant we got the train to Alexanderplatz, as directed, and then were to look for onward travel by bus, tram, or train. But then my second mistake came into play. I’d downloaded an offline map through Triposo, and (*ahem*) it didn’t look like too far to walk. I always prefer to walk through a city. But Berlin is huge, and it was a long walk. Luckily, my third mistake didn’t affect us (there are two Winters hotel locations, but they’re fairly close to each other, not on opposite sides of the city).

So having fucked up the airport transfer, we all had tired legs and sore feet. But the clock was ticking, so we went out again. Checkpoint Charlie was close by (tacky), and there we paid to go in to see an impressive panorama called The Wall, which showed Berlin as it use to be. It was actually quite good.

Next, we walked again, in search of some remnants of the actual wall. This took us through ordinary Berlin neighbourhoods, and through the kind-of parks/cycleways that have been left where the wall was. We eventually reached the East Side Gallery, which is opposite a huge, modern train station – but also near to a completely decrepit block of flats daubed with the words “FUCK OFF MEDIA SPREE” and “REFUGEES WELCOME”. As they say of all such places: city of contrasts.

We then went back to the hotel for a bit, then went out to look at the Brandenburg Gate, browse some shops, and find somewhere to eat. The weather had been warm and sunny up till then, but on the way to the Gate, we were caught in an intense thunderstorm, and got completely soaked.

This had been the weather I was expecting. My always-pessimistic weather apps had both predicted overcast weather and quite a lot of rain. In the event, we were caught in that one storm, but most of the time experienced high temperatures and sunshine. Sunglasses were deployed. My biggest problem was that, in packing as light as possible, I had only catered for the predicted grey skies and rain. I had one pair of jeans and several long-sleeve shirts – two made from merino wool. It was 28°C in the shade. I spent that first day continually trying to overcome a raging thirst. It was finally slaked when we stopped at a (good) Chinese restaurant and I ordered a Berliner Pilsner, forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to be drinking on these pills. Oops.

Shopping wasn’t really a thing. Tired legs, dehydration, and sore feet meant that I didn’t feel like trying on clothes and shoes. And travelling hand luggage only meant that even the WMF kitchen equipment shop didn’t excite me. The Lindt chocolate shop was pretty great, though. Day one step count: 30,077 (21.29 km).

Day two meant galleries and museums, and more tube travel. We got a travel card (eventually: the machines wouldn’t accept our cards) – and hopped on and off the U-Bahn all day long. This saved our feet (a bit) but the damage had been done. We went to the Hamburger Bahnhoff for modern art (a Carl Andre exhibition was on, but I enjoyed most the gallery of so-called “degenerate” art that was banned under the Nazis). And after viewing the Holocaust memorial, we went down to the DDR Museum, which was quite enjoyable. By this time, I was done with the walking, blisters on both feet, but there was, inevitably, more. We ate disappointing Italian in the evening and went down to the Brandenburg Gate to see it again but without the thunderstorm. Day two step count: 24,048 (just 16 km).

Observation: lots of embassies round there: French, Russian, US. There was no visible security outside the US embassy. A couple of cops were standing outside the French one, but only the British embassy, it seems, necessitates the closure of a whole section of street and the permanent posting of 6-8 cops with two vans. That’s how much the world fucking hates us.

Getting back to the airport was much easier. A couple of hops on the tube to Friedrrichstraße and then the Airport Express – which would have been so much easier if we’d done it on the way in. Might have saved the feet, for a start.

So I enjoyed the trip in the end. One thing I do wish we’d done is hire bikes (I was outvoted). Berlin is flat and very cycle friendly, and getting around on bike is absolutely the best way. Two days isn’t enough though, and I never enjoy the pressure to see the sights in the time available. My favourite part of the whole trip was when we sat in a coffee shop for breakfast, reading over the shoulder of a WordPress blogger through the window, and watching people for half an hour. My ideal such holiday would be to do just that: watch the people of the city go about their business. But I’m outvoted.

 

Posted in bastards

Heading South

P1020679I’ve already done my complaining about the South, the narrow strip of coast that seems to attract the whole of France and points beyond every summer, creating a crush of humanity and noisy traffic. Sitting here looking at this view, yes, this view, you’d wonder why anyone would complain. Yes, this rental house is ideally situated for me. It’s quiet, up in the hills, has a pool. But the family are all down at the beach this afternoon, sharing a postage stamp sized patch of gritty, sticky sand, and being cooled by the (strong today) breeze.

But I wanted to complain anew about the drive South, which has to be one of the worst experiences you can have in a car.

Nine hours on the road to make a journey that would take seven hours without traffic. We’re heading in from the East, so the first bit of the journey is all right. The motorways are quiet, the drivers sane. But it all changes as soon as you get South of Lyon and are joined by the traffic from the rest of France, particularly those city dwellers from the Island called Paris.

Then the traffic gets M1/M25 heavy. The British are used to this, of course, but most of the French experience it twice a year, once on the way down, and once on the way back. And they go a bit crazy, it has to be said. The mad lane-swapping, for example, with sudden lurching manoeuvres to make up one car length and get ahead, oh yes, of the rest. And the super-aggressive tailgating, in the apparent belief that if they can intimidate you, the car in front of them, to move aside, then everything will be all right. Only there’s always another car, and so the aggression gets ramped up and up and up.

The traffic is heavy, and every service area is slammed, crowded with humanity queuing for a pee. There are no parking spaces, and people are basically abandoning cars just anywhere, just like they do here in the South, where there is never anywhere to park, and even the supermarket car park is full all the time. The atmosphere is febrile, desperate, and the closer you get to your destination, the hotter it is.

I was using Google Maps as my satnav, as is my habit, and apart from one application crash, it worked brilliantly. How brilliantly? Quite early on, just as the traffic was getting worse, straight after Lyon, one of the grey alternative routes indicated it was 9 minutes faster. I immediately swept the car off the motorway at the junction in question and followed what was, essentially, an impromptu diversion around a traffic jam. We’re sharing this house with my brother-in-law and family and they set out twenty minutes ahead of us. We caught up with them at a service area near Bourg-en-Bresse (they always stop for ages because they’re French), and they set off again about five minutes ahead of us.

While we were on the Google Diversion, we overtook them, somewhere to the left of us, sitting in a massive bouchon (traffic jam). We could see the motorway, but we were on the more or less empty parallel National road. The ‘nine minutes faster’ turned into ninety minutes faster. We got back on the motorway, but we were now an hour and a half ahead of them, as they remained stuck in a slow moving nexus of traffic all the way South. Sure, we hit slow spots, but we still managed to arrive three and a half hours before them. Thanks, Google.

The worst bit, for me, came after one of the gares de péage, which was when about 20 lanes of booth traffic tried to merge into the three lanes of the motorway after the péage. For a British person who believes in queuing, taking turns, and fair play, it was the worst place in the world.

Dunno about going back. It was bad, heading the other way. Do we hang around for most of Saturday, setting off in the evening? Do we leave before the crack of dawn, as we did heading South? I suspect the former, but I worry about the cat. We left Oscar in Auxelles, being cared for by neighbours, and he’s already thrown up on the floor.

Posted in bastards

How to turn a caring lefty into a foam-flecked hateful Tory in just 90 of your minutes

Somebody asked me about the Channel Tunnel situation a few days before we left. What did I think, were there risks etc. I didn’t think there was really much danger of a migrant jumping in your car. What’s the solution, though? They asked. Let them in, I said. Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.

What is it, 3,000 or so people? They’ve all suffered enough, and the economic impact of the channel blockade, Operation Stack, and delay after delay must be considerable.

But of course, they won’t let them in. Beef up security. Turn your back on all that abjection, hope it goes away on its own.

I was keeping an eye on the Channel Tunnel Twitter account, keeping abreast of the Operation Stack business. I knew what to expect when we drove down in the middle of the night on Wednesday/Thursday. These summer journeys are always hard. Closed junctions, diversions, roadworks. And that’s before you even get to the M20 and the lorry park on the southbound carriageway. The bit where the M1 joins the M25: closed. The bit where the M25 joins the M20: closed.

Deep breaths. Zen and the Art of Arriving Eventually.

The matrix signs were not helpful. I was aware there was a diversion in place from J8, but the matrix signs offered contradictory advice. Use the M2, go this way, go that way. In the end, it was better just to reach J8 and follow the diversion. Google was aware.

We arrived, checked in. Didn’t seem to busy, at three in the morning. We had a bacon roll from Starbucks and a coffee, and I went to close my eyes in the car and listen to the Accidental Tech Podcast. Suddenly, our letter was told to proceed. It was over an hour early. We waited a bit to avoid the border control search, savvy travellers that we are, and drove around. Lined up in Lane 16 and waited a bit. Then we were heading round for the train, the car in front wasn’t even faffing too much, and it looked like we’d be leaving an hour ahead of our booked time.

But not. Loaded on the train, we then sat for 90 minutes. Why? Because a migrant had got on top of a train on the French side, and they were ‘undertaking safety checks’. After an hour, they announced we’d be leaving in around 10 minutes. Five minutes later, the on-board staff came around saying we’d be going in about 10 minutes. 20 minutes later, the train lurched.All the way through in the dark, I expected it to come to a shuddering halt.

While you’re waiting there, during the 90 minutes, you’re getting anxious because the worst case is they open up the train again and get you to disembark on the British side. Go around and board again, but later. It had been so quiet when we arrived, though I imagine that by the time we finally departed (30 ironic minutes after our original booked time), the traffic was building up in the terminal.

So this delay, this 90 minutes of anxiety and boredom, was caused by a migrant jumping the fence. You find yourself thinking, they should just let them die, let them be electrocuted, in the tunnel. Don’t delay my crossing!

And so you turn from a compassionate left winger who would open the borders and let the people come and go as they want to a rabid Ukipper, a foam-flecked Tory who wishes people would just die already and not ruin my holiday.

Which maybe explains why more effort is not being made to do something permanent about the situation. Thousands of trucks and tourists face delays this summer, and every single one of them will have to make an iron-willed effort not to blame the migrants. So it’s well played, isn’t it? A minor inconvenience multiplied thousands of times leads to opinion polls in which the British people show a remarkable lack of tolerance, understanding, and compassion. Which in turn drives the political and media agenda, and means that the pro-immigration counter-argument withers and dies. It means that harsh countermeasures, when introduced, are met with an indifferent shrug,

So, yeah, I was mightily pissed off, but my opinion stands: open the door, let ‘em in. Give them somewhere to live, welfare benefits, free NHS treatment and a free education. This is how you export British values to the world.

*

P.S. After the marathon trip, the remarkable thing for me was that Google discovered an alternative cross-country route for us, taking us on the final stretch from motorway to our village by what seemed like a more direct and less busy route. It felt quicker, anyway.

Posted in musings

Brugge – but where’s Jeff?

trees3If only, I tweeted, there was somewhere in Brugge to buy chocolate. Brugge was a one-night stop for us on the way to our place in France. Bit of a change, something different to do, a little city break on the way to our rural (and rustic) second home.

My wife spent some time looking for a nice little hotel. When she asked for help I just went straight for the Novotel. I like a chain. We’ve stayed at a Mercure once or twice, and even Ibis. I like a place that’s going to be clean, and have standard features. I don’t believe in spending too much on a place that you’re basically only going to use for sleeping and showering. On that basis, I just want a good shower and clean linen. Where better for that than a Novotel? Providing its not miles outside town on the ring road or something, it’s ideal. Not to mention the fact that you can usually book a family room for three.

trees

The Brugge Novotel is close enough to the city centre to be on a cobbled street (both front and rear). It also has a convenient underground car park. Step outside onto the street and you’re immediately a few metres from the first of many chocolate shops.

Brugge is, what? Ninety minutes or so from Calais. We crossed via Eurotunnel at the usual hour, which was way too early, really, and meant that we arrived in Brugge at around 7:30 in the morning, local time. Way too early to check in, and way too early for even the keenest chocolate shop to be open. Still, the car park was open, so we left the car and walked in the early dawn down to the town centre, the central square, taking our time. It was cold, really cold, and although I was wearing four layers, I was shivering. But the place was slowly waking. One of the cafés on the square had already lit its open flame gas fires and the manager/waiter was opening up, putting out the signs. I walked over to take a photo of the inviting interior and the guy beckoned us inside, where we were offered coffee and hot apple pie.

trees1

My daughter and I partook of the pie, and we sat by the fire, getting warm. It was lighter when we emerged, and you could see more of the town. Brugge is a place that does things right. The city centre is very unfriendly to the motor car, but has open arms to the bike. There are also horse-drawn buggies, which were lining up in the early light, waiting for the first tourists. These horses were still working more than twelve hours later, clopping round the narrow cobbled streets with Valentine’s couples in the back. Brugge is so cycling friendly that there’s even a free bike pump near the Post Office.

So we wandered the streets as the shops were opening and saw the market, and then, around ten, wandered back to the hotel. We were too early, and they pointed this out, but the room was ready so they gave us the key. We had a small overnight bag between the three of us and some other bits. Had a couple of hours sleep, then went out for some lunch. The daughter wanted a burger from Quick, so that’s what we did, but there was no Quick’n’Toast, so what’s up with that? In the evening, we ate dinner at a small Lebanese restaurant, which offered a lot of vegan options as well as kebabs and rice dishes. It was good. Brugge, like Amsterdam, has the feel of a proper international destination, with restaurants of many different types. There was even a bookshop with books in English, just like the one you find in Strasbourg. There are few places in France where you’d find Italian and Indian and Chinese and Lebanese and Thai eateries, and so on. Most of the restaurants were fairly full, and the Lebanese place seemed a bit neglected. Perhaps that’s because they trumpeted their vegan options in the window? Who knows? Anyway, it turned out they didn’t take credit cards – maybe that’s why we were the first customers of the night. It was full by the time we left, though, but before we left I had to hunt the streets looking for a cash machine.

It was quite hard to find the cash machine. I hadn’t clocked a bank all day. There wasn’t a bank on every corner. It didn’t feel like a place with a phone shop through every other doorway. While there were some chain stores, it had more of the feeling of a unique destination, largely thanks to the chocolate thing.

But where was Jeff? In Mulhouse, there’s a Jeff de Bruges chocolate shop, and I’ve seen them in other places in France. But not a sign of Jeff in Brugge itself. Weird.

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A nice place, Brugge, blessedly free of motor traffic for the most part. Pedestrian and cycle friendly, with interesting architecture. I could live in a place like Brugge, though of course you wouldn’t be living in the cobbled centre, would you? You’d be out in the modern bit of town – but even that was properly cycle friendly with separate cycle paths and stunning flyover bridges.

We drove back to France via Luxembourg, entering France near the Northern industrial city of Metz. I’m not keen on that particular French motorway. Belgium looked pretty good, though, apart from the bewildering circulation of Brussels, which I remembered from my last visit (1983) as a blighted landscape of motorway interchanges. It was there we encountered the worst of the aggressive Belgian drivers, people who would overtake you on the inside, in your blind spot, and act like you were the problem for trying to pull into the inside lane. Aggressive, or passive aggressive, seem to be the two speeds for Belgian motorists. Anyway, it felt like a bit of a trek to Auxelles Bas. The sat nav decided to take us by an unusual route, too. I didn’t have to follow, but I was getting tired and had already zoned out at a couple of junctions.

The anatomy of missing a turn is interesting. You’re tired, that goes without saying. It took me about four days to recover from these two journeys and unsocial hours. Arriving in Brugges at 7:30 in the morning and sleeping in the middle of the day created a jet lag effect. Anyway, We’re on the motorway, the one I don’t like. Partly this is because it doesn’t have the usual 130 kph speed limit. It varies between 110 and 90 kph. So there are bit where you’re doing just 90 (60 mph) on a three-lane motorway – with speed cameras at regular intervals. We were driving around Nancy, and I was watching my speed (90 kph at this point), overtaking a coach, watching that the coach didn’t pull out on me, with the sat nav’s voice muted. So I missed the instruction to turn, couldn’t see the sign (because of the coach) and ended up heading in the wrong direction. All Google Maps does at this point is point out that your journey time is half an hour longer, and it waits until you pass another junction before offering a ‘quicker’ route – back the way you came. So then you travel to yet another junction to turn around.

After all this, there was a point where – as the crow flies – we were just 28 miles from home, but still another hour or more away by the usual route. The sat nav suggested a route that went more directly, across the countryside and over the Ballon d’Alsace into Giromagny. I think the locals would reject this option, knowing that you’re going to be climbing a mountain on switchback roads with hairpin bends. But this intrigued me because I suspected (correctly) that some of the roads had been upgraded in recent years, thanks to various Tour de France visits. So although we were stuck behind a couple of slow vehicles, the route wasn’t too bad at all. Still, it was a shock to the system to climb to the top of the Ballon d’Alsace, to encounter very deep snow and winter pursuits in full flow. Skiing, snowboarding, huskies. It was foggy, too, a thick fog that clung to the hills for days on end, only clearing on Thursday, giving us just two days of lovely February sunshine, with snow drops already piercing the soil in the garden, which was still, otherwise, 50% covered in the snow that’s been on the ground since December.

Posted in musings

On the usefulness of the iPad

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So I’m typing this entry on my new Apple wireless keyboard, the first time I’ve tried to use it properly. For a start, I have to confess that this is the second time I’ve started this entry, because my WordPress app crashed after one paragraph and I lost everything I’d written so far. It was pithy.

This entry is about my experience as a fairly recent iPad owner and long-time user of Apple products. But I’ve never been an early adopter. I waited for the iPhone 4 before going down that route, and I waited for the third generation iPad before giving in to temptation. I want to write a completely honest assessment of my first couple of months of iPad ownership. I almost don’t know what I think about it, and this might help me decide.

The iPad itself is in front of me on this coffee table-cum-firepit. It’s in its Apple Smart Case, which you’re supposed to be able to use as a stand, except I don’t like either of its two angles, and it has a worrying tendency to fall over – hard – especially in its upright position. So it’s leaning back against two big books. I’m in what we laughingly call the conservatory – more of a cheap lean-to with a horrible plastic roof – and I can barely see the words appearing on the screen for the reflections in here.

That’s one thing, and it’s not a minor issue, is it? The screen, the reflections, how useable the iPad is in a variety of circumstances.

Let’s back up a bit though. I bought the 16GB WiFi+3G model, on a two-year contract on the Three network. Your mileage will obviously differ, but I’ve concluded (after talking to some of my students about their network coverage at our isolated rural school) that Three was the best bet for me, giving me the kind of network access at work (and at home) that I’ve just not got with Vodafone on my iPhone. I’m an idiot for choosing Vodafone, obviously, but they were and are the cheapest way to get an iPhone on contract.

For £25 a month and £159 up front I got this iPad. I’ve barely scratched the surface of my 16GB data allowance, for a variety of reasons. That’s been true of my pathetic 500MB allowance on the iPhone, too. This is mainly because I haven’t had anything other than the little circle for network coverage at work (in spite of the fact that we’ve got a phone mast in our playground) and of course I have WiFi at home. The only time I’ve used 3G has been in France, where it has cost me a small fortune. £2 a day last year for 25MB a day; this year, £3 a day to take my contract to France with me. So after three weeks in France, that was a £60+ addition to my normal bill. I don’t make calls and I barely use any of my text allowances. I’m a born Pay as You Go customer, but never have the upfront cash to go for it.

At work, the school network blocks anything useful (blogging, Twitter, YouTube), so I’m looking forward to being able to use such services for lesson planning and or lunchtime browsing. But I haven’t really been at work, yet, so haven’t started to use my data allowance. I was also hoping to use the iPad on 3G in France, but it turns out that as a non-voice customer I don’t get the option, other than to pay 70 pence per megabyte. Even restricted to 25MB per day, three weeks in France would have cost me nearly £370.

So the iPad came to France, but it wasn’t very useful for getting online. My in-laws don’t have internet at all, so I could only use WiFi at my brother-in-law’s house, which I called the Internet Café for the duration. When we went camping, the campsite WiFi was restricted to the office, and stupidly slow, so I barely used it. I relied on my iPhone therefore, and the iPad became nothing more than a games machine for the kids and an after-dark Kindle for me.

I hesitated about taking my original greyscale Kindle but I’m so glad I did, because I relied on it for all daylight hours reading, especially in the sunny Dordogne.

The iPad certainly kept the kids quiet in the back of the car on several long journeys. For that, it can’t be beat. They’ve had iPod Touch and Nintendo DS in the back before, but the iPad introduced a whole new level of peace and quiet.

Me, I used it a little bit for reading, and a little bit for photo editing (but not much, because I couldn’t really get photos from Photostream on the various slow WiFi networks I used, and I haven’t got a Camera Connection Kit). My daughter made a short horror movie on it, when we were exploring the house in Auxelles. My wife read some issues of French Elle magazine.

Since getting home, I’ve barely used it during the day. There’s this problem with not really being able to see the screen in sunlight or in a bright room. And the problem of the kids being on it all the time.

I haven’t yet discovered a killer app for the iPad. Filming and editing video on it (when you need to do a quick and dirty project) is certainly useful. But I’ll likely do that kind of thing once or twice a year. I’ve typed a couple of things on it, but it wasn’t all that easy compared to using a laptop. This, now, is hunched and uncomfortable, and I’m only here because I want to sit in this bright room and enjoy a sunny morning. Reading on it is okay, but it’s too heavy compared to a normal book or a Kindle, so I only do it at night, when reading on the Kindle becomes difficult because it lacks a backlight. I haven’t used it for music. The kids have used it for art, and for games, and for emailing their friends.

For them, it’s wonderful. But it’s yet to find a place in my heart, which surprises me. The main reason I bought it, if I’m honest, was because I wanted to be able to preview the iBook I’ve been working on. But that project is a bit stalled due to laziness and other things happening, so it’s not really serving its purpose. This keyboard is great, but the iPad itself is only scoring half marks for me so far.

I’ll follow this up when I’m back at work, to see if it becomes more useful then.

Posted in musings

Camping in the Dordogne

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We were walking around the medieval fortified town of Belvès when the difference between camping and a more civilised way of life was made clear in its entirety. Belvès is big enough to sustain some kind of night life, and there were several packed restaurants and bars, as well as darkened shop displays indicating a lively commerce in the day.

But it was evening, the sun just setting, and just enough light to take some photos with my phone, noisy as they were. There was the old covered marketplace with its old pillory post, complete with collar and chain; there was the obligatory shop selling knives and perhaps guns, with it’s sharpening wheel outside; there was the jazz festival stage area with its panoramic view above the old cliff dwellings called “Troglodite Houses”.

Elisabeth and I have a regular discussion in these places. Would we want to buy a house here if we won the lottery? My wife hates the idea of isolation, so most parts of the Dordogne feel too remote to her. She’d be okay in a bigger town like Sarlat. I, on the other hand, don’t like the feel of Sarlat. Sure it has that medieval look, narrow cobbled streets, and a lively night life; but it’s relentless, too, in offering you a narrow choice of foie gras, sweet Bordeaux, knives, and art: too much fucking art. Every third shop sells the cruel but delicious pâté, every street has a knife seller, and on every corner there’s yet another gallery offering overpriced art.

These art galleries scream of the kind of person who wants to live in a beautiful place but has no employment prospects. Myself, in other words, so I resent and despise the artists as only one of their own can. Yeah, and I can’t even draw or paint, but the only difference between you and me is the trust fund that allowed you to buy a shop and turn it into your own personal ego trip. I could set up on the corner with a typewriter and write bad descriptions of tourists for money, perhaps, or I could put on whiteface and become one of the crappy street performers that infest Sarlat’s public squares and make sitting down for a coffee a risky business.

So, it’s a no to Sarlat for me, but Belvès? Yeah, there was a slight smell of jazz about the place, but I could live with that (preferable to clowns breathing fire and riding unicycles). It doesn’t have the touristy sheen of a Gordes, but it does seem more like a place you might live, as opposed to send postcards from. It didn’t make a good impression as we approached, precisely because it is a place that people live: there are homes that look like social housing on the outskirts, and a hint of the kind of urban sprawl that Sarlat has outside its medieval walls.

So we’re walking up one of the narrow streets and suddenly there’s the sound of softly played music (dinner party vocal jazz) and conversation. We’re away from the busy restaurants and cafés, this is just a side street. There is a family (three generations, looks like) sitting on their front porch eating their evening meal and talking. It’s a town house: no garden, not enough room for a terrasse, but they have enough space for a 6-seater plastic table, and privacy afforded by hanging baskets. There’s a little bit of light, and music, and food, and conversation, and it feels like home.

I’m there. Or at least I would be, if I could afford to buy the house for sale just metres away: a two-storey house with a paved front terrasse, room for a table and chairs, and neighbours across the street who play tasteful music through their night windows. I looked this place up on the Internet: just €155000, for seven rooms, including three bedrooms, and a no doubt astonishingly expensive electric heating system.

So we got back in the car and got back to the campsite for the 10 o’clock curfew. Because 10 o’clock curfews are a fact of campsite life. You can arrive later, but you’re supposed to leave your car outisde. Once, we had to climb over a 2-metre fence. Sure, we could sit outside the tent (and do), but playing even tasteful music is not really the done thing, and there’s little sense of privacy (even the paradoxical privacy of eating on a public street) when your every midnight fart can be heard across the campsite.

This is one of the quietest and cleanest sites I’ve ever been on, but there is still too much about camping that I hate. My major objection is to the whole business of toilets, showers, and oblutions. There’s something uniquely horrible about brushing your teeth or shaving while badly behaved Dutch children run screaming about the place, kick at the doors and demand attention from their laid-back parents. This is before I get to my own personal problems with public toilets, which I may have mentioned before. To mitigate this, I adopt the habits of a recluse, rising ridiculously early (before seven) and visiting the shower block before anyone else is up. But when you do have to use the toilet while others are around, it’s just so horrible to see and hear other people (why do people grunt so much?) and to have people waiting outside the door for you to finish shitting. As if that’s ever going to happen.

Sitting outside and eating an evening meal in a pleasant garden or terrasse is one thing; listening to babies scream while you eat is another. I’m beyond questioning why people would take a young baby (or toddler triplets!) camping. That babies just cannot travel light doesn’t seem to bother people. But the thing is that babies are regular, and if seven o clock is crying time, well that baby is going to cry every evening at seven.

Then there are our friends in the insect world. I’m convinced that everything bites these days. It’s the only explanation for the massive welt that appeared on my neck after a day on the river. Sure, a mosquito could have done it. But it’s big enough for a dragonfly to have been the culprit. This morning, I swear, a grasshopper was attacking my leg – and then attacked my finger when I went to flick it off. I’m okay for a couple of days, but then the bites start appearing, and by the end of the week I’m covered in them and miserably itching everywhere. Last year, some of the bites were still bothering me in September. I’m what you might call susceptible.

So I don’t sleep well, cannot get on with a sleeping bag, don’t enjoy mealtimes, can’t stand the toilet/shower experience, get bitten to buggery, and do not relish living out of a suitcase. Then there is the problem of modern gadgetry. We’ve had electricity at all the campsites we’ve been to over the past 5 years – that is standard by now. We also had a fridge this time, because we realised our electric coolbox’s ability to cool to 15 degrees below ambient was useless for the South. In addition, we’ve got two iPhones, two Mophie Juicepaks, an ipod touch, an iPad, a Nintendo DS, three rechargeable lamps, a camera, and a Kindle – many of which need to be recharged daily. We have a 4-way and several adapters, but that leaves the problem of what to do with all these gadgets while we go out for the day. Most of them end up coming with us, locked in the car, which means you can’t leave them on charge.

But, I hear you say, shouldn’t you leave all that technology at home and rough it for the week? Maybe, but I thought this was supposed to be a holiday, not a prison. I’m not going on retreat, I just want to catch up on all the reading I’m unable to do when I’m at work because I’m too tired and fall asleep after two paragraphs. So that’s the Kindle, which is essential for reading outdoors in bright sunshine – because the iPad is useless outdoors during the day. Then in the evening, you need the iPad because the kindle doesn’t have a backlight and is awkward and annoying to use with a light. And because my iPad contract is useless in Europe (70p per MB!), I need my phone for 3G access. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t want to get away from Twitter and Flipbook and podcasts – on holiday is when I can best enjoy them. I’m not a person who gets hundreds – or even tens – of emails, so I don’t need to go offline.

Which leaves us with, why are we here and what do we do for a week in the Dordogne? Familiar to many British people, the Dordogne is a beautiful corner of a beautiful country. We know why: wasn’t bombed to smithereens in two world wars, and is a relatively poor region, so has retained much of its ancient medieval character. I was going to say the Dordogne is like a part of Britain with a better climate, but Elisabeth disagrees. It’s green, leafy, rural, with rolling hills and small farms cultivating everything from the vine to the sunflower, and producing massive amounts of foie gras and saucisson, made with meat from the pig, the lamb, the wild boar, the cow, and the donkey. It’s a gastronomic apocalypse for certain animals, and a region best avoided by sensitive vegetarians.

So there are castles and steep, walled villages, hidden gardens, stone bridges, fields of sunflowers, vineyards, markets, and sunshine. Not as arid as the far South, the Dordogne has a benign climate: it gets hot, but never so hot that you don’t know where to put yourself. And, to quote a film, a river runs through it. More than one river, actually, but the main river (after which the region is named) is a slow, wide, shallow, meandering waterway that never seems to be far away. It’s compulsory, while here, to park your car by the river somewhere and be driven a few km upstream, and to find your way back to where you parked on the river, by canoe or kayak. Hundreds and hundreds of these boats, steered by amateurs, can be seen on the river every day. It looks like tremendous fun. Take a picnic and make a day of it. Stop on the bank somewhere, eat some lunch, or visit one of the many conveniently placed snack bars. Nothing I say will stop you from doing this, so it’s almost not worth saying that it’s a painful, tiring, wet, and slow way to punish yourself. What did you do to deserve this? Even my youngest, who has been nagging to do this again for three years, was fed up and exhausted before we’d even gotten halfway. Do it by all means, take the photos so you can look back on the day when you’ve forgotten how horrible it was, but – whatever you do – don’t be tempted by a 28 or 32 km (or longer!) trip. They say you can do 5 km in an hour, but that means you’ll be on the river under the hot sun for 6+ hours, not including stops, and your shoulders and hips will be screaming for relief for five of those six hours. No, take my word: 12-14 km is plenty for this particular experience. The river stops being interesting after that, anyway. After that, it’s just you and the river, and the trees, and the sun, and the insects.

Three years ago, we visited all the local castles, went down a cave in a gondola, saw the annoying street artists in Sarlat, and took a short torture boating trip on the river. This time, we saw a reproduction of cro-magnon cave paintings at Lascaux II, spent too long on the river, wandered a few villages, visited Sarlat again, and took a trip to Bergerac. We ate at a night market (you’ll find one every night, if you want), and had a few cheapish, indifferent, restaurant meals. A few years ago, the four of us could eat two courses with drinks for €50, but now the same thing is costing closer to €70. I’m not a big fan of French cooking (hide the horrible meat under a rich sauce), and it hurts to think what I could cook myself for the same spend. But you can’t really do much on a one-burner Primus on a campsite.

I’m trying to persuade Elisabeth that we don’t want to do this again, but the family is split in two. Me and my fellow introvert daughter just want to rent a place and have a comfortable bed and a private bathroom. My wife enjoys life outdoors, and my more extrovert daughter absolutely thrives on a campsite, making instant friends and swimming in the lake and pool till near dark.