Tuesday, 19 November 2013

An Interlude of Silence

Because I'm home, I've called a pause on the blog, until my next adventure.  In the meantime, you can follow me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/soulnecklace

But don't worry. I'll be back.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Last Post

Well, we returned home last week to an overgrown garden and a tidy house - thanks to our house sitter - and now it's back to normal living; kids to school and adults to work.

There's been some changes in our absence. The children have grown closer to us, and we're closer to them. We do more together now. We spent the Saturday afternoon looking at the photos and laughing at the memories. And I'm watching the bank balance, with, it must be said, some trepidation.

  • Was it worth it?


  • Would we do it again?

Probably not. For next year the older boy will have important exams, and he will not be able to take such a long time off school. And then it will be the younger child's turn.

So this is the end of this blog.

Who knows? Maybe I'll write another. But it won't be about an eight week holiday around Europe, with a family and a kindle...It will be about another adventure.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Air Time

My God the flight from Holland to New Zealand is LONG. Two flights, two airplanes and over twenty four hours in the air.

So: Top Tips for Long Haul.

  • Check in early. Some airports have very complicated check in procedures. Schipol (that's Amsterdam) is now all automated - if you've got kids and bags there's not a lot of assistance. 
  • Carry sleeping tablets.
  • Water. Buy a bottle of drinking water in the airport lounge before you leave and top it up on the plane.
  • Try and get onto the plane early. There's often a scrum for overhead locker space. 
  • Take eye shades, ear plugs and toothbrush.
  • Carry a cardigan or wrap. You can get added warmth if the blankets aren't enough.
  • Buy access to a lounge or a shower if you're stopping enroute.
  • Remove contact lens. Wear glasses instead. 
  • Eat a proper meal at your stopover because airplane meals are never wonderful. 
  • Ask for fruit snacks mid-flight - often there's a bowl of apples.
  • Make sure there's someone to drive you home from the airport. 
I've not tried the noise cancelling headphones, but if you want to spend $500, I'm sure they're great.

And remember: these flights are costing you the price of a small diamond ring, so you may as well enjoy them. Watch as many movies as you can!

Le Bris, 1868: no long haul and no movies. Image from Wikipedia

Sunday, 20 October 2013

More Travel Tips - Packing List

The packing was always going to be a challenge. Eight weeks out of a backpack, through summer and into autumn, travelling through countries and cities - well, how to do it?

Here's a list of items that worked well:

  • charcoal a-line skirt (with pockets. You can never have enough pockets when you're travelling)
  • jeans
  • shorts
  • silk singlet
  • white travel shirt (with more pockets)
  • plaid shirt (doesn't show the dirt)
  • black merino jersey
  • black cardigan
  • 3x bright-coloured t-shirts (one of merino, for layering)
  • long-sleeved black top
  • rain coat
  • black tights
  • hat, gloves and woollen scarf (these add warmth but don't take up much room)
  • sandals
  • walking shoes - for cities and mountains
  • ankle boots - so you don't always look like a traveller
  • satchel - to blend in with the crowd and carry the coat and camera
  • exercise gear (eg running shoes) - so you don't get too fat from all the yummy food
  • a kindle - unless you want to carry a LOT of books

Of course I took more than this. But I didn't need it. Damn. I carried a lot of extra weight!

Final Book Review - Ender's Shadow


is the setting for Ender's Shadow - but a Rotterdam of the future, a bleak vision of street kids and organ farming and street kitchens. Out of this cess-pit steps Bean, a tiny urchin about four years in age and about one hundred years old in street-wisdom.

Ender's Shadow is the companion series to Ender's Game, which is coming out as a movie this year, and which I can't wait to see.

Shadow was written a lot later than Game and boy, does it show - Bean is a much more complex character, with more sophisticated interactions, thoughts and feelings.

The only complaint I have with Shadow is that - it helps if you read Ender's Game first. And then you'll get addicted on the whole damn series, and seven books or so later, you emerge from Ender's world, to find your whole family annoyed at your prolonged inattention...

Does Ender's Shadow enhance my understanding of Rotterdam? No. Not at all. But it's still a great read.

Image from Amazon

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Book Review - The Book of Liverpool

The Book of Liverpool - a City in Short Fiction 

is, as it says on its cover, a series of short stories. All set in Liverpool, the shorts span events in the city from WW2 to present day, seen through the eyes of the characters.

There's haunted houses and the slums of the pre-war and post-war eras. There's the bombings. The Toxteth Riots. The Hillsborough Disaster. And there's the future, too; the Liver building sets off to sea, like a vast cruise liner, filled with insurance actuaries.

Liverpool has more than its fair share of great writers and some of the very best - Beryl Bainbridge, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Cliver Barker  - have contributed to this selection.

The only complaint (and its really just a small complaint) is that the club scene that birthed the Beatles isn't really touched on in this collection, save for a haunting story by James Friel Something You Don't have to Deserve, except Friel deals with a club in its decay, not in its prime.

It's a great read, especially if you're trying to gain an insight into a complex city in only a few days. The sense of community, of celebration of small things is a hallmark of these stories; really, a hallmark of the city.

Image from Amazon

Tales from Two Cities

Posting on this blog was interrupted by lack of access to devices. Not the wifi, although that has been a bit tricky - more that everyone in the family had their books stored on on their iPads and were at critical places in their various narratives, so I was the last to have access.


We spent the last five days of our holiday in two cities: Liverpool and Rotterdam.

At first glance, these cities appear quite different - the scouser birthplace of the Beatles, and a north sea port. But look closer, and the similarities emerge.

Both are port cities. Both were bombed extensively during WW2. And both are reemerging, two very different phoenixes.

Built on the banks of the Mersey, Liverpool is embracing its heritage, restoring the older buildings of the port and the docks, and transforming the central city into a vibrant shopping area: Liverpool One.

Liverpool Docks

Rotterdam, on the Maas, is the largest port in Europe and the third largest in the world. But rather than rebuilding as it was before the war, the city is embracing modern architecture. The place feels like a homage to concrete and steel.

Both these cities have space - especially along the banks of their respective rivers. They have exceptionally well-planned public areas. And they both have an air of vibrance; of excitement. As if they realise that it is possible to rebuild, to make a city better than it was before.


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Number One

My teens love thrills. So it's no surprise that the number one attraction for the holiday was *drum roll*: Alton Towers.

Alton Towers is the British theme park and chock full of roller coasters. A teenager's heaven. They researched it in advance to find the best rides - not something I'd seen them do with, say, the British Museum.

Couple of tips - go in the middle of the week, take warm clothes and avoid the school holidays. There were next to no queues and plenty of rides to chose from in mid Oct.

And don't expect to sit in the cafe. The kids won't let you.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Tips for Feeding Teens in England

Teenage boys need feeding regularly. Unlike France, where boulangeries are plentiful, snack food was harder to find in the UK.

We discovered these solutions:

  • Tea Shops. Toasted tea cakes, scones and cups of tea (my son has become addicted to tea, preferring the more exotic blends to the everyday) or milkshakes.
  • Big breakfasts mean you can last until lunch time. It doesn't have to be a cooked breakfast - cereal followed with lots of toast will do.
  • Big lunches mean you can avoid expensive mid afternoon snacks or desperately grabbing whatever overpriced restaurant you can find in the evening.
  • You can of course make it yourself, but its not always that easy to carry loads of sandwiches around with you on the tube. We found it easier to take snacks - muesli bars, biscuits, fruit. 
  • You can buy pre-made sandwiches in some off licenses. They're not the greatest, but needs must...
  • Carry water with you.
  • Make sure you have lots of fruit with breakfast!
  • In London, the boys liked subway, because they felt full afterwards.

For the evening, self-cater as much as you can.You will eat healthier and save a packet. But sometimes you'll be tired, or busy, or out of food. Here's what we found:

  • In London, curry houses or Turkish restaurants had better prices.
  • Teens love buffets, look out for 'all you can eat' deals. We found a Chinese place in Exeter offering £6.00 meals.
  • In rural areas, it's pretty much pub grub. Ask around for which pubs do good meals - there is a lot of variation. The good ones are really great.
  • Try and encourage the kids to order potatoes instead of fries. If you can.
  • The tourist areas are expensive - like £70 for hamburgers and fries at convent garden. Aargh! So either avoid the tourist areas, or eat before you go, or just suck it up. Tell yourself that you'll never be there again...

Teenager's Top Tips - London

London's AWESOME

Here's The Tenager's list, not in any particular order, of Cool Things to Do in London.

The Shard
London Dungeon
Walkin' and Discoverin' stuff
Covent Gardens
Globe Theatre 
Street Performers - Trafalgar Square
Kew Gardens
Double decker buses and the Tube
Changing of the Guard
London Eye

We also went to loads of museums, galleries etc - none made it onto the list!
We didn't go to the Tower of London, Greenwich or any of the markets, so this list is by no means complete...

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Book Review: Shakespeare's Sonnets

Stratford upon Avon

Is very atmospheric, quaint, charming; full of pretty half-timbered buildings.

And of course, replete with all things Shakespeare. So reading Shakespeare's Sonnets would be an easy thing to do, I thought.

That was before I realised how many sonnets there actually are. In the book I downloaded there are 154. I am only up to number 66. The poems are all in praise of, or in thought of, Love: themes of love conquering time, death ending love, the impermanence of beauty, love as a slave, love as lust, lust as power.

I do wonder what they might have been like had he chosen a more weightier topic - like death, or politics, or religion. But politics and religion are unsafe topics and 154 poems on death would have been a bit much. 

The thing I like best about the sonnets is Shakespeare's confidence that his poems would be read, and that people would keep on reading them - thus rendering his love (and his art) immortality.

'So long as men can breathe and eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.'

And on that note, here is some graffiti from Warwick Castle. Not as old as the sonnets, but also outlasting its author! Who needs immortal prose, when you can carve your initials?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Book Review: an unmentionable title

Agatha Christie and Casual Racism

When staying on Dartmoor I was going to read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I must confess this was partly an easy option, having read and re-read the story since childhood. However, due to an accident with my iPad, I lost the iBooks version (should have used kindle) and so could not read it when on the moor. Shame. We spend an afternoon wandering near Grimspound as the mist came down, very atmospheric and a black dog (a common Devon myth) would have only added to the ambience. 

But we also went to Burgh Island. An odd little place, it's an isthmus, so you can walk to it at low tide and at high tide you can take a peculiar tractor that travels across the sand as the waves rock it to and fro. 

Agatha Christie stayed on the Island and set one of her novels there. Unfortunately, the novel has a terrible title, so I'm not going to write it here, but it's been renamed as 'And Then There Were None.'

The story starts with ten people being invited to an island and then, one by one, they are all murdered, very mysteriously.

It's not one of her best works but it is entertaining enough for a wet day. But it is also very racist. Against Africans. Against Jews. Against Natives (who don't, apparently, care as much for death as white folk). While these are probably the attitude of Christie's characters and not necessarily those of Christie herself, they are still shocking to read. It was interesting to see how much attitudes have changed, and how it is now no longer acceptable to make sweeping judgements of a sex or a race, even if its your characters with the prejudice, not the author.

That being said, the book is ok, not brilliant. Ten characters is just too many. And they do not have diverse enough voices. So I wouldn't recommend it - and I don't envy the other guests on Burgh Island while Christie wrote it. What would it be like, to inhabit the same hotel as a crime writer?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tips for Travelling in the UK

Things I have learned:

Apologies for an extended absence - I've been staying in a 13th Century cottage in Devon and such houses rarely come with internet access.

We've been travelling in the UK for nearly four weeks and here's a quick summary of things I wish I knew when I arrived:

  • Get a local sim and insert it into your smart phone. This will allow you access to google maps without incurring roaming charges, invaluable when in a new country. I had avoided this, thinking my phone was locked. Turned out it wasn't. You can tell by inserting a micro sim into your phone and seeing what it does! Cost of aforesaid sim: 5 pounds. Until I figured this out I spend $86.00 in calls and data
  • Be careful with tripadvisor holiday lets (www.holidaylettings.co.uk). We've had a very mixed experience with this site.  However, I do recommend listings that are attached to reputable outfits - such as Helpful Holidays. The reason: the cancellation fees are massive (the total cost of the booking if less than 4 weeks notice) and communication with owners is very mixed. If you use a third party agency, responses to emails and phone calls is much faster.
  • Research your destination in advance. This gives you a good idea on what you want to see - important in a place like London, where there is just so much to do.
  • If you are going to a rural destination, invest in an Ordnance Survey map. There are heaps of little attractions in the country - ruined castles, roman roads, stone circles - that are marked on these maps. Most are free.
  • Get out of the car. The UK was developed for people on feet (there are hundreds of little public access footpaths and bridleways).
  • Buy National Trust membership. We purchased New Zealand Historical Places membership before we left which gives a family of four access to National Trust properties - 100s of castles, stately homes, gardens and other places across the UK. Cost: $69.00
  • Plan for bad weather. England is green because it is wet! And when its sunny, get outdoors.

Friday, 20 September 2013


Unavoidable Delay

 I will be away from wifi for a fortnight.

Apologies in advance for the silence.

Book Review: NeverWhere by Neil Gaiman

Book Review.

This is a wonderful story, told as an old-fashioned fairy-tale yarn: Multiple points of view, a sometimes omniscient narrator and a touch of irony.

Richard Mayhew is heading to London - but which London? There are two types of London:  the London Above, the world of everyday, where the most dangerous thing you do is running to catch a taxi; and the London Below, the realm of the dispossessed and dangerous, where there is a Earl at Earl's Court and a circus at Oxford Circus. Where time is trapped and bubbles up, displacing the present. Richard tumbles into the Below, and wishes he hadn't...

It's a great book to read on the tube.

Charity and Privilege

The Royal Charity

Today I went somewhere I've been longing to go for many, many years....Buckingham Palace. The State Rooms are open for visits over the summer months, until the end of September. I went alone - my family are not interested in the Palace or its inhabitants.

So along with several hundred other tourists, I entered the Staterooms. Impression?: Gold. Gold with blue, gold with white, gold with red. And carvings. Lots of carvings. The Royal families, or their architects, believe in embellishment. A roof? Carve it, with thistles or roses or shamrocks. Balustrades are carved, then gilded. Walls are either papered in damask (don't want plain wallpaper) or have carved details. The carvings are gilded.

The whole tour is done on audio headset so the crowd is completely silent, drifting like sleepwalkers through enormous rooms, and all you can hear is a faint hissing when someone has the sound turned up.

There's a special exhibition on at the moment of the 1953 Coronation of QE2. Not being alive at the time of this event, the photographs and film footage leaves me rather unmoved (the hushed voice of the commentator 'now, an event so old that even its origins are lost in the depths of time') but the coronation dresses, on display in the ballroom (which has its own pipe organ), are truly splendid - the hand embroidered dresses, the velvet-and-ermine trains and oh yes, the tiara, necklace and earrings worn by the Queen on the way to her coronation. These are made from diamonds, each diamond being at least the size of a fingernail.

It's then that I remember: the visit to the Palace was actually a visit to a Charity. The Charity being the Royal Collection (of artwork, purchased by the Crown - Charles the First etc - over many years with what was, presumably, public money).

It's the first charity I've ever seen that has diamonds on display.

At the end of the tour, there's a coffee shop and a gift shop, which has lots of photos of a smiling Queen and small toiletries, biscuits, towels and other memorabilia, all for purchase. So I succumbed, purchasing an expensive cappuccino, with the Queen's crest tastefully picked out in chocolate, and several exorbitantly-priced towels with 'Buckingham Palace' embroidered on them in gold, so I could loan them to guests.

After all, I thought, it's for charity.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Immortal Prose

Layers of Time

There are layers of time within London. The street names, the tube stops, the accents; even the laws reflect the city's age.

But, not being time travellers, the past is gone. Except in our imagination, and in our literature, which peels back the years and makes the past alive.

Yesterday I went to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play that's over 500 years old. It was raining but the audience didn't seem to mind. The actors wore Elizabethan costume and spoke in archiac English, but the jokes were still funny; the message of the play still current.

All this in a theatre that was famous once, 500 years ago, before it burnt down. It's been rebuilt and is now so popular that there's standing room only.

Or maybe Shakespeare's right, and this whole world is but a dream...including this post.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Snapshots of Time

Time Changes Everything

I'm in London now. I haven't been here for nearly twenty years.  Twenty years is nothing in the life of a city like this; yet so much has changed.

The skyline has altered: there's a giant ferris wheel beside the Thames and skyscrapers made of curved steel and glass. Hybrid buses, still double decker, but now they actually stop. There's an easy-to-use oyster card for the underground and these nifty little bikes you can ride for next to nothing. And where has all the litter gone?

Every city has its own vibe: Amsterdam has energy, Paris has aggression. And London? London has funk. 

We're here for a week. I wish I had longer...

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Wine: Cheaper than Water

Reasons to visit Provence

  1. The wine is cheaper than water. (2 Euros for a glass of wine, 2.50 Euros for a small bottle of mineral water at the Papal Palace in Avignon today).
  2. The wine is really good. And the tasting at a vineyard - a cave - is free!
  3. Food is taken extremely seriously; a lunch break lasts for two hours. So although this means that all the tourist information centres are closed from 12 - 2 for lunch, the markets are excellent, and most shops are open until 6.30 pm.
  4. The weather is amazing - in September, its warm, almost hot, in the middle of the day, but pleasant and comfortable by 4 pm.
  5. Although English is spoken infrequently, pidgin Franglais is common. So if you speak 'un peu Francais' and your communicator speaks 'a little English', it seems to work okay.
  6. There's plenty of hiking and cycling, but as no village is more than around 10 km from another, you are never too far from excellent food and wine.
The Papal Palace, Avignon.  Image from Wikipedia - unable to post my own image due to technical issues with wifi and camera!

Book Review: A Year in Provence

A Year in Provence

Well I'd put off reading this as I thought, travelling to Provence, and reading A Year in Provence? What a cliche! 

But, I loved it - it was a lot of fun, and extremely useful, prior to travelling... For example, there's a phrase 'payments noir'.  We bought some sandwiches at a small cafe on Sunday. And we paid in cash for them, they were excellent (half a baguette, split lengthwise) - jambon avec crudites (ham with vegetables) - the kids had just jambon sans crudites (the thought of vegetables on a Sunday was a bit too much).  The woman wanted to be paid in cash (pas de Visa, Madame) because it was 'dans la noir'. We had an interesting discussion of 'under the table' which means,  I think, roughly the same: a way to evade the tax man.

The only problem with this book is that it leaves you feeling immensely hungry. So don't read it with an empty stomach!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Paris for Teenagers

Teenager's Recommendations for Paris

These recommendations are from my travelling teens:

  1. Climbing the Eiffel Tower (NOT the lift).
  2. Crepes - they thought the creperie at the base of the Eiffel Tower was the best.
  3. Eiffel Tower at night.
  4. The modern art at the Pompidou Centre.
  5. Seeing the 'famous stuff' at the Louvre.
  6. Chocolaterie on the road to Montmartre (between the funicular and the metro station).
  7. Window shopping on the Champs-Elysee - especially the Toyota store, you can go inside and see the prototypes.
Bon journee

Book Review - Phantom

The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux

This is an oldie but a goodie and would make ...a great musical.

According to Wikipedia, the novel was first published as a serial, which explains the many, sometimes unnecessary twists and turns of plot. The story opens with the narrator recounting the mysterious death of a Comte, the disappearance, presumed death, of the Vicomte and the disappearance of opera singer, Christine Daae from the Paris Opera House. The pace of the novel is maintained by the drama of the Opera Ghost (is he a man? Or a phantom?) and the tension of the inevitably doomed couple.

While a product of its time, the attraction of the novel is really the descriptions of the Opera House, of the city-within-a-city. It was a great book to read when travelling through Paris, with its stratified society still present today.

And now I want to see the musical.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013



This is not what you read in the guidebooks but - everywhere you go in Paris, there are beggars.

I kept a list today: one man on his knees in the subway with a sign saying 'J'ai Faim'. A woman crouched near the entrance to the Arc de Triomphe, huddled as if in prayer. 2 young men asleep: one in the metro, with a dog and a loud woman, one in the Champs Elysee, also with a dog. A young woman with old eyes, and in a beggar archetype, a man with no legs. The city feels like something out of a Dickens novel.

The most concerning...three young women (sometimes with a boy) who've approached me three times: at the Eiffel Tower; at Notre Dame; at the Pompideau Museum. They speak excellent English and carry a poorly photocopied 'petition' which, they say, is for the children.  They were charm itself until I gave them 50 cents. 50 cents, it appeared, was insufficient.

Who runs these teenagers? There are too many and too organised to be a spontaneous group. One woman at the youth hostel said they were Romanian. They didn't mind having their photo taken.

Whoever they are, I pity them. Because instead of asking for money today, they asked for my left-over grapes, huddling into a group in a corner of the square to eat them. When I gave them a sandwich also, they were all smiles.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Inevitability of Queues

Queues...A Necessary Evil?

There's no way out of them, not in Paris at the end of summer.  Here's the line at the catacombs:

However, there are some queues you can avoid:
  • Visit the Louvre on the first Sunday of the month. It's free and there's no one queuing for tickets. However, its very busy because everyone goes there .. because it's free.
  • Access the Louvre through the Louvre Carousel (metro: Palais Royale). This way you don't have to wait in the hot sun.
  • To go up the Eiffel Tower, take the stairs (escalier) This queue was only 5 minutes long! - the queue for the lift snaked all the way under the tower.
  • Arrive early at the Catacombs. You'll still hit the queue, but it won't be as hot as later in the day. And take water and a sun-hat for your wait.
Entrance to the Catacombs

  • And remember... you'll never see these attractions anywhere else. So its worth the wait!

Monday, 2 September 2013


Epiphany Means 'A Sudden Realisation of Great Truth'

Yesterday's epiphany was - don't overwhelm the kids. 

Yesterday we travelled from Amsterdam to Paris. Got out of the Gare du Nord and stepped...straight into Mumbai. There was a festival to Ganesh and the streets were closed and awash with women in brightly coloured saris, helium balloons and loud, cracklingly loud, Indian music.  

It was a relief to get to the youth hostel.

Whereupon we went straight out again and went to the Louvre.  It's free on the first Sunday of the month, and yesterday was...the first Sunday. The Louvre was even more crowded than the streets.

We decided early on that we were not going to try to see everything at the Louvre. It's impossible. So along with everyone else, we just went to the famous things!

Crowd at the Mona Lisa (it's the small black rectangle in the distance)
By 5 pm we were exhausted and had to resort to Starbucks for therapy. And Starbucks in Paris is hideously expensive.

Moral of the story: We should have paid to go to the Louvre. And not done anything in the afternoon.

Guards ushering visitors from the Louvre
Today we're just chilling. Here's the Paris Pajol youth hostel. It's brand new and much more comfortable than any other accommodation I've ever had in Paris.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Book Reviews - Two Houses

Simone van der Vlugt - Safe as Houses

I've finished Simone van der Vlugt's Safe as Houses. While it was okay, it would probably have been better in the original - the translated version was pretty weak (not helped by jet lag). The ending was good, but I skimmed a lot in the middle and didn't really miss much. The story is about a woman who is held hostage in her own home by an escaped criminal. I read it because I thought it would be set locally, and give an insight into the area.  Unfortunately, because the protagonist was held hostage in her house, I didn't get a sense of place at all.

Anne Frank - Diary of a Young Girl.

Safe as Houses provides a rich contrast with Anne Frank's classic. I went past the Anne Frank House today - the queue stretched far past the house, which now has a modern exterior. So I don't think I'll go inside - but what a gift that poor girl had, and what a sad but beautiful read her diary makes. And despite being mostly set in one tiny house, there's a strong sense of place - the bells of the nearby church, the sunsets, the bombing and the fires.


Travelling with Teens

So here we are in Amsterdam.

We went to the Stedelijk Museum - the modern art museum of Amsterdam. Less busy than its neighbouring Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museusm, its great for older kids. Easy to understand, really interesting and interactive displays; a great way to spend a morning.

Which leads me to the next thing:
Which Amsterdam Pass?
There are three - the Holland Pass, the I Amsterdam and the Museum Kaart.  There's a good blog that analyses the different passes:  Diy-OE So I won't go into the pros and cons, and to fully analyse the differences I think you'll need a spreadsheet! We got the Holland Pass. It seems to be pretty good - today, we went on a canal boat ride as well as the museum (included within the cost of the pass) and rode the trams all day.

Staying in a camping ground.
Stupidly, I assumed the camping grounds here were the same as at home - with facilities provided for folk who wish to cook. Alas, they are not. The cabins here include bedding and lighting but that's about it. However, they are much much cheaper than an alternative within the canals of Amsterdam - and we're only one tram ride away from the central city.  So we've had to make do and have a meal that doesn't involve cooking or a fridge. As you can see, we didn't starve!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Last Night Blues

Last Night...

So tomorrow we're off to Amsterdam. Before we go, here's some more tips on travel in Holland.

Holland is a great place for families - its not cheap but its clean, well-organised, easy to get around and in mid-summer, its very pretty. Here's four things we've discovered so far:

Tip One: Get on a Bike. We hired two cycles for 25 Euros for a week from the cycle shop down the road. He's not really into hiring but we asked nicely and he agreed. This has been so useful - free transport, easy parking and gets the kids out in the fresh air. Everyone cycles here so the cycle ways are really safe. This is the bike map for the area, and you can go as faaaaar as you like.

Tip Two: Ask the locals. Most people speak English, and the best places so far have been word of mouth recommendation. Highlights have been: Xantan's Archeological Musem, Devil's Berg Pancake House and the rather surprising medieval festival.

Tip Three: Eat in. Eating in cafes is expensive, so make it a treat - try to avoid ordering whole meals. Have cake and coffee only. And gelati is CHEAP. Other local treats are krocketten (crocquets) and pomme frites (french fries). In Nijmegen, the locals eat at the Hema, a department store with a buffet. We didn't try it this time, but apparently its still good.

Tip Four: Get out of the Car. There's heaps of things you just won't see from the windows of a car. Like the gardens, cemetaries (yes, really), the many archeological billboards. We found a totally random installation on acqueducts set up above an ancient Roman trench. There's walkways through forests and oh yes, lots and lots of churches - and these are all FREE!!

Monday, 26 August 2013

Three Way Borders

A Three Way Border

There's a border in the Ardenne, near Gemmenich, where the borders of Holland, Belgium and Germany meet - a three way border. If you drive five kilometres down the road into Belgium, the road signs are in French. Drive the other way, into Holland, it's Dutch. And into Germany... well, yes, they are in German. I know this shouldn't be remarkable, but to my island-bound mind it is so.

Even more remarkable is how this forested area was fought over so bitterly in the War. Adjacent to the border, near to the cafes and the tourist labryinth and the high tower that you can climb for an exorbitant sum is a memorial to Peirre Roiseaux, a resistance fighter in the war.

More information is here: Places of Memory

You'd never know, walking through this late summer forest, full of blackberries and rowans and great tall beeches, that once men and women had fought and died here.  Layers of history lie quiet on the land.

And now, a kiwi makes his own history...(this is from my son's blog!)

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A Life Medieval


One of the great things about travelling in Europe is that you never know exactly what you'll encounter.

Today we went to a park in Nijmegen and found a community all set up within it, complete with horses, weaponry, jugglers and beggars.

For a fantasy writer, this was a gold mine!

I was able to see the different types of arrow heads and to hold a sword and medieval armour - and they were a lot heavier than I had expected. A full suit of armour, said the blacksmith, weighs approximately 40 Kilos. We spoke about swords and smiths, and I thought of a phrase from Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills - the jewels set into the hilt of Arthur's sword are 'topaz and emeralds and sapphires, which in the language of swords means joy and honour and a clean death.' (I hope I have that quote right).

Which lead me to think: if you read, you learn all sorts of stuff, and you never know when you might find it useful. Even if it's to encourage a discussion on weaponry swords with a medieval blacksmith by the side of a park in Nijmegen.

Thursday, 22 August 2013


More Travel Tips

So here we are! Made it to Europe!

Please bear with this jet-lagged post. In order to make it easier I thought I'd just recount the learnings thus far:

Tip One: Day Rooms:
If in transit in Hong Kong for 17 hours or so, its worth investing in a day room; a room you can use for the day - check in in the morning, check out in the afternoon. We went to the Novotel; it was FANTASTIC.  Pool, gym and wonderfully comfortable beds. 30 minutes into Hong Kong via the MTR and adjacent to a shopping mall (with food court) if you don't feel like going into the city.

Tip Two: Long Haul is awful.
10+ hours in an airplane (with teenagers) is way too long. William Gibson describes 'soul lag' - the time delay for you soul to return to your body. Ways to improve the experience: earplugs. That's it. I can't think of anything else, bar automated unconsciousness. Next best thing is sleeping tablets, but I know some doctors disagree so I can't recommend pharmaceuticals - although they worked for me.

Tip Three: Air BnB have been great.
Our hosts have been so welcoming it's unbelievable. So kind and comforting even though we are half asleep it makes us feel that instead of going to the other side of the world - we're coming home. So please ignore my earlier post...

Tip Four: Forget about the time.
Whatever the time is outside, it is different to the time of your body clock. Again, I follow William Gibson and have my Personal Standard Time (PST). So the time of the day is whatever I feel like. Of course, you need to pay attention to watches and so on when you're catching a flight, but it pays to throw out the clock in between times. Currently, my Personal Standard Time is around 10.30 pm.

Book Review:
Safe as Houses by Simone van der Vlugt. Hmmm. I've not finished it yet, so it might improve, but if you want a mommy-thriller set in a rural location - read Vanda Symon's Overkill

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Lost in Space and Time

Book Review - The Arthurian Quintet, by Mary Stewart

Airport lounges are strangely anodyne places; they could be anywhere in the world. It's dark outside, so only the photos on the wall tell me where I am. The decor, the food, the service: there's almost no variation, where-ever you are (unless it's remarkably bad). It's like airports exist outside of real space and time.

Lost in an airport world, it's nice to immerse yourself in fiction. So here's a short, a very short review of an old but great, series that transports you to another space and time, but in a much more pleasant way than any airport can.

Mary Stewart's Arthurian Quintet began in 1970, with The Last Enchantment, and ended in 1983 with The Wicked Day. Set in a post-Roman Britain c 500-600 AD, the stories are remarkable both for the quality of the prose and the integrity of the writer to a period of time about which little is known.

As a writer, what strikes me on re-reading these novels is the imagery 'his face was as grey as twice-used tallow'; 'a man on horseback can sink from sight as easily..as a spoon sinking into a bowl of gruel.' These are not modern images; how many people have seen a tallow candle, let alone a twice-used one? Yet they resonate in a way that is profound, for the narrator, Merlin, is a man of his times and these images are consistent with his world.

Rather stupidly, I did not put these novels on my reading list, even they take place in regions that I'm visiting. So this post doesn't really count, I guess. But if you enjoy historical fiction with an element of fantasy and want to take yourself away from airport angst, do try these books.

You can read more reviews on Goodreads

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Accommodation for Four for Under 150 Euros

Booking Accommodation

We're heading off tomorrow so this is probably my last post until we arrive.  An exciting thought!

Being a family with teenagers, our budget is limited, but we needed accommodation - 4 is too many to doss down with family or friends.

We started by asking a travel agent if she could book us hotels and guest houses and Wow! So Expensive.  So we looked on the internet, using travel forums like Trip advisor and Fodor.

We've kept to an average budget of about $NZD200 per night (for four people). This equates to about 130 Euros.

Here's how we've done it:

Tip One - Behave like a local:
In Europe, most self-catering cottages seem to be Sat - Sat; in the UK it seems to be Friday - Friday. So if you want to stay in self-catering cottages in rural locations (like Devon), you might need to consider week-long stops.

Tip Two - go direct to the owners:
There's a lot of direct advertising by owners of their cottages.  We found the following sites:
Air BnB
Holiday Lettings
Owners Direct

If you do use these sites, read the small print, and make sure you don't send the owners the money directly. Some sites have payment protection systems, whereby the money goes into a holding account until the date of your booking.

Some issues:

  • Sometimes the directions to the place aren't provided until you've paid the total fee, which is challenging if you're trying to work out logistics like train travel.
  • It's difficult to get in touch with someone if you have an issue
  • Damage deposits and booking fees can be expensive.
  • Different owners seem to have different approaches to getting in touch. Some are really professional, others are friendly, others seem to think a postcode is all you need.

Tip Three - use Hostels:
Image from Hostel Rotterdam
Youth Hostels offer free membership to <18 years and a joint membership for couples. You can join in NZ and use the membership around the world, and they have an excellent international booking system, so you can track your bookings. Lots of hostels seem to provide breakfast and family rooms and some look amazing!
Hostelling International

Tip Four - think small:
There's also a lot of regional based accommodation providers. Their websites aren't as flash, but so far they've provided really good service:
Helpful Holidays
Menai Holiday Cottages

With these smaller providers, we found it paid to phone to confirm the bookings.

Tip Five - do what you do at home:
Camping grounds offer interesting alternatives, especially in Amsterdam.

Bon Voyage!