Saturday, 2 November 2013

Leaving Tromso

I have to be honest, Tromso as a town is really nothing to write home about. It's a slightly surreal place where every other shop appears to be either a hairdressers, an opticians or a purveyor of erotic wares. The waterside is industrial rather than recreational and it's too expensive to be truly welcoming for visitors. But the experiences we've had here are outstanding. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that neither Simon nor I can move without considerable pain, the memories we've made here are priceless. This morning we only really have time for a big, fat cooked breakfast and then it's time for our ten minute taxi-ride to one of the most dramatically-located airports I've ever seen.

The Norwegian people are friendly in a rather frank and plain-speaking way and they seem really hospitable. I've noticed that curtains are left open at night, often with lights suspended in the windows, which gives a welcoming feel to the houses. They are a frugal nation, cleverly conserving resources. I was struck by the observation of our dogsledding guide who said that the Norwegians when drilling for North Sea oil marked the empty pockets they found on the sea-bed and filled them with the gas they needed to displace in order to extract oil. In contrast, the Brits burned off the gas and as a result we now have to import it from Russia and Norway.

I've enjoyed our trip and I'm so grateful to have seen the Northern Lights, which were every bit as magical as I hoped. On the flight home we begin to plot our next holiday ...

Friday, 1 November 2013

Lean in

A highlight for Alex this morning – we’re going dogsledding with Arctic Adventure Tours. This seemed like a good idea when we booked it but as it draws closer I’m really not sure about hurtling across the snow pulled by a pack of dogs! It’s an absolutely beautiful morning and as we’re driven to the venue by Per Thore we enjoy the spectacular views of the snow-topped mountains that were hidden by cloud yesterday. When we arrive at their place in the country Per's wife Hege gives us snowsuits and boots to wear and we're taken out to the kennels to meet some of the dogs. Then a very brief instruction session, and we’re off!

Alex is paired with Per, Simon and I share a sled and there are also a couple of Aussie guys and a Mexican mother and son. As soon as the ropes are untied from the trees the dogs are off – 5 per sled, all wearing little booties on their rear paws to protect them. Simon is driving first and finds it quite a struggle to keep his feet securely on the runners and also operate the brake. The driver is meant to put their weight on the inside runner through a turn, and you both lean in to the curve. But when the track is at an angle you’re supposed to compensate by leaning the other way. Sometimes these two things happen simultaneously so it’s difficult to maintain equilibrium. Added to that, the track is bumpy and it’s hard to keep your feet rooted to the runners when the sled bounces, especially when they get snow on them. Finally, there has been little snow so some of the track was pure ice and other parts just boggy ground. It was inevitable that we’d come off – we managed to turn the sled over and it landed on top of me which was a bit of a shock. Simon managed to get it the right way up and hold the dogs back for long enough for us both to get back on and we managed to keep it together until the instructor stopped and suggested we changed places.
If I thought being a passenger was tough, being the driver was so much harder. The runners are narrow and the brake sits between them. The idea is that you transfer your weight from runner to brake but it’s not that easy when you’re travelling at speed across very uneven ground. You need to keep your knees flexed and maintain pressure on the handrail at all times. It’s ridiculously tiring and quite stressful, as the dogs just keep running unless you have enough pressure on the brake to hold them back – which is basically your entire body weight. My first stint of driving went fairly smoothly  but the hard work took its toll. The second time I took over driving I was too tired to control the sled properly and we had a couple of disasters. I managed to tip the sled over and couldn’t work out how to get it upright and still maintain pressure on the brake, so the dogs took off with Simon and I had to do the walk of shame to catch up with them after Per had saved him. Then we both managed to come off. Fortunately we were not the only ones – the Aussies were nicknamed “Crash” and “Crash”!

We were so relieved when we saw our starting point come back into view. Needless to say Alex had neither fallen off nor lost control and seemed to be a born dogsledder. We were invited into a little hut with an open fire and pumpkin lantern for coffee, tea or hot chocolate and the ubiquitous (and delicious!) chocolate cake and then driven back to Tromso, arriving just before sunset at around 2pm.
After a brief visit to the apartment to remove some layers and eat some leftover pasta, we set off for the photographic museum which had some fascinating exhibits about the relationship between Russian sailors and Tromso, and some interesting contrasts of Tromso past and present. We continued to the Kunstmuseum which had varied exhibits including some representations of Sami myths and legends and some impressive paintings of various regions of Norway, as well as some more modern works that left us a bit baffled.

Dinner tonight is chicken curry, using some of the ingredients we brought with us. It’s such a lovely clear night that I want to go out and look for the Aurora. As we leave the apartment we look up and I swear I can just see the unmistakable ribbon in the sky above our heads. Down at the waterside, the boys lose interest long before I do and I stay behind until the cold forces me back to the apartment. The following day I overhear a conversation that suggests that despite the beautifully clear weather, there was little auroral activity.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

In praise of Slarty Blartfast

Despite our late night we leave early for the short walk to the jetty to catch the 10.15 Boreal ferry service to Finnsnet. It’s a dank and dreary morning and the outward leg is by express catamaran so we don’t pay too much attention to the scenery as it whizzes by. We pay on the boat, 713KR for all 3 of us, which is around £75. It’s a comfortable service, much like the London river buses, with free wifi and a small snack bar.

We arrive in Finnsnet on time at 11.35 and exit through a modern terminal. The Hurtigruten cruiser MS Finnmarken dwarfs the catamaran and is due to leave in 10 minutes. There’s only time for a photo of the “Welcome to Finnsnes” sign before we board. We buy our tickets at reception, the exact same price as the outward leg. Alex is impressed to find himself unexpectedly on a cruise ship; Hurtigruten is the iconic shipping line of Norway, operating a service the length of the country that offers both cruises and ferry services as well as delivering mail and freight.
Simon installs himself in the observation lounge while Alex and I go in search of the swimming pool and Jacuzzi. We find them at the stern, where there are also changing rooms and a sauna. It’s raining – and the rain is very cold – so it’s a surreal experience luxuriating in the warm pool watching snow-topped mountains drift by and feeling the cold rain on our faces. I dry off in the sauna, which unusually has windows so I can enjoy the scenery, and rejoin the boys. We eat our picnic lunch and watch Norway go by, then I go on deck to take photos. It has stopped raining, but the mountain tops are still wreathed in cloud.

We arrive in Tromso around 2.30 and go back to the apartment for a pasta lunch and by the time we’ve finished eating, it’s dark. We were thinking of going to the photography museum or the gallery but by the time we get our act together it’s closing time. Instead we pick a few restaurants from TripAdvisor and go to see which one we’d prefer to eat at tonight. The most picturesque one, Aunegarden, in one of the oldest buildings in Tromso, looks cosy but has a fairly limited menu with main courses at around £30 each and it’s at the far end of town. It's raining and we're tired so in the end we decide to stay closer to home and eat in the ground floor bistro of De 4 Roser, a few doors down from our apartment. The food is really excellent and not bad value by Norwegian standards. We're really happy with our choice.

The light fantastic!

Having slept fairly badly I’m woken early by the alarm I forgot to turn off on my phone and then the sound of the construction site down the road keeps me awake. By the time the boys surface I’ve checked the weather and decided that tonight is the night. I have a shortlist of three Northern Lights guides but no real way of choosing between them. We decide to visit the tourist office after breakfast and see what they suggest.

A full cooked breakfast later – and well past midday – we take a short walk to the tourist office which is near the waterfront. The man there is really helpful. He has personal experience of Scan Adventure – run by Karina, one of only very few female aurora guides – and recommends her warmly, so we decide we will book with her. We also ask about ferry services along the fjords and we’re in luck – tomorrow there’s a service to Finnsnes by fast catamaran that gets in just in time to return on the Hurtigruten coastal cruiser, complete with heated pool and Jacuzzis.
After locating the boarding point for tomorrow’s boat trip we explore the shopping centre – which has three floors and numerous cafes as well as shops – and return to the apartment to cook an early supper and pack our warm clothes for the aurora trip. We’re interrupted several times by the fire alarm, which turns out to be caused by next door cooking.

There turn out to be two other couples on our Northern Lights trip, both English. Our guide, Karina, is also our driver. She tells us that the aurora have already been sighted and she’s hopeful of a good night. At around 7 we set off out of town and across the bridge to the adjacent island and when she stops the minibus we don’t see anything at first. Then our eyes get used to the darkness and we realise that there’s a ribbon of aurora shimmering above the lights of the houses across the water. We stay for a couple of hours watching, eating cake and fruit tea and taking photos. My compact camera isn’t really good enough but the old bridge camera picks up the green luminosity of the lights on an 8 second exposure.

During a lull in the light show Karina suggests we move to another spot and now we know what to look for we can see the lights from the minibus as we drive. They’re pretty strong. We pull over in a valley between two snowy peaks and we watch in awe the most amazing display of lights that seem to form a tent above our heads. I’ve given up taking photos by this time, there’s no way pictures could capture the magic of having this amazing natural display going on all around us.

It was past midnight when we began to work our way back to Tromso, stopping briefly beside a fjord and then at a fishing village. The lights are becoming weaker now, but there’s still a green glow on the horizon and occasional ribbons weaving above us. This has been an incredible show, exceeding all our expectations.  Karina drops us off at our apartment and we go happily to bed.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Towards Tromso

We land at Tromso airport which is almost too small to contain the passengers from our flight, which was less than half full. The lady who checks our passports is the most smiley border official I’ve ever met. It’s dark, cold and there’s snow on the ground. Our taxi takes us to the Viking Apartments and after dropping off our luggage we check out the town.

We find a supermarket and stock up on essentials; we’re self-catering in order to offset Norway’s extremely high cost of living. We plan to eat out no more than once a day and have brought staple foods with us.  Our apartment is fairly well equipped but tiny. The bedrooms are only just large enough for a bed and it lacks a dining table and the microwave is perched on top of a fridge-freezer that’s as tall as me - we have to climb on a stool to reach it. The fridge stocked, we set off to look for a restaurant.  Apparently Tromso has enough restaurants to seat one-third of its population simultaneously but it takes a while to find one that isn’t showing football and isn’t fish-oriented. Egon is a chain serving American themed favourites alongside more local dishes and it fits the bill perfectly for tonight. We pay three times for dinner what we paid for a lunch of similar standard from a pub near Gatwick.

We’re heartened to notice that the sky is fairly clear as we walk back to the apartment; we’ve also checked the weather forecast and tomorrow looks good for weather, too. Tomorrow we will plan our trip based on the latest weather forecast and whatever information we can find about solar activity. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Last day

A cloudy start to our final day, which is composed mostly of eating and packing. We have planned a big tapas lunch to sustain us on our journey home and I’m first up so I get on with cooking the remaining dishes. As the rest of the family begins to wake packing gets underway and by then it’s raining – a good day to go home.

Lunch is worth detailing – we work our way through leftover paella, Spanish-style chicken, pimientos a la padron (tiny green peppers fried and then sprinkled with coarse ground salt), chorizo cooked in wine, garlic mushrooms, green beans with tomatoes, onions and garlic, a salad and the inevitable bread and alioli.
And finally it’s time to leave. Tash and Steve are flying at 1am so we drop them at Ibiza town where they plan to spend the rest of the day and we head for the airport. It’s been great to spend time with two different branches of our family and I think everybody has had a great time.

Friday, 6 September 2013

What a difference a week makes

We've decided that our last full day should involve both a beach and music, so we're off to Sas Salinas. We leave after what is lunch for some and breakfast for others, at about 2.30. We soon notice the large number of cars parked on the approach and it quickly becomes apparent that the beach is really busy - especially around The Jockey Club.

We manage to find a spot close to the bar, where we can hear the music. Alex is keen to go in the sea, and comes back with reports of jellyfish which we don't take entirely seriously. But when I join him it's clear that there are jellyfish, and lots of them - the lifeguards have even put up a special flag. This puts a bit of a dampener on the sea bathing, but the water is so warm and inviting that I join Alex for a jellyfish fishing trip - we net them in the area where people are swimming and let them go in the rocky area which is less popular with swimmers.

We stay on the beach until 7pm then return to our villa to try and make a dent in the contents of the fridge which is embarrassingly well stocked considering that we are due to leave tomorrow afternoon. We barbeque the remaining meat but I forget about the corn on the cob Tash and I bought yesterday. The impact on the fridge is negligible.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Shopping and sundowners

We planned an early  start today – we leave at 9.30 for shopping in Santa Eularia with Tash and Steve. We walk via Siesta and down the river - it's very picturesque. I buy a couple of geckos for the wall of either the loggia or the sun terrace, a Buddha head and some things for Deanna who is looking after Furball this week.

We're back in time for lunch and then Simon leaves to drops Tash and Steve off to visit friends staying elsewhere on the island. Alex and I enjoy a lazy afternoon by the pool - and in it. Alex and I invent pool pool although it's not exactly a roaring success.

Around 6.30pm we set off to meet Tash and Steve at San Antonio for cocktails at Café Del Mar – again! – then back home to chilli and (unintentionally!) sticky rice. Café del Mar has definitely been my favourite place in Ibiza.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

My family and other animals

It's a late start for all of us today, and we enjoy a lazy afternoon around the pool. The boys had a boys' night in last night with big bloody steaks and other boy stuff. The details begin to emerge and will continue to do so for the rest of the week.

After a lunch of pizza and salad we laze some more. There's a brief drama when Alex gets a glass of milk and it turn out to be off. Other than that, the most remarkable thing about today is the wildlife: Our barbeque supper is interrupted first by a baby gecko and later by a mantis.

Wildlife has been quite a feature of this holiday - we've all been bitten to pieces although I've yet to see a mosquito. I suspect the culprits are midges. We have plenty of geckos living at the villa, and a thriving colony of ants which have an uncanny ability to sniff out the smallest crumb of food if we don't clean thoroughly after every meal.

Flower Power

We enjoy a lazy morning at the villa and when we realise it’s time for lunch the supermarket is  closed for siesta, so we go to Santa Eulalia for lunch. Tash and I make a swift detour to the Pacha shop to buy tickets for tonight – we’re going to Flower Power. We enjoy a decent menu del dia for 11 Euros – 3 courses and  wine, not bad at all! Then we swing by the market and pick up some flowery accessories for tonight.

Our plan for the evening unfolds almost as planned. First sundowners at Café Del Mar,  followed by dinner in Playa Den Bossa – we are dismayed when we got there to find a neon-lit main road filled with burger joints but we manage to find Dunes which has texmex food and great music. We are slightly disconcerted by sitting immediately under the flight path to Ibiza airport, and also by the heavy police presence. We’d seen roadblocks and random car searches on the way into both San Antonio and Bossa, and there is a big deployment in the car park of Space. Suitably sustained, we set off for Pacha. Satnav tries to take us to a succession of Pasha shops but we finally make it to the club just after 1am.
We walk straight in with our tickets, and are immediately blown away by the attention to detail. The main room is beautifully themed and many people have dressed up. The entire venue is enveloped by the aroma of incense. After a brief tour of all the rooms, Tash and I both decide we prefer the Funky Room. Just one problem: scary dancing man. A middle aged bloke who thinks he’s the big “I am” is dominating the space with his dodgy moves. I spend 23 Euros on a G&T and a bottle of water and we try to ignore him.

Pacha isn’t the biggest of the Ibiza clubs but it’s a bit of a rabbit warren. We know there are several rooms but it isn’t always easy to reach the one you want to get to, and we often find ourselves in places by mistake. The main room is very full and it’s almost impossible to cross, but the atmosphere’s electric. We enjoy the “Love” moment and the heart shaped confetti.

We leave relatively early – I’m still fighting a chest infection – but there’s still a long queue outside waiting to get in. After an uneventful drive home we arrive at the villa to the most beautiful starlit night – I could have looked at it for hours, but sanity prevails and I go to bed.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Third time lucky

The first time we visited Ibiza town it rained all day. The second time we had biblical rain on our departure. This time we manage to visit without a single spot of rain - result!

Paul, Laura and Alfie are visiting Ibiza today on their cruise so we are meeting them for lunch. We arrange to meet at Gepetto's ice cream shop and then try to find the Plaza del Sol where we know there's a café with shady outside tables. We see much of the old city while looking for it, but we finally make it and settle down for drinks and tapas - a lovely lazy lunch.

Alex's TopMan sunglasses (purchased at Harrods on Nanny's Big Day Out) have started to melt in the heat, leaving dodgy black streaks on his cheeks, so we find him a pair of Ray-Berrys to replace them. A brief trip to the Desigual shop is unsuccessful but the visit to Llao Llao is a triumph - delicious frozen yoghurt with fruit and other toppings.

We have a quick browse of the ticket shops to find out what's on offer for our clubbing night - Tash and Tracey, that is - the boys will be doing something else that night. Alex would be clubbing if he was old enough and he's gutted to find that Knife Party is on at Amnesia, along with a few other of his favourite acts.

We make our way back to the villa and arrive to find the patio outside Tash and Steve's room is awash with water - at first we fear a big leak but it turns out the hose is on. Odd. No water in their room, luckily.

Tonight's dinner is paella cooked by yours truly on the outdoor hob. We have citronella candles, mosquito coils and insect repellent, but we all feel we are being eaten alive. This would be an idyllic place if it wasn't for the darned insects. Ants get everywhere, and if you leave the tiniest speck of food they find it and invite their friends. And we're all covered in bites that are very swollen and itchy.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Lazy sunday

A morning spent in and around the pool - I invent a perfect flotation device for relaxing in the pool, but Alex decides to use me for entertainment so I find myself festooned with various objects.

The idea was to go to the bar opposite for spit-roast chicken but by the time we get there the spit roast chicken was finished so Steve and I have fish and the others chicken. It's all excellent.

Next stop - the beach. Alex finds Angus and they spent some time in the sea - then we notice a crowd forming on the shoreline and the sea rapidly clearing so I go to find out what was up. It turns out a massive ray has entered the bay, very close to where Alex and Angus were swimming. After this, they decide to take a pedalo and Steve and Tash initially go out with them but Tash soon returns and I take her place. It's much easier than last time - conditions are perfect and Alex and Angus have great fun sliding, jumping and otherwise finding innovative ways to enter the water.
We return to the villa for a barbeque at Spanish o'clock. Uncle Luke's lightly spiced beans are even better the second time round!

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Changeover day

So today, Mel and Xara leave, and Tash and Steve arrive. On the same plane, as it happens. The children spend the morning in the pool and we begin the afternoon with a visit to the beach at Cala Llonga, which has become a favourite. Xara wants to build a sandcastle and Alex wants to go in the sea which is perfect as his friend Angus is there.

Angus is staying in the apartments right on the beach and he's from Manchester - he's there with his Mum and two of her friends and Alex met him when I dropped Mel and the children at the beach and left them there. It's very windy today and Angus' rubber tyre blows away and wheels up the beach at quite a pace - I try to chase it down but I'm too slow, but I finally retrieve it and return it to his Mum.

Later, our plan to hire a pedalo turns out to be less than ideal. Mel and I pedal for all we're worth but the wind and the waves are too strong and keep pushing us inshore where it's too shallow to use the slide. I resort to jumping overboard and digging my feet in, pulling against the tide to keep the pedalo in place. Lucky it's shallow!

When we get back from the beach the children hit the pool again while Mel and I go in search of a boutique we spotted on the main road. We end up at Reine y Rose, a gorgeous shop with many wonderful dresses and cover-ups, with prices to match. I buy a bracelet for Leigh (oops, spoiled the surprise!) and a cover-up for me reduced from 69 to 10 Euros.

After a late lunch, during which Christine and co arrive to change our bedding and try to fix the electrics, we set off for San Antonio via a shop in Santa Eularia Christine has recommended to Mel. While she shops, Simon and I do a trolley dash at the supermarket before everything closes for Sunday. Our goal is to reach Café del Mar in time to watch the sunset and we make it with 10 minutes to spare. Parking proves to be tricky and the delay costs us the last unreserved table so Simon offers to take Alex and Xara for a walk down the strip while Mel and I enjoy a cocktail and watch the sunset.

This is clearly a big event in Ibiza - the rocky shore is packed with people and there are many boats in the harbour. The music is cleverly mixed to synchronise with the sunset, rising to a crescendo just as the sun goes down. Applause. Then the tempo quickens and shifts into party gear. Simon, Xara and Alex return and we stay for a while at the bar before moving on to a make your own frozen yoghurt shop Mel spotted on our way here. The yoghurts are great but the yobs in the apartments opposite less so, and I'm glad we're not staying in San Antonio!

We get Mel and Xara to the airport in good time for their flight and Simon drops Alex and me back at the villa where we all grab a snack before Tash and Steve arrive. Simon's back with them before 1am and we have cava and crisps before bed.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Tunes and dunes

Mel's last full day here dawns and - horrors! - it's cloudy! And, from time to time, a little rainy too. We consider our options and decide that we'll go to Salinas beach - if it's too cloudy to be on the beach there are dunes to explore and beach bars to shelter from the rain.

It's after 3 by the time we get our backsides into gear, but as we drive away the sun breaks through. We arrive at Salinas beach to light rain, and take a stroll down the beach. There are several beach bars and we all agree that The Jockey Club has the best music. It also has a lovely sandy beach and nearby rock pools so it ticks all our boxes. We grab the towels from the car and settle there for the afternoon.

Alex and Xara have great fun catching crabs, shrimps and mudskippers in the rock pools and make friends with some other English children. Simon reads his book with a beer and Mel and I alternate between cloud-bathing and pool-dipping - in my case with a bit of dancing thrown in. It brightens up, but never becomes really sunny and as sunset approaches it begins to rain again so we pack up and leave.

As we drive away past the salt pans the sunset is quite spectacular. We arrive back at 9, ready for a late barbeque.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Here comes the sun

At last! We wake to sun and spend the morning sunbathing (adults) and swimming (children) before the customary late lunch. After lunch, Mel takes the children to Cala Llonga beach  - we drop them off there so we can take the car to check out the route to Santa Eularia town. It’s very close but much of the road has nowhere to walk so we don’t want to set off unprepared. Turns out that the centre of town is only about a mile away and there’s a pedestrian route across the river over the old bridge. A quick supermarket dash and back to the villa.

Simon collects Mel and co from the beach while I prepare a beef casserole with chocolate for tonight’s dinner. Then we put it in the oven to cook slowly while we take a stroll to Santa Eularia. The pedestrian route turns out not just to cross the river but to continue along its length to the sea; it’s crossed near the end by a pedestrian bridge to Siesta and we realise that we can go home that way to avoid walking along the busy road.
The beach is full of seaweed, but the promenade is attractive and there are hotels and bars all along it. We get as far as the central street and then stop for a drink and some tapas before Mel hits the Pacha shop and the small market for some last minute shopping.  Then we wander back to the villa for dinner. It starts to rain just as we arrive, but this is just a brief shower rather than the epic thunderstorms we have had before.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Hippy Market

Mel, Xara and I set off early for the Hippy Market at Punta Arabi, arriving just before it opens at 10am. It’s already very busy and there are so many stalls, laid out in a most confusing way so that three hours later we’re still not sure we’ve seen everything but agree that we’ve spent enough time there. We’ve all bought a few things – mainly T-shirts, jewellery and hair ornaments.

When we get back to the villa we all spend time around and in the pool before wandering over to the Es Riu bar for a late lunch. We all eat far too much and spend the afternoon snoozing it off around the pool. This is why there are no photos today – much too busy relaxing!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Grötte Höhle

We wake to more or less fine weather – it’s a bit cloudy but the sun burns through and we spend some time in and around the pool before and after breakfast. We seem to be on Spanish time – breakfast occurs shortly before 12, lunch around 4 and dinner has been very late so far. Today we decide to lunch at the villa as we spot the impending dark clouds before the heavens open once again.

We have two visitors; first the post woman and then, shortly after, our landlady Christine. She has come to apologise for the weather and has brought fresh figs and a couple of games to keep the children occupied – a lovely thought.
After lunch – which is to say about 4pm – we set off for the Cova San Marca caves which like everything on Ibiza is about 20 minutes’ drive away (and which has amusing signs that provided the title of this post). Nokia Drive sends us along a single track road which is really off the beaten track; it’s very picturesque and by the time we arrive the sun has come out again. There’s a guided tour at the caves which leaves in 40 minutes so we mooch around and admire the view of the other side of the bay which is really quite spectacular.

The caves are approached down steep steps that wind down the cliff side and we are rewarded with amazing views along the way. We’re separated into language groups and ours contains only us and a man with an adorable 3 year old daughter who seems very mature and interested. Having been used by smugglers to hide contraband, the caves were converted to a tourist attraction in 1980 and old water courses have been reinstated to provide an impressive water and light show.
After the caves we drive back via Benirassa beach, where we arrive about an hour before sunset to the sound of drums at one side of the bay and some pumping dance tunes at the other. The children paddle but we deter them from getting too wet as we haven’t brought swimwear and towels with us – rookie error! We manage to get them out before they become too wet to sit in the car and before long we’re home. Tonight Mel and I cook from my Spanish recipe book, chicken with peppers and cumin – not bad!

Monday, 26 August 2013

Deja vu

Disaster! We are woken by thunder and heavy rain. Mel checks the weather forecast and rain is predicted for the next three days. This is not good news. But on the plus side, Alex’s reluctance to leave the pool yesterday left him a little pink so at least we won’t have to worry about sunburn.

Mel is determined to be optimistic: these are “clearing up” showers … but come lunchtime it still hasn’t really cleared up and although it’s warm the black clouds persist. There’s worse news from work – there’s a problem with email that Simon needs to solve and that’s not going well either. We hang around while he endeavours to sort that out but by 3pm neither email nor weather have improved. We resolve to set off for Ibiza town come rain or shine, and with or without Simon. Last time we visited Ibiza – as a stop on a cruise – it also rained all day, so at least we’re consistent!
A breakthrough occurs in both senses and we finally leave the villa around 3.30 and arrive in Ibiza town to sunshine. After an abortive attempt to find a reasonably priced restaurant in the old town, we return to the port area and have a late lunch of pizza, pasta and salad. The kids buy snap-backs at a shop around the corner and then we return to explore the old town –this time mainly in the sunshine. We stop to buy frozen yoghurts at a place opposite the restaurant where we had lunch and the heavens open again. We make our way back to the car, stopping to shelter from the rain along the way.

We had seen a large supermarket on the way into town and decide to stop there for groceries. We emerge to find a thunderstorm of quite epic proportions underway. The drive back to Santa Eularia is brief but eventful – the lightning is almost constant and at one stage the rain falls so fast that the windscreen wipers can’t keep up. Simon does a sterling job getting us home in one piece but when we arrive the electric gate wouldn’t open – the power is out. It turns out to be a problem which affects only our villa; Alex solves it by remembering what Christine told us to do if the power tripped out.
We had been planning a barbeque but our kindling is damp, and so is pretty much everything else. After an abortive attempt to light the barbeque we resort to using griddles on the indoor hob. The food turns out OK and the rain finally stops, although the thunder continues to grumble. It’s much cooler, too. Let’s hope that the storm has passed and we can enjoy fine weather for the rest of the week – the weather forecasts suggest otherwise, though.



Sunday, 25 August 2013

Settling in

Naturally, the first thing the children want to do is go in the pool and we have to lure them out with breakfast. Everybody wakes up at different times, so some of us have breakfast twice. Simon wants a lazy day so we leave him behind and go in search of adventure.

The first expedition is on foot to the end of our lane, then we take the car and set off with no particular destination in mind. We find signs to Cala Llonga and to Jesus – we decide to go to Cala Llonga and save Jesus for later.

It’s only 5 minutes away and it’s a resort with a busy but not excessively crowded beach with activities – pedalos with slides, a snorkelling area – and a gently sloping sandy beach. The sea is so warm even I get in and Alex and Xara have a fantastic time. Once again we have to tempt them out of the water with food – a snack in a beachfront café followed by watermelon ice lollies.

When we get back the children go in the pool – again – while the adults potter about. Later, I cook dinner in the outside kitchen and the children play Jenga. It’s a relatively early night by Spanish standards.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Ibiza bound

After an uneventful journey, we arrive at the villa around 7pm to be greeted by the owner, Christine. It’s a traditional Ibizan house with bougainvillea draped over two arched windows, tucked away down a short unsurfaced track on the outskirts of Santa Eularia. The tour reveals a spacious house with generous outside living space and quirky décor – it feels very homely. Two of the bedrooms are separately approached and one of them is tucked right behind the house down a short flight of steps. That's the pink room Xara had her heart set on, but I’m pretty sure Mel won’t be happy to have her so isolated. We prepare Alex for the possibility that he may have to share, but he doesn’t mind at all.

The supermarket will close at 9 and won’t reopen until Monday, so we set off to buy enough groceries to last us until then. We’ve decided on a barbeque in the casita for the first night and Alex is in charge of building the fire. It’s pretty late by the time we eat but Mel is due to arrive just after midnight so there’s no rush. There’s a minor drama when I go to unpack and find a tiny gecko on the ceiling of our room and have to catch it and liberate it in the garden. By 11.30 Alex is beginning to flag and despite our best efforts falls asleep on the sofa.
I’m a little late setting off on the 20 minute drive to the airport and arrive around 12.30 by which time amazingly Mel and Xara are already outside waiting. Xara is very excited but is happy to concede that the pink room should be her dressing room rather than her bedroom; I help her put away her things while Mel unpacks and finally we are all ready for bed.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

It's what I came for ...

Finally the day dawns when I fulfil the obligation that brought me to Moscow. I'm speaking at a GreenIT Forum sponsored by Kyocera Document Solutions Russia. This entails an 8.30 pick-up and, working backwards a 6.30 alarm. All fine - except that by the time I get home tonight this will translate to 2.30 am. Oh, and it's snowing.

I arrive at the Radisson  before 9am, ahead of all my colleagues. But there are people who know what to do with me and, more importantly, coffee. The conference room is looking good, too. In due course Julia and Maksim arrive, followed by the delegates. I'm handed a small receiver with an earpiece through which I'll be able to hear the Russian speakers translated into English. I'm the opening speaker, after a brief introduction, and we're soon underway. My talk over, I regain my seat and the conference continues. It's now that I realise the value of the translators. In 30 minute shifts, they translate the speaker's comments in real time. Without them I wouldn't have the foggiest idea what's going on.

During the lunch break I have to do a video interview - again the translators step in to help - and then we're into the afternoon. A couple of the speakers are a bit rant-y and at one point the translator resorts to "blah, blah, blah", much to my amusement, but the organisers, sponsors and audience seem well satisfied. I, on the other hand, have a flight to catch and Moscow's traffic to contend with.

After a brief diversion to secure more Rubles -  I told you it was expensive! - I'm ready to leave for the airport. I'm pleased to see that my driver is Roman, who picked me up on arrival. I'm less pleased to see that the snow has turned to icy slush and the traffic is horrendous. Most of the jams seem to be caused by accidents, some of which look quite serious. Seemingly oblivious to the danger, Ramon serenely browses the internet for alternative routes around the obstructions and writes my receipt while driving.

We arrive without incident and in good time for my flight, which is no more than a third full. I safely negotiate the meal, which is described as "meat pasta" or vegetarian - the steward is unable to tell me what kind of meat so learning from recent food origin issues I opt for veggie. I watch the Hitchcock movie, which is not as bad as I expected. And then I'm home.

Looking back, I'm so glad I took the extra days to explore Moscow. It was a fascinating insight into a nation that on the surface aspires to be European but gives the sense that, just below the surface, has a seige mentality and an "every man for himself" approach to life. The people I met were unfailingly pleasant and hospitable, but when push came to shove - as it literally did on the Metro - no prisoners were taken and no quarter given. I've been impressed by the skills of craftsmen that can recreate architecture and interior finishes from medieval times and turn the rather turgid ideals of a soviet society into inspirational art, and frustrated by red tape that makes a simple transaction into an endurance test. I wouldn't want to live here, but I've enjoyed Moscow and would like to visit again.

On my arrival back at Heathrow I learn that a new Pope has been elected. Ironically, I overhear this news in a conversation between two stewards, both so camp that I'm certain the new pontiff would not consider them deserving of the church's blessing.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Kremlin

An earlier start today, as Irena has pre-booked tickets for The Kremlin Armoury and our entry time is at 10am. Julia has been very reluctant for me to travel independently, but Irena is more relaxed about it and I have arranged to meet her at the Metro station to save her the trip to pick me up. We have a kerfuffle picking up Irena’s guide pass from the ticket office and she bemoans the way processes are constantly changed and always increasing in complexity. It’s another sunny day but bitterly cold again so it’s not comfortable hanging around while the issue is resolved.

The Armoury is more of a treasury, containing historic costumes, carriages and gifts presented to the Tsars by foreign rulers. There are a few weapons but we spend more time on the other exhibits. Some of the women’s dresses have ridiculously small waists and Irena tells me that one of them fainted 3 times during her coronation because she just couldn’t breathe. There is an astonishing amount of precious metals and jewels on display, much of it belonging to the church – the priests’ robes used to encrusted with pearls and embroidered with gold and silver thread, and even their bibles were bound in gold and gemstones. Irena is very knowledgeable and her stories bring the exhibits to life. I’m amused by the story of the two brothers who were made joint rulers while still very young and had a double throne constructed for them with a hidden opening in the back so that their elder sister – literally the power behind the throne – could whisper instructions to them when dealing with affairs of state. I also learn that Ivan the Terrible should properly be translated as Ivan the Awesome, although he beat his son to death in a fury after arriving unannounced at his home and discovering his son’s wife with her head uncovered – which I feel merits the “terrible” label.
After the armoury we explore the churches of Cathedral Square and the giant bell and cannon, neither of which were ever used except as displays of wealth and power. The Kremlin is an architectural treasure-trove, with curvaceous churches, ornate domes and elegant palaces. And plonked in the middle is a hideous 1960s monstrosity in concrete and glass, built as a convention hall for the soviets and now a concert hall with, according to Irina, rather poor acoustics.
The Kremlin tour over, it’s time to set out alone. Irina has kindly written me instructions explaining how to reach the Tretyakov Gallery by Metro. She suggests I eat lunch at the food hall in the underground mall that runs along the side of Alexander Gardens. I choose some sausages and mash, for which I am charged by weight. My journey to the gallery is uneventful, apart from being asked for directions, but it’s quite a speedy visit as Julia has invited me to the office and she’s expecting a call about 4pm to let her know I’m ready to be picked up and walked there. I get back about 4.10 but when I try to call her the number won’t work. When I’ve exhausted all the options I can think of I google the address and copy it in to Nokia maps. It says it’s 7 minutes away so I set off, finding it quite easily. Julia is so surprised to see me, and slightly horrified that I attempted it. I decide not to mention that I took myself off to the gallery, or that I’m planning to return to Red Square to see it after dark.
From the office I go straight to Alexander Park to buy the obligatory snow globe and fridge magnet at the kiosks I had noticed earlier, as well as some snacks and sweets to bring home, from the nearby supermarket. The evening sun casts a golden glow over the buildings and I wander round the park and take photos, then move on to Red Square to find Gum is illuminated in the style of Harrods. It’s dusk now and I want to stay until it’s really dark, but I’m aware that I still have to get back to the hotel, eat dinner and pack and tomorrow will be a long day. With my sensible head on I head back and treat myself to the first vodka of my visit while uploading my photos to the netbook. It costs 500 Rubles – about £12.
After dinner and a quick Skype home I go to bed, but the room’s too hot, the air conditioning won’t stop humming and I don’t get much sleep.