Saturday, September 20, 2003

OK, so what I didn't mention on Thursday was starting to feel a bit under the weather while we were wandering around Makro - head begining to ache, limbs likewise and general flu like symptoms coming along. They came to a head yesterday when I spent most of the afternoon shivering under the duvet and generally being miserable. Feeling much better now, although not up to 100% operating efficiency as yet.

A few more things about the holiday that have come back to me (why is it so hard to write about the experience?). The global reputation for Switzerland being a really clean country is totally deserved. Not just in the obvious things like spotless toilets or whatever (and there's a cultural difference for you - in the UK you will generally find a coat hook on the back of a toilet door, over there they seem to be on the wall to the side). We never saw a single item of litter in Switzerland, hardly any graffitti and none of the general "mess" that fills France. Even the roadworks looked spotless. To the point of having little gangs of men up on the mountain roads clearing leaves. OK, so with the twists and turns and precipitous drops up there it makes sense, but they were everywhere, all the time.

Then there is also the more relaxed attitude over on the continent to sex, porn and generally getting your kit off. Seemed to be sex shops everywhere you turned, all the newsagents full of openly displayed porn mags etc. Then when we stopped in Paris there was a selection of magazines in each room provided by the hotel - not porn mags, but one was a photo mag including sections on Porn photographer Thomas Ruff and an explicitly illustrated article on transexuals - not what you'd expect at a UK Travelodge or Holiday Inn. Not that I'm complaining as I think this country is far too uptight most of the time, but still a bit of a surprise to find.

Plus I'm missing not having time to include a crusty roll with cheese as part of my breakfast routine - and I'm not even back to work yet.

Oh well. We shall just have to save hard and make sure we get back there some time.

Now to listen to the new Iron Maiden album Dance Of Death which is sounding good up to track three...

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Err, getting errors earlier and thought posting hadn't occurred - hence the test. Oh well, seems OK now.

Popped up to the new Makro cash & carry bulk discount type store this afternoon. Some pretty good bargains appear to be available there so I expect Joan and I will be back after payday to start stocking up for Christmas.
testing... 1-2-3
And now it must be time for the traditional "what we did on our holidays report"...

Saturday 6th September:

Usual early start for a Supreme holiday - although not as early as in the past as they now pick up from Felixstowe. Which was nice - I was able to drive us up the road to the pick up point with plenty of time to spare rather than us having to rush to Ipswich, and safe in the knowledge that Ma & Pa would be along later to collect the car and tuck it away in their garden for the week. So then it was coach down to Thurrock via Colchester and Chelmsford before changing on to our real coach for the rest of the trip. Our designated driver was Keith, who was a pretty good bloke and very good driver all week (although he could probably stand to lose a stone or three) and we were generally safe in his hands. A couple more stops to pick people up on the way down to Dover (making a total of 17 on the coach - just enough for us to get to know everyone fairly well and almost on the limit for viable operation - I think we only went ahead because one of them worked for the company) then before you knew it we were afloat and heading for France.

Crossing was very smooth and we made sure of having a good lunch - not knowing quite what we were going to end up with in the evening. Then after picking up courier (sorry, "Tour Manager") Earl the New Zealander (a bit cocky but generally good at his job and full of useful or interesting information) at the gates of the port in Calais we were off for an afternon on the French motorways. So not really much to say about the countryside we passed through as most of the roads were tree-lined so we would only get the occasional glimpse. Of course what we did get to see then proved to be a bit of a disappointment. I hadn't noticed it on previous visits to France, but the place as a whole was looking a bit shabby. It seemed that every building (indeed every entire village) we passed needed a new coat of paint - and even the ones that had been recently decorated were done in really dull and drab colours. It was like there was a fine coat of dust over everything. And there was also plenty of litter lying around. Generally uninspiring and I don't think either of us missed much by sleeping away much of the journey.

We finished up for the night in Riems at the Hotel Campanile. Again this was not all that impressive at first glance - room a bit shabby with cigarette burns in the bed clothes (but then it does sometimes seem that everyone in France has a Gauloise on the go at all times) and one of the lights not working - but the food more than made up for it. I ended up with an organic buckwheat pancake filled with eggs and ham and cheese while Joan had local goat's cheese ravioli along with lashings of wine that helped us sleep off the travel very easily.

Sunday 7th September:

The hotel filled us up with a very good breakfast before we continued on our merry way east and south. Again, more motorways to start with as we passed Metz and Nancy but these were slightly more interesting as someone had seen fit to line the sides with geometric shapes in various hues - squares, triangles, circles and then cubes, pyramids and spheres on poles. Obviously intended to stop them becoming too monotonous for drivers. We also managed to see a few more villages that confirmed the shabby France theory. However, by late morning things started getting a bit more scenic and interesting as we plunged through Alsace and we ended up for lunch in a lovely medieval village called Kaysersberg. That was a place that was not in need of a lick of paint - absolutely beautiful. Lots of tumbledown cottages leaning on each other for support, twisty cobbled streets and the like. Also a fantastic 800 year old church.

Then it was back on the coach for the final run in to Switzerland. At last. Crossed over the border at Basel without a hitch and started to get used to seeing signs with more than one language on. After an hour or so the scenery was becoming decidely more vertical and we started to do the occasional climb with hairpin bends and the like. I think I now get the point of mountains. The last set of twists and turns brought us high above Lake Lucern and to the Hotel Belle Vue at Seelisberg which was where we were based. Absolutely wonderful place. Proper Swiss style and a warm welcome from the staff. Plus our luck was in for a change and we actually got a room with a balcony and view out over the lake. That certainly made up for some of the views over car parks and the like we have had in previous holiday hotels. Absolutely stunning scenery and frankly worth the price of admision and two days travel on its own. We spent a lot of time looking at that vista over the rest of the week.

So we then had a nice dinner (all the food was nice, but there was only one meal on offer each night, no choices. Which was OK for me but a bit annoying for Joan as she prefers not to eat red meat - and we did get served a fair amount of it). Still, it was a good evening getting to know one or two people from the coach and the wine was on the house as a welcome. The rest of the week it was just viciously expensive, but then that's the whole country - particularly when you have nowhere else to go.

Seelisberg is a lovely little village with a gorgeous church (complete with immaculate churchyard full of wonderfully carved graves). A bit spread out along the hillside so time pressures meant we didn't explore it very well. Still, there's an excuse to go back some time (like we need an excuse!). It is also home to a branch of the Maharishi Maresh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation centre which a lot of our fellow travellers thought was a bit of a hoot. Of course they also have a branch up the road in Suffolk so I'm kind of used to seeing the signs (if I remember rightly they originally wanted to take over the Bentwaters airbase when the US air force pulled out 10+ years ago but were turned down). Anyway, a nice place to be based.

Monday 8th:

First full day in Switzerland saw the good weather that had blessed our journey disappear and we had low cloud and drizzle in the morning. Still, undeterred what should have been a rest day according to the brochure was actually our trip to the city of Lucern. Saw lots of the touristy bits (Lion Monument, Covered Bridges, Cathedral etc) as well as doing a bit of shopping and general wandering about looking at the pretty buildings. Real chocolate box architecture mixed in with the modern. That was followed by a drive along the northern shore of the lake (past the transport museum I hadn't known was there, but is top of the list should be ever make it back again) through lots of very pretty places and some spectacular views to the town of Brunnen. By this point the sun was streaming down and everywhere was looking crystal clear. Plus the lake water was astonishingly bright blue. There we got on a boat and had a tour around the southern arm of the lake (more pretty villages and views plus the William Tell Chappel, the Rutli meadow were the Swiss federal system was extablished and a monument to F Schiller) before docking at the hamlet of Trieb which is at the bottom of the hill from Seelisberg. After a drink there we took our first fenicular railway ride back up to the hotel - which is about 100 yards from the upper station. Overall a very good day.

Tuesday 9th:

This was a day out to Interlaken, where my colleagues Gary and Charles spent a fortnight last month. They had bright sun and temperatures of over 40 degrees, we had persistent rain which threw me into a real funk and I was a miserable sod for much of the day. For which I apologise! Stopped at the town of Brienz on the way down for a look at a woodcarving museum and workshop (according to the brochure) which turned out to be a small room on the back of a shop and not very thrilling to my mind. They had loads of overpriced tat for sale - from cuckoo clocks to a Titanic musical box playing the Celine Dion song - as well as the usual souveniers. Yes, I can appreciate the hours of work that go in to some of the carvings, but I can't say I liked any of them very much. We certainly didn't buy any.

Interlaken was very much a tourist resort kind of a town (well, the bits we saw anyway) so we just looked at the shops, had some food and tried to avoid the rain. I also had a wobbly moment where I was blaming myself for the weather and ruining Joan's holiday. I don't think it helped that we knew people who had had a really good time there while we were just trying to stay dry - no chance of the promised views of the Eiger and Jungfrau for us. Definitely the low point of the whole trip for me.

On the way back we went over the Susten Pass in the hope of finding better weather higher up but we were not lucky in that respect. Quite a spectacular ride though and the bits we could see were quite something. In all the years I studied Geography it was drummed in to us that rivers cut V shaped valleys while glaciers carve out U shaped ones. I fully appreciate the difference between those now as well having seen them close-up. Man, if only we could have had a field trip like this at O level!

Wednesday 10th:

Wednesday was optional excursion number one - south to Locarno in the Italian part of the country. Again it started dull but when we emerged from the 17km long Gotthard tunnel (longest road tunnel in the world, and longest of any sort until the Channel Tunnel came along) it was in to brilliant sunshine (and a new language on the road signs). Locarno itself was lovely, situated on the shores of Lake Maggiore and with the weather there was a real mediterranean flavour to the place. First up we took the fenicular up to the church of the Madonna del Sasso (on the rock) which was rather impressive. One of those places perched on a hillside that you wonder how people would be able to build on now, never mind a couple or more hundred years ago. A real feat of engineering skill. Much to the annoyance of our knees (which are still complaining) we walked back down rather than taking the train. A very steep cobbled path (must be lethal in winter) marked every fifty metres or so with a shrine for one of the fourteen stations fo the cross. Going up obviously being part of the pennance in the past. Still, worth it for the views over the lake on the way.

Then we had a nice afternoon wandering around, lunch (real Italian pizza!) and a sit by the lake. Then it was the journey back - this time over the top of the Gotthard pass. In itself the road is just as remarkable a feat as the tunnel - bridges over immense gaps, bends built out from the hillside and so forth. Unfortunatley it was agin a bit misty at the top, but we did have a stop about ¾ of the way up where we experienced both bright sun and their first snows of the year. It was still a wonderful drive - I just love the views down the valleys lined with precarious roads and railways crossing each other on spindly little bridges. We also passed a few army bases as they are all located up in the mountains (in fact literally in, being largely bunkers and carved out buildings).

Last stop on the way home was at the foot of the lake in Altdorf. There we visited the market square which saw William Tell doing the business with crossbow, apple and son's head. This is commemorated with a large statue, the shape of which is re-created in every tourist shop you see.

Wednesday night was billed as a folklore evening and I was expecting a night of tales of glacier sprites and mountain goat spirits and all that. Instead what we got was three old blokes who between them played accordian, Alpenhorn, trumpet, double bass etc and played tunes with coins spinning in bowls and spoons, danced and twirled flags. They were also hot on audience participation with Joan also blowing the horn and twirling the flag with us both dancing and spoon bashing. A really fun night with enormous amounts of laughter even if it wasn't what we were anticipating. I was very impressed with Joan for getting in to the spirit of things after the way she has been of late (mind you, she would normally be up for it - for me to get up and make an idiot of myself was amazing).

Thursday 11th:

The weather matched the sombre mood of the news when we woke up (rain everywhere, pictures from two years ago on the tv). Spent the morning reading and chatting quietly in the hotel before we went down to the local restaurant for a traditional Swiss lunch. Well, Joan and I managed that anyway with Rosti (and me with a big fat sausage (ooh, Matron)) but the others in our little group had deer and a brace of cold meat platters that would have fed a few dozen more.

In the afternon it cleared enough for our last trip out. Up to just under 2000 meters on the Stanserhorn nearby. Part one of the trip by 110 year old fenicular then cable car the rest of the way (the railway having been partly destroyed by fire in the '70s). A really good ride if a bit pricey considering there was no view most of the time we were up top due to low clouds. Still, we had a nice walk to the summit which proved to us that the air really is thinner up there and allowed us to meet some friendly Marmots. Then it was back down for the final night of Swiss hospitality.

Friday 12th:

Was a long day travelling up to Paris. Just stops along the road with not really much to write home about. The traffic in Paris proved to be as horrendous as I remembered from last time we were there and despite it being nice to pass through Versailles again we were shattered by the time we reached our hotel for the night. The so-called Quality Hotel in Nanterre which I cannot recommend to any but the most desperate. Again a meal with no options was on hand and I was so tired I didn't finish it. Still, we were at least there and no more travelling was required for a few hours.

Saturday 13th:

Breakfast was pathetic and overall we were glad to be free from the hotel and back on the road again. We had a couple of hours in Paris first thing (we just took a walk along the river which was nice and mellow) before heading back to Calais. Another smooth crossing and before we knew it we were back at Thurrock saying goodbye to everyone before being herded on to our coach home. Which ended up stopping at Colchester so we were transferred to a taxi for the final (hair-raising) stretch back to Felixstowe. Overall a very good week.

During the week I read one book - Lucky Wander Boy by D. B. Weiss. This had been sent to me by a US member of the Llamasoft forums in return for some magazines I had posted his way. Interesting. A story of video games, obsessions and some other stuff. A bit more high-brow than what I would normally read but enjoyable just the same. We also listened to the first Harry Potter book as read by Stephen Fry which was a good distraction from the monotonous roads.

And now we are back, and suddenly this week is nearly over as well and I haven't done half the things I wanted to. OK, so instead I have used Jerry's pressure washer to clean years of dirt off the paths in the back garden, and re-painted all the downstairs window frames. But that's not what I was planning! I have also begun re-reading all the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, which I am enjoying rather a lot - I reckon I need a good laugh stored up before I go back to work. We have also paid a visit to Argos where Joan has sorted out a gentle return to work starting soon, done shopping and general mundane stuff like that. So now I must get this epic entry online and see what's new in Llamaland.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Wow, what a wonderful country Switzerland is. More to follow when I have the time to write it...