In November we settled back into the routine of Sarasota life. It was good to be back in the sun!
Although we considered our condo to be fully equipped a year ago, we often think of other things we’d like to have. Some we bring from England – we now have Ian’s collection of chess sets here, as well as his silver teaspoons (no room to display either in High Wycombe). Others we buy locally, often from thrift shops which we are getting to know well. One day recently we toured round places in the Bradenton area, and came home with a good haul – some things we’d looked out for and others we’d just spotted and thought might be useful.
We’d been toying with the idea of buying another desk, so we’d have one each. On Saturday mornings, we walk into town, doing a circuit of the library, the farmer’s market and the thrift shops. One Saturday we spotted a very cheap desk which we thought would serve the purpose and when we went back to collect it, we saw they had a suitable chair as well. Sandie thought it would need two trips to take them both home, but Ian created an amazing 3D jigsaw and we did it in one!
Sandie has become a volunteer at the main Sarasota library and also at the Cat Depot. She spends a few hours each week at the library, shelving books. At the Cat Depot (an amazing place, with currently 143 residents!) her task on each visit is to ‘socialise’ a particular cat or cats, which means petting or playing with them, encouraging them to be friendly with humans. Her goal is to foster kittens – an ideal task for cat lovers who for obvious reasons cannot have a cat of their own. But potential foster carers have to attend a training course first, and the next one is not until January, so we will not have a kitten for Christmas!
A trip to the beach
On Sunday 20th November we drove up to Anna Maria Island and parked at Coquina Beach.
This is one of our favourite places, but we noticed some changes this time. We walked up to Bridge Street and had coffee, but discovered that the Sunday morning art and craft market is no more – it’s now combined with the Coquina beach market. We walked back along the beach, and were pleased to find that the diggers have finished their work, so you can have a pleasant walk down to the end of the island. We returned to Coquina Beach, looked at the market stalls and had lunch at the beach café before driving home.
The following Thursday was Thanksgiving Day, and we’d planned another trip to the beach. Unfortunately Ian had developed a really bad cough, and had lost all his energy and his appetite, so we had a very quiet day at home. He was no better by Sunday 27th, when we’d planned to drive down to Key West, so our trip there had to be rescheduled. He was below par for several days, but by the end of the month he was getting back to normal.
On Monday 7th November we flew back to Florida; after changing planes at Boston, we landed in Orlando and collected a rental car for the drive to Sarasota. By the time we reached our condo we were very tired and went straight to bed. It had been a long day – and the next day was a long one too.
Not surprisingly, we woke early. After a bath and breakfast, we unpacked our luggage, then took the cover off our car and connected the battery. We drove separately to Sarasota Airport, where Ian returned the rental car. Then we did a load of (food) shopping and returned home.
After a coffee we were ready to get going on the final day of sending texts: the ‘Get Out The Vote’ stage of the campaign. But the Central Park wifi was down, so there was nothing we could do. We made enquiries, but nobody accepted responsibility for the system. We spent the rest of the day feeling frustrated and hoping it would come back, but it didn’t. It was hard to settle to anything, so in the end we gave up and started watching the election coverage on TV. When the results started coming in, they were not encouraging!
About 9pm we went with our friends David and Donna to Marina Jack’s, where there was a big screen set up and a Democratic ‘party’ going on. But by that stage nobody was in a party mood. We had a drink and then returned home for another, as it was easier to hear the TV there. When we finally went to bed, the outcome had not been announced, but it was obvious who was going to win. A disaster for the USA, and for the world.
Back in the swing of things
As usual, there were plenty of things to do both in Central Park 2 and further afield. Sandie resumed her tap dance and international folk dance classes. She went to her second meeting of the Genealogy Group of Sarasota, and joined the small Reading Group that meets in the clubhouse here. Ian went to the Life Drawing class that meets on Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, the oil painting classes at the Friendship Center seem to have stopped, but at least he can get on with his painting in the condo. There is space here – in fact he has the upper balcony as his ‘studio’ – which he does not have in High Wycombe.
Together, we went to the pool for a swim, and last Friday there was a ‘Welcome Back Snowbirds’ barbecue at the poolside, giving us an opportunity to meet up with neighbours old and new. There is never any shortage of entertainment in Sarasota: we’ve already seen Don Pasquale at the Opera House and Florence Foster Jenkins at the Parkway Cinema.
November seems a particularly good month for special events in the Sarasota area. When we were here in 2013, we went to the St Armand’s Art & Craft Festival, the Sarasota Chalk Festival and the Siesta Key Sand Sculpting Festival. We enjoyed them all, and intended to visit the following year, but were delayed coming out then and again last year, so we missed them both times. This year we thought we’d be in time, but we discovered that all three were on the same weekend – and it was the weekend when Sandie had agreed to mark some business plans for the High Wycombe Young Enterprise! Fortunately the Chalk Festival was on until Monday, and the Sand Sculpting until Tuesday, so we were able to fit them in.
We thought we’d miss the Art & Craft Festival, but Sandie managed to finish her marking by lunchtime on Sunday, so we were able to go in the afternoon. We enjoy looking at the stunning exhibits, marvelling at the craftsmanship – and boggling at the prices!
Understandably, most stall holders ban photography, but at the other events it is encouraged, as the exhibits are (obviously) not portable, and therefore not for sale. The Chalk Festival is now held, not on a street in Sarasota – as it was three years ago – but on a vast outdoor arena in Venice. Street artists from all over the US, and some from overseas, create some amazing pictures, some designed to give a 3D effect.
The incredibly detailed sand sculptures on Siesta Beach are also amazing, and the creators come from all over the world.
Despite the dark shadows hanging over the USA, the UK, and the world, we continue to enjoy life here in the sun while we can.
After returning from Spain, we had three and a half weeks in High Wycombe, before leaving for Florida. As usual, we kept ourselves pretty busy.
We went to a barn dance – our first for ages, and great fun. We’ve been for walks in the sunshine (October was quite mild) and enjoyed the beautiful autumn leaves. We’ve had several get-togethers with friends or family, usually over a meal. Brenda and Phil live some distance away, so we arranged to meet them in Banbury, which was convenient for all of us – easy to reach by train from Wycombe, and gave us a pleasant day out.
We’ve been to the cinema three times. The first time was not actually a film: it was a live transmission of Don Giovanni from the Metropolitan Opera in New York – a great production. We highly recommend the two films we saw: I, Daniel Blake (powerful stuff from Ken Loach) and A street cat named Bob (an amazing true story about a former drug addict and the remarkable cat who ‘adopted’ him).
Sunday 23rd October was Oscar’s birthday – our youngest grandchild is now five! He’d had a climbing party (!) with his friends on Saturday, but on the actual day Claire brought him and Charlie over to us. Andrew, Ellie, Hope and Isobel also came along – High Wycombe is almost halfway between Stroud and Faversham, so it is convenient for a family get-together! We had a leisurely lunch at a pub, chosen because it has a playground, so the children could run around outside while the adults talked, and watched what was going on. Later we had a birthday tea (cake made by Ellie) at our flat.
Claire and the boys stayed overnight, so we saw more of them the next day. They came up again later in the week (it was half-term holiday) and we took the boys swimming – they are very keen, and are making good progress in their lessons.
We enjoy occasional days out in London, but the one we had recently was even more packed than usual. We’d applied for US visitor’s visas, which will enable us to stay there for up to six months. The initial application is done online, but is followed by an ‘interview’ at the Embassy, and ours was scheduled for 9.30 on Tuesday 25th October. This meant making an early start, and paying for full-price travelcards rather than the off-peak ones we usually get. However, the good news was that Paul had a meeting in London the same day, so we arranged to meet.
The Christmas lights in the West End have been put up, though not yet switched on. From the Embassy we made our way to Leicester Square, where (as usual) we bought cheap theatre tickets, and then browsed round Stanfords travel bookshop. By then it was midday, but we were to meet Paul at 3, so we filled in the time by doing a walk around Bloomsbury which Ian had downloaded from the Internet.
We met Paul in a pub which was just opposite his office, and familiar to us from our many visits to the DfE when we worked for NFER. The vague plan was to have a drink and later go somewhere else for dinner, but we got talking (and drinking, of course) and ended up just staying there for dinner. We left about 7, and Paul then returned to Bury, while we went to see Kinky Boots – the musical. We’d enjoyed the film, several years ago, but didn’t think the music added much – it was easily forgettable. We arrived home at 11.30pm – having set off at 7.15am, it was quite a long day!
Soon we’ll be off
The Embassy held on to our passports, and we had to collect them the following week from a place near Slough, which we were able to combine with a visit to the cemetery, to put flowers on Sandie’s parents’ grave. As soon as we had our passports back, we booked our flights to Florida, and will be off there tomorrow – the day before the US election.
Like most people we know, we are appalled by the possibility of victory for Donald Trump. There is little we can do to prevent it, especially at this distance, but we’ve found a way of making a small contribution to the campaign. Avaaz (online campaigning group) asked for volunteers to work with a US partner organisation by sending text messages to young people in swing states, aiming first to identify potential Hillary supporters, and then encourage them to go and vote. The system is highly automated, very fast and costs nothing; you use a computer rather than a phone. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve sent out literally thousands of texts – and there are thousands of others doing the same. Whether it has any impact remains to be seen. We shall be in Sarasota on November 8th, so we will be able to join in the celebrations – we hope!
Our walking holiday in Rioja ended after breakfast on Friday 7th October. But then Part 2 of our trip began – visiting four very different cities that we’d never been to before.
On this trip we sometimes overlapped with places we’d been last year, when we were following the route taken by Ian’s father after crossing the Pyrenees into Spain during the second world war. On our first bus journey – from Bilbao to Haro – we passed close to Miranda de Ebro, where Pa was imprisoned. The first city we visited on this trip was Logroño, which we passed through last year when we went by train from Zaragoza to Miranda. Pa’s train stopped there too, and there was a change of guards. But neither he nor we went into the city.
We found it a pleasant place, attractive if not terribly exciting. It is on the Camino de Santiago, and we saw pilgrims passing through, as well as places set up to provide them with food, accommodation and general assistance. We visited the museum, the cathedral and three other city churches; we walked around the town, along the main street and through the main square, passing several fountains and the remains of the city walls. We walked along the river, past the various bridges that cross the Ebro. For old time’s sake, we visited the railway station, even though we had arrived by taxi and were leaving by bus.
Next stop was Burgos; our train had stopped here too last year, but the station is some way out of the city, so we’d not seen anything of the town. It was a real treat! By comparison with the small villages we’d been walking through, Logroño had seemed a big city, but Burgos was much bigger and more touristy. Even though it is on the Camino, there were fewer pilgrims around, but many more tourists – and it was easy to see why. On the short walk from the bus station, our first glimpse of the city gate and the cathedral towers made us gasp in amazement. The massive cathedral dwarfed the one at Logroño, and dominates the city in which it stands.
The interior of the cathedral was equally impressive. Some chapels cannot be entered without a guide, but a fairly quick canter round the others took us well over an hour. And although we cannot claim that all of the artwork was entirely to our taste, the overall design was staggering – as was the amount of detail in each individual element.
We visited the church of St Nicolas, near the cathedral, where we admired a painting of the Last Judgement, and sat with many others watching a shaft of early evening sun climb up the retablo (just missing the BVM’s face). Next day we walked up to the castle, just above the cathedral, and got some great views looking down on the city.
Our short time in Burgos was packed, but we managed to visit two monasteries outside of the city itself. First was the Monasterio de las Huelgas, founded by Eleanor of England and the location of several royal weddings and burials. The downside for us was that no photos were allowed, and you had to go on a tour, with a guide whose very fast Spanish was incomprehensible to us.
We preferred the Cartuja de Miraflores, where we could look round and take photos as we wished. It was some distance outside the town, so we took a taxi there and had a pleasant walk back along the river.
Salamanca was a long way from the other cities on our tour, but it was one we’d always wanted to visit, so it was worth a substantial detour – and much easier than making a separate trip. If Logroño was Pilgrim City, and Burgos Tourist City, Salamanca was definitely Student City. The university there was founded in 1218, and rapidly became one of the most prestigious in Europe. It is possible to visit the old university buildings, and see where lectures used to take place, as well as some halls which are still in use today.
And of course, in Salamanca there were more cathedrals and churches to visit. The new cathedral was build alongside the old one, and the latter is accessed from inside the former. We preferred the atmosphere of the Old Cathedral, with its colourful wall paintings.
By then we’d had enough of religious art, but we enjoyed a visit to the Conventu de las Dueñas, wandering round the beautiful cloisters, where every column had a different carving of grotesque and fabulous creatures. We also walked round to cross the old Roman bridge, and went up the twin towers of the Clerecia Jesuit college.
According to our guidebook, ‘Salamanca’s main square stands out as the most harmonious plaza in Spain’. It is certainly very beautiful, and we were fortunate in our choice of accommodation. The room was basic, the water was barely warm – but our balcony looked directly out onto the square. There are restaurants on all sides, with (we estimated) about 500 tables in total, and it is a beautiful place to sit. While in Salamanca we celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary. We chose to have dinner at a café we’d discovered a short walk away, as they had an unusually great selection of vegetarian options. But before dinner, we had a bottle of bubbly in the square, and more drinks afterwards – perfect!
On Tuesday 11th October we arrived back in Bilbao, where our trip began eight days earlier. During that time we’d had lots of sun, and some very cold winds, but thankfully no rain. However, we’d been warned that Bilbao was known as the rainy city, and our experience helped us to understand why! It didn’t rain all the time, but between the showers it was cloudy and dull.
Bilbao is of course in the middle of the Basque country, and is famous for the Guggenheim Museum; the architecture is certainly striking, but we were not terribly impressed with the contents. Modern art is not really our thing – although Sandie got in trouble with Ian by laughing hysterically at the pretentious waffle that accompanies some of the exhibits.
A building we liked was a former wine storage warehouse, converted into a leisure and cultural centre. On the ground floor there are lots of squat pillars, some painted, each decorated with an individual design. Bilbao is surrounded by hills; we took a funicular up one of them, and managed to get some good shots of the city with even a faint glimmer of sun.
Bilbao Old Town is small, and there is little of interest to see, unless you count the elaborate theatre situated by the river, on the edge of the old town. So two days in the city was quite enough, and we were not sorry to fly home on Thursday evening.
On Monday 3rd October we took an early morning flight to Bilbao (north-west Spain), to begin our walking holiday. On arrival, we went through the passport control channel for EU citizens, and wondered sadly how long we’ll be able to do that.
We’d never been to Bilbao before, but were impressed by our first views of the city. The weather – warm and sunny – probably helped! We had three hours to wait before our bus to Haro, but could find nowhere to leave our luggage. So we established ‘base camp’ in a pavement café near the bus station, and took it in turns to have a preliminary stroll around the city. We shall spend longer there at the end of this trip.
Haro is an attractive town, bigger than we expected, with some picturesque buildings that looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun. We had the first wine tasting of our trip, and enjoyed the quirky architecture (Disney meets Swiss chateau) as well as the produce. Later we had dinner (also included in the tour) at a local restaurant: good atmosphere, and they coped well with our dietary requests. We had four courses, a bottle of red and two glasses of white: hard work, but somehow we managed to struggle through.
Haro to Abalos
Before setting off on our official walk, we had a large breakfast, another stroll around Haro, and another wine tasting. This comprised a full glass of cava and generous samples of five other wines. We were beginning to think that this would be a staggering holiday, rather than a walking one.
The weather was surprisingly dull and murky at first, but later the sun came through and it was bright and sunny for the rest of the day. We walked a total of 17+ kilometres, mainly on dirt roads, passing though fields and fields of vines. We saw grapes ready for harvesting, and had no doubt where our Rioja came from! With a stop for coffee, and one for cold drinks, we arrived in Abalos around 6.30pm. Our accommodation was on a vineyard, some way out of the village, and soon after arriving we had yet another wine tasting. The vineyard did not provide food, so we had to return to the village for dinner, but the kind owner gave us a lift both ways.
Abalos to Laguardia
Today was our longest walk (20+ km) but as breakfast was not until 9am, we could not make an early start. Unfortunately the directions were not clear, and we wasted a lot of time trying to find the right route. After asking directions several times, we finally found our way to the village of Villabuena de Alava, much later than expected. We had coffee at the strangely designed Hotel Viura (a series of concrete blocks), and continued on our way.
Again, we had problems with the directions, and ended up walking along a minor road. We reached a village, and were relieved to discover it was Elciego, where we were booked for lunch at 2.30. It was past 3 when we arrived, but nobody seemed to mind. We had a nice 3-course veggie meal, with bread, coffee and of course a bottle of Rioja.
On leaving Elciego we at first took the wrong direction, and had to retrace our steps. After that the path was clear, although it did not quite correspond to our instructions. We could see the village of Laguardia from some distance, so we knew we were on the right track, but when we arrived we had a steep climb up to the village centre and our hotel. Having had a large late lunch, we were satisfied with tapas tonight.
Laguardia to Azofra
We thought today would be more straightforward. First appointment was for a 10am tour at a winery just below the town, which is situated on a hill. We could see the winery down below, and estimated that we could walk there in ten minutes. So we set off at 9.45, along a road that seemed to lead directly there. It did lead to the winery – but not to the entrance. We had to walk miles around the edge of the vineyards before we could actually find a way inside. So we arrived 20 mins late – but fortunately they had started the tour only a few minutes before, and we were able to join in.
After the tour (and of course, the tasting) we were collected by a car and taken to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where (after a brief visit to the cathedral) we were to begin the day’s walk.
Santo Domingo is on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and most of today’s walk followed the camino – but in the opposite direction. We passed a continuous stream of pilgrims, all obviously wondering why we were going the wrong way! We walked through rolling hills, but with no signs of any vines which seemed strange after the past couple of days.
In the village of Cirueña, we hoped for a bar but found none. However, back on the camino we passed a golf club, and discovered that the restaurant and bar were open to non-members, so we were able to have a snack lunch sitting in the sun. On the latter part of the camino we saw some vineyards, so felt more at home! Finally we reached the village of Azofra, our base for the night. It was a small village, but fortunately a bar close to our hotel provided excellent (and amazingly cheap) food and drinks.
After a long delay (20 days after we were meant to hear), we finally learned that we were not successful in our bid for the project in Cambodia. Naturally we were gutted – more so because the feedback on our bid made us feel we had been treated unfairly in many ways.
The period since the last blog post therefore divides into two: the ongoing hiatus in our lives while waiting to hear but couldn’t make any plans, and the few days since when we’ve been frantically making plans in the knowledge we won’t be going to Cambodia.
Our main activity during this period was going out for walks of different lengths. We had both bought ourselves new hiking boots, and wanted to make sure they were well broken in before (possibly) doing a walking holiday. We therefore planned a carefully graded series of hikes of increasing length in the neighbourhood of Wycombe:
- 3 miles through Burnham Beeches (cut short by rain)
- 5 miles from the Dog and Badger at Medmenham, including Hambleden Mill and a walk along the Thames
- 7 miles to Hazlemere (finding a nice new pub) and back via Loudwater
- 10 miles including Downley, West Wycombe, Bradenham and Hughenden Manor.
After all that, we reckon the boots are definitely ready for anything! We also managed to attend the Marlow Folk Dance Club twice in September, once walking along the Thames from Bourne End.
Another day we made an excursion to Oxford by bus, and spent a pleasant day exploring the city, home to the second best university in the country.
Back in planning mode
Now that our life is no longer on hold, we have been busy planning for the rest of the year. We aim to return to Sarasota early in November, but before that have booked and organised a trip to Spain, including a short walking holiday in the Rioja region, where Ian’s favourite wine comes from (just a coincidence). We were delighted that the company were able to book us in at very short notice, so we fly to Bilbao to start the trip next Monday (3rd October).
Today we did our final training walk, five miles with our friend Caroline from Lane End and back. The rest of the day was spent getting ready to go. More news in our next blog post.
We’ve managed to keep ourselves busy over the past couple of weeks. Ian painted the bathroom – twice, because Sandie was not happy with the first colour chosen! While he was doing that, she cleaned out the kitchen cupboards – another job that needed doing. We finished a complete draft of our book about the journey we did last year, following that undertaken by Ian’s father during World War II. We had a meeting of our ERA partnership, and managed to attend the Marlow Folk Dance Club – for the first time in exactly a year!
Going for walks
We’ve done several walks recently, some short and some long. Sometimes we’ve managed to combine walking with doing other things. For example, when we were choosing new flooring etc for our bathroom, we wanted to visit some shops in Loudwater, two miles east of Wycombe. It was a beautiful day, and our route took us along back roads and footpaths, some of which we had not previously discovered. After looking round the shops we had a pub lunch, and then came back by a different route, stopping at more shops along the way.
Another day we had arranged to meet our friends Sarah and Tami for dinner in the Red Lion at Langley; we also wanted to take flowers to Sandie’s parents’ grave in Slough Cemetery. And we wanted to have a look at our Slough flat, as we had had reports of rubbish being dumped nearby. Again, it was a warm day and we wanted to do some walking.
We set off at 9.15 and caught the Slough bus, but alighted in the Farnham Road. (This paragraph may not mean much to those unfamiliar with the area!) We did what we have done several times before: visited charity shops there, had coffee, bought flowers and then walked through back roads to the cemetery. From there we walked down into the town centre, and had lunch. We walked along the High Street (more charity shops!) and detoured to our flat. Then we walked through Upton Court Park, along Trelawney Avenue, through to Langley ‘Village’ (where we used to live) and up to Langley Park. We walked through the Arboretum, and round the lake, and followed footpaths which would bring us to St Mary’s Road. We reached the Red Lion just as the church clock opposite was chiming 6 – after walking six or seven miles, we’d made it at exactly the right time!
A weekend with the boys
Charlie and Oscar stayed with us again the first weekend in September, while Claire was working. They are now really keen on swimming, and attend classes where they have made great progress. The forecast for Saturday was sunny in the morning, but rain in the afternoon, so we came up with what seemed to be the perfect plan. In the morning we took the bus to Bourne End, and walked along the Thames Path to Maidenhead, with stops on the way for coffee, watching the boats go through Boulter’s Lock, a picnic lunch and a playground. Reaching Maidenhead we went to the swimming pool and spent a couple of hours there before catching the bus back. It all worked well, although the forecast was sadly not entirely accurate. It was sunny when we set off, but we had rain later in the morning as well as in the afternoon.
Next morning we asked the boys what they would like to do, and with no hesitation they opted for swimming again. This time we went to the Wycombe pool, and once again we combined it with a walk: we took a taxi there and walked back (downhill!) with a stop at the adventure playground on the Rye.
A day at the seaside
The weather forecast for w/b 11 September was good, with Tuesday expected to be the warmest day. We had no other plans, and fancied a trip to the coast – perhaps we’re missing Florida (though it’s not quite the same!). We hired a car and drove to West Wittering, which we always considered to be one of the best beaches along the south coast. Once again we were disappointed with the weather – by the time we reached Wittering there was quite a lot of cloud, and a fairly strong breeze. The beach was also not as good as we remembered. Still, we were able to walk along the sands as far as Chichester Harbour, where we took photos of the boats before returning to the car park by an inland route. We then drove into Chichester, a city we always enjoy visiting, and spent a couple of hours there before heading home, with a stop en route at a country pub for dinner.
A day in London
On Saturday 17th we went up to London for the day. As usual, we went to the theatre: this time we saw a stage production of George Orwell’s 1984. But our main reason for choosing that date for our London trip was so that we could take part in the pro-refugee demonstration. Along with thousands of others, we marched from Park Lane to Parliament Square, chanting and waving placards. In the Square we heard moving speeches from politicians, church leaders, celebrities – and refugees.
We were calling on the UK government to take its fair quota of refugees (at present it is near the bottom of the list of European countries to do so). In particular, we were thinking of all the unaccompanied children currently kept in conditions described as ‘a living hell’ at Calais. Nearly 400 have a legal right to residence in the UK – many have relatives already living here – yet the government has been slow to allow them entry. We need to put pressure on our MPs and local councils to honour their obligations, so that these children can be reunited with their families and have a safe place to live.
We were also protesting against the racism and xenophobia which sadly seems prevalent in large sections of British society and the media. And not just in Britain, of course. The government’s plan to build a long wall in the Calais area is horribly reminiscent of Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border. We await November with trepidation, and just hope that his bid for the US presidency is unsuccessful.
We said in our last blog that we would get the results of our proposal (for an evaluation project in Cambodia) on September 9. It is now the 18th, and we have had no news, so we still do not know where we will be spending the winter!