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Azores II: different islands

We’d decided to visit two of the Azores, to experience the individual characteristics that each island is said to have.  Sao Miguel was the obvious choice for one, as that is where the international flights land.  We chose Santa Maria for the second, as it is the closest to Sao Miguel, but much smaller, and reportedly very different.  A bonus reason was that Santa Maria is supposed to be the warmest and driest of the islands.  In fact, we’d been lucky on Sao Miguel, having spent two and a half days there with no rain at all.  But…

Tuesday 11th September

When we landed on Santa Maria, it was pouring with rain.  We took a taxi to our hotel, known as Charming Blue (although painted pink, for reasons we do not understand).  Later, the rain stopped and the sun came out, so we took a walk down to the harbour.  Looking back from the mole, we got good views of the boats and the fortress above. By then we had realised how small and quiet Vila do Porto (the main town on the island, known simply as Porto) was.  By comparison, Punta Delgada on Sao Miguel seemed a bustling, cosmopolitan city.

Wednesday

When we woke, the weather was cloudy but fine, so we had breakfast sitting outside by the hotel’s swimming pool.  But when we got organised and headed out to start our walk, we discovered that it was pouring with rain! Luckily it did not last long. There is a walk that follows the coast right round the island, and we did a chunk of it, starting from Porto and working our way along the south coast.  At first it was bleak and desolate, but later the sun came out and we got great views of the coastline.  The scenery was very different from Sao Miguel.  No hydrangeas and hardly any ginger lilies.  Instead, there were masses of prickly pears and aguave cacti.

A boardwalk took us round some interesting geological areas, and later we came to some artificial caves, where the locals used to dig out clay and limestone. Eventually we descended to the beach at Praia Formosa, where there was a café, and we had much-needed drinks.

From there the path went up again, and in one place we had to climb a particularly steep hill. It was a struggle, but we made it.

Going down the other side, we got great views of some basalt columns (like the Devil’s Postpile in California).  But the path was not easy, and getting up the other side was much worse!

When we reached the tiny village of Panasco, we decided we’d had enough.  We were just short of our target, but that was across a valley, and we did not want to do any more ascents and descents! So we called for a taxi, and sat on a wall in the village while waiting for it to come and take us back to Porto.

Thursday

We took a taxi to Santa Barbara (in the east of the island) and started on a circular walk from there. We had heavy rain showers twice, but they didn’t last too long.  We saw lots of the houses, with their red-tiled roofs, scattered among the hills, and noted particularly the quaint chimney pots – three different designs – which are characteristic of Santa Maria.

We took a detour to a viewpoint over Sao Lourenço Bay – the path was longer than we expected, and very difficult towards the end.  Later we spotted a picnic table just off the path, stopped there for a snack, and discovered the path down to the bay started nearby.  We’d previously decided not to attempt it because it was very steep, but we gave it a go.  It was OK in parts – there was even a handrail! – but some sections were difficult.  It took us 50 minutes to reach the bay.  We had drinks while waiting for a taxi to take us back to Porto.

Later the same driver took us to the airport.  We took off on time at 7.40, and landed back on Sao Miguel 8.05. But this time we were not staying in Punta Delgada.  We took a taxi to Furnas, in the east of the island, where we were to spend our final two nights in the Azores.

Friday

We had a relaxing day today – walked nearly 12 miles, but it was mainly on the flat, so not nearly as strenuous as our other hikes.  We walked up through the town to the Lagoa das Furnas, and followed the path round the lake.

In one place there were a few small fumaroles, as well as mounds where different restaurants cook food in the volcanic heat.

We also saw some chainsaw wooden sculptures dotted here and there.  There were a few showers during the day, and a few sunny patches, but most of the time it was just heavy clouds.

We stopped to visit the Jose do Canto Garden.  It was a 30-minute walk to the waterfall, and we were warned that there was not much water in it, but it was still picturesque.  En route we passed a chapel, but that was closed.   We visited the Fern Garden (and saw some enormous fungi) but it was not the season for camellias.

We continued round the lake till we reached a turn-off that took us up to a recommended viewpoint, the Lombo dos Milhos.  There were great views of the town, but none of the lake, which was disappointing.

Back in the town, we went to the Poco da Dona Beija thermal pools. There are five pools, four of them at 38° but varying depths.  We sampled them all, but unfortunately there was quite a lot of rain while we were there.

Saturday

There were dark heavy clouds when we got up this morning.  We went to see the fumaroles, only just up the road from our hotel.  They were impressive, though not on a par with Yellowstone or Rotorua.

It did not take long to look round, but while we were doing so the rain started pouring down.  We took shelter in our hotel, and then in a café.  There was one other place on our ‘must see in Furnas’ list: the renowned Terra Nostra Gardens, so after the rain stopped we headed there. The gardens are beautiful, and extensive; luckily we were able to do most of the ‘walking trail’ before the rain came down again, and we got soaked.

But by then it was time for some lunch, and a taxi to the airport for the flight home.

 

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Azores I: hiking without boots

In case you didn’t know – many people don’t – the Azores are a group of islands belonging to Portugal, but way out in the Atlantic (‘We’re half way back to Florida’, Ian joked when we arrived).  It was another place that needed to be ticked off our bucket list.  There are nine inhabited islands, but we could not visit all of them in a week.  So we chose the two easternmost islands: Sao Miguel (the biggest) and Santa Maria (the driest).

Saturday 8th September

We flew from Stansted to Sao Miguel. The plane was late (we boarded almost on time, but sat on the tarmac for nearly two hours before taking off). But apart from that, everything went well.  We landed in blue skies and warm sun.  We took a taxi to our hotel, and were given a nice big room.  After changing we went out for dinner; as it was getting late and we were hungry, we did not want to walk far, but we found a restaurant by the port where we could sit outside and enjoy the view and a great atmosphere.

But when we got back to the hotel, disaster struck.  Sandie started unpacking the case, and found that the bag which was supposed to contain her hiking boots contained an old pair of Ian’s instead.  Apart from sandals, the only other shoes she had were some lightweight flexible trainers, comfortable but far from ideal for hiking in the hills.  Worst of all, they were certainly not waterproof, and a slight (almost invisible) split in one sole meant that water could easily get in.  Knowing that the climate of the Azores was wet and windy, we’d packed rain capes and cagoules, but not having dry footwear was a disaster.

We debated how on earth to cope, and Ian eventually came up with a brilliant idea. The hotel had left us a shower cap, which Sandie never uses.  This could be put on her foot, over her sock, to prevent water getting through.

Sunday

We woke to amazing red skies, something that we (being sunset rather than sunrise people) don’t often see.  We took the emergency kit with us, but luckily did not need it – the weather stayed dry and sunny all day.  We took a taxi up into the hills, and then started a walk which took us past an old aqueduct, and round a group of crater lakes. There were several viewpoints, and masses of yellow flowers (which we later identified as ‘ginger lilies’) helped to create some extremely picturesque scenery.   We realised how lucky we were when a young Belgian couple told us they had waited days to get a clear view of the lakes!

From there we went steeply downhill to the village of Mostieros, on the west coast. We were very glad to reach a bar where we could slake our thirst.  We then took a walk through the village and back by the coastal path, with views of the black sand and dramatic rocks. With stops for ice creams and more drinks, we were back in the village centre by 6pm, in good time for a bus (one of very few!) back to Punta Delgada.

Monday

This morning we took a bus along the south coast to the starting point for a walk we’d planned to do, up to Lago do Fogo, the highest lake on Sao Miguel.  Well, not quite to the starting point….  We had to walk up a very steep road to get to the trailhead. And the first part of the trail was very steep too.  But we pressed on, and eventually came to a levada (water channel) which we followed for some distance.  The path was very narrow, but almost flat.  When we finally reached the lake, we had a small picnic (not hungry after an enormous breakfast) and climbed a hill to get better views.  Then we walked back – downhill all the way.

We reached the main road with some time to spare before the bus back to Punta Delgada, but there was a convenient beach bar where we could enjoy drinks while waiting.  We’d been lucky again with the weather.

Back at the hotel, Ian spotted a vegetarian restaurant in the guidebook, which sounded wonderful: endless positive comments on TripAdvisor, rated best food in town even by non-vegetarians… He tried to book a table, but they were full all evening.  Not surprising, but disappointing for us, as it was our last night in Punta Delgada.

 

Tuesday

This morning we explored the town, following a suggested walk in our guidebook.  Although we’d spent three nights there, we hadn’t yet had an opportunity to look round properly. But Punta Delgada is a small town, and there is not an awful lot to see.  The main highlights (?) are churches and more churches: we find the Portuguese architectural style attractive, but are less keen in the interior decoration.  We also went in some shops, and Sandie bought new trainers: they may not be fully waterproof, but at least they don’t have a split in the sole!

In the afternoon we collected our luggage from the hotel and took a taxi to the airport for the very short (25 minutes!) flight to Santa Maria, our second island in the Azores.

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Buddleia and wood pigeons…

…have featured in the English summer of 2018.  Buddleia has been in profusion everywhere, and we have seen (and heard) more wood pigeons than ever before.

For us it has been a summer of grandsons and decorating.  Charlie and Oscar came to stay again 28-31 August.  Ian managed to get the hall painted and wallpapered by the end of Monday 27th – just in time.

Outings with the boys

Claire left them with us on Tuesday morning, and departed for Perth.  In the afternoon we went to the leisure centre at Amersham, as the boys were keen to have a swim.  We don’t normally go to the Amersham pool, but it’s easy to get to by bus, and we thought we’d give it a try.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was quiet – unlike any other pool we’ve been to during the school holidays.  There were hardly any queues for the flumes, so Charlie tried all three many times.  Oscar, being younger, was restricted to one, and had to be accompanied by an adult, so he and Sandie used that one again and again.

We left the pool only when it closed (!). Then we discovered an excellent playground just outside, with an adjacent fitness area.  It was past 7 when we finally got home.

On Wednesday morning we went bowling again.  Oscar won the first game and Sandie the second – probably because they used the bumpers, while Charlie and Ian did not.  On the way home we detoured through the Rye, and the boys spent some time on the adventure playground.  They also had a go on the bungee trampolines that formed part of a kiddies’ funfair there.

Next day we went to Bekonscot, the model village and railway in Beaconsfield.  The boys had been there once before, with Maggi, and we’d taken our own children there – many years ago!  We were glad that we arrived just after opening time, because later the place became crowded, and it was difficult to get past all the buggies on the narrow walkways.  Bekonscot was opened in 1929; it now seems rather dated (in some cases deliberately so) and the figures are not all perfectly detailed. But it is beautifully arranged, with flowers and fish pools, and we enjoyed looking round.  We were amused by the names given to model shops and services, such as Lee Key (plumbers), Argue & Twist (solicitors), Chris P Lettis (greengrocer).

In our lounge we had a big rug that had once belonged to Ian’s father.  After some discussion, we decided that we did not want to keep it after the room was decorated.  Maggi thought it might be useful for her house in Spain, so she and Phil came to collect it on Friday 31st.   We all walked into the town for lunch at a local pub.  On the way back, we stopped at Caroline’s, and had tea/coffee sitting in the sun in her garden.  When Maggi and Phil left, they took the boys as well as the rug back home to Bussage.   Ian was therefore able to start on the decorating a day earlier than planned.

Back to decorating

Before leaving, the boys had helped us shift all of our books into the spare room, where they were piled in stacks on the floor. On Saturday we managed to cram in a few pieces of furniture, and put a couple more in the bathroom. The rest had to stay in the lounge – since there was nowhere else to put them – and be moved around as necessary.  Ian was then able to paint the woodwork.  Since he’d already done the doors, this didn’t take too long. And as the weather was bright and sunny, we decided to have an evening out.

We set off in the afternoon, and looked round a few shops that sold lighting.  From the last one we took the bus to Bourne End, and walked across to the Bounty for drinks. We walked back over the bridge and then along the Thames Path to Marlow, doing a slight detour en route for drinks at the Spade Oak, a pub we hadn’t visited for many years.  In Marlow we had dinner at the George and Dragon, and coffee at another pub while waiting for the bus back to Wycombe.

On Sunday Ian started wallpapering the lounge.  He’d estimated that he would finish by Thursday, so we’d arranged to have our new carpet fitted on Friday – the day before we go on holiday.  However, as he’d started a day earlier than planned, and made faster progress than expected, he actually finished Tuesday midday.  We tried to rearrange the carpet fitting, but that was not possible.  We spent most of Wednesday and Thursday going to shops in different areas, trying to find things we needed for the lounge, notably light fittings and cushions.  We seemed to be going round in circles, but finally achieved moderate success!

On Thursday evening we did some leafleting with a group of Lib Dems, and we all ended up at a nearby pub.

On Friday morning the new carpet was finally fitted.  It took three hours, and we were more or less confined to our bedroom, but at least we were able to get the packing done!  In the afternoon we were able to start – though not finish – the task of putting everything back where it should be. The only real problem was installing the new light fittings.  Ian – with Sandie’s help – spent about three hours on one, but with no luck.  We shall have to get an electrician when we return from the Azores.  In the evening we had dinner at a pub in town, to celebrate progress made, and commiserate the fact that the job is not yet completed.

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What’s that big red thing?

When we publish a new blog, Ian always posts a notice on Facebook, so friends know we’ve done so. A photo from the blog is chosen to accompany the post.  Usually we get three or four ‘likes’.  Last time, the chosen photo was of Claire, Ant and the boys.  Unbelievably, Facebook ‘recognised’ Claire and Ant – isn’t technology wonderful? Even if slightly scary!  This meant that the post was sent to their friends as well as ours – and we got 30 likes.  They obviously have a lot of friends!

Return of the boys

Charlie and Oscar were back again on Weds 15th August.  They were to stay for a week, as Claire was off to Sydney.  However, her plans changed and she only went as far as Singapore, so she was back on Saturday.  This meant we had just two full days with the boys, and on Thursday the weather was not good, so we went into town, went bowling and did some shopping.

Friday was more exciting, as the four of us had a day out in London.  We headed first to Buckingham Palace, as the boys wanted to see the Changing of the Guard.  The crowds were enormous, and there was not much to see except an occasional group of soldiers on horseback.  After about an hour we were all bored, so moved on to St James’s Park, for drinks and snacks in the café there.

We walked through Horse Guards Parade and down to Parliament Square, but were unable to see Big Ben as it was covered in scaffolding and boarded up.  Next we walked though Hyde Park, where we were baffled by an enormous construction on the Serpentine.  Going closer, we saw that it was like a chopped-off pyramid, made of plastic logs. Being red, blue and purple, it did not quite fit with the green surroundings!   We looked it up later and found it was an installation by people who apparently do such things all over the world.

We walked across to Kensington Gardens, and spent some time at the Princess Diana playground.  Then by tube to the City, to see the Mithraeum, something we’d only recently heard about.  It’s a Roman temple, buried beneath the streets of London, which was only discovered after the Second World War, and opened to the public just a few years ago.  It’s very well organised, and amazing to think that the temple lay hidden for centuries.

We returned to the West End, had a drink and stocked up with guidebooks at Stanfords.  Then it was dinner, and off to the theatre to see a live production of David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, which was very entertaining.

Latest statue in Trafalgar Square

Keeping busy

When on our own, we’ve found plenty to keep us busy. Ian has done our tax returns, and we’ve made progress with our Sutton Trust evaluation – got as far as we can get until the next dataset arrives.  We’ve joined the local Lib Dems’ group, and have spent some time leafletting. We went to a barbecue last Saturday, which gave us the opportunity to meet some other members.

After decorating the spare bedroom, we got the decorating bug.  Well, perhaps not – we are not enthusiasts!   But we decided we really must do something about our lounge.  We’d been putting it off because the prospect of moving all the furniture – including laden bookshelves – was not appealing, especially as we have nowhere else for the furniture to go! We can’t start until after the boys’ next visit, as the books etc will have to be stacked in their bedroom.  But we have done a lot of preliminary work, such as choosing and ordering wallpaper and carpets.  Since our filing cabinet will have to be moved – like everything else – we undertook another long overdue task, and blitzed all our files, scrapping papers that were years and years old.  It reduced the weight of the cabinet, but created tons of recycling. (Pity there’s no recycling collections from our flats – that’s one of our constant moans!)

Keep walking!

Although we’re well ahead of our walking target for this year, we’ve walked less than usual in recent weeks, because of being busy with other things.  But we’ve had some outings that involve walking, and where possible we combine walking with other activities.   Last Saturday we went for dinner with Caroline, and walked through the woods and along country lanes to our chosen pub.  Next day we walked via footpaths and quiet roads to Loudwater, to look round the carpet showroom there.

On Wednesday we walked to the Oxfam bookshop in Beaconsfield.  We’d never walked to Beaconsfield before, and did not want to walk along the busy A40.  We found on the map what looked like a much better route, which involved walking through woods and then along a ‘minor’ road that turned out to be quite busy, so we shall look for an alternative route next time.

On Thursday we went to Slough for the day.  We followed what has become our usual routine: left the bus in the Farnham Road, looked at charity shops, had coffee, bought flowers.  Then we walked through to the cemetery, and finally down to the town centre.  We had lunch with Sarah and Tami and did more shopping before heading home, laden down with a suitcase, a rug, a shoe rack and half a dozen books.

Slough mosque

On Friday the weather was cool and windy, with some rain in the evening. So our usual country walk to a pub had to be abandoned in favour of a visit to the cinema, where we saw Mama Mia!  Here we go again (great music, pity about the ‘plot’).  But we did walk there!

On Saturday the weather was much improved, though still not that warm.  We decided to do a pub walk, but almost changed our minds late afternoon, when the clouds came over and rain was forecast for 6pm.  We decided to take a chance – just as well, because the sun came out and the rain did not materialise.  We walked to Bourne End, and had drinks at the Bounty, at a table right on the edge of the Thames.  We decided to move inside for dinner, as it was getting cool by then, but still had a great view of the river until the sun disappeared.

Clearly the residents of Flackwell Heath are revolting!

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Home again

We arrived back from our European trip on Wednesday 25 July.  We could not believe how hot and dry the weather was – unusual for England!  Our plan was to stay home for the school summer holidays, so Charlie and Oscar could stay when Claire was on a work trip.

Family time

The boys arrived on Saturday 28th.  That evening, they went to a wedding party with Claire and Ant; the next day Claire was off on a trip, and the boys stayed with us for four days.

While they were here, we went swimming, which they love, and to the adventure playground at the Rye.  We also went to a large DIY store, to choose wallpaper and paint for the spare bedroom, which the boys use when they are with us.

On Tuesday the four of us went to visit Andrew and his family at Faversham.  Ellie was at work, but in the afternoon the rest of us went to Whitstable, where we played Frisbee on the cliffs, had ice creams in the castle grounds and drinks in the town centre.  When Ellie came home we all went to a local pub for dinner, then it was time for the journey back to Wycombe.

On our own

When Claire did her next trip, Ant took Charlie, Oscar and Logan camping.  This gave us some time on our own, which was a great opportunity to get the decorating done. We cleared the room, and Sandie washed down the walls, then Ian did the painting and wallpapering.  After that we had new carpet fitted, and beds delivered.  All ready for the next visit!

During this time, we made a start on the evaluation we are doing for the Sutton Trust. As we’ve been busy indoors most of the time, we’ve not walked as much as usual, and we haven’t taken nearly as many photos – so this will be a short and not very exciting blog! But we have enjoyed meals with friends (at our home or theirs) and we managed to do a couple of pub walks while the weather was warm and sunny.  On Friday 3rd August we walked down to the Thames at Bourne End, stopping for a drink at Flackwell Heath on the way.  After another drink at the Bounty, we walked along the river to Cookham, and had dinner at the Ferry there.  We got the bus home from Bourne End.  Next day we went to the Crown at Hazlemere – not nearly so far, but we did walk both ways!

By this weekend, the weather had changed.  It was cool and cloudy, with occasional rain – a typical English summer! On Friday it rained, but the evening was dry, so we walked with Caroline through the woods to Penn.  Our aim was the Crown, but we were informed that they could not accommodate us due to a big party, so we ended up at the Old Queen’s Head, where we had a lovely, unusual meal.

On Saturday evening, heavy rain prevented us going far, so we walked to Chutney, our favourite Indian restaurant – indeed, our favourite restaurant of any kind – in Wycombe.  Great food and friendly service – what more can you want?

Fortunately, it was fine earlier on Saturday, when the local Lib Dems had a stall by the parish church and invited passers-by to indicate on a ‘Brexitometer’ how they felt the Brexit negotiations were going.  This was part of their ‘exit from Brexit’ campaign, which we fully support.  New evidence is emerging daily on what a disastrous impact Brexit will have – indeed, is already having – on the country, and we feel strongly that there should be a ‘people’s vote’ when the exact terms of the deal (if any) are known, and the likely consequences made clear.

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Heidelberg and the Netherlands

Our European trek was coming to an end, but when we left Strasbourg on 19th July we had three more stops to make: one in Germany and two in the Netherlands.

Heidelberg

Heidelberg had not quite made it onto our bucket list, but Sandie had long wanted to go there, so on discovering that it was really not that far from Strasbourg we decided it made sense to fit it in.  We spent a pleasant day there.

We did a walk through the old town, and followed the Philosopher’s Walk, high above the opposite bank of the River Neckar, which gave great views back to the town.

We did a river trip on a solar-powered boat, and were served drinks as we glided quietly along.

Probably the highlight was our visit to the castle, which we reached by funicular.  Although it is ruined, large parts of the castle are still standing, and the towering façade with rows of blank windows and carved figure was particularly impressive.

Zaandam

We were pleased – and surprised – to learn that there was a direct bus from Heidelburg to Amsterdam.  It was amazingly cheap, too. The journey took eight hours, but we quite enjoyed it, and had a great view sitting upstairs, at the front, on a double decker bus. The bus terminal was at Amsterdam Sloterdijk, just one stop on the train from Zaandam, where we were going to stay for the next two nights.

Zaandam was the first place on our long trip that was not new to us. Ian was born there, and we stayed (in the same hotel) in 2015, at the beginning of our journey following in his father’s footsteps.  On this occasion, the main purpose of our visit was to meet up with Ian’s cousin Yolanda and her husband Ad.  They collected us from the hotel and took us to their home, where we sat in the garden, drinking coffee, eating a delicious strawberry tart, and talking.  We decided that Ian and Yolanda last met as children, so there was a lot to catch up on!  The house is right on a canal, and after lunch they took us out in their flat-bottomed boat.  We saw some windmills, and at one the miller kindly invited us in, to look round.

Later we walked to see another windmill, not far from our hotel, which Ian remembered being taken by his father to visit.  And in the evening we met Yolanda and Ad again, for dinner in the restaurant of a hotel where Pa used to stay.  A real nostalgia day!

The Hague, via Amsterdam

The final stop on our itinerary was The Hague, but we had to go via Amsterdam, and it seemed a shame not to take the opportunity of spending time in the city. We enjoyed strolling round the canals, and up to the Vondel Park.  We called in at the NIOD, to thank them for the help they’d given us three years ago, and tell them that our book was now published.

Then it was on to The Hague, a city we had not visited before.  In this case, the aim was to meet up with Renée Wachtel-Bech, who helped us so much with research and translating documents for the book.  We’d been in frequent email contact over the past three years, and were looking forward to finally meeting her in person.  She came over soon after we arrived; we had drinks and dinner together, then she took us for a stroll.  We saw some sand sculptures, which we did not expect to find in the city!

Next day we met up again, and this time we were off (by bus) to Noordwijk, further up the coast. We went there in August 2015, hoping to visit the new Engelandvaaders Museum which we’d read about. But after tracking it down, we discovered it did not open until September!  So we were keen to see it this time, as was Renée, as her late husband and his brother were companions of Ian’s father after he crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.   The museum is small but the material is very well presented.  It was interesting to read about the wartime context, and the hundreds of brave Dutch men and women who attempted to escape by sea or land to join the Allied forces.  There is a database of individuals, and you can search for their stories.  We found Pa, and Theo Wachtel, even if some of the details were not quite correct.

After lunch at a café on Noordwijk beach, we returned to The Hague. Renée lives on the coast, and after drinks at her house we walked along the beach to Kijkduin.

Later we went to Scheveningen, and strolled along the pier watching (would you believe?) the bungee jumpers.  After dinner, and a tram back to the city, we went our separate ways, glad to have met up at last.

Next morning (Wednesday 25th) we did some more sightseeing and went to a permanent exhibition called ‘Escher in het Paleis’.   Ian is an Escher fan, and the setting meant that we got to see the former winter palace as well.  Interestingly, several Escher drawings were of places in Corsica, which we recognised.  It made an appropriate ending to a trip that began there!

In the afternoon we took the train to Schiphol, and flew to Heathrow.  Seven and a half weeks of travelling through Europe had come to an end.

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Alsace: castles and yet more castles

As we drove north through Alsace, the scenery changed.  Towns and villages were fewer and further between.  Although there were still many half-timbered houses, they were less colourful than those in the south. But there were many more castles….

Sunday July 15.  During the night there was a heavy thunderstorm. We’d had four days of sunshine in Alsace, and thought maybe our luck had run out.  But when we woke, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and there was no sign of the rain.  This was another important day for France!  Even if we’d forgotten, we would have been reminded by the hair ribbons and face paint of the waitress who delivered our breakfast.

It was an eventful day for us too.  Our first stop was Haut-Koeningsbourg, a medieval castle that was destroyed and rebuilt in the early 20th century: it was impressive and picturesque.

But our next stop, Mont Sainte-Odile, was disappointing. It is a pilgrimage centre, with three chapels built on a rock.  It looked good in the guidebook photo, but you could only get that shot from a distance.  Two of the chapels had mosaics which were modern, but looked Byzantine.  The gardens were beautiful and the views were good.

We’d discovered that there was a World War 2 concentration camp nearby – we hadn’t realised there was one in France, although Alsace at the time was part of Germany. While we were on our way the rain came down, and when we parked there was thunder and lightning (frighteningly close), plus huge hailstones.  We sat in the car for 35 mins – we could not face getting out, or driving on.  Finally the rain eased a bit, and we made a run for it.  We saw the introductory film about Le Struthof, and did a very quick tour of the site.

Then it was on to Saverne.  The journey took longer than we had expected.  We’d booked an apartment for two nights, and the owner had asked us to arrive early, as he wanted to watch the World Cup final.  We reached the town soon after 4, but had problems finding the place. We abandoned the car and searched on foot.  When we found the apartment, there was no sign of life.  We phoned the owner, who said he was on holiday; his father would come to let us in – perhaps after the match?  But we did not want to wait outside for two hours, especially as it looked like more rain.

We protested, and soon after the father arrived. We then had to go and find the car, which was a challenge.  We went out again at 6.50, just as huge cheers went up – France had won!  Crowds of people had watched the match on a giant screen in the main square.  We had drinks in a small bar, where we watched men replacing the window, which had been removed to make way for a large TV.  Then we went in search of something to eat.  This was not an easy task, as most places were closed, but finally we found a place which rejoiced in the name of ‘Funny Burger’.  It was a kind of fast food joint, but being French the food was decent quality, and accompanied by plenty of wine.  While eating we saw (and heard) people driving by, hooting and waving large flags.

 

Monday 16: Saverne itself is a working town, rather than a tourist town, although there are a few interesting things to see.  But we spent most of the day up in the hills above the town, in order to visit Haut Barr, a ruined castle. The walk there was pleasant, and quite easy. Although ruined, the castle was more extensive than we had imagined, and very picturesque.

Then we did the short walk to another chateau, Geroldseck, more ruined but still a fair bit to see. And finally we visited the ‘ancient telegraph tower’.  The enthusiastic guy there talked us through the development of the system, and explained how it worked.  It was quite interesting to learn about what was the latest communications technology in 1794!

On our return to Saverne we looked round the town, including some old cloisters, the town hall and an impressive synagogue with an onion dome.

Tuesday 17: En route from Saverne to Wissenbourg, we visited three castles.  The first was Lichtenberg, which we found disappointing – the modern additions spoiled the overall look.

In our guidebook, there was a section on ‘The chateaux of the North Vosges’, which described four castles.  We were not sure whether they were linked, close together (joined by a walking route?) or far apart.  We learned that there are many red sandstone castles scattered throughout the North Vosges (our four were just a sample) but they are not always easy to find.

We went first to Wasenbourg, and discovered there was a 50-minute walk to the castle ruins.  But the walk was pleasant, and the ruins were picturesque, well worth seeing.

After that we had time for one more castle, and decided to head for Windstein, as we’d already seen signs to it.  But en route there was a diversion, and we ended up driving miles, with no idea where we were. Rather than completing a very large circuit to get back to Windstein, we decided it would be easier to go to Wasigenstein instead.  In this case it was a fairly short walk to the castle ruins.  Again, very picturesque, and more extensive than we had expected.

We drove on to Wissembourg, where we stayed overnight.

Wednesday 18: We first explored Wissembourg, by following the river around the ramparts, and then walking through the old town.

Then we drove to Strasbourg, and checked into the hotel where we’d stayed last week. Ian returned the car to the airport, while Sandie did some washing at a nearby laundrette.  Later we explored the Petite France area of the city. After dark we went to see the cathedral and other places lit up.  We watched a sound & light show from the Covered Bridges.  We didn’t have a clue what it was about (not because of the language – there wasn’t any) but it was quite entertaining.

Thursday 19: This morning’s sightseeing focused on the cathedral.  We admired the stained glass, the Pillar of Angels, the ornate organ loft and (especially) the Astronomical Clock, though sadly this was encased in scaffolding, making photography difficult. We climbed more than 300 steps to enjoy great views of the city from the ‘platform’ just below the tower.

And we returned to the cathedral (ticket-only entry) to see a film about the clock, followed by a brief demonstration of two of its features.

This afternoon we did a 75-minute boat trip around the city. We saw Petite France, and other places we’d already visited, from a different angle. And we saw some areas we’d not managed to see on foot, including the European area, where there are several important buildings such as the Parliament and the Court of Human Rights. Very impressive – but sad to think that the UK will not be represented in the European Parliament for much longer.

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