Archive for category Gap adventure
On Sunday 17 June, we left Padua, and moved on to Bologna.
If Padua was better than we expected, Bologna was a bit disappointing. It may have been that our expectations were too high. It was a pleasant city, and we enjoyed our time there, but we would not rank it among the best cities in Europe, or even in Italy.
We did like the miles and miles of colonnaded streets, and the colourful buildings (red, pink, orange, yellow). But the sights… Our B&B was conveniently situated close to the Two Towers, one of which (by far the shorter of the two) is regarded as unsafe (not surprising if you’ve seen the angle it leans at). But you can climb about 500 steps in the taller tower, and enjoy wonderful views from the top. In theory, that is. We were about to go in when we saw a sign saying that the tower was closed for restoration, until July. So much for that!
One of the iconic sights of Bologna is the Neptune Fountain – but we could not see it. It was boxed in for restoration. Later than day, we had lunch in a pleasant park north of the town. There is a big (and doubtless impressive) fountain there, but it was shut down (guess why?) for restoration.
The places that we could visit were mainly churches. Several had impressive frescoes, but the one we liked best was the Basilico di San Stefano, a whole complex of churches and cloisters dating back to the 11th century, and built on the site of an even earlier church. We also visited the Palazzo d’Accursio, which includes a museum and an art gallery, and the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, the former home of Bologna University, where in the Teatro Anotomico dissections of dead bodies took place in the name of medical science.
Our guidebook suggested Ferrara as an easy day trip from Bologna, so we decided to take their advice. What we didn’t realise was that Ferrara was on the train line from Padua to Bologna, so it would have been even easier to stop there on the way. Not to worry – however much pre-travel research you do, there’s always more to learn when you are on the spot.
The main feature of Ferrara is its castle, right in the centre of the city, but not on the top of a hill, as castles usually are. It is one of the few European castles to be surrounded by a water-filled moat, but we did not find its appearance ‘dazzling’ (as per the guidebook): grim and foreboding would be more accurate, in our view. Still, there were lots of interesting things to see inside, including dungeons as well as ducal apartments.
There were several other places on our ‘ought to visit’ list for Ferrara, but some were closed. The cathedral was ‘in restauro’: we managed a brief look, but it was very dark and gloomy. The Palazzo Schifannoia had some interesting frescoes, but only two public rooms, so our visit did not last long. However, we enjoyed the rest of the day exploring back streets and walking along the city walls.
While Bologna was on our bucket list, Perugia was an add-on to our itinerary. But it was definitely our favourite Italian city so far. The capital of Umbria, situated on a hill-top, smaller and quieter than Bologna (main streets pedestrianised), and so picturesque! We very much enjoyed our time exploring the city. The narrow streets are a real maze, so it is easy to get lost. As there were relatively few sights recommended in the guidebooks, we did a fairly random walk, looking at churches and other places of interest we happened to pass. Because the town is on a hill, we did more climbing than we’d done since leaving Slovenia. But it was worth it – the views over the city and surrounding countryside were superb.
We saw the oldest church in the city, and the biggest church in Umbria. We saw an Etruscan arch, and an Etruscan well. We walked along an ancient aqueduct, and took escalators that led us down through old fortifications to a lower level of the city. One place we found particularly interesting was the tower of San Angelo. We climbed the stairs to get a great view – but on every level there was a display of musical instruments from different periods, linked in with photos of relevant drawings. And music playing. It was incredibly well done.
The weather was very hot, so we needed to spend a lot of time drinking (that’s our excuse). In Italian cities we’d noticed many people drinking a really lurid orange drink, and wondered what it was. In Perugia we asked a friendly waitress who explained that it was ‘Aperol spritz’, which we subsequently discovered is the most popular aperitif in Italy. We tried it and loved it, so now it’s one of our favourite drinks. Only problem is, when you order a drink here, you are given large quantities of nibblies with it (crisps, nuts, cheese biscuits, chunks of pizza etc etc). We don’t look forward to weighing ourselves when we get back home! And Ian will need to visit the dentist – his bridge tooth has come out again!
Assisi is not far from Perugia, and in some respects it is similar – another picturesque Umbrian hill town. But it is dominated by the story of St Francis, and the many pilgrims who come there. On our arrival (Friday afternoon) we walked up to the castle which overlooks the town. This meant that the next day we could focus on churches (and dress appropriately, although the code did not seem to be as strictly enforced as the guidebooks suggested).
The Basilica of St Francis is obviously the main focus of the town. It is huge, with essentially two churches, one on top of the other, quite different styles but both decorated with frescoes. What seemed strange to us was that the piazzas outside the basilica were quite empty – no bars and cafés, as we expected, but barriers forcing you through a narrow entrance way where armed guards were on duty (though they did not inspect you or your bags).
It was the same story at Santa Maria degli Angeli, a basilica a couple of miles outside Assisi, which we reached via a pleasant walkway, passing by fields of sunflowers and with views back to the town. In this basilica there is a chapel which was the nucleus of the first Franciscan monastery – a kind of church within a church.
In the town of Assisi itself we visited the Basilica di Santa Chiara (founder of the Poor Clares) and the Abbazia di San Pietro (plain, but with some interesting modern artwork). In the cathedral di S. Rufino, we went down into the crypt and saw some atmospheric vaulted archways and Ionic columns, as well as more religious paintings. (We also visited the Foro Romano, and saw more evidence of ancient Assisi.)
Note that several churches in Assisi ban photos, so we are limited in what we can show you.
On Wednesday 14 June we woke to grey skies. We couldn’t complain, as we’d had glorious sunshine for all six of our full walking days. But now it was time to move on. We took a taxi to the nearest railway station, and a train to Nova Gorica, on the Italian border. Then it was farewell to Slovenia!
We’ve been lucky enough to visit Italy, several times, but we certainly haven’t seen all of it. We’ve long wanted to see the opera in the great amphitheatre at Verona; Bologna was also on our bucket list. Needless to say, while planning and researching this trip we thought of several other places: ‘While we’re there, we might as well…’. We ended up with no fewer than 13 cities to fit in!
Until about a year ago, we’d never heard of Udine. Then Sandie read a Guardian travel article about Friuli, a region of Italy largely undiscovered by tourists. It included a photo of a beautiful square in Udine; we learned that Friuli is in the north-east corner of Italy, making Udine an ideal first stop for people coming from Slovenia.
We were at first rather disappointed with Udine. The castle has an art gallery, but the building itself is unexciting; ditto the cathedral. The Piazza della Libertad has buildings and statues modelled closely on those in St Mark’s Square, Venice, but the piazza is not really a square, more of a thoroughfare, and it is not surrounded by cafés, as we imagined. Part of the problem, however, is that the weather was bad (grey and wet) when we arrived. The next day was fine, the sun was shining, and the city looked much more attractive.
The Piazza della Libertad looked more beautiful, but was still spoilt by the scaffolding and netting put up to cover fountains and statues which were being restored. We actually preferred the Piazza San Giacomo, which has (in our view) a greater claim to be called the main square of the city: a big square with one fountain, and no statues, but surrounded by cafés and buildings in a variety of colours.
The guidebooks refer to Treviso as the ‘little Venice’ – it’s not far away, and has canals! It really cannot compare, but it is interesting in its own right. There are of course a number of churches. Sandie was politely asked to leave the cathedral, as she was wearing a sleeveless top! But after she’d changed, we went back and were able to see the famous painting of the Annunciation, by Titian. Other churches had walls covered with frescoes – there’s no point in our trying to list them all, even if we could remember which work by which artist was in which church.
The centre of the town is picturesque, with narrow medieval streets, and canals with willow trees and water wheels. We walked round a section of the city walls, and returned there in the evening as it was the location of the ‘Elvis Days’ festival, which we thought might be worth a look. Bizarrely, it reminded us of the Italian festival in Venice (Florida) back in February. There were crowds of people, stalls selling all kinds of food, drink and other goods, bands playing and people dancing. The only additional thing here was a contest for Elvis impersonators – we saw three, and were amused rather than impressed.
Prosecco is a popular drink in Treviso, and we enjoyed a number of glasses while there. There is a restaurant which claims to be where tiramisu (Ian’s favourite dessert) was invented, so he had to sample that. We had a very nice apartment for our two-night stay; as it was now 11 days since we had left home the washing machine proved very useful!
Our visit to Padua did not start well. It is no great distance from Treviso, and we caught an early train, so we arrived at 9.15. We’d booked a hotel near the station, so the plan was to dump our luggage there and be free to explore. However… we found the road easily enough, but could see no sign of the hotel. We tried a different road where it appeared to be signed, but no luck. Sandie asked a man who did not know, but used his phone to get precise walking directions to the hotel, which it said was just four minutes away.
Unfortunately, the directions were completely wrong, and we ended up back at the station! What made it worse was that a wheel had come off our big case, and Ian was struggling to carry it. He found a visitor information office on the station, but the woman there had not heard of our hotel either. Eventually we tracked it down – it was further along the road we’d walked in the first place. Not far at all, but we had to use a taxi, because the case was so heavy.
Luckily for us, the hotel receptionist was very kind, and spoke excellent English. She managed to find a room we could check into immediately, and suggested places where we could buy a new suitcase. The nearest was a ‘Chinese shop’, which had a large selection, all very cheap. Ian took our new case back to the hotel, while Sandie went on to the Scrovegni Chapel, to collect the tickets we’d pre-booked for 4pm that afternoon.
The Capella Scrovegni is famous because of the brilliantly coloured frescoes by Giotto which cover the walls. Yet more frescoes … but these really are something special. They are carefully preserved by keeping the chapel climate-controlled and restricting the number of visitors. It is necessary to book in advance for a specific time. On the side of the chapel there is a waiting room – a kind of airlock which seats 25 people. Every 15 minutes, the doors open just long enough for one group to enter, another group to move through to the chapel itself, and a third group to leave the building. It is very highly organised (and if you miss your slot, you’ve had it!) but it works and it was well worth the wait.
The other main attraction in Padua is the Basilica di Sant’Antonio – not really to our taste, but impressive for two reasons. First, the interior decoration is incredibly ornate – as Ian remarked, it’s over the top and down the other side. Second, we were amazed by the crowds of people there: we had not realised that it’s still a major pilgrimage destination. But photography was forbidden, so we cannot show you what it is like.
We also visited the Palazzo de Ragione, a vast hall covered in (guess what?) frescoes!
The best-laid plans… Ours failed even before we left home. On recent long trips we’ve managed with one case between us. This time it just did not work, possibly due to the variety of activities planned. We could not turn up at La Scala in our hiking boots! So Sandie had to repack everything, while Ian went online to book (and pay for) the extra case.
But on the day (Monday 5th June), all went smoothly. Taxi to the bus station, coach to Stansted. Our flight to Ljubljana was delayed, but not by too much. The minibus transfer to our accommodation was waiting when we landed.
We had Monday evening, all of Tuesday and Weds morning to explore Ljubljana. That was plenty of time, because the capital of Slovenia is a very small city. The Old Town has some attractive buildings, including churches with ornate spires, and lots of squares with statues and fountains. On one side of the town there is a castle perched on a hilltop, surrounded by woods; on the other side the Tivoli Gardens provide more green space for a wander. Further out there are unattractive concrete blocks of apartments, including the one where we stayed, although the flat itself was fine.
The river Ljubljanica flows through the city. Crossed by several elegant bridges, it is lined by weeping willows and pavement cafés – for such a small city, Ljubljana has an awful lot of bars and cafés! It is the ideal place for an evening stroll, and has a lively atmosphere, with lots of people doing their version of the ‘paseo’. We really enjoyed our first evening there, when we stopped at three places for drinks, dinner and cocktails. Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated rapidly on Tuesday, and there were heavy storms in the evening. We managed to escape the worst, but were quite glad to get back to our flat.
On Tuesday afternoon we travelled by bus to Kranjska Gora, the starting point for the week’s walking tour we’d booked. The mountains were impressive, but it was so cold (and wet) there! We regretted having taken only summer clothing. However, the next morning the sun was shining and everything looked completely different. A representative of the walking company came to give us our information pack, and off we went.
Our first two walks were circular, so we stayed three nights at Kranjska Gora. Walking in the mountains was delightful. During the day at least, it was warm and sunny, and the scenery was stunning. Our first walk was relatively short (13 km, though we did further because the directions were not always clear; we took the wrong path and had to retrace our route). The furthest point was a ‘hut’ where you could buy drinks; we had a late morning coffee, and it was so pleasant sitting in the midst of glorious mountain scenery that we followed it with a glass of wine.
The second day’s walk was longer (20km) and our goal this time was the ‘Three Borders’, where Slovenia, Italy and Austria meet. This involved a steep uphill climb through pine forests. When there were gaps in the trees, we had views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We also walked through meadows, full of alpine spring flowers.
The next day a taxi took our luggage to Bled, and dropped us on the way there. We walked the rest of the way; the scenery was quite different from the past two days, as we passed through villages and farmland. The highlight of the walk was the Vintgar Gorge, about a mile long. After our peaceful walking in the mountains, it came as a shock to see crowds of tourists, and there was not much space to pass on the narrow paths.
… and lakes
Lake Bled is very scenic, and therefore a popular tourist destination in Slovenia. We stayed for two nights in a surprisingly smart hotel in Bled village. After our arrival we took a boat across to the island in the lake, where there is a church, a bell tower and a café. It happened that a wedding was taking place while we were there. We had drinks while waiting for the bridal party to emerge, and were able to take photos before going in the church ourselves.
The next day we were able to choose how to spend our time – there was a suggested hike, but also a number of things to do around the lake. We did a circuit, with two major detours. The first was up to the castle, perched on a rock: a very steep path and then 230 steps, quite a climb but great views from the castle courtyard. The second was further round the lake, up to the top of Osojnika. This was recommended in our walk directions as being a must for photographers, because of the wonderful views – but what they omitted to tell us was how strenuous the climb was. Still, we made it, and the views certainly were great. The lake, with its island, was so incredibly picturesque, we could not resist taking photo after photo. We were lucky that the weather was warm and sunny, great for walking and photography. We were amused to see the crowds of people sunbathing on the grass – definitely Brighton Beach on Lake Bled!
The final two days of our walking holiday followed a similar pattern. On Monday we had a transfer into the hills above Bled, and walked the rest of the way to Lake Bohinj. The first part of the walk was through alpine meadows, complete with flowers and cows with bells – the only thing missing was Julie Andrews singing ‘The hills are alive…’. Conveniently, we found a mountain hut at coffee time, and after that it was steeply downhill, mainly on stony forest tracks.
Lake Bohinj is bigger than Lake Bled, but wilder and much less touristy. We spent Tuesday doing a circuit of the lake, again with two major detours. At the western end we walked up to the Savica Waterfall. After paying an entry fee, we had to climb up 526 steps to a very small viewing platform. Unfortunately there were several large parties of teenagers and schoolchildren, all equipped with selfie sticks, which made it difficult for us to get a view of the falls. Further round the lake we took the cable car up to Vogel, a popular ski resort. Needless to say, there were great views from the top, although a ski resort in summer has a rather deserted feel. Back down at the lake, we took the ‘tourist boat’ back to the village where we were staying. After a lot of walking, it was a relaxing way to end the day.
On Tuesday 23rd May we went to visit a ‘retirement village’ near Milton Keynes. No, we are not thinking of moving! We heard about one being built in Wycombe, made enquiries and were invited to go on a trip to see a village which was already up and running. Such places have never really appealed to us, but we liked the sound of the social activities – reminded us of Central Park, and we really miss the friendly atmosphere there. But after our visit we decided that retirement villages are definitely not for us – not yet, anyway!
The following evening we went an RSC-Live screening of Antony and Cleopatra, and the evening after that to a wine tasting at our local store.
Walking and dancing
The weather on Friday 26th May was gloriously warm and sunny. We decided to precede our folk dance club with a walk by the river – as we’d done two weeks earlier, but a longer walk this time. We walked into town, had coffee and got the bus to Henley. After a look round the shops there and a drink, we set off to walk along the Thames Path to Marlow.
We stopped soon to eat our picnic lunch, and the plan was to stop next at the Flower Pot pub in Aston. We’d been there several times; it has a large garden and we thought would be the ideal spot for a drink on a sunny afternoon. But when we got there, the pub was closed! Opening hours are more relaxed than they used to be, but some country pubs still close in the afternoon. We had to walk another three or four miles to the Bell at Hurley.
We danced Friday evening, and again on Saturday, at a barn dance organised by one of our club members. A hen party joined us on the night, and it was great fun! On Sunday the weather was still good, so we went for a short walk around the Rye (our local park) and up into Keep Hill Woods.
Friends and family
That evening, Robin and Margaret came to dinner; on Monday we had dinner at Caroline’s. On Tuesday afternoon Claire arrived with Charlie and Oscar. She had a training day on Wednesday, and while she was occupied with that we took the boys into town and went swimming at the local leisure centre.
On Thursday Claire took us all to Faversham, to visit Andrew, Ellie, Hope and Bel. In the afternoon we all went to Whitstable, where we explored the castle grounds and walked along by the sea. Ellie cooked an early dinner for all nine of us, and then Claire drove back, dropping us in Wycombe before returning with the boys to Bussage.
Last night we had dinner at Chutney with Caroline and Louise (her daughter). Today Anne came to lunch. It’s been a great week for seeing people!
When not with friends and family, we’ve kept even busier than usual. We’ve spent a lot of time working for the Labour Party campaign in Wycombe – mainly putting leaflets through hundreds of doors and discovering parts of the town we didn’t know at all. Wycombe is hilly, and a lot of the houses have several steps up or down to reach the front door, so we got plenty of exercise! We hope that the Labour candidate will oust the sitting Tory MP; there are encouraging signs, though he has a large majority to overcome.
We’ve spent a lot of time making phone calls and writing emails for the Hornbeam Gardens Management Committee, in our attempt to extend the leases on the four flats (including ours) in Slough. And needless to say, we’ve been busy finalising arrangements for our forthcoming trip through Slovenia, northern Italy and Bavaria. This is our most highly organised itinerary ever! In addition to flights and accommodation, we’ve booked bus and train travel, opera tickets, visits to castles and famous artwork – all of which needed for various reasons to be booked in advance. Tomorrow we set off to put our detailed plans into action.
On Wednesday 3rd May we left our home in Sarasota and headed for our home in High Wycombe. We had to remember that we were flying from Orlando, not Tampa – it seemed a long time since we flew out in November! In our rental car we had two full cases, one very heavy. When we first bought our condo (more than two years ago) we had visions of flying the Atlantic with just hand luggage, but we realise now it will never happen – there are always things to take back and forth.
First week back
Of course, it is never as hot in the UK as it is in Florida. But as we were returning in May, we did hope for mild spring weather. In fact, it was mostly grey and very cool: going from max temperature 30+ to 13 was quite a shock. We had the best tans we’d ever managed to acquire, but could not show them off as we needed to cover up!
Still, being back in the UK had compensations. The day after we landed, our Friday night pub crawl (with Caroline) took us to the Crown at Penn, so Sandie could enjoy her ‘vegetarian fish and chips’ for the first time in six months – halloumi seems impossible to get in Florida. On Saturday night we had dinner at Chutney, our favourite Indian restaurant – we haven’t yet found one as good in Sarasota.
We had several appointments lined up for immediately after our return. Sande had an eye test and chose new specs – badly needed as she managed to scratch her current ones earlier this year. Ian went to the health centre twice, for his regular check-up and tests. We both had dental check-ups scheduled (in Ian’s case, a bridge tooth needed replacing), but these were cancelled at the last minute as the dentist had gone sick.
On Sunday 7th we had a meeting of the company formed to manage a small block of flats, one of which we own. Since we had to go to Slough for the meeting, we combined it with a visit to the cemetery where Sandie’s parents are buried.
On Weds 10th we had a day in Reading, where we did some shopping and went for a stroll along the canal. The sun actually came out and it was very pleasant sitting at a canalside pub with a glass of wine in our hands.
Second week back
We had our delayed dental appointments, and Ian had his bridge tooth replaced. Sandie collected her new specs.
On Thursday 11th we went to see the screening of NT-Live’s Obsession. We decided it was not really our kind of play! The next evening we went to our folk dance cub, for the first time since October. We took the bus to Bourne End, and then strolled along the Thames – delightful in the early evening sun. We did our pub walk on Saturday evening, but sadly the pub where we’d decided to eat was not serving food that evening, so we ended up at an Indian restaurant in Hazlemere.
We’ve linked up with two local groups that were new to us. As we now know, there are ‘Pulse of Europe’ gatherings in many cities to highlight the positive benefits of the EU; in Wycombe a small number of people have a stall near the parish church on Sunday afternoons.
‘Skeptics in the pub’ is a national (international?) organisation of open-minded people who meet to discuss all kinds of issues. The Wycombe group meets twice a month, but the main meetings now take place in a hall, as the numbers are too large to be accommodated in a pub. But there is a bar there, so the title is still reasonably accurate!
On Tuesday 16th Sandie had lunch in town with our friend Anne. On Thursday we went to Slough, for s trip combining business and pleasure. We had to see our solicitor and sort out some things regarding our flat there, but we took the opportunity of having lunch with our friends and former colleagues Sarah and Tami.
21 in Centigrade!
Friday 19th May was the big day when Ian reached 70. We’d booked for dinner and theatre in London, but it happened that Ian was needed at a business meeting that afternoon, which fitted in quite nicely. We went to London by train as usual; after coffee in the West End we strolled down to Millbank, where we met our ERA colleague Lesley for lunch. Then she and Ian went off to the meeting, while Sandie amused herself, mainly by looking round the Tate.
We met up again in a nearby pub, and then Lesley went home and we went back to the West End. We looked round Stanfords bookshop and were then in perfect time for dinner at Brown’s restaurant. It was not far from there to the Prince of Wales Theatre, where we saw The Book of Mormon, which we’d long wanted to see. It was very funny, extremely well done, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Celebrations continued over the weekend. On Saturday evening we had a birthday dinner at the George and Dragon in Marlow. It was originally planned by Claire as a surprise event, but then Ian decided to invite the family. So he knew that they were coming, but not that several friends were joining us! It was a great evening, giving us the opportunity to catch up with some old friends, and meet new ones: Phil (Maggi’s fiancé) and Ant (Claire’s boyfriend). We had a lovely dinner, followed by a mango-flavoured birthday cake made by Hope and Bel (with help from Ellie).
Charlie and Oscar stayed overnight with us, and on Sunday morning we played cricket outside. Claire and Ant joined us later; Andrew, Ellie, Hope and Bel also came over, bringing another cake – this one to celebrate Claire’s birthday on the 23rd. More cake, drinks, cards and presents! Some of Ian’s cards seemed intended to reassure the recipient that he wasn’t really 70 at all: 46 in hexadecimal, 21 in centigrade, 18 with 52 years’ experience etc. But our favourite (and most positive) message was composed by Charlie: ‘To inseventy and beyond’!
Soon after our children and grandchildren had left, Caroline took us to Piggot’s Farm, where they hold music weekends culminating in a concert open to the public. We heard close harmony singers in one barn, and an orchestra in another. It was an interesting place (our first visit), and we enjoyed a relaxing end to a wonderful weekend.
While in Orlando we alternated ‘rest days’ with full-on days out. After our day at Universal, we had a relaxing day spent mainly at our resort complex. In the morning we went to the pools (there were two, plus two hot tubs), and in the afternoon we ventured a short distance to do some shopping. We had dinner at an enormous McDonald’s (supposedly the biggest in the world), with a massive indoor play area. The really strange thing was that they did pizza and pasta as well as the usual McDonald’s fare!
Kennedy Space Center
Monday 17th April was Charlie’s birthday, and he had elected to visit the Kennedy Space Center. Unfortunately Oscar woke early with a temperature, not feeling well. So our first stop was to buy some suitable children’s medicine. After a dose he fell asleep, and was much brighter when he woke up, though ‘on and off’ throughout the day. At one point the fast road we were driving was closed, and we had to detour. Still, we reached KSC at 9.30. After a look round the rocket garden, we did the bus tour to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. There were two introductory films, and then a huge space to explore, with the rocket and lots of related exhibits. In the afternoon we explored the Atlantis Center: introductory presentations about the shuttle and a lot to look at, plus a launch simulation which Sandie tried.
Charlie wanted to have his birthday dinner at a Pizza Hut, and we finally spotted one in the outskirts of Orlando, when we were nearly home. But it was a really depressing place: we’ve decided that the Pizza Huts in the UK are now better than those in the US! When we got back Ian looked up photos of our two previous visits to KSC, in 1982 and 1989. It was interesting to do a ‘compare and contrast’, and see how different the place is now. It has expanded enormously, and become more like a theme park.
The next day Ian managed to lose his bridge tooth, so we had three men all with gappy teeth!
Back to Disney
After KSC we had another relaxing day, the highlight of which was playing mini-golf at Disney’s Winter Summerland – a great course with fake snow, ice, and Christmas music. Wednesday 19th was our big day, the climax of our trip, with a visit to the Magic Kingdom. The park was open 8 am-midnight, which meant a very early start in order to make the most of our day.
We were parked at Disney by 7am, collected our tickets and took the ferry across to the Magic Kingdom. We’ve been there many times of course, but somehow you never lose the excitement. We were at the castle forecourt in time for the official opening at 7.55, and then (following the well-established Schagen tradition) it was off to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. We managed to do five attractions by 10am, just as well because after that the queues were long, although not as bad as we’ve seen them sometimes.
Charlie and Oscar are now big fans of Splash Mountain; Sandie and Claire also love Space Mountain, and Ian’s favourite is the Buzz Lightyear ride (he managed three attempts at shooting the Evil Emperor Zurg). We attended Captain Jack Sparrow’s Pirate Tutorial, and Oscar was picked as an apprentice. We had dinner (a buffet with visits from Winnie the Pooh and friends) in the Crystal Palace, but had to complain about the air conditioning – it was turned up so high, we were freezing and glad to be back outside in the warm!
Back to Sarasota
Next day we checked out of the resort, and paid another visit to Disney Springs, giving Claire an opportunity to do some shopping.
Then it was back to Sarasota, and more visits to playground, pool and the beach. On Saturday morning we did our usual trip downtown, to the library and the market. We had coffee on the bus, and the boys were able to try out the trampolines and the climbing wall – Oscar loves climbing, although this one proved rather difficult for him. In the afternoon we went to St Armand’s Circle for more shopping and another visit to Daiquiri Deck. On Sunday we did a similar trip to Venice, ending up with dinner at Sharky’s on the Pier.
All too soon it was time for Claire and the boys to return home. On Monday morning we took the boys to the pool while Claire did her packing. Then it was off to St Petersburg for lunch and a stroll along the bayfront, before saying farewell at Tampa airport.
The condo seemed quiet when we returned there on our own. But we had only nine days before our own departure, and a lot to do in that time. There was our usual cycle of activities, and saying goodbye to people we won’t see again until November. We needed to clean the condo, wash the sheets, decide what we wanted to take to England, and do our packing. In addition, Sandie was on a rota for feeding a neighbour’s cat while they were on holiday.
We needed to arrange to have our post forwarded, and change to minimum car insurance while we were away. The car itself had to be ‘put to sleep’ for the summer, battery removed and a protective cover put on. We succeeded in one of our goals for this season, to get Florida wills drawn up and signed. We’ve been busy with forward planning too: travel, possible work projects, and campaigning for the forthcoming election.
But we’ve still had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. Last Friday night we did our usual pub crawl, to the Bayfront where there were a number of young people dressed up for a prom. On Saturday we went to the Players again, this time to see the 1960s farce Boeing Boeing. On Sunday we went to Siesta; after our usual beach walk we met up with friends Robert and Kathy for lunch, and visited the ‘Siesta Fiesta’ art and craft show. On Monday evening we went to a meeting of the Europeans in America group: dinner and drinks at a pub that was new to us. Tonight friends are joining us for drinks, and to help us finish up some of the food in our freezer.
The weather has been consistently hot (30+), so we’ve made the most of the CP2 pool, and our lanai. Twice we went round to the bayou, where we sat in the evening sun, listening to the birds singing, watching the pelicans dive and the fish jump, and catching the occasional glimpse of a manatee. A real highlight was when a manatee and her calf swam right up to the deck. We love life here, and will miss it!
The weather was hot and sunny while Paul and Alexa were here, but the morning after they left we awoke to heavy rain. We decided that a trip to the cinema might be more suitable than our usual Friday night pub crawl, and discovered that La La Land was on at the cheap cinema out of town. Friends said it was good, and of course it got several Oscar nominations, but we missed it when it was on downtown, so were glad to have the opportunity of seeing it now. However, we were disappointed. It may be a good film, but was not our cup of tea.
In any case, the rain lasted only a couple of hours. We were soon back to the sunshine, and it was perfect the following evening when we had a party (with barbecue and dancing) at the poolside. The following Saturday we went to see the musical Footloose at the Players; again we were rather disappointed. Next day we went to the Asolo for Faces of Change. A number of local people had been interviewed, and five readers did a performance based on some of their comments. Apparently this happens every year, though we had not heard of it before. This year the theme was ‘Racial violence’. The reading is followed by questions, and then refreshments and a chance to talk to the readers.
We kept up our tradition of spending Sundays at the beach. On the 9th we went to Nokomis Beach, and walked north. This meant we saw the other side of the posh houses we’d seen other times from the road. There were remarkably few people on a long stretch of the beach, but we did see lots of pelicans, and an egret posed for the camera.
Welcoming more visitors
We were on our own for only ten days. Claire, Charlie and Oscar arrived on April 10 for two weeks in Florida. Their plane was due to land at 4.15, and (as when Paul and Alexa arrived) we set off in the morning, so we could have a stop on the way. This time we visited Fort de Soto Park for the first time. There are five connected islands, with a fort, two piers and some beautiful white sand beaches. It was really stunning! We never used to believe that flat countryside could be so picturesque. We saw a dolphin as well as pelicans and other seabirds.
Originally we’d planned to go on elsewhere, but time passed quickly and so we went straight to the airport. Claire and the boys arrived on time, and by 7pm we were back in our condo.
Next morning we took the boys to the circus-themed playground in Paynes Park, and then to the pool at CP2. In the afternoon we all went to Siesta Beach. The boys were happy there, and Charlie really enjoyed using the body board we’d bought him for his birthday. From the beach we walked to the village, and had Happy Hour drinks at Daiquiri Deck – one of Claire’s favourite places! Back home we walked round to the bayou, and were delighted to see some manatees.
Wednesday followed a similar pattern, although we played games in the morning before going to the pool. In the afternoon we went to Lido Key: we spent time on the beach, did the nature trail at South Lido Park, and had drinks at the Daiquiri Deck in St Armand’s Circle! In the evening we walked down to the bayfront and had dinner at O’Leary’s tiki bar.
We spent all day Thursday on Anna Maria Island. We managed to park at Manatee Beach, and had breakfast at the café there. Then we set up ‘camp’ on the beach, but to our surprise the boys did not want to go in the water – possibly because they were already sunburnt. Ian took them off hunting for shells. Later we took the trolley south to Coquina Beach, where we had drinks. Claire was happy with her enormous daiquiri! We walked up to Bridge Street, explored that area and then took the trolley north to City Pier. We had ice creams, then walked along the pier, but it was VERY windy. So we took the trolley back to Manatee Beach, and had drinks there. The plan was to spend another half an hour on the beach – but when we returned to our camp we discovered Charlie’s body board had disappeared. We hunted for it without success, then it was back to the café for dinner.
Off to Orlando
Friday 14 April was Good Friday – and Sandie’s birthday. In the morning we packed and set off for Orlando. We did a slight detour to visit the Manatee Viewing Center: no manatees to be seen this time, but it still made an interesting place to break our journey and eat our picnic lunch. On the outskirts of Orlando we checked into a resort where we’d booked a townhouse for six nights. In the evening we went to Disney Springs, which you may know as the Disney Village, or as Downtown Disney, depending on when you last visited! We celebrated Sandie’s birthday with dinner at the Rainforest Café.
We spent the next day at Universal Studios – much as we all love Disney, we’d decided to visit a different theme park for a change. We’d never visited Universal Florida before, and it was many years since we’d been to the one in LA. All but one of the attractions (the ET ride) were new since then, and several consisted of sophisticated simulator rides which required the use of 3D spectacles. Others were dark and/or scary thrill rides.
We enjoyed just wandering around admiring the sets and the incredible attention to detail. Particularly impressive was ‘Diagon Alley’, modelled very closely on the Harry Potter books. Gringotts Bank (complete with giant chandeliers and audio-animatronic goblins working at their ledgers) was amazing, and the ‘Escape from Gringotts’ ride was Sandie’s favourite. Claire’s thought the best ride was the Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster; Charlie particularly loved the Simpsons ride; Oscar’s favourite was Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster. But Ian, being traditional, still prefers the ET Adventure!