Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Horsing around

I don't like horse flies.

Given the amount of attention they've been affording me I wonder whether I should, perhaps, start neighing.

Their modus operandi lacks subtlety. They land on either skin or clothing. They prefer skin but will put up with clothing if ready access to flesh isn't available.

They then rip a hole in the skin. It's not a sophisticated manouvre and it does hurt. The idea behind the pain is that the victim focuses on the injury rather than the cause of the injury, this leaving the horsefly to leave the scene unharmed.

Once your flesh is exposed the horsefly then has ready access to your blood and will return, at will, to feed.

Apparently they are repelled by insect repellent, but I'm not convinced.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pet crab

We went to the beach today.

It was full of scantily clad people bearing more than a passing resemblance to the colour of furniture we all used see in the houses of grandparents.

It was a drive away but the children wanted a beach day, so we obliged.  The weather was hot, the sea was warm and the satnav said it was just over an hour away.

We sat in the sun, watched people, dug a deep hole, swam in the sea and started a small driftwood collection.  Having been inspired by our stone stacking artist we decided we'd stack driftwood. Our collection was accumulating in a large Tupperware container and it made it into the boot of the car for the return journey.

When we got back Ethan noticed we had a stowaway. In amongst the driftwood was a crab, admittedly tiny but a crab nonetheless. He set about making his new pet comfortable.

First he added water, and then salt. His next concern was food. What do baby crabs eat?

We have an ants nest outside the building and, given the ready supply of these, Ethan thought we could feed the crab ants.  The crab seemed nonplussed by the offer of an ant but Ethan was undeterred.

The next thing a pet crab needs is a name. Ethan reasoned that if he was going to eat ants, then maybe he should be called Anthony.

So here's Anthony.  Advice on whether crabs will eat our other readily available food sources is welcome.

We have grass, rosemary, lavender, olive leaves and unripe olives, bay leaves, unripe figs and pine needles.

Update: While Ethan was in the shower, the following notes appeared under the bathroom door.

The spelling of butt is deliberate here.  "I'm sorry Ethan" "I'm sorry Butt". Family humour.

And it appears Anthony has met an untimely end. No foul play is suspected.

This blog post is delayed until Tuesday as a mark of respect.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Not the normal tourist attraction

We bought a guidebook with us that has pointed us towards some less touristy attractions.

Florence and Tuscany with Kids took us to Dreamwoods.

Finding the place was a challenge. The satnav rejected all address information we had so we relied on Google maps (thank goodness for Three's All You Can Eat Data). Some website somewhere warned of the gravel road but it didn't mention the hairpin bends and the possible state of the roads after yesterday's torrential thunderstorms.

We found it eventually and first impressions were a bit uninspiring. There didn't seem to be anyone around so we just started looking around.

A gentleman in his early sixties (perhaps) appeared. His name was Deva Manfredo and he explained that he was the artist responsible. He produced a map and suggested we might want to give him €20. He explained his art doesn't manipulate materials other than balancing items that he finds (mainly stones) upon one another.

We started wandering around this unusual sculpture park in the woods. The horseflies were a complete pain (avoid visiting in August and September or wear strong insect repellent) but the art was amazing. There were over 200 pieces of art scattered along a complex maze of paths in a wood near a water lily pond and meadow.

Talking to the artist I think he started living at the neighbouring commune but now lives in a local village. We didn't get to how he moved from Germany to Tuscany but I imagine "the sixties" might have had a part to play. He doesn't see much traffic and was delighted to have been mentioned in a guidebook. We had to retrieve the Kindle from the car to prove he'd made it into print.

He works with stones and stuff he acquires whether it's marble factory waste, driftwood or discarded electrical items.

His work is diverse, beautiful, strange, and fascinating. He has a small shed that serves as a shop where you can buy small take away examples of his art (where he has used glue) and calendars and postcards showing his work.

Here are some pictures.

A modest suggestion

Being a female tourist in Italy during the summer poses too many "what shall I wear" dilemmas.

There is a lot of walking to be done. This probably requires comfortable sandals but I reckon you can get away with flip flops at a push. There are also plenty of torre and duomo climbing opportunities. This is where sandals win against flip flops. One could consider trainers or similar but on a hot day that doesn't appeal.

Hot weather usually encourages Brits to dispense with as much clothing as possible. Women often wear strappy tops with very short shorts. This is a problem when trying to visit duomos. Italians, unsurprisingly, take religion very seriously and you must be dressed appropriately to be allowed entry into most churches or cathedrals. I've seen signs banning hats, strappy tops and short shorts or skirts. I think shorts that aren't very short are OK and a t-shirt with short sleeves is OK. I often wear sleeveless but not strappy tops and make sure I have a sarong with me to cover my shoulders and thus avoid causing offence.

I remember traveling with my friend Pam, Interrailing around Europe, in my early twenties. Either the Italians have become more tolerant of tourist dress (or lack of it) or I wear more these days.

Either way, nowadays, you are less likely to be refused entry for a lack of apparel. Attractions want your tourist Euros and will offer you a modesty cape made of paper if you aren't deemed to be wearing enough.

Saturday, 23 August 2014


I always forget something when I go on holiday. I think most people do. 

Sometimes it's the thing you've left right next to the front door to make sure you don't forget it. Often you're so busy trying to remember the obscure things that it's the obvious things you forget. Sometimes the things that get left behind are the things you remember a few days before travel and you think "I must remember that" and it's almost instantly dismissed to the deepest recesses of the mind. 

This time I forgot binoculars. This might not seem an essential item (I agree) but I'd seen a guidebook recommendation that it was a good thing to pack if you have children; it allows them to look at detail that they might otherwise miss. This particular guidebook had challenges for children that required binoculars. 

I forgot a bikini. This isn't strictly true as I don't own a bikini. I threw all of mine in the bin during a moment of self-loathing in which I decided my midriff should never be seen in public. Having seen other stomachs on display here I think I could have got away with one. Also, we have a private garden here that isn't overlooked so the only people's eyes I'd be offending would be family. So this is a retrospective "with hindsight" omission. And I could still debate the merits of a bikini. I think there comes a point when it simply isn't right. 

And I forgot knickers. This hasn't been the disaster one might imagine. I had packed some for our epic journey and I'd also packed laundry detergent. This and a quick trip to local shops has negated the need to go commando.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The times they are a changin'

Years ago everyone took pictures on holiday. The shutter wasn't clicked too often because film and processing were expensive and there was no preview prior to printing.  Cameras were either small compacts or bulky SLRs. Things are a little different now. 

A camera can be something we'd recognise as a camera or a phone or tablet. People even use GoPro video cameras for stills. 

And it used to be the Japanese for whom the people in the picture were more important than the scenery but now everyone is the master of the selfie. 

The quality of pictures seems less important and the secondary cameras on mobile phones and the poorer quality cameras on tablets are even preferable for those seeking a flattering self portrait. The selfie stick is something I've noticed for the first time this year. It's not just a monopod but a way of snapping a picture of oneself and family or friends without having to ask a passing stranger for help. 

Another reason that quality is less important is that photos can be edited almost immediately. 

I also think photos are more transient. We all used to treasure photos and place them carefully in albums. Now our albums are online, uploaded, shared and forgotten.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Three things to take on holiday

My mobile contract is with T-Mobile and last year our holiday was in France. To use my phone in France I bought a booster for £10. It had a call, text and paltry data allowance. Despite being careful with my data usage I burned through at least one additional booster.

This year I wanted a better solution and started my research a few weeks before we left. On one website I saw that customers with a SIM from Three paid nothing extra for calls, texts and data when using their SIM abroad. I noticed that to qualify for this benefit the SIM had to be active for a month before leaving the country. I also spotted that there was a loophole that allowed customers to buy a SIM with an add-on (a pre-paid top up with set amount of defined use) that could be used straight away. 

I did my research on the Three website and it wasn't crystal clear. Admittedly my research wasn't thorough and I didn't read everything, but I couldn't find the information I needed. 

I searched for T-mobile solutions. I found something about a £2 per day charge for calls and texts and a £3 daily charge for something pathetic like 50MB. I also found a reference to the booster solution I'd used the year before. When I contacted T-mobile they advised the web pages about boosters had been removed from the website and weren't visible. I sent them screen grabs to show they were still discoverable and turned my attention back to Three. 

I dived in and bought four SIMs. Two had £15 add-ons with calls, texts and unlimited data and two had £10 add-ons with calls, texts and 500MB of data. The SIMs were free and the purchased add-ons would last for 30 days. We started using them in the UK and they worked perfectly except for one hiccough (more later). 

It was a different story in the Netherlands. Hannah's phone worked and so did Ethan's but mine didn't and neither did Dave's. But the children's SIMs only worked for calls and texts, not data. I phoned Three using Hannah's phone and they explained that their "works abroad" claim didn't include the Netherlands but did include Italy. I was confused because the cheaper SIMs worked partially but I waited until we arrived in Italy. In Italy everyone's phones worked perfectly except I had no data. 

I lived on WiFi for a couple of days and then called Three. Their offshore customer services team were great. They talked me through simple checks then transferred me to the technical team. The fix involved deleting a couple of profiles hidden somewhere in Settings. I was soon starting to enjoy my "All you can eat" data. A couple of days later and Dave's phone stopped working. A quick call to Three and everything was sorted. 

So it worked, and despite the problems, I would recommend this as a great holiday solution.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

24 - part three

While I was busy sleeping and not sleeping and trying to sleep, the Autoslaap train was showing off. By the time I was conscious in the morning the train had changed direction. On the previous day we'd been pulling the carriages that contained the cars. I woke up to find we were pushing them. We'd turned around. After my initial confusion I checked to make sure we were still heading for Italy. We were. Thankfully. 

When the rest of the family were awake we got dressed and turned our temporary bedroom back into a sitting room. We retrieved the table from under the seats and we were ready for breakfast. Breakfast Autoslaap style was "different". It arrived packaged in a cardboard box rather like airline food. There was a Capri Sun (orange), a white roll, a wholemeal (or maybe rye) roll, butter, pate, jam, cheese spread, ginger cake and chocolate spread. An interesting combination but we were hungry and we were out of alternatives. Our attendant also brought us a surprisingly tasty coffee that was pleasant enough that we didn't have to use the icky creamer that was provided. 

Once we'd cleared breakfast it was time for more whist, scenery-gazing and guessing where we were. I'd woken up in Milan and occasionally we passed somewhere else I recognised. It didn't take long at all before we arrived in Livorno at 11:30am on the dot, as per the itinerary. 

It was now that being almost being last to check-in was a disadvantage as we were one of the last to retrieve our car. That was the bad news. The good news was that the chipped windscreen was not shattered. 

While I was waiting for the car I had a chance to speak to some other travellers. Someone was only staying in Italy for just a week before returning. Someone else was doing the trip for their fourth year in a row. There were people with young children, people with teenagers and couples without children. Some people didn't like the hassle of flying, others didn't want to drive the long distance. Amongst the vehicles there was a Morgan and a BMW touring bike. 

As we were on our way I checked to see if we would repeat the experience. The consensus was "yes" but we haven't completed the return journey yet so I'll reserve judgement.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

24 - part two

We were the only ones to have arranged or cabin away from a seat setting. Nobody else had moved onto bunks. Ethan was happy reading horizontally and I took advantage to gain some horizontal shut eye. So I didn't care that we were bucking the trend.
As we moved through countries I gradually realised we'd moved into Germany and the first thing that struck me was the increase in graffiti. I think this surprised me because perhaps I imagine graffiti to be the preserve of a disaffected youth. Germany's PR machine has been persuading me that they're doing alright Jack (or whatever the German equivalent of Jack is). I might expect it in Spain where youth unemployment, or unemployment generally is shockingly high, but not in Germany.
We went through Cologne and along the Rhine. I saw vineyards planted on infeasibly steep slopes and then I started to feel hungry, and thirsty.
The nice attendant paid us a visit. We'd splashed out for a meal in the restaurant car and the reviews I'd read said that it was worth the expense. The advice was to book the early sitting at 6:00 pm to be sat eating dinner alongside the Rhine. Our attendant wanted to know if we wanted wine with our meal and recommended we find her at dinnertime to lock our cabin while we dined.
We'd had a sneak peek at the restaurant car earlier and it was a bit posh. It wasn't very posh but it didn't seem to be a shorts and a t-shirt environment. Dave and I changed into something more suitable but our children were immovable objects and turned up wearing their usual scruffy attire.
Dinner was good, the view was excellent, but there was a problem. I felt perhaps there wasn't enough dinner. If I added the calorific content then it was probably sufficient but I really was quite hungry. Luckily I had some emergency shortbread back in the cabin to tide us over.
After dinner it was back to the cabin for some post dinner entertainment.  This comprised of Hannah teaching Ethan how to play Cheat and Dave and me teaching the children how to play Whist. The remaining bunks were assembled and we prepared for sleep.
There were blankets in the cabin and each bunk had a freshly laundered sheet fashioned into a sleep sheet rather like a sleeping bag liner. There were also pillows with freshly laundered pillow cases. There was a slight problem with the sleeping arrangements. One could argue whether this was a fault of Autoslaap or of us but Dave was too tall to fit in a bunk properly. Given that he regularly suffers with a bad back this was not ideal but he did his best not to make a fuss.

Monday, 18 August 2014

24 - part one

I'm writing about our mega train journey now because if I leave it much longer the detail will get forgotten.

The intent behind this blog post is to inform. I'm imagining a reader who's conteplating this journey and wondering whether it would suit them. Also this post will be split into several parts, partly because it makes it more digestible for the reader.

Firstly, it was our choice to take the ferry to the Netherlands. I think that if you were to look at elapsed time driving and Eurotunnel would be quicker.

Whilst the ferry journey itself was excellent, getting off the ferry and through passport control wasn't great and probably took an hour.

Driving to 's-Hertogenbosch (also known as Den Bosch) was easy and took just over an hour. Finding the right turning for the Autoslaap (Motorail) wasn't quite as easy. It's clearly a niche service and, as such, had discrete signage.  However, a couple of wrong turns and a lot of finger crossing seemed to work.

You need to remember that this isn't a big ferry port or airport used by thousands daily but is a small service used by a very small number of customers. Have faith and look for the tiny signs for Autoslaap. When these signs stop and you think "It can't be through there" it is.

We thought we were early but actually we almost the last to check-in. Bizarrely we were required to drive along the same platform used by passengers. All but the driver exited the car and took the luggage we'd need for an overnight stay on the train. Dave, our driver, then carefully drove the car onto the carriages designed to take cars on two decks. We were told to disable the alarm to prevent any embarrassing flat battery incidents.

We had time to kill before boarding and ate some amazing sandwiches we'd bought at motorway services just before the Den Bosch exit.

The station waiting area was unprepossessing but we weren't there long before required to board.

The train wasn't up to Richard Branson's standards and I think a fair description would be "ageing rolling stock". Everything was just a little bit worn but perfectly serviceable.

We left on time, and before long our attendant arrived with a choice of welcome drink: Lambrusco or orange juice (with bits, as the kids would say).

The train carriages were divided with a corridor along one side with cabins on the other. Our cabin had five chairs that could be transformed into four bunks.

We think there was a fifth bunk for someone short but it didn't have a mattress so we used it for luggage storage.

We started in seat mode but it didn't take long for the children's excitement to require that half of our cabin be turned into bunks.

We sat and watched the countryside roll past the window and then when the children bored of that they stuck their heads in books.

It's quite relaxing to sit and watch the countryside and towns and cities go past the window, and that's how I spent the few hours before dinner.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tits out

I know you might have been expecting a blog about a train but that will have to wait.

I've had breasts on my mind today.

We were in Siena today doing the usual touristy things and that included the crypt for the Duomo.

In the crypt was this:

Now this was painted in 1327. It's a religious painting and it shows a breast.

So for the last lots of hundred years looking at a woman breast feeding has been acceptable not only in public, but in a church.

So why are Instagram and Facebook (Ok, same company) being so prudish and banning the breast, even in a breast-feeding context.

I think the attitude of Facebook serves to make women feel "dirty" for doing the most natural thing in the world.

It's not often you'll hear me saying the church is right about anything, but, on this one, I'm willing to consider their point of view.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

A ferry nice way to travel

At about 7:45pm we headed off for Harwich arriving just over an hour later.

There were no queues in front of us at document check out boarding. We just drove straight on and started exploring straight away.

The ferry seemed very new and lacked the knocked about look that years of exposure to the public can create.

Our cabin exceeded expectations with five berths, a TV, and crisp, clean, white linen all ready to use.

We dumped our bags and explored the rest of the ship. Everything was very efficient and organised.

We noted our rather early (5:30am) alarm call and headed back to the cabin.

Sleep was interrupted by children sleep-talking, Hannah kicking first a book and then a towel from her bed to mine, narrowly missing my head, and Ethan choosing to lose a book with a great thud when it hit the floor.

Stena, it seems have a sense of humour. At 6:30 CET we were all woken to the tune "Don't worry, be happy."

Nice one Stena.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Who said that?

We needed a guide book and a map.

I spoke to Dave about which ones I thought would be a good idea, told him I'd placed an order and showed him the products when they arrived.

Yesterday he went into town and bought a guide book and map.

Apparently he was completely unaware I'd done anything.

The phrase "You never listen to a word I say" seemed appropriate.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Epic adventure

Today we start our epic adventure.

It's sort of a Planes, Trains and Automobiles adventure but with a boat and without the planes.

I'm apprehensive.  Do you get nervous before a holiday?

Have we got all of the tickets and documentation?

There is one thing that could go wrong.  Dave's car has a chip in the windscreen. If it were my car it would have been sorted within the week but Dave's been driving around with this for months, and I only found out a few days ago.

Calling Autoglass in the UK is nice and easy and simple.  Fixing a windscreen in Italy when the train journey has rattled the windscreen into smithereens, will not be as simple.  Dave says it will be fine.  I am not as confident.  

I could have insisted he fix it or I could have said "If he thinks it'll be OK, then I'll trust him."  It was tough call but I'm going with trust.

How do you find the time?

When people find out I blog they often say "How do you find the time?" And "I could never do that?"

Well I say "This is a blog post. It took a few minutes. I could have typed it whilst sat on the loo."

I didn't, just in case you wondered. I'm sat on the landing in a house full of sleepyheads. And I'm off to join them.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A sad day

Robin Williams was reported to have been found dead today.  

It's thought he died by suicide.

He was known to be suffering from depression.

The news has been full of how great Robin Williams was with tributes flooding in from the great and the good, and David Hasselhoff.

The Samaritans have advice for the media on the reporting of suicide; I'm not sure all media outlets followed that advice today.

But the news coverage has allowed some discussion about depression.

The thing that, for me, makes today sad, is that a man died because he felt he wasn't good enough, and that is very, very sad.