Plymouth and Cape Cod September 2018

This is the third of three posts on our visit to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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Plymouth and the early settlers

Sunday was a good day to choose to drive out of Boston. It was fairly quiet as we went south to Plimoth, as it is spelled, Plantation which is a kind of museum cum reconstruction of what life was like when the early settlers arrived on the Mayflower. This covers a large area and, unusually for the US, you have to walk round it, all of about half a mile.

We started in the Wampanoag Homesite, a replica of how the original inhabitants of the area lived. Inside a house we met modern Wampanoags who answered questions about their ancestors’ way of life. We had an interesting discussion with one of them about their language which is being revived.

Inside a house at the Wampanoag Homesite

The Craft Center houses examples of historic crafts and a few people were on hand to explain their crafts. This Center was in a modern building which was perhaps as well as it began to get much colder as the wind got up.

The so-called “English Village” is a re-creation of a community built by the early settlers near the shore. There are wooden houses, mostly consisting of only one room, all equipped as they would be in the 17th century.

The English Village

Each house is named after a family of early settlers and in some of them guides dressed in costume were on hand to talk about life at that time, as if it was still happening.

Inside a house at the English Village

After leaving Plimoth we paid a short visit to the actual Plymouth Rock at the site where the Pilgrims landed in the small town of Plymouth. It is inscribed with the date 1620.

The wind was much colder by then. Thank goodness for Dunkin Donuts where we got some hot tea. Nowhere else in Plymouth appeared to be open at all.

“Treasured Memories” and fish and chips

In Cape Cod we stayed at the “Inn of Treasured Memories” – not the typical name of a B&B in the UK – where we had a large and warm room. It was in the town of Harwich, pronounced Har-witch, which is close to the bend in the Cape Cod peninsula. We were the only people there and the hostess was very pleasant and helpful.

Inn of Treasured Memories, Harwich

For dinner on the first evening our hostess directed us to Kream ’n Kone in West Dennis which turned out to be self-service fish and chips. They were good but not quite what you can get in Yorkshire and there was no vinegar. But we did get salad. In the next couple of days we saw far more fish and chip restaurants than we have ever seen anywhere else in the US.

Wind, lighthouses and seals

On the Monday it was cold and so windy that you could hardly stand up. We battled to the lighthouse at Chatham then went north to the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor Center and drove round the loop road by the sea to Nauset Light – the Americans seem to just to call them Light, not Lighthouses.

We drove on to Provincetown at the far northern end of Cape Cod. When we were last there in 1977 this was quiet sleepy place. This time the tourists had descended in force, presumably because it was far too cold to be on the beach. After a very slow drive along the main street, passing among other things the Queen Vic, we did find a nice (and late) lunch.

We went out to Race Point at the far tip, walked on the beach and were rewarded by seeing some seals in the water very close to the shoreline.

Close up at Race Point

On the way back we took a detour round the National Seashore again and Martin went on the guided tour to Highland Light, climbing up the narrow stairs to the Lantern Room.

It was soon back to the B&B and then after some research online, out to a nice dinner at Pate’s at Chatham.

Another lighthouse and glass-making

The weather was much better the next day. Picking up a sandwich on the way, we drove west, first through Falmouth to the lighthouse at Nobska Point then to Woods Hole where we ate our sandwich on the beach. We could easily see across to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the houses around Woods Hole are rather large and are in a grey shingled style, a contrast from the painted wooden ones further east and north.

Our last stop was at the Glass Museum at Sandwich on the north coast. Sandwich was first settled in 1637 and, as we learned from the movie, became a large centre of glass making built up by Deming Jarves in the early 19th century. There were some excellent examples of glasswork in the museum but the highlight was a live demonstration of glass blowing.

Glass blowing, Glass Museum, Sandwich

We couldn’t leave Cape Cod without going to the largest town Hyannis where we had an excellent fish dinner outdoors right by the harbour, after the obligatory visit to Macy’s in the mall.

Traffic

Any plans for sightseeing the next day on our way back to Logan Airport were gradually scuppered as we became caught up in Boston’s notorious traffic. It must have been really awful before 2004 when they finished the “Big Dig” which took Interstate 93 underground through the centre of Boston.

Why choose Cape Cod?

Cape Cod is a pleasant part of the US. Much of it is wooded and if you drive along the main road through the middle of the cape, you hardly see any buildings for much of the way. However, except for the Cape Cod National Seashore area, Cape Cod is fairly built-up, but with individual houses surrounded by trees. In the US there is a house style called Cape Cod which is rather like a chalet bungalow in the UK. We saw many examples with painted clapperboard sides. It’s such a shame that so many residential streets in the US are marred by overhead electricity cables. Fortunately ours at Florida Breeze Villa isn’t.

Many of the place names are British, but it is slightly unnerving that they are in a different geographical relationship to each other than they are in the UK.

As we saw from the air going to New York there are plenty of good beaches, but there’s not a lot to do if it’s not beach weather. Much of the accommodation is rental houses or apartment rentals which seem to be catering for families and are thus expensive for two people. Overall it is definitely not the cheapest area in the US, but is worth a visit for a few days.

Picture gallery: Plymouth and Cape Cod September 2018

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Boston September 2018

This is the second of three posts about our trip to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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Getting to Boston

We took the Amtrak train from New York to Boston. Penn Station has certainly been modernised since we lived in New Jersey in the 1990s, but you still have to go down into the bowels of the earth to get on the train which is in a tunnel for some time after it leaves.

It was a pleasant journey, for most of the time, passing many inlets with boat marinas in Connecticut.

A Connecticut marina, from the train

When we got nearer to Boston it became very dark and the heavens opened. It was also clear that the train was going to arrive late, in fact about 40 minutes late – British trains aren’t the only ones that are late. It had just about stopped raining when we arrived and we soon found a taxi even though there did not appear to be an official taxi rank and dispatcher at Boston South Station.

Staying in the other Cambridge

We were right in the rush hour and it took a while to get to Irving House at Harvard, our B&B in Cambridge. This was a nice B&B with help yourself breakfast, and tea, coffee and cake available all day.

Irving House at Harvard, our B&B

We were, however, on the top floor which required four flights of stairs to the basement eating area. They told us that it would be difficult install a lift in an old building.

We were close to Harvard University and soon found a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I had looked for the Indian restaurant where I had a great meal with some digital humanities people in the 1990s, but it seemed to have disappeared. There were plenty of fast food outlets, all full of students. After dinner we had a good browse in Harvard University bookstore and managed to only buy 2 books.

A day in Boston

The Boston subway is called the T and the next day (a Friday) we took the T from Harvard Square to downtown. It was still quite warm, although nothing like it was earlier in the week. It was also somewhat cloudy.

Our first stop was the AAA as we needed some more information and maps about Cape Cod. Very fortunately we had spotted that they are not open at weekends.

After lunch we took the hop-on hop-off Old Town Trolley (open-sided bus) tour around Boston.

The Old Town Trolley, Boston

This was excellent with the driver/guide pointing out many places of interest. Boston has more history than almost anywhere else in the US and it soon became clear that the British were the baddies for most of the time – it’s really illuminating to get another country’s view of its interactions with the British.

We first went north by the harbour, ten close to the house of Paul Revere whose midnight ride alerted patriots to the arrival of the British forces. Next was the Charlestown Navy Yard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with its huge modern buildings. Then it was on through the lovely old houses on Beacon Hill and along the Back Bay, where I stayed the last time I was in Boston for the very last meeting I went to in North America before I came back to the UK from Canada.

We hopped off at the Prudential Center which is the highest tower that you can now go up in Boston – the viewing deck on the Hancock Tower, which I went up once in the 1990s, has been closed since 9/11. The viewing area gave an excellent view all round, including planes landing at Logan airport which is very close.

There was also an excellent exhibition on immigration to the Boston area. Perhaps some of our politicians (and tabloids) could take note of this quote:

Some of our politicians (and tabloids) ought to read this

“The economic lesson here is that countries needn’t worry about too many foreign workers entering their labor markets. The time to worry is when the immigrants stop coming”

(J. Riley, Wall Street Journal 2014)

We hopped back on the trolley and went past Copley Square where we stayed on our first visit to Boston in 1977, then along by Boston Common and back to the Aquarium through the old town past the Omni Parker House Hotel where JKF proposed to Jackie, Faneuil Hall, which was built as a meeting place in 1740-1742, and finally past the site of the Boston Tea Party.

Site of the Boston Tea Party, from the trolley

Back near Harvard we had a pub type meal sitting outside and then browsed in another large bookstore.

Another day in Boston

Saturday was a bit warmer. We took the T downtown to the Aquarium again and then a 45 minute boat tour around the harbour where it was easier to see how much of the city is on reclaimed land. We managed to get a sandwich lunch at Quincy Market which was very crowded indeed.

Next was a 10 minute local ferry ride to Charlestown to visit the USS Constitution, a navy vessel launched in 1797, which last sailed in 2012.

USS Constitution

The ship and the museum next to it chart US naval history and modern day members of the US Navy are on hand to give talks answer questions. Martin disappeared down the very steep steps to see the decks below where there was little headroom, but I passed on this.

Back in town we walked some of the Freedom Trail. This route passes many of the places of historical interest in Boston. There is plenty of tourist information about it but you can’t get lost as there’s a red line on the pavement all the way. We joined more crowds in Boston Common, which is the oldest city park in the US, before dinner at Bean Deck and back to Irving House.

Harvard University

We looked round Harvard a bit more on the way to the T to pick up our rental car on Sunday morning. The architecture is quite different from Oxford. Most of the buildings surround a huge area called Harvard Yard and almost all them are red brick. Most imposing is the front of the Widener Library with steps leading up to a row of Corinthian columns.

Widener Library, Harvard University

I ought to be able to remember, but don’t, which building I was in when I gave a professional development talk to a group of librarians and others at Harvard in 1992.

Harvard’s endowent is larger than that of any other university. The number of undergraduate students is about 6700, very small by UK standards. There are just over 15000 graduate students. Most students get generous financial aid and pay little if no fees which is perhaps as well as tuition, room, board and fees come to over $65,000 per year.

Picture gallery: Boston September 2018

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New York: Gardens and Tennis September 2018

This is the first of three posts on our visit to New York, Boston and Cape Cod in September 2018.

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One item firmly on my bucket list was to go to the US Open Tennis Championships in New York. Months before the event I found out that American Express card holders had priority for early booking. I soon dug out this rarely used card and got online the day priority tickets went on sale. This card proved to be a boon in another way.

Entrance to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center

We decided to extend the trip to Boston, where we hadn’t been for almost 20 years, and to Cape Cod where we were last in 1979.

Getting to New York

Thomas Cook turned out to be the best deal from Manchester to JFK with return from Boston. The flight, on a Sunday, was uneventful and on time, though the food left a little to be desired. There was a spectacular view of Cape Cod as we approached Long Island. We arrived at the International Terminal at JFK, the one where “any other foreign airline” arrives. We were extremely glad we had been to the US recently as the immigration queue for those who did not have an ESTA (Electronic Travel Authorization to the US, a kind of visa which you get online), or were entering the US for the first time on an ESTA, was enormous.

Carmel Cars got us to Candlewood Suites on West 39th St in good time. Later we went out for the first of four nice meals with our friend Nancy.

New York Botanic Garden

There was one day before the tennis and so with Nancy we went to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, about a 25 minute ride on the Metro North Railroad from Grand Central. It was very hot, into the 90s (yes the Americans still use Fahrenheit) in the shade. The garden is more like a big park and so we decided to take the tram trolley tour. There were some lovely trees including plenty of conifers.

New York Botanical Garden

It seemed like every bit of the garden was named after a donor.

Even though it was Labor Day, the US holiday which signals the end of summer, it wasn’t too busy.

Lunch was in an air-conditioned cafe. After that we ventured into the heat again to look at some perennials and other flowerbeds and at some beautiful water lilies.

Water lilies and their reflections, New York Botanical Garden

The highlight was a special exhibition about the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s visit to Hawaii in 1939 and the paintings she did there. Several paintings were on show and there was plenty of supplementary information.

Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, New York Botanical Garden

The huge conservatory was also showcasing Hawaiian plants which brought back memories for us as we have been to the botanical gardens in Kauai and the Big Island.

We had to retreat to the cool of the cafe again before leaving.

Tennis on Tuesday 4 September 2018

Tuesday was the first big day. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Long Island on the subway. It seemed to be even hotter, but the American Express deal included a huge air-conditioned building with a separate area for card holders. We got there quite early and had time to cool down before going in search of lunch.

Inside the American Express lounge

The food village consisted of a long row of booths where all except one were serving large helpings of junk food and fizzy drinks – no wonder the US has an obesity problem. We managed to find something a bit healthier then found our seats in the Arthur Ashe Stadium. We were at one end and had a good view in spite of being a long way up. Thankfully we remained in the shade all the time.

View from our seats Tuesday 4 September

The first match was between American Sloane Stephens, the 2017 ladies champion, and Latvian Anastasija Sevastova. Much to the disappointment of the partisan crowd, Sloane was clearly having an off day and Anastasija won easily 6-2, 6-3.

The men’s quarter final between the two giants, 6ft 10in American John Isner and 6ft 6in Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, was more evenly matched. There was a surprising amount of support for del Potro, the eventual championship runner-up, who won 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. Isner started the match wearing a shirt with large bright green, grey and white stripes, but had to switch to a white one after he had used up all the striped ones. He said afterwards that he had got through 11 shirts in the heat. It didn’t seem to bother del Potro so much.

It was very hot out there

Tennis on Wednesday 5 September 2018

On the Wednesday I took myself to the tennis center and, after a brief cool-down courtesy of American Express, looked round a lot more. There was a huge number of different baseball hats on sale in the shop, for $30 each. I was one of very few people who were not wearing one – I took my Australian floppy hat instead. In fact most spectators appeared to be wearing the same uniform of shorts, T-shirts, white trainers or sandals, and baseball caps.

I walked to the Grandstand Stadium at the far end of the center to see Jamie Murray in the men’s doubles, but two games was enough in the glaring sun. I took some photos but did not see him and his partner Bruno Soares lose the match. Unlike on Arthur Ashe, a steward was stopping people entering the stadium except when they changed ends.

Jamie Murray, in the Men’s Doubles

On the way back to Arthur Ashe I discovered a Dean and Delucca food outlet well away from the junk food places. I bought a very nice sandwich at this upmarket food shop. It was almost the certainly the most expensive prepacked sandwich I have ever had at $18.

I had chosen a side-view seat for this day, but realised the day before that this seat would be in the sun later in the afternoon. In the first match I saw the eventual women’s champion Naomi Osaka win easily 6-1, 6-1 over Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko. I read later that Lesia had nearly withdrawn as she wasn’t feeling well.

Naomi Osaka, the eventual women’s champion

Second up was Japanese Kei Nishikori against Marin Cilic of Croatia. This turned out to be an excellent match. I managed to move to a seat in the shade after two sets, but my view there was getting blocked by people wandering up and down, usually carrying more junk food. It’s nothing like Wimbledon where nobody moves except when the players change ends.

It was also becoming even hotter so I watched the last two sets on the American Express big screen. The winner was anybody’s guess until almost the end of the final set. Nishikori won 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, only to fall easily to Djokovic in the semi-finals.

After another nice meal in the evening we had a walk round Times Square which is only a few blocks from where we were staying. Tennis was the number one priority for this visit and I didn’t mind not seeing much more of New York.

Candlewood Suites

We have stayed in a good number of places in New York. Hotel rooms there
are usually quite small and dark, but we liked Candlewood Suites a lot. We had a big room complete with kitchen, desk and chairs, and wifi that worked. It was on the 16th floor (out of 32) with a big window and so got more light. It was easy to buy some breakfast food at the delis round the corner in 9th Avenue. The hotel also had iced lemonade in the lobby which was so welcome coming in from the heat outside.

Picture gallery: New York: Gardens and Tennis September 2018

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Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

Winter 2018 was definitely time for another cruise from Florida. This time we chose Holland America, a cruise line we have never used before, for a 7-night trip to Key West, Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos, Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and Half Moon Cay, Holland’s private island in the Bahamas. The ship was the Nieuw Amsterdam and we left from Fort Lauderdale on a pleasant Saturday evening in early March.

Go here for a picture gallery.

We had booked what is called a “guarantee” balcony cabin, which the cruise line allocates the week before. We found ourselves perched very high in one of only 10 cabins on deck 11. You can read more about the ship here.

Nieuw Amsterdam, arrow showing our cabin

Key West

On the first whole day we were in port at Key West at the very end of the Florida Keys. The ship docks right by the town with an easy walk for sightseeing. We had been to Key West twice before including once by car with 2 nights B&B, and so bypassed the major sights like Ernest Hemingway’s house.

Key West is 160 miles by road from Miami, far enough for the city to be able to do its own thing. They call themselves the “Conch Republic”, and slightly with tongue-in-cheek have an Independence Day and a national anthem. Chickens wander about in the streets. There are no high rises, just old wooden houses, beautifully done up. Needless to say there are also a lot of places selling key lime pie and key lime everything else – the yoghurt is really good.

Manatee mailbox in Key West

Rather than walk a lot, we took the trolley tour. “Trolley” is American for an open-sided bus. It’s hop-on hop-off in Key West. The trolley goes a lot further than the touristy “Conch tour train”. We stayed on round the newer part and then got off at what claims to be the southernmost point in the US. There’s a kind of beacon there – and a long queue of people taking photographs of themselves, which we duly did.

Southernmost Point

As we set off to walk some of the way back, on the pavement we found a poignant reminder that Cuba is only 90 miles away and was easily visited from the US until relations soured in 1959.

Poignant reminder

We also passed a number of larger than life-size statues.

Statue in Key West

Back at our perch on the ship we saw that the military occupies the actual southermost point where it has 2 radomes.

Grand Turk

Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands was the second port. “Grand” turned out to be rather a misnomer as it is just less than 7 square miles. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and some of the 3600 inhabitants left then. The main town Cockburn is more like a village, but they have made a big effort to get more tourists by building a cruise terminal that can take two very large ships.

Cruise ships at Grand Turk

In the end we decided to take the ship’s safari tour. This turned out to be another trolley, this time mounted on a truck. We had to climb on up some steps at the back. In 2 hours we stopped only 3 times and then very briefly. We saw several wild ponies and donkeys wandering about. The guide pointed out hurricane damage – there was certainly a lot of building going on. The first stop was at a small craft market where there were some lovely things on sale. We bought a small oil painting for $10 and would have liked more time there.

Next we went to the lighthouse at the other end of the island. This was built by the Brits, of course, in 1852 and is now a historic monument. Most people on the tour were more interested in the wild horses and donkeys which were being bottle fed water by the bus driver.

Donkey drinking with bus driver on Grand Turk

A few venturous people were trying a small zip line there. Again it was a short stop – Martin was the only person who went into the lighthouse enclosure.

The last stop was on a rather nice beach where a ship had been wrecked. The driver told us that this ship had been moored out by the reef a few years ago because it was damaged and had only ended up by the beach during Irma.

Nice beach at Grand Turk with wreck

On reflection I think it would have been better to rent a car on Grand Turk. It certainly would be have been a lot cheaper than the cruise ship’s excursion and we could have stayed longer at some places and taken more photos. There is no way you can get lost in such a small island which is very flat and we do have a guide book for the Caribbean islands. It was interesting to see it, but I think Grand Turk falls into the “been there, seen that” category of places we have been to.

“Not” Amber Cove

The next day the Captain came on the PA at 7.15am to say we would not be docking at Amber Cove because of the swell which was caused by a nor’easter hundreds of miles away. This was a big disappointment to us as the stop in the Dominican Republic was the main reason we chose this cruise. We had booked a rental car, bought a guide book and spent some time working out what we wanted to see in this area. It’s a big country. Rather than trying to see it from a cruise ship again, we realised that we could fly down there for a week from Florida.

Amber Cove was opened in 2015. We have not been able to find out if missing Amber Cove is a frequent occurrence, but you would think that they could have built it to withstand some bad weather. The sea did not appear to be that bad and the locals must have lost a lot of business.

Half Moon Cay

So we had an extra day at sea and sailed very slowly to the Bahamas. There we did know that it was a tender and that we might not get on to the island if the sea was rough, but all was fine and we had a lovely day. Half Moon Cay is bigger and better equipped than the one other cruise line island we have been to. The beaches are lovely, but the rest of the island is low-lying scrub. I found a nice quiet lounger on the beach and got my Kindle out while Martin, needless to say, walked as far as he could.

Our ship anchored at Half Moon Cay

Lunch was an excellent barbecue with plenty of choice of meat, salad and fruit. After lunch we decided to walk the “running trail”, which was all of just under a mile on a good surface. As soon as we set off we met a local on a bicycle who told us that 45 people live on the island permanently, all working for the cruise line. He said he was in charge of the “farm” and invited us to view his “vegetables” which we duly did.

We then came to the stingray lagoon where people were doing the cruise ship stingray excursion, walking amongst them.

Sting rays at Half Moon Cay

There wasn’t much else to see except a few hens pottering around and some interesting vegetation. We were back by the dock in under an hour.

The ship left at 3pm and sailed overnight to Fort Lauderdale arriving at 7am. Because there are so many people, disembarkation is in groups and you choose your time. This meant that we could have a leisurely breakfast in the dining room before getting off at 9.45.

Life on the ship

Three days at sea enabled us to explore the ship. Our cabin was next to the large Exploration Lounge at the front of the ship. Shore excursions were being sold here at a desk, but the lounge also had some huge flat touch screens where you could research and trace where you are going. There was also a large number of travel books, a rare thing on cruise ships.

Many people spent the days at sea lounging by one of the pools. This is not really our thing again, especially when there is music as well, but we did indulge in one of the jacuzzis a couple of times, at dusk when it was quiet. The ship provided ample pool towels and beach towels.

The other passengers were mostly Americans, with a fair few Canadians. We did not meet any other British people on this ship and heard just a few other languages being spoken, although these might of course be people living in the US.

Meals

Mostly we ate in the main dining room which is table service. We always prefer anytime dining rather than the older cruise system of a fixed time at a fixed table. With anytime dining you can ask to share a table. Just think what it would be like if you were stuck on a fixed table for a week with people you didn’t get on with. We had some great companions and, thankfully, no Trump supporters.

The food for dinner in the dining room was imaginative, varied and well-presented. There were two more formal dinners with a scattering of dinner jackets, but most people just dressed up a bit more on these nights. Breakfast was a bit less exciting, but Martin managed to have some kippers one day. There was a good choice of cereals, which was a bit surprising as Americans tend not to eat them.

Like all cruise chips, there was also a large buffet which was open most of the time. This was a good place to have lunch and you could take your food outside. You could make up a light lunch or a sandwich with salad and deli meat. Seeing some people load their plates really brought home the obesity problem in north America, which is far worse than in the UK.

Our cabin

This ship has only recently been refurbished and our cabin was well-equipped with an up to date video system including a bonus of the BBC on the TV.

We didn’t meet our cabin steward for several days and wondered if he was a ghost, something he himself joked about when we finally saw him. Most of his cabins were on the deck below. He was from Indonesia and was very pleased to learn that we had been there. The room was very clean and, like on other cruise lines, we had a towel sculpture every night.

Towel sculpture

Although we didn’t know it beforehand, this cruise was also associated with the Oprah [Winfrey] Magazine and an “Oprah goody” was left for us in the cabin every night, including two very nice beach towels which we could keep.

Entertainment

We only went to the big theatre three times. One was a showing of clips from some of David Attenborough’s programmes accompanied by live musicians. The red snakes chasing the iguana from the last Blue Planet series were a big hit. The same musicians, a Ukrainian string quintet, played light classical music in one of the lounges every night and were much appreciated. One afternoon there was a showing of more clips from David Attenborough with sections on how the clips were filmed. It was all a good advert for the BBC.

We didn’t bother with the rest of the entertainment but I sensed there were fewer clubbers than on most of the previous ships we have been on. Most people seemed to be spending their evenings either sitting around consuming the expensive drinks or in the casino.

Kitchen tour

The tour of some of the kitchens after breakfast one day was interesting, but rather hurried. We were given a short presentation in several departments, although the only food we saw was pastry preparation.

Pastry chef on the ship’s kitchen tour

More interesting was the information sheet which listed how much food they get through in a week. With 2000 passengers and 1000 crew it is rather a lot. The list included 3500lbs of rice for the crew who were mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The head chef was a Brit from Portsmouth.

If you are thinking of cruising

We’ve now taken several cruises in the Caribbean, one across the Atlantic and one from Singapore to Darwin. It’s an easy way of travelling and of getting a sense of what some places are like, but I wouldn’t want to do it as my only type of holiday as I like to stay longer in some places. However we met many people who do only ever take cruises.

You can get a good price deal at the last minute, but the cruise lines make more money on excursions and drinks, both of which are very expensive. Most of the excursions in the Caribbean tend to be to beaches, zip lines, stingrays and the like. The crew get paid from tips (called gratuities in America) which are added to your bill. At $13.50 per person per day on Holland America this soon mounted up.

I would strongly recommend anytime dining and I would also recommend doing some internet research before booking and sailing. You will often find that there are much cheaper excursions. When you get off the ship there are normally some locals selling trips and also some taxis.

Cruisers are great users of the Internet. There are forums such as cruise critic where people post often quite lengthy reviews of individual cruises. You can find deck plans of all the ships online, and comments about ports and shore excursions.

And….. don’t forget your sweater or cardigan. It was very cold inside the ship in the public areas.

Picture gallery: Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

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Florida in Winter 2018

Finally, finally we were back at our house in Florida in January 2018 after our enforced stay at home in 2017. But it was 31F (yes the Americans still use Fahrenheit) at 8.30pm when we arrived at the house after our flight to Orlando from Gatwick. Fortunately it soon warmed up with daytime temperatures in the 80s for all of February when we had every meal outside at home.

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Pool at Florida Breeze Villa

Gardens and hurricanes

The house was fine thanks to our great property managers. Martin spent a lot of time on the garden which had been damaged by frost – a rare event in central Florida. We feared we had lost our variegated hibiscus but it and most other apparent casualties recovered rapidly. Watering is easy when all you have to do is turn on the sprinklers.

There weren’t many signs of hurricane damage in our area but when we went in search of a papaya plant at our favourite plant nursery in Kissimmee, we found few plants there and were told that they had thrown away much of their stock after it was flooded in the aftermath of Irma. They had no papaya plants, but we found some at the nearby Home Depot and invested $40. It was doing very well when we left as was the avocado I planted from a stone 3 years ago whch was now over 7 ft tall.

Flower on papaya tree at Florida Breeze Villa

Rural Polk County

Our house is in the north-east of Polk County close to Orlando, but most of the county is cattle country – yes there are a lot of cattle in Florida but they are always spread out, not grouped together in bunches like ours. There are also plenty of ospreys in Florida. I just didn’t have my camera out when we drove under a gantry with an osprey nest on it on the Polk Parkway. We were on our way to Bartow, a small town which is the administrative centre of Polk County. Once you get past the line of drive-in fast food places, there’s a nice town centre with real old-style courthouse occupying a whole block. It houses our destination, the Polk County Historical Museum. As always in the USA, there were excellent displays and a helpful volunteer acting as a steward.

Afterwards we went to tiny Homeland where there is a heritage park with old pioneer Florida houses. Sadly the buildings were closed, but we could get inside the park to walk round. The Methodist Church built in 1878 was the most elegant.

Homeland Methodist Church, 1887

Tampa Bay history and Honeymoon Island armadillos

Another day we went to the Tampa Bay History Center, where there were some excellent displays of the history of the area. In almost all the local museums we have visited in the US there has been quite an emphasis on the peoples who lived there before the Europeans came. The displays here were absolutely excellent and we had trouble dragging ourselves away from the bookstore where the credit card took quite a hit.

We couldn’t go to the west coast without visiting our favourite place Honeymoon Island, a state park just north of Clearwater. There you can walk the Osprey Trail – there were a good few at home. We had also seen an armadillo there before, but this time there were two, pottering about by the trail.

A pair of armadillos at Honeymoon Island

Honeymoon Island is a great place for the sunset over the Gulf. The day was finished with a Greek meal in Mykonos, our favourite restaurant in Tarpon Springs.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College

When our friend Nancy came to stay for a few days our first trip out was to see the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. This was our second visit to the college as we had also been there one evening earlier in our stay to see what turned out to be a very professional student production of South Pacific.

Frank Lloyd Wright was persuaded by the then President of the College Dr Ludd Spivey to design almost the whole campus beginning in 1938. It took nearly 20 years and it is the largest collection of Lloyd Wright architecture built for one client. We did the 2-hour walking tour which ended up as 3 hours with an enormous amount of detail from a rather large young man who had been studying Lloyd Wright for years. Among the donors whose names were commemorated in stone was one Oliver Cashdollar.

The main chapel at Florida Southern College

A castle in Florida

A castle was next on our agenda. A castle in Florida?? We had read about Solomon’s Castle in a book on the backroads of Florida. This was indeed in the middle of nowhere, about 1 hour 45 minutes south-west from our house. We expected to be the only visitors, but when we eventually got there, it was crowded with people, many of whom were also attending something called Pioneer Park Days in the nearby town of Zolfo Springs. Lunch was served in a wooden pirate boat, stuck in the moat. It looked rather like the tourist pirate boats we had seen in Marmaris in Turkey in 2016.

Solomon’s castle

The walls of the castle are aluminium with stained glass windows embedded in them. It was built by an eccentric called Harold Solomon who filled it with an amazing collection of objects which he made himself out of anything he could scavenge. In the surrounds we walked past a mock façade of a mosque and a model of an Easter Island statue. Solomon also collected vintage cars which are housed in another building together with car models which he also built.

One of Solomon’s creations inside his castle

We spent the first week in March on a cruise in the Caribbean, which you can read about here.

Miami Beach (or not) and the Tamiami Trail

There were some guests in our house when the cruise finished and so we decided to spend a bit of time in Southern Florida. This began with a huge mistake. We thought we would drive down from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach to see more of the art deco houses. What we did not know was that it was spring break. The area was seething with young people. It was impossible to park but the traffic was moving so slowly that I did get some photos out of the car window.

Art deco in Miami Beach

We gave up and headed south through a lot more traffic for our night’s stay in Florida City where we ended up eating a sandwich lunch at 4.30pm. Then it was time to catch up on a week’s backlog of e-mail, after no Internet on the cruise.

Sunday dawned bright, sunny and hot. We headed north and turned on to Tamiami Trail (guess how they made up the name) aka route 41, west along the edge of the Everglades. A stop at the Oasis Visitor Center had a convenient alligator viewing place where there were plenty of spectators, a few medium-sized gators and some fish that we didn’t recognize. The nearest we got to seeing the Florida panther was a stuffed one in the visitor centre.

In the Oasis Visitor Center – the nearest we got to the Florida panther

Naples

Our destination was Naples, the wealthiest part of Florida. There are some lovely buildings in the town centre and good restaurants where we had an extremely expensive Italian sandwich, sitting outside near a Porsche and a Bentley. We toyed with the idea of taking yet another trolley (open-sided bus on a truck chassis) tour and finally decided to do it. The heavens opened just as the trolley set off, but very fortunately only for 15 minutes. We had 2 hours of being driven around Naples, most of which was past one OTT mansion to another. The gardens were beautifully laid out and extremely well kept, but it did get rather monotonous after a while. Perhaps Americans are more interested than we are in where various famous people live.

Church in Naples, from trolley tour

Pine Island

A quick zoom up I-75 took us to the hotel in Fort Myers for our last 2 nights. We had a leisurely final day driving out to Pine Island where there are lots of colourful small wooden houses and no high rises. Our main destination there was the Randell Research Center, an archaeological site where the Calusa, once the most powerful people in Southern Florida, lived until the early 18th century when Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain and the last remaining Calusa moved to Cuba. Various sign boards around the side informed us about their lifestyle, but the most visible remains are shell mounds up to 30 feet high. An added treat was an osprey nest in the middle of the site.

The Calusa

Elsewhere on Pine Island we watched some pelicans fishing in a rough sea and had our last ice cream – key lime of course.

A rough sea for pelican fishing off Pine Island

Our flight home from Tampa was on time, but characterized by an elderly plane and the worst food we have ever had on British Airways. Back to Lufthansa for next time, I think.

The gun debate

We were in Florida at the time of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Needless to say it dominated the news for days and showed once again how polarized American views and media are about guns. One TV station talked endlessly about stricter gun controls, while another talked about mental health issues and giving guns to teachers. I watched the CNN “town hall” where in front of a large audience students and parents questioned the two Florida senators and the local congressman.

I was struck how articulate all the students were. Republican Senator Rubio, who has received over $1million in campaign funds from the National Rifle Association, did get some brownie points for turning up in contrast to the Governor of Florida Rick Scott who refused to attend. Rubio got a roasting from the students especially when he did not answer when challenged as to whether he would accept any more money from the NRA.

In the second part, the local sheriff chief did his best to calm nerves and let people know what law enforcement were doing, and a lady representing the NRA did her best to focus on mental health issues rather than gun ownership. Sadly, Trump’s latest antics were mostly dominating the news again when we left. It was good to see so many people turning out for the anti-gun marches on 24 March.


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December Sun in Lanzarote

At last. Some sun and warm weather. After being stuck at home for much of this year because of my hip problems we were able to spend a week in early December 2017 in Lanzarote, at the Holiday Property Bond site at Santa Rosa near Costa Teguise. We had been there before 4 years ago also in December and were confident that the sun would shine in the Canary Islands at this time of year.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Lanzarote

Lanzarote is the most northerly island in the Canaries. It’s shaped like a turtle with a head on each end and running from north east to south west. You can drive from one end to the other in about 90 minutes. The scenery is totally volcanic, with plenty of cone-shaped extinct volcanoes and lava fields almost everywhere. The old Gran Hotel in the capital Arrecife is the only tall building on the island. Almost all the houses are white, and make a great contrast against the black lava rock.

It’s only a 20-minute drive from the airport just south of Arrecife to Santa Rosa. We arrived in the daylight and had our first drink in the sunshine on the balcony outside our room.

View from our balcony

North from Costa Teguise

We saw most of the island in 2013 and so this time decided to revisit some of our favourites. One beautiful spot is the Ermita de Las Nieves, a small chapel high up on a viewpoint on the west side, over 500m above sea level. The nieves (clouds) were definitely missing and we ate our picnic in hot sun. There are some spectacular views from this area over to the island of Graciosa and south along the coast.

View southwards on the west coast

It’s a steep and twisty road with more amazing viewpoints down from there northwards to the lovely small town of Haría at 300m and then again down again on a rather wider road to the east coast. It was only 9km through the lava fields to the northermost town Orzola where we ate an excellent lunch in 2013.

Teguise Sunday Market

On Sundays there is a huge market in Teguise which was the capital of the island until 1852. Many of the locals attend and busloads of people arrive from the main tourist areas on the island. Parking was none too easy but we eventually found a spot 15 minutes walk (at my slow pace) away from the main square where there was a man playing on a peculiar kind of harp.

I got the impression from walking round a bit that there were fewer stalls selling nice souvenirs and more selling cheap clothes than in 2013. Avoiding the area of food stalls hawking burgers and chips, we found a lovely local restaurant and had excellent tapas for only €15.95 for two. On our last visit we had bought a coloured metal gecko about 10 inches long which is now residing (hurricane Irma permitting) on the outside wall of our house in Florida. We finally found another one just on the way back to the car.

Vineyards and El Golfo

As we left Teguise we passed a churchyard with a weird collection of monuments including even a computer screen and model animals. We drove past several “vineyards”. To protect them from the wind in Lanzarote all the vines are planted in individual round hollows in the black lava with low stone walls to shelter them.

Lanzarote vineyard

After we reached the coast, Martin went for a hike on very rough ground, then we watched one of the spectacular Lanzarote sunsets near the salt flats south of the small and remote, by Lanzarote standards, village of El Golfo. Eating there was a must as it was like Greece with restaurant tables by the sea and waiters crossing the road to serve you. The food was very good indeed.

Dinner starter at El Golfo

Cactus Garden

It was rather cloudy on our third morning but we couldn’t miss another visit to the Jardin de Cactus at Guatiza. It has about 4500 cacti in varying shapes and sizes
imaginatively laid out in a volcanic amphitheatre sheltered from the wind. Several were much taller than humans; others spread a long way along the ground. There were just a few flowers – and a lot of people visiting. I’m really into cacti, although the tallest one of mine, which I grew from a seed many years ago, is only about 12 inches.

Cactus garden, Guatiza

Here are a lot more cacti photos.

Arrecife

The weather was going off a bit more after lunch and so we decided to have a look round Arrecife. The excellent satnav in our car took us through some narrow one-way streets to the car park under the Gran Hotel. The centre of Arrecife was built long before tourism and the narrow streets had plenty of shops for locals, all closed of course for Spanish lunch and siesta when we walking round between 3.30 and 5pm.

We finished up on the 17th floor of the Gran Hotel where there is a cafe and bar with views on all sides. A coffee and cake kept us going as it got dark. There was no sunset – it began to rain hard instead. Thank goodness we could get into the car park without going outside.

Wind, dinner and concert in a lava bubble

The rain had died away by dawn the next day but the wind had not. Martin decided to hike up one of the nearby volcano cones, but abandoned the idea of walking round the rim because of the wind. In the evening, together with 10 other people from the HPB, we went to a dinner and concert of Spanish music in the Jameos del Agua, a huge underground area of volcanic lava tubes with tropical plants and a pool. The dinner was excellent and the concert very Spanish – it started at 10.30 pm. It was very windy outside, but we were sheltered inside the lava tubes.

Outside the Jameos del Agua, earlier in the week

César Manrique

The last day was César Manrique day. You can’t go to Lanzarote without coming across his legacy. He was an architect, designer, painter and sculptor who was born in Lanzarote, then lived in New York for 20 years. He returned to Lanzarote in 1966 and set about making the most of the stunning scenery on the island to encourage tourism without high-rises and other ugly buildings. His designs are blended into the volcanic scenery and lava. To visit his earlier house, which is now the home of the Fundación César Manrique, at Tahiche near Teguise, you have to walk through lava tunnels with white painted walls, and into volcanic bubbles past bright blue ponds surrounded by tropical plants before you get to a gallery of some of his works.

Looking down into Manrique’s house, Tahiche

Later he moved to another house at Haría which we visited after another tapas lunch in a now deserted Teguise. This house is more conventional but beautifully furnished and his studio in the grounds is a huge building. Sadly, Manrique died in a car accident in 1992 at age 73. The house and studio are just as he left them. Manrique designed the Jameos del Agua and the Jardin de Cactus and various other buildings and sculptures around the island.

Pool at Manrique’s house, Haría

Playa Blanca

On our last morning we drove down to the very south through the tourist area of Playa Blanca, looked across the water to Fuerteventura (next time I think), and had a nice lunch in the sun overlooking the yacht marina. Eight hours later we were driving home from Leeds/Bradford with the temperature hovering around 0C.

There are just a couple of things not to miss if you haven’t been to Lanzarote – we saw these in 2013. (1) A bus tour of Timanfaya National Park, the area affected most recently by volcanic activity. There’s an excellent museum and a demonstration of food being cooked directly over geothermal heat. (2) A visit to the Mirador del Río (another Manrique design) where there’s a spectacular view across to the small neighbouring island of Graciosa. Perhaps a third is the walk to Papagayo beaches from Playa Blanca.

Travel

We flew to Arrecife on Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford (LBA). Jet2 is one of the better cheap airlines, but like Ryanair the seats don’t recline. It’s worth paying a little extra for numbered seats. LBA is only an hour’s drive from home, but it is not the most spacious of British airports and we had to walk a long way outside in the cold to where the plane was parked.

Unlike several other HPB sites, Santa Rosa is easily doable without a car as there are restaurants, shops and buses nearby, but we like to get out and about on our own. We rented a car from AutoReisen at the airport for the princely sum of €64 for a week. With petrol the car came to less than €100. Appropriately for the Lanzarote scenery it was a Citroen Cactus. Once we found out how to change the language to English and got to grips with the fancy screen, we made a lot of use of its satnav. Driving was easy. The roads are mostly very good and well-signed with a lot of roundabouts.

Accommodation and food

Santa Rosa is a shared HPB site, but all the HPB apartments are at one end of a large building. We had a good view from the top floor overlooking the pool, which some people were braving, and beyond. It’s self-catering and we bought most of our food including delicious whole fish and bread from Eurospar about 7 minutes drive away. We ate out on several evenings, always with good food, and had one excellent and reasonably priced 3-course dinner at Montmartre just around the corner from Santa Rosa.

Tapas in Teguise

One of my favourite local foods is papas arrugardas – yes they do use the same word for potatoes and for the Pope. You boil small potatoes in very salty water (use sea salt) then drain off the water and return the pan to the heat and keep moving the potatoes around until all the water has evaporated and the potatoes are wrinkled on the outside. Delicious.

Picture gallery: December Sun in Lanzarote


Cactus gallery: December Sun in Lanzarote

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Social Media Interference in the Brexit Vote

I have spent some time this year looking at reader comments on pro-Remain content on Facebook (mostly from the Guardian, Open Britain and Scientists for EU) and on Pro-Leave articles in the Daily Mail. I soon began to detect a good deal of repetition in comments from Leave supporters. See below for some examples. Now more and more evidence is coming to light about the role of social media in influencing the result of the EU Referendum.

The Evidence

An article published in the Times on 15 November 2017 and noted by the Reuters News Agency (no paywall) stated that Russian Twitter accounts posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently “co-ordinated attempt to sow discord”. The article reports that more than 150,000 mostly automated accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to last year’s vote, according to research shortly to be published by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.

In another example, a paper published in the journal Social Science Computer Review on 10 October 2017 shows that 13,493 twitter accounts were tweeting and re-tweeting pro-Leave information at the time of the referendum and were deleted shortly after. These accounts were bots and were able to reach a wide audience through re-tweets by bots and subsequently by real people. This paper does not specifically mention Russia, but you have to ask where these accounts were coming from.

It’s also becoming very clear that there was social media interference in the US 2016 presidential election and that this emanated from Russian trolls based in the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg. An article in Wired published on 11 November 2017 highlights the extent of this. It’s clearly in the Russians’ interest to destabilise the US, the EU and the UK and, as someone who has worked in computing and information studies for many years, I can see how easily this can be done.

This may only be the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of research is also being carried out on the role of Cambridge Analytica in influencing both the US presidential election and the UK referendum by harvesting information from Facebook likes, and using this to influence voting patterns.

Repeated comments

It’s not too difficult to identify some frequent statements and topics from Leave supporters and to question where they came from.

1. “They need us more than we need them”

This trips well off the tongue. I have asked several times for concrete evidence to support this, but have never had a reply. This may be the case for a small number of sectors of the economy, but I find it difficult to see how the EU with a combined population of 7 times that of the UK and a GDP 5 times greater can be in this position.

2. “The vile EU”

I find the use of the adjective “vile” rather odd. It is not in common use in the UK. Nobody can tell me why they think the EU is vile.

3. “The Brussels dictatorship” and “the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”

Nobody can tell me why they think there is a dictatorship in Brussels which presumably refers to the EU. This document from the EU web site describes how the EU works. In no way can it be described as a dictatorship. Citizens in the member states directly elect the Parliament which has to approve much of what the EU does. Members are elected by proportional representation and the UK has 73 seats out of the 751 total.

It seems to me that the current UK government is trying to turn itself into a dictatorship with its proposals to adopt the “Henry VIII powers” in the EU Withdrawal Bill. These will enable ministers to change any EU law which is transferred into UK law without parliamentary scrutiny.

4. Anti-immigration sentiment, especially about Muslims

These statements fail to distinguish between EU and non-EU immigrants. Many of them are racist, just inflaming the already strong divisions in UK society. They create the impression that most if not all immigrants are on benefits and are a drain on the economy.

EU countries are not predominantly Muslim. EU immigrants contribute £1.30 to the economy for every £1 they take out. The UK has not implemented the 2004 EU directive which allows member states to put controls on freedom of movement. Immigrants from outside the EU now outnumber those from the EU and are nothing to do with the EU and Brexit. The UK has been able to control non-EU immigration for years but it has had little success, allowing people to blame this on the EU.

5. Remainers are “traitors” or “unpatriotic”

Both these terms have inflammatory connotations of betrayal and are intended to portray remain supporters in a very bad light. I object particularly strongly to the use of “traitor” which points to treason, a crime against the state. I do not think it is unpatriotic to support what you believe is right for the future of the UK.

6. “The EU is holding up the progress of the negotiations”

This is not the case. On the first day of negotiations over 6 months ago, David Davis agreed to the timetable of first sorting out the issues of (1) EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, (2) the exit bill, and (3) the Irish border. The EU have been waiting ever since then for concrete proposals from the UK who after all started the whole thing. Instead there is open disagreement among our politicians about what to do next.

There does appear to be a some progress on EU citizens. The exit bill is being kept quiet for as long as possible. It going to be embarrassing for the Brexiteers as it could well be about 60bn euros (£53bn) which is five times the net amount of last year’s annual payment from the UK to the EU (£10bn) and about £815 for every person in the UK at today’s exchange rate. My best bet is that it will be announced on a ‘day to bury bad news’.

There appears to be almost no progress on the Irish border. Northern Ireland voted to remain, but the DUP who are now propping up the Tory government (at a cost of another billion pounds) will not agree to a border in the Irish Sea. The Peace Process, which has held for almost 20 years after the long years of troubles in Ireland, is now looking insecure.

7. The EU is to blame for current parlous state of public services and NHS in the UK

This is blatantly not the case. Government austerity policies have drastically reduced the amount of funding for public services. You have to ask why the extra tax take from EU immigrants is not being spent on services. The NHS is really in trouble and is being infiltrated through the back-door by private companies whose prime motive is profit. This to my mind is a taste of what will happen if prominent Brexiteers get their way. US healthcare companies must be salivating at the prospect of increasing their profits at the expense of the sick within the UK. The most successful EU countries, especially our nearest neighbours in northern Europe, are social democracies with a strong belief in public services.

8. “I voted leave. The rest of my family voted remain but they have now changed their minds.”

This one is newer but it has appeared a lot recently. It is usually followed by a condemnation of the EU’s supposed intransigence in the negotiations. It seems to be yet another attempt to influence public opinion as polls are now showing that a majority now believe that the UK was wrong to leave the EU.

Facebook

I have begun to look a bit more carefully at the people who regularly post pro-Brexit comments on Facebook, not the ones who only ever write “leave now”, “out”, “you lost, get over it” etc, but those whose posts can, on the face of it, be quite plausible but do not stand up in the face of hard evidence. Many of them do not have a photo as their profile picture or any other information about themselves. You have to wonder exactly who these people are.

What now?

The Internet has created a level playing field in the dissemination of information. The onus is now on readers to assess the veracity of anything they read. I would like to see more educational tools to help people apply some critical appraisal and not merely repeat what they have read online. Sadly, it appears that the UK will be excluded from the latest EU initiative Towards a European Education Area 2025 where member states will co-operate on many educational programmes including “Mainstreaming innovation and digital skills in education”. This is exactly what the UK needs, and sharing resources and information to do it makes abundant sense. It’s just one of the very many benefits of EU membership.

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June Days in Italy

In June 2017 we spent almost two weeks in Italy. Our American friend Nancy was with us for the first 6 nights in Tuscany, then Martin and I went on to the Dolomites via a brief visit to Venice.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Tuscany

The three of us flew from Manchester to Bologna (see below for practicalities) then picked up a rental car to drive to Castello di Fulignano, near the tiny village of Casaglia, where we had rented an apartment for 6 days. The Castello is an old Italian building on the top of a hill not far from Poggibonsi and we had a spectacular view from our living room to the towers of San Gimignano.

View towards San Gimignano from our apartment

The apartment was furnished in traditional Tuscan style and was very well-equipped. There was a wonderful sunset on our first evening there, while we ate in the outdoor restaurant.

It was by no means our first visit to Tuscany but the scenery was as beautiful as ever and it was nicely hot. A day in Siena included walking round the old streets, lunch at a restaurant in the campo, and the cathedral. It was also our first encounter with large tourist crowds. Parking was easy there as there are a series of escalators up to the old town from the car park.

Palazzo Publico, Siena. Yes, people were at the top

On another day we took a drive round what is now called Chiantishire where there are many more hilltop villages. After a bit of shopping in Castellini we had an excellent lunch on a terrace at Volpaia.

I did not venture out every day as the aftermath of my hip operation was still troubling me, and I had visited this area before. The other two went to Volterra and also to Florence where the crowds were enormous. There was no hope of getting into the Accademia but advance tickets for the Uffizi worked out fine.

We ate 4 dinners in San Gimignano. There are several car parks around the bottom of the old town. Car parks 3 and 4 are near a lift whch takes you up to the quieter end where we had two excellent meals. One restaurant in the main square was a bit variable, but the nearby gelateria had about 40 flavours.

Venice

We drove up to the Venice area, where Nancy meeting her daughter to go on a cruise, and stayed in Chioggia on the south side of the lagoon. Chioggia is a kind of mini-Venice
with real fishing boats and canals. About 50,000 people live there and there aren’t many tourists. You can go to Venice from there by boat and bus, but I declined this journey and watched the locals for a long time.

We stayed at B&B Antico Orologio which was an excellent choice The owner met us at a car park on the edge of the town where non-residents have to park. Our room and the sitting room were lovely and breakfast included a strawberry tart made by his mother. Dinner at a local fish restaurant was entertaining as we were floundering a bit with the menu which was only in Italian. The owner finally brought out a whole raw fish to show us what a rombo is – it turned out to be a kind of brill or flatfish. We finished our meal at a nearby gelateria. Only in Italy do you see so many groups of adults eating ice cream in the street.

The next day we decided to tackle Venice. We drove round the lagoon and then across the causeway to the Tronchetto car park which claims to be the largest in Europe with almost 4000 places. From there we took the waterbus number 2 which went down the Grand Canal.

Waterbus on the Grand Canal, Venice

There was obviously little change in the buildings since we were last there in 1969, but many many more crowds.

Gondola traffic jam, Venice

You could hardly move for people in San Marco where a long queue for the cathedral snaked round. We made our way through the alleyways via a good pizza lunch to Rialto and the obligatory photo of the bridge, then soon took the waterbus back to the car.

Rialto, Venice

Dolomites

Although we had been to the Alps several times, we had never seen the Dolomites and so took a gamble on the weather and booked 3 nights half board at the Pension Sellablick in the village of Colfosco. This also turned out to be an excellent choice. It’s a small village and we were on the edge with a nice view down to another valley.

View down to Corvara, Colfosco to the left

The food at Sellablick was excellent. On the whole we prefer to eat out at local restaurants but half-board came up as a good deal on booking.com. Breakfast was like what you get in Germany or Austria with ham, cheese, eggs etc not just the Italian breakfast of a sweet pastry and coffee. When we ate dinner out elsewhere the menu was a la carte and we just selected one or two courses usually with an antipasto then a pasta or main dish. At Sellablick we had salad, then an antipasto, followed by primo (pasta), then secundo (main dish) and a dessert. I declined the primo after the first day.

On our first full day there we discovered that it was Bike Day when hundreds of masochistic cyclists were doing the 58km Sellaronda which includes three 2000m passes. The road was closed until 3.30 but after that we just took a drive up to the Passo di Gardena.

The weather was kind to us on the second day when we decided to drive the Sellaronda. Plenty of cyclists were going round again. We stopped at each of the passes, having lunch at one of them. Some of the place names were in Ladin as well as Italian and German.

View from Sellaronda, Dolomites

The Dolomite peaks are more jagged than elsewhere in the Alps, and were just as spectacular even when cloud was swirling around. There were plenty of signposts for walking trails but I think many of them must be very steep. We didn’t see anybody on a via ferrata where you have to go up iron rungs holding on to a cable.

There were plenty of motorcyclists as well, but driving was fine even when we met the local bus. We did take one or two side trips, but returned pleased that we had chosen Colfosco and Sellablick.

The weather started to go off after that with some rain and thunder. We left Colfosco, drove over some of the passes again (yet more cyclists) and south towards San Martino Castrozza, stopping at a few villages where we discovered that, although the scenery looks like Austria, opening hours are definitely Italian with long lunch breaks. There were several small churches with lovely frescos on the outside.

Fresco outside chapel at Tesero

Then we were in an area where there appeared to be fewer tourists. Lunch was beginning to look difficult until we found an excellent pizzeria in Predazzo which was almost full of locals, not surprisingly as there were about 30 different pizzas on the menu.

San Martino Castrozza is a larger place, more like a ski resort and with the one-way streets we had some trouble finding the Park Hotel Miramonti which had few guests who all seemed to be Italians. It was a bit more basic and institutional than the Sellablick but they did give us a room which was definitely miramonti and we took some good pictures of the jagged mountains which turn pink in the sunset.

Sunset on the Dolomites, San Martino di Castrozza

Our last night was at Asolo which is just on the edge of the mountains. It was downhill quite some way from San Martino Castrozza and after more sight-seeing (churches) and lunch (another local pizzeria) we got into some heavy traffic and a thunderstorm. Our B&B was not actually in Asolo but 2-3km outside on the flatter land. Ca’ Cinel Asolo turned out to be another old house in lovely gardens. The owners spoke excellent English and their four dogs made us feel at home.

B&B Ca’ Cinel, Asolo

We decided to go to the old hilltop part of Asolo for dinner and had to walk up some way from the car park. We had just reached a long colonnade by the first buildings when another thunderstorm started and so we ate in a local restaurant there, well-looked after as we were the only customers. We watched a torrent of water rushing down the street as we ate, but it soon cleared and we even found another gelateria on the way back to the B&B.

Driving back to Bologna was no problem until we got very near to the airport and had trouble finding a petrol station. There was a long queue at the Ryanair bagdrop but Manchester passengers were being picked out to jump the queue. The line for security was also chaotic but having a walking stick does wonders if you are in a hurry and we were soon at the gate.

Practicalities

We flew on Ryanair from Manchester to Bologna and back. These full flights were better than our rather low expectations. It’s well worth paying a little extra to sit together (no middle seats a long way away from each other!) and to be sure that your larger carry-on doesn’t get put in the hold. Leg-room was OK for a short trip but the seat does not recline and there is no seat-back pocket. The food we purchased on the way back was a reasonable price and quite edible. They board the plane through stairs at the front and back and so there is no jetway. Fortunately Manchester did not live up to its weather reputation – we would have got rather wet if it had.

We rented a car for the entire trip from Alamo and had an almost new diesel Golf. There was a long queue at the rental desk at Bologna and the sole agent was taking about 5 minutes for each person. The cars were only a short walk from the terminal in tiny parking spaces, as we discovered everywhere in Italy. Diesel was about the same price as in the UK.

Driving was absolutely fine. We took the autostrada where we could. There is a ticket system for tolls and the machines took credit cards easily. We stopped at several service stations which were all very clean indeed, with plenty of things to buy and good coffee, but a little cramped inside. Car parks at the tourist places were well-organized. Instructions at the ticket machines were in several languages and they all took credit cards.

Our elderly satnav was excellent except for a few new one-way streets. We also used a Michelin map of all of Italy, a Geocenter map of Tuscany and a Marco Polo map of Austria which includes the Dolomites. We already had all of these and some guide books to which we added the Lonely Planet Florence and Tuscany.

All our accommodation was reserved through booking.com which we find to be the best site to use. More often than not the hotel e-mails you with more information.

We paid for everything with a Halifax Clarity credit card which does not make any charges for foreign currency transactions. Even after the fall in the pound after the EU referendum we found prices to be very reasonable. The yardstick of two scoops from the gelateria was mostly 2.50 euros.

The Internet worked well wherever we stayed, although there was no signal in our room at Colfosco, only in the bar. We made plenty of use of the new EU-wide facility of no mobile phone roaming charges.

Picture gallery: June Days in Italy

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Turkeys, Christmas and Brexit

For weeks I have been asking various Internet forums why people voted Leave. I have never had a reply except for one which is best politely paraphrased as ‘Don’t you know, stupid’. Well, I don’t know why.

But I can see what they have voted for:

1. Higher food prices. Fruit and vegetable growers and producers in the UK rely heavily on cheap labour from EU countries. There is plenty of evidence that many of these workers are not returning this year. The farmers and producers say that they cannot get British labour to work for the same wages and the same long hours and will have to pay more.
Result: higher food prices and/or food rotting in the fields.

2. Rising prices. The 15-20% fall in the value of the pound the day after the referendum is hitting the price of everything imported, now that the period of currency hedging used by many businesses has run out. It would be worse if the cost of oil (priced in US dollars) had not fallen.
Result: more households in poverty.

3. Loss of single market access which takes 44% of UK exports and is on our doorstep. A trade deal with the EU will mean keeping EU regulations which define the specifications for items which are traded. Each trade deal with another country requires specifications to be defined just for that deal.
Result: higher prices and less choice in the shops.

4. Problems in the supply chain. Some parts for manufactured goods and cars are made in other EU countries. Over 5000 trucks carrying many kinds of goods pass through the port of Dover every day with little paperwork now. Outside the EU, customs checks will be imposed and tariffs charged on these items.
Result: paperwork delays; international businesses moving their operations into another EU country.
Result: more UK unemployment. One example: BMW employ 4500 people at their Mini plant in Oxford, but they now are looking to build their electric Mini in Germany.

5. Higher airfares. The EU and US have an Open Skies agreement which has freed airlines from many previous restrictions on where they can fly. This has led to very cheap airfares across Europe. Dublin-based Ryanair are already planning their schedules for 2019 cutting out many flights from the UK, and Easyjet are looking for a new base within the EU.
Result: higher fares and fewer flights.

6. No compensation for delayed flights. At present an EU regulation allows delayed air travellers to claim compensation of up to 600 euros for delays over 3 hours.
Result: delayed travellers will have to pay for extra food and accommodation etc.

7. Roaming charges. A new EU directive removes mobile phone roaming charges within in the EU from mid-June 2017.
Result: roaming charges will be re-imposed.

8. Loss of protection for the environment. 3 examples here:
1. Clean beaches. These are protected by an EU regulation which ensures that beaches are not polluted by waste and sewage which I clearly remember seeing floating in the sea when I was young.
2. Clean water. Surely nobody in the UK wants a repeat of what happened in Flint, Michigan where the water supply has been seriously contaminated because of lax controls.
3. Fracking. A particular issue in Upper Nidderdale where I live and where the geology is suitable.
The Conservatives plan to copy all EU laws and regulations into UK law and then unpick and rewrite them. There are so many that they want to use a system which dates back to the absolute monarchy of Henry VIII to enable some of this to be done by a committee not by acts of parliament.
Result: influence from big business to serve their own ends with no scrutiny and fewer environmental controls (a bonfire of regulations).

9. Loss of funding for scientific and medical research where the UK is a world leader. This is not just the funding but revenue from any spin-off businesses from the research.
Result: loss of status and reputation of UK universities, and, with loss of talented staff, poorer education for the next generation.

10. Loss of revenue from international students. Numbers are already down. Result: loss of an estimated £26bn per year to the economy, and loss of reputation.

11. A downturn in financial services which are about 11% of the economy. One example: J P Morgan have just bought an office block in Dublin and plan to move several thousand people there from the UK so that they can keep the EU passporting rights for banking.
Result: loss of revenue from taxes, and money spent by financiers in restaurants, shops, retail etc.

12. Increased need for benefits payments for those who have been made unemployed.
Result: higher taxes for everyone else.

13. Fewer safety guarantees for nuclear fuel which the UK gets through the EU agency Euratom.
Result: brings the unthinkable a bit nearer.

14. A divisive society. The UK has had a reputation for being tolerant and fair. I am appalled at the vitriol directed to immigrants which I have found in the forums of the Brexit-supporting tabloids. It is disappointing that so many people fomenting this anger do not appear to know that half the immigrants in the UK are not from the EU and are nothing to do with Brexit, and that many of the people perceived to be immigrants were actually born in the UK.
Result: the potential backlash is frightening.

Common sense clearly indicates that any deal with the EU will be worse for the UK than being a member. Leaving the single market and the customs union is bound to lead to job losses. The UK is apparently now at the back of the queue for a trade deal with the US, which is in my view a good thing as I would not want to see US-style healthcare here. But chasing trade deals with much smaller economies halfway round the world doesn’t make sense either.

It would appear that immigration was a factor in the referendum vote. It is now clear that the NHS, care homes, and the construction and hospitality industries cannot function effectively without immigrants from the EU. Nurses from other EU countries are leaving just at the time when applications for nursing courses are down 23% because the government has cancelled the bursary scheme for nurses’ training.

Finally, the Tory and Labour election manifestos appear to have been written for a parallel universe where Brexit does not exist. Promises are made but nobody can predict how bad the downturn in the economy will be or how much money will be in the public purse. One thing is certain: in the last few weeks the downturn in the economy has already begun. The turkey vote is getting nearer to Christmas.

PS If you want to read more about the likely impact of Brexit on various areas of the economy and industry, I strongly recommend Richard Corbett’s blog.

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Brainwashing Brexit

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this government is trying to brainwash the country into a hard Brexit. Just after Theresa May became Prime Minister we heard ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Empty words. A few days later we were going to have a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’. More empty words. Or does that mean we are going to be inextricably linked to the French Tricolour?

We were constantly being told that an ‘overwhelming majority’ voted to Leave. Can these people not do their sums? At the end of January I wrote to my MP (who originally supported Remain) to urge him to vote against the bill to trigger article 50. He replied very quickly with what I now think is his standard letter number 1. It said that an ‘overwhelming majority’ voted to leave. It is now 6 weeks since I replied asking him why he thought that it was an overwhelming majority when Nigel Farage said that 52%-48% was ‘unfinished business’. He hasn’t seen fit to reply yet, to this and to some other points in my letter.

Before this fiasco I thought that Theresa May was one of our better politicians, perhaps because she kept her head down. But now I see only an unwillingness even to consider the views of the 48% who voted remain and to compromise on this hard Brexit agenda. How dare she accuse Nicola Sturgeon of tunnel vision?

Without Gina Miller, the government was planning to go ahead and trigger article 50 just railroading Parliament without any debate. They spent a lot of money pursuing their agenda fighting this case, to no avail.

The U-turn on the Budget NICs proposal happened because somebody spotted that it went against what was in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. What has happened to the statement in this manifesto that we would seek to remain in the single market? In her Lancaster House speech Mrs May said that we are leaving the single market, this apparently only 2 hours after she told Nicola Sturgeon that our position on the single market was still unclear. No wonder Ms Sturgeon is upset and annoyed at the treatment of Scotland which voted strongly to remain. This seems to be yet another case of railroading the opposition.

When Brexiteers such as Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg appear on TV they just repeat that the people have voted and that we are leaving the EU. When Boris appears we are promised a nirvana of a booming economy with no specific details.

And where is the official opposition? Jeremy Corbyn has just been keeping a very low profile except to whip his MPs into voting to trigger article 50. It has been left to the LibDems, the SNP, the one Green MP and Ken Clarke to fight this in the House of Commons. A better opposition leader could have got a coalition together to fight the hard Brexit agenda, but Corbyn just allowed himself to be brainwashed as well.

Fuelling this brainwashing is the Daily Mail which has a huge online readership. I have spent some time reading its pro-Brexit articles and looking over the thousands of comments they generate. Most of these comments are one-liners just urging the government to get on with getting us out of the EU, or they are derogatory and sometimes racist comments about any public figure who speaks up against Brexit. There is an assumption that Brexit is ‘the will of the people’ when actually only 37% of the electorate voted for it. I have found very little discussion of the issues and there are almost no replies when I raise any issues. Most of the comments forums are described as ‘unmoderated’, but I have good reason to believe otherwise.

Whenever they are mentioned in the Mail, the LibDems are in the firing line, being dismissed as irrelevant with disparaging comments about individuals. The LibDems have won far more council by-elections than any other party since the referendum. They were close to overturning David Cameron’s 23,000 majority in the Witney by-election. They won Richmond and increased their share of the vote in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland.

The recent letter by 70+ individuals complaining about the BBC’s reporting of Brexit is just another instance of this brainwashing. The BBC goes out of its way to present both sides in any news item and to have fair and impartial representation on any panel discussion. Yet this letter generated a torrent of anger against the BBC in the Daily Mail forums, calling it far too left-wing and biased. Looking more deeply into these comments it appears that many of these people do not follow current affairs on the media, and nobody has yet been able to give me example of its so-called ‘biased’ reporting.

I, for one, am very fed up with this brainwashing. I fully accept that some people have good reasons for supporting Leave, but I am disappointed that so many predominantly Leave voters seem unable to look at the situation objectively and are just succumbing to this brainwashing. It’s time that our politicians stood up to the pro-Brexit press. And it is time for a more concerted fightback against this folly.

Postscript. As I was getting ready to post this, I discovered that the pro-EU march in London on 25 March is not being reported on the BBC web site. It got only 2 very short sentences in the 1pm news on Radio 4. This is more like censorship than brainwashing. Censorship is what happens in dictatorships and dysfunctional countries. Are we heading that way?

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