Sunshine

29 Jan

blog javea lunctime

I think it’s fair to say I haven’t really been myself this month. Returning to Spain was something I longed for and yet as we were driving into Jávea a couple of weeks ago I felt decidedly down. Neil has definitely borne the brunt of this; I know I have been even more irritable and intolerant than usual.

The time we’ve spent with friends, regular exercise, perhaps, and the general way of life here have all played their part in alleviating this feeling. But, the bright and breezy days we’ve mostly had since we got back are a tonic I wish could be prescribed on the NHS. As John Denver sang “sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy”( Video here ) To be able to lift my face up to the warmth and brightness in winter is a privilege. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped nagging Neil, mind. 

blog cap prim cathy

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a day that I could give you
I’d give to you the day just like today
If I had a song that I could sing for you
I’d sing a song to make you feel this way

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a tale that I could tell you
I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I’d make a wish for sunshine for all the while

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high
Sunshine almost all the time makes me high

Words by John Denver, Music by John Denver, Dick Kniss and Mike Taylor

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A Last Goodbye

28 Dec

 

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It’s Christmas Eve and we’re sitting on a plane flying home. Except it won’t be home I go to, I’m not even sure where that is anymore. No, although we will drive to what will always be my home town, it’s a nursing home that’s our destination. Mum is dying.

I’ve said my goodbyes; I do every time I leave, never knowing if I’ll see her again. But I desperately want to say them one more time. As the plane descends and the wet streets below reflect back the wintry sun, I can only hope for that chance.

On the ground everyone is in high spirits at the approach of Christmas. The staff at the car hire company teasingly joke with each other, backs are patted and hands shaken. It all takes precious time. 

 

The pendulum of Mum’s retirement clock swings from side to side although the fingers no longer give any indication of time’s reality. It chimes randomly. I doubt anyone will wind it once the woman on the bed can no longer take comfort from its familiarity. For now, though, maybe she does. 

I sit with her holding her hand or moistening the slack mouth taking its rapid, shallow breaths. The eyes flicker open slightly, a hand rises at my touch. In recognition? Maybe, a consoling maybe. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to convince myself of any real recognition. But I’m with her. We’ve made it.

 

Time ticks by. It’s good to see my brother again. He’s been the one who has been there for Mum so much more than I have. I don’t see him anywhere near enough either and there’s so much I want to say to him, so much I want to ask but the speechless woman on the bed who bore us both makes me hesitate. Is Mum there? This vile disease that has slowly extracted every memory from her brain, every consciously controlled function from her body, has it left anything of the person, the very soul, of who she once was?

Suddenly it’s more than I can cope with. I want to leave and hurriedly make my excuses. Dave is there now, Dave will sit with her. Selfish, unbelievably self-centred me, leaves. Guilt, guilt and more guilt on guilt. Guilt washed down and subdued with red wine. 

 

Christmas morning and I sit with Mum again. The nurses pop their heads round the door and come to turn her as needed but otherwise it’s just the two of us. The sense of hearing is the last thing to go, apparently, so I should talk to her but it’s a struggle. Surely there’s stuff that should be said. I tell her it’s Christmas and that I love her. Perhaps that’s all I need to say.

Instead I put Nat King Cole on the CD player. The soaring violins and beautiful voice seem to reach her. At least her eyes flicker open if only briefly. I let my mind wander, disjointed memories from happier times.

I remember ringing several times a week on the public telephone in the nurses home and Mum ringing me back so we could talk as much as we liked without it costing me a fortune. And, boy, could we talk. I remember a summer afternoon in the back garden drinking Belgian beer with her from bottles so small it seemed only natural to have another and another. And her strange laughing cry of oh, oh, oh! as the chair gently tipped backwards, both of us powerless to do anything about it. I remember going into her office at work, the smell of ink potent in my memory, as she turned the handle of the duplicator. I still marvel when I remember the way she would add a huge column of figures in her head, not trusting new fangled calculators.

Looking at the smiling young woman in the wedding photo above her bed, inevitably I remember the woman widowed far too young and wonder if Dad is somehow watching and waiting. I cry for the first time. 

 

 

Boxings Day and the family is gathered around Mum. The irony is not lost on us. It had always been accepted that Boxing Day was the big family celebration with Mum cooking turkey and all the trimmings, declining all help with the preparation. In retrospect we have come to realise that the first time it was all too much for her was, in fact, the first indication of something very wrong.

The change in her now is apparent. We’re all expecting this to be the last goodbye. Eventually just Dave and I remain at her side, half heartedly watching the TV as the hours pass, the clock on the wall sporadically chiming. He winds the mechanism as he always does when visiting.

It’s shortly after Neil rejoins us that her breathing changes. We hold her hands, subconsciously​ catching our own breath each time there’s a pause. When the moment comes, though, there’s no mistaking it. A startled look and, yes, perhaps the shadow of a smile. She is gone. Stop all the clocks. No, let the pendulum continue to swing for there is comfort in that. 

 

Into the freedom of wind and sunshine
We let you go
Into the dance of the stars and the planets
We let you go
Into the wind’s breath and the hands of the star maker
We let you go
We love you, we miss you, we want you to be happy
Go safely, go dancing, go running home.

Ruth Burgess

Bars, Bell Towers and Blisters

19 Dec

Blog Salamanca Plaza Mayor Night

A week at home to draw breath and we were off again. The next part of our “Autumn of Doing Something Different” was all about exploring more of Spain as we headed to our home-from-home and usual winter stopover in Jávea – another road trip but in our own car. This took a fair bit of planning, too, juggling potential weather concerns and expectations of out of tourist season towns with places to stay, things to do and distance to travel. Spain is a big country. We finally settled on four places we had never been to before, some proving more successful than others.

A city soaked in history and a World Heritage Site, Salamanca (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salamanca) was a big hit and unsurprisingly the star of the show. Being the furthest north of our pick we had expected it to be cold in December, and we were right, but we were lucky to get two beautiful days of misty, early mornings brightening to perfect blue skies.

The two full days we had were never going to be enough to see everything but we gave it a good try. The blisters on the soles of my feet after the first day were testament to that. Cobbled, hilly streets combined with lots and lots of steps to see the views from old towers are best walked in sensible footwear. I learnt the hard way.

As glorious by night as by day, inevitably I took literally hundreds of pictures. Never fear, though, I’ve whittled them down a bit!  

Blog Salamanca Cathedral Night

There are not one but two cathedrals which can be visited on a combined ticket that also includes the bell tower with views of the interior of the church from a narrow ledge (gulp!) as well as over the rooftops of the city. 

Blog Salamanca Cathedral Interior

Neil stands casually on another narrow ledge which got the better of any reassurance to me that it was quite safe. 

Blog Salamanca Cathedral Bell Tower Neil

 

Blog Salamanca Casa Lis Museum

Probably the highlight of the city for me was the Casa Lis, a beautiful Modernist house which is now home to the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Déco. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside so I’ve had to pinch one off the internet to demonstrate just how exquisite the exhibits​ are.

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You can buy a combined ticket with the Museum of Automotive History which was more Neil’s thing. At least it was warm on a chilly morning.

Our visit to Jerez (de la Frontera), purely through luck, happened to coincide with the start of Christmas in the Spanish calendar. This being a public holiday meant the zambombas were in full swing. Think Christmas carols flamenco style. Basically anyone can go into town to party – drink, eat, dance and sing Christmas carols, accompanied by the friction drums called zambombas. We did the eating and drinking bit but could only vaguely clap along to the carols.

Of course Jerez is famous for a) sherry and b) dancing horses. There wasn’t a show at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art while we were there and we weren’t sure if it would be our sort of thing anyway, while tours of the sherry producers are stupidly expensive. We contented ourselves with trying different sherries in the the various bars. Well, I did – Neil stuck to beer. No surprises​ there, then, to anybody​ who knows us!

Blog Jerez Tapas Sherry

The tourist highlight for us was the Palacio del Virrey Laserna with the Count himself as our personal guide. I was terrified of knocking over one of the priceless artifacts and too awed to ask to take pictures so here’s a link. https://www.palaciodelvirreylaserna.com/presentation/

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Church of San Miguel lit by the morning sun.

This being Andalusia there were many beautiful courtyards including this one which was the view from our bedroom window. 

Blog Jerez Courtyard Apartment

We gave Cadiz a miss as we had already been there on our journey from Plymouth to Greece (here) but did visit a couple of pretty seaside towns which were very much out of season. A castle with more steps was inevitably included this time following in the footsteps of Queen Isabella of Castile who managed while heavily pregnant so I didn’t really have an excuse.

Blog Isabelle Window Sea

She saw the sea for the first time from this window, apparently. I wonder if she was impressed.

We probably didn’t fully appreciate Ronda. This was largely due to the truly spectacular scenery we’d driven through on the way there.

Blog Sierra de Grazalema

We had taken a detour through Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park to see the White Villages or Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia. Pretty as they were, we hadn’t expected that the highlight of our tour would be driving to the heights of the Sierras themselves, each turn of the road revealing vistas of increasing grandeur. Wild deer strolled to the roadside, eyeing us up as we gawped, too surprised to take a picture. Pausing at a viewpoint we looked up to see a flock of vultures flew overhead. Amazing, extraordinary, wonderful.

So arriving in Ronda came as something of an anticlimax. The three bridges over the gorge, the newest dating back to 1751,

Blog Ronda New Bridge

the gorge itself and the houses seeming to totter at its edge

Blog Ronda Gorge

– all failed to impress. We were tired and somewhat jaded. Lorca the next day was decidedly disappointing. It was time to call it a day and head for “home”.

 

Going It Alone

30 Nov

Blog Petra Monastry

Doing Jordan without a guide or anyone holding our hand was very much our choice as Neil knew the country quite well. Amazingly enough, though, it all went to plan – with the exception of the sat nav. Could we get it to actually navigate the rush hour roads of Amman? Well, eventually but throughout the holiday it persisted on taking us on some very unlikely routes!

Whilst nothing like the sheer mayhem of Cairo, driving was, shall we say, a bit of an adventure. Amman particularly had us wound up and yelling at each other as my rather panicky, helpful comments weren’t always appreciated by the driver. However, I think touring Jordan this way meant we got a much more personal experience than if we’d continued with an escort. To be honest, it did come as something of a relief visit the tourist sites at times that suited us, spending as long as we liked there and simply being free to absorb the remarkable atmosphere without being lectured. Maybe we’d have found out more about the places we visited with a guide but a bit of research beforehand goes a long way. There’s always someone offering to guide anyone visiting independently if you want that extra – for a fee, of course.

Blog Jarash Arch

Special mention must go to the extraordinarily well preserved Roman city of Jerash. I was particularly blown away by the idea of walking down a Roman street, on the actual stones trodden on by those ancient people. I doubt there is anywhere quite like it in Europe.

Blog Jarash Street

Of course, everyone visiting Jordan heads for Petra. We again decided to do it our own way – very early and on foot. You could choose to ride a horse, camel or donkey (all seeming well treated and cared for, by the way) and I’m quite sure you would get something different from the experience. But not only is there something of an achievement it doing the entire site on Shank’s Pony but it also means, again, you do it all at your own pace particularly as every turn produces another vista, often looking like something from a movie set – but real! The Bedouin really do live in Petra and the surrounding desert landscape throughout Jordan in much the same way as they have through history. OK, we did spot a satellite dish in Petra but I suspect these particular Bedouin are doing pretty well out of the tourists!

Blog Petra Monastry Climb

You could go up to the Monastery by donkey.

Blog Petra Treasury Camels

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At this point I decided I’d give this particular offshoot of the main route a miss.

The other highlight was swimming – no just floating – in the Dead Sea. Actual swimming is out of the question – you do not want to get your face especially your eyes anywhere near the water! It really is a strange and, once you get used to it, relaxing experience. It was just what we needed to round off a genuine Bucket List holiday. 

Blog Dead Sea Floating

Blog Dead Sea Mud

Covering yourself in the mineral-rich mud is all part of the experience!

Blog Dead Sea Sunbeams

 

Temples and Tombs

21 Nov

Blog Nile Cruise Legacy

Nile Cruise – DAYS 3 – 8

We’ve always been very sceptical about cruise ships largely based from seeing these huge floating hotels from our small sailing boat  constantly running their engines and pumping out fumes into the harbours of small towns. Periodically they would spew out numerous coach loads of tourists all heading to the same picturesque or historical sight. Why would you want to do that? Well, If you want to see Egypt It’s probably the best way.

Getting about isn’t easy. Driving, in Cairo in particular, would be unthinkable. Walking means constant hassle even if the weather is comfortable. Even hiring a taxi has it’s own concerns. But on a cruise you are escorted everywhere, transport is usually there and waiting for you when you are ready to return. And the big plus are the excellent tour guides (shout out for the wonderful Waleed)
which you definitely need if you are going to get the best out of what is probably a once in a lifetime experience.

Because everything is so well organised you get to see far more than would probably be possible if you were going it alone. Maybe the downside is that you don’t get chance to linger in local bars and restaurants but, quite frankly, I  wouldn’t want to. I can’t speak for all Nile boats , of course, but ours had a lovely top deck with pool and a comfortable bar to linger in during down time. The restaurant, although perhaps a bit regimented, was friendly and fun, the food varied and as good as can be expected for buffet style dining.

Internet access is not great hence why these blog entries will probably all come out at once. After a bit of frustration it was actually quite nice to just accept you’re not going to be able to post all your wonderful pictures on Facebook or whatever your personal obsession is (go on, admit it, we’ve all got one these days). They can wait.

So, at the risk of boring you rigid, these are now mine.

Tuesday Day 3

If I’m honest the Valley of the Kings wasn’t at all what I was expecting from the movies. For a start I didn’t expect a wally wagon to take us to the tombs! Somehow I don’t think Howard Carter used this particular mode of transport.

Blog VofK Wally Wagon

It was none the less awesome for that, though. The Pyramid shape of the mountain is why the Kings picked this site.

Blog VofK Cathy

Going inside the tombs, though, is what it’s all about, some of them with colours as rich as the day they were painted. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside without a licence so here’s an unattributed one off the internet to give the feel.

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Not far from the Valley of the Kings is the much restored Temple of Hatshepsut. Ruling Egypt in her own right she made the mistake of not finishing off the boy king she usurped. When he eventually succeeded her he was a bit miffed about it and erased every image of her he could find and effectively denying her an afterlife. Thankfully this image of her has been restored and copied onto the huge statues of the temple.

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Blog Hatshepsut Temple

Wednesday Day 4 – two temple day only spoiled by the site of maltreated horses used for pulling carriages to transport tourists to the temple at Edfu. Please don’t use them unless this improves.

Morning visit (by taxi) to the Temple of Horus at Edfu.

The Inner Sanctum where only the High Priest and the Pharaoh could enter

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Sitting at the feet of the falcon god Horus

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Then, after an afternoon sail, an evening visit to the Ptolemic Temple of Kom Ombo which was beautifully lit and very atmospheric.

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The carvings were incredibly intricate. Imagine them with the colours still intact!

Blog Kom Ombo Carving

Thursday Day 5 was spent in Aswan and included a visit to the Dam which I won’t bore you with because it doesn’t take a very interesting picture but hey, if Dams and engineering are your thing don’t let me put you off.

What was a bit special, though, was the boat ride on Lake Nasser – the vast reservoir created by the dam – to the Temple of Isis on Philae Island which was dismantled when the area was flooded by the dam and moved to a higher island near by.

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More boats in the evening with a short sail at sunset on a felucca  on the Nile itself

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Friday Day 6 – 4:30am coach pick up for a 3 hour drive to Ramses II Temple of Abu Simbel and worth every minute. Simply stunning.

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The Pharaoh’s beautiful First Wife and Queen Nefertari. And me 🙂

Blog Abu Simbel Nefartari Cathy

Saturday Day 7  cruising back towards Karnak so a very welcome day at leisure on the boat.  It didn’t stop the salesmen trying their luck, mind.

Blog Nile Salesmen

Sunday Day 8 – another two temple day, this time two close together and joined by an avenue of sphinxes about 3 km long and still being excavated.

The largest of the two is Karnak a short coach trip from the dock at Luxor. Largely built for Ramses II, he of Abu Simbel fame, although started earlier, he very much dominates the temple along with the extraordinary rams head sphinxes.

Blog Karnac Rams Sphinxes

The masterpiece of the temple is the Hypostyle Hall and something that defies still photography. So impressive in its grandeur is it that it became the inspiration for Notre Dame in Paris.

Blog Karnak Hall Pillars

Ramses II and his Queen Nefertari are there again in Luxor Temple

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But there’s also another Pharaoh well known to modern visitors: Tutankhamun and his young Queen

Blog Luxor Tutankamun

 

To Luxor

16 Nov

Blog Cruise Deck

DAY 2

I could have kicked myself for missing the best  of the sunset lighting up the pyramid visible from the hotel pool. After the rave descriptions  I’d hoped to catch the sunrise which promised to be worth the early start.  As luck would have it, though, the humidity put an end to that idea. You could barely see an outline.

So our last view was as we sped past in the transfer car en route to the airport. The travel company wanted us there early for our flight to Luxor presumably because of the very real possibility of chaos on the manic roads. Fortunately, our only delay was caused by the  gun-touting plain clothes police (we assume!) checking the driver’s documentation on the road to the airport and getting visibly alarmed when he tried to get out of the car!

The airport proved to be very quiet and we were whisked through the formalities by the tour company rep before finding ourselves in the bleak no-man’s-land gateside. With one lousy sandwich bar and back-breaking chairs the tedious 3 hour wait seemed endless. And for the record I don’t need someone to help me wee so, no, you don’t get a tip every time you dole out the toilet roll!

Luxor came as a huge relief after Cairo. It seemed much cleaner, greener and far less manic. But having a tour company rep to escort us for the next few days made the most difference. Honestly, I can understand why some people prefer to do all their travelling via a tour company. Suddenly someone was in control of this alien environment, taking all responsibility off our shoulders. The excitement came flooding back as we walked onto our home for the next week. We were on the River Nile. Bucket List.

Let Loose In Cairo

12 Nov

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Day One

Cairo was never going to be the highlight of our holiday. Neil had been here before and knew first hand the difficulties while I’d read many reviews and blogs like this. But, you know, The Pyramids.

There’d been a forced change of plan after our flight timings were altered. We’d originally booked a guide for the day but with the tour starting at 8:30 and us not getting to the hotel until after breakfast started we’d cancelled it. After all, the website said you could see the Pyramids from the hotel so how difficult could it be to just go there, right?

What we hadn’t realised was just how fiendishly difficult they make it to get in. You’d expect to pay to enter the site of course; that wasn’t the problem. But finding the entrance, well, let’s just say that there’s a lot of people making a living from it not being obvious.

So, Tip number 1 for doing it yourself: get a taxi to the entrance. They’ll rip you off but they’re still cheap.

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Tip number 2: everybody, and I do mean EVERYBODY, you come into contact with will be out to make as much money as possible from you. Accept it. Don’t let it ruin your day or spoil the experience. Whatever you give them will not be enough and they’ll do their absolute best to make you feel like a cheapskate and a heel. You’re not.

Tip number 3: you do not need to take a camel, a horse and carriage or even a guide. It is perfectly doable to just walk around yourself. Mind you, you’ll have done a lot better than us if you manage it. You will be reminded constantly that this is a special holiday for you and don’t you want to make the most of it? Only you can decide what’s best for you. All I can say is that the day only became special for me when we just wandered on our own feet. It was only then that I could take a moment and appreciate it. I’m in Egypt and that’s the actual Sphinx.

Blog Cairo Sphynx