Wednesday, 15 August 2018


Croatia has been at the top of my Must See Destinations list for a good few years now.  From all I had read and seen on YouTube and elsewhere, and heard from friends who have been there, it’s always seemed a pretty cool place.   But for a variety of reasons, it never seemed to happen.  We got better last minute deals elsewhere - Crete, Portugal - , or good offers for other places - an apartment in Spain, cheap, through a relative a couple of times - , or for financial reasons decided to stay at the Polish seaside (where we still spent considerable amounts of dosh so probably didn’t save a huge amount by going there).   But this year, we finally took the plunge and headed to the Adriatic.

We ignored the travel agents in favour of making our own plans.  With a decent car now, the drive seemed to be a bit of an adventure in its own right, if a bit on the long side (a good 1300 km plus each way).  But the kids are that much older now, and armed with tablets and mobiles and books (well, we live in hope….) we figured they would cope with being cooped up in a confined space for the better part of two days each way, not counting fuel and pee breaks.

Accommodation proved relatively easy too.  We started searching at the beginning of the year and used, and found stacks of choice to be had.  Once we had settled on dates (last two weeks in July) and a rough budget it became a matter of trawling through what was available and making a choice.  We wanted something in a small seaside town rather than a major resort like Split or Dubrovnik, and within walking distance of the sea.  House, cottage, bungalow or apartment: we were not fussed.  We ended up settling for a small but pleasant looking apartment sleeping four in a little village called Bibinje, a few miles from the resort and airport of Zadar on the Dalmatian coast (so quite central).  And a good choice it turned out to be: about three weeks before we were due to travel, some bright sparks at work organised some workshops that clashed with the first week and insisted I simply HAD to attend.  I insisted if that was the case they simply HAD to buy my airline tickets to Zadar or they could find someone else.  They bought the tickets, via Munich, at an extortionate cost booking that close to departure, and as two singles (to Luxembourg one way on the Monday, then from there to Zadar on the Saturday).  Serves ‘em right…….they got their pound of flesh (mine - well, 90 odd kilos, anyway) for the cost and I lost a weeks’ vacation but kept my job. I think it’s called a win-win situation, although it didn’t feel like it to me or Ania and the kids, now faced with a long one-way drive solo, with an overnight in Bratislava (Airbnb again), and no Robster to lug the bags and share the drive.

They kept in touch with me while they travelled, and in the event the trip wasn’t so bad.  The traffic was quite light so speed limits could be largely ignored (at least when there were no cameras in evidence) and they arrived safe and sound in the late afternoon on the Tuesday.  The pictures they sent, beautiful as they were, depressed me, stuck in meetings as I was when they beeped onto my phone via WhatsApp…… So I got through the rest of the week, with regular messages, pictures and calls on Skype from Bibinje to cheer me up.  They were loving it, and I couldn’t wait to join them.  I left instructions to find as many good beaches and bars as possible…..and dragged my way through the week’s business (successfully, as it turned out: by and large we achieved everything we had planned beforehand).

On Saturday morning, it rained on my way to Luxembourg airport.  Not hard, but it was a lot cooler than it had been for a couple of weeks.  It seemed my Rain Man Curse (wherein whenever I have a holiday it rains….even in Hurghada on the Egyptian Red Sea coast it rained on the third day of my visit, breaking a 7 year - yes, SEVEN YEAR - drought) was about to bite yet again.  At Munich, I was convinced that would be the case - it was pissing down as we landed.  By the end of my two hour layover the rain had eased to a fine drizzle.  By the end of a further hour’s air traffic control delay, the sun was breaking through the clouds and I felt a bit better.   In Zadar, it was still cloudy, and several degrees cooler than it had been all week, and my kids were not impressed.  I did my best to cheer them up and assure them it would get better…..

On our final approach we had tracked down the coast of Croatia for about 20 minutes, and through the clouds I saw that the guide books and travel shows had by and large been correct.  It looked a beautiful country.  Inland, mountains towered, and dropped down almost to the coastline.  I glimpsed some of the 2000 odd islands that lie offshore, many of them not much bigger than a football pitch (some even smaller than that and mostly unoccupied), with a few larger ones scattered between them.  As we descended, the towns and villages on the islands became clearer, all white-washed or amber sandstone with red-tiled roofs, jumbled around mazes of streets, and each seemingly with a little harbour or marina.  Boats of varying sizes sprang into view, criss-crossing the sea between these islands.  As we swung inland and swept into Zadar (the big port city off to our left, and as it turned out passing pretty much overhead of Bibinje), I thought to myself I like this place.

There were only two gates, and we parked perhaps 20 paces from the Arrivals entrance, so clearing passport control took no more than five minutes.  But it took another 40 minutes for the bags to make the same journey.    Then through quickly to hugs and kisses all round, into the car and off along narrow and winding roads between low stone walls, very similar to the roads in Malta that we drove many years ago now, to Bibinje.  A brief call at the apartment to drop my bags and change into swimmers, then a five minute drive to the little beach beside Bibinje’s small marina for a swim.  The clouds broke away while this was going on, so the swim in warm crystal clear (but salty!) waters was exhilarating in the still hot evening sunshine.

Bibinje is a small town, and quite scruffy.  Anyone looking for mile after mile of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs will be disappointed.  There was a beach bar by that marina, and back one street a small cluster of souvenir shops, a pizzeria (that was very good) and a local Croatian restaurant that we never got around to trying.  A little further along the seafront there was another pair of bars sandwiching another souvenir shop, and around the corner from that a third small gift shop over the road from the local health centre (that always seemed to be closed).  I saw one ATM, outside one of the restaurants on the waterfront.  And that’s about it.  A very quiet little place, not really a resort at all, and certainly never a tourist hot-spot.  But for a quiet relaxing holiday after a stressful couple of months on the treadmill, all the more welcoming to this old man.

If it had a down-side, it was one common to every seaside town we visited (bar one) during the holiday.  The beach.  Anyone looking for golden sandy beaches with sheltering palm trees, umbrellas and sun-loungers will have a hard time finding anything remotely like that in Croatia.  Its shoreline is rocky with mostly pebble or shingle beaches that make finding somewhere comfortable to lay down and tan a bit challenging.  On most of them a few paces into the warm Adriatic waters take you beyond the rocks and onto a sandy sea-bed, but even here there are often slippery submerged rocks suddenly appearing through the sand to trip you up.  And sea-urchins abound - I still have three small quills embedded in the soles of my feet from stepping on them - and that despite wearing beach shoes.  The spines were sharp and strong enough to drive through the rubber soles and into my feet. 

There are three small beaches in Bibinje and all of them follow this pattern.  On drives further afield, down towards Dubrovnik, the road passes within a few feet of dozens of small coves and inlets and they too were the same.  Most of the beaches had no more than a handful of people on them, and even the bigger ones like our three, and the ones either side of the marina in the next village south, the pretty and charmingly named Sveti Petar na Moru (broadly, St.Peter-on-sea) were less than crowded on the days we visited. 

The only really sandy beach we visited was some 50 km north of Zadar, one of four in a small resort town called Nin.  It’s a nice little place, and nestles on an inlet at the far north of Zadar county; to the right the peninsula rises up to a small mountain range and on the left peninsula there is a range of low hills, so it’s quite sheltered.  Here the main beach we used is indeed long and sandy, with loungers, umbrellas, food shacks and pizzerias, and very shallow warm sea - I walked out a good 200m and the water was still not much above knee deep.  Because of this, it’s popular with families and hence when we visited crowded with swarms of kids galloping around, yelling, accidentally kicking sand over us and generally behaving as little kids do on every such beach.  It was not for us, I’m afraid, and we didn’t stay very long.

Our lovely hosts, Ante and his wife Tanja, offered us a treat the day after my arrival, so Sunday - a trip out on their boat “to the island”.  We jumped at the chance.  A couple of miles off the mainland from Bibinje are two of the bigger islands in Croatia: to the north lies Ugljan, and by its town of Kukljice a bridge links it with the more southerly island of Pašman.  So we boarded a small wooden fishing boat (built in 1922, Ante told us, but fully refurbished the year before last) in Bibinje marina, erected a canvas sun shelter, cranked up the old diesel engine and off we went.  It was a hot sunny day, with a calm sea, so we looked forward to a little run up to one of the little harbours and bays that dot the inland coasts of both islands, a swim and some lunch somewhere, then back again.

Ante had other ideas.  We chugged across the strait, under the bridge and into the more open waters beyond, heading roughly in the direction of Italy.  More islands, big and small, lay spread before us, and with Ally taking the tiller - under Ante’s supervision of course - we chugged on.  The sea was a little heavier here, but the bottles of home made wine that Ante produced regularly from below and served up in an old shared tin mug, plus the sandwiches and Polish sausages Ania brought along with us, kept us going.  We weaved around a handful of small islands and approached the biggest island in the region, now the Kornati National Park.  We had by now been at sea a good couple of hours, and Ante took over the tiller and steered us around the sheer cliffs that face the open and rougher Adriatic Sea and Italy over the horizon beyond.  He told us stories of his childhood on the island, before it became a park, and pointed out some apparent ruins on top of a cliff that were in fact an old film set from a 1950s movie set in Greece in which the 10 year old Ante played a minor “extra” role and was nearly adopted by the film’s leading lady (his mother refused the opportunity).  Quite a character, was Ante.

Shortly after that we entered a small harbour on a neighbouring island, and tied up outside one of the half dozen surrounding fishermen’s cottages.  Ante owned it and rented it out, this week to a family from Slovenia.  It was a lovely but primitive old place on three floors, with a tiny kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, a small sitting room and a rooftop terrace with superb views out to sea and Kornati.  Best of all, it had no tv or internet, making it the perfect place to relax and get away from it all for a couple of weeks, swimming in the clear warm waters of the little harbour and hiking over the island to other little coves and inlets.  The kids were not impressed by our idea of booking it next year……

We stayed for an hour or so and had a swim and food and a chat with the current tenants, then headed off again to another of the little group of islands that border the park.  It was only a 15 minute cruise away, and we tied up at another small harbour and hiked about 400 metres over the peninsula and past a little campsite to a small shingle beach with a clear sandy sea bottom three paces offshore.  There were perhaps 8 or 9 people there, of whom only 6 or 7 wore anything.  We spent an hour or so swimming there too, and it was delightful.  Most of the other people there left during that time, to be replaced by another dozen or so folk from the campsite, none of whom were dressed, and clearly knew each other as they set up a picnic and barbecue on one corner of the beach.  Lovely place….

We headed off shortly after that, and another 15 minute cruise took us to another little harbour on yet another little island (or perhaps it was on Kornati itself: we were quite lost by then).  Beside the quay was a small restaurant that was owned by Ante’s cousin’s wife, and there he had arranged for us to eat.  We sat on a terrace overlooking the harbour, and ate a quite superb home-cooked meal of scorpion fish oven cooked with a mix of potatoes, carrots, onions and olives, in its own juices and olive oil, followed by little crayfish (or perhaps small lobsters, or big prawns, I have no idea which) fresh from the grill, all washed down with local beer and home-made wine.  It was delicious.  

By this time it was dusk, so we settled the bill, clambered aboard the boat and headed off.  Once we were beyond the harbour, Kuba took the tiller and with Ante’s increasingly slurred directions (the home-made hooch continued to flow) steered us back through the islands and towards Bibinje.  By the time we approached the bridge at Kukljice Ante took over steering duties, took us through safely and across into the harbour at Bibinje.  The whole cruise amounted to just under a hundred kilometres, and was without doubt the highlight of the entire holiday.  We got back to the flat tired but happy just after midnight after a quite brilliant day.

On Monday we decided to explore further afield, and headed off on the motorway to Split.  We were all a little sunburnt, especially the kids, who had been lolling around on beaches for nearly a week as opposed to my 36 hours, so we figured a day out of the sun would do us all good.  It was a nice drive, on one of the toll roads that stretch from southern Croatia (and possibly beyond) to our home in Warsaw.  The scenery was spectacular all the way: the road is a few kilometres inland, and elevated so that there are frequent glimpses of the sparkling Adriatic and the islands off to our right, and the mountains, dotted here and there with crystal clear, sparkling lakes,  rising along on our left.  The traffic for most of the way was reasonably light, most of it tourist traffic, including motorhomes and big caravans heading for the numerous campsites that proliferate the entire length of the coast from north to south, and we made good progress.  It took us a little over an hour, but then, perhaps 10 km from the Split exit and toll booths, we hit a traffic jam that blocked the entire slow lane.  We thought it was probably roadworks, but it turned out to be a traffic queue leaving the road at our exit, and drivers did not take too kindly to us forcing our way in. 

From there to the port city centre took another hour and a half, and then another half an hour and two circuits to find a car park close to the port itself.  The queue was another long one, and most of it inside the car park: it was full but the barriers still opened to let you in and you basically had to stay in line until someone else left and opened up a parking space.  But eventually we bagged a place, and crossed to a parade of food outlets.  We bought pastries and cold drinks, then found a seat on the quayside overlooking the cruise ships moored up, and settled down to eat.

The Old Roman town is alongside the port area, and is of course pedestrianised with market stalls, bars and restaurants, and loads of expensive gift shops and boutiques lining the footpath.  At the end of the old Roman city walls, perhaps four or five hundred metres along from where we parked, the roads wound away into a maze of little alleys and narrow streets that make up the bulk of Old Split.  Off these streets were many little courtyards with small and pretty old houses, most of them divided into apartments, and boutique hotels and art galleries.  Parking looked a nightmare on these narrow one-way streets, and scooters and motorbikes proliferated, weaving through the tourists like ourselves, wandering around and perhaps lost (as we were for a while).  The place was beautiful and I felt I could happily settle down in a room somewhere to do my stuff, in my own time, away from the stresses and strains of big city life.  A pipe dream, of course……

Eventually we made our way back down towards the port, and bought delicious ice creams from a little shop in one of the alleys, then found some shopping streets where we bought the obligatory post cards, fridge magnets and decorative coffee cups.  We found a post office and sent the cards off, then ambled back down to the car park.  Since we hadn’t left Bibinje until lunchtime, it was a short visit, but now as it was well past 6 p.m., we figured it was time to go, with the expectation the traffic would be equally bad leaving town.  It actually wasn’t too bad, but still took just over an hour to get out of the city and back up to the highway.  It was dark by the time we eventually got back to the flat, but it had been a pleasant day.

One evening, after a day on the local marina beach, Tanja suggested we go for a drive to another island, about 70 km away, where you cross a little bridge to get from the mainland, there are pretty towns and villages and “the best ice cream in Croatia”.  Sure, why not?

It was another outstanding trip.  The drive took just over an hour, and the road ran right along the coast, often no more than a few metres from the sea.  As ever, it was a rocky outlook with not a sandy beach in sight, but a succession of bays of varying sizes from table top to a few yards across.   Off shore was the usual chain of islands, including Kornati, and we frequently passed campsites by the roadside.  Some of these were official, with entrance gates and probably power and bars and toilets, others were no more than campervans pulled off the road into the shelter of straggly, stunted beach-side trees, or little tents pitched on the shingle.  There were small and picturesque villages, too, usually not much more than a handful of houses, a small shop, perhaps a chapel and a little cafe.  The more I saw, the more I liked the country.  One day, perhaps, I’d like to spend a whole summer just driving through, pitching a tent on the beach, maybe rent a boat and island-hop… would be brilliant.  But probably just another pipe dream…...I wish I was 10 years younger and several hundred thousand euros richer sometimes!

Eventually, we swung right at a roundabout, and approached the little bridge across to the island, which is called Murter.  It’s a small bridge that opens between 9 and 9:30 every morning, and 5 and 5:30 every evening to allow sailboats to go through the little strait between it and the mainland.  A couple of years ago, a lady returning to the mainland after work was running a bit late and found the bridge opening.  Undeterred, she put her foot down, drove quickly up the island side road and jumped the gap in her Ford Fiesta, then drove off quite happily on the mainland road.  The whole episode was captured by CCTV, and made that evening’s national tv news programs.  We looked it up on YouTube and yes, it’s there.  Never seen anything like it!

The town we entered was quite beautiful - called Tisno, it lies mostly on the mainland, but with a strip on the island side that is mainly hotels, holiday apartment complexes and restaurants.  It’s one of only four real “towns” on the island, alongside nearby Jezera (which we didn’t visit), and to the north a lovely little beachside village called Betina, and close to that Murter itself.  As you drive out of Tisno, at the top of the hill, you can look back down across Tisno, on both sides or the strait, and it looks spectacular, like an older, less developed Monaco, with little houses rather than modern tower blocks.

A  little further on there is an outlook on the other side, towards Kornati on the horizon, that takes in a small bay populated only by a hotel and a couple of restaurants, with sailboats and cruisers anchored just offshore.  In the early evening light, with the sun dipping down over Kornati it was yet another stunning outlook.  Croatia is simply full of them.  We drove on through the narrow winding streets in Betina and into Murter, and Tanja directed us to the marina, then left past a garage to where there was an extensive outdoor arcade of gift shops.  At the end of this stood Frozen - selling “the best ice cream in Croatia”.  Of course, we pulled in to sample their wares.  It also allowed Tanja to deliver some bits and pieces to her son, Ivan, who owns the place and lives in a big house next door, that he is renovating to rent out as a holiday home - more custom for Airbnb.

We had a wander around for a half hour, eating a second ice cream, enjoying the view of the marina and looking at the huge range of goods on sale in the market stalls, then back in the car and Tanja navigated us through another typical maze of little windy roads, out of town, over the crest of a small hill (more sandstone walls reminded us of Malta) and down to a big and ill-maintained car park sheltered by trees and bushes by the waterfront.  We parked and strolled along to a pretty expansive beach that was actually very close to sandy - at least the shingle was quite fine so that you could walk barefoot on it.  The sea was quite shallow, calm and bath-water warm, and beyond the mouth of the bay the sun was going down behind a small unnamed island.  There were a couple of food shacks and a beach bar, and on the other side of the bay a footpath ran along the shoreline under sheltering trees and giving access to a string of little inlets and beach areas similar to those we had seen on the drive down and on the little beach we had visited on Kornati.

Although by now it was close to 7:00 in the evening, it was still warm and many people were enjoying the water.  We joined them for a good swim, and then while the ladies continued bobbing about in the sea chatting about who knows what, and the kids queued at a snack shack for hot dogs and lemonade, I decided to explore a bit.  Perhaps a hundred metres offshore and linked by a narrow man-made causeway lay a small island, perhaps a couple of football pitches in area.  There were a number of boats tied up on the quay, people were fishing from the rocks overlooking the bay, and a stream of people both leaving and going to the island.  I ambled across, and did a circuit of the place in perhaps 15 minutes.  The centre of the island rose some 25 feet above sea level, and was topped by a little wood of gnarled and windblown olive trees.  A network of paths and little dry stone walled enclosures encircled this, beyond which the rocks of the island dropped into the sea.  No sand, no shingle, nothing you could consider a beach, but many of the rocks were flat topped and offered good, if exposed, sun terraces, and most of these areas allowed access to the sea with care.  By this time of the evening most of these were deserted, but one rock was topped by a young naked sun-worshipper, sitting in the lotus position facing the now setting sun, her long hair blowing in the sea breeze, without a care in the world.  On the next rock, another blonde nymph, equally undressed, lay on her stomach reading a book.  They ignored both me as I passed in one direction and the family of four passing in the opposite direction.

I headed back to the mainland, and met up with Ania and Tanja and the kids, and we headed back to the car and Bibinje.  We decided on the way to come back to this place the next day, spend more time swimming and sunning, have an evening meal there washed down by some more of Ivan’s excellent ice-cream (the best in Croatia indeed), and maybe do a bit of shopping in the market.

So we did.  We left earlier, just about lunchtime, and were crossing the bridge to Murter by one.  We paused on the drive through Tisno and took some pictures, again at the westerly lookout point a little further up, and finally some more on the approaches to Betina.  At this earlier time of day, in brighter sunlight, the island looked even more lovely, it seemed.  We briefly paused in Murter for ice cream, then attempted to find the road Tanja had led us down previously.  After only two wrong turnings we found the right way, and arrived at the beach car-park by perhaps 2:30.  It was crowded and we had difficulty finding a sheltered place to park, and eventually we had to leave the car on the road just by the entrance to one of the parking areas.  It was safe enough though, and undamaged when we returned later. The road led on back towards Murter, by a different route, most of it through a big camp site that offered road side pitches on the rocks overlooking the sea and the little island, and others across the road in the shelter of the trees.  All of them seemed to have power points, and there were a couple of bars and a little shop in the main site.  I’m guessing the sea view pitches were more expensive, and they were all taken by a variety of camper vans, cars and caravans or tents, and most of the vehicles had Polish number plates.

We decided to go to the island rather than the beach, which by the time we got there was quite crowded.  This time we went to the left after the causeway, in a clockwise direction, and moved perhaps a third of the way around, then settled on a big flat rock that overlooked the campsite on the mainland, and offered access to the sea. As usual, it seemed, swimwear was the exception rather than the rule, but it was all very natural and comfortable - no stareing, no comments, no intrusion.  Just a group of people enjoying the hot sun and warm sea in their own way, all doing exactly the same things…...reading books, eating, drinking, swimming, talking and so on.  Many people were just doing so naked.  Which is exactly how it should be, in my view.

Getting in and out of the sea was tricky, but with care we managed ok, and were rewarded with the usual sandy bottom a few feet offshore.  It was a little windier than previous days, and the sea a little rougher, which made it more fun.  Typically, I managed to slip the first time I clambered in over the rocks, and scraped the skin off both knees, one shin, my back and my bare arse.  My family found it highly amusing, especially the blood……   But it didn’t deter me and I had several dips (largely to cool off) over the four or five hours we spent there, and managed to do so without significant further damage.  It was a terrific afternoon, I have to say.

Around 6, we packed up and left, again vowing to come back, perhaps next year.  Back in Murter, we found an excellent restaurant in a little side-street behind the marina, and had a good meal to celebrate Kuba’s Name Day.  He and Ania shared a mixed seafood pot (a couple of fish - not sure which kind - grilled octopus, calmari - that’s squid - , big juicy prawns, and vegetables).  Evidently it was delicious, but not to my taste, or Ally’s.  I had a very tasty chicken risotto washed down with two excellent and rather strong large local beers, while she had a huge cheeseburger with bacon and fries that she couldn’t eat, so the Family Bin (a.k.a. me) ate half of it.  It was good.

Then to Frozen, for a final ice cream.  We had a chat with Ivan and complimented him on his ice cream, which (all joking aside) is indeed delicious - the best I’ve had for sometime, and in a huge variety of flavours.  It’s the only place I’ve ever found that does Jaffa Cake flavoured ice-cream…...and very good that one was, too!

The next day we packed, and after a final swim by the marina in Sveti Petar na Moru, we drove into Zadar with Tanja for our final expedition.  The outskirts are typical of any good sized port-town by any sea in Europe.  There are industrial areas where the factories and warehouses are separated by a succession of big food stores and supermarkets like Lidl and Intermarché and the local equivalent Tomy, or used car showrooms and petrol stations and apartment blocks.  As you drive into the city centre, these blocks get bigger and squarer and shabbier, and would not look out of place on the outskirts of Warsaw or Bratislava - or for that matter Liverpool or Sunderland.  And of course there are the obligatory shopping malls that are the same everywhere.

But then you get to the old port area, and the place takes on a whole new aspect, more like the old Roman port area in Dubrovnik.  Parking was a challenge, but we found a courtyard next door to a block where Tanja works, and our guided tour began in earnest.

We were right on the waterfront, overlooking a harbour where ferry boats were moored alongside yachts and motor cruisers - clearly, the area is a popular destination for the well-heeled amateur sailor.  We headed left, away from this, towards the real old port area.  There was a big paved square with a very modern art installation that involved a glass skylight (that was on our level so walked across), below which a network of coloured lights flashed in random patterns driven somehow by the sea water and waves flowing through a whole range of buried pipes.  The water movement also powered some bizarre pipe organ instrument that made musical sounds similar to those made by whalesong……  It was all very eerie and extraordinary as the sun set over that bay.  The installation was designed and built by a local architect who had also designed the construction and subsequent conversion of Ante and Tanja’s place where we were staying - clearly a talented and innovative guy as the two projects could hardly have been more different.

There were crowds of people there, lined up along the quayside waiting patiently to take pictures of what was a spectacular sunset.out over the bay, dipping below the usual islands dotting the near horizon.  Zadar has a reputation of having some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.  All I can say is it was beautiful, but I have seen others equally spectacular elsewhere - and indeed have some incredible pics of a sunset from about four years ago, taken on a beach on the Baltic in northern Poland on a beaten up old Sony Xperia mobile that are as good as anything I’ve ever seen.  I use one of them as the wallpaper on my laptop, and the picture is as good as any provided by Microsoft, Android or any other operating system I’ve seen.


                                                                Or Jastrzebia Gora?
                                                                      YOU decide......

The day marked the start of a local Festival of the Moon, held every year at the end of July to celebrate that month’s last full moon, and features outdoor concerts and street theatre (all free of course), open air markets and food stalls in abundance over the entire weekend.  It turns a lovely Old Town into something extra special, full of people, tourists and locals, having a great time in the warm summer evenings.  The market stalls and food trucks serve exclusively hearty, local cuisine, mostly seafood, regional wines and beers, and locally made jams and pickles and preserves, souvenirs and gifts that are all handmade and better than you find at most seaside markets at other times.  Quality stuff, all of it.

We wandered through the old streets and squares in the area (it is all pedestrianised), past lovely churches and buildings two and three hundred years old, serenaded by local musicians and performers and mime artists, and stopped for a while watching a concert of local folk music that featured a group of a dozen men in traditional costume, singing exquisite a-cappella harmonies in a language that meant nothing to us but sounded wonderful in the echoing old square.  Not one of them could have been less than about 70 years of age.  They were followed by another elderly couple, again in local costume, the husband playing a battered old acoustic guitar, his wife an equally battered tambourine, again singing in perfect harmony.  It was easy to imagine them sitting in an old cottage in the nearby mountains, singing together before a roaring fire on cold winters’ evenings, with no electricity or tv or internet, making their own age-old entertainment.  So they probably had a 35 square metre apartment on the outskirts of town……  Either way, they were great.

We walked around a huge citadel-like building, surrounded by another small harbour where little fishing boats were moored, that was something like 400 years old and had once been the main fortress in the town but now housed the local university campus and a primary school that Tanja had attended back when Croatia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The path led us back to the main promenade, and we strolled back through the market (pausing for some more delicious sardine sandwiches - basically, three or four ladles of freshly caught and grilled fish in a kind of pitta bread with garlic sauce), back to the car.  It was a lovely end to our holiday.

The next morning, we loaded the car and headed off for home.  The drive back through the mountains towards Zagreb and the Slovenian border was spectacular - I think I passed through more tunnels in those few hours than I have in a lifetime driving in the UK - despite sometimes heavy traffic.  The little trip through Slovenia was easier and less crowded, the scenery as mountainous as in Croatia but more forested and greener, then into Austria.  We overnighted in an apartment (good old Airbnb) in Vienna that was probably built before World War 2 and not decorated or renovated since, but it was comfortable enough and we slept well, despite a thunderstorm that rumbled through half the night.

We left there about 10 the next morning, and took a brief detour through the city centre, just to have look at the Vienna Opera House and other lovely old buildings from the country’s Imperial age.  I worked in Vienna for about 6 or 7 months some years ago, but I recognised absolutely nowhere this time round.  Big changes - even the trams have been modernised.

The drive through Austria and into the Czech Republic was pleasant enough, motorway all the way, and this continued through that country towards the Polish border near Ostrava.  I didn’t notice when we crossed into Poland - there was no border post or even signs that were visible and we didn’t slow down at all, but at some point the road signs changed from the Czech language to Polish, and we began recognizing place names.  The joys of the Schengen Zone that we British have always been against (along, it has to be said, with seemingly every other EU institution) but that unquestionably makes travel through its member states so much quicker and easier…..
And we were home safely by tea-time.

In summary, Croatia is a great country (even if their football team did put us in our place at the World Cup this summer), with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.  The people were without exception friendly and welcoming, and the food and drink delicious and reasonably priced.  The roads are good, the sea warm and the clearest and cleanest I have seen anywhere in the world - crystal clear and the most astonishing blue.  It’s just a shame about the beaches, but you can’t do much about geology.

Did it meet our expectations?  No.  It easily surpassed them.  It’s fair to say we fell in love with the place.  Admittedly, we’ve only seen a very small part of Croatia - the Dalmatian Coast around Zadar and its surrounding islands, and of course the spectacular drive over the mountains and past Zagreb to the Slovenian border - and there is much more to see.  But that was enough, at least for me.  I want to see more.  Maybe try Istria, to the north, where I gather there are a few more sandier beaches and a more Italian feel to the place due to its proximity with Trieste in Italy only 40-odd kilometres from the Croatian border with Slovenia.  Or perhaps head south towards the coastal area around Makarska, between Split and Dubrovnik.   We’d definitely like to spend more time on the island of Murter, too.

So, yes.  We WILL return…… year for sure.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Trains, planes and automobiles: the state of UK transport today

Yesterday that fool of a Transport Secretary Mr. Grayling announced that the Government had approved the Heathrow Extension plan. This involves building a third runway just to the north-west of the existing complex, in so doing essentially wiping three small villages off the map, and building a tunnel under the new runway for the (steadily increasing) M25 traffic flow. All this is expected to cost billions, of course, and take several years, but the Government hope to have it open for business by 2030. When complete, it will increase capacity by several million passengers per year, with many more flights to carry them, including more deaily to UK regional airports like Manchester, Glasgow and so on. Grayling says it is just the kind of capacity increase that 21st century Britain needs as it becomes again a great independent global trading nation (a clear sop to his beloved fellow Brexiteers).

I won’t cheer with excitement or indeed hold my breath waiting for it to move forward, given the whole argument over extending the airport has been going on for the better part of 20 years now. Governments Tory and Labour have proposed and cancelled plans for just such a project. There have been injunctions, court cases, public enquiries and consultations without number. Protest groups in the area have flourished, retreated and come again, depending on circumstance. In the meantime, the numbers of flights and passengers has grown year on year, until the airport is operating at something like 98% capacity, despite losing plenty of business to an expanding Gatwick and near continental hub airports like Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Clearly, something needs doing to redress the balance, though I’m personally not convinced a third runway at Heathrow is the best option. For a start, the airport is in a heavily built up area, as you would expect as London itself continues to grow. Its proximity to the city is usually stated as a benefit, with excellent travel links by rail and underground into the city, and its close proximity to the major M25, M3 and M4 motorways. True up to a point, but the benefits are open to question – to be discussed in a minute. Against that, noise pollution and poor air quality are cited as reasons why the airport should not be developed further, and I have some sympathy with that argument. Breathing in aircraft (and for that matter petrol) fumes constantly is not good for anybody’s health, and disturbed sleep patterns, from whatever cause, are equally detrimental… a long term insomniac due to traffic noise outside my home and parenthood I know all about the effects of that!

So it seems to me extending Gatwick by building a second runway there might be a better solution, probably cheaper and easier as there are no motorways to bridge, and certainly with fewer local residents to mollify (although there are inevitably vociferous opponents to any development here as well).

Mr. Corbyn, predictably, is against the Heathrow plan, and proposes making better use of Stansted and Luton instead. From those comments alone, he makes himself look even more ridiculous than he normally does, and shows that he should get out more. Just today, a survey rated Stansted as the second worst airport in the world (only Kuwait was worse), and Luton is if anything a bigger disaster. I’ve used both within the last few months and they are appallingly overcrowded, with unhelpful and unpleasant staff, inefficient security procedures, limited seating areas and a dreadful transport infrastructure. In my view (never having been to Kuwait) I would actually consider Luton to be by far and away the worst in the world – it’s been a complete dog’s breakfast for the last couple of years and shows little sign of improving anytime soon. And before you ask, I use it at least half a dozen times a year visiting family, and Stansted perhaps three times a year for the same reason.

To put it in a nutshell, Britain’s airports have simply failed dismally in keeping pace with the increased travel demands. Successive Governments of all shades have equally failed to take the required but admittedly difficult decisions to do anything about it. This seems to me a perfect example of our political classes putting their own needs (i.e. work, and financial reward – honestly earned or fiddled out of expenses - and a possible knighthood and retirement home in the sun) before those of the country and its electorate.

Of course, it’s not only our air transport system that is in a state of disrepair – the entire transport infrastructure is broken, it seems to me, and starved of resources the same way as the health service, the police, the armed services, the fire service, the prison service…..the list seems endless. To focus on transport (since this is a travel blog, after all)……

Our road system is overcrowded. The M25 at rush hour often resembles a 120 mile circular car park. Come off the M25 onto any trunk road into London – the M1, M3 or M4, for instance, or the A2, A11 and A13, and things are no better. It’s not a new problem – 20 odd years ago I used to travel into the City from north Kent – barely 30 miles – either driving or by commuter coach, and it used take a minimum 2 hours each way. I’m told the situation is no better today – and my recent drives on those same roads on my weekend visits suggest there has been little if any improvements made since then (apart from resurfacing and basic maintenance, a seemingly endless requirement). So suggesting that the road links between Heathrow and London are an advantage and a good reason to approve the project seems to me a bit of an exaggeration.

From what I see on tv news bulletins and read in various news outlets, these kinds of problems are not restricted to London and the south east. They are happening the length and breadth of the country. We seem to have a broken (or at best severely damaged) road network to keep our broken air transport system company.

And what of the railways? Where can I start? Well, the botched timetable introduction this last couple of weeks seems as good a place as any. In a two week period well over 2000 trains have been cancelled on just two networks because of this. The operators blame late running engineering works that mean that a lot of new track and signalling was not ready to carry the hundreds of brand new trains that were due to run on them. The issue of there being too few drivers trained to operate this new rolling stock is played down or not mentioned at all (except by the unions, of course). In the meantime, while all the bickering and finger pointing is going on, travellers are stranded on platforms waiting for non-existent trains, missing job interviews, court appearances, hospital treatment and a whole range of other commitments, and with little hope of any compensation this side of Christmas. Mr. Grayling (yes, him again) expresses the Government’s sympathy and shared outrage with rail passengers, and institutes an enquiry so that “lessons can be learned”. Now where have we heard that before?

Oh yes – a month or so ago, when Grayling (sigh) stripped the east coast mainline train franchise from its operators because of incompetence and poor performance. It’s odd that he has failed to do the same to Northern Rail and Thameslink as punishment (if it can be called that) for the timetable fiasco, but there it is – he hasn’t, nor has he given any reason why not. When asked the question directly he has refused to answer. Which is typical of the man.

Again, the problems on Britain’s railways are nothing new. Arguably, they have been a mess since the Divine Margaret broke up British Rail back in the 1980s, selling operating franchises to the best bidders with seemingly few cast iron service guarantees (given the unremittingly shoddy services nationwide since then). Regular changes of franchise over the years have done little to improve things, and have ultimately led to a recently announced “root and branch review of rail fares” - badly needed where in a country of 60million people there are apparently some 50million different fare options to choose from. This review will, of course, take at least a year to come up with any proposals, which will then be studied by the Government, who may then reject them all sometime in 2020.

All I can say is that I’m glad I no longer have to rely on the British road and rail networks to get around!

Of course, all of this mess is there against the backdrop of Brexit (from which I and no doubt nearly everyone else in the country is suffering an element of fatigue).

Cast your mind back a couple of years to the Referendum Campaign. Our motley crew of Brexiteers (including our friend Grayling, a leading light in the Out campaign) were continually spouting off about “taking back control of our borders” and dashing out into this brave new world of independent trade deals with the rest of the world, who would be falling over themselves so sign on the dotted line to move goods quickly, easily and more profitably in and out of Great (emphasis on this word) Britain without any interference from the bad EU guys across the channel. This was all going to happen smoothly and quickly, within a two year period from triggering Article 50 to start the exit process.

Nobody seems to have mentioned (as far as I can remember anyway) the additional strain that would be placed on our country’s roads, railways and airports – at least until it was too late. In the event, a little over half the population voted to Leave (not half those eligible to vote: many people failed to do so, including the better part of 2million ex-pats, whose combined vote may have materially changed the decision – but that is in the past and can’t be changed now). Now, 18 months later, we are in the ludicrous situation where a minority Tory Government is being propped up by a handful (quite literally) of Ulster Unionists and preside over the process of extricating the country from the EU – when the Cabinet itself cannot agree on what it wants or what Brexit actually means. Farcically, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is in no better position, with Mr. Corbyn’s Labour Party members squabbling amongst themselves, just as split as the Tories, and completely unwilling to state clearly its own position (and lacking any credibility as an alternative Government in waiting). Of the minority parties, only the LibDem is committed to either cancelling Brexit or offering another membership referendum once the “deal” with the EU is finalised – but no-one takes them seriously any more, so that is not going to happen.

So it rather looks as though in March next, we will crash out of the EU with no deal, and plummet over the fabled cliff-edge into the waiting arms of WTO rules, which will no doubt have a major impact, either detrimental or the best thing ever depending on who you believe, and with no independent trade deals to replace those we enjoy as part of the EU.

And with a transport infrastructure that is laughably, painfully unfit for purpose.

Oh dear…….

Friday, 20 April 2018

Luxembourg - as winter turns to spring

It feels like it’s been a long winter here in Luxembourg. Not a particularly cold one, it has to be said, but it seems to have dragged on forever.

I started working here in mid-September. At home in Warsaw the weather was still pretty good. Mostly sunny, not particularly warm but not really cold either. Lots of autumnal cloud and showers, I recall. Like it usually is in that month. Luxembourg, of course is a bit further south than Warsaw, and a bit further to the east, bordering France and Germany and Belgium, so I expected similar conditions here from the outset.

And in that I was right. It has been much of a muchness. Both places endured long dark nights, plenty of rain, and relatively little snow – even when The Beast From The East numbers 1, 2 and 3 swept through continental Europe in March, leaving destruction and floods behind. While Britain shivered and ground to a halt (as it always does when temperatures dip below zero for a day or two), while unusually deep snowfalls stunned everyone in the most southerly parts of Italy and Greece, the good people of the Grand Duchy and the Rzeczpospolita shrugged their collective shoulders and carried on as before.

Poland is, of course, historically used to long, freezing winters, even if they are lately somewhat of a rarity. There are plenty of snow ploughs in operation, little impact on the country’s railways and other public transport (notwithstanding the older trams being very cold and uncomfortable) and everyone has to change to winter tyres sometime in October. There is little impact on we fliers either: all the airports have plenty of ploughs and de-icing trucks to keep runways and aprons clear of all but the very worst snowfalls, and delays are rare and mainly due to aircraft de-icing procedures that add maybe 5 or 10 minutes to departure. Even that was rare to non-existent this year – if there were de-icing delays at Warsaw airport they happened on days when I didn’t travel: I can’t remember a single early Monday morning flight where we had to pause for a clean up.

Now I’m not sure what constitutes “normal” winter weather in Luxembourg. I don’t know whether it suffers a lot from prolonged rainfall and chilly winds, or whether deep and crisp and even snowfalls are a regular occurrence: I believe not. From talking to people at work, it does seem to be a rather cold and wet winter climate, so not unlike Britain. Which makes this winter pretty normal. I didn’t notice any snowploughs in evidence on the roads around the city, or for that matter at the airport, and the amount of snow that fell seemed less than back home, with no more effect. No road closures, even during the worst of March weather, that I was aware of, trains and buses seemed to be running without problem and the road traffic no better or worse.

There was one morning where my flight (running nicely on time) was diverted to Dusseldorf leading to a pleasant day riding on German trains to complete the trip (see Delays, diversions and cancellations – when things go wrong posted in mid February for a full report), and one Friday evening in March when a blizzard started as I was leaving for the airport that I expected would cause me problems (in the event my flight landed, we boarded and took off – without de-icing – bang on time: friends of mine travelling to Bucharest via Munich were less lucky and spent an additional night in a Luxembourgisch hotel paid for by Lufthansa), but apart from that the snow, such as it was, passed me by completely.

So in weather terms, this long winter was not so bad. But Luxembourg is not my home. Warsaw is. Living in a hotel, a very average hotel, is something that although I’m used to it is still not right. OK, the beds are comfortable enough (although the pillows way too soft) and I can watch BBC News, BBC1 and BBC2 on the tv in my room, and the place is only a 10 minute walk from the office (which I can see from most rooms I’ve slept in so far), so it is nothing if not convenient. There is a bar and restaurant in another block in the complex and the food edible although lacking variety. The fact that you have to walk 100metres or so from hotel reception to bar complex makes things less attractive, especially if the weather is cold and wet or snowy.

The old town, the city centre, is a 10 or 15 minutes walk away, and although there is a good selection of restaurants and bars there, its distance makes it just as unappealing in winter months. So I’ve ended up pretty much ensconced in my hotel room most nights. For the past 6 months. I KNOW I could have broken the monotony and gone elsewhere, and indeed did so, at least on the better (dryer, less cold) evenings, but frankly after a day of either sheer boredom or fraught argument and high stress by the time I get back to the hotel the last thing I’ve wanted to do after dropping my bag back in the room is to go back out again. Feet up and relax, try to get my blood pressure down and my stress levels back to normal has been the name of the game. It’s a very pretty and small city, with some lovely parks to walk through in better weather, a good variety of eateries and (expensive) shops, even a selection of English bookshops – no question. But its smallness can work against it. Once you’ve spent a couple of evenings, or even a couple of lunch breaks, exploring the city centre, that’s it – done. No surprises any more.

I was in town on a bank holiday early in my assignment. I enjoyed a lie in, then showered, had a late breakfast just before the restaurant closed, and set off to do a bit of sightseeing. I had planned to do a bit of window shopping, find an English pub a friend had recommended and settle there with beer, food, my music and my book for a few hours. The town was dead as a doornail. Hardly anyone was out and about, and I would guess most were people like me, visitors at a loose end in a strange town. All the shops were closed and shuttered. So were the restaurants, even McDonald’s. I wandered around for a couple of hours, took in the better views across the valley of the Grund and up to Kirchberg plateau with its EU Court of Justice dominating the skyline, and headed back towards the station, which was close to the English pub. I found the White Rose alright – but like everywhere else it was barred and shuttered, lunch time or not. Sadly I headed back to the hotel and stumbled upon an open branch of Subway – so that was dinner taken care of.

I’m told this is absolutely typical. Not only on public holidays but weekends too the place is like a ghost town. Never been in a city like it.

So I’m glad that this week spring has sprung.

The sun came out over the weekend, as it has across all Europe, and temperatures soared to a pleasant mid 20s. And in a few short days the trees in the park behind my hotel have gone from cold grey skeletons to bursting with green leaves and buds. The flower beds are suddenly a riot of colour surrounded by lush green grass, and I’ve been woken in the mornings by bright sunlight rather than rain or traffic noise.

I’ve spent most evenings wandering over to the old town, and sampled three very nice little cafes, sitting outside in the evening sunlight enjoying cold beer and good food (and of course my book), watching the world go by. There are more people about now: instead of hurrying home or to the hotel at the end of the working day people are doing like me and enjoying the usual European cafe society.

I expect Warsaw will be the same, when I get there in a few hours’ time (I’m finishing this in the airport Starbucks en route) and look forward to getting the bike out and going for a ride with mon famille. Great stuff.

I have no idea how long this spell, this fresh spring is going to last – with my luck, probably about 4 days max – but I certainly intend to make the most of it. While I’m doing so I will be looking forward to the summer heat, and visits to Croatia and England, maybe the Polish coast too. And bike rides in my shorts with my shirt off. Relaxing at my bolthole, beer in hand, watching the kids play with their friends while the sausages and chicken wings and pork burns on the barbie. Maybe even mowing the grass.

I can’t wait.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A Trip to Paris - Part 3: Some Gentle Exercise

Charles de Gaulle airport lies out of town, to the north, close to the old (but still used) Le Bourget airport and in the suburb of Roissy-en-France. It’s a massive airport, with multiple terminals and runways, but relatively well designed. The terminals are grouped quite close together, and the largest, Terminal 2, split into a half a dozen sections, all with easy access to the metro and train stations – if you’re prepared to walk a bit through a labyrinth of wide corridors and up and down several escalators. We arrived at the main Air France Schengen Terminal 2F, which of course turned out to be farthest from the station. The walk took a good 20 minutes (we were not hurrying), and almost as long to sort out tickets. For some reason, none of our bank cards worked on the machines, so we had to queue at the ticket office to get them - the same cards worked perfectly there: most odd.

But the ride into Paris Nord station on the RER system was painless – one intermediate stop at the other airport terminal, then fast from there through the dark suburbs into the city centre. The station is another big, sprawling multi-layered affair, serving the RER lines, the Paris Metro and suburban train services, as well as intercity TGV express trains and the Eurostar service to London. In a previous life I used to do the Eurostar trip from Waterloo (or sometimes Ashford) a couple of times a week, but that was 20 odd years ago since when there has been (and continues to be) a lot of major refurbishment, so that I managed to take the wrong exit. Instead of Rue la Fayette we were in a little side road and spent a good half hour walking around in circles trying to find the main road we needed. Asking directions was not practical as most of the people around were either tourists like ourselves, or local young people drunk, stoned or just not interested in much except having a good time – there are a lot of bars, restaurants and clubs in the area, not all the kind you would want to frequent at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night unless you’re under 30 and with friends.

But eventually we found Rue la Fayette, and headed off into the city, guided by the searchlight that pierces the sky from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Our hotel was just over a kilometre away, on the same road, so easy to find. Except we missed it – we went into a small supermarket to buy some snacks and a bottle of wine for a night cap, but the shop was on the corner of a little junction and we again took the wrong direction when we came out. Another 25 minutes wandering around and asking directions ensued before we finally got to the hotel entrance – not more than 100m from the supermarket.

We checked in to the Best Western Opera Fauberg hotel, and went to our room, on the top floor overlooking La Fayette. The place is an old building, oddly shaped with little corridors between the rooms, but has been modernised well. There is a decent sized lounge and bar area by the entrance, and the whole place has a British theme – there are big china British Bulldogs everywhere, some comfortable seats decorated with Union Jack material and a replica red British telephone box. The restaurant was one floor down, and turned out to do a good buffet breakfast. All the corridor walls were covered with black and white framed photos of old British stars from Charlie Chaplin to some more recent ones – Benny Hill seemed a popular choice: there were a number of him groping the Hill’s Angels dancers that used to feature in his shows, often dressed provocatively as French maids….

Our room was quite small, but the bed comfortable. The shower was fine, and there was a kettle and cups for coffee (that in the event we never used) and best of all a fridge in which we were able to chill the wine and champagne we had bought. The view from the window – one that could be opened rather than the normal uPVC sealed units found in most hotels these days – was nice, stretching the length of la Fayette as far as Gare du Nord to the left and into the City to the right. In that direction, the top half of the Eiffel Tower in the distance rose above the surrounding buildings, its searchlight sweeping the sky. At street level there were a number of bars and bistros opposite, all open and busy at this late hour. I took a couple of pics, we dropped our stuff and headed off for a late dinner and an early taste of the Parisian nightlife.

After a fraught night before and a long day’s travelling, we didn’t venture far, but down a side-street opposite the hotel we found a decent looking Italian restaurant, the Pizza Capri. It was small and snug, with no more than a dozen tables and a real, huge brick pizza oven, run by Italians, and the food was not only tasty but excellent value. We ordered two pizzas and a bottle of dry white, and settled down to relax and enjoy the weekend. The pizzas were massive, and neither of us finished them but they were delicious and the restaurant was happy to pack the leftovers for us to take away – lunch the next day on our roamings was thus sorted.

The wine was good too, and fortified by the meal we wandered around the streets for half an hour before going back to the hotel, where we slept very well indeed, partly from tiredness but without a doubt the wine helped.

After sampling what the buffet breakfast had to offer (answer: a lot, and all of it tasty) we headed off for our single day’s exploration of the city, carrying a bag with left over pizza, a bottle of water and a half-bottle of champagne (to drink on our Eiffel Tower tour as a celebration for my reaching pensionable age). I also had a folder with a city map (including Metro links) and the details of the tour, meeting points and so on.

First stop was Montmartre, on the basis it was quite close. We wandered round the first corner, about 50 metres from the hotel, and up a narrow shopping street that had been closed to traffic. There was a nice feel about the area, plenty of wine shops, cheese merchants, patisseries, fruit markets and pavement cafes serving coffee and breakfast pastries. The weather was fine and warm, and many families and tourists were wandering around in both directions enjoying the ambience. We stopped at one bakery and bought a kind of French baguette that was filled with chocolate chips and the store owner was kind enough to take some pictures of us together, admiring the thing. We brought it home with us, and I have no idea how it tasted – I assume the kids enjoyed it.

A little further up we found a gift store and paid the first of a few visits to it. We ended up buying a couple of tee-shirts, a selection of fridge magnets and key rings, and I treated myself to a cap to replace the football one that I was wearing (and my beloved hates ;-)) ). I wore it happily the rest of the day, much to her delight.

From there, we climbed another steep hill to the beautiful church of Sacré Couer, and then three or four flights of ridiculously steep stone steps to get to the church’s forecourt, past a funicular railway that would have saved us a lot of energy at the exorbitant cost of about 15. We didn’t go into the church this time, but enjoyed the stunning views out across the city and took many pictures on both the camera and the mobile phones – the selfie stick we borrowed from our Ally proved its worth, once we figured out how to use it. Below the main forecourt is a little terraced park that was full of people wandering around trying to avoid the hawkers (most of whom seemed to be refugees from the Calais Jungle) peddling their wares – cheap and tacky models of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Arc de Triomphe, plastic key rings and of course selfie sticks in a range of colours. Half way down a fitness group was practising synchronised agony to the blare of a beatbox and encouraging like minded masochists to join in. We studiously ignored it.

We then headed back past our gift shop for the centre of the Montmartre neighbourhood, because the Moulin Rouge nightclub is another must-see destination (according to the guide books anyway). The area is bigger and more brash than the old Soho neighbourhood in London was before the Mary Whitehouse brigade cleaned it up back in the 70s, and to this viewer is more open about its wares than Soho ever was. Down both sides of the main street there are strip clubs (some open even on this Sunday morning), porn shops, adult movie theatres and the nowadays inevitable kebab shops. The were plenty of cafes and bistros open for business but the three Irish pubs I spotted were at least still closed – which was a shame: hot from the walking and steps at Sacré Couer a cold Harp lager would have gone down very well. There was also a number of clothes shops with names like Sexodrome that sold various entertaining looking night attire and other faux-leather costumes…...

So we took out photos, paused on a bench in the middle of the road (there is like a pedestrianised strip between traffic carriageways with seats and the odd newsagent’s kiosk) for some crisps and a drink, then headed off to the Metro to make our way to Invalides and our Eiffel Tower tour.

At which point, things began to go - well, a bit wrong.

The Paris Metro, like the London Underground and the systems in most other major countries, is big. There are about a dozen lines, shown on the map in different colours like in London, but listed by numbers (1, 2, 3, etc) rather than names (Central, Piccadilly, etc) so in theory should be easy enough to understand. The maps outside the stations and in the entrances where the ticket machines and offices are located, are pretty clear too. OK, the station names are all in French, but at least that means Latin characters rather than unintelligible Cyrillic script, or Hebrew or Arabic or Chinese characters, and we can manage that. Trouble is the directions between lines and platforms are a bit confusing, and all the platform entrances have electric barriers you have to go through rather than just tunnel entrances and single barriers at the station entrance (as you get on every other metro system I’ve ever used), and if you use the wrong barrier it still registers your fare and means you have to buy ANOTHER ticket to get on the right platform and right line …… One wrong move can take 10 minutes or more to sort out when the line is busy or you are a tourist with no French to ask for help. Like us…..

Inevitably, we couldn’t find the correct platform – the station was an intersection between about three or four lines, and we wandered round in circles asking unresponsive Parisians for help (God, they are so rude and arrogant sometimes!) before asking a guy with a fruit counter who put us right. We got to the platform and found 5 minutes to wait for our train. This meant that nearly half of the 30 minutes we had allowed ourselves to get across to Invalides (as far as we could see the nearest station to the Tower, and only about 4 stops away) had already been used up. Invalides also looked to be quite distance from the Tower and our meeting place too…...

So it turned out. We bolted out of the station entrance at Invalides exactly at 12:15 – which was the time we were due to meet up with the tour group - not knowing which way to go. While Ania booted up Google Maps on her mobile I tried calling the Emergency Phone Number thoughtfully supplied. I got a recorded message (in French only) that meant nothing to me, then cut off. I tried again. Same result. Ania, meanwhile, was dashing down the street, phone in hand. I gave chase, and tried the number a third time. Nothing. We spotted a cab pulled up at the side of the road and asked if he would take us to the Tower. He pointed in the direction we were headed and gabbled something….we asked again: can you take us? A typical Gallic shrug as he turned away – that’ll be a no, then. Off we went as I tried to call a fourth unsuccessful time. Another cab. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to take us for a fare of 7. We piled in at 12:23 – eight minutes late. A red light stopped us – two more minutes gone as my fifth call failed. Then we arrived at a blockage right next to the Tower, a roadworks diversion – we paid the man (no haggling, even though the meter only read 3-50) and galloped off again.

We were on the wrong side of road and there was nowhere to safely cross – the nearest lights and crossing another 100metres or so along the pavement. We got to them, breathless, and crossed quickly as the lights turned green. The Tower was close, but the customer line stretched endlessly away from us to the entrance furthest away. We got there, waving our priority pass confirmation and were waved into the (empty) Priority lane. A security check like at the airport. Empty your bags for x-ray and pass through the gate. Our half-bottle of champers was not well received – you can’t take that, said the bitch on the gate. We pleaded with her – well, Ania did, I just swore fluently in as many languages as I could remember words – 4, I think. The bitch shrugged her shoulders. Non. In despair, Ania hurled the bottle into a metal waste bin and there was a satisfying pop as the cork came out… least the bitch wouldn’t be drinking our booze! We piled through the security gate, grabbed coats and bags and barged through, ignoring the French babble behind us.

Now there are four legs to the Eiffel Tower, each of which has stairs or escalators to the first level, where you pick up the elevators to the top. Which one our tour group was using we had no idea, but there was an Information office close by, so we went there. It was by now way past the Tour start time, so we did not expect to meet up with the group and guide – no matter, we’ll make our own way up and have a wander around– bugger the history lesson and the guide pointing out the obvious sights: we could figure them out from the map I had.

But no. Information advised us that we had no tickets – our now crumpled sheet of paper was merely the booking confirmation, the tickets had to be collected from the Tour operator’s office. We explained again, for the umpteenth time, what our problem was and pleaded, for the umpteenth time to some cold-hearted French tart, to be let through, it was my birthday etc etc etc. The cold-hearted French tart shrugged her shoulders. Close to tears now, Ania asked where the office was. The woman gestured behind us at a block of grand-looking buildings way over there…..not on the site of the Tower at all. Tired, now, sweaty, frustrated, close to tears, we trudged off. There was no point in rushing any more.

The office was half way back the way we had come, and was full with another group patiently waiting for their guide. Behind the counter, sitting at a computer, a receptionist was writing an e-mail (or surfing the internet, I’m not sure which). We waited impatiently for a couple of minutes, recovering our breath.

Excuse me…..”

She held up an imperious hand.

Moment.” And continued doing things on her computer for another couple of minutes. Then: “Yes?”

We launched into our by now familiar speech. She shrugged her shoulders without looking at us.

You are too, late, I cannot ‘elp you.” And turned back to her screen.

I lost it then. In between a wide range of cusses, I pointed out that I had tried to call half a dozen times on the emergency number that no-one had answered, that we had been given insufficient directions to the meeting place, that the Paris Metro system was complete crap and the taxi drivers thieves, and why could she not give us our tickets to make our own way around the Tower who needs tour guides anyway, why can’t you add us to the next tour group……

Your receipt.” A demand, no please.

I gave it to her. She swung around in her chair and took a photocopy, then gave it back without a word, and turned back to her screen. I waited a few second.

And?” I said. “Our tickets?”

She shrugged.

Non. You were too late. I cannot ‘elp you.” Still no sorry.

I took a deep breath, ready to launch into another tirade, but Ania took my hand and pulled me towards the door without saying anything. We left.

On the pavement outside the door the tears came properly, Ania blaming herself for everything, me trying to console her. I dug out the rumpled confirmation and found another number, listed as that of the internet booking agency we had used to buy the tour. I dialled a UK mobile number, not expecting any answer – it was a Sunday afternoon, remember. All down the pub…..

A girl answered. I told her the whole sorry story. For once, there was a genuinely sympathetic tone. She apologised profusely and had the decency to wish me a happy birthday. But she could do nothing to help us. Her company was merely an online booking agency, not the tour operator. She asked for an e-mail with all the details and promised she would do her best for us and re-book to tomorrow. I told her this was no good as we were flying home then and asked for a refund. She wasn’t sure but promised to try when she got the mail. OK… no Eiffel Tower then.

We wandered away, not really sure where to go or what to do next, the shadow of the Tower falling over us as we turned a corner.

After a while, we found ourselves passing an open space, a small park, on which the Tower stood. There was a coach full of Indian tourists lined up like a football team while someone took lots of pictures on a selection of mobile phones – the coach driver, probably. I paused for a moment and made rabbit’s ears behind someone in the back row that hopefully drew a smile (or howl of anguish) when the owner of that particular phone saw the pics…...cruel, perhaps, but that is the way I felt at that moment.

We paused for a couple of minutes and half-heartedly took our photos, then walked on towards the Seine. We came to the corner where we had dashed across the road when we had arrived there, crossed again and climbed a flight of steps to a kind of elevated promenade that ran along the top of the riverbank. There we sat for half and hour and ate the remains of last night’s pizza and cooled down. The morning’s clouds had cleared and it was a warm, sunny early spring day. Delightful.

We debated what to do next. We were tired and decidedly pissed off, but it was still early and to head back to the hotel seemed to me admitting defeat and wasting what was turning into a lovely afternoon. Ania was more pissed off than I was, and preferred to head back to the hotel. We compromised: we would head back towards the centre of the city, across the river, and see how we felt then. I still wanted a look at the Arc de Triomphe and fancied a beer in a street bar somewhere. I felt there was nothing to be gained by stressing about the failed Tower trip – it was in the past and we could nothing now except claim our money back when we got home. I was not prepared to let a bunch of snotty Frog tarts ruin my birthday! Ania eventually agreed, and we set off.

We sauntered back along the promenade, through a small children’s fair complete with small carousel and burger bar, and crossed the river. Below us the river was running fast and strong, and a stream of long bateaux mouches passed under the bridge in both directions. For a minute I thought about taking a trip along to Notre Dame cathedral on one, but the queues were long and I’d had enough of that and unhelpful French civil servants for one day, so I didn’t mention the possibility. Instead, on the other bank, we paused to take a couple of pictures of the now distant Tower, then joined the throng above us at the Jardins du Trocadéro. Here we took another string of pictures, with the Jardins below us, leading to the Pont d’Iéna that we had used to cross the Seine, and beyond that the Tower. On some of them we were able to do weak trick photos: by standing on the wall, one hand held high, you can make it look as though you are holding the top of the Tower between thumb and forefinger. We did something similar years ago, kissing the Sphinx at Giza.

We headed off then to find the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen it many times, and never quite been able to figure out the traffic flow around it, nor who had right of way. I read somewhere that all motor insurance is considered invalid there, as the traffic was totally uncontrollable and no-one could ever prove who was in the wrong in the event of an accident. A believable story but probably apocryphal…...though I wouldn’t bet on it.

Once again my navigation was way off. At the bottom of the steps exiting the Jardins is a roundabout with 6 exits. One of the roads leading off, Avenue Kleber, leads directly to Souterrain Étoile and the Arc. We strolled straight across Kleber, as we did two other roads after it, and struck off along Avenue Georges Mandel. I thought I had caught sight of the Arc a few minutes earlier, as we waited for the lights at Avenue du President Wilson to change, and Mandel was the road to take.
In fact, Mandel runs away at angle of 120° or so from Kleber – basically in the opposite direction. But we didn’t realise this for a kilometre or more, when we reached the junction and Metro station at Avenue Henri Martin, where we finally spotted a sign for the Arc, leading away along Avenue Victor Hugo. The detour probably added a good 3km to our walk – and in my case at least 4 foot blisters.

But eventually, legs aching and feet sore, we reached our goal and sat for a while watching the traffic cutting across and cars weaving around each other as they passed Napoleon’s Monument to himself (this was before Waterloo, of course). It seemed likely that the rule was give way to anything coming from the left, but not everyone went along with that – many drivers seemed to give way to traffic from the right instead. I was left none the wiser, and nursing a conviction that no matter how much money I was offered I would never attempt to drive across here. Then we crossed carefully back over Victor Hugo, Rue Lauriston, Kleber, Avenue d’Iéna and finally Avenue Marceau to reach the junction between the Champs Élysée and Avenue de Friedland. Here we were immediately opposite the Arc, looking back through it in the direction of La Defense at the far end of the Avenue de la Grande Armée (for a near midget, Bonaparte certainly had an ego the size of the planet Mars).

More photos, of traffic shrouding the Arc in petrol fumes. Camera and selfies on the phones (along with the massed ranks of Chinese tourists doing likewise). We couldn’t get the best view, clean through the centre of the Arc and down Grande Armée because there were barriers up on the far side masking repair and renovation work.

We had thought about heading along the Champs Elysée and taking a beer and a sandwich somewhere, but because of my detour we were both flagging – my legs ached and my feet were very sore, and Ania was, if anything, worse, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a brief rest before heading back to the Moulin Rouge for some after dark shots and a meal.

More Metro madness! This time, the map pointed to taking an RER train two stops, then changing lines for another three to get to our hotel’s closest station. But the lady on the ticket desk insisted we were wrong and sold us tickets for the Metro line instead – it added a couple of additional stops but what the hell – we were too tired to argue. The train was packed, standing room only, but Ania managed to grab a seat at the first stop. We got to our change, at the station for the Louvre Art Gallery, which is when the problems started. On the platform we needed to find the route to Line 7 – and saw two signs saying 7, one at each end of the platform. We took pot luck and headed for the closest. It was, inevitably, the wrong one, and took us back to street level – Exit 7, not Line 7. Further, at this station we had to run our tickets through a barrier to get out – which of course used up our transfer option and effectively killed the ticket. We milled around the ticket hall and grumpily joined a queue to buy yet more tickets. The queue was next to the barrier leading to Line 7, and we were, for a change, a bit fortunate – a couple with a baby in a pushchair needed to go through the big gate to get to Line 7 and were allowed through. With the staff distracted (or more likely disinterested) we followed them through. Back on track.

After that – no issues. At our station there were no exit barriers to worry about, and we were able to stroll back onto la Fayette not more than 100m from the hotel. We paid one more visit to the supermarket and picked up another half-bottle of champagne to replace the one sacrificed at the Eiffel Tower: it would be our night cap later. In our room, we dumped the bags and put the champagne in the fridge, and I took a couple more views out of the window. I was reluctant to sit down because I was not sure I would be able to get up again, so we headed off once more.

It was getting towards dark, and the shops were closing, the streets emptying. We re-traced our steps through Montmartre and got to the Moulin Rouge as darkness fell, There were comparatively few people around at this early hour, but plenty of barkers outside the various strip joints and porn shops vying for custom, but we ignored them, took our pictures then strolled back the way we had come, looking for somewhere to eat. We decided on a decent looking place called Le Chat Noir, about a hundred metres down Boulevard de Clichy from the nightclub and next door to a seedy looking Museum de l’Erotisme. The restaurant was quite full, and had a covered seating area looking out onto Clichy, and there was live music from inside – a guy with an acoustic guitar singing and playing – he was quite good. The menu looked ok, so in we went. We found a table by the entrance to the interior seating, where we could listen to the music better, but still close enough to see the street and all its passing strangers.

We ordered a couple of big Stella Artois lagers and fish ‘n’ chips. Our waiter was a young guy: “I am Brazilian!” he announced. “Neymar! Good player!”

“Harry Kane,” I said. “Better player!”

My wife announced it was my birthday, and the lad shook my hand and congratulated me, then dashed off for the beers. We relaxed, then, tired and sore, but happy. The Eiffel Tower was a distant and fading annoyance. The beer was good, strong and cold as Stella should always be, and the food very good indeed. One of the better fish ‘n’ chips I’ve eaten, and a pleasant surprise in this place. We took more pictures while we ate and drank a second beer, then called for the bill. Neymar’s mate brought it, and we found he had not charged for the beers – we pointed it out to him.

“On the house,” he said with a smile. “’Appy Birsday!”

It quite made my day! After battling disinterested French jobsworths all day, this act of kindness by a happy young Brazilian waiter restored me completely – I only hope he didn’t get into trouble with his boss!

So we left Le Chat Noir and strolled slowly back to the hotel. Another souvenir shop benefited from the sale of a couple more tee-shirts, and as a light drizzle started we paused at Place Pigalle to take some pics of the famous theatre there (with Sexodrome in the background).

Back at the hotel – pictures of the interior – those china British Bulldogs! – then back to the room. Showers to wash away the blood from burst blisters and ease aching muscles, then break out the champagne and cheese and biscuits to finish the day. Then a deep and refreshing sleep…….

Monday dawned sunny and warm. We had a very good and filling breakfast, then finished packing and headed off to Gare du Nord for our flight home. It was easier this way, knowing where we were going, and buying the RER tickets equally painless – this time my card worked in the machine.

At the airport, security was surprisingly quick and efficient, and we were through to the Air France Business Lounge by our gate nearly two hours before our flight was due. It was a bit of a disappointment: it’s quite small and was full of people, standing room only. But we managed to find two seats, not together, and settled in, and shortly after some people left and we were able to join up again. But the food was quite good, and there was a decent selection of drinks and a great view out the window to the apron. We found magazines and papers in English and chilled out until flight time.

No delays. Decent seats. Cabin service was basic – beef or veggie sandwiches, coffee and soft drinks, but it was free and the crew brisk, efficient and friendly. Straight through Arrivals with cabin baggage only, and into the taxi. Home ten minutes later to hugs and kisses from the kids.

A delightful weekend, and a lovely – and memorable! - birthday.

To my wife and kids, who organised it all and managed to keep it secret from me for nearly three months – thank you so much!