Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Last Day of the Adriatic Explorer

18 August 2011. The Thomson Spirit arrives into Gruz, the port for the Croatian city of Dubrovnik.

As it's our last day we'll have a last look at the ship itself!

Once again we have decided not to go on an arranged excursion. This means for the first time ever we have done an entire cruise without paying for excursions! Dubrovnik is an hour's walk apparently. We'll set off and see where we get to!

The last time we were in this port, there was a lot of building work going on to extend the wharf. We are docked on a bit that didn't exist the last time and we have to walk the length of the harbour.

Halfway down we come to this excellent replica galleon, the Karaka. Well, it's not a galleon apparently, but a replica of a 16th century carrack. I suspect they weren't fitted with the same sort of luxuries in the 1500s somehow, but it certainly looked wonderful and you can find out more on the Karaka website complete with some beautiful photos of her under sail.

We walked all the way to the end of the harbour and there found that the street signs for Dubrovnik were a little open to interpretation... Our map that we had picked up didn't help as the harbour was too far away from Dubrovnik to be shown.

There was a peninsular heading back on the other side of the harbour for as far as we had walked already and more and I suspected Dubrovnik was probably on the other side of it. Taking the short cut over the peninsular instead of round it looked as though it involved one hell of a climb! Besides... it was very nice on the harbourside! We sat on a bench and watched what there was to watch for half an hour and then ambled back up to the ship.

That's twice I've been to Gruz and not been into Dubrovnik... Ah well! Third time may prove to be lucky!

We sail out at 5:00pm, heading out through the channels and islands and past the suspension bridge over the river.

The large ferries were nowhere to be seen here. Just an older small steamer heading across to one of the islands.

We ate once more in the Compass Rose restaurant where Thomas and Fred were watching out for us, to wave us into our chairs.

Then we headed for the Horizons Bar where the harmony group New Dimension were playing their usual ballads.

"Is it rock and roll night tonight?" I asked as I walked in. I'd asked this about three nights running and it had become a standing joke. However tonight they went into a conflab for a while and then - Blue Suede Shoes!!! Who would have guessed! They all laughed as I got up and salaamed them.

Large versions of the photos: all the photos from this holiday can be found in this set at Flickr.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Rain Stops Play at Garstang

Such a shame. We had played around an hour or an hour and a half and then the heavens opened at Garstang's Music and Arts Festival yesterday.

Unlike Saturday when we covered up for a bit and then played again, Monday turned into a steady non-stop downpour and we had to move the equipment to a dry place and then try to dry it all off. Definitely not the place to be using electricity out in the open!

Thanks to the people who came to see us - especially those who had come some way especially. A couple came and he introduced himself as Hughie - they had seen us on the Internet and come all the way from Manchester. Another family had come from Blackburn after seeing us at other events and some had come down from Lancaster.

It was lovely to meet and talk with you all and we were as disappointed as anyone at not being able to carry on. We hope to see you at future events. Our dates can be found in the left hand column of the band's blog.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Split the Night!

17 August 2011. Once again we are given time and opportunity to view our port of call at night.

Once again it makes a beautiful scene. We are in Split, Croatia. The last entry dealt with our day in this rapidly recognised tourist destination and we are now standing on the Promenade Deck (Deck 6) of our cruise ship, the Thomson Spirit.

To our left there is still a litle colour in the sky although the sun, a while since, dipped beneath the horizon.

As we stand looking over the peaceful scene, a number of ferries enter and leave the port.

This doesn't detract from the peace or the aesthetic beauty of the place - the ferries are quiet and at the first or final few metres of their journey and so are gliding slowly past.

They all bear their company name Jadrolinija in bold letters on their side. There are lots of islands around this area and many are tourist destinations.

We stood out on deck until the pangs of hunger assailed us - that doesn't normally take too long with me to be honest, but I heed them off tonight. This was, after all, the last port that we would be in at night on the cruise. In fact we only have one port of call left! Dubrovnik will be our port tomorrow.

Tonight in the Compass Rose restaurant it is the night for a traditional event on cruise ships - the Parade of the Baked Alaska!

It is a feature of every cruise and, seeing as this will be the twelfth time we have clapped along and enjoyed the beaming faces of a line of waiters holding aloft a flaming pudding, I thought it was time to research what it was all about...

The pudding is ice cream on a cake bed and then encased in a baked meringue. A frozen middle that has to remain frozen whilst the meringue is cooked. Still a feat now, but imagine when there were no refridgerators!

Apparently Baked Alaska was first created by Delmonico's restaurant in New York following the acquisition of Alaska by America from Russia on March 30, 1867. How they baked the meringue without the ice cream melting and without the aid of little gas aerosol flame throwers I don't know. They must have called in all the local plumbers with their paraffin burners...

Anyway whether you like the dessert or not makes no difference. This is an event that livens up the waiters' week. That much is obvious from their faces. And these guys and girls work some serious hours on your behalf.

And it's a bit of fun and you've got to be a cynical old meanie not to enjoy it!

Large versions of the photos: all the photos from this holiday are now uploaded to this set at Flick.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Split, Croatia

Thursday 18 August 2011. The Thomson Spirit sails into dock in Split, Croatia.

Again, just by walking a few yards from the ship, we find ourselves standing outside the old city walls. The walk along the waterfront is beautiful and there are benches every few yards. (Blackpool are you paying attention?)

Quite a bit of the city wall and some of the older buildings have been lost here during one spell of fighting or another.

This is the gate that we entered the old part of the city through.

It enters next to the Cathedral of St Duje in the left hand photo above.

The old city of Split is built over a Roman Palace, built for the retirement home of Emperor Diocletian in AD 305 (actually the first Roman Emperor to retire rather than die or be overthrown).

The city is typical of medieval towns with a number of narrow streets leading to squares or piazzas.

This one was particularly beautiful, mainly for the decorated building facing us. Behind us though was an extremely early clock tower and clock. It was a popular stop on guided tours as several were jostling for position and I even got stepped on by one woman, camera glued to her eye instead of looking where she was going. She was in her twenties and very pretty and apologised profusely in French which shocked me so much (normally the French would just glare at you for getting in the way) that I smiled at her and offered the other foot...

Once again it was somewhat warmer than it gets in Blackpool! We made our way out of the old city and down to one of the benches on the seafront before strolling back to the ship for our last afternoon. Why does time go so much faster when you are on holiday?!?

Large versions of the photos: all the photos from the holiday can be found in this set at Flickr.

Dodging the Weather at Garstang

We wondered how we would get on yesterday, but apart from one very short period where we had to cover up, the rain skirted round us and the sun tried its best to make an appearance!

Even the wooden kingfisher had its warm clothing on!

Anyway, although quieter than the previous Saturday there were a number of people out and about and we had a sizeable crowd during the last hour of our set.

Creeping Bentgrass will be back in Garstang on Bank Holiday Monday for the third of our three appearances at Garstang Music and Arts Festival.

Friday, 26 August 2011

One More Time in Venice

We have, I must admit, been here before. So, as I don't want to repeat myself and bore my readers (Heaven forbid!) I decided we would stay away from St Mark's Basilica, the Bridge of Sighs and the Rialto Bridge and look at some things I haven't shown before.

However, just to keep everyone happy and so as not to disappoint, here is a shot from the deck of Thomson Spirit of St Mark's with the bell tower, basilica and Doges' Palace. The Bridge of Sighs is just off to the immediate right but was surrounded by screens and scaffolding.

Having been before, we decided to forsake the ship's offer of an excursion and even the special boat solely for Thomson passengers and instead saved around sixteen pounds by buying return tickets for a water bus that picked us up right next to the ship. The excursion boat would have cost us forty pounds for the two of us and we would have been stuck to the allotted return time. The water bus cost us twenty six Euros.

Having said this, we knew we had to come back fairly early so as not to arrive for the final returning boat only for it to be full! Everyone who misses sailing time has gone ashore independantly! It is an expensive thing to do, missing a ship...

So this time we had a walk around the arcade which surrounds three sides of St Mark's Square. Florian's Restaurant had a small combo doing their refined thing outside, seen here as I walked behind them in the arcade. Usually they play classical or opera pieces. For some reason we got there in time to hear the final bars of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da... Just the thing to bring medieval Italy to mind!

The arcade shops include several narrow booths, part of the restaurant where customers can sip their champagne or espresso. Of the actual shops, jewellers are the most represented traders.

Miss Franny was paying close attention to these and I curried a bit of favour by purchasing a matching necklace and earring set of Murano glass.

Now, whether I've shown gondolas before or not, you can't visit Venice without doing a spot of gondola gazing. They are everywhere, from the lagoon shore at St Marks to piazzas where canals meet, to the Rialto Bridge. And at all points inbetween, gliding down narrow canals and under tourist-filled bridges.

"James behave! We're being filmed!"
"Oh, not again...!"

We just gave up on direction and wandered down the side of canals and along shopping streets until we were hopelessly lost. I knew where we were roughly but we couldn't find ourselves on the map. The map had all the street names. The streets have all the names of the piazzas... It gave us a fresh perspective.

Bits of street furniture brightened up the sometimes quite dingy alleyways. Such as this wonderful apartment building collection of doorbells.

Then we found ourselves back at St Marks Square and headed down the lagoon front to a pavement cafe where we could enjoy a cool drink and a spell of people watching. I've always found that knowing how to count up to five and say please and thank you will get you a long way. I know only a very little Italian beyond that, but have never had a problem. They all speak excellent English anyway, but appreciate you making the effort.

Then we made our way back to the water bus station and waited for a boat back to the Thomson Spirit.

Sailing out of Venice on a cruise ship is one of the great cruising experiences. It also brings home to you how big these huge ships are. The Thomson Spirit is tiny next to some of them but even on that - we were up on the highest deck which is Deck 10 - we could look over the rooftops of Venice and pick out a few decidedly wonky-looking church towers!

Two days in Croatia still to come!

Large versions of the photos: all the photos from this holiday can be found in a special set at Flickr.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Day in Koper, Slovenia

15 August 2011. After a day at sea the Thomson Spirit arrives at a country that we've never been to before. We dock at Koper in Slovenia and find ourselves with an easy walk from the ship's gangplank into the heart of the medieval city.

Koper sits on the opposite corner at the top of the Adriatic Sea, across from Venice.

The Venetians in Medieval times were the dominant naval force in the Mediterranean and many ancient cities along the coasts of the Adriatic show significant Venetian influence.

The photograph shows the Loggia Palace on the left, parts of which date back to 1462 with an upper storey added two hundred years later. Facing us is the Praetorian Palace, on the site of two earlier municipal halls. One was here from 1254 but was destroyed during a revolt in 1348. Its replacement hadn't been finished by 1380 when a raid from Genoa destroyed it and the rest of the city. The present palace was started in 1452.

The old part of Koper isn't that big, but has plenty of interesting sights. We came across this railed off drinking fountain with two entrances governed by turnstiles to stop children rushing in and out. It works as the child who tried it whist we were there banged his head on the turnstile and stopped running quite abruptly!

We came out of the old town a different way than we had gone in and found ourselves faced by a very attractive view of the Adriatic and a marina.

We sat for a while on a bench and applied a bit more sun lotion in order to fry rather than roast... It was H-O-T!

So we were tickled to find this framework blasting out jets of frosty mist! By the time you had walked through the heat dried off any moisture that you may have picked up!

Behind it was a shopping centre and this delightful fountain, ringed by more benches. We sat on one and Fran packed me off to buy ice creams from a stall on the marina. Another couple from the ship came out of the shopping centre and sat staring at the air conditioning jets. "Don't you get wet?" the woman asked suspiciously, whilst moaning about how hot it was.

We walked back to the ship and came to this resort area. It was absolutely crowded with people of all ages, sunbathing, sitting, swimming in the cordoned part of the sea whilst a massive container ship nudged its way past only a few yards away.

We walked through to get to the ship. Fran pointed me the way past a couple of girls sitting on the grass with their backs to us. They had bikini bottoms on but nothing else. I sighed... Now to show my mature character by not turning round as I walked past. I strong-heartedly strode past them.

"Can we get that way?" asked Fran. Oh... damn... I had to turn to answer her... Gorgeous that woman...

We spent the afternoon lazing about the ship. Koper is so close to Venice - our destination for tomorrow - that we again had a chance to take photos as darkness fell.

On one side of the ship, the large container ship had docked and already was lighter by about a third of its cargo of containers.

On the other side a lone excursion coach stood on the dockside in front of Koper's city wall.

Large versions of the photos: all the photos from this holiday can be found in this set at Flickr. There are still some to upload at time of writing.

Playing Like High-Speed Gas!

Yesterday we played for the British Gas Pensioners following an excellent meal at the Elgin Hotel, Blackpool.

Both David and Jeannie used to work for British Gas so we were invited to dine with them and the Elgin put on a superb meal. I have to praise their staff and manager too, who were so pleasant and accomodating it was a pleasure to be there.

We played two sets and David had devised a little extra involvement for the audience. As we played our country and folk set, he had distributed a list of all the pop and rock songs we do from the late 50s upwards and audience members were able to vote for their favourites for us to play in the second set.

It worked very well and some brave souls ventured out of the 60s voting enough to include both Westlife and Take That songs that we included.

All in all we enjoyed ourselves every bit as much as the audience and the Committee were full of praise for us afterwards which was very nice too!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Night Time in Kotor

13 August 2011. We are still in Kotor, Montenegro, 28 kilometres from the Adriatic Sea up the deepest fjord in southern Europe.

We are standing on the Promenade Deck of the Thomson Spirit cruise ship, waiting to sail out of Montenegro and back down the fjord to the sea.

As darkness falls the ancient city of Kotor comes alive - so much so that the full car park below us on the wharf has a long stream of cars queueing to get in. They each must wait until another car leaves.

The city walls that earlier had blended in with the mountainside which they climb, now stand out in floodlighting, showing just how high above the main city they reach.

A crowd is gathering, waiting to see the ship leave the port. Young couples, older couples, entire families... they all stand or sit looking expectantly upwards. Then the startlingly loud blast on the ship's hooter. No wonder they are all out here with their kids - no one would have slept through that!

The crowd of people start to wave at the few of us who have come out to watch our own departure.

"Goodbye! Don't forget to write!" Actually I don't speak Montenegrin... It could have been "You bastards! You woke the baby!" One chap looked slightly apologetic at the rail. Hmmm - maybe it had been "You bastard! You left me with a baby!!!"

The ship moves away from the dock and turns slowly, then starts off down the fjord. We pass a few ferries, lots of small boats and a yacht, swinging slowly to its mooring.

As we move away from Kotor the lights dwindle until there are just a few houses here and there along the fjord's bank. Not enought light to take photographs by and we move into the Horizons Bar for a drink and to listen to the vocal harmony group, New Dimensions. We'll meet them properly later in the week.

It would be easy to drink yourself into stupification on a cruise ship - plenty actually do. Others set foot on the boat already pretty stupid... I'm not a good drunk. I have a short spell of feeling merry but, let's face it, most people wouldn't tell the difference anyway and then I just feel ill and fall over... Not good. I don't do it. People tell me they'd love to see me drunk but I'd just aim for them if they got me that way...

So after a giddy pint, we finish our evening on the Lido Deck with a sedate coffee.

The next day is our day at sea so in our next entry we will have travelled all the way up the Adriatic to call in at the top right hand corner into Koper in Slovenia.

Large versions of the photos: all the photos will end up in this set of photos at Flickr.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Wrong Song in Kotor, Montenegro

13 August 2011. Normally the first day of a cruise would be a day at sea. This allows passengers to get accustomed to any motion that there may be and also provides time for the lifeboat drill which is required by law within 24 hours of boarding a ship. All passengers are required to attend.

On the Adriatic Explorer however we have a port visit - Kotor in Montenegro - to look forward to. To accomodate the lifeboat drill we will arrive at lunchtime and sail away a bit later at 11:00pm. So a second day where we have a chance to see somewhere after dark!

To approach Kotor we have to sail along what they call the deepest fjord in southern Europe. It is some 28 kilometres long and as I hadn't realised we weren't sailing until after dark, I stuck my nose in a book on the sun deck and ignored it entirely... Duh...

The bits I did see - and we were in it a long time - were spectacular! It is our first visit to Montenegro. All day long the song Montego Bay is going through my head even though it's about a totally different country on the other side of the world and the word "Montenegro" does not fit into the same space as "Montego"...

Kotor is a medieval walled city with earlier roots. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Best of all the ship docks so close that we can just walk down the gangway and into the heart of the city in a couple of minutes.

Kotor is a delight of narrow alleyways, very worn marble paving and cobbled squares, surrounded by ancient palaces and churches. Scrawny cats stalk the alleyways that were made so that even two donkeys would have to be skinny to pass each other!

We come out at one side to the city wall and pond seen in the second photo. Walking away from the old city we come to a more ancient ruin but with nothing to tell us what we are looking at.

We re-enter the city and walk through a different route to the far side, passing again under the wall to a river and what looks like a leat, running from a building that must have had a mill as its predecessor.

The walls run up an almost sheer mountainside to a fortress far above us. The walls meld into the mountainside. Come dark we will see them far more easily so we'll have a look at them in the next entry.

Instead we'll take a look at the mysterious yellow floating umbrellas that suddenly confront us round a corner from the main square. As we pass into this small piazza people, looking upwards, walk into each other with tiny muttered apologies in a multitude of languages...

We head back out through the main entrance arch under the walls and are immediately faced by the bulk of the Thomson Spirit standing just the other side of the road.

Back on the ship we head up to the Horizons Bar where the irrepressible Aiza is practicing the phrases taught to her by some Geordies last week: "Why-aye man! Cheeky booger...." Priceless!

Large versions of the photos: all of the photos from this holiday will appear in this set at Flickr.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Cruising the Adriatic Explorer

Did you miss me? Sorry about that, but I've been re-stocking with new experiences to bring you. I have to research every now and then - life cannot be just a steady stream of fun.

So whilst everyone else was thinking about the start of their holiday, Miss Franny and I boarded the Thomson Spirit after flying to Corfu last Friday (12 August) ready to log our experiences to brighten these pages of academic learning. A hard life, but someone's got to do it...

The Spirit is the sister ship to the Thomson Celebration and is identical in layout and names of bars, restaurants etc. so that we knew our way about immediately. "Where are we now? Fran asked, halfway up a flight of stairs. Well... almost immediately, then...

We arrived in the afternoon so there wasn't any time to explore Corfu. By the time we had unpacked, settled in and ensured the Horizons Bar matched the Celebration, dined and lounged about some more in the Horizons, the sun was going down. Quite spectacularly as it happened. So if you are looking for info about Corfu, then search for it at the top of the page. You'll find it!

Here, we'll just take a turn around the Promenade Deck which on this ship is Deck 6.

It's warm. I've never known Corfu to be anything else really. But this is our first day and even 20 degrees, never mind thirty-odd would have felt warm to us shivery Brits!

It was a beautiful night and a near-as-full-as-makes-no-difference moon had risen to throw a cascade of pearly white along the water as straight as the flight of Cupid's arrow.

"Are you done?" asked Miss Franny, "We've been up since two o'clock this morning and I want to go to sleep!" Sigh...

Well then, here we are. Corfu, Greece, about to set off for Kotor on Montenegro also in Greece. Then will come a day at sea, a day in Slovenia, one in Venice, Italy and two in Split then Dubrovnik in Croatia. Most of those so close to the place where we'll dock that this is the first holiday (whoops! I mean "academic research trip"!) that we'll do without taking a single paid excursion. We're such meanies! More to come...

Large versions of the photos: Not many there yet (as at 20 August) but they will gather here at Flickr!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Reading My Way Through 2011

Time for an update on reading matter I think... In the last book-related entry I hinted at having started a long series of fantasy books.

This was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. This is the original American book cover which I've used here as the UK covers are unbelievably boring with a single graphic illustration - the same except for colour on all the books - and only a vertical sliver of the illustration on the rear cover which are mostly meaningless without seeing the whole thing.

Jordan set out to write a long series and did so, but unfortunately died before finishing the series. However Brandon Sanderson stepped in to write the final novel from Jordan's notes and found so much material he turned the final book into a trilogy, the final instalment of which (book 14 of 12...) is still to be published.

This is a gripping if slightly confusing story - the number of characters grows throughout the series and as it is a fantasy book they do have rather unusual sounding names that you have to keep track of and remember for the next time they appear. They are huge books too. Perhaps because he did like his descriptive text did our Robert... Sometimes I got so bored I'd skip read a couple of pages only then finding myself confused because I'd missed a bit that was actually relevant to the story.

There's a lot of repetition too. The number of times female characters sniff disdainfully must make this the snottiest collection of books in history... But in the end you can't take away from the fact that this is a brilliant story. Since May I've read my way through 10 of the books. That's 18 inches (46cm) of shelf space! So far it's been a re-reading effort for me - I read the first 11 books in 2007-8. Fran bought me book 12 for Christmas last year and I realised I would have to go through the others before even hoping to remember what each of the scores of characters was up to! Book 13 comes out in paperback early next year. For the final one I fear I might have to go through them all over again!

I couldn't read through this huge, huge (told you there was a lot of repetition) series without some relief at times and I came across my old Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend.

How can any grown man can read this and not squirm with embarrassed memories...? Adrian Mole is wonderful. It's like going through awkward adolescence all over again reading these books. I love the part where one of his schoolmates says a girl will do "it" for a bag of grapes and in Adrian's next diary entry he has been to the greengrocers to look at the price of grapes!

Every man carries some memory that would make him squirm if it came out but all of Adrian's are here in print for us to chortle over!

I needed a few short books to refresh myself for the hurdle back into the Wheel of Time and this was a re-read of a book that my Dad used to have. The Stainless Steel Rat is a comedy science fiction caper wherein criminal poacher turns gamekeeper, boy meets girl, girl does her best to kill boy, boy falls in love. As you do... Anyway, very short, very enjoyable and it spawned a few sequels. There were others of Harry Harrison's books that I'd like to read again too - the Deathworld series being notables, especially the first two.

So what the heck... I've had a taste of it and now I'm into Sci-Fi again! Robert Heinlein was always one of my favourites and this time I hadn't read this one before. A bunch of students get sent on a survival test through a portal to a distant planet and somehow miss being picked up after their allotted ten days. Reading science fiction 60 years on makes you think how hard it is to predict the future. If we had to predict what life will be like 60 years from now chances are we would get it totally wrong because in particular we miss thinking of one thing that will alter things drastically.

In most science fiction the thing they didn't think of that actually happened is miniturisation. Asimov had his giant computers stored in hyperspace, or they took up several blocks of a city. We now carry the sort of capability they envisaged in our pocket and the fact it can be used as a telephone is almost incidental. You could read Frederick Pohl's The Age of The Pussyfoot. Written in 1965 it nearly gets mobile phones and their additional functionality right!

I've been reading this series for over two years. Heart of Oak - book 28!!! - would have finished it, but no, he's published a new one this year. Not out in paperback yet though.

A visit to the second hand book stalls found me this one. Again my Dad and Grandad introduced me to Tarzan as a boy and I loved them. This again is an American cover, but it is actually the copy that I finished a couple of days ago. Someone must have bought it on holiday and brought it back here. Altogether: "Aaaaaa-i-aaaaa-i-aaaahhhhh!"

That's all for now - I knew I'd done a fair bit of travelling this year - hotel bedrooms are a good place to read. I've got through 33 books so far this year and there's some new series lined up, all of which are promising many sequels to come. Duh - which do I start with?

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