vendredi 19 juillet 2013

mai, juin, juillet - travel and visitors en plus

As our year nears its finish, we've been fitting in as much as we can which means I've fallen behind.
Let's catch up.
May was a month of travel and time away.
Geneva managed to get sick again the week before we went to Scotland - her profs didn't hesitate to let me know about time missed - however, recovered in time to go on vacation.
We flew to Glasgow via Gatwick on May 7 to meet my Dad and his wife for our UK adventure.
Elena woke up in the Cathedral House hotel on her 10th birthday with a worry that her birthday celebrations might be overshadowed by travel and usual rituals forgotten. But no, her birthday chair complete with balloons and gifts on top was waiting in our room. Only a small bit of concern that pounds sterling was more the theme.
Two days of Glasgow inclement weather - it had been sunny and 30 degrees on the evening we landed - still allowed us to see all the sights and experience the truly warm and friendly Glaswegian folk. The on/off bus became our mode of transport and showed us a city we didn't know much about but were glad to meet.
On to Kirriemuir. We took our rental cars east and north to spend three nights near the origins of my Dad's mother's family, the Gordons. The Stone Cottage was lovely though an interesting mix of feminine touch (Portmerion crockery abound) and male stamp (horns, stags and the like) and our only complaint was that we had to get Bob the owner to turn on the heat for us as it decided to be quite chilly in the evenings.
One day spent walking into Glen Tairie where the Gordons were shepherds and the next, driving north to the north coast to visit Elgin as Barb's father was born in the distillery house at Glen Moray when his father was distillery manager. A drive with quite a view as we went coast way en route and inland back through the Cairngorms on the return. Locals in Elgin were surprised that we would be driving up and back just in one day. Marco found a taste for 30 year old whisky (just not a stomach for the cost).
Next onto Edinburgh to drop the cars and become walking tourists again with the wonderful advantage of a local tour guide flown in specially from Toronto - thanks, Treva!!!
Our holiday flat was lovely and positioned very well in New Town on North Castle Street which meant the 5 minute walk uphill gave full panorama views of the Castle on the cliff.
Again, Scotland weather dogged us as we had most seasons several times in one day. Here we began our brush with Harry Potter as we had our afternoon tea stop at the Elephant House Café.
Treva gave us a full walking tour up along the Royal Mile - which is the best stairs up? - and then a lovely dinner. Which Treva and I then made a small detour to meet Vari at the prosecco-on-tap Missoni hotel - bella!
Again, on/off tour bus gave us full views of the up and down beauty of this grand old city. Highlight for the girls was definitely the Camera Obsura museum with lots of optical illusions and fun interactive bits - thanks for the reco, Vari and Treva - along with time in a real backyard on a trampoline playing with English speaking kids - yay Archie, Angus and Poppy - and we definitely had equal fun visiting Vari and Ben in their lovely home. Much thanks, Edinburgh crew for showing us a good time.
Next stop, back to Gatwick . Easy Jet was its usual self and with a 2 hour delay, we missed taking our London reservations so Denise kindly agreed to meet us for dinner at the North Terminal (yikes). Following a confused stop at the lounge, we proceeded to have a really decent dinner at the Sofitel - surprising us all. What a treat!
The following morning had us on the train to Watford to pick up our Harry Potter adventures again - this time, at the epicenter. Harry Potter Studio Tour it was and really quite a place. Dad and Barb were good troopers considering they'd never seen/read any of the stories. In addition to it being a pilgrimage to the place where the movie magic happened - so much to see - it truly is a testament to the amazing amount of work that goes into major films of this scale. Quite awe inspiring.
Having filled our boots, we again boarded the train just one stop north as we took advantage of being so close to have another good visit with Ingrid, Carl and Louis - this time, finally making it to Berkhamsted to see their digs. Another lovely welcoming home and English friend to play with.
Thanks Gardiners!
Next leg of this tour had us into rental cars again - this time, less easy to acquire so lesson learned to make sure your rental place is right at the airport, not at a local hotel which you have to get yourself to - and off driving to the Kent coast. Our fisherman's huts on the beach awaited us in Whitstable. They fully delivered on the fun - so glad we did it as they sat right on the beach, with the sounds of the boats' riggings outside clinking through our open windows to the salty air.
Following one of the most memorable meals we could all remember at the Sportsman in Seasalter on Friday night (if you're ever in the area - I agree with Food and Wine mag that this place is worth a pilgrimage to), the next day gave us morning time to wander the quaint seaside resort town and then all into the cars to descend on Carol's birthday plus wedding anniversary party in the country hall in Graveney. It was very special to be part of the travelling family crew to celebrate with Carol and Roger and see Carol's "this is your life in England" moment with many friends from different parts of her time joining together. Again, girls had an absolute blast as there was a huge grass field - mind you, just mowed and no raking so cut grass, more like hay in piles, sat everywhere - as well as 7 or 8 other kids of varying older ages to hang out with. Rounders became the fun and they ran around all afternoon/evening. Good stuff.
Following morning left just time for breakfast before we were back to the rental cars to catch our afternoon Gatwick return to Toulouse, with Dad and Barb joining for more visiting in France. Again, the rental car bit dogged us and we literally had to run to catch our flight as they were calling our names. All's well that ends well.
I jinxed myself in the UK as I kept reassuring Dad and Barb that though the weather was not stunning for our UK bit, south of France would redeem and we'd see temps in the mid 20s. Not to be. We came back to unseasonably cool and rainy so by the end of their 8 days, I think we decided we'd had only one day of our whole time together which hadn't rained. Bollocks. Making the best of it, we toured them around the sites of Toulouse. I got to ride the Toulouse tour train for the first time... it's the quickest, no-stopping, watch your hands type little train ride you'll be on! We had a failed attempt one day to get the train to Carcassone - again, experiencing all the joys of France means the one train you want to take and have just purchased tickets not 15 minutes before, is cancelled for no clear reason we could be told. Thank goodness for friends with cars and we rescheduled and had a do-over day the next day. Rental car was planned for the weekend so we wouldn't be stopped for one day drive to the Pyrenees thermal spa pool and breathtaking views. Nor were we thwarted for our drive to the Mediterranean beach for a sunny and hot dimanche - finally!
Dad and Barb took advantage on their final day to make a day trip to Paris to see the sights. And then our wonderful extended visit came to a close. We were so lucky to have them join us and treat us for much of this great trip. Many thanks and many memories.
Rain saw them on the way out and I spent the week catching up as the following weekend, I was in a rental car again, this time bound for Barcelona to meet Cyndi and Denise for our girls weekend.
What a fantastic time together! We discovered a fabulous rooftop patio which we frequented, had stunning Barcelona walks, a spectacular nighttime tour of La Pedrada/Casa Mila and generally shared some priceless time together. All in hot early June sunshine. Really wonderful.
Monday directed Cyndi and I back to Toulouse, though not in a clear and straight departure from Barcelona (I'm a bit cursed driving in this city!). Thank goodness the sunshine also followed which gave us a great week to see Toulouse and surrounds - more Carcassone, more Pyrenees and one visit we could have never planned but was a stunner.
Elena's girlfriend/my friend invited Elena to stay the night in her grandmother's "house" near Bordeaux. As El was reticent to go on her own, I boldly asked if Cyndi and I could join as I knew it had a few bedrooms to spare. Little did we know, it's a Chateau (yes, a capital C for sure) in the centre of La Reole and was originally commissioned by Richard the Lionhearted - not even kidding you. It has it's own sign in centre of the village, directing you to Quat'Sos - seriously, look it up. It's mind blowing and it's where we spent a night. Cyndi and I giggled the whole time in disbelief. The following morning, while the girls ran around on the grounds playing, we had a guided tour from Helene's 93 year old grandmother who still lives in the chateau during summer months. It was quite a special time.
Finishing out the week in Toulouse, we were back on the road to Barcelona - a girls trip again but this time with Cyndi and my girls. Pouring rain just before the border curtailed our thoughts of stopping to investigate Collioure and we pressed on through the Pyrenees. Onto the Spanish side and the skies opened to beautiful blue and sunshine. Ahhh. So we sped on to Barcelona for more time on the rooftop terrace, more wandering Barrio Gothica and shopping and more Ciudad Comdal tapas - best we've had. Again, driving in Barcelona was to plot against me as both our phones cut out on finding us a map to Cyndi's airport hotel. I won't spend time reliving the frustrating drive to the airport hotels nor the scary and unfortunate moments when my purse was stolen with us in the car at our hotel after midnight. Needless to say, the girls and I were ready to just get home after all of it the next day - beach time thoughts abandoned - and after some tearful pleas with the hotel we stayed, we had 40 euros cash to get us through the tolls on our drive home. Have never been more done with a rental car and ready to park.
Luckily I didn't have much time to stew about my losses as the next day, Marco began feeling really awful and by the following morning, we were at the doctor's office to confirm our suspicions that it was an appendicitis attack. Kudos to the French healthcare system as we moved from 11 a.m. doctor's appointment to midday bloodwork, 2 p.m. ultrasound, 5 p.m. appointment with the surgeon and then admitted to hospital by 6:30 with plans for surgery the next day. By noon, Marco was in and by 3 p.m., he was waking up in recovery. All of our French friends were teasing us that we just wanted to experience all that France has to offer - chalk it up. Thank goodness all worked out well and our travel emergency insurance kicked in nicely.
The following week, I resumed my plight to replace passports, visas, driver's license, cards and the like while Marco took his much required week of rest at home. The girls continued on with school, with the end in sight and none to soon for either of them. I got to experience the craziness and frustration of the French government at the local Prefecture office while after a 2/12 hour wait, I have an appointment to retrieve my French visa/carte de sejour - it's for September 4. Yes, it doesn't seem to matter to locals that I will be gone by this point. So I'm currently hanging out in France without proper paperwork, but I'm ok if I carry around my police report (written in Catalan) - that'll cover it. Sigh.
The girls ended school on the last week of June - Geneva finished on Wednesday and Elena on Friday, sort of. In reality, Elena could have gone to school til the following Wednesday afternoon however, as her teacher kept asking her students who would be there the next week, I caught that there would be nothing of importance she would miss. The girls were well and truly done with their year, report cards delivered and their anticipation of neighbour visits palpable.
We hosted a Canada Day evening which included 4 Brazilians, 4 French, 1 Greek, 1 Indian and 4 Americans (though two have Canadian citizenship as well). BBQ courtesy of the Brazilians transport made it feel almost like what we would do at home and again, the girls were out in decorating force. Since we couldn't have real fireworks, they make paper ones to hang around the apartment. Much fun had by all and lots of good eats. Did beef and lamb burgers, chicken breasts, watermelon feta salad, quinoa salad and faked up a pretty good version of strawberry shortcake for dessert.
Then the waiting began for the Thursday evening arrival of the Holders... would the day ever come?!
Come it did and we were all just thrilled to rejoin our neighbourly time together. Along with it, hot summer weather. It's on!
We headed off for a weekend in the country, renting a house at a gite just south of Minerve near where we stayed last summer/at Christmas. It was fun to be back in the Languedoc and at the one year anniversary of our trip there last summer to start our French adventure.
Gite house and location were beautiful, pool was stunning, views spectacular - all good (even the gite maître dame who was a bit uptight with us). We had a top notch dinner in Minerve at a 2 star Michelin restaurant at regular formule prices. Steve and Marlene got to catch up with the Tour de France on its stage towards the Pyrenees. Girls swam and played and loved hanging together again. Our Irish/Spanish friends from St-Jean came over to join for dinner. We trekked on for a great day at another Mediterranean beach - Plage Lido at Sete - to meet Alex, Kristin, Torey and Harlan (yes, it took some doing to find each other but we made it happen!) and then a yummy seafood meal overlooking the canals in the vieux port of Sete.
As our last morning in the gite pool arrived, we definitely could have stayed on - though were propelled out as we needed to get back to Toulouse to add to the neighbour fun. The Belots were arriving on the train from Paris and our partial Walter Street camping trip meets France had one full day to pull off.
That evening, we all enjoyed the A/C of the Belot hotel room and champagne + aperitifs to start the time all together. Tapas was the plan in Place St George for dinner then a wander to gelato in Place Capital - to keep with the Holders' continuity and start prepping the Belots.
Three car caravan left the following morning to Carcassone - yes, kind feel like I could be a tour guide now but it was worth it to all visit together - then on to the beach at Gruissan. Just lovely being all together, loose bumpers and all. We sadly had to say goodbye to Steve, Marlene, Alexa and Caitlin as they made their way back to Toulouse and the train to Paris for their final journey leg.
Sara, Dave, Connor, Erik and the Mariotti girls decided to head into Narbonne to check the place out and after a lovely walk about - did you know the Cathedral which stands so imposingly on the skyline as you drive past is neither finished nor in use?! - we stayed on for a delicious dinner on a terrace. What a day!!
Next day, the decision was the subterranean lake near Foix - good choice as it was a picturesque drive in a different direction (southerly on the route towards Andorra), a fun boat ride on the longest navigatible underwater river in Europe they'll have you know - and another lovely wander about in a city I'd not seen enough of. Back to Toulouse to the "meat" restaurant I wanted to share with the Belots as I thought they'd appreciate. Oh, right, it also has potatoes cooked in duck fat. Wow! If you're grimacing, don't knock it til you've tried it. La Braisiere again delivered - all happy diners.
Our final shared day was another scorcher here so we decided it was outdoor pool time in the biggest one we know - failed attempt to get to the market meant we just stopped for Pizza Lopez and then got ourselves to the cool waters. Lovely afternoon and dinner made in the A/C of the Belots' hotel room was heavenly. Again, we were sorry to have to say goodbye. It was only tempered by the fact that we'd be on a plane the next day to Ajaccio and we knew the Belots still had their Italian adventure to unfold.
Right, on to more travels - next stop, Corsica. With Marco's brother, wife and kids already arrived, we agreed to meet for a weekend in Ajaccio. What a beautiful place! Hoping some time we can find ourselves back there. Lisa booked a perfectly located hotel right in vieux port, next to the daily open air market, a great boulangerie and a quick walk to everywhere good.
Timing was great as we'd just gotten settled into the hotel when Chuck, Lisa, Amina and Marcello arrived and cousins were happy to reconnect.
We wandered the town plus took in the Beaux Art gallery before a tasty meal at Da Mama - first chosen just for the name however recommendations also supported.
Next day, beach time. Found the bus to take us along the beaches north - seems you don't really pay for the bus if you're a tourist as twice, the bus driver just waved us on - merci, Corse!
Rode right to the end to see the islands of Il Saunginieres and then looped back to chose Plage Dolce Vita. Lovely, minus the jellyfish hordes which the current had decided to wash towards all the beaches - just that day, all the locals told us. As it was, the kids loved passing the time in between careful swimming by scooping out les meduses in nets and it gave Marco and Chuck something constructive to do - all told, not bad.
Our evening choice of pizza was booked solid so we chanced another spot and benefitted from the live band down the street in their Johnny Cash, Stray Cats, Buddy Holly repertoire. Some street dancing with kids might have ensued - sadly, I did not have the prowess or moves of our 4 year old nephew. Marcello was feeling the groove.
A final day at the beach together on Fete Nationale and we got the full deal as the local beach along the fortress wall was also the main promenade where the parade was taking place. Great day - no jellyfish in site. Chuck and Lisa prolonged their afternoon so we could have the promised pizza together and then some "rose" gelato (shaped like a flower by the paddle, not the flavor) - thanks Aunt Dot for treating!
We walked them off to the train then headed back to the beach for a bit more time. Then fireworks at nightfall in the port facing our hotel that night - kinda made up for missing Canada Day fireworks.
Again the next morning - our last - Elena and I couldn't resist the pull so we got down to the beach for a morning swim. Just us and the seniors out for their exercise. Weather again stunning.
So we're back to Toulouse and the highlight of this week - definitely for the girls - is booking our flight back to Toronto. We're doing a return bit - coming back for a month and then a return week in late September to Toulouse join Marco in celebrating his graduation. Then we will all fly back together and put a close on this glorious, challenging, event-filled year.
As Geneva's birthday approaches tomorrow, we're heading to the beach tonight. Guess I've got one more blog post in me to finish off our final summer adventures.
Hope you're well and not too fatigued to get through this all.
A la prochaine,

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