2nd - 4th October: Dublin

Friday 2nd October – Athens to Dublin via… Gatwick!

I do this morning finally get to see the sunrise over the Parthenon and can confirm that, yes, the sunset was definitely more dramatic.  Doesn’t stop me taking some photos, however…

Steve tells me that we won’t be stopping at our first destination, but changing planes straight away.  While someone had let the cat out of the bag that we would be going to Dublin (I can’t remember who), Steve has been trying to deny it (without actually lying and saying ‘it’s not Dublin’) for the whole holiday.  He did however last night confirm that we plan to end the day drinking Guinness in Fagan’s – heaven.  He also nearly had me believing that we’d be stopping over in Germany on the way.  Neither of these facts have been retained in his memory however, such a lot of Greek wine did we get through.  For once I have absolutely no idea where our plane is headed until we reach the departure gate: London Gatwick! 

It’s extremely bizarre to touch down in Gatwick, only to take the shuttle bus to the other terminal, and go straight to another departure terminal.  We are, all told, in transit from 9am until 7pm and it’s a huge relief to reach our usual accommodation in Drumcondra.  Our hostess, Siobhan, has very kindly left us a card and congratulatory box of chocolates; no, they don’t last long.

All this travelling really takes it out of one however and I’m ashamed to report that, after last night’s effort and today’s journey, I am a total lightweight and Steve has to practically carry me the quarter mile back to the B&B – where I don’t even remember my head touching the pillow.

 

Saturday 3rd October – Dublin

After a late breakfast, we peer out at the rather bleaker prospect that is autumn in Dublin, compared to autumn in, say, for argument’s sake… Erm.  Athens?  It’s nice that we’ve got a couple of days to get used to the cooler weather again before having to brave early work mornings in it, but… Anyway, nothing daunted, we head out into the bright but brisk morning and happily stride out for town.  It’s less than a half-hour’s walk after all and the morning is quite bright.  For all of 10 minutes; then it chucks it down.  My Rohans, true to their marketing hype, are dry in no time.  Unfortunately, fleece jackets are not so high-tech.  Still, what a perfect excuse for a little shopping expedition to Penneys, where we pick up a couple of little bargains. 

I also find a gorgeous little black dress in Next which is not a bargain – but a lot more appropriate to the Dublin climate than my Grecian dress (well, ok, not by much) and a fabulous faux-basque red top (also most definitely not a bargain but will look fantastic with a pencil skirt and a pair of stiletto boots.  Trust me on this).

Phew!  Time for a Guinness, and we’re just round the corner from the Duke.  We settle down with a pint and have a lovely little chat with a lady from Minnesota.  She asks us if we know anything about the literary pub crawl, which leaves from this very pub, and we’re able to heartily recommend it, having done it three times (and won the t-shirt once).

We embark on a little pub crawl of our own, winding our way via the guitar shops back to the Old Stand, where we see the Spurs game (don’t ask) over a pint and a sandwich.  Then it’s a bus ride back for a quick change and out to Fagan’s again, for dinner and… more Guinness.  Siobhan and George join us later for several beers (who’s counting?) and a good ‘ole Irish putting-the-world-to-rights natter.

 

Sunday 4th October – Dublin

Next morning, we all feel fine after the night before, though Siobhan says she’s feeling a little fuzzy-headed.  It’s done George the world of good, as he had a touch of that famously debilitating ailment, man ‘flu, yesterday – but he’s right as rain this morning.  (Guinness really is good for you).  It’s a bright, fresh autumn day today with not a hint of rain, typical now I’ve got the right clothes.

Today we head out to St Stephen’s Green, and spend a half-hour watching the world go by in its freshly found autumn clothes.  It was still warm enough for little summer dresses when we left, but we’ve returned to autumn, definitely.  One woman though appears to have forgotten her trousers this morning – having left the house with a tunic dress and a pair of boots over some thick tights (I notice that, by the time we see her again later on the airport bus, she has managed wisely to retrieve them).

On our way back through town in search of an early lunch, Steve expresses an interest in a copy of The Dubliners by James Joyce.  Momentarily struck dumb by this new-found interest in a man who normally dips into accounts of WWII only (and that normally limited to those centred on the D-Day landings), I hurriedly make the transaction before he can change his mind.  I’ve read several classics in my voracious appetite for the written word, one of them being Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Let’s just say, if reading’s not your thing, the revered Mr Joyce is not the first author I’d recommend: but I’m not about to nip this off before it’s begun and The Dubliners can only be a couple of hundred pages, after all…

We line our stomachs in the Bad Ass Cafe, which is also much changed, but unfortunately not for the better.  Gone are the menus that you colour in, for a start.  And then we head back for our last act of the honeymoon: one last Guinness in Fagan’s, of course.

28th September - 1st October: Athens

I wake feeling a little fragile, which is not helped by the fact that this is our only ‘early’ morning in order to catch our next flight.  After breakfast and a shower however I perk up considerably and am hoping it’s just a touch of sniffles due to the sudden temperature change.  Steve and I discuss possible destinations on the airport bus and I confess that I had wondered if Athens was to be part of the plan.  Once we get to the airport and my guess is confirmed – it’s a miracle!  I feel 100% better now. 

Sitting on the plane without a book and having eaten Aegean’s actually rather nice airline food, I idly flip through the in-flight magazine, stopping at a picture of a roof-top bar.  ‘Ooh,’ says I, ‘look, this place has a view of the Acropolis.  Do you think we could eat there tonight?’  Steve makes a rather out-of-character less-than-enthusiastic noise and I wonder if he’s coming down with my cold…

When we get off the packed commuter Metro, I look behind me and there’s the Acropolis: Omig!  It’s quite an awe-inspiring sight even from a distance and apparently, we’re going up there tomorrow.  It’s great to be back in warm sunshine again, and surrounded by mountains.  We check in to the hotel and relax before dinner; I find I have a slightly odd curved stripe on my back where I can’t reach with the sunscreen, and my feet are starting to look like I constantly have my Birkenstocks on.

We go upstairs to the hotel restaurant for dinner, emerge into the still beautifully baking sunlight and – Ta Da! – it’s the terrace from the photo in the magazine.  Oh no, we’ve got to eat here, looking at the Acropolis, twice a day for the next four days?  We’ve gone from sipping Sangria and watching the world go by on La Rambla, to sipping JD and watching the moon come up over the Acropolis.  What a hardship is this travelling malarkey… I take at least 50 photos before dinner is served, as the light changes and the Acropolis and the surrounding monuments gradually get lit up.  It’s funny how quickly the moon seems to move, you could almost watch it. 

Whilst I’m busy snapping away, Steve happily tucks into a huge Greek side-salad, served with our scrummy meatballs: mmm, goat’s cheese.

 

Tuesday 29th September – Athens

I’m hoping this morning that the banging headache I now have is due in part to the consumption of red wine and whiskey last night; it must be, since it improves greatly after a liquid intake, and Steve is feeling a little fragile too. 

Thankfully, our climb to the Acropoli is much less like hard work than I had anticipated, though I’m glad we haven’t attempted it during the hottest part of the day.  There are loads of people around, trudging up the last section of mountain, and slipping on the steps highly polished by the heavy footfall over the years.  It’s such a huge site, which you can’t appreciate from ground level – and work continues to try to restore and maintain the main Parthenon building to the state it was in during the early 19th Century.  Steve seems equal parts horrified and amused by the lack of H&S and takes some footage with which to torment his H&S man on our return.

As you can imagine, I take lots of photographs, including the obligatory ‘here’s Steve at the Acropolis’ and inevitably, I end up on film too.   We both stop to marvel at the smaller amphitheatre where events are still held (‘smaller’ however is relative considering where we’re standing) and of course, Steve wonders – out loud no less – what it would be like to play a gig there.

On leaving the Acropoli, we almost haggle for a dress for me, but nothing is going to divert us from the now urgent business of finding some pain killers.  That taken care of, we wander up past Syntagma Square to watch the presidential guard dance.  In their short skirts and pom-pom shoes.  And their bug guns with bayonets; I’m not laughing.  This is the famous changing of the guard in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, so actually rather solemn and we had been warned that the steps in front of the tomb could get rather crowded – but there was just a handful of tourists there with us.  I put the camera on sport mode (single shots really don’t do this justice at all) and kept the shutter button pressed.  The dance is actually very precise and quite skilled: in order for it to work, the guardsmen have to be in perfect time with each-other and for half the ritual they are both facing outwards.

Refreshment calls so we head back down to the square itself in search of large beers and a sandwich.  Steve also orders a cheese pie which I am assured is a traditional dish.  I’m sure that, in the murky chilliness of home, a confection of semi-puff pastry with lots of melted cheese would be just the thing to set you up (in fact, sitting here now in said murkiness it sounds perfect).  In the bright sweaty 29-degree heat however, it’s more than my gently roasting brain feels able to contemplate.  I manage one incredibly stodgy mouthful, before murmuring ‘mmm, lovely I’m sure’ and returning to my beer.

 

Wednesday 30th September – Athens

I have been intending to rise early and try to catch a sunrise on film: this morning I don’t manage it either.  Given the weather however, I strongly suspect the best light is highly likely to be in the evening anyway.  This morning I can easily ignore the headache and am confident that will get easier as we head towards the port of Pireaus and therefore water.

Taking a wrong turn when we get off the train, we manage to end up the industrial area so our impressions are of a very different atmosphere to Athens!  Steve’s GPS-nose however soon puts us right and we end up in the centre of town and back to normality.  After the obligatory beer in the central square and a stroll round the market and the main shopping district, we return to Athens. 

The heat is almost oppressive today (it was already very warm before 9am and reaches 32 degrees later), so no photos are extant, especially since we decide to ditch the cameras in the hotel and go for a slow stroll back to Syntagma Square for – you guessed it – more beer.  I stop in several bookshops along the way, knowing what’s waiting for my return; it’s lucky for the holiday money fund that Diana Gabaldon isn’t big in Greece yet.

Having returned to the hotel with more than enough time to freshen up before dinner we use the time… traditionally.  I then decide that I’ve photographed the Acropolis to death over the last couple of nights and really don’t need to take the camera to dinner tonight - which means I all but miss the most glorious sunset yet (Steve manages to get it on video). 

Thursday 1st October – Athens

I wake up this morning feeling perfectly fit and healthy.  Whatever has been ailing me for the last couple of days must have been destroyed by yesterday’s heat.  This turns out to be a Very Good Thing Indeed, as walking up the hill to catch a cable car is strenuous enough when you’re feeling fine.  We are headed to St George’s Greek Orthodox Church, founded by Fr. Ignatius in 1834 and at 277m it’s higher than the Acropoli.  It is hard work trekking up here but the view and the church are absolutely worth the effort.

Steve particularly wants to spend a half hour immersed in his favourite period of history, since we’re right next to the war museum anyway, so we take a spin round their WW2 exhibit.  Then we take a walk via the National Gardens en route to the Olympian Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Gate.  We learn that this was a Greek temple until the Turkish occupation, who built a mosque in the corner.  I am reminded of the Christian appropriation of Pagan festivals; after all, why reinvent something if there’s a perfectly suited site already in existence?  Just needs a little adaptation…

What next? Oh yes, beers… in Syntagma Square…  – and then off to retrace our steps of Tuesday, to find me a dress.  We stop off briefly in the old quarter for an iced coffee and a chocolate milkshake, while I try to find – unfortunately unsuccessfully - a small memento of Olympiacos to take back to the folks at work (we are their main sponsors, apparently).

Since we’ve set up something of a tradition now by eating dinner at the hotel looking at the Acropoli, it would be wrong to break the habit on our last night.  The waiters are very generous to us with the local wine (Greek wine turns out to be very nice; we are surprised it’s not more widely available elsewhere) and therefore, my note-writing becomes ever more scruffy as the evening progresses.  Essentially, I spend the time speculating with the couple on the next table, where our final destination will be – or more specifically, where is the stop-off point.

25th - 27th September: Barcelona

It’s nice to know that we don’t have to get up and rush out of our hotel to catch our flight this morning.  We take a leisurely trip back to Montmartre and, stepping out of a souvenir shop with a new dark red beret perched on my head (ooh la la), there is a very nice man just waiting to sketch me.  We have plenty of time for the obligatory wander down the banks of the Seine, hand in hand, before stopping for a cuppa at a café.  Anyone would think we were on honeymoon…

The man at airport security wishes us a pleasant stay in… Barcelona, so the cat is out of the bag for our second destination.  But I don’t care; I love that city and the face-splitting grin is back again. (Not that I haven’t loved Paris... but omig I do love Barca).  I’m off that airport bus like a greyhound out of the trap.  There’s only one place where Steve can have booked for us to stay and all I want is to get changed and be sitting on La Rambla with the biggest glass of Sangria in my hand.

And half-an-hour later, here I am, watching the world walk by. 

Guell park 7.gif

 

Saturday 26th September – Barcelona

We haven’t been back to Barca since our first visit here about 5 years ago and I knew that Steve would have booked us into the same hotel, because we had such a smart time here before, and it’s about 100 yards from La Rambla.  The place has changed a little in the interim, but only quite minor and all for the better.

Now I know what Steve meant about showing me somewhere to wear my new dress! 

guell park 4.gif

This morning, our first stop is the Guell Park, which was conceived as an exclusive housing park but is now dedicated to Gaudi.  This is the aspect of the city which we didn’t have time to explore on our last visit so I’m really looking forward to it.  I am fascinated by our visit to Gaudi’s house in the park, where there is a display illustrating Gaudi’s explorations into how a series of straight lines can result in a curve.  When we exhaust the park, we embark on a tour of Gaudi’s buildings around the City.  Being quite unusual architecturally, though reasonably sympathetic to their surroundings, they are easily distinguishable. I particularly like the two buildings at the main entrance to Guell Park (the story of Hansel and Gretel comes to mind) and the Palau Gell, tucked away on Carrer Nou de la Rambla (‘those are catenary arches,’ says Steve).  Gaudi’s house in the Park is also definitely worth a visit.  Not particularly large-looking from the outside, its interior is light, airy and cool.

Guell park 6.gif

Even though we settle down for a beer – or several - in Placa Reial, we’re discouraged from having more than one by a very disconcerting woman on one of the city bikes who is riding round gently haranguing… well anyone and no-one, really.  I think the last straw for Steve is when she lifts her top to reveal: that she keeps her cigarettes in the top of her tights.

A stroll round the Gothic quarter is definitely what’s called for, where we buy me a new necklace, haggle down an FCB Messi top for Steve, and briefly visit a luthier, varnishing a guitar in his studio.

After which, more beers are most definitely in order (23 degrees apparently, though it feels hotter).  We find a table in the large café opposite the Columbus monument and find plenty to amuse ourselves over several beers this time, between a pair of bitching Aussies behind us, a husband and wife street-cleaning team (she’s rather more fastidious than him) and a curious gentleman who’s looks and mannerisms are remarkably like Mr.Bean, and who appears to be on an architectural tour of the city.

On our way out to dinner this evening, Steve is brought to a halt just as we’re about to cross to the waterfront.  On hearing the sound of Les Pauls being played, the pull is just too great and we have to make a detour to investigate.  I’m hungry and not at first enthusiastic, but I am pleased we made the effort in the end… we have landed in Barcelona at the end of their music festival and there is a quite mad band playing in the region of Placa de Blanquema.  Dressed all in pink suits, and harnessed to their wheeled Marshall amps (what else?!), we arrive in front of a café just as they park up and start to run through their routine.  Which includes at one point, their sound engineer stripping off and sunbathing by the café pool – after having one of the bystanders apply sunscreen to his back! 

We have decided to revisit one of our favourite restaurants from our last visit, overlooking the harbour.  The couple on the table next to us share a massive platter of shellfish, which makes Steve’s huge plate of assorted crustaceans look quite nouvelle cuisine.  Unsurprisingly, for a change, I therefore finish my fabulously tasty salmon first and am then quite defeated by the huge dish of ice-cream and fruit that we share for dessert.  The couple next to us are still eating their platter…  Steve’s romantic mood can only be enhanced by the firework display, let off behind us, but reflected in the water and the windows of the building across the harbour from our restaurant (our table is on the first floor, outside, right next to the rail).  Much tapping of our wedding rings is still going on, against the table.

 

Sunday 27th September – Barcelona

After a late night we rise early – but get up late! – and make our way to the Castle, up some very steep streets.  Turns out there is a Metro stop next to the cable car (which is the last stage to the Castle), but Steve is working from the map we had five years ago.  As if I needed the exercise! Once on the cable car, I receive a text message – it was only something very trivial, but remember this for later…

Even for a warm weekend in Barca, there are lots of people milling around up here, so after a stroll around the battlements (it’s a stunning view over the sea from here), we set out to investigate: turns out there’s some sort of family day happening.   Amongst other things, there’s a puppet show (all in Spanish, but apparently hilarious), a giant ‘mechanical’ clock (people in costume act out an amusing story in robotic movements while the clock chimes the quarter hour), a merry-go-round orchestra (real people on a revolving stage, in period costume, playing miniature instruments.  And at one point, garden implements), and a magician. 

Castle orchestra.gif

We take a stroll back down the hill through Barca’s botanical gardens, built on reclaimed land where the slum district used to be, then through the old Olympic stadium (still used, some sort of inter-school competition seems to be just finishing) and on to the Placa Espanya, where we stop for a well-earned rest.   From here, it’s a quick Metro ride to the other place we only saw in passing on our last visit: the Sagrada Familia.  The cathedral, started in the 1880s and still under construction, is quite magnificent.  Though Gaudi was not the original architect, his influence is obvious and I am fascinated by it.  The building has more than a passing nod to the ‘old’ traditional style of building churches, but with modern twists, and is almost avant garde in places.  It’s a stunning ‘modern’ construction which retains curves and avoids stark angularity.

Once I stop and put my camera away I realise my feet are aching, so we hop back on the Metro to return to La Rambla.  As we make our connection, the tannoy warns us to keep an eye on our belongings, so I swing my camera bag round off my back… to discover my phone has gone, and I didn’t feel a thing.  I am, by turns, angry at my own stupidity, angry at the sheer front of the thieves, but relieved that nothing more valuable has gone (it was the only thing of worth, apart from my camera, that was on me).  And then thankful that I am due an upgrade anyway, though I hadn’t been planning on exercising that.   A call to O2 stops the phone and sorts out a new SIM card, and a visit to the police station (the queue is full of tourists in a similar situation) gets the formalities dealt with.  Steve, bless his over protective heart, tells me he’s quite impressed by my cool thinking in the heat of the moment.

Tapas in Placa Reial calms me down again properly and the presence of a fire-breather, a juggler, and the return of the mad woman really takes my mind off the predicament.  What else to do in this situation?  There’s only one thing for it, and we finish our Barca stay as we started; with sangria on La Rambla.   It’s a slow night for the various street-pedlars: a troupe of amateur teenage acrobats are swiftly moved on, though they were quite amusing, by dint of the fact that their enthusiasm is so much greater than their talent.  Also, a rose seller is tenacious but ultimately unsuccessful and a seller of little toy neon helicopters has only slightly more custom.  Ironically, we are charged by him with keeping an eye on his bicycle while he plies his wares, and someone in the next restaurant leaves their bag on a chair, which is unfortunately too tempting an invitation to resist and it’s gone the moment they turn their head.  So quickly in fact, that the first we know is when the cry goes up: you really do have to be careful out there (as if I hadn’t found that out for myself).  It doesn’t dent my feelings for this place though: omig I do love Barcelona.

We return to the hotel earlier than planned as I’m starting to feel a little under the weather, and I don’t think it’s just the effects of the litre of Sangria I don’t manage to finish.  I’ve had a sore throat since leaving Paris and am starting to hope that it doesn’t develop further.  After an uncomfortable night, for those of you who’re interested, the final tally of Barca civics is: 5.

21st - 24th September: Paris

Even with a check-out time of 11am, I’d have liked a little more time to wallow in this glorious room.  But – it’s the first day of the rest of our lives and I can’t be dawdling now!  I’m under strict instructions from the new hubby (I note slightly blearily that it’s a little late to be laying down orders, even so) that we need to be on our way before lunchtime.  We manage to get out without being waylaid from our primary objective (whatever that may still turn out to be) – so apologies to everyone who was hoping to see us on our first morning of married life.

There’s a mountain of Very Exciting Items piled on the table in our dining room, around which we attempt to eat breakfast, while opening things.  People have been very naughty but very generous and I wonder whether we’d have been able to get out of the door on time if we hadn’t specified no presents, if this is your interpretation!  But thank you anyway; we’ll have a fabulous holiday now.  Though, so many people had told me the night before that ‘you’ll have a fantastic time’ I begin to doubt whether it’s a secret from anyone except me.

I’m still guessing when we get to the DLR, and only allow myself to hope that I’ve guessed correctly when we get on to the Circle line.  I can finally allow myself to believe when we get off at St Pancras, where I have a grin so big it splits my face in half.  Omig we’re going to Paris! 

The train is noticeably smoother than our suburban railways and it’s weird seeing famous landmarks that I drive over so often, from a different perspective, when we go under the A13 and the QE2 bridge.  Poor Stevie, it’s all been a bit much; there’s a gentle but insistent snoring coming from my left.

We finally get to the hotel and one final surprise – we have a balcony with a view of Sacre Coeur!  Several photos and a little bit of video footage out of the way, plus a quick change – and we’re out again.  The temperature is still beautifully warm, so we walk down to Notre Dame and the Seine, stopping for dinner on the corner of Petit Pont.  We walk back to the hotel via the Pompidou Centre and buy some beer close to the hotel.  Stevie manages to finish his but I drop off to sleep instantaneously, my beer almost untouched by the side of the bed.

 

Tuesday 22nd September 2009 – Paris

The last couple of days have caught up with me and we’re almost late for breakfast.  The thought of food and exploration can never keep me a-bed for long however, so we’re up and out and on our way to Montmartre in good time.  It’s another gloriously hot and warm day in Paris and Sacre Coeur looks most imposing, bouncing back the sunlight from its white façade. 

Old Paris is spread out in front of us when we get to the top of the hill and we note how the buildings are no higher than seven storeys.  Standing in front of Sacre Coeur, it can’t be the limit of the knowledge of the day.  Old-style town planning, or economy, or both?

Steve is reluctant to take me on a tour of Pigalle by foot (for which my feet are quite thankful), but as luck would have it, we’re just in time to take a ride on the little tourist train which takes in the district.  I even manage to take a glancing (very glancing) picture of the Moulin Rouge.  Returning to Sacre Coeur, we take a stroll around Place de Tertre and check out the artists: I want to come back and have our picture done later in the week.  I compliment one artist on her skill (‘ils sont tres joli, madame’) and am complimented in turn on my French (thank you Isabelle, I whisper to myself).

Skirting the edge of the main shopping districts, we find ourselves at the very impressive Academie National de Musique and Café de la Paix at Le Grand Hotel.  Tres grand indeed: being on holiday we are merely amused at paying €12 for a black coffee and a bottle of Orangina… but to be fair, the loos are something else.  Before we’re tempted to stay and blow the budget completely, we decide a slightly more proletariat ice cream in the Tuileries is in order. We pause on the way down Avenue de l’Opera to have a Holly Golightly moment, marvelling at a diamond-encrusted €50k Rolex.

The lack of actual greenery in Paris gardens surprises me; I notice later that my feet are not just glowing but also I can’t tell whether that’s a tan or dust… turns out it’s both.  We decide to take a boat trip down the Seine, ostensibly to rest my glowing feet.  But the urge to take pictures overrides and I spend a slightly uncomfortable and very warm 1.5 hours hanging over the back of the boat, snapping away, just to avoid reflections from the windows (I forgot my polariser, doh!)  It’s a great way to catch your first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre however, both of which are immense.  And that’s where we’re going tomorrow.

 

Wednesday 23rd September – Paris

Having been lulled into expectations of continuing beautiful weather, I am somewhat disappointed to find the day starts overcast and am forced to ditch my new dress for trousers.  ‘I’ll show you somewhere to wear a new dress; you ain’t seen nothing yet’ says Steve.  Hmmm….  Impressed by my fortitude and stamina of the day before, he also decides to take pity on me and we get one-day Metro cards instead of trekking it today (phew).

First stop is the Eiffel Tower; at 276m to the top viewing tower, it’s the tallest man-made structure we’ve been up (it’s rather dwarfed by the Untersburg I admit, but that’s a natural phenomenon).  Next is the Arc de Triomphe; after being spoilt with a lift at the Tower, we decline to climb 284 steps, the ground level being quite impressive by itself. 

After that, we decide to visit a couple of rather famous and enigmatic ladies, stopping off on the way at the Louvre’s Starbucks (I note with interest on our return that there may shortly be a MacDonald’s there too).  I have to keep asking Steve to remind me who I am; Mrs S hasn’t quite sunk in.  Chinking our wedding rings periodically against any convenient table also helps.

The crowd around the Mona Lisa is surprisingly respectful; with only a minimum of pushing and shoving you can get quite close.  Both here and at the Venus de Milo (who pulls a slightly smaller crowd) little notice is given to the admonition against cameras.   Is it really necessary to prove so definitively that you’ve been there, to the possible detriment of what you’re going to see (don’t even get me started on flash!)?  Especially when there are so many images of both out there, the majority of which have the benefit of having been taken in isolation and by professionals…

Our last tourist stop of the day is Notre Dame (after a stroll past the town hall).  We wait at the back of a very long queue which, thankfully, we quickly realise is for the cloisters and not the actual cathedral, and duck into a side door instead.  It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.  But all these camera flashes where there is no doubt that photography is not welcome is a little irritating.  Especially when it’s really not that dark, and the subject is really not that close.

We head out in search of a couple of calming beers before dinner, the latter being ordered in perfectly understood (if not actually perfect) French, along with at least a bottle of a very tasty Merlot, and in the company of a certain Mr & Mrs Fraser (no, Gabaldonites, they were from Liverpool.  But yes, I did smile to myself on hearing the name.  Especially when it reminded me that Book 7 was waiting for my return).  They are slowly making their way up from the south coast, courtesy of their boat, Emmanuele, currently moored off Place de Bastille.  I even had the opportunity to give Steve a short lesson in French grammar (de la / du) over a glass of calvados.

 

Thursday 24th September – Paris

I have been looking forward to this morning ever since the Eurostar ride.  Steve had presented me with a guidebook on Paris, since I now knew where we were headed, and asked me to say which places I particularly wanted to see.  Without hesitation, I have always wanted to see Versailles.

After having bought our tickets in French again, we find our way down to the appropriate platform and wait innocently for the train.  Which is a double-decker!  Steve points out that the tunnels are plenty high enough but, what hadn’t occurred to me, much higher than those at home.  So – the system must originally have been designed with double-deck trains in mind.  Cunning… 

Even though today has also started overcast, the palace itself still shines like the gilt-coated beacon it is, all down the long straight carriageway.  From your first sight you know this is going to be thoroughly, beautifully OTT.  The palace tour takes in probably a fraction of the interior, but still takes until lunchtime to get through; I don’t know if it would have been quicker without the crush of tourists, but we don’t feel to be moving overly slowly.  There are so very many rooms, all decorated in the definition of excess; can anyone really ever have known, by the time building work finished, how much or what was here?  The whole place is so outrageously lavish, how could anyone have been surprised at the anger of the hungry masses?

It’s still fabulous to walk into the hall of mirrors and appreciate the effect they would have had with the sun shining right on them (good job it was overcast this morning; could’ve had our eyes out).  Also fascinating and massive is the hall hung with the paintings commemorating French military victories.  ‘You note,’ says Steve, ‘no mention of, say, Agincourt, Waterloo… ‘   Yet another hall remembers noteable figures from French history, rendered in statues with fantastic attention to detail. 

We take a very French, very haute cuisine and very tasty lunch in the currently empty renovated restaurant, served by teenage waiters who already appear to take the profession so much more seriously than those at home.  And then we tackle the gardens, which are like one gigantic maze; you truly cannot appreciate the massive scale if you haven’t seen it for yourself.  Marie-Antoinette’s own section, unless you’re feeling quite fit, is so far away there is another special little tourist train to take you there.

At last, we have our fill of decadent history and make our way back to the double-decker train.  I feel like a kid who’s having their first ride on a London bus! The journey back to the city revives us and a big beer near Notre Dame has us right as rain.  One last duty to perform before the end of our last night in Paris: I want to take some sunset pictures from Pont Neuf.

And for those of you who are interested in such things: Paris, Civics: 3.

20th September: The Big Day...

(First of all, many thanks to everyone who followed the instructions on their invitations.  We both hope you had a fantastic day, as all we really wanted was for everyone to share the day and have a good time, something they could remember for a while to come.  So, if that’s what happened, job done and that’s all the gift we wanted.

On the other hand, many thanks also to all those naughty people who bought us something, or contributed to the honeymoon spending money fund.  All your gifts were thoughtful and appropriate to us, and most gratefully accepted.  We can’t promise exactly which meal or beer or attraction anyone’s euros were spent on specifically, but we can promise you we had a fantastic time.  Of which, more later…)

On my way back into Chelmsford to pick up my flowers, I am irritated by someone behind beeping the traffic lights...  then intrigued by someone who can shout louder than the Rolling Stones cd on my car stereo… and look back to find out it’s Ruth and Steve, on their way to the venue.  Now it feels like the day has really started!

I’m so glad I ordered sandwiches to be sent to the room instead of sitting down to a full lunch, as I’d never have got everything done.  Ruth and I pop the first of my miniature bottles of bubbly and settle down for a natter and a sandwich, before heading back to our respective rooms and showers.  I’m just sitting back down in a very warm room wrapped in a huge thick robe (phew!), with half a glass of champagne and a bag full of make-up, when Garry and Jack turn up with the cameras.  It becomes a lot easier to ignore the camera when, just as I finish with my make-up, Claire arrives to do hers and get changed.  So far, all according to plan! – I feel like I can start to (try to) relax.

April arrives, then Veg with his twelve string acoustic guitar.  We have time for a very quick rehearsal – which, thankfully, April manages better than me (since she’s first up the aisle).  Then it’s time to try and fix the veil and tiara into my hair somehow. (Having seen the photos I think it actually looked rather effective.  Pity I couldn’t see it from the back on the day.)  A quick look back at Garry, who just manages to lift the camera in time to snap a shot (turns out that’s my favourite) and then it’s off to confirm that I’m still the bride who came in to register her intent to marry this hairy guy.   A quick pep talk from the registrars and we get this show on the road.

As we enter the venue, I have a momentary regret for giving in to vanity and not wearing my glasses, as with a veil in front of my myopic peepers, I now find it difficult to even make out shapes of people – and then I decide that, since that will help with the nerves, it’s probably a good decision after all.  Walking up the aisle I grin maniacally at various people who I don’t recognise and who seem vaguely to be grinning back in my direction.  I just hope I didn’t try to greet a wooden beam. 

The main things I remember about the service itself are: being thankful that I remembered to speak my responses loudly and clearly; that Stevie did the same, albeit that he decided to pronounce both t’s at the end of all the names; that I couldn’t at first get the ring onto Stevie’s finger; that everyone played and read perfectly; that we reached the end and I thought ‘oh! It’s the end already!’

As soon as it’s all over, I start to dash off to collect my speech notes, forgetting that the next agenda item is the obligatory photos.  And so many people with so many cameras!  I find the time to worry that my shoes were ruined already because they’re sinking into the grass  (I’m sure I could have endured more than 5½ hours in 4” heels, if only I hadn’t spent most of those hours on my feet, and at least a half hour trying to balance on the grass on the balls of my feet).  The speech was always going to be the most nerve-wracking event of the day for me.  The ceremony itself was a doddle (if also a blur) because, once you’ve stood up in a pub full of your friends and actually proposed to someone – it would probably be bad form to allow the natural conclusion of that act to get the better of you.  I am quite proud of myself for getting through it with barely a blub.

Most of the rest of the day, between the formalities of the ceremony, speeches, photographs, eating (wasn’t that cake a masterpiece?!), etc, pass in a blur of loud music and trying to speak to everyone.  I do remember drinking a lot but not being much affected by it, and everyone tells me how much they’ve enjoyed the day and certain aspects of it.

It is lovely to get back to our room and see that the rose petal fairy has visited, leaving the bed and floor strewn with petals.  She’s also tidied up (I know when we left it did look as though a small hurricane had passed through) and left one of the balloon bouquets on the bed.  Stevie is anxious about the cleaners next day having to hoover and while he had a point – I did really appreciate the thought.  Rather that, frankly, than have either of our cars decorated!

Despite our exhaustion, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that we do manage to make sure the marriage is fully legal with no remaining impediments…