Sunday, 30 October 2016

Family at Home and Friends on the High Seas

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During our few days at home last week we had the pleasure of a two day visit by Doug’s parents. To make up for terrible picture of Derek in the last blog here we are on the second evening enjoying each others company over a nice meal at Brasserie Blanc in Chichester – James, Vilma, Doug and Derek – and it was really lovely to see them again.

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Well, we can’t sit still for very long so, on Friday (28th), we made our way to the Ocean Terminal in Southampton to board the P&O “Azura” for a two week cruise to the Caribbean. It’s our first time on the ship and, after an invitation to join friends for the cruise – which we didn’t take long to accept!, we were aboard in the record time of 20 minutes from arrival at the terminal to entering our cabin. Our cabin is a delight and our steward, Albano, had us settled in in no time.

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After leaving later than expected on Friday evening we got ourselves familiar with this very large vessel and, after dinner and a review show, settled down to a good night’s sleep. This is a ship which James is likely to do a great deal of walking around if he gets lost as much as he usually does! It’s a very long ship and, although we’re aft of mid ships (pardon the jargon!) the view f’ward from our balcony seems to go on for ever! 

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Having not been entirely happy with it’s sister ship the “Ventura” on a past cruise the “Azura”, we had been assured by many fellow cruisers, was to be a very different experience. And, after just a couple of days we are very impressed with it’s d├ęcor, layout and friendly atmosphere.

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The atrium is an impressive space, rising over three decks, and is surrounded by cafes, shops and lovely open spaces.

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Two glass lifts and numerous balconies, polished marble staircases and very clever lighting make the atrium quite an inspiring space.

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The “Glass House” has a Scandinavian feel to it and we’ve already enjoyed it’s luxury with pre-dinner drinks with friends Sandra and Bernard.

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“Brodies”, the pub, is a really comfortable space to have a drink and use the plethora of TV sets dotted around the area.

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The Casino, of course, is always available to lose some money if you’re so inclined.

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For a large ship the shopping area is not huge but, it’s all there in various forms, and designed to relieve you of some serious cash! ……….

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……. and, if shops don’t temp you there are other things that perhaps will !

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“Malabar” offers more opportunity to drink with the added attraction of it’s entertainment stage.

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The “Manhattan” is furthest aft and is used, as an alternative to the “Playhouse” theatre, for talks and presentations.

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The three staircases, like all the public spaces, are designed to be an experience in their own right and there are many works of art displayed on their walls on all of the ship’s 19 decks.

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Outside there’s the expected Promenade deck and, at the time of writing, we are enjoying a very calm sea with just a moderate Atlantic swell. The forecast is for much of the same for the entire voyage.

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One thing we soon started to appreciate is the unusual quietness of the ship. The “Azura” has almost no detectable noise or vibrations and the stern of the ship is amazingly quiet with very little water noise from the props. Not that any cruise ship is very noisy these days but “Azura” is exceptionally good and makes for a very relaxing atmosphere.

We love our ‘sea days’ and have the whole Atlantic to cover, with just one call at the Azores on Tuesday where we hope to welcome aboard friends Pam and Geoff which will then make up our ‘sixsome’.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

“A Tale of Two Cities”

Our canal / river trip from Brussels to the lovely little city of Mechelen, with our hosts Frances and Andrew, allowed for an overnight stay plus much of the following day.

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We used the next day to continue to enjoy Mechelen and to visit their wonderful cathedral. As with most ecclesiastical buildings wherever you are in the world this too was pretty stunning inside. Poking your head inside places like these occasionally reveals something rather amazing and in this case ………..

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……… it was a carved wooden pulpit dating from the 1600’s which really had to seen to be believed. It’s basically represents a tree trunk with animals and birds carved into the structure and steps, made to look as if they were hewn from solid rock, leading up to the pulpit. What a joy it was to look at.

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While we were inside the choir and organist were practicing and treated us to an impromptu concert. The organ has more than 6000 pipes – and it sounded like it too!

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We left Mechelen at 1700 hrs to catch the tide on the River Rupel and we enjoyed a lovely evening cruise, retracing our steps from the previous day. Approaching Boon, on the right hand side of the river, the evening sky and calmness of the water gave an ethereal feel to things.

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James was allowed to do most of the steering but, of course, the ‘Captain’ needs to take over for delicate operations such as entering and leaving locks.

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We moored up for the night at Sluis Klien Willebroek and enjoyed an extremely good meal at the only hostelry open that night!

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The next morning (Thursday) we cruised the last leg of the journey back ‘home’ to the Brussels Royal Yacht Club. The very large cargo vessels “own” the canals (and why shouldn’t they – we’re not going to argue!) and this one lived up to it’s name ……..

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………. of “Hellboy”! Frances, at the helm on this occasion thank goodness, held a steady and well executed course while this leviathan passed by!

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The captain of “Hellboy” certainly didn’t go short of big boy’s toys – car, speedboat and jet ski and a crane to get them off and on.

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Not sure here whether James is grinning because he’s at the helm or that he’s got a piece of Frances’ delicious cake in hand ready to eat!

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One last (enormous) lock before the last stretch home. These locks are gigantic. The two carriers nearest to us are in excess of 5000 tons and the one at the front of the lock is over 8000 tons. We were about 10 tons and very respectful!

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This a bit of an ‘artistic’ pic of “Hafren” trying to keep up with the big boys in order to get through the next (raised) bridge with them rather than cause the bridge to lifted just for our little selves.

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On the last few kilometres Doug took over the steering just to say he’d done it. He’d normally been quietly busying himself with the background support – making the ever important teas and coffees and other essentials.

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On the day of departure we had a few hours to look around Brussels before getting Eurostar back to London. The centre of the city has some stunning buildings.

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This one was in process of having the gold embellishments restored.

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This is the city museum. Notice all the tourists taking pictures of the gold restoration on the adjacent building!

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Of course, we had to visit the famous Maniken Pix which, for certain special days, is dressed in various costumes. Famous it might be but we were warned that it was rather smaller than everyone imagines.

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But we didn’t quite realise just how small it actually is!

Frances and Andrew, in the true style of their superb hospitality and care, brought our luggage to us at the Gare de Midi where we were to catch Eurostar at 3 o’ clock on Friday afternoon. It was a wonderful few days we had with them. The whole adventure very new to us. Thank you so much both of you for everything – it was terrific to catch up with you both and a pleasure as always.

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Although we were able to see a bit of London between alighting Eurostar and the late train back to Chichester we were to return two later on the Sunday. For part of the day we spent enjoying this, our favourite city of all, in glorious sunshine. The foliage (of which there is plenty in London) was still quite green and autumn seemed yet to have arrive.

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There’s no doubt why London is the most famous and visited city in the world as there’s an iconic, and spectacular, building or landmark just about everywhere you look. This is Westminster Abbey – the Queen’s own church and known as a “Royal Peculiar”.

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Iconic landmarks aside, there are other intriguing, and rather surprising things of interest to be enjoyed in London. The pelicans in St James’ Park are very tame. We look at them and they look at us!

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Not the normal and hugely expensive property you expect to see in central London – this is Duck Island Cottage in St James’ Park. It was built in 1841 as the home of the bird-keeper and it was also at that time the meeting point for the Ornithological Society of London.

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We never pass a war memorial or cenotaph with saying “thank you” to all those who fought for the freedom we enjoy today – this one is opposite Horse Guards Parade next to St James’ Park …….

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…….. and Horse Guards itself looked very spick and span in the Sunday sunshine.

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A quick bus ride down Oxford Street reminded us that Christmas is not very far away!

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On Tuesday and Wednesday this week we had the joy of Doug’s parents, Vilma and Derek visiting from their home in Devon. We popped down to our local, The Seal, in Selsey for an evening meal together on the Tuesday. Although we haven’t been there for a year (!) the food and the welcome are just as good as ever.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

One Minute it’s home – the next it’s Brussels!

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We had a very busy few days while we’ve been at home but an important, and long standing engagement, was to meet up with friends Kim and Alan at their home in the next village along the coast. Doug, Kim and Alan are very well matched but …..

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…… James is not! For him it’s rather like being in Lilliput! Thank you Kim and Alan for a wonderful lunch and great company.

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Another event, which sadly we usually miss these days, is the annual Selsey Firework display. A charity event, it’s very typical of the sort of thing which takes place in the village. Organised with an enormous amount of effort and pride by many local volunteers we had a huge bonfire, a fun fair and fireworks set to music. The fireworks were put on by our very own award winning firework company.

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This year’s music genre was ‘Disco Beat’ and, with great music,  we had a fabulous display. The evening continued for us when we went to see a show at the nearby holiday camp where a friend was performing. However, unbeknown to us, the evening’s entertainment included Jimmy James and the Vagabonds! - in our village no less!

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On Sunday (16th Oct) we headed to London by train. An overnight stay allowed us to catch up with a few friends during Sunday afternoon and on Monday morning, bright and early, we headed for King’s Cross (and the reason for our journey) to meet up with friends Andrew and Frances. We were taking up their delightful and generous invitation to join them for a trip to Brussels. Firstly, aboard their splendiferous ‘camper’ (known as the “Death Star” for it’s daunting 4x4 presence!) for the journey to the Cross Channel freight terminal to board the train.

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It was Doug’s first trip through the Channel Tunnel and it was quite an exciting ride being cocooned inside the huge carriages for the very smooth, high speed, 35 minute journey to Calais.

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A very comfortable, two hour ride, in the “Death Star” - through northern France and into Belgium, saw us arriving at the Brussels Royal Yacht Club where Frances and Andrew’s continental “home” – the motor yacht “Hafren” has it’s mooring.

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After and enjoyable (short) day’s travel, and settling into our temporary lodgings for the next few days, we all enjoyed a few stiff G&T’s followed by cheese and wine in the wheel house (or Grand Salon as we think it should be called!) before retiring for an early’ish night.

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On Tuesday morning we set off down the Zeekanaal Brussel – Schelde, through one amazing bridge after another – all dutifully, and politely, raised for us by the operators.   

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Continental canals are busy waterways, with some very large and swiftly moving cargo vessels. It’s best to move aside and let them on their way unhindered!

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Along the way, waiting for the enormous Sluis Zemst lock to become available for us, we saw the unusual sight of some fishermen with a stork next to them, waiting patiently for some fish to be caught - a proportion of which, it hoped, might well be thrown his way!

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The elegant 3 foot high bird eyed us suspiciously as we walked past on our way to view the lock before we entered by boat.

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The lock was gigantic and, being last in the queue (who’s going to argue with vessels some tens of times larger than ourselves!), we followed up behind.

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The full lock looks like this, and after an 8 metre drop ……..

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……… it looks like this! - and you have to be careful of the prop-wash from these big boys as it can push a small boat around like a cork.

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After all the big boys had gone on their way it was our turn to vacate the cavernous space of the lock.

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The canals are wide and often lined with rows of very interesting and pretty houses.

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On a number of occasions we felt it prudent to move aside and not to argue!

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At Sluis Klien Willebroek, at the end of the Oude Kanalarm (not difficult to translate!), we had to wait for the lock (and the tide) before we could get onto the River Rupel.

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Here’s motor yacht “Hafren” tied up at SKW and waiting for the tide.

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At the appointed time we were allowed to enter the much smaller lock ………

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……which, when the gate slid open, allowed us out onto the River Rupel.

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The river was a very different, and wider, experience than the canal. Half an hour’s travel along the River Rupel, with the tide in our favour, is a turning onto the River Dyle ……..

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….. which took us, after another half hour hop, almost at our destination. The massive tower of Mechelen. The Cathedral stood proudly aloft and pinpointed our final resting place for the night.

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Another lock (the Benedensluis Mechelen), again very different from the rest, took us from the river and back onto the canal.

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Frances takes charge of tasks at the bow as we moor up for the slight rise in water level in the Benendensluis ……..

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….. before being released into the delightful ambience of the tiny city of Mechelen.

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The yacht haven was full of the most delicious craft (very posh!) and we ventured to the far (dead) end for a quick, and skilful, about turn by Andrew …….

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…. before heading back to a vacant mooring.

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To our astonishment our jetty space was scrubbed and cleaned by the “harbourmaster” before we tied up!

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A walk around the charming little city of Mechelen was real delight.

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The enormous tower of the equally enormous cathedral dominates the buildings around ………

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……….. and the city is very reminiscent of Bruges without doubt

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Stunning architecture …….

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…… wherever we looked!

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After a walk down the side of the town hall we found a very nice hostelry where we could enjoy some tradition Belgian beer and good food.

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And here we are – comfortable in the “t’ Groot Liecht” (the Bright Spark?) where we were made extremely welcome by the landlord.

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His sense of humour was obvious when we visited the toilet if not before!

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Later in the evening and returning to the boat, darkness had fallen and the city took on a whole different, and extremely enchanting, atmosphere.

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What a perfect delight it all was and what a perfect end to a perfect day.