Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Holidaying in Britain II

Of course, if you can get your hands on a dirt cheap flight to Ireland then I could be tempted to not spend the whole of the summer going for Donkey rides up the beach at Blackpool.

God bless easyJet and their next to nothing flights to Belfast. Looks like I’ll be spending part of the summer going round Ireland (though I would like to make it absolutely clear at this point that I will not be taking any kitchen equipment with me, especially not Fridges!)

Holidaying in Britain, it’s all the rage

So as the pound nears parity with the Euro the whole concept of popping across to the continent for a short break starts to look fiendishly expensive.

So it is with great joy that I was up early this morning joining the hundreds of others taking part in the sales. Except, I wasn’t buying DVDs, or the fixtures and fittings from a bankrupt Woolworths store.

No, today I had my cyber elbows sharpened as I dived into the melee of the Travelodge Christmas sale.

Whilst I have several objections to Travelodge, my experience with their London City hotel being my main negative against them, you have to agree that a £9 a night for a hotel room your principles can become a little looser than normal.

Given the number of times I got the “Server Busy” message and had to repeatedly hit reload, it would appear that they were doing pretty brisk business.

But still, I managed to walk away with some stunning bargains.

Consequently I’m going to be spending a little more time exploring my own country this year (or until such time as I get a 100% pay rise [impossible], the pound surges to record highs against the Euro [almost impossible], or just recovers so it’s back around the 1.20 mark [still highly unlikely]).

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Reflecting on Oostende

It appears I have spent a large part of 2008 reliving my childhood. Not only the trip to Venice, but also my recent day trip from Bruges to Oostende.

As a child we had a short family break in Oostende, I would have been about five at the time. Some of the memories of that trip are still as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday.

I can vividly remember the wide sandy beaches, digging a big hole in the sand, riding up and down the yellow bricked prom in a hired child peddle buggy, avoiding the large streaks of dog mess and trying to avoid dropping off the edge of the prom onto the beach, where it falls beneath the level of the road.

As I sat on the tram going along the prom at Oostende on Monday, I was amazed to still see the same yellow bricked prom, (still streaked with the odd bit of dogs mess), kids still propelling themselves along the front on peddle buggies and the wide sandy beach, (which if it wasn’t the middle of December I’m sure there would have been children digging holes in).

It just leaves one question unanswered.

How the hell did I fail to remember the giant trams rattling past the beach every few minutes. Until reading it in the guidebook I had no idea there was a tram line through Oostende. My parents even confirmed that they took me on it. Aged five it must have been my first experience of a train that ran down the middle of the road, so how did the single largest, nosiest and most obvious part of the holiday escape my memory, but I could still remember the yellow bricks with the dog poo!

Monday, 22 December 2008

Why is Flanders not bankrupt?

Today was an historic day.

I’ve been to the Flemish part of Belgium on a number of occasions, and I’ve visited a few of the main towns.

And until today on every occasion something has been happening that made the local transport free.

When I visited Bruges in 2004 the bus from the station was free because there was an exhibition going on in town.

When I visited Antwerp in 2006 they were celebrating the opening of an extension to the pre-metro and all the travel for the whole weekend was free.

When I went to Ghent from Antwerp I discovered that the celebrations appeared to be across Flanders as all of Ghent’s public transport was free.

Yesterday, I, lazily, caught a bus from the centre of town to the station and, because it was the last Sunday before Christmas, all the buses were free.

Finally, today, on the costal tram I had to buy a ticket for the day, a whole €5, the first time I had actually had to pay to be transported on a De Lijn service (it should be noted that I have never experienced free travel on TEC services in Walloon or the MIVB/STIB services in Brussels).

Which leads me to the question, with this amount of free public transport sloshing around – even being given to the tourists, why is Flanders still the rich part of the country and not facing imminent bankruptcy

Sunday, 21 December 2008

A country divided

I've been to Belgium on a couple of occasions now. To Brussels first, but then also to Antwerp (Flemish) and Liege (Walloon). In the past I hadn't really noticed any particular friction between the different language groups, and the stories I had seen in the press and on the TV about a nation tearing itself apart along linguistic lines, I thought were a little over exaggerated for effect.

Then today, in the Choco-Story I came across the open sore.

There were a large group of people walking round in matching jackets and bags, and for a while I thought they might be quite mature language students (in the same way that large groups of people wandering around London with matching bags and jackets are always students coming to the UK to study English.) However, on closer inspection (i.e. having one barge in front of me whilst I was trying to read a display board), they appeared to all be from the same company, possibly on a work outing.

I miss-timed getting down to the demonstration on making chocolate and arrived just a few seconds ahead of this group, so any chance of it being in English went out the window.

The presenter said that he would only present in one language and wanted a show of hands who wanted English, Dutch or French. Needless to say there were more hands up for Dutch and French than English, but it was difficult to say which one won.

Given that as I was arriving the presenter had just finished the previous talk which was in Dutch I think he decided he wanted a change and started to do the presentation in French. He was quite quickly interrupted by someone speaking in Dutch. I’m not quite certain what he was saying but there was a mention of Vlaams, Nederladich and Walloon. The guy speaking was one of the employee day trip group. A retort came back in French, from a colleague, which didn't sound like it was being delivered in a friendly manner. I think the presenter realised this and decided that he might be able to do it in two languages so started to repeat everything in both Dutch and French.

Now it’s possible that it was just a row between two colleagues who don’t see eye to eye, but at the same time it was noticeable that they were in two distinct groups – those speaking Dutch and those speaking French - on different sides of the room.

It’s always possible that it was a work bonding trip gone horribly wrong, it could be that the whole thing was being put on as some kind of massive company in joke

Or it could be that those news reports weren't so wrong. Could Belgium actually be pulling itself apart?

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Tasting the Aspic

I came to Bruges on a day trip from Brussels in the early summer of 2004.

The whole selling point of Bruges is that it is a perfectly preserved medieval city, and that’s what draws the tourists.

I know on this basis I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing has changed since 2004, but I am pretty certain that absolutely nothing has changed. The temporary roadwork’s look as though they are in the same place as they were four and a half years ago.

Walking around the city centre it is amazing how, with the exception of the Christmas decorations; nothing has changed in the slightest in the time. Anywhere else some things would have changed (some of the roadwork’s might even have finished), but here everything has remained the same.

Quite frankly it’s a little concerning, like being trapped in a time-warp from which you can never escape. Just have to hope that I can leave on Monday and that I too don’t end up being dispatched to the aspic factory for preservation.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Commuting for the fearless

45 minutes trundling through a tunnel, and then having to stand on a crowded train for half an hour. Sounds like the evening commute? Sadly it was my journey to Bruges. Following the recent fire in the Channel Tunnel the train crawled through at little more than tube train speed, and it after the speed of the journey from London to the tunnel entrance it comes as a bit of a shock at how slow the Belgium high speed line is.

Having arrived at Brussels a little late I still managed to make the connection, but only because the train to Bruges was five minutes late, and then when it arrived absolutely heaving.

I’m not certain if the Belgium’s are used to the Londoners idea of a full train, but some of the reactions from those already on the train as wave after wave of British tourists heading for Flanders poured into the carriage, merrily propping themselves up against the edge of seats, implied that this was all getting a bit too much.

Certainly, all those standing were speaking English and there were a couple of comments along the lines of “This is as bad as Southern/C2C/First/Insert favourite company as appropriate.”

Ghent is quite a large town, and I would suspect has a significant population that commutes into Brussels, though as to whether it matches the numbers who poured off the train at Ghent leaving enough space for everyone to sit down is another matter (I get the impression some had decided to get a quieter local train for the remainder of their journey).

Still, it makes a change. For the last five years my commute has always been against the flow heading out of London in the morning and back in the evening. I’d forgotten how miserable standing on a packed train for 30 minutes was!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Credit Crunchies

Back in July, in my second post, I bemoaned the fact that my trip to Poland was getting more and more expensive as the credit crunch bit and the pound fell.

Perhaps I should have kept my gob shut at the time, as it’s getting worse.

I should be off to Brugge in a couple of weeks, but every day it gets more and more expensive.
I did not pay for the hotel when I booked it, just reserved it. At the time the Euro was at about 1.27 to the pound. Over the last couple of days the pound has sunk to new lows against the currency and it currently stands at 1.17, adding nearly £20 to the cost of my hotel in a little over three months, with the worst slumps happening in the last few weeks its probably only going to get worse.

Perhaps now I should be looking at the possibility of cancelling, but if I do that, I loose the cost of my Eurostar ticket. Unless of course Eurostar were unable to run the train, in which case they would have to refund me.

Eurostar managers recently voted for strike action over the run-up to Christmas (and let’s face it you can get more run-uppery than the last weekend before Christmas!). Perhaps, for once, I should be secretly hoping that the strike and inevitable chaos it brings takes place.

Obviously for people who want to get home to loved ones for Christmas it would be devastating, but for me…