Go anywhere Nice this year?

Why yes I did, thank you, I was treated by my daughter Jemima to a wonderful few days in Nice, down on the beautiful French Riviera.

Nice is the 5th largest city in France by population, but its contribution to the tourist economy is immense. The airport is right on the beach, so the views as you land of the sparkling azure sea, with all sorts of water activity happening, and the mountains setting a dramatic backdrop, are nothing short of jaw dropping. And its the first airport where I’ve spotted a sign pointing out the toilets are next to the heliport…..

A taxi took us to the apartment we had rented for the week, just across the 7 km long Promenade Des Anglais from the sea. We had a short wait before we could get in, so I suggested we visited the sign that said “Brasserie” next door. This in fact turned out to be the glamorous https://www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en/hotel Le Negresco Hotel, one of the most fashionable addresses and recognisable buildings in Nice. We settled in for champagne cocktails, and a charming uniformed waiter provided complimentary snacks of rosemary cashews and smokey almonds.

Suitable and impressively refreshed, we had our first look around the apartment, stunningly decorated with modern light fittings and a large kitchen lounge area (though bizarrely only one tiny toilet with the worlds smallest basin, for the whole apartment). A mirror on the back of the front door demanded selfies every time we left.

After a quick stock up of supplies from the nearby Carrefour, we set off for our first orientation wander along the prom. The weather was very warm (30+ degrees), but the gentle Mediterranean breeze made it feel very pleasant.

The girls were tempted to try parasailing, and we were all fascinated by the waterfall high on the hillside at the end of the prom. We had a delicious dinner including moules et frites, and even popped our heads around the Casino on the way home.

Day 2 was an early start, as J had booked us all onto a full day tour of the lavender fields and the Gorge du Verdun, https://www.verdontourisme.com/en/the-verdon/the-verdon-gorges-the-largest-canyon-in-europe/whose deep blue green I had even spotted from the plane yesterday. The tour was in a thankfully air conditioned vehicle, and included stops in the delightful villages of Castelane and a lunch stop in Moustier Sainte Marie. We saw how lavender oil was distilled, and learned about its many health giving attributes.

Sadly the harvest had just happened (the hot weather had meant it was early this year), but the hazy purple fields were still impressive.

Next stop was down at that stunning lake, which gets its colour from the clay underneath. The girls were brave enough to have a swim, and there were pedallos and kayaks for hire if you had some more time to spend.

Once back home, we just had a supper of pizza and frites at a nearby restaurant.

Day 3, and the girls wanted to spend the morning on the beach, so Christina and I took the open top bus tour. This gives stunning views of coast, and passes by a villa formerly owned by Elton John. We stopped for lunch at Villefranche sur Mer, a beautiful port with many restaurants and shops set around the harbour and the small sandy beach. I opted for the selection of local specialities, including stuffed courgette flowers, which I’ve long wanted to try.

Later in the afternoon, when it was slightly cooler, we walked all the way down to the ILoveNice sign, and the climb up to that waterfall. There was a lift, but it was closed. “When does it open?” asked Lisa. “In a few months when its been repaired!” was the answer. A long climb up countless stairs followed, but the views from each balcony point were worth it. At the very top we got some water from the cafe, looked down onto Nice harbour on the other side, and eventually found the waterfall itself, enjoying the refreshing spray.

At the foot of the hill, we found a window seat overlooking the prom, and played I-Spy, fashion bingo, and spot the dog, over a GnT.

For dinner I had a Salad Nicoise (of course!) and a glass of my now favourite local rose, a Minuty. Some street performing acrobats added to the colour and spectacle.

Following the recommendation of a couple we’d got chatting to earlier, the next day we headed for Monte Carlo. The train costs only 8 euro return, but the process of buying a ticket at the station was rather arduous and stressful. You need to specify exactly which trains you’ll be travelling on, the age range of each passenger, whether they had any discount cards, and even give a phone number and email! Hot and bothered, we piled onto the train, and found seats on the upper deck to enjoy to lovely coastal views.

Arriving in Monaco 20 minutes later, we began the long climb down many steps to the harbour, from where we picked up an open top bus. It was pretty packed, but we were only going one stop to the Palace, where we were just in time to catch the changing of the guard. Lovely views over the harbour from here, and then we were back on the bus to find a suitable lunch spot. We’d considered the Japanese garden, but there is a towering and noisy forest of construction work happening round here, so we instead continued to the Casino stop.

A never ending stream of fancy cars crawls round here, doing the famous Grand Prix circuit. The elegant terrasse of Cafe de Paris called to us, and soon we were settled at a table in its gilded sumptuous surroundings, admiring the waiters passing with long trays of dishes out to the Chanel and Louboutin clad clientele.

I do love a Ceasar salad, but I don’t eat chicken, so I was delighted find a version with prawns on offer here. Bread and water were provided, and they had my fave wine available by the glass – result! Coffees were served with a delightful selection of petits fours – chocolates, butter biscuits, and little pate de fruits.

We had a quick look inside the Casino, were you can get to a selection of slot machines which will greedily take 5 and 10 euro notes off you in the blink of an eye. And no photography allowed!

The traffic in the city moves at a snail pace, and we were quite hot sitting on the top deck of the bus, so it was a relief to get back to the cool and cavernous station. The train home was jam packed, so we treated ourselves to a taxi ride back to the apartment, which I followed with a refreshing dip in the sea itself.

For our last evening, we dressed up in our finest flocks, and had a seafood platter followed by crepes suzette.

On our last day we had plenty of time before our late night flight, and had managed to arrange a late check out time. In the morning, the others went to the rather rocky beach, suitable shod in waterproof shoes, while I explored the tram system. This is very clean and efficient, and well worth using to get around the city. One journey is 1.50, a multi journey ticket for 10 trips costs 10 euro, and I treated myself to an all day ticket for 5 euros. I was in full-on research mode, took a tram to Place Garibaldi, walked to the harbour, to the tram all the way to the airport, enjoyed a glass of rose in my matching frock and fan, before getting off at the station nearest to us.

Over lunch using up all the remaining cheese, strawberries, and crackers, we discussed options, and decided to take the tram to the old part of Nice. This is just adorable, little winding alleyways crammed full of shops selling herbs, honey, soaps, clothing and trinkets, as well as food stalls serving fish and socca. Not to be missed!

The tram out to the airport was smooth and quick, but we were having difficulties in checking in online. This would mean that we couldn’t get through security to all the shops and restaurants beyond until 90 minutes before the flight. Thankfully, Jemima managed to work out that my little card sized Irish passport is an ID card, not a passport, and we were soon taking our time choosing lavender honey, Fragonard perfume, truffle oil, and the all important rose wine. Suitably stocked up, we went for a meal at Jamies Diner, which had a disappointingly small range of options, but did have a lovely view out to the runway and the beach and mountains beyond. I treated us all to macarons from the nearby patisserie.

Our plane was already delayed by over an hour, and by the time we finally boarded it was going to be another hour before a take off slot was available. I have to give full credit to the Easyjet team here: They were communicative and managed expectations well. The captain came out and invited anyone who wanted to come see the cockpit, get photos, ask questions etc, to do so, and the crew passed out soft drinks and chocolate bars.

The very late (early?) landing at Gatwick meant there were no trains running, and a massive wait for taxis. But the impressively efficient Jemima managed to secure an Uber, and we all fell into bed about 3.30. Given that there are so many delays and cancellations of flights right now, I was just so glad that all our flights had actually succeeded in getting us to and from destinations. (My add on flights between Belfast and London were also problem free, so full marks to “greasyjet”!)

Final thoughts – I absolutely love this part of the world, and will happily revisit Nice, as well as other destinations along the Cote dAzur. Nice was exactly as it should look, including our local, Le Negresco, old Nice was charming, but Monte Carlo disappointing. The food and wine were all delicious. But the most memorable and enjoyable part of the holiday was the fun and laughter I shared with the best bunch of ladies in the world – love you Nicoise Gals xxx!!!

We’re Going On a Brunch Hunt!

Now that I’m retired, I’ve set myself the mission of finding the best Brunch in Lisburn. Well that’s probably subjective, so My Favourite Brunch Spot is a better title. Here’s the first contenders.

Crema

Well located in the main shopping area of Lisburn, so a handy spot if you are visiting the major charity shops up town. Nice breakfast selection, with a few veggie options, though I actually went for the smashed avocado which came with feta and chorizo. But I just left the bits of meat to one side. (I’m not a strict veggie at all, I just don’t like meat). This was very nice, with a perfectly cooked poached egg, though I could have done with a bit more avocado. Trendy garnish of watercress and pomegranate seeds. My coffee of choice was a cortado, a short and strong white coffee. It was busy when I arrived, and the only available seat was beside the loos, which is always a noisy location. And the low ish ceilings would make conversation a bit of a strain. They do have some tables outside if the weather permits “al fresco” dining. Their tray bake selection is amazing, and if you sign up for the “too good to go” app you can sometimes grab a bargain box of treats. Cost was £10.30, a bit pricey for brunch.

Verdict – handy for shoppers, try the traybakes!

Ground

Free parking by TK Maxx, close to the health centre and library. Very tempting array of croissants, toasties and traybakes, but remarkably few veggie breakfast options. I had a halloumi sourdough sandwich which was delightfully spicy and messy. With a cappuccino this came to £8.40. There are a variety of seating options, from bench tables, to low comfy armchairs, as well as some tables and chairs outside. The glass walls give an airy feel, though the view of the car park isn’t going to make the top ten of “Best Coffee Shop Views”.

Verdict – handy if you’re at the library or health centre and need a pick me up.

Dobbies

Very close to me, this is probably my nearest option. They actually have quite a few interesting veggie options, and I will be back to try the flat mushroom breakfast stack and the smashed avocado. But today I opted for scrambled egg on toast. The eggs were freshly cooked, for which I was happy to wait, and were deliciously fluffy. The 2 slices of malty toast were also freshly made, and butter was unlimited. Staff are really friendly and chatty. The ambience is a bit “school canteen”, but if you get there early and can nab a window seat it’s very pleasant and relaxing. As I have a Dobbies card my coffee was free, so the total bill was a bargain £5.50.

Verdict – surprisingly tempting choice of options, calorie counts given, and if you have a Dobbies card it’s good value

Any Lisburn folks, hit me with your recommendations!

Eurovision 2022

So, the contest is over, the glitter canons detritus has been swept up, and Turin returns to whatever passes for normality there.

How was it for me, I’m sure you are all asking!

I’d had a good oul listen to all the songs beforehand, and made a list of ones I thought would do well, and those I didn’t rate. How did my list compare to the actual final scoreboard?

1st: Ukraine. No surprises whatsoever, and I had them top of my leaderboard too. I think the song is great, has a combination of folky flute hook, as well as a heartfelt message. Oh and I did also enjoy the crumping break dancing that accompanied it. The combination of jury plus televotes will always throw up some controversial winners – I hadn’t rated Italy at all last year, and was behind the jury darlings of Voila and Tous l’univers……but the televote overturned their lead.

2nd UK. Delighted with this result for Sam Ryder, who seems like a genuinely nice bloke, and who worked his socks off promoting Spaceman across Europe in the lead up to the contest. I had him 3rd, and even I was overwhelmed by the love he was getting from juries and televoters alike. I mean, politics, sure, but it just goes to show that a good song, performed well, will get points.

3rd Spain. There was a lot of hype about this SloMo, and it’s a decent enough uptempo number, but the “booty hypnotic” lyrics and the scantily clad costumes were a big turn off for me. I hadn’t them on my list at all.

4th Sweden. The lyrics of “Hold Me Closer” are just heartbreaking, (I found the right one at the wrong time) and delivered with a gravelly voice that melts your heart. Great effort from the Swedes, who were disappointed that this didn’t make the top 3, it was my 6th place.

5th Serbia. Biggest shock of the night to me was the high placing this Goth spa treatment song about Meghan Markle’s shiny hair got. I was amazed it even made it through the semis!

6th Italy. Another much hyped entry, Brividi was a soulful all male duet, by two well known singers. But the performance on the night was rather lack lustre. I had it 9th

7th Moldova. Chisinau to Bucharest! Of the bonkers party songs, this was my favourite, it’s a cheery colourful number featuring fiddles and accordions, and I placed it 5th. Here’s an aide memoire to assist you in naming the capital: Moldova – mulled wine – wine and cheese – Chisinau! You’re welcome.

8th Greece. There were a lot of doom and gloom ballads this year, and Die Together was staged with a whole load of broken chairs, and the singer wore a costume made out of that cellophane your wrap flowers in, so it had a wistful post-apocalyptic quality to it. It was 11th on my list.

9th Portugal. Very soft and low key, tie dye outfits and pigtails, Saudade describe a feeling of missing a place. I didn’t rate this at all

10th Norway. “Not sure you have a name so I will call you Keith”, the yellow suited performers singing about preventing a wolf from eating your Grandma by offering a banana instead. This had a massive support pre concert, but was never going to get a lot of jury points. I had it on my “like” list, but not placed.

11th Netherlands. A very soulful song in Dutch “oooh hoooo, ahaaaaa”, delivered with great sincerity and emotion, from a young woman with very shiny hair (has she been for a Goth spa treatment?). I really liked this one and placed it 4th

12th Poland. Of the doom power ballads from strong male soloists, this was my favourite, and I put it in 2nd place. His voice brought me out in goosebumps, though the staging was perhaps overly busy for a ballad.

13th Estonia. I hope, I hope, I hope went this up beat C&W influenced number, which rounded off the performances on the night in suitable fashion. Was just outside my top ten, but one that I’m sure I will play often.

14th Lithuania. Sparkly long dress and pudding bowl haircut, I found this one dreary and didn’t expect it to even qualify!

15th Australia. Chain mail face mask and very elaborate white costume for this deep and meaningful ballad. Australia haven’t fared well in recent years, and must be asking themselves some Serious Questions. Didn’t make my shortlist.

16th Azerbaijan. My son and I play a game of “spot the Bond theme song” each Euroviz, and this was the 2022 winner. I didn’t expect it to qualify, and it suffered from being so similar to the other male sung power doom ballads.

17th Switzerland. Marius Bear with….yet another male performer doing a doom and gloom ballad. I had as a non-qualifier.

18th Roumania. Llamame bebebe, call me baby, a Latin dancey number, with a bit of cha-cha thrown into the performance. 12th on my list.

19th Belgium. Am I gonna miss you, Naaaaaaah! Strong delivery but rather a slow tempo, it was just outside my top 12.

20th Armenia. Snap it 1,2, where are you? I found this reminiscent of “I belong to you, you belong to me you’re my sweetheart”. The styling was a bit bland and beige, indeed there was a costume alteration between the semis and the final, though it still would be in with a good chance of winning the Barbara Dex award for worst outfit. I had this as my 8th.

21st Finland. The actual Rasmus! I went to see them live back in my Luxembourg days, when they were riding high in the charts with In The Shadows. They benefitted from being the only really rock number in the final line up, and their spooky yellow raincoats and IT balloon made them at least memorable. Just outside my placed songs, but I was really pleased they did so well.

22nd Czechia. Lights Off by Domi, almost a rave quality to it. “Where are you now?”, this will definitely be played a lot on my Spotify, and I had placed it 7th.

23rd Iceland. The sister group…errr…Systur…didnt feature at all on my list, I found it dreary and dull. I’m sure someone must have shouted out “Play jah jah ding dong!”

24th France. I just didn’t get this one at all, and it hasn’t stayed in my memory. Must try harder.

25th Germany. Oh dear, 2 of the Big 5 in the bottom places, they must be casting envious glances across the channel to the UK, and wondering what they need to do next.

The other songs that I thought would do well, but which didn’t make it out of the semis were Malta “I am What I am”, Israel I.M, and Austria’s Halo. I also felt for Brooke Scullion, from down the road in Bellaghy, who gave a fabulous performance on the night, with good staging, costume and dancing, which got a great audience reaction in the auditorium. But it wasn’t enough to save a poor song, and added to Ireland’s poor performance record in recent years.

parkrun tourism: Eastbourne

event#84 parkrun#307 another compass point!

There are a number of recognised challenges that parkrunners try to tick off, one of which is the compass points. So far I’d only managed one point at Southampton parkrun, parkrun tourism: Southwark and Parkruns: South Manchester. So I was delighted to take up the offer of a visit from my best friend who now lives in Eastbourne!

Access:

I’d travelled by train from Gatwick airport, a relatively simple journey. The parkrun takes place in Shinewater Park, and I got a lift there. It is a residential area so runners are asked to park considerately if they’ve come by car. There’s a bus stop at the park entrance, and the nearest railway station is Hampden Park.

Course:

This was the first outing of the summer course when I attended. Quite a bit of the course is on uneven grass surface, so watch your step! One loop of the play park, then onto more solid paths, over bridges, under bridges, and round some lovely lakeside views. Back for one final loop of the playpark, which does mean you have an agonising run PAST the finish line before that last stretch.

Crowd:

There was a good mix of runners, and I certainly wasn’t alone in the jog-walking group at the back. I did worry a bit that the tail walker looked like he was dressed for a speedy run.

Some well behaved dogs, a few family groups, and I got chatting to an elderly couple who were making their 3rd parkrun, having only started as part of their 70th birthday celebrations. A lovely reminder of the inclusivity of parkrun. There were 331 participant when I attended, the average is in the mid 200s.

Facilities:

A cute coffee cart is onsite for post run faff. No loos. There’s a Premier Inn very nearby if you wanted to stay over. Start and finish is at the same point, so the traditional “hang it on a tree” method of leaving your jacket applies.

Gear:

I had travelled in my Sauconys, which were OK for this course. I wore my #isitfancydress With Me Now top, and of course had my cow cowl on, but saw no other parkrun tourists or WMNers! Darn it, I was looking forward to exchanging a “Dolly or Bev”/ “arbitrary” greeting.

Strangely Appropriate Song on Shuffle:

I have a choir concert coming up soon, so I have the songs we are singing downloaded onto a Spotify playlist. So I was working on the Irish Blessing ” May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields”. There were very few hills to contend with, the sun indeed did shine warm, and no rain, soft or otherwise, fell upon my fields. Which was nice.

Time:

I was jog walking, and stopping to take photos, so a just sub 45 minute time for me.

And the rest:

I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in this part of the world, including a carousel ride in party town Brighton, and ice cream by the sea in Eastbourne, viewing the Seven Sisters, and seeing a big chalk man on a hillside.

All my parkruns:

List of them all NI (and other) parkruns: summary list

Dunleath Playing Fields parkrun

run #306 event #83

Regionnaire status regained! For now, at least. But it takes me a bit closer to that full cowell of 100 different events.

Access:

The bustling town of Downpatrick is about 30 mins south of me, on decent roads. Actually, the bus terminus is just opposite the park, so if you wanted to make the best use of public transport, then this would be a good choice! I did try to offset my carbon footprint by collecting a “magic bag” of food from a local shop via the “Too Good To Go” app which gives out surplus food at a discount. But the contents were disappointing, sadly.

Facilities:

Plenty of parking and loos in the Leisure Centre, and also across the road in the retail park with its handy McDonalds. On my visit (their event number 3) there was tea and biscuits provided at the finish, but this might not always be available. There are plenty of cafes in the town for a bit of parkfaffing, and the cathedral is the location of St Patrick’s grave, should you need reason to linger longer.

Gear:

It was a frosty morning, so I wore my warmest black running leggings, a long sleeved T under my black 100 volunteer shirt, headband AND cow bobble, and gloves. Toby was my lil helper, and I put a warm jumper on him as he hates the cold. My old red hokkas, and a white sweat wristband. No timing watch or music – I like to keep my eyes and ears open when tailwalking to be able to respond quickly to any incidents. As the sun got higher and the temperature rose, I was able to remove the hat and gloves.

Course:

Start is behind the main playing fields, which are pretty lively on a Saturday morning. One small first lap, then turn right at the Covid test centre (!) for 2 larger laps. The town is nestled in between some drumlin hills, but the course itself is pretty flat, just the one small incline to manage, and it is followed by a nice downhill section. All on tarmac / gravel paths. On this beautiful blue-skied spring morning, the trees were starting to show their burgeoning buds and catkins.

Crowd:

Being a relative newbie on the block, it still attracts a few other tourists. I greeted Stephen and Niamh, who is the youngest person to be a Norn Irn regionnaire, and presented them with my regionnaire flag badge in recognition of their achievement. Frist Irish man to achieve a 500 milestone T, parkrun Jim was there, trying to work out where to put his next tattoo. Apparently there’s an at least 3 month waiting list for ink these days! There was a good bunch of walkers on the first lap, but after each one some of them dropped out, so I was left frequently doing the “tailwalker catch up canter” to keep the last lot in my sights.

Time:

My run times are still rubbish, so I’d volunteered to tailwalk. Time was 50-50, in position no 99, which was suitably mathematically pleasing. Toby was a wee dote, and while he did want to say Hi to all the other doggies we met, he kept with me on a slack lead and didn’t complain too much about the cold, or the long car journey. (The wee skitter had managed to regurgitate his dinner last night over a radiator, down in between many many curves and fins….)

Strangely Appropriate Song on Shuffle:

I wasn’t listening to music, but the peal of church bells on such a beautiful morning brought joy to my soul.

All my parkruns:

NI (and other) parkruns: summary list

Zuiderpark parkrun

event

Event #82 parkrun #304 letter Z

That elusive alphabeteer status finally achieved!

Access:

The Netherlands main Schipol airport is a massive hub, so there are frequent flights from all over the world. It is well served with a train station on site, and trains to The Hague (or Den Haag) take around 40 minutes.

Den Haag is a city very well served by public transport, and clean efficient trams and buses (and trains) run frequently. A day tram ticket costs 7 euro, you can take the number 9 tram out to the Zuiderpark stop itself (photo opportunity), or number 16 to Loevensteinlaan on the corner of the park. During my visit, there were works happening on the no.16 tram which meant it actually stopped at the Zuiderpark stop, hurrah!

The runners gather near the massive Sportcampus, a stunning circular building with a huge copper collar, glinting purple and bronze in the sunlight.

Facilities:

There are clean loos in the Sportcampus,

and coffee and parkfaff afterwards in the Parkoers cafe. Service is slow here, but there’s a tasty selection of cakes, toasties, and even beer if you fancy it (shout out to the Northern lass behind me in the queue who was having one “because she could” :-))

Crowd:

No surprise, this is a major tourist draw, though numbers are usually manageably around 60-80. Attending the 25th event with me were a hen party some of whom were running, and others who were doing tailwalker and photographer duties.

Others had made a short trip over from the south of England, whilst I also got chatting some Welsh visitors. Those cow cowls come in handy! I was making this a delayed “zixtieth” birthday celebration, and this was one of many trips which had been rescheduled a few times due to travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. So it was an absolute joy to be here on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning.

My goodbyes when leaving the cafe were “safe trip home” “all the best with the wedding” “see you in Belfast sometime” and “Happy Z Day!”

Course:

The Invictus Games were due to take place in the following month, and so an alternative 3 lap course was being used. This is the Netherlands – there are no hills! The paths are good tarmac, but do watch out for other users on bikes and roller blades.

Time:

My running times are still rubbish, so I was hoping for 15 minute laps, and was very pleased when my final time was a tad over 40 minutes. A next target to aim for!

Strangely Appropriate Song On Shuffle:

I’d forgotten to bring my waist belt to hold my phone, so I ran without music, which allowed me to hear a woodpecker in the trees. There is much avian activity here, with ducks, geese and even hens joining the song. Instead of music, in my head I counted from 1 to 100 in English, then French, German and Spanish, with a 1-20 walk break in between. Then backwards from 100 trying to find a song with that number in it. 12 Days of Christmas took some time trying to remember how many lords were a-swimming, and how many gold swans were a-milking.

Gear:

I wore my green 250 shirt (much admired), my warm black running trousers (almost too warm given the beautiful weather), and the aforementioned cow cowl. Forgot my running belt and wrist band. Saucony shoes were perfect for this terrain, and I also travelled in them to save space in my luggage. I had my aqua tourist jacket on against the chilly morning, and lent that to R afterwards while he was on paparazzi duty.

And The Rest:

A few days in Den Haag are very highly recommended, a beautiful friendly city with lots to see and a relaxed vibe. Trip To The Netherlands

All My parkruns:

NI (and other) parkruns: summary list

Trip To The Netherlands

Second star on the right, straight on till morning, isn’t it? No, that’s Neverland!

“Trip to the Netherlands” is a Scottish country dance, and a tricksy enough one at that, but we did it at my Tuesday night class the day before I took a….

Trip to the Netherlands!

This was a holiday that had a bit of history of rescheduling and push backs. And Gawd Bless Easyjet. It started with my The London Marathon journey, when we had both booked flights to the capital. Then R couldn’t go, so we re-booked his flights (where d’you wanna go? Amsterdam? Cool I haven’t been there either) and I booked adjacent seats on the same flights in February. All for minimal cost and fuss.

January came, and Covid restrictions were still in place. End of January and restrictions were lifting, including parkruns, so we booked a cancellable hotel in Am’dam, with a lovely Scottish vibe to it. And then we double checked on regulations and found we would still have to quarantine for 5 days. So we pushed the flights back to March. And then found that the hotel prices had literally doubled. So I suggested we look at Den Haag – I knew there was a Scottish dance ceilidh on the Friday night, it has the gallery with the Girl With A Pearl Earring, and most importantly – the parkrun begins with a Z!

We booked a room in the appropriately named Corona Hotel, and the journey began.

Flying from Belfast International (we all still call it Aldergrove) can be a pain, but it does have some good points. Booked parking in the main stay car park, which is very close to the terminal building, is not expensive, and I’ve always found security checks to be friendly and fairly quick. There’s still many outlets not yet reopened but Starbucks provided the necessary seats and caffeine. Our 9-50 flight had meant a reasonable leave the house time.

We’d boarded in good time, and started to taxi, but then halted because of an aviation fuel spill. Seeing fire engines on standby with lights flashing was certainly a worry! But we did get underway, and the flight to the busy hub of Schiphol takes just over an hour. This airport is HUGE, no seriously, you land and then taxi for a few miles until you reach the terminal building. It is also technically 5m below sea level.

There is a train station onsite, where you can get onward journeys to eg Amsterdam, or in our case, The Hague (Den Haag)

Our hotel was a short 15 min walk from the station, and we admired the lovely open squares full of people eating, drinking and laughing, as we passed by. The hotel staff were very welcoming, and we soon had dropped off our bags, had a relaxing drink on the hotel terrace, and set off for an aimless wander (ie to find vodka, wine and the holy grail of diet coke). Some places don’t use mastercard or visa, only maestro, so make sure you have some euro cash with you!

We found a lovely rooftop restaurant for pasta/ steak, and then wandered through the Passage, a vintage shopping mall with some gorgeous little emporia and a bit of history of the building as well.

Day 2

Having passed on our plan to stay in the capital, this was our day to visit Amsterdam. R had found a Flixbus that cost only 16-90 return, a third of the train prices, and which got there a few minutes earlier.

Took a while to find the right stance down at DH Centraal, but we did after a few enquiries find the green Flixbus sign, and a straggle of other travellers joined us. Good clean bus arrived right on time, and there was no trouble finding seats (in front of an annoying talking woman). After 40 minutes we discovered why this option was cheaper and quicker, as it pulled into the park and ride hub at Amsterdam Sloterdijk, just outside the ring road. We bought all day transport tickets at 8-50, and the metro takes another 40 mins to reach Centraal. The train gets there in 5 minutes, so that’s a good alternative option.

But wow, Amsterdam Centraal Station is a hugely impressive jewel of a building, red brick gothic with a clock and a dial showing…wind direction? A busker with a miniature fairground organ was playing Queen songs as we passed, and we went for the easy option of MacDonalds breakfast muffins, before taking a canal cruise boat trip. These are an hour long, there are multiple operators offering the same journey, so the principle of arbitrage means they are all priced at 13 euros.

The tour is a very relaxing way to spend an hour getting some of the history of the city, and the ticket doubles as a postcard! We learned that as there are so few bridges across the Amstel river, the little ferries are free.

We strolled down the waters edge to the Sea Palace, a floating Chinese restaurant that is the replica of the Jumbo in Hong Kong. What a sumptuous interior, and we were fascinated by the robot waiters, which brought orders to the table on mechanised trolleys. Dim sum starters, followed by soup, and then we couldn’t resist trying the salted egg yolk dessert thing…..

A wander round the neighbourhood reminded us of the city’s reputation, which apparently is not the reason the city flag has three Xs on it. I enjoyed sampling cheese in Henri Willig, and bought a mini cheese slicer.

The Flixbus option is good value, but our return bus wasn’t scheduled until 8 pm, so we decided to cut our losses and just get a train back. Unfortunately it was cancelled at Harleem, with a further 40 minute delay, but we did get back , out our feet up, and then set out in search of chips. Ended up by introducing R to Five Guys!

Day 3

The hotel breakfast seemed expensive at 17 euros, so we headed off in search of alternative, finding ourselves at https://hoenderenhop.nl/en/hoender-hop/ a really chilled and relaxing cafe with cool background music on Grote Markt, with super strong coffee, and a delicious yoghurt/granola/fruit dish.

We had tickets for 10 am at the Mauritshuis Musuem, but were distracted by the arrival of a royal (?) at the next door parliament building. The museum itself is in a lovely old building, and contains many fabulous paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other Dutch masters. The pride of place is the Girl With The Pearl Earring (room 15 upstairs), which was not too mobbed by viewers, though it is protected by a steel circular barrier.

My favourite was the giant detailed painting of a bull.

Of course, the museum shop is a must visit, and I bought some pearl earrings (natch!), a GWTPE face mask, a tulip microfibre cloth and a book about tulipomania. (If you’ve seen me on Weakest Link you’ll understand!)

No, I dont know why I can’t get this image the right way up! But spot the beagle

We then took the no 1 tram out to Scheveningen, the seaside resort just a couple of miles from the centre.

We alighted at the Kurhaus stop, a fairy-tale hotel with fabulous glass dome and porticoed terasses.

R described it as a posh Blackpool! It has the usual seaside elements you’d expect – frites and ice cream kiosks, amusement arcades, as well as a pier boasting upper and lower (covered) decks, with a Ferris wheel, and zip line and bungee jumping at peak times. Some interesting bronze sculptures are dotted on the promenade. There are a number of eating and drinking establishments here – I asked the barman for a Sex on The Pier and he gave me one! (insert own innuendo here).

And I later enjoyed a common menu feature – a 12 o’clock special, consisting of a sandwich, soup, and small salad. The weather was superb, and we agreed to come back tomorrow to watch the sunset.

Scottish Country Dance is a world wide activity, and when I had contacted Margaret, the local co-ordinator, she said there would be a ceilidh on the Friday night. So I was delighted to be able to attend. My day travel ticket got me on the right bus, and I enjoyed a super evening of song, dance, and food with some locals.

Day 4

Saturday is parkrun day. But this was no ordinary parkrun day. This was Letter Z day, getting that final letter in my alphabet, and fulfilling the “thing I want to do” that I said on The Chase. Previously Zs were only in Poland or South Africa, so Zuiderpark (literally Southpark) is a very much appreciated addition to the fold, being easily accessible from much of the UK. My usual parkrun write up is here Zuiderpark parkrun

After the parkfaff in the cafe, we changed back at the hotel, had a stroll around the local shops including the cooks treasure trove that is Dok, a cornucopia of knives, pans, aprons, dish towels, barbecues, recipe books, moulds, piping nozzles and kitchen appliances of every description.

Back out to Scheveningen, where it was much busier being a weekend, with the little blue mini train going from here to the harbour, many dogs having the time of their lives on the beach, and the daredevil activities going strong. I had a celebratory glass of fizz on the Kurhaus terasse, before we strolled on the pier, and then as the sun was already making long golden streaks across the water we found a table with a fire pit (it was still cold, 12 degrees or so) in Golfslag, one of the many cafe restaurants by the shore. We ordered a selection of tapas, and the sun could not have been more stunning as it slid into the ocean.

The tram home was understandably packed, but the crowd was good natured and courteous.

Day 5

On our final day, we returned to Hoender en Hop for breakfast, before strolling through Chinatown,

and then by the canal, to look at the Royal Palace.

We stopped for coffee and bitterballen (breaded deep fried balls of stew) and a final look at the birds around the Buitenhof. Security at Schipol can take some time to get through, so make sure you leave plenty of time at the airport.

But the weather was still lovely on our return flight, giving superb views over the Mourne mountains.

Derrynoid Forest parkrun

Event #81 parkrun #303 Regionnaire status regained (for now…..)

After “The Great Pause” it’s heartening to see planned new parkruns getting up and running, so to speak. I attended the 4th outing of Norn Irn’s latest, in Derrynoyd Forest near Draperstown, pretty much bang in the centre of the province. Note, the forest is spelled with a Y, but the parkrun with an I. No, I haven’t managed to find out Y just yet, but if you know, do tell!

Getting There:

From my house it was just over 50 miles. Take the M2 and keep going, onto the lovely smooth new bit of the dualled A6 (my sat nav still doesn’t know this road exists, and goes into a minor panic telling me to turn left. No, right. No, straight on.) From the little town of Draperstown, follow the Derrynoyd Road and a mile along you’ll find the forest. There is some parking on the left and right hand sides of the road, but the main forest and parkrun is the one on the right.

Course:

Three laps through the forest, on pretty good paths, but watch out for stones and fallen twigs. It’s a tough enough course, with a chunky hill near the end of the lap. Start and finish are at the same point, but allow yourself time to get there from the car park. The forest is a lovely patch of old woodland, with plenty of birdsong to be heard. It was fantastic to listen to – some twitchers were able to identify a chiff-chaff, and I believe there’s even a woodpecker here.

Facilities:

No loos on site, so make sure you go before you get there! Parking as above, there are a few cafes in town for post parkrun coffee and faffing.

Crowd:

There were just under 50 when I attended, including a few familiar faces who like me were reclaiming the “regionnaire” status. Though I hear there are a few more NI events happening shortly, so this is only a “for now” badge. And also a few people making their parkrun debut, which is always lovely to hear.

Gear:

I wore my green 250 shirt, and there were a few of these on show! I’d also got my apple watch and aftershoks bone conducting headphones with me. Blue hokka trainers – trail shoes would be a good option here. And I managed to find my cow bobble hat, complete with its little flag badge indicating that “I’verunalltheNornIrnparkrunssoIhave”. I must dig out my T shirt and add some suitable buttons.

Time:

I’m really slow at the minute. I’d even offered to be tailwalker, but someone had beaten me to that! But I walk/jogged my way round in 44 minutes, taking time to stop for the odd photo of the beautiful Sperrin mountains.

Course record is at time of writing just under 18 minutes.

Strangely Appropriate Song on Shuffle:

I put the Hamilton soundtrack on as I was setting off- the tailwalker told me he’d been lucky enough to see the show live, that’s still on my bucket list of things to do. “Rise Up” is always appropriate for hills, and I was heading for Coleraine afterwards en route to see my parents, which is where Hercules Mulligan is from.

And the rest:

My Dad’s uncle Bob used to be head forester here, and the area around Tobermore and Draperstown was Dad’s “patch” when he was a sales rep, so he really enjoyed hearing all about my run when I called in for lunch afterwards.

All my parkruns:

NI (and other) parkruns: summary list

Six By Nico

Having had my milestone birthday last year, I’m taking a full year to enjoy various celebrations. BFF Sarah was in town for a revival of Over The Bridge, a Sam Thompson play which in its original version had starred her late actor father. So we spent the Saturday afternoon at the delightful Six By Nico, a restaurant with a set tasting menu of six courses, which changes each six weeks. We opted for the full range of offerings, including an aperitif and the paired wine flight. I had the vegetarian version.

The theme was “Once Upon a Time”, with each course inspired by a fairytale. The menu came in the form of a booklet, with a description of each course as well as recipes to recreate in the comfort of your own kitchen, and a couple of pages to make notes!

The aperitif was Mary Poppins, a cherry and ginger flavoured bright plum cocktail served with a spoonful of sherbet on an ice cream stick, in elegant old fashioned glass coupes. The accompanying snack was a gingerbread spiced donut, and some generous slabs of sourdough bread with whipped butter.

On to Oliver Twist, a confit Hassel back potato with some gloriously creamy mousseline and crispy bits.

Course 2 Paddington Bear was a sourdough bruschetta. My vegetarian version came with a beautiful fried egg, while S had ox cheek ragu, and both came with a mushroom “marmalade”. The accompanying wine was an earthy Pinot Noir, which brought out the intense woodiness of the fungi.

Course 3, Matilda, was a carrot. No seriously, a delicious tandoori spiced poached carrot with pesto made from carrot tops. I’d never had a wine flight before, and I tend to avoid sauvignon blanc, but the French one that came with this dish was absolutely delicious, fresh and crisp.

My next course was the best ever porridge, a lip smacking combination of pearl barley with sharp pecorino cheese and truffles. S had a dish of sea trout with artichoke crisps, and the wine was an Argentinian Pinot Gris.

We loved the wine that came with course 5, an Italian Syrah served in a duck shaped decanter. The wine was velvety, almost port like, and went with S”s duck and pickled walnut.

I had baked pumpkin with gnocchi, and the only think I didn’t like on the whole menu, a tarragon dragoncello, which just tasted like grass.

The dessert was a rose and hibiscus cream, which was presented under a glass dome, lifted to reveal a smoke effect. The accompanying wine was a sweet muscat, honeyed and almost sherry like in its richness.

And then, as we had let slip we were celebrating, we were given a glass of limoncello each.

At £80 each its not a cheap lunch, but it was undoubtedly one of the most memorable meals, let alone experiences, I’ve ever had. I was particularly struck by the advantages of letting a sommelier and chef choose what I was to eat and drink, and I’ll definitely be back in a few weeks when the menu changes!

Valencia 2022

Finally a trip away!

Making the most of my free time now I’ve retired with a trip to the beautiful city of Valencia.

Flights were out of Dublin, which did require an early start to catch the 5.30 am bus from Belfast. However, the bus was there at just after 5, so we didn’t have to stand around in the cold for too long. This was a nice relaxed way to reach the airport, being dropped off right at the door in just under 2 hours. Time to find some tea, and something that I usually only eat at airports for some reason, an almond croissant!

Checked in and lined up by the airplane steps, we than had to stand in the Dublin drizzle for an achingly long 10 minutes while a technician climbed in and out of the body of the plane. Before telling us that we’d have to go back inside and wait for an alternative craft. To be honest, I’d rather have an hours delay and get on a plane with no flashing warning lights!

The flight was very smooth, and I always love the view over the snowy Pyrenees. We landed in glorious sunshine just after lunch, and made our way through Covid and passport checks, before heading to the car hire depot. Having lived in Luxembourg during my career, I am (or was) familiar enough with driving on that side of the road, and so I was designated driver. It still took a bit of adjustment to remember where the rear view mirror was, and I did miss my reversing camera!

The satnav took us to the Vincci Palace Hotel on Carrer La Pau without too much swearing, followed by several trips round the block while we tried to locate the side street where the entrance to the car park was located. Via an elevator. A member of staff patiently guided me while I line up the car at exactly the right angle before squeezing it in to the small space. The hotel is very conveniently located, and even has a sun terrace!

Bags unpacked, we set off to do “aimless wandering”. This city lends itself really well to this activity, with beautiful buildings at every corner, and plenty of signs explaining any historical or architectural significances. Even with one of the main squares, Plaza de la Reina, closed for refurbishment, there was no shortage of sights to stop and stare or photograph.

I’ve been studying Spanish with a daily Duolingo lesson for over 2 years now, and so I was interested to see just how well I could communicate. The passport guy had surprised me by answering Bon Dia when I offered Buenas Dias, and I noticed that many signs, menus etc were in 3 languages: Spanish, English, and ……Valencian, a sort of version of Catalan.

We found a nice cafe for tapas and delicious Spanish white wine. Calling into a local Minimart for supplies on the way back to the hotel, I found that most of the wine on sale had corks rather than screwtops. This allowed me to try quite a complicated sentence: “Perdonne senor, busco una…en frances es un tire-bouchon” accompanied by suitable hand signals. And sure enough, un sacacorchos was duly obtained, and wine purchased. The prices were very reasonable – a bottle of Chardonnay started at 2 euros!

The hotel was very comfortable, and the staff very friendly and helpful, even providing me with a tray containing a kettle and tea bags for my essential morning cuppa.

The next was warm and sunny, and we had a great stroll round the city centre taking in the fabulous indoor market selling live snails, giant goose eggs,

colourful fruits and veg, and row upon row of fish and seafood. There was even a sign with my name on it!

From there we headed to Placa Ajuntament with the city hall, the bullring, and the gorgeous Estacion which still has detailed ceramic and wooden adornments. I found a cafe that served paella, the speciality of the region, and in the afternoon I took in the big Torres de Serranos before enjoying an ice cream in the Placa de la Viergien in front of the cathedral (under refurbishment). In the evening I dined on dorade with vegetables, and we finished with a few drinks in the lovely hotel bar.

Breakfast in the hotel was a good range of cold meats and cheese, yoghurts, bread and pastries, some hot food, and little slices of tortilla. We extracted the car from the elevator (easier on the way out), and headed out of town to visit friends who were staying nearby.

I decided not to attempt putting the car back in the hotel, opting instead for a public car park only 100m away. A late lunch was had at Saona, doing a 3 courses for 9.95 which was just exceptional – stuffed artichokes, salmon tartar, and a lemon and mango dessert.

We caught the hop-on-hop-off bus for an afternoon orientation tour of around 2 hours, to get a feel for what we wanted to see next day.

On our last full day, we went to La Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciences, and absolutely stunning complex of concert halls, exhibition spaces, science museum and aquarium. It was a little chiller today, and when we got off at the seaside stop, the seabreeze was very strong. But we found a nice seaside cafe for smoked salmon and avocado on toast before continuing our tour.

In the afternoon I tried to find the rooftop bar, as advertised on the guide map. I found where the door should be, and a notice said there was a new entrance round the far side. I walked round the block again, with no sign of an entrance. Back to the original notice to make sure I’d read it correctly, and then return to where the new entrance should be, before having to use my language skills to ask where it was. Sorry, closed for refurbishment! Oh well, off to El Corte Ingles for a bit of retail therapy instead.

For our last meal we went to Bacca, a glittering cavern like restaurant with deliciously camp waiters (think Hank Azaria in Birdcage) for a final seafood paella, and a nightcap in the hotel bar.

Final morning we went to the old established chocolate house Santa Catalina, all ceramic walls, and neatly turned out and very attentive waitresses for chocolate and churros, breakfast of champions!

This set us up nicely for a final dander, taking in the Torres de Quart, and the cathedral where there was a live display of local dancing and singing taking place.

Driving on a Sunday was a little less frenetic, and we only argued with the sat nav a wee bit before making our way back to drop off the car and head to Valencia’s architecturally stunning airport. Sadly much of the inside is currently being refurbished, but I bought some good olive oil to take home with me.

Luck was on our side on the return journey – plane landed on time, no queues to contend with, and the bus we were booked on, that we thought we were 5 minutes too late for, was still waiting at the stand. It was packed, and they were only letting on passengers who had booked tickets, so even though we didn’t get sitting together, we were on our way home through some torrential rain. And sadly I had someone behind me chatting incessantly (and loudly) the whole way.

In Belfast, a free taxi pulled up just as I reached the depot, and whisked us home in good time.

Overall, it is a delightful and attractive city that I would love to revisit , maybe when all those refurbishments have been completed!