A blog about our holiday to Europe in June/July 2012

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Monday, July 16, 2012

The Nuts and Bolts of our holiday

I booked our flights through Kathy Cowie of Carlson Wagonlit (she's in their Ballito office) - she was lovely to deal with, highly recommended. 

We flew SAA and I was very happy with our flights.

Our Heathrow/Barcelona and Malaga/London flights were with British Airways and they were also fine.

Transfers and tourBarcelona Day Tours  It was very convenient to be picked up at the hotel for the tour and dropped off at the Cruise.

Hotel: Hotel Jazz Very nice hotel, conveniently located.

Cruise ship: Liberty of the Seas, booked directly through Royal Caribbean.  HIGHLY recommended.  It's a good idea to do some research before booking your cruise.  (For example, I found out that the best deck to book your cabin in on Liberty of the Seas is Deck 9)  I used CruiseCritic.com a lot as well as CruiseAdvice.org 

Tours in Ports:
Toulon: We did the excursion to Cassis offered by the cruise ship.  It was great.  If you do this particular tour you MUST book a boat ride to the Calanques the moment you arrive in Cassis.
Nice: Sylvie Di Cristo was our guide, she was very good.
Livorno: We hired a driver/guide from RomeinLimo and with their advice, tailor-made our itinerary beforehand.  Riccardo was our guide and he was excellent
Rome: We hired a driver/guide from RomeinLimo  Sergio was our guide and he was brilliant.  Our vatican guide (booked through RomeinLimo) was Francesca and she was the BEST!
Naples: We hired a driver/guide from RomeinLimo Nichola was our guide and although not as good as the previous two, he was an excellent driver and very kind.

Transfers: Malaga Airport Transfers They were very good.

Accomodation:  Club La Costa booked through Booking.com.  I feel that it is important to get a good apartment here - some apartments are not that great, others are lovely.  I would recommend the apartments in Pueblo Marina if you are wanting 2 bathrooms and a nice big verandah - you need to confirm this in your initial booking.  For one bedroom apartments I would choose the block directly behind Pueblo Marina.

Transfers: Exclusive airports  We had the one bad experience the rest were fine.

Hotel: Luna Simone

Oyster card: We did all our travelling in London using our oyster cards. It's the way to go – you can use the oyster card on tubes, buses and trains – all you do is shove the oyster card against the big yellow disc that is prominently displayed as you enter the tube station/climb onto the bus etc. You can top the oyster card up via ATM-type machines in the tube stations or at many shops. You can buy your oyster card at the visa application centre when you go to apply for your UK visa

London walks: We LOVE the London walks. You don’t need to pre-book, you just pitch up at the start of the walk, pay your £9 and off you go.

The Original Tour: Hop-on hop-off bus tickets bought here. You can also get your Madame Tussauds, Tower of London etc tickets through them

London Eye:  Tickets bought directly from their website 

Tower of London: Tickets bought directly from their website

Eurostar booked directly with Eurostar.com

Paris visite cards (for the metro) and Batobus tickets booked through Hello Paris

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Holiday Round-up

This was a lovely holiday.  So relaxed!  I particularly enjoyed the fact that we did many new things and went to places we hadn't been before; even when we re-visited places we had been to in the past, we generally tried new things there.  The only downside of this holiday was that I missed my Roxy-girl something fierce, it was our first family holiday without Rox, and it took some getting used to! 

  • Barcelona: The Ramblas, the Gaudi buildings and the Fountains of Montjuic in particular
  • Liberty of the Seas - The cruise was just amazing from start to finish.  Loved it!  And having Lisa and Trev there with us was the cherry on top.
  • Cassis - I was really not expecting much from the port of Toulon at all and booked the tour to Cassis as a way to fill in the hours that we were docked there.... boy did I have a surprise coming my way!  Cassis was AWESOME!
  • Tuscany - always a highlight.  The winery was fantastic and cycling around the walls of Lucca was so much fun!
  • Our tour-guides in Rome were lovely and made the day even more special
  • Positano - This little town on the Amalfi coast far exceeded my expectations.  It is so unique, so beautiful.
  • Full moon on the Med in Mijas-Costa.  A sight to behold!
  • Send - loved visiting the area in which Lisa and Trev live.  It's beautiful
  • The Batobus in Paris - I loved this means of transport, it was so relaxing. 
  • Catching a tuk-tuk down the Champs Elysee was such fun!
  • Sharing this holiday with Paula and Cal was very special, we couldn't have wished for better travel companions.
Biggest laugh of the holiday:
Paula and I getting the giggles in the lift in Nice.  It was a "you had to be there" moment!

Biggest disappointment:
The cold, cold sea in Spain - what was that about?!

The driver of our transfer coming back from the Eurostar.  Ye gads that man tried my patience to its very limit!

Also, the weather in London and Paris - it could have been a lot better!

Biggest surprise of the holiday:
Cassis.  Wow! I had NO idea it would be that beautiful!  And then there were the nudists.  Very surprising indeed.

I was also amazed at how well Paula, Cal, Grant and I got on, particularly in the close confines of our tiny cabin on the cruise. 

Best hotel:
We didn't do a lot of hotels on this holiday.  Hotel Jazz in Barcelona was very nice and the Luna Simone, although not a luxury hotel, is a good place to stay in London

Best meal: We had lots of good meals, there isn't one that stands out head and shoulders above the rest.  I loved our first tapas meal in Barcelona, we had some lovely food in the main dining-room on the cruise, we had a good meal at the restaurant in Rome and I thoroughly enjoyed my supper in Paris.
Worst meal: Johnny Rockets on the Cruise
Modes of transport: (We like to count the different modes of transport we use in a holiday!)
4 wheeled bicycle
underground railway
motorised "little train"

Day 20&21 - 11/12 July Wed/Thurs (London)

We could all have done with a little more sleep this morning, but we had to get up at 7ish as we had rather a lot to accomplish this morning!

After breakfast we caught a bus to Westminster where we hopped off and then walked across the bridge to the London Eye – gorgeous views of the Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament!

I had pre-booked our tickets for the London Eye (so efficient I am!) Before we got on the Eye we went to the 4D experience – you get your 3D glasses and then go into this little theatre where there is a movie in 3D with foam squirting out etc.  Quite cute really.

The London Eye was lovely, such spectacular views!  We were so lucky with the weather as we had no rain while on the Eye at all.  It began raining the moment we were finished. 

That's "The Shard" ...it's new.

just so you know Paula and Calvin weren't the ONLY people on this holiday!

The venue for the Olympics beach volley-ball at Horse Guards Parade

Although we haven’t had very good weather in London, we have been so lucky – it has looked really threatening a lot of the time, but has only rained at moments when it hasn’t badly affected us.  Bonus!

Next on our agenda was Covent Garden, where we wandered around for a while before having lunch at a little outdoor restaurant selling Paella.  This was a spur of the moment decision, the paella just looked so flipping good! 

There are a lot of decorated phone booths around London at the momentSome more "bling" than others!

We then had a drink in an adjoining pub (so that I could use their loos…as Grant said, “yet another R100 wee!”  I ordered an Irish and as they didn’t have cream they filled the glass up with Bailey’s instead…. Oh. My. Soul!  I floated about in an alcoholic haze for about 3 hours afterwards!

On the way back to the bus Paula stopped for a Snog.  Not as risqué as it sounds – Snog is fat-free frozen yoghurt!  The shops are quite delightful – you choose your cup size, your flavour and then there are a multitude of toppings to choose from.  Very delicious and fun. 

Thanks to the appalling traffic, the bus trip back to the hotel took ages and then unexpectedly and unceremoniously  the bus stopped and deposited us on the pavement at Victoria, stating that the journey was ending there.  (And no, I had NOT been drunkenly singing!  Well not aloud anyway!)  We took a cab for the rest of the journey back to our hotel.

So now the time had come to shower, pack-up and catch our transfer to Heathrow.  All went swimmingly until we got stuck in a traffic jam of note!  The M4 to Heathrow had been closed for the best part of a week because of cracks that had mysteriously appeared in the road.  This understandably resulted in traffic chaos and we unfortunately landed up right in the middle of it.  We were eventually forced to revert to Plan B – we were dropped at Paddington station and caught the Heathrow Express instead.  Much quicker, calmer and more pleasant all round!

Although our bags were collectively 3 kgs over-weight, the kind lady at the counter never said a word and smilingly waved them through (I take back every ugly word I said about the staff at Heathrow), so we were spared that humiliating panicky shuffle of dirty laundry in front of the world at large.  Oh the relief! 

We then went and did a final spot of shopping, had a last pear cider (sob, sob!) a bite to eat and then it was time to go to the boarding gates.  Our flight is chock-a-block full of sports teams going on tour and screaming toddlers…. Oh dear!  Unfortunately we were delayed due to a storm.  Hey, I will choose a delayed flight over flying through a storm any day! 

We finally got going over an hour late and I had a few white-knuckled moments as there was some turbulence going on up there!  Things settled down eventually and apart from the screaming toddler, and some more turbulence as we crossed the equator, the flight was unremarkable.

Once we landed at OR Tambo things got a lot more exciting – our flight was obviously late, and then there were hectic queues at passport control.  It got to the point where we had 10 minutes to go before boarding opened on our Jo-burg/Durban flight and there was still a queue a mile long in front of us at passport control ......

......and we had yet to collect our suit-cases from the carousel!  My inner-cow came to the fore and I pushed our way to the front – most people were very understanding when I explained our problem, but there were a few who didn’t relate well to my inner-cow at all..  oh well….  We ended our holiday with a very undignified sprint across OR Tambo, heaving bosom and all, but managed to skid onto the Durban flight by the skin of our teeth!

And so we reach the end of yet another wonderful holiday.   It was amazing!  We saw unbelievably beautiful sights, ate delicious meals, had some incredible experiences, expanded our horizons, had many good laughs and spent quality time with friends and family; the hiccups along the way were minor and I would do it all again in a heart-beat!

Day 19 - 10 July Tuesday (Paris)

We were up at 5am for our big day in Paris!  Our transfer arrived promptly at 5:45 to take us to St Pancras station to catch the Eurostar.

We had great seats on the Eurostar - the four of us sitting around a little table (well done me!) The journey was good, we even managed to snooze a bit - we are all feeling a little sleep-deprived at this point!

We arrived at Gare du Nord and immediately caught the metro to Trocadero.  (I had pre-bought Paris Visite travel cards and Batobus tickets, makes life so much easier especially when time is of the essence)  The views across to the Eiffel Tower were stunning. 

We then found a pretty little path

that we followed down to the Pont d'lena bridge and across to the tower.  We took loads of photos but didn't go up the tower, unfortunately time was just too short.

on the Pont d'lena bridge

We then went down to the dock and boarded a Batobus - a water taxi that follows a circular route with 8 stops.  It was our first time using the Batobus and I loved it! 

Jackie would have loved it too!

We hopped off at the Notre Dame stop.

We immediately made our way to the Pont de l'Archeveche bridge

This bridge is FULL of locks, put there by couples declaring their undying love.... so romantic!  Paula and Cal had their lock ready and soon it was added to the 100s of others already there.

We wandered over to Notre Dame, had a look at this beautiful cathedral and then found a little restaurant in a nearby alley for a suitably French lunch.  Cal and I had Croque Monsieur, Grant decided on Quiche Lorraine and Paula had a delicious French Onion Soup.

After lunch we made our way back to the Batobus and caught it as far as the Louvre.  We got out and walked over to the Louvre, got a photo of Cal infront of the pyramid

and then ambled through the Tuilleries Gardens as far as the obelisk. 

We saw some cute little tuk-tuk vehicles and decided that we just HAD to catch one to the Arc de Triomphe.  It was so much fun haring up the Champs Elysee in this funny little tuk-tuk. 

We got out at the Arc, had a look around, marvelled at the crazy traffic circling the arch and then wandered a little way back down the Champs Elysee, ogling the fancy shops...and sports cars.

Interestingly, we popped into a huge, intimidating (well it was to me), optical store to ask if they could repair the nose-piece on Paula's glasses - they did so, never charged us a cent and fed us a couple of their sweets too!

We popped into a restaurant for a St Berthillon ice-cream - something I've wanted to try for years, having read rave reviews - quite honestly it was very expensive and, frankly, I've had better.

Next we hopped in a metro to Blanche station in Montmartre and took some photos outside the Moulin Rouge...

We caught the little train to Place du Teatre. 

We had a lovely wander around ...

before catching the furnicular down to the Abessess area,

where we had a fun supper in a small restaurant.  Cal tried an escargot starter for the first time (can't remember what he ate for mains?  Was it steak Cal? I remember I stole your chips!)

and Paula ate a Pierrade de filet de poulet - basically a hot rock of chicken fillet. 

Grant and I opted for the Plat du Jour - the menu of the day, with a choice of starter, main and dessert - it was lovely.  Finally we made our way to the "I love you" wall.

We always seem to do the same things in Montmartre, but there is so much more that I want to do there, one day I plan to spend a whole weekend in Montmartre and do everything else that this charming place has to offer!

Finally it was time to catch the metro back to Gare du Nord and the Eurostar back to London. 

Those smiles didn't last for long because our transfer back to our hotel was terrible!  The driver was completely useless and took us back by the worst possible, most congested route.  I was really irate as by this time we were all exhausted and it was close to midnight. 

Day 18 - 9 July Monday (London)

We got up bright and early for our big day in London and as soon as we were ready we made our way downstairs to the cute little breakfast room in the basement of the hotel.  We had a good fried egg, bacon and beans(well that was me!) breakfast to get us going for the busy day ahead.

As soon as we were ready we went and waited at the bus stop and hopped on a bus to Trafalgar Square. 

The Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square

I had bought tickets on-line for the Original Bus Tour, so we were soon onboard a bus, off to see the sights of London.  Advice for anyone contemplating a Hop-on, Hop off bus tour in London: the Original Tour has different routes, only the YELLOW route has live guides onboard the bus, on the other routes you have a recorded voice pointing out the various sights to you, where possible, always choose to jump on a Yellow Route bus, in our experience the live guides are excellent.   Our guide “Rosie” was an absolute gem.  We stayed on the bus all the way from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London, seeing all the major sights along the way.

Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square

Houses of Parliament

I had pre-booked tickets for the Tower, so we could by-pass the looooong queues and go straight to the priority desk to have our tickets stamped and moments later we were inside.

We queued for a while for the free Yeoman Warder’s tour, all the while the crowd of people around us grew bigger and bigger.  I was sure they would split the group between at least a couple of Beefeaters, but stupidly they didn’t, which meant that unless you were one of the fortunate few standing close to him, you battled to hear him speak; although the poor man tried valiantly to be heard.  Unbelievably an American woman standing directly in front of us took a phone call while we were trying to listen and then relayed the entire phone call to her friend…. You just can’t take some people anywhere! 

We followed the tour to the second stop but then gave up, we couldn’t make out a word that was being said!  So we bought a guidebook and continued on our own.   We saw the main bits of the Tower (I think you need a full day to see everything I’d like to see!) including the site of the beheadings, the Crown Jewels, traitor’s gate etc. 

Lunch was eaten at the large cafeteria.  After lunch we took some more photos of Tower Bridge (my favourite!)

and then headed off to catch the tube to our London Walk.  We decided that, seeing as the Olympics is about to start and London is currently ALL about the Olympics, we should go and see what all the fuss is about. 

We have done numerous London Walks and so far have never been disappointed, but this one left me a little under-awed – probably because my expectations were way too high (nothing to do with the guide who was cute!)  You see, I had hoped to get inside the Olympic venues – in retrospect I realise there was no way that was going to happen.  Duh! 
We DID get as far as the outside of the venues and did a nice stretch of walk along the Greenway in East London, where we happily managed to straddle the Greenwich Meridian (I thought you could only do that in Greenwich, I was wrong!)

and we learnt more facts about the current and past Olympics than I could ever hope to remember.  What sticks in my mind is how “green” the 2012 Olympics will be, which is wonderful.  Also, thanks to the Olympics there are ambitious plans in place for the regeneration of areas in the East of London (where the major part of the Olympics will be held) which have historically been rather dismal.  These plans will continue long after the Olympics have ended and will hopefully do a lot to uplift the area. I gather that there are mixed feelings among the locals about the wisdom of London hosting this event – some are very positive, others not so much!  I hope it all goes well for London and look forward to watching it all unfold on TV.

The Olympic village

The aquatics centre (the weird red structure is the The Orbit...

The main stadium

We walked up to the viewing deck in the John Lewis store at Stratford Westfield Mall that has amazing views over the Olympic park and bought a couple of souvenirs in the Olympics 2012 department of the store. 

Then it was off to Buckingham Palace.  The road immediately in front of the Palace was closed to traffic – no doubt very annoying for the drivers, but a bonus for us as we managed to get some lovely photos without a steady stream of cars going by. 

Due to road closures we walked via an incredibly circuitous route from Buckingham Palace to a pub near Piccadilly Circus where I stupidly offered Cal a taste of my pear cider and spent the rest of the evening trying to wrestle the glass back from him (ha,ha….what can I say, the boy has exceptional taste!!) we then went and had a lovely supper in an Italian restaurant (Paula can only have so many pub meals before she needs some Italian!) before catching a bus back to our hotel. 

I have to admit that the road closures are a bit of a pain and London is positively heaving with traffic!  There are loads of tourists about, but it really only affected us in terms of the AWFUL traffic congestion and the tour at the Tower – otherwise I felt that London was coping well with the influx.