Final thoughts/comments

This morning Helen and the children left for home at 10:05 on the KLM flight back to CT.  I went to work in London on a 10:20 flight. Both of our flights left on time and arrived on time. 2 more flights completed by KLM on time adding to their 91% on time performance record. Compare that to Air France’s record (who own KLM) of 71% on time and you must wonder how there can be such a difference. What I didn’t say in my previous blog posts is that not only did the 2 USA families miss their connecting flight through Charles de Gaulle (spending a night in an airport hotel) but one of the SA attendees had her Air France flight to Johannesburg cancelled entirely and my other sister and her family missed their connecting flight to Venice and arrived eventually at 11pm. I checked out Air France’s record into South Africa and they have 10% of their flights cancelled. Seriously … 1 in every 10 flights to Johannesburg are cancelled. Why would anyone travel on them knowing that? I’m going to outlaw using Air France for company travel – too risky for business purposes!

So here are some random thoughts on Bordeaux & Amsterdam – firstly on Bordeaux:

  1. It really is quite beautiful and a very relaxing place to visit. Spending a week there is really a great way to unwind.
  2. The French do really know how to make red wines … especially in Bordeaux. We didn’t really ever have a bad Bordeaux while we were there. I am not so sure they are as good at making white wines in that region though. The whites were nowhere near as good as the reds.
  3. They have crazy speed limits. You can drive 90 km/h on a rural (what I would call single track) road. And what is even more crazy is that people do drive that speed. Swerving around a tractor at that speed isn’t my idea of a relaxing holiday.
  4. French cooking is very good (generally) but it is also very rich. It is the sauces that they always have on the food that makes it so rich.
  5. Eating cheese in France is another whole experience. Why is it that cheese tastes so much better in France?
  6. The French always get a bad rap about being grumpy towards tourists. We never experienced that at any time in France. In fact I would say it was the reverse that people tried really hard to go out of their way for us rather.
  7. French time = African time. Book for 1pm and expect to get started at 1:30pm. Happened everywhere we went. Air France clearly works by the same rule. Never expect anything to operate on time in France.

And then some thoughts on Amsterdam:

  1. It is a vibrant, alive city. That is probably because 50% of the residents are under 34.
  2. There are as many canals in Amsterdam as there are streets. I just hope the guy with his finger in the dyke never pulls it out.
  3. It is definitely worth visiting if you are coming to Europe. Just give yourself more than 1.5 days. We would have loved to spend more time there. The consensus of the family was that we would like to go back and spend more time in Amsterdam.
  4. It is a bit of crazy place though. You can get anything you want – drugs from the Coffeeshops (we actually had one around the corner from the hotel and only discovered it this am when we left!); prostitutes; every type of food you can think of etc.
  5. Everyone has a bicycle. They say that there are around 750 000 residents in Amsterdam and they reckon 600 000 bicycles.
  6. You can do anything on a bicycle (those were Michael’s words yesterday). We saw a man with a sleeping baby in his basket, women riding side saddle while sitting on the back, talking on your phone, taking a video/picture on your phone while cycling.  You name it they were doing it and we most likely saw it.
  7. KLM is a very efficient airline. If you’re looking for comfort try another airline. If you want efficiency and on-time departures & arrivals – travel with KLM.

We had such a good 10 days that we have no desire to go home and back to real life. We were tempted to just stay in France or Netherlands. Unfortunately back to reality tomorrow!

Until next time (which will be October when I travel to Asia so watch this space) ….

P, H, S, M & C

Amsterdam

pancakes for breakfastWe spent the whole day in Amsterdam today. As our hotel charges €25 for breakfast (per person) we didn’t have breakfast in the hotel but rather went out and found a restaurant along the road serving breakfast. When in Amsterdam, do as the Dutch and have pancakes for breakfast. They were as good as they looked. We then headed down to the main canal to pick up a canal tour. We had hoped to buy a hop-on-hop-off ticket but due to the Gay Parade (which seemingly takes place on the canals), many of the canals were closed and hence we could only do a tour.

boatIt was a 1 hour 15 minute tour that took longer as they had to avoid certain canals that were closed. Unfortunately that messed with the automatic commentary but we still got a general sense of Amsterdam and the important sights. The buildings are amazingly thin and that is because there were restrictions on how wide a building could be as land and canal frontage was limited. That didn’t prevent the wealthy people buying two lots and building one house behind two separate facades. A lesson in regulation seldom achieves what it sets out to achieve. The houses also lean – some because the wooden pylons they were built on have rotted slightly over the years and some because the owners wanted people to think their house was bigger than it really was. It all adds to the charm of the city now.

We also passed at least one of the famous ‘Coffee shops’. You don’t find coffee in them but they are in fact where you can buy cannabis and other narcotics which are legal in Amsterdam. The other incredible thing is the number of houseboats moored on the canals. Many of them cannot go anywhere and are not made to go anywhere – they just float and are lived in. Amsterdam City is no longer giving out permits for moorings. This has resulted in the value of permits increasing significantly. You can buy an apartment for the same price you can buy a houseboat.  The cheapest houseboat now sells for around €80000 and that won’t be a great houseboat or a great location.

heinekenAfter the canal trip we thought we would go and visit the Van Gogh museum (on recommendation of a colleague who used to live in Amsterdam) but the line for entering was so long that it lost it’s appeal. We will have to do it when we come back one day. We went instead to the Heineken Experience (also on the recommendation of the same colleague). It is a basically an explanation of how Heineken started and how they make the beer. You get to drink a few around the tour as well. There is only so much beer you can drink in a short time (or at least I can only). They also instructed us on how to drink beer to ensure you don’t get the bitter taste. There were various games and machines spread around too that you could play with including one that tested your beer pouring (or drafting) skill. I tried and was told I need more practice. Helen did it once and was told she was a master drafter … clearly random.

view over amsterdamWe had purchased a ticket which entitled us to a hamburger on the roof top of the Heineken Experience and so once we had completed the tour we headed to the roof for our lunch. They were making the burgers fresh on a grill and it was a great lunch with a view over the city.

By this stage the City was filling up significantly with people arriving for the parade. We had spent a significant amount of time walking around and so we headed back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. A late afternoon nap in hotel room always seems to work wonders. On the way back we did walk past some of the famous ‘windows’ with a few ladies displaying themselves. They were the ones I had missed yesterday and might have missed them again had it not been for Helen pointing them out to me.

This afternoon while I was working on my computer I pulled open the desk drawer (as one does to see what they contain) only to find a loose tooth in the one draw.  Not kidding! I think I might need to point it out to the hotel staff. But I will only do that after they fix the hot water problem which we currently have. We discovered it at 10pm when Helen wanted to warm up with a bath and found only luke warm water. We are still waiting for them to resolve it even though half way through typing this post I phoned and they said someone was on their way up right now (#nowgettingirritated).

dinner amsterdamWe headed out at 7pm for dinner and went to the same area as yesterday. The only difference was that the number of people had multiplied and it was very festive. Clearly a lot of drinking had happened today before, during and after the parade. We did eventually find a table at an Italian restaurant who took forever to take our order and bring the food. Nothing to do but to wait and watch the people trying (because they weren’t that stable many of them) walk past. We stopped and bought American ice creams (Ben & Jerry’s) at a Sushi place (again not kidding) on the way back to the Hotel.

Now if only they would come and fix the water problem ….

P, H, S, M & C

Bordeaux to Amsterdam

Everyone started leaving this morning to return home. We missed the early departures (they left at 6:30am and 7am). We had breakfast at our usual time of 9am and then started packing up everything. By just after 10 am we had said our goodbyes and were on the road back to the airport at Bordeaux. The GPS said it would take 1 hour 10 mins but we had been warned that because of traffic around Bordeaux it would take longer. They were right.  It took about 1 hour 40 minutes. Disposing of the rental car, finding the check in counter and checking in our luggage all went smoothly and easily.

By this stage we knew that the first batch traveling had about an hour delay on their flight and as they were meant to have about 1 hour 40 minutes to connect this was now down to 40 minutes (and at Charles de Gaulle airport that means you miss you plane). Our flight (on the other hand) to Amsterdam left on time (well we were officially 3 minutes late but by airlines standards that is on time). In fact KLM have a very good on time departure record (91% of flights leave on time which compares to 76% for most USA based carriers). Your trivia fact for today, in June 2013 SAA was named as the World’s Best Airline for Ontime departures.

We arrived at about 3:30pm into Amsterdam and by that stage it was confirmed that the two USA based families had missed their flight and it had taken them 3 hours to get sorted out. They have the night in Paris airport hotel and are booked on a flight tomorrow now. The joys of flying Air France & Delta. In case you are wondering, Air France’s ontime departure record is 71% which is one of the lowest for a major international airline (#whyamInotsurprised).

We took a taxi into our hotel in Amsterdam. We are staying at The College Hotel (http://thecollegehotel.com/en/home) which was booked by Michael after he got some recommendations from a class mate.  You might be wondering why such a strange name – well that’s because it is a college for hotel students. It was originally a school (founded in 1895) and you can still imagine all the school kids running around. The converted it to a hotel in 2005 and is run by students training at various hotel training schools. It is a very nice hotel at a very reasonable price by European standards and is ideally located. I would suggest it to anyone visiting Amsterdam. They are a little slow with check ins but they are very deliberate and you know exactly what you are getting for the price you’re paying. The guy who showed us the room even managed to point out the toilet to Helen! He was so nervous, he was makinamsterdamg Helen nervous.

We went out hoping to take a canal tour this evening but they were all already fully booked for today. Instead we walked around and then found a very vibey part where there were numerous restaurants. We chose the Argentinian steakhouse and really enjoyed the good steaks we had while watching the passers-by. Tomorrow there is a Gay Pride march in Amsterdam and they have warned us that the canal boats might be less frequent etc. Trust us to be in Amsterdam on a Saturday with a gay pride march.

rijks

Lovely evening in Amsterdam with the temperature somewhere in the 30 degrees (but quite humid as well). We enjoyed the walk back to our hotel again. Unfortunately it wasn’t the same route as we took when we left the hotel because Michael and Helen had see numerous scantily clad ladies leaning out of the windows on that route and hadn’t bothered to point them out to me. I was dutifully leading the family and not letting my eyes wander. My mother will be proud of me …

Until tomorrow

P, H, S, M, C

 

Final hurrah

view from braaiToday was our last full day in France. Everybody just wanted to chill out and relax (except Helen and my sister-in-law Sue who went for a run this morning). The gaggle of girls had been up late last night. I went to bed at 1:20am and they were very much still awake at that point. At about 12:30am there had been a loud shriek from the room.  It had happened just after a loud (male) voice had shouted out. I figured one of the guys had climbed up the outside of the Chateau and scared the girls. At breakfast this morning my suspicion was confirmed.

Helen and I went into Castillon to do some shopping at the local supermarket (more like a hypermarket). It turned out to not be a very successful trip because the shop was rather boring.  We did get one or two items as presents and a few things for ourselves too. We managed to also figure out the French instructions for filling up the car using our credit card (despite my brother-in-law not being able to do it last Sunday!) and we headed backed to relax for the balance of the afternoon.  By this stage it was already 32 degrees and the temperature was rising steadily. At 8pm this evening it was 35 degrees. It must still be around 30 degrees outside. The nephews & nieces have just finished having a late night swim. Clothes are strictly optional for sleeping in tonight!

braaiThis evening we had our final dinner together. We decided to do the traditional SA thing and have a braai together. The Chateau provided the meat, salads and fruit and we did the braaiing. Somehow or other my brother & I ended up as the tongmasters for the night. And at 35 degrees without a braai in front of you, you can imagine how hot it was in front of the braai. 2 beers and 4 cokes later and I still don’t feel even remotely rehydrated yet. They provided a ton of meat (literally) for us.  There was a quarter chicken, a piece of sausage and a piece of steak – one of each for everyone. There was a mountain of meat left at the end.  The ice cream at end went down very well.

We also had the ‘official’ family photos tonight. It is a nightmare herding us at the best of times and during a photo session it becomes even worse. Josh did a great job of trying to organise everyone. He may have started to regret marrying into this family after tonight! We never have managed to have a good family photo in the past so I am hoping this one is better than usual (both the larger family shot and also our own family photo).

last supperIt remained only to say goodbye to those leaving early tomorrow to catch their flights back to the USA (first group leaves at 6:30am). About half of the group will leave before us and we are unlikely to see before they leave. It was really fond farewells for everyone. No one can believe that it was a week ago that we all arrived in France together. It really has been a great time together and we are all incredibly grateful for my parents facilitating it. Individual families (and family members) are already planning trips to SA or USA or London or Switzerland or somewhere to meet up again in 2014. It has been a great time together – we will have to replicate it again soon.

P, H, S, M & Cfamily

Le Picnic

We were up quite early today as Helen and 3 other insane people in the family decided to go mountain biking. As I was awake already as well I went to breakfast with them and then they headed out on their bike tour of Bordeaux. They got back just before 11am and seem to enjoy it (having cycled almost 30 kms according Endomondo).

picnicWe had decided to book a picnic lunch at the winery we had visited yesterday (Chateau Font-Vidal) and got back there at 12pm (as booked). Of course they were not ready for us (this is France and they are never ready for you) so we killed a little time with some photo taking and general messing around. The picnic was ideal for lunch – bread, cheese (all goats cheese but 6 different varieties), cold meat, crudites (not the same thing as luddites), pate, fruit and of course wine (all of which came from the region). The older folks ate inside at the table, the younger ones (including Helen and myself because we form part of the younger crew here) ate outside on the grass. It was very relaxed and enjoyable.  After lunch we played some rugby including doing some lineout jumping by the more athletic ones. linout

By the time we left the temperature was already reading 30 degrees C and it was still on the increase. Pretty much the only thing you could do was swim or sleep though another 4 crazy people went off horse riding in the afternoon.  Apparently all the horses were French speaking and didn’t take instructions in English. We had a family meeting to discuss various matters at 4:30pm and then some family photos at 5:30pm. The latest addition to our family (Josh) is a professional photographer and he has the tough job of taking some formal family photos while we are here.

After that it was some more eating again. Dinner this evening for me was seared tuna as starter and then beef steak. I asked for medium rare and got the steak done blue instead. I knew that the French undercooked steak but I could still hear the mooing of the cow when I put my ear up to it. The other main choice was rabbit and many people (including most of my family) tried that. I got the best of both worlds because I ate the most well cooked beef bits and then traded the balance for Michael’s rabbit and then I finished off the rest of what Helen had rejected of her rabbit (I am thinking of a few friends who are reading this post and will be horrified by us eating rabbit).

game playingThis evening we had some more reminiscing again by a close long standing family friend who is here at my parent’s invitation (I remember staying with them when I was 5 years old) and my brother. This was followed by a quiz evening organised by the most competitive member of our family – my sister (Meryl). It was a quiz separated by 50 years. One set of questions on 1963 events and one set on 2013 events.  Some were ridiculously hard – like which island off Iceland was formed in 1963 through an undersea volcanic eruption. Who would ever know that?! None of us did. To save you the trouble of googling it – the island name is Surtsey (your trivia fact for today). Some were a lot easier like which Pirates of the Caribbean star was born in 1963 … is there any other star but Johnny Depp? Unfortunately even though we thought we had a good team we finished in the middle of the pack this time. If we hadn’t crossed out so many correct answers we might have done a little better though!

It is now 11:40pm and it is dead still (wind wise) but not noise wise. The girls (starting at 13 up to 24) have decided to all move into together for tonight and so there are a riot of them (what else could the collective noun be for a bunch of noisy young ladies?!) in the room diagonally across from us. Who knows when they will go to sleep but I am pretty sure it will be after us though.  It is still VERY hot and I doubt the temperature is less than about 25/26 degrees right now. No aircon in the Chateau but at least we have a fan. Still going to be a hot night tonight …

P, H, S, M, C

Wine tasting & canoeing

It is not advisable to do those two things back-to-back as a general rule but that occupied our time today. It was another beautiful day here in France (weather winerywise) with the temperature around 27 degrees C and virtually no wind.  After having the (now) usual continental breakfast we headed out late morning for a nearby vineyard and winery. It was only a 10 minute drive from Chateau de Sanse and was recommended to us by them as they get their house wine from them. It was called Chateau Font-Vidal (http://www.font-vidal.com/).  It is a family owned and operated winery that is 10 ha and produces 70000 bottles per year.  That is pretty small by Bordeaux standards where farms are around 100 ha.

The daughter (adult daughter) gave us a tour and her English had an English accent to it and we later discovered her significant other was English. She also later spoke English with a French accent for us and asked whether we found that ‘sexier’!  She was very entertaining and also interesting. She started the tour actually in the vineyards and told us how they plant, prune, trim & harvest the vineyards and grapes.  They basically do everything themselves and that means her father, brother & herself.  She also gave us a tour of their cellar but unfortunately I had to step out for about 30 minutes while I had a business telephone conference. From the laughter I could hear she clearly continued to entertain.

We then did some wine-tasting of their wines – a rose and two Bordeaux blends (in fact that is tautologous as all Bordeaux wines are blends). She then got the benefit of the fact that she had 18 people all wanting to take some souvenir from the winery home with them. I think it was well worth her late morning doing the tour for us.

de sanseWe got back to the Chateau just in time to have some lunch before heading out canoeing. Unfortunately everyone had the same thought at the same time and so the kitchen was somewhat swamped and we only got our food at about 2:15pm and we needed to leave by 2:30pm to go canoeing. We had organised to go canoeing again but this time on the Dordogne River (http://www.canoe-fjep.org/crbst_11.html).  In typical French fashion they told us to pre-book and so we did and we arrived early for our 3pm booking but they were not organised and didn’t even have the canoes loaded up yet. We eventually left at about 3:35pm and they took us 8 kms upstream and we then paddled back to their base. There were 21 of us canoeing and so we split up into 10 doubles and Daniel (my one nephew) went by himself.

We did do some swapping of partners about a quarter of the way in to ensure everyone enjoyed the trip a little more and made it back the whole way. The river flows quite quickly and you can drift from time to time in quicker flowing water when you need a small break. The young gunwinnerss pulled out ahead of everyone and then later started messing around (including have a few swims in the river) and they eventually brought up the rear at the end. The slower ones (who started out at the back) ended up finishing first by some distance. It was our modern version of the Hare and the Tortoise. Chloe and I pulled in first followed some distance behind us by Megan & Meryl (my cousin and my oldest sister) and then Helen & Megan (my wife and my niece). With the Temples everything is a contest and we put those young guns to shame (again).
(Update from Stephen: I would like to say that after every time we stopped to have a swim we always managed to catch up and pass the old people. The only reason we didn’t do that the last time we stopped was because we found a rope swing by the side of the river and decided that it was time for them to wait for us for a change, while we had some fun. Besides, my dad or one of my uncles would probably have broken the rope anyway.)

The paddle took longer than expected (around 2 hours) and so by the time we got back to the Chateau it was almost dinner time.  A quick change out of the wet clothes (some splashing happened on route) and we were back down for dinner. The usual 3 courses (main course was a choice of pork fillets or sea bream tonight). Tonight the canoe’ers felt that they deserved to eat whatever was brought because we had worked it off in advance of the dinner. After dinner it was some further reminiscing by my aunt & uncle (the oldest members of our group) followed by Melissa (my one niece). They were all good in their own unique way. My aunt had brought some photos of my Dad as a baby and child along with her.  It is amazing how my Dad looked exactly the same as a baby as he does today – no hair!

unoThe evening was closed off by some card games and my Mom (granny) had to play Uno with all the female grandchildren.  She is a bit of a shark at Uno so I have no doubt she would have won. My sister had also organised to make playing cards with a picture of my parents on their wedding day on the back. Only problem is that I don’t think I could bring myself to play strip poker with Helen with those cards ….

Until tomorrow (when it is going to apparently be 35 degrees)

P, C (because she joined my on the winners podium of the canoeing), H (because she came in 3rd), S & M

 

Saint-Emilion

We are still at Chateau de Sanse (http://www.chateaudesanse.com/en/index.html) and will be here for the next 4 days still. We have the whole Chateau to ourselves except that the restaurant is open for lunch during the day. Given we plan to generally be out for the day that is not really a big issue for us.  Breakfast was again a traditional continental breakfast. The coffee was so strong, I even thought it was strong – I think you could have stood a spoon upright in it.

saint emilionWe decided to go to Saint-Emilion today. It was about 20 miles from the Chateau (to the west). It is an amazing town and known for it’s wines (there are vineyards right in the town) and it’s architecture.  It is actually now a World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/932) mainly because of the ruins which are interspersed throughout the town, some of which date back over 1000 years. The first vineyard was planted here in the 2nd century (no that was not a typo). It is clearly a very popular town to visit as there were a lot of people and very few open parking spaces.

You basically park on the outside of the town and then walk through the cobbled streets. I ended up with saint-emilion8 ladies who were planning on shopping. The rest of the men went off by themselves to explore. Not sure why I chose to stay with the ladies (maybe it was guarding the credit card) but I did.  The funny thing was that there are lots of shops in Saint-Emilion but very few the ladies were interested in.  That is because I counted 32 wine shops – no not kidding – 32. And it is a really small town you can walk through in about 10 minutes if you walked non-stop. And those 32 wine shops pretty much don’t overlap in what they sell. They all sell wines from local vineyards and will ship to almost anywhere in the world (but they weren’t keen to ship to SA for some reason). Besides the 32 wine shops there was one chocolate shop, one clothing shop, one soap shop and that was about it. While the ladies were all in one of those 3 shops, I was browsing a wine shop. The owner came out and saw me with 8 ladies and said “Lucky man … one man with 8 ladies, a Frenchman’s dream”!

crepesWe never thought our whole group would agree on a lunch venue so when we split up we said do your own thing for lunch. The 9 of us decided though to go to the Creperie that we saw on the way in and fortunately they had free tables. As we entered we found my brother and the rest of his clan already there too. The French know how to make pancakes. Most of our table had sweet ones (apple with salted caramel sauce) but I had a savory one (ham, mozzarella & tomato). They were really excellent and not even that expensive.  After lunch we headed back to the Chateau to chill for the balance of the afternoon (and fortunately found that they had fixed the WiFi and I could post yesterday’s blog – even though it is VERY slow especially when 30 people are uploading photos onto Facebook).

Dinner tonight was at the Chateau restaurant and again the food was fantastic and the service was superb. After dinner we convened in the conference room for some reminiscing which tonight was done by Dawn (the chief bridesmaid at the wedding 50 years ago) and Megan (my cousin on my Mom’s side and their flower girl). That was followed by a game of family bingo – the bingo board being phrases my parent’s use, meaningful family names (like Petandalyn – which is a combination of my and my siblings names), places and other things that mark out the family. Everyone played and it was great fun to just relax and not have to do anything cerebral at all besides shout out Bingo when your board was filled.

Now (11:30pm) the majority of the cousins are down at the git playing games. Last night some of them (read boys) were up at 2am and 3am playing games and had it not been for me waking them up at 9:45am they would have missed breakfast this morning. Hopefully they will remember that tonight ….

P, H, S, M & C