A DONKEY’S DIARY- DEAR TOURISTS….

"Up the mountains we must go...."

“Up the mountains we must go….”

“Dear Tourists,

I guess the idea of a talking, literate donkey might come as a shock to some of you. A bit left field, maybe?

That always makes me laugh, especially when I look at the Houses of Parliament, or the House of Representatives. But enough chit chat; I haven’t got all damned day, so let’s get down to business here.

You wonder why I am so often bad tempered, plain mean at times? Well, allow me to take you through my daily routine.

Every day, I wake up and look out over the sea, and the first thing I see approaching is some giant cruise ship, carrying over three thousand people. People just like you. Damned things always look like a Death Star coming into sight from the surface of Endor. Often wish I could send ’em ‘Return to Endor’. Sorry, just a little donkey humour kicking in there.

It’s already damned hot, hotter than Satan’s breath, and the mountain side is a proper maze of steep, narrow lanes that get harder to navigate the older I get. The guys in charge of me? Hah. Some of them could give cruelty lessons to the bloody Gestapo. Money dances in front of their eyes like some Turkish hussy in a harem; better believe that they are blind to everything else.

Then, of course, you lot pitch up. In your thousands. A tidal wave of sun burnt, polyester clad, flabby jowled,  Indiana Jones wannabes. When you see me, you stop and stare. Your eyes narrow in a way that your fat, podgy. zeppelin hangar of an ass can only dream of. You back off a little. Then you gradually come forward, Wave after wave of you…

You look at me in disgust. Sure, my coat has seen better days. And yes, I’m being buzzed by squadrons of flies the size of stealth bombers. Which, by the way, does nothing at all to raise my joy factor. But you’re still staring at me with barely concealed disgust.

Really?

You. In your green and gold stretch kaftan, and your moth eaten flying saucer of a sun hat? You look like a badly wrapped easter egg that some UFO has crash landed on by accident. And you’re judging me? Lord. At least your husband managed to shave. Which is obviously more than you did, cupcake.

When you climb on to me, and your fat, overly fed twenty-three stone frame spreads across me like a jello tsunami, it literally feels like I’m carrying the weight of the world. You have all the artistic grace and agility of a blind gorilla in a tu-tu. I can hear my saddle whimpering from here.

And so,  off we go. If you’ve ever seen the stations of the cross, that’s what it feels like, carrying you and your mates up those long, winding lanes, one after another. Thirsty? You bet I am. With you on my back, I’m under more pressure than the late Luciano Pavarotti’s bathroom scales.

How did I get up there? Slowly. very slowly....

How did I get up there? Slowly. Very slowly….

But eventually, we get there. The summit. You get off, and the mid day heat sears me like a laser beam. Because the sole advantage of having your lardy carcass on top of mine was that it shielded me from the sun on both sides. Sure, we’re at the top of the hill, but don’t expect me to burst into song. I mean, do I look like Julie frickin’ Andrews to you?

And then I am taken back down. Down to where more of you await. So many more. And, as I try and swat yet another Frankenstein’s monster of a fly with my eyelashes, I see yet another cruise ship, looming up over the horizon. Has the damned Galactic Empire declared a public holiday today, or something?

So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t go all gushy and sad when I see you go. Watching you sail off over the horizon is the highlight of my day. The only one. I often wonder why God chose to populate the Med with idiots, and not icebergs. No level playing field, that’s for sure.

Wanna brighten my day? Sweet. Give me a carrot. Get a diet. We’ll be fine.

Ah well. In the immortal words of Vivien Leigh, tomorrow, after all, is another day.

Yours,

A Donkey.”

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN NORTHERN EUROPE

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

This short piece is mainly for the benefit of my American friends who might be thinking about coming to visit northern Europe in the near or distant future. Whether you’re on a cruise, or just working through some self devised itinerary, these are five of the great buildings and attractions of the continent that I would argue deserve your attention. They are not listed in any particular order of preference; the impact of each upon the individual is too damned subjective for such a superfluous kind of batting order. But each is uniquely compelling in it’s own way…

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli is the jewel in the crown of Scandinavia’s most boisterous and exuberant city; a shimmering, ethereal, twenty three acre wonderland of a theme park that dates back to the 1800’s. Here, a Chinese pagoda towers above a lake where a giant pirate ship provides the perfect grandstand for the twice nightly midnight fireworks each week in summer.

A wondrous maze of fountains, fairy tale lights and fun fair rides, Tivoli was beloved of the immortal Hans Christian Andersen. It’s also the place where one Walter Disney got the idea for his own, subsequent string of theme parks. He visited Tivoli in the 1930’s, and fell in love with the place. Chances are, you will too.

Geiranger Fjord, Norway

God blessed the twelve thousand miles of Norwegian coastline with an almost obscene level of beauty, and most people agree that Geiranger Fjord is pure, platinum chip scenic porn.

Sailing between the silent, towering, pine carpeted walls of rock is an incredible adrenaline surge. The silence is almost deafening You’ll see meadows in forty shades of electric green. Butterflies and jagged, snow capped mountains. Cows grazing by water so still that the scenery is reflected to mirror like perfection. There are vibrant, splashing streams that tumble down the mountain sides, and gaunt wooden stave churches, some of them hundreds of years old, scattered about a landscape that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Petrodeverts Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

A monumental, swaggering statement in gold, gilt and marble, Petrodeverts was the summer palace of the Tsars of Russia. Built to exceed even Versailles in terms of beauty, scale and grandeur, it’s epic Italianate facade is the prelude to a stupendous spread of public rooms, each one almost awash in gilded opulence. Vast, impossible chandeliers hold sway above galleries lined with floor to ceiling mirrors.  Lacquered Chinese cabinets frame rooms filled with a glut of silver banqueting ware set on tables the size of the Titanic. The staircases are sweeping, magnificent, marble accented ascents.

In the gardens, a series of stunning, stepped fountains sweep right down to the edge of the Baltic itself, each terrace flanked by pairs of gilded, golden cherubs. When you see this vast former Royal playground, you get a sense of what truly triggered the revolutions that ultimately culminated in the Communist take over of October, 1917.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

The most commanding building in this amazing city. And quite literally in many ways, since this is the seat of the German parliament. The vast, sprawling neo classical facade is impressive enough, with elements of ancient Greek architecture on display as well. The new, magnificent glass cupola, added by British architect Sir Norman Foster, offers almost Olympian-like views out over the most vibrant city in Germany.

It was famously burnt down in a coup orchestrated by the Nazis, in order to frame the opposition and consolidate Hitler’s total grip on power after his election in 1933. Today, children sit eating ice cream on the same steps that hordes of Russian infantrymen stormed in 1945 in the face of a desperate, fanatical resistance. Nazism died on those steps in many ways.

The Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Even on the brightest days, the Tower manages to look at once menacing, sinister and forbidding. Hardly surprising when you consider it’s almost thousand year history. A site of great pageantry and a place of unimaginable pain and cruelty, every one of it’s gaunt, bleached stones seems to have centuries of agonised history seared into it.

You can see the amazing. glittering glut of the crown jewels, and some of the fetid, one time rat infested cells where scores of doomed men and women eked out their last pitiful days. You can even walk the silent, immaculately manicured lawns, and see the spot where no less than three Queens of England- Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey- met their grisly fates. All are interred in the adjacent, small church of Saint Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest place in all of England’.

This is just a snap shot of some of the great sites that litter the shores and cities of Europe like so many random exclamation marks. They all have amazing stories to tell. Many are poignant, all are powerful, each one is a  pointer to the past glories-and follies- of this proud, often prolifically violent continent.

SIX TIPS FOR CRUISING WITH TODDLERS

Ports like Cannes usually mean disembarking by tender

Ports like Cannes usually mean disembarking by tender

As ships get bigger and more family friendly, they offer an ever increasing range of options for even the smallest cruisers, often comparable- and sometimes far superior- to some of the better, land based resorts.

But a ship is not a hotel. She is a moving object that happens to contain many of the facilities, functions and support services of a hotel. And, unlike a land based hotel, a ship is subject to the effect of wind and waves.

That is something that any family thinking about travelling with small children should really take on board, pun wholly intentional. And, with that in mind, here’s a few things that a family travelling with young toddlers and/or babies, really should consider before they book that much anticipated cruise holiday.

1) Is there a babysitting service available? If yes, just how extensive is it. What hours does it cover. How, exactly, does it work? Are you given baby alarms, or do certain cruise lines provide a dedicated child sitter?

2) Inquire about the use and practicality of taking strollers on board. For instance, if your ship is docked some way offshore and you have to tender in, is it safe and practical to take junior ashore? Tenders move- fact. Try and find out in advance how your proposed choice handles such matters. It would be a real shame to have to forego some landmark port of call owing to unforeseen landing problems.

You also have to bear in mind the practicality of getting in and out of lifts- worth remembering even when most strollers can fold down to something that approximates a pygmy’s postage stamp in terms of size.

3) Baby cribs in the cabin? Most cruise lines can supply them, but what about the dimensions of the cribs themselves? If the little ones are not comfortable and getting out their sleep, there’s a more than even chance that the parents won’t be, either.

Not all balconies are the same....

Not all balconies are the same….

4) Ask about high chairs. Are there plenty, and are they freely available in all of the dining venues you might wish to frequent? I would also advise you to double check this with the Maitre’ d on embarkation. Sometimes head office and the actual cruise ship are not always on the same page.

5) Food. If you’re travelling with a baby/babies, can the cruise lines meet and satisfy the dietary requirements of your little ones. For instance, can they puree, and generally prepare any special foods as needed?

6) Your cabin. Have you chosen one with a balcony? If so, what are the balcony barriers made of? A solid, plexiglass screen is going to buy you a greater amount of peace of mind than the older, traditional ones with open metal bars. As for private facilities, does you room have a bath, a shower, or even both?

These might seem like simple and obvious things to consider, but they take on an added dimension aboard a ship, where every inch of space is a compromise on some level. Make sure you’re not compromised, and you and the little angels should all enjoy a heavenly journey. Have fun!