Early Mornings…

DSCF9986pThere’s something really special about getting up early in the morning when you’re in a foreign city; that quiet time of day when the sun is just breaking through, casting a pale golden light over rooftops and trees; when shopkeepers are sluicing water over the pavements, and market traders are setting up their stalls. 20150928_082018p

Commuters are rushing to work or dawdling over steaming coffee in busy little cafes. The noises are different, somehow; footsteps seem to echo more, and you notice the sound of rubber tyres on cobbled roads.20150928_080107p Streetlights are still lit, even though the early sunlight is casting stark shadows between the buildings. 20150928_082320pMy last morning in Madrid, not wanting yet to leave this wonderful city, but bags packed and ready to go. 20150928_075820pOne more stroll along the Gran Via; one last cafe con leche and a warm, flaky croissant, one last amble across the Puerta del Sol….DSCF9985p

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….Madrid is waking up, the stately buildings glow in the warm sunshine; I take a deep breath and shut my eyes so I can lock the sounds and smells in my mind…

 

When I cruised around the Eastern Caribbean, I was aboard what was, at the time, one of the two biggest cruise ships in the world. Royal Caribbean’s ‘Freedom of the Seas’ can carry just over 4,000 passengers, and although you can always find somewhere quiet, away from the crowds, it was hard at times to feel connected to the vast, rolling sea beneath. So one morning I set my alarm clock to wake me really early, and I snuck up on the highest deck at the front of the ship so that I could watch the sunrise as we sailed majestically into Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas. There was nobody about. I was barely aware of the hum of the engines, but I could hear a flag on the prow of the ship being buffeted by the wind, the occasional cry of a gull, and far below the hiss of sea spray as the ship cut through the surf. Up ahead, the dark, rocky outline of St Thomas was spreading out on the horizon, as yet an uninspiring and unwelcoming island, too vague and distant to look inviting. The real magic was happening in the sky and was mirrored in the silvery grey of the morning sea. There was no special moment, as I’d hoped, where a deep orange sun gradually emerged above the horizon to a fanfare of pink and purple; maybe I was just up a little too late. But the sky was beautiful; huge fluffy pinky grey clouds were slowly but surely changing colour, and little wispy trails were drifting off into the atmosphere. I sat on a bench, the breeze in my hair, feeling completely alone, and watched as the light and patterns on the water changed with each passing minute. St Thomas was closer now; I could make out the rough shape of the coastline, and the island was no longer a dark lump of land – I could see hints of green and grey, light and shade. The sky was slowly becoming more blue, with the rosy-edged clouds dissolving into the warming air, and the sun casting steep shadows on the ship’s deck. We were approaching a bay, now; I could make out buildings, palm trees, other boats. I was so busy trying to see what was happening on the land, I took my eyes off the sea and the sky for a while. While I was watching the port of Charlotte Amelie preparing to bring in another big ship and welcome the crowds of tourists, the dawn had slipped away and the sun was already climbing high and making the sea sparkle. I realised that other people had joined me on deck, leaning over the ship’s rails, chatting excitedly, taking photos, peering through binoculars. Time for another luxurious breakfast before exploring the pretty little town of Charlotte Amalie beneath another perfectly blue Caribbean sky…

My lovely Aunty Pam took me to Luxor in Egypt a few years ago (I know, I’m a very lucky girl!). It was while I was working for First Choice, where my favourite customers were a very adventurous elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Godfrey. We hit it off right from the start, and I booked several holidays for them at their favourite hotel in their favourite place in the world – the Sheraton Hotel in Luxor. When Pam suggested the trip, having already been to Luxor before (and keen to show me the ancient sights), we followed the Godfreys’ advice and booked a Nile View room at the Sheraton. It was night time when we arrived in Luxor – the streets were pitch black (vehicles seemed to prefer driving with no headlights – what fun!) and we could just glimpse some ancient monuments floodlit behind a McDonalds as our transfer bus dodged horses and carts on the way to the hotel. Arriving in our room, I pulled the curtains aside but could see nothing but blackness beyond our window. I awoke early the next morning, desperate for my first view of the river; and there it was – the majestic, timeless Nile – already busy with lines of long cruise ships following one another upstream in the hazy early morning half-light. Quickly getting dressed, Pam and I stepped out on to the terrace for a better view. On the opposite side of the vast river, about six hot air balloons were already hovering over the West Bank; and on the water, pretty white-sailed feluccas were catching the river breeze and dodging the ships which were slowly disappearing south towards Aswan in the morning mist. It was a picture I’d seen hundreds of times, in travel books and brochures; but nothing could prepare me for that breathtaking moment when I saw it – and felt it – for myself. In spite of the chugging ships, and the blasts of flame occasionally lighting up the balloons, this was a scene that had barely changed for thousands of years, and the sense of the past was overwhelming. Timeless, ageless beauty, evocative and unforgettable. A few days later, Pam and I treated ourselves to a once-in-a-lifetime balloon ride. It was still dark when we were collected from our hotel around 4.30am (the heat becomes unbearable even by mid morning), and it was still dark.  By the time we crossed the Nile to the West Bank on a little boat, where we and the other nervous passengers (about 12 of us altogether) had to sign accident waiver forms ready for our flight, the sun was just starting to rise – a glimmer of pink and gold above the mountains . None of us spoke much – it seemed surreal, somehow, and exciting, but the darkness added to the sense of trepidation we were feeling. After crossing the river, we were driven to our waiting balloon, the red and yellow canopy hanging limply to the side of the basket just starting to come to life. There were people everywhere, tying cables, unfolding the canopy, adjusting pipes. Amid the noise and bustle, we were introduced to our pilot, who gave us a brief safety talk before we were all helped into the massive wicker basket. After what seemed like ages, the balloon canopy was billowing above us, the pilot gave it a few more deafening blasts of gas, and we could feel the basket creaking and straining to be freed from it’s tethers. And then we were released, majestically rising higher in the dawn sky, the bright low sun casting long shadows between the sparse little houses scattered across the dry ground; surprisingly rich green fields bordered the river, which shone like a silver serpent in the distance. Inside the basket, we all grew silent as we joined many other balloons gliding towards the Valley of the Kings in the morning air. An unforgettable way to start the day….

The worst mornings, when you’re travelling, are those last mornings, when your bags are packed, you’ve had your final breakfast in the hotel or your favourite café, you’ve said your goodbyes to the beach/pool/room and your suitcase is packed, ready and waiting for the journey home. You think of all the things you didn’t get to do while you were there – sometimes you promise yourself that you’ll do them next time; but there won’t always be a next time. There’s something wonderful about going back to a place you love – but there’s something even more wonderful about waking up early in a brand new, as yet unfamiliar destination, discovering new sights, new smells and new sounds…

Info:

Royal Caribbean cruises:  http://http://www.royalcaribbean.co.uk

Magic Horizon Balloons: http://www.visitluxorinhotairballoon.com/magichorizonballoons

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Apologies….

I’m so sorry I haven’t posted for a while….my beloved laptop is being mended (I was told it would take a week, and that was SEVEN weeks ago)! I have lots of lovely pictures to show you and tales of far-away places, but until Currys/PC World sort themselves out, and due to the lack of any suitable alternative, I’m afraid I’m not able to post anything much on my blog for the time being. Please bear with me……!

Where did my wanderlust come from?

We never had lots of money when I was young – we certainly weren’t poor, but family holidays tended to involve staying with relatives, or in a caravan on the south coast. I never felt I was missing out as a child; until I was in my teens, I didn’t really know anyone who went abroad on holiday.

I'll never get tired of this view....!
I’ll never get tired of this view….!

When I was very young, we lived for a few years in my grandparents’ home. This was great – I had wonderful aunties and uncles around who spoilt me rotten – and a Nana and Grandad who were EXACTLY what a good Nana and Grandad should be; Nana would take me to the bottom of the garden to feed the chickens and collect the eggs, and Grandad would sit me on his knee, and tell me about his travels. He smelt of tobacco and I used to love looking at the tattoos on his arms.

Grandad

My Grandad, and his eldest son (my Uncle Dave), were both in the Navy, and the house was full of special treasures from all over the world: carved ivory (I know, I know – not something any of us would want to buy now), dark wooden tribal masks, and my favourite of all – a tiny, delicate Chinese tea set, made with china so fine that it was almost transparent; when you tipped it up, the face of a Chinese lady appeared in the base of the cup!  Grandad must have told me about the places he’d been to buy such treasures, and although I don’t remember any stories in particular, I think he must have unlocked something deep within me.

I was also an avid reader, and my favourite books of all were tales from other lands. Tales from Scandinavia, where it was always twilight and the silent, snowy land was ruled by evil Ice Queens. Oriental stories of dragons and pagodas, and Folk tales from central and eastern Europe, full of tiny villages nestling among forested mountain sides inhabited by wolves. Stories from Africa or South America, where witch doctors danced around fires, and concocted strange herbal potions; and tales from the Middle East, where a dusky-skinned princess gazed out across endless deserts, waiting for an Arab prince to come galloping up to her marble palace (on a jet black stallion, of course), where he would summon a Djinn to create a magic carpet and whisk her away to a sultry oasis (I particularly liked this scenario…!). In my mind I would imagine myself there, the warm breeze playing through the leaves of the date palms, a subtle hint of incense carried across the sand, and the dark sky pierced by millions of the brightest twinkling stars….

A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech
A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech

At junior school, my somewhat romanticised view of All Things Foreign was brought down to earth by a series of geography programmes on TV, which we watched occasionally during lessons. They showed us what life was like for children living in dusty villages in Africa, in jungle clearings in South America, and in Inuit communities in the Arctic. I was fascinated by how similar – yet how different – their lives were to mine. I wondered what it would be like to have to catch or gather your food each day, to wear heavy animal skins to keep warm or to wear as little as possible to keep cool. I tried to imagine having to keep an eye out for tarantulas, snakes or polar bears all the time. Their lives were worlds apart from mine, but I found every detail and every difference fascinating.

The Great Big World Out There suddenly came within my grasp when a schoolfriend’s next door neighbour, who was a teacher at another school, was taking a group of pupils on a trip to Paris. My friend and I were offered places on the trip to fill up the seats, and this meant that I would leave England for the very first time in my life. For a 13-year-old with a serious motion sickness problem, the journey (by coach and ferry) was horrendous. But every second of heaving into paper bags was worth it as we drove along the Peripherique – the Paris equivalent of the M25 – and I experienced a life-changing moment: there, in the distance, if I craned my neck and squinted through the sunlight, I could – just – make out the iconic shape of the Eiffel Tower….

THE EIFFEL TOWER!!! I had seen hundreds of photos of it, seen it represented in paintings, and watched programmes on TV about it. But this was the Real Thing – I was in France – in Paris – without anyone else from my family – and I could see the real, actual, proper Eiffel Tower!

It was a great trip, full of little experiences and discoveries that completely overwhemed me: they call chips ‘frites’! Their money is different! They drive on the other side of the road! Their policemen wear funny hats! Everything about Paris impressed me so much that when I returned home I announced to everybody that I was going to live there when I was older…

In the seventies, package holidays offered a relatively cheap and easy way to visit the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean, and suddenly people we knew were jetting off to Spain, returning with suntans, sombreros and almost life-sized straw donkeys. My parents seemed to be determined that we would continue with our annual family holidays to a beautiful seaside village in Devon, a little slice of English heaven called Branscombe, which I will always love;

but I was beginning to realise that there’s an awfully big and exciting world out there, and I desperately wanted to explore it. A family holiday abroad would cost more than my parents were willing to spend, but I saved up money from my Saturday job and put it towards another trip with my fiend’s neighbour’s school (this time to Belgium, with day trips to The Netherlands and Luxembourg), and then a Spanish exchange trip organised by my own school. Having now visited France, Belgium, Holland (we never called it The Netherlands in those days!), Luxembourg and Spain – and all without my parents – I felt like a regular little globetrotter!

Cocktail time!
Cocktail time!

When I was growing up, there was a TV advert that just got to me. It showed beautiful people arriving at the rooftop of a castle by hot air balloons, where they watch the sun go down across a beautiful landscape as they sipped their Martinis. The song hinted at a lifestyle full of the promise of luxury in special places: “Any time, any place, anywhere…there’s a wonderful world you can share…”. That was the life I wanted. There was an even better ad for Martini showing at cinemas – instead of balloons, the Beautiful People were meeting for sundowners on a secluded, rocky beach by seaplane. You saw the seaplanes skimming across a sparkling azure sea and soaring over a little archipelago before bobbing gently on the darkening water as the Beatiful People clinked their ice-filled Martini glasses and the sun slipped lower in the sky. Oh, heaven! This is how the Jet Set live!

I never had a hope in hell of belonging to the Jet Set while (a) I was still at school (and my Saturday job at the local greengrocer’s didn’t quite give me the millionaire’s lifestyle I wanted), and (b) I had never yet been on a plane! And then….”Why don’t we all go on holiday?….” said one of my friends, “….before we get to our final year and have loads of exams to do..?” So then we all started saving, all six of us – all girls; and we started planning The Best Holiday Ever…..(but that’s another story)!