The pros and cons of holiday cruises

Until last weekend, I had never been on a cruise. The closest was probably the overnight ferry from Newcastle to Esbjerg which opened more than one Inter-Rail holiday as a student, and which counted as a cruise to about the same degree Aileen Wuornos qualified as an escort. They just didn’t appeal; my interest was much more in the destination, not the journey there, which should be as quick and painless as possible. But when Chris’s company picked her to go on the last pre-opening sailing of Royal Caribbean‘s newest mega-liner, Anthem of the Seas, it would have seemed churlish to refuse, even before the words “all expenses paid” and “yes, that includes all your drinks” were heard around TC Towers. For Chris, it was a “familiarization trip,” an experience which would allow her better to sell the company’s cruises to customers. For me… Did I mention the free drinks?

We flew out on Saturday, arriving in Newark with the night free, to do as we pleased. This would involve not staying in Newark, which is an endless warren of industrial depots and so many freeway cloverleafs they might as well change the name of the city to “Bear Left,” going by the frequency that instruction showed up on Google Maps. We headed into Manhattan for the first time in 15 years or thereabouts; yes, the last occasion, there were still twin towers on the skyline. It hasn’t actually changed much otherwise, though Times Square is now infested with about a million costumed “characters”, extorting photo ops and money with vague menace. You really haven’t lived, until you have been harassed by a six-foot tall Elmo with a thick foreign accent.


We did get to the 9/11 memorial, which was impressive in scale, consisting of a pair of gigantic reflecting pools, an acre each in size, with the names of all the victims inscribed on panels along the edges. Not sure if the moderately heavy spray being blown out of them was intentional, perhaps as a metaphor for souls escaping; I’d like to think so. One thing we had forgotten about was the hell which was New York traffic. Fortunately, we were driven around by Chris’s long-time friend Denise, but I have clearly lost the knack of big city life after a decade and a half in Phoenix, where “gridlock” is defined as “only being able to drive five miles per hour above the speed limit”. In New York, red lights are more a suggestion – oddly, that seems to be especially the case for nature’s most vulnerable species, cyclists and pedestrians, both of whom plunge into traffic with an instinct for self-preservation more befitting a depressed lemming.

Somehow, we survived, and made our way on Sunday morning to the Anthem of the Seas. It’s big. As in, one hundred and eighty-six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six tons big. As in over three football pitches long, at 1,142 feet. And as in implausibly tall. I get icebergs floating: 90% is below water, so it kinda makes sense. But this ship stands 135 feet above the water, about five times what’s below it. Sitting on our 11th-floor balcony, gazing over the side, this appears an affront to nature; I had a genuinely disturbing feeling nature was suddenly going to realize this, and correct things by flipping our luxury cruise into a real-life re-enactment of The Poseidon Adventure. That it didn’t, can only be the result of dark, Satanic forces at work.

Speaking of which, equally eerie was how freaking quiet it was. We didn’t realize we had set sail, until we noticed the dock moving past. Well, we’re still in the harbour, it’s probably because the engines are probably just ticking over. Nope. Even going full steam in the Atlantic, I couldn’t hear them at all; the only exception was coming back, when we shuffled up to the wharf sideways. You couldn’t even feel any vibrations; if you weren’t looking at the ocean, you might as well have been tucked away in a luxury resort somewhere. Hell, one of the bars even had pool tables, that’s how confident they were of the ship’s stability. Admittedly, the calm conditions helped, but this ship could probably have snuck up on and surprised a ninja. Not sure how it managed this; I’m guessing regular human sacrifices in the bowels of the engine-room somewhere.

Two other things surprised me in particular: how seriously they take both safety and personal hygiene. I’m used to planes, where the demo consists of 45 seconds of token verbiage, recited by a bored stewardess, because we all know that in the highly unlikely event of a water landing, the fact your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device is not going to be remotely relevant. On the cruise, however? A full-on, 20-minute presentation, with all ship facilities closed, at which attendance was mandatory and roll-call taken through scanning of our key-cards. Though I’m unsure how good the record-keeping actually was, because we got a stiff letter warning us of our absence, despite having actually been present. I was also somewhat concerned about the life-boats, which supposedly hold over 300 people each, despite being little more than the size of an average bus.

The presentation opened with a three-minute animated film on the importance of frequently washing your hands, and the entire ship was littered with hundred of dispensers of hand-sanitizer, even outside the poshest of the boutique stores. Want to go to the buffet? You can only enter it, after being diverted past a line of sinks. I washed my hands so many times over the two-day cruise, I felt like Lady Macbeth. I can certainly understand the point of this OCDness, Chris having shared some real horror stories about the evils of norovirus. It may explain why the check-in process also included being quizzed about our recent health, although I doubt someone who had felt ill would actually answer the questions honestly, any more than people would admit at the airport, “Why, yes – I did leave my luggage unattended, thank you for asking!” If I’m well enough to make it to the docks, I’m going on this cruise, dammit!


Rather than burden you with a detailed account of events, I’m just going to pick out a few other things that stood out, and comment on them in more or less detail.

  • The lifts had plaques on the floor with the day of the week on them, which were presumably switched out every 24 hours [is that a full-time job?] Probably wise, since it’s probably easy to lose track of time completely on an extended cruise.
  • There may have been an incident where someone – let’s not mention her name – was unable to get out of the cabin. Turns out the cabin doors on Anthem open outwards, which, I believe from people who have done this kind of thing before, is not standard.
  • When you’re 100 miles out at sea, there’s not a lot going on. Seriously, I was expecting the ocean to be teeming with life like a Sea World show [future generations of kids! Ask you parents!], but the only whale-watching we got to do was seeing them attack the buffet. We didn’t even get start-studded night-time vistas as it was cloudy. Sort this shit out, Royal Caribbean, for that is how you get one-star reviews on Yelp.
  • The Two70 lounge. Holy IMAX. During the day, you get vistas three-quarters of the way round. At night, the windows turn into, effectively, a single video-unit, perhaps 200 feet across, operating in 12K, onto which exterior scenes or custom projections are displayed. Throw in another half dozen independent screens, which “float” in the air, moving on hydraulics, and you’ve got the potential for a full-on multi-media experience.
  • Which is what Spectra’s Cabaret provides, combined song, dance, aerialists, music and that video system, into something which feels like an hour-long segment of Fake Off. I was sold, from the moment it opened with a full-on Las Vegas show style interpretation of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Somewhere in heaven, Ian Dury is looking down with a bemused smirk.
  • The food was solid, though sometimes required a bit of a hunt – Sunday night took us four venues to find a restaurant. Michael’s Pub was “not serving food on this voyage,” Johnny Rocket’s closed at 5pm and Devinly Decadence – yes, that’s how it’s spelt – has a private party. Still, the Windjammer buffet came to our rescue, and proved more than up to the task.
  • Though the item which will live in our memory longest was the Napoleon pastries. Damn, those things were perfect, and a significant part of the reason why I came home 10 pounds heavier than I left it. Turns out combining the lifestyle of a unemployed sloth with the calorific consumption of a Tour De France cyclist may lead to a weight gain. Who knew?
  • Maybe we should have taken advantage of the more energetic activities available, like the sky-diving simulator, or the FlowRider, a surfing pool where the water is squirted out fast enough, and uphill [those are some powerful pool motors], to create waves on which you can surf. Nah. The latter was much more fun as a spectator sport.
  • It’s hard to get a feel for what the cruise would have been like on a regular cruise. As it was, you were never short of space, could find a seat anywhere, and hardly ever had to queue for longer than seconds. But I’m certain this was not the full 4,900 capacity, and I don’t think I saw anyone under the age of 21. Both those factors would probably make for a radically different experience.

However, while this was a remarkable trip, and one which we’ll remember for a long time, I can’t say I am necessarily sold on the whole cruise thing. Our everyday lives are generally fairly structured and active, while there are certainly things you could do on the ship, it felt strange to have significant stretches of time (typically, bounded by meals) without anything to do. I think, if we were going on a cruise, it would need to be one with frequent stops and shore excursions. Lying on a lounger is all very well, but I tend to the view that holidays should be spent doing things you can’t do at home, rather than doing things you can, just in a different location. A river cruise down the Danube, arriving every day in a different city, would seem more likely than anything involving an extended time at sea.

Besides, I get the feeling that any regular cruise ship – and, in particular, any cruise ship we are able to afford – will likely pale in comparison beside the sleek and luxurious high-tech wonder that unquestionably is the Anthem of the Seas. As far as cruising goes, it’s all downhill from here, folks.

Going Home: A Temporary Return to Scotland

They say you can’t go back. And for a long while, I didn’t. I hadn’t been back to Britain, since we were married in July 2002. It was a combination of factors: kids, jobs, exchange rates, etc. I hadn’t seen my parents either: I had explained to them that planes fly West as well as East, but they preferred to spend their holidays in Sri Lanka and Thailand, rather than Arizona. [I reckon they are actually senior citizen agents for MI6, because wherever they go somewhere, internal turmoil seems to follow] But 2010 was their 50th wedding anniversary, and when we got the invite, filial loyalty kicked in: time off work was booked, plane and train tickets booked and arrangements made to handle dogs, kids and mother-in-law left behind.


It seems like the gods were hurling obstacles, both natural and man-made, at us as we tried to head to the UK. During the weekend before the departure, there was an earthquake, measuring seven on the Richter Scale, with the epicentre 210 miles from Phoenix. Both British Airways and the rail unions were engaging in industrial action that threatened to leave us hitch-hiking our way to Scotland (which might have been tricky on the Atlantic). And we just got back home when Iceland blew up, sending all airspace over Britain into an unprecedented complete lock-down.

But the unions and Mother Nature got their act together and cleared our way to London on British Airways. This was despite a nasty moment when I sat down in my chair and discovered the pin holding my tray-table locked and in an upright position, as they say, was broken clean off. Those of you who have seen Final Destination will understand why this triggered some moments of trepidation, but you’ll be pleased to hear the plane did not plummet to the ground in a fireball immediately after take-off. The stewardess brought some tape from the first-aid kit, and an emergency repair was done, which fell into the “not pretty but practical” category.

We arrived in London and made our way through the labyrinthine Tube system to our hotel. That was an experience; never realized quite how many stairs there are in the Underground. Poor Chris was reduced to tears at one point, due to an escalator malfunction which left us making our way down a very long set of steps, laden with suitcases, as a stream of rude Londoners pushed brusquely past. It was at this point that I realized, with some horror, that we had become what I had always despised while living here, e.g. “fucking tourists.”

We arrived at our hotel near Bayswater, and discovered our tiny but mostly-functional room. The only way you could have swung a cat, would have been if it was a short-tail variety and you kept your arms tucked in by your sides. Still, it was functional enough, and we had little intention of doing much more than sleeping there. Shame about the leaky tap in the bathroom, which did nothing more than drip weakly for the duration of the stay. Oh, my mistake: that was the shower. Water-pressure. It’s vastly over-rated… While lounging, we discovered that no sooner had I returned to the country, than Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called an election. I felt like President Aquino returning to the Philippines. Without the whole assassination thing, obviously.

I prepare to harpoon a nutritious (Scottish) meal

The original plan was London for a couple of days, but maternal “concerns” cut that short. We did get to hang for the evening with the old TC crew: it was great to see everyone. and startling to realize how little people had changed. I think our cultural interests must keep us young. Quizzed them on how Britain had changed in the last decade: not much, was the consensus, though this may be because it’s harder to tell from the inside than when you come back after years away. Two things stood out to me, both media-related. When I left, most people had only five channels of terrestrial television, but now, there is, if not reaching the American level, a lot more “choice” [quotes used advisedly]. You also still see people reading newspapers, especially on the Tube: that’s an almost lost culture in the US, where newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.

The next day, we took the train to Scotland, through countryside that seemed remarkably green after a decade in a desert, where the only green is on the golf-courses. I amused myself thanks to the train having wi-fi, Chris amused herself by yelling, “Look! Sheep!” every time we passed a flock. Which was a lot. She thinks we need a lamb as a pet, to keep the yard free of weeds, but I convinced her that, much like pit-bulls, while the young are adorable, the adults are only tolerable when chopped up into meal-sized portions and placed in the freezer. Yep, I don’t like pit-bulls much: the wasps of the canine world. Chris made do with a tuft of wool picked off a barbed-wire fence later in the trip.

Home in Scotland, where my parents picked us up and we headed back to the house – they’ve lived in the same place for almost as long as they’ve been married. It was built in 1815, which is kinda cool – but, inexplicably, the builders at that time failed to take wi-fi into account when putting it together. The three-foot thick walls basically meant the only way to achieve an Internet connectivity was to hold the laptop, at about shoulder-level, while standing directly in front of a window. However, my parents had at least installed central-heating since my previous visit: I recall some winter trips where, rather than getting out of bed, you would pull your clothes into the bed with you, wait for them to defrost, and dress under the covers.


The next four days were largely of interest only to members of the McLennan family. At times, I felt like I was on some kind of state visit, as a parade of relatives marched through the house, to meet the now-overseas branch of the family. I occasionally had to “translate” for Chris, when the accents of some members reduced her to a stare of blank incomprehension – this consisted of me repeating the statement in the form of a question e.g. “Oh, so you’re just back from holiday, are you?” There was also a lot of food eaten, culminating in a 16-ounce deep-fried haddock fillet at a local restaurant, which went on the menu by the name of “The Whale.” By the end of the trip, I realized that when someone says something like, “You’re looking well,” that this is Scottish for “Who ate all the pies?” In my defense, by the end of the trip, I was feeling like the Hindenburg, all traces of my normal, gluten-lite diet having been flushed from the system by a tidal-wave of sugar and lard.

Otherwise… Well, the highlight was probably getting to see the new Doctor Who while we were there – mostly because it provoked the intense jealousy of our son. [Brief opinion: he’ll do nicely, and is surprisingly similar to the much-loved David Tennant] The 50th-anniversary party itself is worth mentioning, however, since it took place in the local masonic hall, which they rent out for parties – kinda defused the theory of the Freemasons being the master behind the New World Order, in my opinion. Some of my cousins are masons, I think including one who is among the top cops in Glasgow – my maternal grandfather was as well. But this was the closest I’ll get to being an “insider,” and peering at the memorabilia and wondering what the grave-shaped trapdoor in the floor was for, occupied some idle moments.

The journey back started the next evening, and took approximately 32 hours in total, from the time we left the house in Scotland, to the time we arrived back in Phoenix. Car, sleeper train, walk from Euston to King’s Cross, Tube from there to Heathrow, about six hours hanging around there, and then the flight back to Phoenix, where our daughter was waiting. To be honest, it didn’t feel much like a “holiday” in the true sense of the word. Especially when the jet-lag kicked in, around 5am the next morning, and continuing for much of the remaining week. But seeing my parents was worth it, and we vowed that it will not be another eight years before we head back to Scotland again. But this time, hopefully for an actual break

Hooray for Hollywood

Los Angeles may be the ultimate American city: sprawling, polluted, ceaselessly bustling, capitalism distilled to its highest degree. Unlike Las Vegas, which is fun to visit, but you’re always grateful to leave, Los Angeles is a chore, but a strangely seductive one. The cause this time was ScreamFest, a horror movie festival in which Cradle of Fear was screening – we (in our role as American ambassadors) were there to flagwave, pick up the print afterward, and hopefully sell the theatrical rights to Miramax for $3 million.

Step one on arriving at LAX is always: hire a car. Los Angeles has a public transport system befitting its role as the quintessential American metropolis, i.e. it sucks. On a previous trip, we naively tried using it to get from the airport to Hollywood Boulevard. This is not a mistake we will repeat, after a tortuous, lengthy, tense journey through some highly scenic parts of South Central LA, during which this poor, transparent-skinned Scot (a veteran of 10 years on London Transport) felt particularly touristy.

While waiting for your courtesy bus to the car hire place, you can admire the ‘Theme Building’, an unimaginative name for a bizarre architectural feature which dominates the centre of the airport. Rising on spidery buttresses 135 feet off the ground, it resembles something out of Thunderbirds, or perhaps the lair of some Bondian supervillain, cunningly hidden in plain sight at an international hub – there being no dormant volcanoes to hand. No surprise the architect’s brother was art director on War of the Worlds; it’s now a space-themed restaurant.

Once automobiled, you then have to cope with LA’s notorious traffic, and you begin to see why…well, why you can’t see, the Hollywood sign being invisible from downtown due to a haze of smog. Even the carpool lanes are choked more often than not, and at times the traffic approaches London standards of sloth. Which is akin to blasphemy in a city – and indeed, nation – dedicated to cars with such zealous ferocity, that our daughter believes it is her constitutional right to be given a car on her 16th birthday. You could kill the time by listening to the radio, but LA radio is about one-tenth as diverse as here in Phoenix, unless you’re a devotee of thirty different flavours of Mariachi music.

We spend most of our time up near Hollywood, as that’s where most of the stuff we’re there for (concerts, film festivals, etc.) takes place. Accommodation-wise, there are two kinds of hotels to be found up there: extortionate, and recently condemned. The latter are perhaps more fun: not to occupy, heaven forbid, just to poke your head round the door for a look-see. There are places which look like the DEA will be storming in any second now. There are places which look like the DEA just left, and didn’t bother to tidy up after themselves. Others aren’t so well-kept.

Shining out like a beacon among all this is the oddly-named Farmer’s Daughter – which made more sense when we realised it’s beside the Farmer’s Market. We never actually stay in any hotel much – what’s the point of travelling if that’s all you’re going to do? So the Daughter has everything we need in a hotel room – a bathroom (for Chris), a TV (for me) and a bed (for both of us) – without requiring co-funding from three major film studios to stay there.

It also had the advantage of being just down the road from the ScreamFest theatre. Though we didn’t spend much time there either; despite the fact we had paid out of our own pockets to have the Cradle of Fear tape FedEx’d there, the reaction we got was of the “air-conditioning on full” version. We were grudgingly added to the guest list…for our own movie. Whoopee. Took a program, to see if there was anything we wanted to pay them $10 to see, but it was entirely devoid of information on the actual films. The organiser did devote half a page to her own biography, however, which probably says more about things than we should. The movies we had heard of, were either elderly (The Hills Have Eyes) or sucked (Kolobos – a film which had already been stinking up Blockbuster shelves for a year before the festival showed it!).

Fortunately, what ScreamFest lacks in friendliness, information and good movies, the rest of Hollywood has in abundance. Well, except for the friendliness bit, perhaps. Phoenix may be the sixth-largest city in America, but there are maybe a dozen screens that aren’t devoted to Hollywood blockbusters. Everything plays in Los Angeles – even if it’s only for a week. Where else can you get to see bizarre Japanese horror-musicals on the big screen? Pick up one of the free papers, such as LA Weekly for full details, and to mop up the drool.

Certainly, as cinemas go, the Cinerama complex on Sunset Boulevard is impressive, albeit one of the most expensive – $14 for a Sunday lunchtime screening! Seen in the pic as it was in its heyday in the 1960’s (it opened with the premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), it’s now the focus of an arthouse multiplex, where you get the feeling they take the “art” part Very Seriously – it’s one of the very few cinemas I’ve been to in America which has assigned seating. Over-loud confectionery crunchers are likely taken outside and summarily shot, but you’ve gotta love a place which warned us sternly that if we were five minutes late for the movie, we wouldn’t get in.

Between screenings, we like to spend our time in Amoeba Music, a cavernous second-hand media store on Sunset Boulevard. Particularly fine is the upstairs selection of DVDs, though you have to watch your shins. Bin after bin of sub-$10 discs lurk on the floor, and you must gingerly pick your way past the other browsing shoppers sprawled down there. Better yet, join them…


Also worth a visit are the La Brea Tar Pits, still sucking in local fauna (and getting a nod in Ice Age). If, like us, you’re a fan of Miracle Mile, you’ll probably just want to meander around the area, sobbing gently to yourself about diamonds. The diner from the movie is nearby, on Fairfax, but is no longer open – one of my treasured possessions is a menu from when it was still functioning, albeit without a phone booth outside.

Man cannot live by film alone, however. Getting sustenance can be a time-consuming task, with one place quoting us a ninety-minute wait for a table. Even the Bar-B-Q establishment next door quoted us 45 minutes, but that was nothing a couple of alcoholic beverages couldn’t handle. One rule we liked was that all restaurants must post their health inspection scores in the window: A, B, etc. Keep an eye out, see if you can spot any D’s…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 4: On a Swiss roll

Previously: The Hills are Alive…

The journey from Munich to Zurich was phenomenal. Never, in my wildest dreams, had I ever imagined a train with seat-back televisions showing “in-flight” movies. Der Deutsche Bundesbahn rules! I have, however, grown horribly used to this first-class travel thing, and am extremely glad I now longer have to deal with Thameslink on a daily basis. Or, indeed, any basis.

The train sneaks around the edge of a lake, and pops its head into Austria, meaning that a) we needn’t have bother going to Salzburg to tick that country off, and b) in the space of 30 minutes, we’ve been in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Chris is impressed, coming from a land where you can drive for six hours and still be in the same state.

We arrive in Zurich and for the first time since leaving home, have to change money, since the gnomes aren’t part of economic union. Though Switzerland being Switzerland, they would probably accept any form of currency: diamonds, unwanted kidneys, gold teeth pried from the heads of Holocaust victims, etc. They have a refreshingly up-front approach to capitalism, and wandering down Bahnhofstrasse, the main street, we notice there are probably as many banks as department stores.

We also notice in the supermarket, that prices are significantly higher than the rest of Europe. I recall that in my backpacker days, I largely survived visiting Switzerland on a subsistence diet of bread and chocolate. Thankfully, the budget is not so restricted on this trip, but anyone planning to stay any length of time in the country should bring a big bank-roll.

There isn’t actually that much to do in Zurich, though we are impressed by the massive underground shopping complex by the train station. The only place we’ve seen anything similar is Montreal, presumably serving a similar purpose, saving consumers from having to brave the winter snows. We relax on a boat cruise round the lake, which is remarkably cheap and passes the time nicely. I have another flashback to backpacker days, having to consume rapidly a box of chocolate wafer things, in order to prevent serious meltage. All I needed to complete the picture was a bottle of Orangina and I’d have been right back there in 1986.

Our hotel is at one end of the Niederdorfstrasse which is, effectively, Zurich’s nightlife. Bars, restaurants, strip-clubs, cinemas, discos and venues of uncertain but likely highly-dubious purpose line the pedestrianised street for about half-a-mile on both sides. We settle on a Swiss restaurant, and discover the national cuisine doesn’t stop at fondue. There’s also raclette – though this also involves cheese and a similar do-it-yourself approach to cooking. You get a little grill on your table, for you to melt your own cheese, then chuck it on top of potatoes or other vegetables. With a diet apparently consisting of dairy products, quite how the Swiss have half the heart-disease rate the British do, escapes me. Must be all that yodelling.

Having more or less exhausted the entertainment potential of Zurich, we opt to spend the next day – the last “proper” one of the holiday – in Bern, capital of Switzerland, and home of the famous bear-pits. Readers of a certain age may, like me, fondly remember the Mary Plain books from their youth, about a bear who lived there. The reality is slightly different – they don’t talk, for starters – but they’re still undeniably cute, nonetheless.

You can buy bags of fruit to lob at them, and these large, slow-moving creatures are remarkably adept at plucking them out of the air, like furry goalkeepers. Beside the pits is a gift-shop selling plush versions in every conceivable size and pose. More interestingly to us, there is also a micro-brewery in an old tram garage. Despite what seems to me an obvious opportunity, it is not called the Beer Pit. 🙂

Swaying slightly, we make our way back through town. It is a very pretty place, with a lot of 16th century, etc. buildings and most of the pavements are covered galleries – presumably a medieval version of Zurich’s underground malls. We are particularly grateful for this, when it starts to chuck it down with the sort of intense work-ethic you only find in Swiss precipitation.

One lowlight is the clock near the town square, built up by the guidebooks as a major attraction and masterpiece of mechanised art. Come the hour, and the streets are thronged with tourists and you can hardly hear for the whirring of camcorders. A ring of small statues circles briefly, and a figure at the top rings a bell. The crowd wait excitedly for the main event. And wait. And wait. You can hear “Was that it?” in twelve different languages. Ten minutes later, the more optimistic tourists are still hanging round. It may have been cutting-edge stuff in the 16th century, but that was when stoning lepers was the main competition as far as entertainment goes.

On the up side, the city does have a fabulous range of statues dotted around, depicting various figures of myth, legend and history. Our favourite was the Kindlifresserbrunnen, an ogre shown stuffing a baby in its mouth as a light snack, with further courses dangling from its belt. Whatever the story is behind that one, it is unlikely to be turned into a Disney cartoon anytime soon.

We return to Zurich for a final meal, sitting outdoors at a quite superb Italian restaurant. It’s a somewhat nomadic existence, as we refuse to surrender to the pouring rain which begins almost immediately we sit down. It’s a constant battle involving umbrellas, canopies and our occupying four different tables over two courses, but nothing can spoil the mood. The waitress probably thought we were utterly mad, as we giggled hysterically and built dams of napkins to direct the water away from our plates.

But it’s time to go home. We take the night-train to Paris, and kill a few hours there – emphasis on “kill”, as that’s what the 384 steps at the Arc De Triomphe almost do to us. The views from the top are quite magnificent, however. Once the pink mist has cleared from our eyes, anyway. Then, it’s back to London and (after one last British curry!) a flight back to Phoenix. On the way across, we’d been upgraded to Club World after “subtly” mentioning we were getting married [I think wearing “Jim + Chris – The Wedding Tour” T-shirts may have helped here]. No such luck on the way back; crammed into “World Traveller” with the rest of the economy scum, really brought home that the holiday was over…

The honeymoon, on the other hand, is only just beginning…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 3: The Hills Are Alive…

Previously: Drowning in Berlin

We may not appreciate the finer point of Munich at 7am on a Saturday morning, after about four hours of sleep – hey, they give us a sleeping car with all mod cons, we’re going to take the time to use them. This is way before our friendly tourist information hotel reservation office opens, but we find a hotel virtually across the street. We crash out there, catching up on what we missed on the train. The hotel seems to be full of Japanese tourists. Indeed, most of Europe seems to be this summer.

It is also next door to a Beate Uhse sex shop – one of three on the main street. Uhse herself, who flew the last plane out of Berlin in the final days of WW2, was something of a German institution until her death last year. Her name is still known to 98% of the population, and the company is in the top hundred public German companies, with a turnover 5 times that of Ann Summers (whose founder was inspired by Uhse). It’s listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange, and the initial offering was 63 times oversubscribed. Sex sells – even shares.

Unlike Berlin, Munich is compact enough that we don’t feel the need for a bus tour, and just saunter around town looking at stuff. We find another branch of World of Music. Our rucksacks become even heavier. The center, around Marienplatz, has a lot of old buildings, including some nice tall ones which provide decent viewing platforms – but there are equally many modern shops, which gives the place a sense of being a living town, rather than just a museum for tourists.

We find ourselves in the Englischer Garten, a beautifully-kept series of gardens, pathways and architecture – there’s apparently also nude sunbathing in some areas, but we don’t see anything untoward. By the duck-pond, I talk Chris into a photo opportunity with a swan – I snap the photo at left, and urge her to get closer. When she does, the swan is distinctly unimpressed, and emits a sound somewhere between an amphetamine-crazed kettle and a punctured balloon. I remember that, allegedly, swans can break your arm with their wing, but Chris is saved by the timely arrival of a small yappy dog which draws the swan’s ire. The insurance company would never have believed us.

When good swans…go bad

To recover, we head to the Hofbrauhaus, one of the most famous pubs in the world. Hard to see why; presumably because it caters to tourists and doesn’t need repeat business, the service sucks. Though we don’t discover till later, it was one of Hitler’s favourite hangouts, too. We were much more impressed by the Augustiner Grossgaststatten, which had great food, excellent waiters, and was so good we ate there two nights in a row. There’s definitely a knack to drinking out of those huge glasses though – I vow to practice more. My only regret is I don’t get to order any Black Forest Gateau here, simply because “Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte” is my all-time favourite German phrase.

We eventually roll back to our room, and watch Euro MTV for a a bit. There’s been a gradual decrease in the number of TV channels available to us on the trip; in Belgium, you could still watch the BBC, and in Amsterdam, there was an English-language Euronews channel, but now, it’s MTV or nothing. The most disturbing thing is the volume of techno cover versions; occasionally, the results aren’t bad, e.g. Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow, but they really should have left Patti Smith’s Because the Night alone. There are some things with which mankind was not meant to meddle.

The next day, we opt to hop across the border and do Salzburg, ticking Austria off the list. If Munich is a living city, Salzburg (or at least the center of it) is a tourist slut, peddling herself relentlessly and lacking in personality. Everything is packaged with either Mozart (born there) or The Sound of Music, which was filmed around the area. Chocolates, music-boxes, little plastic busts, you name it, you can get it with Wolfgang Amadeus on it.

Despite this, Salzburg is very beautiful, with fabulous gardens (the Do-Re-Mi sequence was shot in one), a broad river running through the centre of town, any number of statues and fountains, old buildings, narrow streets, busking string quartets (playing WAM, natch!) – you get the picture. Or rather, the set of picture postcards, with Mozart emblazoned on the corner of each one.

Chris is feeling horny

The Hohensalzburg Castle dominates the city from its rocky perch in the centre of town. There’s a meandering path up to the fortress, but being lazy tourists, we opt for the funicular: the views from the top are spectacular. Started by the local archbishops in 1077, it was never successfully stormed, and thus is largely in pristine condition – though one pillar, pointed out on the tour, has a nasty chunk taken out of it by a cannonball – an interesting experience for anyone in the room at the time.

In the castle, was a stall offering you three shots with a crossbow for 2 Euro; I nail the first one, briefly contemplate a career as a professional crossbower, then get steadily worse, despite humming the Buffy theme. Grrr. Aargh. It does drive the selections from Sound of Music out of my head, at least temporarily, before we head back across the border to Munich, where it is chucking it down. Can’t complain, however, this having been the first rain seen since the morning of the wedding, more than two weeks previously. We bid a fond farewell to Germany, even if it might be a while till we can face sausages again, and prepare to head into the land of banks, gnomes, cuckoo-clocks and chocolate…

Next: On a Swiss Roll