Hi everyone. Not long to go now before we set off on our European and perhaps world adventure!
April 29, 2016
This is another of these posts designed for all my readers who don’t use Facebook (with a teeny apology to those of you who do).
I was told to expect a peak of interest in my books once “Wee Georgie” started in our local newspaper The Dundee Courier as their daily serial. That was on Monday past and it seems that what I was told may well be happening. This is a screenshot of today’s bestsellers list of Scottish memoirs at Waterstones. There are 103 books on that list and it shows “Wee Georgie” at no.1 and the follow-up “Georgie” at no.2. “Wee Georgie” is also no. 25 out of 1163 books on the British memoirs list!
This is all the more impressive as the books are only on sale in the Dundee Waterstones while the others are available all over in all Waterstones’ stores! I am indebted to the great people of Dundee and surrounding area for their massive support for my work.
Thank you all.
April 25, 2016
This is an update for all my readers outside Dundee who do not use Facebook.
As of this morning, my first memoir “Wee Georgie” has become the latest daily serial in our local newspaper The Courier. I consider this a great honour to be allowed to present my work to the people of my town and reach out to the many thousands who do not use Social Media nor venture into town very often. Although the book is still on sale at Waterstones of Dundee and two other smaller outlets, persuading the local press giant to run with my memoir six days a week for about nine weeks is something I had hoped to achieve way back at the beginning of this writing adventure and was indeed the recommendation of aunt Elizabeth Casciani when she first read the manuscript three years ago.
We have now sold 700+ copies of “Wee Georgie” not including those both in paperback and electronic format sold via Amazon. The Dundee public have been tremendously generous to me in supporting my efforts to get my story “out there” and I must thank them all along with the many family and friends who have spread the word. There is the distinct possibility that we will have to do a second re-print of the memoir should the serialization stimulate sales in the town again. As it stands, “Wee Georgie” is back at no.1 in the Scottish Memoirs best-sellers chart at Waterstones (despite only being on sale in the Dundee store!) and this is the third time the book has been at the top since it was published in November 2014.
The follow-up “Georgie” has followed in the footsteps of its wee brother and although sales have decreased since the Christmas peak it is still doing well on the best-sellers list and is often ahead of its predecessor. Just this weekend, I took the decision to upload “Georgie” to Amazon where it is available today in paperback and electronic format. This should allow my friends from outside the UK to access the book with the minimum of fuss.
Should you find a moment, I would sincerely appreciate any positive reviews of either or both books as it is common knowledge that good reviews are vital in stimulating and maintaining sales. I have also asked Waterstones to stock both the memoirs in all their stores through the UK but so far no decision has been taken in my favour. Maybe with a few favourable reviews, they will change their minds. The books can be reviewed on Amazon or on the Waterstones website where some earlier reviews can be found.
Once again, thank you for your much-needed support and please keep spreading the word. Mouth-to-mouth publicity is proven to be a major influence in getting things noticed, so just telling your neighbours, friends and family that you know someone who has a couple of books out can help my cause immeasurably.
Best wishes, George X
April 24, 2016
April 19, 2016
Wednesday of our holiday was more of a travelling day than an adventure. We drove from Biarritz east through Pau and Tarbes with the Pyrenees making their presence felt to our right the further we sped by. After Tarbes, we continued on the Toulouse road until we reached our destination which was St. Gaudens. Saint what I hear you ask? Yes, St. Gaudens which is French for…. St. Gaudens! A remarkable little town (I hope you understand sarcasm) whose long list of highlights includes an Ibis Budget Hotel and a McDonald’s. We slept in the former and ate in the latter. On Thursday morning we tried to have breakfast in our friendly American Fast Food outlet at 09.30 but they weren’t quite ready for us early birds!
Admittedly, the previous evening, we had regaled ourselves with a long visit to the giant Leclerc hypermarket. This chain scored 1 point to Scott on the “spot the shop” game the boys would play while we drove them through France in the 90s. I had always felt sorry for son Greg who had drawn “Monsieur Bricolage” DIY store and remained optimistic even though deep down he knew there were always going to be more supermarkets than French B&Qs on our path to the Vendée. Gavin had a racing chance with the expanding “Super U” supermarkets while, on the sole occasion he came with us, George was 15 and far too cool to join in, a coolness he finally lost when his favourite “Alice in Chains” hat blew off when he petulantly stuck his head out of the front passenger window as we raced past Gateshead on the way home!
St. Gaudens’ Leclerc provided us with a couple of hours’ distraction after we had spent a whole 5 minutes exploring the town itself. Believe it or not, that included 3 minutes in a second-hand charity shop just as it was about to close, from which we emerged with a designer rucksack for Mary. But the huge Leclerc had so much in it that it was quite impossible to get bored. I examined the food and hardware while Lady Burton checked out the fashion aisles.
The best fun was trying to locate the petrol station whose cheap fuel announced itself to shoppers as they entered the vast car park but whose actual whereabouts was a mystery to all first-timers to St. Gaudens. After four unsuccessful attempts, four being each side of the superstore, I gave up and asked. Yes, it was there, on the side I’d initially investigated, except down a wee road, first left, first right and 500 metres further, basically in the middle of a field! The consolation was watching several others with French number plates do exactly what I’d been doing for the previous quarter of an hour.
But all good things must come to an end – and so had our flying visit to St. Gaudens, Ibis Hotel, McDonald’s, Leclerc and all! As we drove off on Thursday morning, I knew where we were heading but was still unsure as to how to get there. I had decided to take Mary to a place beginning with “F”. Figueres back in Spain would be our destination, selected purely because this town holds the Salvador Dali museum, a final slice of culture to balance our visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao at the start of the holiday. An abortive attempt to book a hotel in Andorra had led to me finding a place just outside Figueres, a hacienda of pink stone rather than a traditional hotel this time. But I had spent a fairly sleepless night wrestling with a dilemma. Which route was I going to take?
The Pyrenees were the problem, you see. Oh, they were perfectly avoidable by taking the motorway to Toulouse then Carcassonne, Narbonne on the coast, Perpignan, across the border and down to Figueres. Job done! But that struck me as the wimp’s way of getting there and would totally lack any sense of adventure. No, this was not for George and Mary as you might imagine. The alternative was however a challenge. Mr. Google let me read his map then described a route through the mountains that left me with a tingle (No, my foot hadn’t gone to sleep!).
The map showed a route across country from St. Gaudens to Foix in the foothills then a long climb up the mountains to L’Hospitalet près L’Andorre from where the road split, right to Andorra itself and left through a long tunnel to Puigcerda. That’s where the fun would begin because next was the famous N152 to Ribes de Freser, described by “Top Gear” ex-presenter and icon Jeremy Clarkson as the best mountain road in Europe. The road on the map had not a single straight line on it and there was a warning sign advising you that the road ahead was “S” bends …….. for 48 kms! But would I take it? There was still snow up there and driving with a rock face to the left and a thousand feet sheer drop to the right had me doubting my bottle and worried about a possibly petrified Lady Burton.
I decided to drive to Foix then up to Puigcerda, knowing from the map that the N116 would take me gently back to Perpignan if I lost my nerve. And that’s why we found ourselves in the town centre of Puigcerda, at 4000 feet up in the Pyrenees, having a lunch of cheese, chicken and taboulé, washed down with a cheeky red wine (Nah, only kidding!) while we pondered on which route to take. But it dawned on us right there and then that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive the mountains, so off we went on an enormously twisty downhill rollercoaster of a trip through the forests and valleys of the Pyrenees. It was wonderfully exhilarating and not nearly as difficult or as dangerous as I had imagined. Mary’s head twisted and turned at every bend, taking in as much scenery as her senses could manage while I looked straight ahead and concentrated on staying on the tarmac. The fact that you are reading this tells you we made it in one piece.
The only snow we encountered was up near Andorra where we had to drive through three or four ski stations. There was plenty of the white stuff up there and it came right down to the edge of the road, but there wasn’t a single flake of snow on the road itself. So you got all the advantages with none of the drawbacks. Perfect! The beautiful people were having a ball up there, skiing, skateboarding and generally sliding around on the snow in the sun. It’s not our cup of tea but they looked like they were really enjoying themselves. We made a mental note to go back one day and stay in Andorra if even only for a night, just so we can tick that box.
Interestingly, as we meandered earlier through the foothills of the Midi-Pyrenèes, Mary had pointed out some birds’ nests dotted throughout the surrounding trees but then studied them closer, revealing a ball-shaped plant which seemed to inhabit several different types of tree. That was strange! Once again, via Mary’s iPhone and the ubiquitous Mr. Google who can search by image astonishingly well, we discovered that the clusters were actually mistletoe! Talk about learning something new every day! It appears that mistletoe is a parasite which grows happily on whichever tree its seeds land on. There now. I hope the question comes up at your next Quiz Night.
You’d think finding mistletoe in trees in the Pyrenees was a bit of a surprise but wait for this. We had left Foix and started through a wide valley towards the road that takes you up the mountain to Munro height and then some, when we passed a quaint railway station on our right. That’s when I did my first ever emergency stop abroad. Why? Well, admittedly the station was cute, even very cute, but just look at the nameplate. How could that be? So far our research has found out almost nothing to explain our name with apostrophe s and then the French for “station” on this building.
Once we had reached the low hills, the road took on a more normal perspective and we cruised across to just outside Figueres where Victoria once again took control and guided us safely to our booked accommodation. This was a new venture for us, staying in someone’s big house and not in a traditional hotel and I was a wee bit apprehensive as to how it would be. As always, I ought not to have worried because the owners were lovely, their hacienda beautiful, our room perfect and the following day’s breakfast delicious.
We of course had to eat that evening so the owner directed us to the only place in the village where food was served, a pub sitting on the square. We strolled up there, had a couple of beers/Baileys outside then went inside and ordered dinner which surprised us with its high quality. In particular, Mary’s goat’s cheese salad raised the bar of quality by a couple of notches, even inspiring us to take a snap of it.
We slept like logs that night after a very exciting day and woke refreshed and ready to take on all that Salvador Dali would throw at us, melting clocks and all!
April 11, 2016
On Tuesday morning, we sat in the small breakfast area of our Ibis hotel enjoying cereal, croissants and tea. We were watching the news just on 8 o’clock when the presenter said reports were coming in of an explosion at Brussels airport. That dreadful fear came over both of us that this was going to develop into something awful like the earlier Paris nightclub attack. So we paid attention. The story did exactly what we didn’t want it to do. It grew into another outrageous attack on the innocent. A cloud crossed our so far blue sky holiday and stayed there for more than a while.
By the time the Audi was nearing the French border, the events in Brussels had changed everything. The car radio informed us there was a 5 km queue up ahead, something I initially dismissed as a simple mistranslation of the Spanish. But it turned out my Spanish was spot on. As my brain computed the endless line of HGVs in the slow lane, it concluded that the fast lane was empty and that the queue was entirely made up of lorries. That’s what persuaded me to overtake the lot of them! I had no idea what was up ahead but just took the risk and drove on and on until the border loomed ahead, with only a handful of cars waiting there. Two minutes of showing documents to heavily-armed police with black balaclavas and we were off again, back in France.
I had told Lady Burton the night before that our second place beginning with “B” was none other than the famous French beach town of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast. Biarritz is an elegant seaside town on France’s Basque coast and has been a popular resort since European royalty began visiting in the 1800s. Now the Burtons were on their way! But first I wanted to check out St. Jean de Luz, one of the first towns after the border. We’d heard it was a lovely place to visit, so, as we weren’t in a particular hurry, we decided to stop for coffee.
Except, I should have remembered we were now in France and not Spain. France = French prices! Oh I admit the café crème was very good but it had been a long time since we’d paid 7 Euros for 2 coffees and this unexpected bill rather shook me. But nought is there for tears! We’re on holiday. Just drink the nice coffee and move on (but don’t go back!). We wandered the streets down to the beach then back up again. There were countless clothes and shoe shops lining both sides of every street we passed through and these gave us a clue as to what kind of a place St. Jean de Luz was. You see, none of the items on display in the shop windows had a price tag!
I remember the first time I encountered this phenomenon. It was 1974 in Monte Carlo just down the hill from the Casino. I was with Dan Rivas, a guy from Chicago and trainee Marist brother, a fellow assistant at the Lycée Hoche in Versailles from which we were on our Easter vacation. It was Dan who explained to me that if you needed to know the price then you probably couldn’t afford the item. So no point in going in then.
Victoria steered us through the maze of roads that run along the coast from St. Jean de Luz to Biarritz after I’d tried to do it without her (I don’t want her thinking I actually care about her!). So when we got snarled up in traffic on a huge industrial estate – my fault – because of a sale at the big Quicksilver surf shop (honestly!), I had to swallow my pride and ask her to get us out of there and on to Biarritz. She made it look easy but we’re still just friends. The Ibis hotel was near the tiny airport and 5 minutes in the car from the beach.
Siesta was next on the cards then it was off to the town to find out why Frank Sinatra and Sophie Loren loved coming here. We parked underground right at the beach and started to explore. Within 2 minutes we were chatting to the wife (?) of a famous American body surfer who was being interviewed, with crashing waves in the background, by French TV. She’d been to St. Andrews on her travels and typically claimed Scottish ancestry. We’d unfortunately never heard of her erstwhile famous husband but then, when was the last time we went body-surfing? By the way, what is body-surfing?
The afternoon was an absolute joy. The sun came out and the forecast thunder and lightning failed to materialize, leaving us free to roam the Grande Plage area and soak up the seaside vistas. And there were plenty of them, including little archipelagos and peninsulas at every turn. The big one with the statue of the Holy Virgin was particularly impressive and the lack of tourists at that time of the year added to our delight. Further down we encountered the famous Hôtel du Palais, built for the Empress Eugenie by her husband Napoleon III in 1854 and counting Queen Victoria among its long list of celebrated guests.
Onwards up the hill we climbed, heading for the lighthouse at the top of the cliff, but we were distracted by the sumptuous villas which lined both sides of the road. We spotted what appeared to be a tinker push through the gate of one residence and gain entrance but the shutters and doors hanging off their hinges suggested filthy squat and not filthy rich! I had noted that when he passed us further down he was talking to himself and smoking an awfully sweet “cigarette”.
Our feet finally gave up around six in the evening and shortly after our return to the Ibis hotel (Sorry, I forgot to mention we weren’t staying at the Hôtel du Palais!), we walked the few yards to a Courtepaille restaurant and had dinner. It was triple the price of dinner in Spain and average fare to be brutally honest, but we were hungry so the plates were licked clean. Once abed, we discussed where we would go next and I ended up booking a hotel near Tarbes, at the foot of the Pyrenees near Lourdes. I suggested a return to the Holy Shrine but Mary said our first visit had been so perfect there really was no need. She was right as usual.
Before going to sleep, we listened to the BBC news of the atrocities in Brussels and it was Mary who pointed out that that was another place that began with “B”. It seemed luck had been on our side when I’d chosen our destinations. There would be no more Bs. The following day we would be driving to little-known Saint Gaudens.
April 10, 2016
After a quick breakfast on the Sunday morning, we were swiftly en route to Bilbao, a journey which only took a couple of hours. We were actually booked in to an Ibis budget hotel on the southern edge of the city, in a wee town called Arrigorriaga, which you could pronounce by simply gargling with TCP! Victoria took us to within 30 meters of the front door which we could see from the car, but her final “Now turn left” was impossible as we were at the junction to a dual carriageway so right it had to be.
Although this was technically driving away from the hotel, we could still see it, so it was only a matter of crossing the carriageway at the next flyover, driving back down to and then past the hotel as far as the next roundabout, take the fourth exit, drive past the hotel again except on the correct side of the carriageway now (are you following this?) then take the next right – the one Victoria wanted us to turn left to – and round to the hotel. Tell you what, I’ll draw you a diagram!
After we’d checked in, we headed straight for the railway station and caught the next train to Bilbao. A ten minute journey through a long winding valley filled with iron works and cement factories was not entirely pleasing to the eye but I did suggest that an awful lot of cities are like that on the edges. Uncle Gerard was less sympathetic and labelled Bilbao “a dump” when we told him we would be visiting. After the commute to the city, we sort of understood what he had said.
So there we were, the first of places beginning with “B”. Bilbao didn’t disappoint. A couple of hours in the old town which was quite close to the station revealed beautiful architecture, a lovely river (the Nervion, which destroyed some of the city in the catastrophic flood of 1983), loads of narrow car-free streets and of course dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars. It was not only Palm Sunday but also Fathers’ Day in Spain so the place was jumping. After an interesting search, we chose a small but packed restaurant and were squeezed in at the back right next to the kitchen. The air was filled with delicious cooking smells and our ears picked out Spanish, English, French and a language we didn’t recognize.
Investigation revealed we were hearing the language of the Basque region, sometimes called Euskara, a thousand years old and incredibly with no known linguistic relatives! We found out it was useless trying to make sense of this “deviant tongue” as it is totally different from all the other languages. Could that be true? Yes it was. Here’s a sample from the first line of the Declaration of Human Rights. (Please do not apply this to David Cameron et al) “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. And now in Euskara: “Gizon-emakume guztiak aske jaiotzen dira, duintasun eta eskubide berberak dituztela.” I told you so!
After a delicious menu del dia we popped into the Tourist Office, bought tram tickets and set off on the short trip to our main reason for coming to Bilbao: The Guggenheim. This wonderful museum of modern and contemporary art, designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry (he designed Maggie’s at Ninewells in Dundee) was opened in 1997 and turned Bilbao on its head, changing it from a dull port into a magnet for art lovers all over the world. A similar revolution is much hoped-for in our own city of Dundee with the building of the V & A museum which should open next year I think.
The rippling Guggenheim, set on the south bank of the river, was a feast for our eyes. Sunday’s visit was purely a “reccy” to check out where it was and to view it from outside. It was beautiful, giant spider, huge Scottie Dog, oversized tulips and all! The plaza nearby was crowded with visitors so we joined them in the sunshine and had a drink. Before we left, we went into the museum to confirm it would be open on Monday (normally it’s not) and the assistant advised us to buy our tickets there and then as they were expecting high numbers the following day. I was doubly delighted when I got a Senior ticket with Audioguide included and our entry fees came nowhere near to breaking the budget.
Back out onto the streets of Bilbao, we shunned the tram ride back to the station and chose to walk, determined to get in our 10,000 steps. Sunday traffic was very light and we enjoyed a lovely, quiet stroll along boulevards as inspiring as any in Barcelona or Paris. Before we took the train back to gargle-land, we revisited the old town for half an hour, trying not to miss anything which might be of interest. Lady Burton was adamant that nothing would go uninvestigated and my poor feet were proof that she missed nothing. Heavens! We were coming back the next day after all!
And back we did go on Monday morning around eleven, only this time to spend as long as we needed in the Guggenheim itself. The building was excellent, the art work challenging, the café a welcome relief and the whole experience a delight. Andy Warhol’s “Shadows” had us scratching our heads, Louise Bourgeois caught our attention and held it and the smaller exhibits elicited smiles and frowns in equal number. Art is such a personal thing and you/we/I either like it or not. I really wanted to understand what things were doing there but sometimes my brain refused to cooperate.
We left happy with another tick on the Bucket List. As we passed the giant Scottie Dog made of flowers, we couldn’t help but smile and take another snap or two. I don’t like dogs, I don’t like flowers much, but I did like him. To me, that was Art.
April 5, 2016
On the morning of Saturday 19 March, with a full tank of diesel and a big bag of food and drink, we set off on holiday, our first in 2 years. Yes, I know that might sound a bit ridiculous to anyone back home who is aware of what we’ve been up to over the past 4 years, but we see it as a holiday when we’re somewhere that isn’t Vilanova or Dundee. Both of them are just “Home” to us. Going somewhere else to stay is going on holiday. Glad I got that out of the way.
Being as grippy as ever, I headed for the A2 which crossed our path to the north near Igualada, then set off west along the autovia towards Leida (or Lerida if you prefer it). Notice we were on the A2 and not the AP2, as the extra P means “peaje” and involves putting lots of money in machines at the toll barriers. That’s not my idea of carefree travel now, is it? So, with nothing to pay, I could concentrate on the countryside which seemed to change completely every 50 km or so. One minute we would be driving through a virtual moonscape and the next we were flanked by vineyards as far as the eye could see, their vines awakening from the Spanish winter and once again proving that the radical pruning they had been subjected to had done them no harm at all. Their “T” shapes beckoned to us and seemed to wish us a pleasant journey. We smiled back and promised to sample their fruits come summer’s end.
Beyond Leida the road continued west to Zaragoza where I got nicked for making an illegal turn on our tour of Spain in the spring of 2013 after our return from Australia. I was happy to avoid the city’s streets this time. At Zaragoza the A2 continues west all the way to Madrid while the route north sees two roads, the AP68 and the N232, vie for space in the valleys as the roads climb up into the Highlands that constitute the famous plains in Spain. Guess which of the two I took? Actually we spent a bit of time on the AP68, but only at the bits where you didn’t have to pay!
Between Zaragoza and our destination Alfaro, we chose to stop for a coffee and once again found ourselves in a tiny roadside bar above which the owners clearly had their little flat. The car park looked like it had been freshly bombed, with 6-inch deep potholes everywhere. I chose our spot with great care, mindful of the cost of Audi shock-absorbers! But the coffee was really good and we managed a sandwich in the car-park before continuing our journey.
For the last 10 kms up to Alfaro, Victoria was plucked from early retirement and asked to find us our hotel. She was easily up for the task and we were soon ensconced in a lovely room at the hotel Palacios, a really big place with several dining areas and facilities for conferences and bus-parties. We could now relax, knowing that we could have dinner when we wanted. After a short nap, we were up for a walk round the town, as always hoping to find something unusual to feed our inquisitive minds. Oh boy! Were we in luck!?
From the hotel car-park we spotted the belfry of an old church and that’s where we headed, knowing that the wee streets of towns and their old quarters are always snuggled around the main church. If in doubt, head for the cathedral! The streets took us on a somewhat circuitous route, meaning that we rather walked around the church and ended up looking down on it. Just as well. From where we were inadvertently standing, we could pick out large birds circling the belfries, swinging out over the neighbouring streets hidden below and returning to land with outstretched legs, like pelicans at a waterhole in the Serengeti.
Only these birds weren’t pelicans …………. They were storks. Lots of them. The largest colony of black and white storks in the world (thank you Trip Advisor!) What a wonderful sight! We spent a good hour watching them come and go from the church – they must be very holy – as the sun disappeared and night began to fall, creating beautiful images as these huge creatures spread their wings and dropped from their giant nests to swoop over the main square and beyond. You know I’m not the best around birds (the winged kind!) but these giants kept their distance so my pants were safe.
We had to drag ourselves away from the town centre and wander back to the hotel which we did with unerring accuracy despite initial fears that we were actually walking in the wrong direction. Mary has unbroken faith in my ability to get us to where we’re meant to be and so far I’ve only let her down in one or two minor ways. Rome, Berlin, Barcelona, Vienna, Prague, Paris, New York, Toronto, Sydney – all negotiated without a blip. But I did get completely lost in Falkirk!
Dinner was as it should be, adequate, tasty and cheap. Back in the room, Lady Burton plumped for a good book (now there’s a surprise!) while I typically used the excellent free Internet to tune in to FilmOn and watch uninterrupted coverage of Match of the Day. MOTD, eh? Just like the old days!