Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Lisbon, Portugal

After a rather late finish on Friday night (we couldn't have our Captain's Cocktail outfits go to waste, could we?), Saturday began at a perfectly reasonable hour in good time to explore Lisbon. And explore we did...

Upon first impressions, we were less than impressed. This was mostly due to the weather - over-cast and not particularly warm (despite the fact that the Pharmacy claimed that it was 22°C) - but also due to the abundance of 'shabby' and distinct lack of 'chic' that we were confronted with as we docked. 
Nevertheless, we headed for the promising sight of a large dome (bound to be a point of historic or geographic significance?) where we also located a huge flea market, already in full swing before 9am local time!

Curiously we wandered on, not entirely sure what it was we were expecting or wanting to see; up and down numerous stone staircases, along winding streets (many of which were beyond dodgy), round and round in circles we went. Finally we came to the Castelo de São Jorge (one of the few landmarks we knew we were expecting to find) and decided to buy 'student' tickets to have an explore of the ruins and a good view of the city. Our first day on land did not bless us with the best weather, so although we may have headed off in good spirits and a distinct lack of clothing first thing, by this point our tourist jackets (I like to think these are rather like alcohol jackets) were wearing off, so we retreated inside the café for hot drinks and Portuguese custard tarts – yum!

Through the haze and from the various 'Lisboa' postcards, we managed to make out some other landmarks while we were up there which we decided we should aim for once we had finished wandering along battlements (actually perhaps we were more ‘pinned to the inner walls of unsafe battlements through fear of tripping, stumbling and falling to our deaths’ than any romantic image of 'wandering' one may have created in their heads). Those landmarks were Praça do Commercio, trams and far, far in the distance, Marquês de Pombal.

Through our expert map-reading skills (it turned out that even my own father got lost in Lisbon’s ‘imaginative’ streets, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much for this), we managed to circle the castle what felt like about five times in an attempt to move away from the old city with its creepy, hairy, elderly folk of questionable gender brandishing walking sticks to direct tourists back onto the beaten track, and instead to move towards the modern parts of the city with more... signs of civilisation shall we say?!

Eventually we succeeded in moving around and away from the castle and ended up following the map effectively for at least 3 'ruas', before going down one the wrong way for a little further than was ideal. Instead of getting too distressed however, we embraced sight-seeing opportunities, refused drugs, listened to a brass band attempting to play Daft Punk and, despite over-whelming intrigue, resisted the urge to join the world's longest queue for which to the human eye really was just a closed-off piece of road with a hole in the middle of the road (who knows?)... having somehow encountered and taken a few snaps of those all important postcard features as a-spied from the Castelo, we headed back in the right direction to make our way to the top of the city so we could continue our search for 'the big monument thing' - upon our return to the cabin in the evening, we discovered that said 'big monument thing' does not even appear on the map of the city that Thomson provide as they have obviously decided it is too far out for your average tourist (and upon returning home we discovered that the ‘big monument thing’ is actually 20km away from the port... no wonder feet were broken)... however, having accidentally left our Thomson map in the cabin, we were equipped with a proper city map, for those staying a while, courtesy of Lisbon tourist information services.

Again in true tourist style, having not got far along the road we realised it was time for food, so we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a Portuguese/Italian restaurant, accompanied by a guitar-playing busker, a political demonstration and a constant flow of men attempting to sell 'Ray Ban' sunglasses.. It’s difficult eating onshore when you know what you could be eating back on the ship , but we tried and enjoyed chicken, capers, olives, spaghetti and A LOT of oil and smoked salmon lasagne accompanied by a Super Bock and sat outside, determined to make the most of a less-than-ideal weather situation.

Full to the brim, it was probably a good job the monument was so far up the hill as it gave us a good chance to work off food in preparation for whatever treats the evening may bring.

Tourists and cyclists en mass, dodging traffic, posing for photos (the sun having finally made an appearance), assuming the role of photographer, and then practically gliding back down the hill in contrast to the struggle up it, we managed to make it to our checkpoint just in time to have to turn around and go back the way we came (with slightly less detouring) before the ship sailed off without us! We made it back on the ship with moments to spare having got utterly confused by HOW to get in/on!!

If there was to be one complaint about cruising, I could maybe go for spending a few more evenings/nights in ports of call (which I think is actually possible if you’re willing to spend a little more time and money). The problem with the late appearance of the sun was that we enjoyed very little of it, as although it was of course then sunny aboard, we were greeted again by the crazy winds, which do tend to bring with them a ‘slight’ chill. Nevertheless, we endeavoured to find a sheltered spot, and fortunately stumbled upon my parents who were just about to head to the restaurant for a spot of afternoon tea! We remained on our loungers for a respectable amount of time, but no sooner were all layers finally off (I say all layers, we began with MANY (so many and so black in fact, that my mother proclaimed that we looked like old Turkish widows on holiday) and wound down to bikini level) than we were on the move and our sunny, sheltered spot was turning into a shady nook. Horns were honking, cars were zooming across mighty bridges as we sailed underneath them (awesome experience), and Jesus was waving us goodbye.

So we returned to our window seat, where I was served a lager Shandy... horrendousness beyond all that is horrendous, but with PORK SCRATCHINGS (because they DO exist, and what’s more, they also SERVE them on board) to make a little of the sweetness go away! Bumped into ma and pa again, who were just on their way back to the cabin via the photo gallery, where were off to amuse themselves with photos of us shaking hands with the captain, eating lettuce and generally feeling very silly in front of the ridiculous backgrounds around the ship.

Dinner was such a palava that I’ve actually forgotten what we even ate. We were a tad late getting ready having been completely distracted by photos, and apparently a little lateness really throws waiters. Scenes were made, funny looks were given, but a lot of laughs were had.

After the madness that was Lisbon, an early night was in store for us all – so in true Lorna & Laura make an exit style, we marched off brandishing the evening’s wine bottle in search of an ice bucket for soothing broken feet and hot water for more general soothing before settling down to bed. Slept like a log.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

A day at sea

All thoughts have drifted, floated away onto the sea –

As becomes the nature of a cruise holiday, you get caught up in this confusing state of relaxation vs. trying to fit in as much of everything as possible. This means setting alarms of a morning to ensure that no day is wasted (in theory, although of course an early start inevitably means a nap later in the day to compensate). Our first day of holiday was spent sailing the seas between Spain and Portugal, as we headed to our first port of call, Lisbon. Realistically, therefore, there was very little point in setting an alarm, but nevertheless the keen-cruiser in me took control and I was up bright and early for breakfast on deck. Or so I thought. I am a firm believer in holidays being the ultimate opportunity for escapism, so I refuse to use my phone when abroad. However, this time I had taken it to act as our morning alarm, although of course as it did not automatically update due to being set to flight mode, I had then forgotten to change the time, so was up an hour later than expected; whoops!

Sat on deck with a croissant and a cup of tea (my first breakfast of the day) wrapped up in my scarf and maxi, trying not to get blown away. Had been sitting for a while when I suddenly realised my mind was literally empty. Blank. Really how often does that happen? It is the most AMAZING experience, like your brain has finally decided it’s allowed to switch off and so has extremely successfully gone into hibernation mode; luxury. Instead of concerning myself with ridiculous thoughts as make a habit of usually passing through my head, I was able to observe with fascination the microclimate that seems to surround a ship. As I said, it was windy as might be expected, but it was also caught between sunshine and cloud, and at one point there was even a single raincloud which showered us all for a matter of seconds before swiftly moving on. Around we all sat, looking at each other in complete disbelief!

I was eventually joined on deck by the woman who knows how to holiday (as in, she sleeps, as opposed to getting up unnecessarily early) and we ventured to find brunch. Stomachs lined with a Full English, we headed back to where I’d been sat under the microclimate to enjoy the sunshine/bracing wind. We made half an attempt to find a ‘sheltered’ spot, although quickly came to the realisation that unless it was inside, there was very little chance of sheltering from a sea breeze when one is at sea (nevertheless, it later transpired that, as ever, my parents had found a jammy spot down on the promenade deck... if only we had allowed our legs to take us that little bit further)!

Lorna goes on a mission to see if around the corner is more sheltered..
... it really isn't!
As I write this, I am beginning to realise how cat-like one becomes on a cruise holiday. So far the pattern has been: sleep-eat-sit-eat-sit-, and now we follow with another eat, as then it was time for lunch! After lunch, we braved making our way into the Jubilee Show Lounge for what was really a Michael Bublé tribute, although he lured us in being described as a swing-singer in general. Armed with afternoon tea to keep us going, we actually found ourselves quite pleasantly surprised, if a little too close to the speaker for mother’s liking (and we would have been dazzled by his outfit from any angle; says Lorna ‘he appears to be wearing my dress as a jacket’). Now I may not be a self-confessed Bublé fan, let alone the fan of a take-off, but while we sat enjoying his performance, I got to thinking about crowds/us Brits, and how bizarre we are! There we all sit in formal rows, arms folded, blank expressions. I may have recently discovered I am not Latino enough for Salsa, but I do like to think I may still be a little more European than British when it comes to the effect of music on my body. I find myself looking like an over-excited child, going way beyond a subtle foot-tap with a full-on body bob (if that’s not already a thing, I make it one) mixed in with a lot of side to side swaying (enhanced this time by the ‘gentle pitching’ of the ship, which it seems leaves a head in a permanent state of feeling inebriated; a life on the waves would be LUSH)! I hope that whatever I do gives a little hope to a performer if they happen to catch sight of me (and hopefully that’s not for all the wrong reasons), otherwise us Brits really are a tough crowd (good at applause though, I can’t deny)!

Perhaps subconsciously in order to calm me down, we went back out to be blustered around and drink Tom Collins’. Whilst outside I found myself tuning in to inane conversation between two couples who had obviously met onboard. I’m sure if I ever happen to have my own children, I too will enter into the obligatory bettering that seems to go on between parents;

‘oh no, my boys never argue. I mean, they don’t really socialise, but if they’re out in the same bar and one of them gets into trouble I think they’d look out for each other’ - ‘oh your boys don’t have girlfriends? Well mine is only 12 years old and he does. Only the other day I heard him say that when she goes to university he’ll stay behind and keep house’

... seriously (I must admit there’s something strangely empowering to know that I sat there writing this on the table right next to them – or is it perhaps a little creepy?)?!

Blustery winds do not bode well with straws in cocktails, or indeed with pages of notebooks (certainly not with loose pages of typed print), so we retreated inside where we came across a bar with window seats, which we would go on to become all too fond of! Snuggled comfortably in what was really just a large, less round, more square, port-hole, I gazed down over the waves caused by the motion of the ship. The break is hands down the best form of hypnosis I know.

Now anyone that has ever played table tennis with me will know that my claim to fame is my ability to play efficiently in formal attire (heels included) a-top a ship on the North Sea in gale force winds. Having made this boast to Lorna, it was only right that she would want to witness these ‘skills’. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for her, there was an opportunity to play table tennis in a lounge at the front of the ship (it was definitely the movement that kept taking me off balance, not the Tom Collins (plural)), so we finally broke the sleep-eat-sit-eat pattern and went to do some form of exercise! The serious-types were already in full swing when we got there, and for some reason, no one seemed to realise that we were hoping to participate. I wonder whether floor-length skirts, flip-flops and our distinct lack of own bats with heated handles were not enough to convince everyone? We were quite disappointed to find that there was only one table, so not only was everyone taking turns, which meant that we had to wait for one, having taken quite enough time to pluck up the courage to even go, they were also watching each other – mortifying! Once ‘everyone’ had had their turn, the entertainment host began to call some people back up, to which I cried ‘can’t we have a go?’, throwing up my hand, again like an over-eager child. With some surprise, he agreed, and we took to the floor, where we were apparently pretty impressive, causing further surprise. 

Take that, owners of ping pong bats with heated handles!

So as to avoid embarrassing the pros, we disappeared into a shroud of mystery after our one match, and began prepping for Captain’s Cocktail night. Captain’s Cocktail, as always, consisted of endless photos in front of various cheesy cruise ship backgrounds, shaking hands with the captain among other ‘key’ staff, amazing food:
Starter - [green] mussels
Soup – mushroom with truffle oil
Main – steak
Dessert – chocolate charlotte and something with champagne in it

, performing waiters, questionable entertainment (this time it was Moulin Rouge – a selection of ‘numbers’ from the Parisian streets), blowing around the top deck in black tie, and finding ourselves thoroughly depressed in a bar at the end of the night with other stragglers by the sounds of the Boros Duo (one performance piece of choice was the theme from Schindler’s List, it was a struggle). 

In an attempt to cheer ourselves up, we finally rose from our depressive slump and went in pursuit of perkier climbs/sounds. As a result, we became embroiled in a cynical (and probably not as subtle as we would have liked to think) discussion about the effect of accents on how intelligent a person seems, and I embarrassed myself attempting impressions of the dear character Mr Porky found on the front of a packet of pork scratchings. 

A day and night very well spent I reckon. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cruise time!

Last week was spent sailing between Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Gibraltar. It was beautiful and I definitely have the holiday blues! I wrote a little (ok, probably a lot) about each day, and part of me was tempted to live-blog each entry, but the traditionalist in me got the better of me and my phone remained safely on Flight Mode for the entire holiday so instead I am faced with the mission of writing up the whole week now I’m home. I thought I’d introduce each day slowly as opposed to going in with the whole holiday, so here goes (as written at the time)...

Cruise time! For the first time yesterday, we had a morning fight, so a ‘full day’ in Malaga, where the ship sailed from. By the end of our 13 hour journey, I think we all agreed that we’d be much happier to sail from England, even if it did take 3 days meaning that we had to go away for 2 weeks (shame)!

Mother and father arrived at my little flat early evening, and after many cups of tea, suitcase weighing, unpacking and re-weighing, we drove through Central London (what an experience) to collect Lorna and her ‘ginormous’ suitcase from the train station. Said ‘ginormous’ suitcase had clearly not travelled with the likes of our baggage before... Once home again, we began our night of waiting to head off for our flight. The flight wasn’t until half 6 in the morning, but in true Brockway style we had to be there in plenty of time, and in order to be there in plenty of time, we had to leave mine at half 2 in the morning. Time was killed with animated discussion about what we might get up to, drinking yet more endless cups of tea (or hot water) and eating hot cross buns; I even managed to give the kitchen and bathroom a pretty efficient clean!

A pretty hairy journey (she says, realistically I probably spent most of the car journey zombified in the back – I certainly couldn’t remember it at all well) or at least lots of U-Turns out of London, waiting around at the airport for who knows what, the most uncomfortable flight, inefficiency as far as the eye could see on the Spanish border, hustled onto a coach, queuing, queuing, and more queuing (spelling that three times was rather a struggle) and we were finally on the ship in time for afternoon tea (hence why my earlier ‘full day’ was in inverted commas. We had been hoping for a lunchtime arrival...)!

The initial plan as we expected to have plenty of time had been to venture into the old part of Malaga nearest to the port. However, as we were all beyond exhausted, and presented with amenities such as can be found on a cruise ship, it was kind of (/extremely) hard to tear ourselves away! As soon as we had located our cabins for bag depositing and freshening, we headed straight to the buffet! Cruise food is just. Oh gosh.
Once faces were stuffed (as if there wouldn’t then be food available all day, every day) we took a turn around the ship in an attempt to get our bearings. We oohed and aahed at the many lounges, bars, restaurants, decks and the casino (blasting out the cheesy 90’s hard house, as you do), discovered hidden places that we would later struggle to return to, and inadvertently (we weren’t just trying to get thrown overboard, honestly) came close to passing through several doors with restricted access. Ships are big (and by comparison, Thomson are small), so we retreated back to our cabins to unpack suitcases before we lost every drop of energy we had left.

Lured out again by the prospect of ‘cocktail of the day’, we placed an order and promptly fell asleep on loungers on the sun deck for an hour.

The thought of our first evening meal stimulated a sudden surge of energy, however, and we headed off to beautify and glam up in order for impressive food consumption! My menu looked a little like this:
Starter – cheese ravioli
Soup – Duck consommé
Main – pan-seared tuna (with veg and potatoes of some variety)
Dessert – Chocolate Charlotte (what an experience!)

Unfortunately there was very little time to sit back and revel too much in the pleasures caused by Chocolate Charlotte, as it was time for the passenger safety drill! In previous years, all guests have been lined up along the deck, where the more effeminate members of the entertainment team can always be found ensuring Dad’s life jacket straps are well and truly done up as tightly as they can be. This year, we were all herded into the show lounge, where someone who was probably supposed to know what he was doing made a half-hearted attempt at calling all of three names from his register before giving up. Well I HOPE WE WERE ALL PRESENT AND CORRECT, SIR. I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do in the event of submersion.

For some strange reason (not really, just because we were on holiday I imagine), instead of going to bed as we probably should have done having passed the 36-hours without proper sleep mark, we powered through, and found ourselves listening to a trio aptly named ‘The Rhythm of Three’. ‘They sound like they might be quite jazzy’, I heard myself say. Morbid fascination (or perhaps delirium caused by over-tiredness at this point) found us remaining in the Royal Fireworks show lounge for their entire set, and before we knew it we were participating in a quiz!? Despite none of us being quiz-types, we made an admirable effort and were some of the last to put our answer sheet down!

The quiz finished just in time for us to head out on deck to watch us sail away and join in with ‘sail away party’ celebrations (deep joy). I did dare to dance to Steps – 5, 6, 7, 8, but otherwise the ‘party’ consisted of guests standing around while the entertainment team tried and failed to engage us all in continuous mad dancing to awful covers of cheesy pop songs. After making what we felt was an acceptable length of appearance, we finally sidled off to have a party of our own on the sun deck in the wind and sea spray (nothing quite like it!) before realising how tired we were, so retrieving tea and wending our way down into the bowels of the ship (almost, at least) to BED... 42 hours later.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Welcome to the circus

Another year, another excuse for over-extravagant birthday celebrations! Monday 31st saw my turning 23, so I made use of the previous weekend for welcoming in the 23rd year in true Laura-style!

There’s nothing I love more than celebrating birthdays, and despite the fact that I was expecting them to get dull after 21, I am pleased to report that they have yet to do so; 22 and 23 have both proved equally as enthralling as the years that preceded them, and thus have seen me driven into my usual state of ‘birthday-girl-frenzy’...

This year all began with a surprise birthday party for myself and a work colleague with whom I share my birthday 2 years apart (25 was clearly the bigger milestone of the two, so I felt even more lucky to be celebrating mine). The night was spent playing with inflatable palm trees, sword fighting, playing pass the parcel, and alternating between pirate hats, Minnie Mouse hair extensions and tiaras for head-wear. SO much fun! Turns out my body on a Friday night felt like I was turning 46, not 23, as an early start meant an early finish and I was still in bed by 11 (I suppose it’s a good sign that I can have that much fun, yet still manage to be snuggled up by a reasonable hour? ... it’s not. I’m old before my time).

Having broken the alcohol-hiatus spell on Friday night, I awoke on Saturday morning feeling better than I had in weeks (worrying? I’m really hoping it was more to do with working hot water for the first time in a while and not a sign of how much my body had missed gin)! Saturday saw the arrival of the most highly anticipated event of the year (admittedly, not much of the year has been yet, and it was my birthday, so I may have been biased), the Dark Circus Party, courtesy of Belle Epoque.

I really wasn’t entirely (or let’s face it, at all) sure what to expect, but I’d been to the Prohibition Party also at the Bloomsbury Ballroom in February hosted by the same event company and had the most amazing time there, so didn’t think we could go too wrong with this one. I’m not quite sure how to explain or describe the experience, but suffice to say, it went completely above and beyond my expectations and I will absolutely definitely making a reappearance at the next one in May (if anyone cares to join me?)!

Initially when we walked in we were a little dubious as although the place was kitted out in the most wonderful way (a Big Top covering the centre of the room, a cage at either end, one labelled ‘Monstrous Menagerie’, the other donning a sign which read ‘Sideshow Freakshow’, the promising sight of a suspended hoop, well-dressed bar staff and monkeys offering guests popcorn), it did not seem as busy as the Prohibition Party... hang about though, I seem to have skipped a little too far ahead of myself here.

Let’s re-trace our steps to the beginning of the day.

I was lacking in anything to wear (well, I had shoes, but I wasn’t sure they’d be appropriate on their own... turns out I probably could have gone with the ‘just shoes’ plan in the end) which meant that Saturday turned into rather the shopping extravaganza; took the bus to Dalston for a fancy dress shop that I then couldn’t locate, off to Oxford Circus, Soho, back to Oxford Street, and home again (with McDonalds gorge in between to keep us going). It may not sound like we covered much, but in 2 or 3 hours with such a specific mission, we sure worked up a sweat of sorts! Somehow three of us without costume managed to find something to wear before rushing back to mine for burnt pizza (not intentional) ready to leave at 8... yeah. I think we always knew that part of the plan was not going to be feasible.

When we attended the Prohibition Party in February we missed all of the acts bar one, so this time we decided we’d attempt to make an earlier appearance and acts were due to begin at 9. However, despite our much later than planned departure, upon arrival we discovered that they didn’t start as early as we’d thought, so we were actually in perfect time!

The journey to the Bloomsbury Ballroom this time had a very different effect on the general public. Where last time our costumes had sparked great discussion on escalators and the tube, received compliments from elderly gentlemen, and caused a sense for all those who joined us in our train carriage of travelling back in time, the effect of circus costume was more one of shock, despair, and general disapproval. Jacquard leggings, corsets, leotards, stockings, leather, tattoos in all the wrong/right places, feathers and hats galore, accompanied by our two very own suited and booted men, we perhaps did look like some sort of ‘organisation’ shall we say? As we teetered along underground tunnels, we prayed that we might see fellow circus-goers in order that we may stand out slightly less (although on the other hand, we did all agree that it was rather empowering to turn so many heads and drop so many jaws)! However, none appeared (because clearly they were all sensible and listened to their friends when they suggested getting a taxi) so we assumed the position of circus-themed Pied Pipers, leading the way along subways and up escalators (in fact, even almost leading some poor, unsuspecting males into the party because wherever we were going ‘we want to be there’). 

From the Underground, my directional abilities were miraculously right on point and we descended upon the ballroom to discover our skills in the art of perfect timing!

The night was so much more than I ever could have expected, with something happening wherever or whenever the head turned; fire eating, pole dancing, feathers, tassles, acrobatics, cabaret singing, tails, top hats, frills, horn-playing moneys, Marilyn Monroe strip teasing, cake and cocktails galore! With a truly interactive feel, even those of us who weren’t professional performers became part of it all through simply being there; it was a magical kind of surreal!

The circus was certainly quite the contrast to Friday night’s ‘kiddie’s party’ and a fish and chip supper on the evening of the birthday itself (always important to bring a little ‘home’ with me wherever I go). Each year I wonder how I’ll ever beat the last, yet each year so far I seem to have managed it – who knows what’s to come?

 Welcome to 23, me.