Posted in Travel

A Theme Park By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Parc Asterix logoThe second instalment of the travelogue of our half-term camper van trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

With our usual degree of advance planning for our travels, we are already at Dover awaiting the Channel Ferry before we discover that the only place we had identified as a must-see on this trip will be closed for the duration of our stay. The Parc Asterix website , which I’m idly browsing on my smartphone, informs me that this attraction operates only from March to October. I’m anxious that my daughter Laura (10), an ardent Asterix fan, will be bitterly disappointed.

My husband is less than helpful.

“Isn’t this what happens in the National Lampoon movie, Vacation?” he reminds me. “The Griswold family base their entire trip to visit a particular theme park and turn up outside its gates after a long road trip to find it closed?”

I sincerely hope that the similarity between our holidays will end there, and am starting to wonder how I have the nerve to call myself a travel writer when inspiration strikes.

“Plopsaland!” I declare. “Let’s go to Plopsaland!”

Plopsaland logoThe Secret Theme Parks of Europe

Some time ago we realised that certain European countries like to keep their best attractions a secret, discouraging visits from pesky foreign tourists and preserving all the fun for their fellow countrymen. Choosing names that do not sound alluring in other languages is another great tactic for repelling non-national visitors.

Exhibit A: France’s conservatively named Grand Parc, which sounds like damning with faint praise. It strikes me as a bit of an understatement for a place that is meant to outshine Disneyland Paris.

Exhibit B: Efteling in the Netherlands. Not only does the name mean nothing to the non-Dutch speaker, (it sounds to me like some sort of fish), it’s listed in the Rough Guide under “D” for “De Efteling”rather than “E”, which explains why I couldn’t find it until after we’d been there.

Exhibit C: Belgium’s Plopsaland. We’ve seen copious signs on the Dunkerque-Bruges roautes, but the name sounds so unalluring to the English ear that we’ve always passed it by. Laughing. Well, when you have a small child on board, it’s hard to ignore any signs that offer the opportunity for toilet humour. Apparently there’s also a PlopsaCoo and a couple of PlopsaIndoors too.

The Call of Plopsaland

Last Easter, on our way back from Luxembourg, we managed to collect a Plopsaland leaflet to show Laura’s cousin Tim, who embraces lavatorial jokes ever more enthusiastically than she does. He was delighted. So this trip, to compensate for Asterix playing hard to get, we decide before we’ve even left Dover that we’re going to make a bee-line for Plopsaland, where, according to its website, we can look forward to such treats as the Gnome Plops Garden.

“Well, gnomes have to poo too,” observes my husband, who really ought to have grown out of toilet humour by now.

And bee-line proves to be an appropriate word, because it turns out that Plopsaland was founded by a honey manufacturer. Sweet.

As we board the Channel Ferry, I’m already looking foward to visiting the gift shop, because I’m sure Tim would love a souvenir t-shirt saying “I’ve been to Plopsaland”.

  • Catch up on the first instalment of this tour at my previous post: A Question of Priorities
  • Coming soon: a full report on the Belgian theme park, under my new suggested slogan – “Plopsaland – Much Nicer Than It Sounds”
Posted in Family, Personal life

Where Do Cats Go For Their Summer Holidays?

The calico cat and its new bed
The calico cat and the lesser-spotted girl

Like most parents of school-age children, I’m counting down the days till the end of term. I can’t wait to ditch the school-run/clubs/homework routine in favour of the anarchy that is the school summer holiday. But planning for the holidays this summer will be more complicated, because we now have a cat.

Dorothy Purrkins, as my daughter christened her, moved in on the snowiest day in January. An adaptable, sociable animal, she’d go with the flow, whatever our chaotic household threw at her. So quickly did she adjust to our routines that I wondered whether she’d previously had us under surveillance.

When other cats entered “her” garden, she’d chase them off her territory with gusto. When we had human visitors, she’d greet them on equal terms, confident that they would be pleased to see her (which they always were).

The Mona Lisa.
Like Mona Lisa’s, Dorothy’s eyes follow us around the room. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After six months in residence, she’s calling the shots. When her food bowl is empty, she sits next to it, politely but firmly pinning me with a laser-like look until we replenish it. After an outing to the garden, she stands on the window-ledge staring with the intensity only a cat can muster until we open the window to let her in. Seated companionably in the sitting room of an evening, her eyes follow us proprietorially around the room. We should have called her Mona Lisa.

But what will happen when we go away to Scotland in the summer? I worry that, thinking we’ve abandoned her, she’ll move on in search of a more dependable home. I could send her to a cattery for the duration, but a cat with a huge rural territory would not enjoy a fortnight penned indoors. Even with a kind friend happy to feed her while we’re away, it’s a tough call.

Monarch of the Glen, Edwin Landseer, 1851
It’s a pity Landseer didn’t have a cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or so I thought until this morning. After despatching husband and daughter on the school run, I was standing quietly in the utility room, enjoying a calming cup of tea before work. Dorothy Purrkins sauntered confidently past my feet, heading for the cat flap. Strolling leisurely up the garden path, she chose the best vantage point before settling down on the lawn, surveying her territory. She was a tortoiseshell Monarch of the Glen. Spoiled for choice by the many pleasurable opportunities that the garden held in store, she lay quietly considering her options. Snooze in the hammock in the shade? Warm up with a sunbathe in the greenhouse? Gaze at bits of blossom falling from the fruit trees? Chase butterflies fluttering around the gooseberry bush? Sprawl on the patio, absorbing the sun’s heat stored in the stone paving slabs?

Whatever was on her agenda, Dorothy Purrkins looked utterly contented with the prospect. And so my decision was made: for her it will be a holiday at home. In fact, I might even join her. Who needs travel anyway?

The calico cat on a cushion
As Dorothy always says, there’s no place like home

This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2013

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Posted in Family, Travel

A Day At The Beach On The Isle Of Skye

On the beach at Glenbrittle, Skye
The ambitious new sand palace begins to take shape

I’m concentrating on turning out the perfect sandcastle from Laura’s small pink bucket when I feel a sudden, unaccountable cold sensation at the back of my skirt.

Only when I realise that it’s also a very wet sensation do I swivel round to check the advancing line of the tide. In best pantomime tradition, it’s behind me. It’s taken me by complete surprise, as if playing an oceanic version of Grandmother’s Footsteps.

Building a river as the tide comes in at Glenbrittle beach, Skye
Building a river

Our planned sand palace for Laura’s toy dog, Candyfloss, is fast segueing into a water park. But are we downhearted? No, we are turncoats. We immediately set to work making a river, digging a trench from the water’s edge to the rocks a few yards further up beach. We are the antidote to King Canute.

“Come on, sea!” Laura coaxes. “You can do it!”

On this broad, shallow beach on Skye, we’re on to a winner. Our labours are soon rewarded. Laura is disproportionately joyful; I do not reveal how startled I am by how quickly the tide has encroached.

It is a sobering reminder of man’s powerlessness against the forces of nature. Against the almost primeval setting of the vast, bleak landscapes of the Cuillin hills, it’s not hard to feel small and insignificant – but it’s also exhilarating.

Laura beachcombing at Glenbrittle,Skye
“Anyone seen Sponge Bob about?”

What’s more, it’s a useful educational experience for Laura. I’m hoping an hour or two on the beach will counteract the hours misspent watching her favourite television programme, Sponge Bob Square Pants, set at the bottom of the ocean and defying all laws of nature. In Bikini Bottom, life carries on much as on dry land – only sillier. Repeated exposure colours your perception of reality.

Even I find myself pleased to spot a starfish (as in Sponge Bob’s best friend, Patrick Star) when we take a glass-bottomed boat ride a couple of days before. On the kelp beds beneath the Skye Bridge, there  are numerous sea urchins – beautiful, fragile, spiny domes in ethereal shades of mauve, pink and flesh. “So why are there no sea urchins in Sponge Bob?” I wonder, before I can stop myself.

Paddling in the warm shallows at Glenbrittle, I scoop up a tiny crab in one of Laura’s plastic spades. What’s the first thing I think of? Mr Crabs, the miserly fast-food entrepreneur who is Sponge Bob’s employer. I really need to get out more.

Finally, Queen Anticanute’s work is done.

Laura's river is a success
We did it!

“I’ve made a rock pool!” she rejoices, waving her spade.

Promptly abandoning her post to let the tide demolish her sandcastles, she skips off to romp through the shallows with the energy and enthusiasm of a puppy, kicking and jumping about until she’s dappled with saltwater splashes.

Picking up her abandoned turquoise fleece to save it from the encroaching tide, I take shadowy snapshots against the westerly sun, vicariously enjoying her childlike pleasure in the sea.

Little girl in a big sea at Glenbrittle, Skye
Little girl in a big sea

She’s not really dressed for a dip, but in budding rock-chick style is wearing scarlet pedal-pushers beneath her new black “Stonehenge Rocks!” t-shirt. Her thick dark blonde hair has been dragged into a plait down her back to guard against the tangling effect of today’s strong winds, currently buffeting her daddy along the top of the Cuillin hills behind us. I wonder how long it will be before she’s a rock-chick in earnest, jaunting off to Glastonbury with her boyfriend. But for now I capture these moments in my camera in hope of freezing the passage of time.

Out of the corner of my eye, I espy four young German boys clambering over the black rocks that line the bay. I hope they have an eye on the tide and will not be cut off from a safe return.

Time and tide, my friends, time and tide.

Looking out to sea at Glenbrittle beach, Skye