Christmas Quiz 2013

The other day I read that a tradition can be said to be anything that you have done at least three times. So , following on from that logic, here are links to the quiz I put together this year for our annual lunch at Stockport’s Arden Arms.

I like to use a theme and this year’s theme was loosely based on the number 7.

2013 quiz

xmas 2013 picture quiz

2013 quiz answers ( Spoiler Alert)

2013 quiz answer sheet

Previous Year’s quizzes from 2010, 2011 and 2012 can be found in these posts:

2010 Quiz

2011 Quiz

2012 Quiz

Feel free to use any of this material as you wish, plagiarism is actively encouraged. If you use any of it and enjoy it, then please let me know in a comment below.

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An Alpine traverse by the Bernina Express

Today is without doubt the planned highlight of our trip. A one way trip through and over the Alps on a scenic train from Switzerland and down into Italy. Echoes of Hannibal, Otzi and Edward Whymper. The Bernina Express, a panoramic train, takes four hours to travel just over 100 km, through 55 tunnels  and over 196 bridges. It climbs to 2250 metres. This part of the journey was pencilled in first and the rest of our travels effectively planned around it.

bernina1

We check out of the Post Hotel in Chur after a good breakfast and make our way on foot back to the station to await the 8.34 am Bernina Express. It will be on time; this is Switzerland after all: regimented, just a bit anal, fussy, tidy,  litterfree, well behaved  and all in all  a little too “German”.

chur

The Bernina express exceeded all our expectations, the 4 hours went by so soon. There was good overall visibility but rather overcast during the first part of the journey along the Albula line as we saw castles and churches on precipices of rock with distant views of the approaching mountains. The railway climbed ever upwards until we reached the Landwasser viaduct , an astonishing feat of engineering which delivered the train on a sweeping curve into a tunnel entering a vertical rock face. The view from an open window was remarkable.

landwasser

The section from Bergun to Preda climbs over 1500 feet in just a few kilometres , this increase in altitude achieved with a bewildering series of viaducts and tunnels, some of which are complete spirals, which constantly change your view of the valleys and peaks. At the end of this section the line descends to the valley of the Inn river and the town of Samedan. So far, Every corner has brought a new chocolate boxtop or jigsaw view, with green alpen fields, cows and swiss chalets all in an immaculate manicured landscape.

Filisur_Bernina_express

I realise later that as we started our journey on this train , any rainfall we saw would eventually end up in the Rhine and arrive in North Sea, at this point of the journey though the Inn river drains into the Black Sea and the odd flake of september snow that we saw at Alp Grum ( see below) would drain into The Po and the Adriatic Sea! The watershed of Europe.

Bernina-Express

From Samedan the train climbs ever higher to Lago Blanco, the high point of Ospizio Bernina ( 2253 m or almost 7400ft) and then a pit stop at Alp Grum. Here the passengers disembark to stretch their legs, photograph the train and the glaciers, and there, to the distant south Italy and its sunshine beckoned. The Italian peaks in the distance are highlighted with blue sky.

poschiavo

After the stop the train begins an incredible descent towards a distant blue lake at Poschiavo. We are still in Switzerland but the on-train audio guide has told us that Alp Grum represents the boundary of language and we are now in Italian not Romansch or German Switzerland. The houses are less tidy, graffiti appears and occasionally people are possibly late for work! Eventually we reach the last major landmark of this trip; the Brusio viaduct which is completely circular and reminds you of a snake swallowing its own tail.

brusio

The train arrived in Tirano, Italy had now taken over completely, joyously scruffy gardens, doing something tomorrow is a good excuse and laughing out loud is not punishable by a fine. We left the Rhaetian Railways station and entered the other Italian railway station across the toytown square. We bought 2 rail tickets to Milan for 22 euros, two and a half hours away. Don’t tell Richard Branson. A small cafe is a useful source for  sandwiches, water and wine. The aged train with its 60′s rolling stock had possibly 15 to 20 coaches but only 60 people on board. Very inefficient, if this was run by the Swiss they would have  a fit!

tiranotrain

Signs in the loo tell you not to use the facilities at the station, there are dirty windows and it’s all a bit decrepit  but after Switzerland, we loved it. The journey is warm and sunny, Mediterranean smells come through the open windows as we picnic on wine and substantial sandwiches. The  initial part of journey is through Valletina borderd by the Rhaetian alps, vineyards and forests. From Colico to Lecco the train runs alongside 25 miles of Lake Como affording  brilliant lakeside views, tantalisingly broken by tunnels of unknown length.

lakecomo

After passing through Monza, we arrive in  Milan’s huge grand limestone edifice of a station. This must be a Mussolini legacy , all quasi-Roman Empire. We take a taxi to Hotel Berna as we were hot, bothered and want to avoid hassle. Ten euros for what was effectively a five minute walk. But our generosity to the local economy was repaid as the Hotel Berna gave us an upgrade! Our room had everything, a large bathroom, lots of mirrors, free soft drinks, jacuzzi bath and more pillows than John Lewis.

berna-milano

After a quick wash & brush up we get out to see city. Three stops on the underground, direction San Donato bring us to Duomo. A Perfect time to see this marvel of a cathedral as the late afternoon sun lit up the white marble western end in  glorious luminance against a cobalt blue sky. Along the northern edge of the piazza ran the huge 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Forget the Meadowhall and the Trafford centre, this is the original shopping mall built in 1865, filled with designer shops and expensive cafes and restaurants. After spending time in the piazza, we passed through the galleria into the Piazza la scala and sat in the little park below the statue of Leonardo da Vinci.

milanduomo

We wandered around the streets looking for somewhere to have a meal. We decided not to have the 19 euro sandwich in Trussardi despite the chic interior. After much debate, we ended up in a virtual takeaway eating gnocchi bolognese , aubergine parmigiana and chicken with fried potatoes. Water and two glasses of wine, 25 euros. Eventually found our way back to duomo where it was still busy and the cathedral was now lit by lights. Just by the entrance of the galleria was the stylish bar Camparino, which specialises in a drink not dissimilar to the name! Here I was obliged to enjoy a Negroni and the free bar top snacks whilst OH used the “facilities”. The things I have to do!

Camparino

Back on the metro, and a last, somewhat overpriced, drink in a pavement cafe before bed. Venice tomorrow.

Stop that train: I’m leavin’ – today!
Stop that train: I’m leavin’ – anyway!
Stop that train: I’m leavin’. And I said:
It won’t be too long whether I’m right or wrong

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Across the river and into the mountains..

We declined the offer of paying for breakfast at Austin’s Hotel and instead went into Cafe Leonard, and learned two things. Firstly that a tartine is a small half baguette, and, because the  Cafe Cremes were over 4 euros each, it is often false economy to try to save a couple of euro by eating out. Taking the Metro a few stops to Chatelet, we enjoyed more  moments of confusion before finding the Seine and the  Pont Neuf bridge. The walk took us past the iconic Samaritaine department store which is now closed. Then back to the Rue de Rivoli behind the Louvre, walked the arcades admiring the mixture of tourist tat and expensive furniture, before we entered the Louvre to emerge in the main square with the glass pyramid.

louvre

The need for refreshment sent us across the Seine to the Rive Gauche and St Germain. We paused  at a cafe and took coffees at the bar, where our neighbour at the zinc top was reading L’Equipe and last night’s football results. At first I took him for a Frenchman, but he was another Rosbif . Afterwards, we walked along the Rue Jacob admiring the fine boutiques selling  either beautiful macaroons or collectible letters, including examples from Proust, Hemingway, Picasso and Buster Keaton. ( Letters of course, as far as I know Buster Keaton was no baker!)

caferivegauche

I learned today about Baron Haussmann, the 19th century prefect of Paris who was responsible for so much of the ‘Grand Boulevards’ architecture made up of blocks of  buildings of typically six storeys. These include a ground floor usually given over to cafes and shops, a lower mezzanine floor, the balconied grand second floor and so on in declining importance to the 6th floor garrets and attics in the sloping mansard roofs. Here though, on the left bank, the narrow streets, haphazard alleys and the less structured buildings represent what medieval Paris must have looked liked. Back across the Seine, we walked on to the Ile de la Cite to look at Notre Dame. Marring the approach view of the famous frontage is a strange structure apparently built to help people look at the building. I am not sure it works. We caught the Metro back to the hotel in order to quickly pack, check out and then get over to the Gare de Lyon for our afternoon journey to Zurich on the 320km per hour TGV Lyria.

I had researched Tripadvisor to find somewhere to have a good lunch before spending over 5 hours on the train to Zurich and then on to Chur. The most famous place to do this is The Train Bleu, a restaurant in the station, but although the interior is a spectacular vision of Fin de Siècle Paris, the prices are as high as the painted ceilings, the staff indifferent and the general online consensus is that it is now a tourist trap of the worst kind. We settled on the Duc de Richelieu, a family run bistro on the Rue Parrot. Again there were mixed reviews but very few suggested the food was a problem.

parismenu

We were shown to a table for two in a dining room already well populated at 12.20pm. Madame la patron was keen to upsell to her suggestions menu offering Turbot, Lobster and 13 euro starters but we held our nerve and insisted on a choice from the 14 Euro Menu Formule for the OH, Salade de giesers confit followed by Poulet Fermier Roti, whilst I went a bit off-piste and chose the Rillettes d’Oie ( duck pâté ) followed by a Pave steak with a pepper sauce and frites. I asked for the meat to be cooked A Point on the recommendation of YS. We also asked for Un Demi (50Cl) of a white Macon wine.A carafe of tap water was provided as a matter of course.The food was great, just ignore the blatant attempts to persuade you to spend more. The locals all did.

Into the Gare de Lyon and Hall One with its line of TGV’s facing the waiting passengers ready to whisk them away to Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the South of France. The train was very well appointed including interiors and seats designed by Christian Lacroix, the only problem was that I was facing the back again. After 30 mins we realised that there were a pair of spare seats facing the right way just behind and so we changed. Visited the bar for a tea and a wheat bear at Mulhouse, recalling my last time on that station was in 1966 on a school walking holiday to Austria .

tgvs

After 4 hours, we reached Zurich, and then had an hours wait to take Intercity train to Chur. The barman on the TGV had changed a few Euros for Swiss Francs so we had enough for drinks on the concourse. There was a strange vibe, the station seems to be a meeting place for young teenagers, those that managed to avoid being swept up by constant patrols of cleaning machines. Just before boarding we walked to the edge of the station to take a brief look at Zurich town centre and saw some trams. Zurich – done.

Boarding the train, we reflected on how pleasant Swiss Intercity trains were. Wide, comfy seats and a general feeling of luxury. That notion lasted through 45 minutes of the remaining evening light and the most spectacular part of the journey with views over Lake Zurich before the ticket inspector disabused us , announcing we were in First Class and could either decamp to Second or pay more. This was an easy decision and Second Class was still good. One observation that says a great deal about the Swiss and their attitudes was that in second class were the usual numbers of young people lost to the outside world on their Ipods and phones, many with their feet on the empty seats opposite. Without exception, each  had removed their shoes or, in one case, placed a sheet of paper on the seat to rest their feet on.

We reached Chur after dark at around 9pm. We decided to check in to the Comfort Post hotel without delay and then find somewhere for a quick bite to eat. I knew the hotel was an easy walk from the station but was unprepared for the ‘Stepford Wives’, deserted streets feel of the town centre. Lots of closed, expensive shops with lit displays but no people and no sign of life.  Ahead,  I noticed a drunk starting an argument with himself over a dropped and broken bottle. As we passed, I watched him carefully and sure enough after we passed he chose to run directly at us, heading for the non-existent space between us. , My initial adrenaline driven  response was to advise him of his similarity to the male member perched on his shoulders in a loud voice and a brief stand off followed before he dropped more of his pointless possessions, started to weep and we continued to the hotel. Wilkommen am Chur!

We checked in, asked about eating only to be told everywhere closed at 10. So we hurriedly dropped the bags into the well appointed room before venturing out into dark, depopulated Mittel Europa . The churches, Rathaus (town hall) and other medieval buildings were all proving a bit too Teutonic for OH. I was simply living in some episode of Tales From Europe. I neglected to tell her that Chur is situated on the Rhine river. We were both defeated by the menus which were all  uncompromisingly German. Bill Bryson compares German to Italian in the language of food and asks you to draw your own conclusions: Schweinefleisch mit kartoffeln or Vitello alla Milanese.

St.Martinsplatz1

After a number of nearlies we settled on the Drei Bunde, which promised pork in many varieties to be served by Eva Braun’s granddaughter complete in dirndl-like outfit and leather waistcoat. The wooden panelling, tiled stove and pictures of local scenes were a bit disconcerting but in reality the family owned place was friendly enough and the food quite good. I had breaded Pork Cordon Bleu, ham and cheese in an escalope with my second lot of chips in the day, OH went for breaded pork, as above but without the ham and cheese, with noodles. These were substantial portions. Back to the Post hotel with everything very correct and efficient, although as I rapidly dropped off to sleep under a warm Swiss duvet, I imagined I heard several people being dragged away from the street outside for thinking about dropping litter or staring too long into shop windows. And perhaps from some closing Bierhaus:

The branch on the linden is leafy and green
The Rhine gives its gold to the sea
But somewhere a glory awaits unseen
Tomorrow belongs to me

Tomorrow , our Alpine crossing on the Bernina Express over to Italy. Von Ryan is waiting!

Take the last train to Clarksville,
And I’ll meet you at the station.
You can be be there by four thirty,
‘Cause I made your reservation.

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Gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Today begins our Grand European Tour in the manner of some young Eighteenth Century English aristocrat. It will be condensed into 12 days rather than the usual 12 to 18 months required to acquaint some young Marquis with classical art and architecture.

The plan is to travel by train over 12 days visiting Paris, Zurich, Chur, cross the Alps from Switzerland to Italy on the scenic Bernina Express. Next on to Milan, Venice, Florence, the Ligurian coast, Genoa, Turin before coming back to Paris, Brussels, Bruge, Brussels again, London and Stockport. All the arrangements have been made independently with full use made of the internet and guidance provided by the excellent Man in Seat 61 and his comprehensive website. I used booking.com to arrange hotels and a combination of Tripadvisor and other sites to try to discover some worthwhile places to eat that would not break the bank.

Overall, the amount of planning undertaken and the quality of the final dossier would have probably seen me rapidly promoted as a logistics staff officer in the Wermacht of the 1940′s. Despite OH’s case developing wheel fatigue on the first set of steps and people in our seats, the train was on time, and we enjoyed a pleasant enough trip down to London . OH has decided that as stations go, Euston is not her favourite. The changeover to St Pancras was included in the price but I wondered if it was worth taking the tube rather than simply walking between stations given the stairs, elevators, tunnels and corridors.

st-pancras-station-02

St Pancras is a great station with  civilised food and drink outlets. YS met us and bought us glasses of champagne to send us off. The Eurostar check-in was painless with a printed QR code held against a scanner and an appropriate level of security check. No need to remove my belt to check that I was not concealing a Klingon death ray machine.

On boarding the train and reaching seat 61, in homage to the great website which had been such a help in organising this trip. I was disappointed to discover it was facing the wrong way! I really dislike travelling on train facing away from the direction of travel. As I had already done the same from Stockport to London, it would now be 500 miles of looking back in anger by the time we reached Paris. Not bad though as we could have made the journey from Stockport to Paris city centre in around 5 hours with some more risque timings.

austins

At the Gare de Nord, it was rush hour and our journey continued on a frantic metro on two overcrowded lines to Arts et Métiers, a metro stop named after the Arts and Crafts museum. Choosing the wrong exit from the underground station left us disorientated for a while until a helpful passer by showed us the way. Austin’s Hotel was small but welcoming and our room was similarly petit but with all amenities: Aircon, TV, Safe, Hairdryer, Tea-making facilities etc. The bathroom had everything we needed and the whole place was spotless. A quick spruce up and we left to sample a sunny early evening in the French capital. Ah Paris: dogs, the smell of black tobacco, Haussmann designed avenues, police sirens unchanged from the sixties recalling the film,  Day of the Jackal,  and no end of eccentrics. Our aperitifs of a glass of white Gascon wine and a draught Grimbergen wheat beer at the Cafe Arts et Métier were accompanied by olives and peanuts as we watched the Gallic world go by.

artscafe

Later we repaired to Cafe L’Absinthe, which I had checked out online, for a nice evening meal at a reasonable price. I chose a pâté to start followed by some white fish in a tomato sauce served with a gratin of vegetables whilst the OH ate a somewhat odd Thai salad then Gigot of Agneau ( Lamb) in a cream sauce scented with garlic and served with frites. No room for dessert and after a short walk around, we went to bed early , pausing only to check the England and Ukraine World Cup qualifying result and then being thankful that I had not wasted 2 hours on my life watching another poor game on TV at home. Tomorrow we will do a little sightseeing in the morning and then move on to another country, Switzerland.

Good morning America, how are you?
Say don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five-hundred miles when the day is done

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The train leaving Platform…

2013 has been a year so far that could have been described as “somewhat challenging ” in a number of areas.  I reached the 60 milestone in August and am now about to embark on a celebratory trip with the OH around Europe on trains.

Our trip has some parallels with Bill Bryson’s travelogue Neither Here nor There, A book written by an older man recalling a youthful European trip. In 1973, 40 years since, I spent the summer interrailing around Europe. Back then £33 bought a month’s unlimited rail travel around the whole continent from Spain to Finland, France to Greece. That time our trip could have been subtitled ” Only 4 Nights in a real bed” , so when I suggested a similar trip to the OH, she was, understandably, initially less than enthusiastic.  The promise of a hotel each night , rather than an Italian park bench or Greek beach,  forged a compromise and we leave Stockport bound for Euston and St Pancras for a first trip on Eurostar tomorrow.

interrail

It will be interesting to see how much has changed. There will be no aluminium framed rucksack full of smelly loon pants and dodgy tank tops for a start. Nor will I be sporting shoulder length hair. There will definitely be no litres of Bavarian beer in Munich beer halls, no frantic exits from Athenian clip joints or flirting with female American Jehovah’s witnesses. I doubt I will eat horse steak in a Dijon department store cafe, be entertained by gypsy violinists in Belgrade or witness a 3am knife fight over a piece of cardboard to sleep on in a Roman park.

But there will be new adventures of a more sedate kind to be found in Paris, Switzerland, Milan, Venice, Florence and Bruge. Eurostar and TGV Lyria, Thalys and Frecciabianca!

The freedom train is coming
Can’t you hear that whistle blowing
It’s time to get your ticket y’all
And get on board

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Happy Birthday, 32 Today!

Over 2 years ago, I made a post celebrating ES’s 32nd birthday , see here, so it seemed only fair that I make the same effort today for YS and  FDIL (who coincedentally shares the same birth date).

Last time in my post, I went backwards through the generations showing what ES’s ancestors were doing at 32. I can’t do that again so another idea was to find other beautiful and talented people who were born on July 15th:

Only Mr Diarra was actually born in 1981.

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Margaret Kit Williams 1929-1982

My mother, Margaret,  was born on the 6th June, 1929. She would have been 84 today and as proud a great-grandmother as I am a grandfather to Florence. I always remember her birthday as it was the same day as D-Day, the epic invasion of Normandy that was a turning point of Word War II.

Margaret Williams

Margaret Williams

She died in December 1982, aged 53. At the time,  I was 29 years old, a husband and a father of two boys of 3 years and 18 months, life was not easy and I worked at two jobs. To my lasting shame , I could not face visiting my mother in the last 2 years of her life that she spent in a ward of Springfield , a mental health hospital with a Dickensian appearance and reputation. The effects of Alzheimers , a disease little understood or even known as a condition a generation ago, had left her not knowing her own family. I sometimes justify my cowardice by thinking that the disease had taken her away before she was committed to Springfield.

I recently thought about her on a bank holiday day out in May to Worcestershire and its famous Spring Blossom trail. We visited the small  town of Pershore in the Vale of Evesham. Our childhood holiday journeys to Cornwall in the Sixties were always punctuated as we passed through Worcestershire by my mother’s memories of her time there as a Land Girl at the end of the War . She  joined up to be of service at around 18 years old.

Margaret in uniform

Margaret in uniform

Losing a parent when relatively young is hard and the pain takes a long time to dissipate and recede. One salve comes in  the form of making your own family, watching them  grow and have children of their own. It is hurtful to remember that my mother never knew my children as her dementia took her away from us all at least two years before her death .
I feel sorry now both for her and my own sons that they never experienced the pleasures of knowing each other.

Frank, Margaret & Bert Williams

Frank, Margaret & Bert Williams

It is the natural way of things for people to die; each generation passes. Sadder yet though  to outlive your children. My grandmother, Edith, on my mothers side, buried all three of her children, each of whom died in middle age. She had brought them up as a widow after losing her husband Arthur, my maternal grandfather who I never knew, aged 51 in 1945.

All you can do is to accept that people pass on and to take comfort in the joys of raising your own family and watch as they grow and have families of their own.

Today the final lines of Christina Rossetti’s Remember  (full text here) seem relevant:

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

( The photos above can clicked on to see a larger image, the better to appreciate her beauty!)

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