Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Truth About Sleep

In recent years, I have had a troubled relationship with sleep. It isn't just because I have a young child, though that certainly doesn't help. She likes to get up at stupid o'clock, and still has illnesses and bad dreams often enough to keep us on semi-alert all the way through the night.

But I wasn't much good at sleeping before she came along, to be honest. I don't think I've slept through the night since I was about 21 years old. I am terrible at dealing with jetlag, not that there's much opportunity for long-haul flights at the moment. How I envy my daughter the way she sleeps when she finally - after a much protracted bedtime routine of toileting, baths, further toileting, toothbrushing, hairbrushing, saying goodnight to the cats, reading Harry Potter, non-stop chatter and clingy cuddles and us popping in and out of her room for what feels like hours - FINALLY drops off. I don't think there is a more beautiful, heartrending and peaceful sight than a sleeping child.

If I am in familiar surroundings, I can get to sleep fairly quickly. (Different story in a strange bed, when I seem to forget how to fall asleep at all.) But then after a couple of hours I will wake up, and then spend most of the rest of the night tossing and turning, having silly dreams where I am half-awake, half-asleep and trying desperately not to get up and go to the loo. At certain times if my thyroid is swollen, I develop sleep apnoea and wake up gasping for breath, my heart pounding. And then just as I finally settle and begin to nod off again, something will disturb me - a passing drunk or car on the street outside, an owl in the park, or the pigeon that lives on our roof and coos at the first break of dawn every sodding morning. Or the girl wakes up. Or the cats start taking lumps out of each other or knock something over downstairs. Then there is my husband, trying to reclaim his share of the duvet, or rolling onto his back and starting to snore, or having one of his nightmares which make him wail like he's being murdered. And so it goes on, with me getting more and more restless, my joints achier and achier, and my feet and hands full of pins and needles. Then I will pass out into proper unconsciousness about ten minutes before we have to get up for school and work.

With my own little foibles, I am very annoying to share a bed with. I hate noise, so sleep with ear plugs in. I like darkness, so want blackout blinds and sometimes even an eye mask. And I love lots of fresh air, so I will sleep with the window wide open even in the depths of winter, the duvet over my head so that all is exposed to the chill is my nose. (See husband's battle with the duvet in the previous paragraph.) To help ease the sleep apnoea I will smear myself in Vicks and stick a little plastic strip across my nose. Then I need the bed propped up on several books to relieve acid reflux, so it feels like I am lying on a cliff, regularly sliding down to the bottom of the bed until my toes hang over the end. This gives me backache, and makes me toss and turn even more.

Sometimes my husband and I just give up with each other and sleep in separate rooms. It's bliss. But we don't like to admit that to one another.

(And my husband would just like to point out that it is very hypocritical of me indeed to complain about anybody snoring.)

But I am by no means alone. The Truth About Sleep, presented by Michael Mosley, told us that insomnia is becoming a national, generational problem. None of us are getting enough sleep. And it's making us depressed, obese, and diabetic, and prone to all sorts of other health problems. But I really didn't need to know all that. It's enough to keep me awake at night.

You can measure how sleep-deprived you are by lying on your bed in the middle of the day. Hold a metal spoon over the edge of the bed above a metal tray. Make a note of the time. When you nod off, you will drop the spoon, and the clatter of the spoon hitting the tray will wake you up. See what time it is, and how long it took you to fall asleep. If it's less than 15 minutes, chances are you need more slumbertime.

So what can we do about it? GPs offer the quick fix of sleeping pills, although they are usually reluctant to prescribe these for long, as they are addictive and - if our bodies adjust to them - soon rendered useless. That said, some people end up swallowing them for years. There is only so much resistance a doctor will put up if they have a waiting room full of patients to see.

But what about more natural ways of reducing insomnia? Well, there's the obvious behavioural things like avoiding alcohol and caffeine and large meals just before you go to bed. Although apparently if you down a shot of espresso just before you take a nap, you will feel much more alert when you wake up. This is the recommended course of action if on a long car journey you find yourself too tired to drive. Pull into a service station, buy a coffee, and then have a snooze in your car. But who the hell can manage to have a decent nap in a car, other than a toddler? Not me, that's for sure.

Another thing you can do is to switch off all screens - laptops, smart phones, Kindles etc - at least an hour before bedtime. The light from them acts as a stimulant and upsets our body clocks. Proof that the darkness I crave is important. Our daughter still refuses to sleep in the absolute dark, but daylight certainly keeps her awake in summer. Michael Mosley goes to stay the night in a Danish greenhouse to investigate the healing effect of floods of natural light controlling our bodies.

Kiwi fruit and alcohol-free wine

Then there's a selection of what seem like kooky old wives' tale sleep aids to try out. Two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime. A hot bath. A session of mindfulness. And taking pre-biotics, a white powder stirred into a drink to encourage gut bacteria to grow and thus improve the dynamic between our brain and digestive system. A group of insomniacs each trial one of them. Bizarrely, all seem to have some sort of beneficial effect. I think I'll have a go at the lot.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Child-Friendly Holiday Review: Les Sablons with Eurocamp at Portiragnes-Plage, Languedoc, France

Eurocamp made me laugh today with a new blog post about walking holidays for beginners, celebrating "national walking month". There was nothing particularly funny about the post, which was simply highlighting booklets of walks that some parcs have published. We own one from Lathuile in Annecy last year, where unfortunately a week of pouring rain meant we didn't set out on any of them.

What made me laugh was that our hikes in the French Alps were curtailed by not just incessant rain, but also our six-year-old daughter, who is currently the world's biggest moaner on walks. Her whining can dampen even the hardiest of spirits in the most glorious of sunshine. We live in Yorkshire, surrounded by beautiful scenery - the Dales, the Moors, the Wolds. It spoils us. It tempts us. We are determined to enjoy it, as well as trying to get a bit of much-needed exercise. Every weekend we drag our daughter out on what could be described at worst as a gentle stroll, usually no further than a couple of miles, and usually featuring a bluebell wood, an interesting view or geological feature, some cute animals or birds, and a massive bribe of a cafe or ice-cream van at the end. But still there is this constant pitiful wail in the background - "It's too far, Mummy!" "How much further is it, Mummy?" "My feet hurt!" "I'm tired!" - slowly sapping us of the will to live.

It doesn't help when the weather forecast turns out to have been slightly inaccurate
Sigh. I am sure we are not alone in this, and that she will grow up determined to climb mountains and reflect her Cumbrian roots. I am fairly sure I was none too happy about being taken up hills in the rain at her age either. But whatever, for now we need to accept that we're a still long way off being able to book a Eurocamp walking holiday.

So this Easter we decided to go for the much easier beach option. Keeping mountains (in this case, the still snow-capped Pyrennees) at a suitable distance, we flew with Ryanair from Manchester to Beziers, and booked ourselves a week at Camping Les Sablons in Portiragnes-Plage in Languedoc. We paid £341 for the flights including luggage, and just short of £420 for our accommodation, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom Vista, including bed linen and towel hire.

Distant Pyrenees
Miraculously, this year French air-traffic controllers weren't on strike for either of our flights, and all proceeded smoothly. Ryanair had become a lot more family friendly since we last travelled with them, and Beziers airport is one of the smallest I have ever been to. It literally consists of two rooms - one for departures, one for arrivals. Facilities don't extend much beyond some Portaloos and a tiny bar, although extending them does appear to be on the agenda. The airport also only has two customs officers, which meant for a long wait at passport control, which will no doubt only worsen post-Brexit if (and please no!) we all need to get visas as well. Ryanair were as impatient as ever to be off, so they boarded their return flight to Manchester while we were still queuing across the Tarmac all the way back to the plane. Our suitcases had been waiting for ages by the time we got through.

We had booked a taxi transfer, as Eurocamp had listed Les Sablons as one of their recommended car-free destinations. It's certainly no distance from the airport to the campsite so in a matter of minutes we were checking in at the courier reception. A disinterested girl sat lazily behind a desk and drew an X on a map to show us where to find our caravan. On every previous Eurocamp holiday we have always been taken to our accommodation personally by the courier. I don't know if this is just part of Eurocamp's constant cost-cutting - we've lost the free playing cards and shopping bag, we've lost the returning customer complementary wine, and now we've lost the one guaranteed interaction you had with your couriers. (And it transpired, while we're listing first-world problems, that we've lost the black bin bag outside too.) Les Sablons is a big site and we were on foot, so some assistance during a long walk with luggage and an over-excited child might have been appreciated.

Slightly limited space for an Easter egg hunt

The top bunk was a must
Our mobile home was great - it was almost as spacious as the Avant we rented at Lake Garda last year, and seemed almost as new and well equipped. (Minus the dishwasher of course.) In the end, we were glad that all the Avants at Les Sablons had already been taken by the time we booked the holiday, as they were in a very cramped location near to a large toilet block. Our Vista had a much nicer setting. The caravan was clean, although there was a slightly unpleasant smell in the cupboard under the sink. (Some of the drains on the campsite plainly needed work.) The caravan had air conditioning and heating, although things got a little chilly at night. As there were only the three of us, we could share six blankets between us, and that was enough. The bed was surprisingly comfortable - often they aren't the best in Eurocamp homes.

However there were at least three light bulbs not working, despite the courier's checklist claim that they had all been tested that day. The only one we needed and chased them up on was the outside light, but this turned out actually to be broken, as a replacement bulb didn't make any difference. We made do with little LED lights and torches we had brought with us to sit outside in the evenings.

The pitches were shady under trees, which must be a welcome relief in summer, but also meant that the outside furniture was splattered with bird poo. The ground was sandy, and full of busy ants pushing the dust into piles. It was quite fascinating to watch (if you are six), and thankfully the ants at this point weren't finding their way into our caravan. At dusk, bats swooped around the caravans, and mosquitoes sparked on the electricity points. Don't forget your insect repellent - these fellas seem able to bite through clothes.

As I mentioned before, the campsite is big, so it was quite a walk to the pools and shopping facilities from our pitch. But this meant that it was very quiet all around us, with no disturbances from the bars or evening entertainment, although this wasn't in full swing at this time of year. No foam nights yet, just a mini disco for the kids, and a slightly awkward magician. And we did have things to entertain us nearby - several ping-pong tables, a tennis court and a play fort. Not having been able to fit much into our Ryanair luggage allowance, we borrowed various items of sports equipment and games (plus a couple of beach mats) from Eurocamp reception.

The campsite had a decent-sized supermarket, with a bakery and newsagent's next door. They were open every day, even on the Easter bank holidays, though closed for a siesta for a few hours in the afternoons. The prices were quite high, but needs must when you don't have a hire car. The bread and pastries from the bakery (called a depressingly English "Bread And Sun") were fabulous, and it was a joy to get up early each morning to buy our freshly baked breakfast supply.

Creperie reverie

As for the food outlets, we got takeaway pizza one night. There were plenty of toppings to choose from but we couldn't dissuade our daughter from her standard margherita. She also indulged in several of the bar's crepes Nutella (see above). We ate once in the campsite restaurant, which was friendly and just fine. We opted for the menu du jour (duck on a bed of sweet potato puree, with a weird thin breadstick sticking out of a minuscule glass of gravy) and lucked out because they had run out of the official ile flottante dessert of the day so let us have their home-made tarte tatin instead, which was incredible. The lovely waitress assured us we were getting a good deal, and then made it an even better one by forgetting to charge us for it. I have to say that everyone on the campsite was so nice and seemed to take real pride in their work. It probably helps that I can speak reasonable French and like to strike up a conversation, but the staff were without exception truly warm and often very funny people.

The pools were heated so could be enjoyed (just about!) even this early in the season. The water in the covered pool felt greasy with suncream after the morning aquarobics session, but otherwise they were pretty refreshing. There were slides, a toddler play pool and a jacuzzi pool, and one more suited for proper swimming. The pools were really busy in the afternoons, but we nonetheless always managed to get a sun lounger. The pool toilets smelled foul by the end of each day and were best avoided. Unfortunately the adults only spa area didn't open until the 1st of May, which was clearly stated on the campsite's own website, but not on Eurocamp's. This was a shame, as it looked great and would have been a real bonus if we had had any time to spare away from our daughter.

Which we did have as she was quite happy to join the campsite kids club activities once a day. These had to be booked at their office in advance, and quickly filled up. We were quite proud of our daughter's self-confidence as English kids were definitely a minority presence, and she knows only a smattering of French words from her lessons at school - bonjour, j'adore, trois, lundi, violet and ananas. (Believe it or not, telling someone she loves three purple pineapples on Mondays isn't necessarily the most random thing she is likely to say on a given day.) They did lots of craft activities, and walks around the campsite. And not being able to speak French meant she had to do all the walking without moaning. Good for her.

Walking on the spot is also OK, it seems

And it meant we could go for a long walk ourselves. On Easter Sunday the kids club activity was a three-hour Easter egg hunt, which gave my husband and me time to find the Canal du Midi, and walk to the lock at Portiragnes village and back. It was idyllic, and so relaxing. We saw lizards, bulls, horses and even flamingos from the path. The famous plane trees that line the canal are being struck down by a lethal fungus so the path is no longer as shady in parts as it once was, as the trees are being felled in order to curb the spread of the disease. There were plenty of boats cruising towards Carcassonne and the Atlantic, but the lock at Portiragnes only took three of them at a time, so there was a long queue of them required to wait outside the village. In the glorious sunshine, however, nobody seemed to be complaining.

Yes, sunshine! As equally miraculous as there being no strikes and our daughter not moaning on campsite walks, the sun was shining when we landed at Beziers, and pretty much didn't stop for the whole week we were there. And it was unexpectedly warm, averaging 23-25 degrees most days, which is my absolute optimum temperature. After three years of holidaying with Eurocamp in our winter coats, we were delighted, and didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. But it was just as well, because we may have run out of things to occupy us if the weather had been bad. Eurocamp say you don't need a car for this campsite, but that's only true if you are happy with just a beach and campsite holiday. Exploring the region without a car is quite difficult. There is a bus service to Beziers, but it is designed for the needs of commuters and school children, so you have to be up and ready to go for 8am if you want to make use of it. This, needless to say, caused some more moaning:

The bus goes to Beziers via all the local villages so takes around 40 minutes. And it only goes to the gare routiere rather than the train station (which is a 20-minute walk downhill from the bus station). So we had to abandon plans for trips to Montpellier and Carcassonne on public transport as the bus just didn't connect that well with the trains, and the extra walking would have started off that moaning again. There were two buses a day back to the campsite - one just after lunch and one about five o'clock, so you had to plan the day carefully. However, the big advantage of the buses was that they were super cheap - if you bought a ten-journey pass (which the three of us could share), each ride only cost a euro. The bus driver was greeting us like old friends by the end of the week.

Beziers is well worth a visit, with its beautiful cathedral, old bridges, canal locks and Roman remains. It also has an extensive indoor market and plenty of good restaurants and cafes. We found a quiet square (Place de la Madeleine) for lunch behind the market where, in a restaurant called Au Soleil, we feasted on a tasting platter of oysters, pissaladiere, prawns, smoked salmon and cold pea and mint soup. The hostess was charming, and so welcoming to us all.

Another day we took a further bus to Pezenas, a gorgeous town full of artists' ateliers and quaint and quirky shops. Moliere used to hang out there a lot, and it's not hard to see why. It really is a lovely place.

The town's local delicacy is a mince pie; a legacy from Clive of India, apparently. The filling is like your average Christmas mince pie, but the pastry is raised hot water crust, like on a pork pie. They garner a mixed reception:

Pezenas was all geared up for Easter, with a busy food market and a street decorated with paper flowers and bric-a-brac stalls. We met a friend who lives in the area for lunch, who took us to a wonderful restaurant (Chez Hansi) run by a guy from his village. It's the sort of place we would never have found by ourselves (although it is currently number one on TripAdvisor), and the food - a warm chevre salad and lapin for me - was amazing. We chickened out of his speciality dish, a steak tartare prepared at your table.

But for the rest of the holiday, given the perfect weather, we were content to just hang out on the beach, which was a wild stretch of sand that went on for miles, all the way to the Spanish border. The sand was mixed with millions of tiny, colourful, perfect shells. The campsite had direct access to the beach through the dunes, and Stick Man and his family pointed the way:

The sea was needless to say pretty cold, but you got used to it. Or maybe your skin just turned too numb for you to care. Some days the water was quite rough with waves that could knock small children sideways; on others it was a calm oasis with barely a ripple on it. The beach had a long shallow shelf so you could paddle quite far out without getting wet beyond your knees.

The resort at Portiragnes-Plage was "upmarket" according to Eurocamp's brochure, but that wasn't a word that immediately sprang to our minds. Although it was hard to gauge the place, as a lot of the shops and restaurants hadn't yet opened for the summer season. We found a couple of places to eat, but they weren't spectacular. In fact, one had an all-you-can-eat buffet that looked like it might kill someone. We found some more promising looking places a little further from the campsite, but only on the last day when a lot of them were closed after the Easter weekend. A circus was in town, but we failed to find it. There was a big nature reserve leading on to Serignan Plage, where families gathered for barbecues on the bank holiday. The nature reserve had more dunes and a large lake like the one next to the campsite, which had several safari tents alongside it and was under a permanent fog of mosquitoes.

View towards Beziers cathedral from Portiragnes-Plage

All too soon it was time to leave. The couriers, having cycled past us several times without a word of greeting during the week, also did their best to ignore us when we arrived back at reception to check out, although admittedly we were in the company of a child having a screaming meltdown because she had just fallen over, badly scraping her knee. Anyway, when addressed directly, the couriers agreed to store our luggage for us, as our flight back to Manchester wasn't until early evening. They however failed to turn up at the agreed time later that afternoon for us to collect it ready for our taxi. Thankfully, one was only a phonecall away so we weren't overly delayed. A word of warning - the taxi cost twice as much on the return leg as on the way there, because he also charged us for his travel out of Beziers. Probably best to agree a fare in advance. But we had been too busy chatting about the upcoming presidential election and the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The taxi driver had a brother who lived in Manchester and was facing an uncertain future.

We would go back to Les Sablons in a heartbeat, although it would possibly be way too hot and crowded in the peak summer season. (We couldn't afford August prices anyway, whereas the Easter rates were extremely good value for money.) We were incredibly lucky with the weather, as it is always a risk to take your main holiday so early in the year. We benefited from Easter being late. The disinterested Eurocamp couriers were definitely the least good aspect of the otherwise fantastic trip, but their bike rental guy was in contrast chatty and helpful. But at least they keep the caravans clean and if you rented the campsite's own accommodation (some of which looked really cool, in lovely garden settings) you would either have to leave it immaculate or pay a hefty cleaning charge.

I don't suppose we'll get our daughter on a Eurocamp walking holiday next year either, but if we return to Les Sablons, we might persuade her to accompany us along the Canal du Midi for a short stretch to see the flamingos, but there may need to be the promise of a chocolate pancake on return. I am very relieved that Marine Le Pen has since lost the election (one power-crazed xenophobe as Prime Minister at home is enough), as we would love to explore Languedoc some more. But next time we would definitely rent a car. Maybe one of the shiny purple Fiat 500s the hen party in the next caravan had hired for the weekend, which looked seriously smart.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby

Our friend "the purple hotel" in Newcastle

I don't get to stay in amazing hotels. I get to stay in Premier Inns. They're fine - more than fine, in fact - but they don't tend to come with a rooftop infinity pool. And you don't get much foraging for wild partridgeberries outside a Table Table. But that's OK. Needs must. Sometimes, however, it's fun to see how the other half (or much tinier fraction than that) live.

Giles Coren and Monica Galetti are off to explore some of the world's more unusual hotels. Because they work for the BBC, they don't just get to gloat at us from a sunlounger, they're expected to pitch in to cover the cost of their board and lodging. No problem for Monica, deputy chef to Michel Roux Jr and capable of doing a full Haka of facial expressions when overseeing a skills test on Masterchef. But Giles has no apparent talent for anything, apart from winding people up. I would just like to extend a sympathetic hand to his sister Victoria, for managing to do rather well in life despite having such an annoying tit for a brother.

Giles can't take a single task seriously. Expertly feng shui interiors? He deliberately moves objects off diagonals. Help with the laundry cart? He hitches a ride on the back of it. Help with the valet parking? He nearly crashes a Ferrari like a boy racer in a multistorey. (And a valet parking job is a real privilege, since it costs 55,000 dollars to own a car in Singapore, which none of the staff can afford.) And then Giles is useless when he's not even trying. Check in? He can't find the reception desks, he says, though they are clearly in shot behind him. Deliver valets back to reception? He can't work his walkie talkie at the same time as driving a golf buggy. Iron the pool towels? He can't insert them into the machine. But he's full of smart alec comments about it all, as though it's all terribly beneath him. He also wants his mum to take in his trousers for him. Giles, it seems (and this becomes even more apparent in subsequent episodes), is quite the male chauvinist. Monica, on the other hand, soon gets stuck in, rolling up dim sum and enthusing about the chocolate room and the uniform delivery system. Take note, Michel, for she will soon be demanding her chef's whites be sent by conveyor belt direct to her wardrobe.

Their first hotel is the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, which opened in 2010. It consists of three towers with what looks like a giant surfboard perched on top of them. The cathedral-sized lobby is full of Antony Gormleys. The suites have their own karaoke rooms. It's a far cry from Raffles.

The surfboard is actually a rooftop garden and swimming pool, whose water somehow manages to not tip out 55 storeys on to the streets below whenever someone dives in. It's all to do with 500 finely balanced jacks, the architectural plans tell us. In reality, the pool is used as one permanent giant selfie shot, and while the programme is quite to give us lots of hotel statistics (cost to build, room rates, uniform numbers, casino wins, towels laundered, kilos of cauliflower consumed), it doesn't mention how many iPhones get dropped and drowned in its waters. But I'm reckoning on several hundred a year.

The hotel didn't exist when we went to Singapore en route to New Zealand in 2006, not that it would have been within our budget. Our visit there is a bit of a jetlagged blur of sweaty heat, temples and office blocks, colonial mansions and cocktails, expensive shopping malls and wonderful street food, and a cable car and a dolphin show on Sentosa Island. I remember getting off our flight from London and feeling like I'd been punched into a bowl of cloying soup. The humidity left you limp.

Everything was terribly clean and ordered.  If this was Asia, it felt like a terribly sanitised version of it. The Disneyland edition. There were a lot of rules about how to behave on the MRT. No chewing gum, no flammable liquids, no durians. (For more on durians, see Dara O'Briain and Ed Byrne on the Road to Mandalay, broadcast last night.) I don't remember much about our hotel (a Swissotel overlooking Boat Quay) other than the air conditioned bliss of its bedroom. I remember Raffles more, where we called in for the obligatory sling, if only because the floor of the bar was covered in discarded monkey nut shells. Very crunchy.

The rest of it was a strange mix of technology meeting tradition, and distinct cultures and religions (Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist), all in a tiny (and literal) melting pot. We spotted the same Victorian floor tiles from our flat in Crouch End used in the Thian Hock Keng temple, a touch of the colonial British that Dara O'Briain also noticed in Penang last night:

We didn't have nearly enough time to explore in our brief sojourn before it was time to catch our onward flight to Auckland. We had even less time in Singapore on our return leg, a mere six hours in orchid-filled Changi airport, which also has a swimming pool. We used the time purely to grab some sleep in the airport hotel, where you can rent a room by the dodgy-sounding hour. It was a blissful interruption - complete with shower - to 29 hours of flying in economy. But even further removed from anything the Marina Bay Sands has to offer. Unless you can rent a sunbed by the infinity pool without paying the extortionate overnight rate.