For the last two weeks we’ve been gallivanting about on holiday, taking in rather diverse locations and activities. Come to the end of it and I’m rather more knackered than I was at the start, which possibly wasn’t the plan, but otherwise a good time was had by all. Let’s start at the beginning…
Location: Pontins, Camber Sands
My friend Wayne, with whom I co-host the Spiffing Review podcast, acquired some free tickets to this event a few months back after taking advantage of an offer within the pages of SFX Magazine itself. Upon ringing the subscriber hotline to see if they had any free tickets left, he was asked how many he wanted. Rather surprised by the open-ended question, he plucked a number at random, which happened to be ‘four’. As such myself, Nadia and Chris Burdett (writer of the Jack Steel audio drama) headed down on Friday 5th February to the south coast, to a holiday camp called Pontins.
I’d never been to a holiday camp. For some reason it wasn’t somewhere my parents had ever shown any interest in visiting. I now understand why. Outside of war zones and areas suffering from famine or disease outbreaks, it’s probably the worst place on Earth. A truly atrocious mixture of creaky, disintegrating buildings and furniture, obscene hygiene standards, awful food, bad beer, undertrained staff and cringeworthy naffness, it’s a true hell-hole and one which I can’t imagine anybody voluntarily visiting for a holiday.
We were there because the SFX Weekender was there, and that barely justified it. Later, courtesy of Mark Charan Newton’s blog, I discovered that the Tor authors had wisely stayed in a cottage outside of Pontins itself – if I drum up the courage to attend SFX Weekender 2, which they’ve astonishingly already booked at the same venue, I’ll be saving up to do the same.
All that aside, the event itself was interesting and fun, despite some teething problems that were inevitable for SFX’s first big event. The intimate author readings and Q&A’s in the Slaughtered Lamb pub were particularly good, as was anything with Toby Whithouse of Being Human writership. As with Eastercon a couple of years back, if China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie are on the list then it’s worth going to – and I’ve now also added Richard Morgan, Peter F Hamilton and Paul Cornell to that list. The main thing is that I came away from the event re-invigorated and eager to write.
You can hear more of my thoughts on this Spiffing Review podcast.
Location: Axams, near Innsbruck, Austria
Two days after returning from Pontins, we drove down to Gatwick to begin our skiing holiday. The night before the flight we were staying at the Courtyard Marriott hotel which was lovely – good meal, good bed, very pleasant. Next morning we got up to drop the car off at the Airpark and our bad luck began: they’d cancelled our parking booking because they’d expected us the previous morning. This didn’t tally up with the information provided when I’d booked it – so as a word of warning, don’t book airport hotel and parking with Essential Travel. A rather self-righteous, strangely stressed out Airpark employee gave us an assistance sandwich (genuine help between layers of rudeness and buck-passing) which finally got us parked and on the bus to the terminal, where we met up with Chris, Jen and Eve.
Eve had changed considerably since we’d last seen her and was racing about the place like a miniature stuntwoman, charging up and down the concourse and doing her best to escape the attention of her parents. She’s also developed a decidedly amusing habit of walking up to strangers and staring them down until they either laugh or cry. At one point she went up to a teenage girl that was sleeping on a bench and pulled her coat over her, which was very sweet.
The plane took off on time, although an ominous few snowflakes were beginning to fall on the runway, and a couple of hours later we were approaching Innsbruck airport. It was then that the captain informed us that an unexpected snowstorm had hit most of central Europe and that conditions at Innsbruck were too bad for us to land – it would seem that Easyjet either has crappy equipment that can’t cope with extreme conditions, or pilots that aren’t trained to handle it. We circled for half an hour until our fuel got too low, at which point we diverted to Munich – yes, Munich in Germany, completely the wrong country.
The plan at this point was to land, refuel and wait in the hope that conditions would improve back at Innsbruck. The two airports are only a 20 minute flight apart, so nipping back over the border would have been a relatively simple job.
Instead, Easyjet HQ back in Luton (why does that seem so appropriate?) deemed that we’d instead coach the remainder of the journey, which meant disembarking, removing all the luggage from the plane and waiting for three large coaches to show up. Weather at Munich was godawful as well, cold and mildly blizzarding – which made me wonder how much worse it could be in Innsbruck, if we were allowed to land in Munich.
The coach ride took about four and a half hours through dense, rush hour traffic, slowed down at every opportunity by hugely icy roads, heavy snow and a couple of selfish passengers that decided to turn a 10 minute toilet stop (the onboard toilets were frozen and inoperable, which was fun) into a 20 minute Burger King visit. Eventually we pulled into Innsbruck airport, at which point we grabbed the nearest decent-sized taxi and got on our way to Axams, about 6 hours later than we’d expected.
The road from Innsbruck to Axams naturally goes uphill and is quite steep. Unfortunately our taxi driver didn’t seem to have considered this in advance, despite having an awesome beard, and thus we got stuck on a hill along with a bunch of other hapless drivers, all skidding in random directions in an alarming fashion. The taxi driver hopped out to apply snow chains (without using gloves, which again was odd), we drove off once more and the snow chain snapped, spinning off an shattering the car’s ABS system.
At this point, it seemed that we’d inadvertantly done something to really piss off the universe, so bad was our luck.
The police arrived, we got the chains on and limped to the Hotel Kogole, where we picked up the keys for our apartment. After trudging up another steep hill dragging out suitcases behind us through the blizzard and deep snow (more tiring than you can imagine after 11 hours of travelling) we got to the front door. And the keys didn’t work. Well, they did, it just took us about half an hour of wrestling with the stiff door to get in. In the end, it was gone 11pm by the time we entered our apartment.
There was one stroke of good luck, though: the Hotel Kogole was staffed by absolutely lovely people, who helped us on our late arrival, promised us spare rooms if we couldn’t get the key to work, and even ordered some takeaway pizza for us as their own kitchen had already closed. We ate there several times later in the week and the standard was always top-notch, plus they were very baby friendly and helped us arrange a taxi for our (blessedly easy) return journey.
There at last
So, putting the journey aside, the rest of the week was most enjoyable – although still beset with unusual problems, such as Chris being slightly and suddenly ill and buses not turning up on our first day to the slopes due to an annual carnival that we didn’t know about.
The ski resort itself was a 15 minute bus ride up the hill to Axamer Lizum. Except for that first day the buses were on time and very easy, a pleasant contrast to the UK. Up at the resort Chris and I hired our equipment from a bunch of mountain dwarves (seriously, they looked so much like your typical smithy dwarves from any roleplaying game you’d care to mention – except for their height – that I was tempted to ask for a battleaxe and dragonscale armour) then started exploring the slopes.
Axamer Lizum is an Olympic skiing location, which is evident in its pistes, which start at blue and then become a web of red routes, plus a couple of blacks. There are no greens whatsoever. Given that I hadn’t skied for about 12 years it was an uphill struggle (downhill?) to find my legs and get back in the groove. By the end of the week I’d just about worked it out, but it certainly to0k longer and was much harder than I expected. This is almost certainly due to me being 29 rather than 17 and a slightly unfit bastard. On the plus side, I feel fresh and invigorated having returned.
In the afternoons we wandered the town and visited the marvellous bakeries, then retired to the apartment in the evenings for games, food and movies. Nadia became particularly addicted to a card game called Dos Trios, which we’re now attempting to buy if we can just find a UK seller. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs was watched and enjoyed by all, which I was glad to see given that it was my 2009 Spiffing Review film of the year.
The best thing about the week was spending extended time with Chris and Jen and getting to better know our goddaughter Eve. Can’t wait to see how she develops over the next few months and years – there are good time ahead!