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  1. Never one to turn down a potentially exciting new experience, I decided to join my sister and brother-in-law for a four night stay at a Thalasso (ie sea water) spa hotel in Port Camargue, southern France.

    I had never actually taken a ‘cure’ before, The nearest I’d got to it was a six- week ayurvedic massage course in Bangalore and several drop-ins at various spa centres in Germany, simply to swim, sit in the Jacuzzi and sweat it out in the sauna. The Bangalore experience, since it was ‘hands on’ and slimy, was probably nearer my expectations than the sedate German pool sessions (during my teaching days, usually accompanied by a party of Godalming or Cranleigh  school children, who I had felt needed educating in this peculiar aspect of German culture) .

    The Hotel des Bains is a Mercure hotel set in the uninviting surroundings of a windswept beach, and vast estates of grotesque, crumbling 1960s apartments clustered down the various inlets of a huge artificial marina. Every apartment had a mooring and every mooring was crammed with several sleek yachts or motorboats. Strangely though, hardly a human was to be seen. It was like the deserted set of a time-warp movie, the modern boats contrasting sharply with the bunker-like buildings.



    The hotel was expensive and shabby, paint peeling from weather-beaten walls. The architecture was typically mid 20th century glass-and-concrete ugly. It was, however surprisingly comfortable inside, with nice rooms, a restaurant with a superb view and excellent food. What’s more, wi-fi was free.  It’s being closed and refurbished later this year though quite how they propose to improve the outside beats me.  The weather didn’t flatter it – howling gales and rain for three days is not what you’d expect in the south of France in May. But this year, anything’s possible.


    The grandly-named ‘Institut Thalazur’ (which appears to be another name for Thalasso) is on the ground floor. I had signed up for four sessions – three morning and one afternoon, each consisting of 4 ‘soins’ (treatments) lasting between ten minutes and half an hour.  Apart from a few in the piscine,  the soins take place in one of some 20+ cabines. You are given your schedule for the week with the time and the cabine number for each soin, and you move from one to the next, often with time in between to rest on one of the sunbeds in the relaxation room by the treatment pool.  My best investment before I left home was a waterproof jacket for my Kindle, which meant  I could carry it around with me in my  free ‘Institut Thalazur’ bag. You’re also given a free pair of plastic sandals, and a fresh daily towel and dressing gown – which you  have to return at the end of your stay on pain of a 70 Euro fine. 

    In order to  enthuse you to have a go at thalasso, the following are the soins I was allocated – not having any idea about any of them, I decided to go with the flow and just accept what I was offered. My sis and b-i-l, old hands at thalasso, have their favourites so picked and chose their own.

    Douche á Jet1 –The assistant literally hoses you down with a high pressure hose. She starts with your feet and works up. I felt like one of the ancient Marwari stallions I’d seen being washed on the Maharana of Udaipur’s stud farm in Rajasthan. Though I guess I wouldn’t have felt quite so daft if I’d been a horse.

    Bain aux Cristaux Marins – a Jacuzzi tub for one, with sea water and some unidentified crystals thrown in. High pressure jets squirt you under the water in sequence, starting with the toes and working up to the shoulders with some interesting inbetweens.  Note to myself – remember to wear the other swimsuit next time as this one blows up like a balloon when the jets are turned on and I spent the whole 20 minutes fighting it and trying to punch it back down under the water. Apart from this little hitch the experience is very soothing till you try to get out. Some of the female assistants desperately need a course on customer care. They tend to dump you in, switch you on and then desert you. You’re left to make a graceful (or in my case otherwise) exit on your own. If you’re not quick enough all the water automatically drains away and the whole tub (including  you)  is sprayed with jets of some fiendish disinfectant.

    I was fine getting to my feet once I’d worked out that it’s best to roll over onto your hands and knees first. But the actual problem of getting out over the high side and landing safely on the steps down to the floor was like escaping from Alcatraz.

    Soin Dynamique marin: this is in the indoor sea water pool and sure is dynamique. Basically very vigorous pool exercises with flippers on your hands. My b-i-l approaches this like a 100 m sprinter whereas the rest of us in the class (usually 3 or 4 women) take a more leisurely approach. The instructress keeps a concerned eye on b-i-l in case his enthusiasm gets the better of him and he keels over like an old dog-fox in the mating season.

    Envelope á hibiscus: yes they really do smear icy cold hibiscus oil (so they say) all over you and seal you into a kind of space suit oven. Then they turn on the heat and  leave you to cook. Not sure what the point is or what it has to do with sea water,  is but it’s a nice, if somewhat weird, respite after all the water antics.

    Jet Sous Marin 1: this was great. The far end of the pool has a series of underwater jets and you do exercises while you’re trying not to be swept away by the pressure of the jet. I happened to have the instructor all to myself the first time so she could pile on the pressure (in every sense). It’s jolly good for my French too. Basically, understand or drown.  Afterwards she let me stay in the jet area for another 10 minutes so that I could practice tsunami survival tactics. 

    Hydrojet 1: don’t do this if you get seasick. You lie on a waterbed and get machine-massaged. It’s like having a herd of little upside-down elephants tramping up and down your body. It’s the sort of thing that you feel must be doing you good though I’m not sure that any of it is really. But it feels great. And afterwards it’s fun to spend a moment our two rocking yourself gently on the invisible water before the assistant decides to return to see if you’ve been sick yet.

    Pressotherapie: this is a load of humbug that every self-respecting French person simply swears by. ‘C’est pour le drainage’, the assistant announces with a totally straight face, Thankfully my sister had told me about it or I’d have had a few hairy moments thinking ‘le drainage’ could only be an enema.  It isn’t, but it’s just as daft. They smear some other unction onto your legs, wrap them up in bin bags and then zip them into some strange inflatable trousers and boots before wrapping the whole of you into another layer of rubber-like material to make sure that resistance is futile. Then they flick a switch and disappear sharpish. You are left lying on the slab with your assortment of rubberised gear expanding and contacting up and down your legs. Meanwhile the oily substance can’t decide whether it’s freezing or burning your legs to cinders. This goes on for around 20 minutes  until they come back to see if you’ve been sufficiently tenderised.

    Bain á Gelée d’algues: another of those jacuzzi things – this time with some smelly algae. Too late I realised I was once again wearing the inflating swimsuit. The bain is lovely except that all the time you are wondering how you’re going to get out. I spent the time devising a method. Once up, swing one leg over the side hopefully landing on the steps, then sit on the side of the tub as if on a horse and swing over the other leg, keeping fingers crossed that you don’t slip back into the rapidly emptying tub, or miss the step and shoot out onto the floor several feet below.

    Affusion 1: this is horrible and strictly to be avoided. You lie on your stomach with your face through the centre of an inflated rubber ring and they rain sea water down onto your back for around 15 minutes. You can’t open your eyes because the sea water stings them, it runs down your face and you can’t brush it off because if you lift your head you are putting your face in the deluge and your hands aren’t long enough to reach round the bed and up underneath through the hole.  I’m sure this is what they use as water torture in dubious foreign prisons (and possibly at Guildford police station in the 80s).

    Douche sous marine: another high tub. This time a Tahitian woman physically massages you with under water jets. Hard work having all the while to keep up a non-stop conversation in French for the duration although the assistant was very sweet. I felt exhausted by the chat instead of relaxed by the douche.

    Envelope algues laminaires: a really smelly one this. You get covered in slimy dark grey algae and zipped into a rubber duvet then left to stew slowly. Apparently another form of drainage I was told when I actually had the temerity to ask what on earth they were doing to me. Goodness knows what they were draining this time. I had hoped it would turn out to be some miraculous form of liposuction and half my body would have drained away when they unzipped me. No such luck. It was still all there, covered with stinky algae.  I had to shower thoroughly before I entered the lovely pool for another session of soin dynamique, which, thankfully, wasn’t quite as dynamique as on the first day, though my b-i-l  managed to turn it into an act of personal dynamism. This instructress wasn’t as aggressive – less of the ‘Plus vite! Plus vite!’ and the arm exercises were with board rubbers instead of flippers.

    Envelope á poudre de Coto. Sis flippantly suggested this might be something to do with cotton. She was right. They plaster you with hot ‘creamed cotton’, wrap you in cling film, then  zip you back into the usual straight jacket affair and leave you to bake. At the end of 20 minutes they rescue you, by which time the creamed cotton has baked into a layer of plastery powder. No idea what the purpose is – apparently it’s good for the skin.

    There are several other types of soins and modelages (massage), which I didn’t get a chance to try. Do I feel invigorated? Not really, just exhausted. I’m now recuperating for a few days at my sister’s house in Aigues Mortes.  I’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks to let you know whether there have been any long-term improvements, though judging by the cries of horror coming from my b-i-l when he stood on his bathroom scales, I would hazard a guess that any health benefits have been more than negated by the effects of the excellent menu and good wine at the hotel! I have resisted all invitations to weigh myself on my sister’s scales. I’ll put off the evil moment till I get home.

  2. I’d crossed ‘Visit to a Spice Garden’ off the itinerary suggested by the tour company. We’d all been to one before, either in Sri Lanka or in Kerala, and we all knew that it would be yet another glorified shop stop.

    So it was a bit of a surprise to find ourselves pulling into the ‘Sirilak 50 Herbal and Spice Garden - Tourist Board Approved’ in Matale, as we drove from Sigiriya to Kandy.

    A unanimous lack of enthusiasm pervaded our party until we spotted the signs for the toilets, at which point the unforeseen stop acquired instant appeal.

    Heinz and Margot were allocated a German-speaking guide and disappeared with him . Pam and I were commandeered by a youngster who declared himself to be an English-speaking guide, though much of his English was incomprehensible.   From the start he treated us with total lack of interest. He’d learned his lines and he might as well have been reciting them to a couple of geckos. He whisked us around the garden, stopping at various labelled shrubs and trees. There he regaled us  with his rehearsed script, rapidly delivered, eyes fixed on some distant spot.  And if we asked any questions, he brushed them aside as if they were irritating insects, which I think was probably a cover-up for not actually understanding what we were saying.


    Occasionally a few clear words rang out amidst the gibberish. As we approached an aloe vera plant he suddenly swung round to Pam and demanded, ‘Show me your legs!’ to which she had the presence of mind to snap back ‘No!’  before we both exploded into expressions of outraged disbelief.

    But it would take more than a couple of affronted foreign geckos to put this fellow off his stride. After declaring the virtues of aloe vera for beautifying legs he said (extremely loudly and with surprising clarity), ‘Excuse me, but you are both old.’ Before the shock had a chance to register, he continued, ‘You can use our  aloe vera cream and you will look twenty years younger.’

    At the end of this illuminating and stimulating tour he took us into the garden’s ‘pharmacy’ where he had one more verbal treat in store for us. Once again his tongue took off at a rate of knots and I drifted into a netherworld of aloe-vera induced youthful pleasures while striving to stay awake as he produced numerous fiendish potions and rattled off their miraculous qualities. I was brought back down to earth when I suddenly heard him declare that we should absolutely definitely purchase this bottle of some ‘metabolic’ concoction that he was waving around. ‘Take for three months, then slim body, not crazy body,’ he  ordered, glaring at us. 

    I made a mental note to put a notice on my fridge door ‘Keep closed for three months, then slim body, not crazy body’. Unfortunately my (lack of) will-power has ensured that crazy body is unshiftable. Should have bought the metabolic concoction…

    We met up with Heinz and Margot when we fled into the garden’s spice shop.  By the sound of it, their guide’s German was marginally better than our guide’s English.  And he hadn’t suggested they needed beautification, reduction or rejuvenation.  Even he had managed to  work out that it was better not to go down that road when half your party is bearded, gruff and clearly takes no prisoners. Sometimes it’s useful to have a man in your team.

    Of course it was obvious why we had not been allowed to miss the spice garden, a trap for gullible tourists.  You were expected to stock up on beautifying unctions, cooking spices and leave a hefty tip for your wonderfully knowledgeable expert guide. Oh yes, and no doubt the driver and the tour company would also get their share.   I did, in fact, buy some cinnamon bark – a request from a Sri Lankan friend back home.  However appalling their interaction with the public might be, we wouldn’t be calling in at any other similar establishments, and the spices they sold here were, hopefully,  superior to anything lying around on supermarket shelves in Colombo.  However, the guide most certainly did not get a tip! To do that, he would, at the very least, have had to acknowledge that we were human.

    We waved goodbye to this Garden of Eden where we could have stayed forever young and beautiful, and drove on through the town of Matale. Here Upali, knowing my interest in Hindu temple art, turned into a buzzing temple forecourt, which was filled with people. It was a typical South Indian temple, covered with vast pantheons of vibrant, colourful deities, an eccentric kaleidoscope  of  life and a real contrast to the tranquil contemplative Theravda Buddhist art that dominates the island.

    We weren’t allowed inside as there was a special puja taking place and the temple was closed to non-Hindus. But we were free to wander around the courtyard. In one corner we found the processional carts, which were used to haul the deities around the streets during festivals.


    It’s only about ninety kilometres from Sigiriya to Kandy but the journey was slow – the roads narrow with only one lane in each direction – and we had already made two major stops.  It was a good thing we had set out from Sigiriya relatively early - at 9 am. I wondered how on earth we would have managed to climb up to the Dambulla temples on the way – as the tour guide had originally suggested.  Thank goodness we’d done that yesterday.  Another instance of the advantage of having control of your own tour. Had we not been in charge, we would probably have had barely an hour’s stop at Dambulla, which would have been enough to race to the top, poke a nose into one of the temples just to say we’d been there, done that (no tee-shirts for sale here) and rush back down again, not quite remembering what we had actually seen, and not having the faintest idea what it was about.  

    And would we have had time to call in at the Hindu temple?  Would it matter if we hadn’t? Yes, it would matter. Unless you see a wide spectrum of daily life in a country you cannot build any impression outside the contrived tourist circuit.  It’s these unexpected bonuses that give you at least a glimpse of the real country, of everyday life outside the national sites of importance. 

    One more stop was on the itinerary before we reached Kandy:  the Peradeniya Botanical Garden.  Once again I wondered how we could have done it justice, had we stopped off at Dambulla. As it was, we were only given a couple of hours to explore the 147-acre park.

    This was my third visit to Peradeniya, my first having been in 1969 when we had been invited to the veterinary department of Peradeniya University, the oldest and most venerable university in Sri Lanka. It was here that we met the elephant-owning vet who became the inspiration for my short story ‘Flight’. We had stayed a couple of nights at the Peradeniya rest-house, and, of course, visited the world famous botanical gardens. Although the locals argue that there is evidence of some kind of botanical connection there way back in the 14th century, this is just a bit of Sri Lankan pride popping in. In fact the gardens really were founded in the 19th century under British rule. A lot of the original plants were imported from Kew. Not everything the Brits did was bad.

    I came again in 1996, with the Sri Lankan family. It rained on that occasion, but not for long, and we took refuge in the café while the shower lasted and looked across the vast green to the strange trees on the other side. The view has not changed.



    Now here I was for the third time with barely two hours to do the gardens justice and strict instructions to be back at the gate by four o’clock and not to be late because the driver could not park. So we headed straight through the park to the famous suspension bridge spanning the River Mahaveli (the longest river in Sri Lanka) at the far end. On the way we looked at the grove of trees planted by the famous and powerful, including Chou En-lai, the Czar of Russia, and of course, our own Queen Liz.


    Then we strolled down one of the park’s iconic walkways the ‘Avenue of Palms’.


    We also admired the cannonball tree planted by King George V and Queen Mary in 1901.


    Only a few people at a time are allowed on the suspension bridge, and you can only go to the centre and back. But it’s one of those ‘must do’ things and good fun as well as good views of the river. In 1996 I spotted a kabaragoya (water monitor) on the bank. This time I only spotted some noisy trucks whizzing past on the main road opposite. 



    Our last port of call was the famous orchid house.  It is certainly beautiful but… perhaps the Wisley Glass House has spoilt me. Or perhaps orchids are just becoming more accessible. Stunning as the blooms were,  there was nothing, I felt, that I couldn’t see right here at home.


    The reason for our strictly time-limited visit to the gardens was, it transpired, because we had to fit in a visit to a ‘gem factory’ before the scheduled ‘Cultural Show’ in Kandy. Of course we all know that any sort of factory is actually a glorified shop. But this time we could be sure of one thing – none of us would be splashing out. We paid lip service to the visit and left very quickly, although the gems, particularly the sapphires for which Sri Lanka is famous,  were undeniably pretty. In any case, I didn’t need one – my nephew bought me a lovely dark blue sapphire in 1996. I know, you’re thinking that the more desirable ones are a lighter blue. That’s what they all told me, but I loved the dark one best.

    The Culture Show was supposed to be part of our ‘paid for’ package but the news hadn’t filtered through to Upali, who insisted we pay again. Not a good start, but we’d sort it with the tour agency later – well, that’s what we thought, anyway.

    Kandy is probably justifiably regarded as the cultural showplace of Sri Lanka. The famous  Kandy Perahera, when the Buddha tooth relic goes on parade, takes place every July or August. The Kandyan Dancers are also cultural icons of the island. We didn’t expect any elephants to pop up on the stage, but there were plenty of dancers, some of them displaying breath-taking acrobatic skills. And afterwards we were taken out of the Cultural Centre into the courtyard where we were ‘treated’ to a display of pyrotechnics that included fire-eating and walking on hot coals. Great stuff.




    The day ended on a sour note. We arrived at our hotel, the Topaz, beautifully placed on top of one of the hills overlooking Kandy, to find they’d never heard of us. The agency had booked us into a different and inferior hotel without telling us, or the driver.  After a  long day we had to return to the vehicle, head back down the hill and up another one. Our introduction to the Hilltop Hotel left much to be desired. The guide of an Indian bus tour was having a shouting match with the man on  reception. His choice of language was so disagreeable that eventually I intervened, reminding him that there were ladies present. I don’t usually consider myself ladylike but at times it has its uses. The guy apologised and shut up.  

    The rooms were substandard, the meal outrageously expensive, the Indian group was having a loud karaoke session at the far end and the mood among my party was poisonous. I’ve travelled enough in the east to know that things go wrong, and to be philosophical about them. Unfortunately some of my fellow travellers are less forgiving.

    Pam and I decided to cheer ourselves up after the meal by chatting to the Indians though we drew the line at joining in the karaoke.

    Ah well, tomorrow would be different.