Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Saturday, May 31, 2008

New 'favicon' Icon for Google - and what is Favicon anyway?

New Google Icon
I think I need to get out more !

Yesterday I noticed that Google has gone and got itself a new 'favicon' icon, a rather stylish blue 'g' rather than a Capital 'G' in a white box.

By now I'm sure half of my readers will have switched off and the other half will have decided I've gone bonkers. For those of you left, a quick side explanation about favicon's ....

Favicon (short for Favourite Icon) was pioneered by Internet Explorer 5 and for once this proprietary Microsoft extension has now become common across most other web browsers.

If you define a simple 16 by 16 Windows icon (or logo) for your own website, name it favicon.ico, and then install it on the root directory of your website, when someone bookmarks your website your icon then appears alongside the browser bookmark to remind a visitor about your site, as your link in their favourites will then stand out.

Firefox then extended the use of favicon by displaying the website icon in the browser address bar and on the tab window so it's instantly visible what website you are looking at, and now IE7 has copied this design feature as well.

I've had it on my "to-do" list for some time to get around to defining my own website favicon, but somehow I've still not quite managed to do so. You need a graphics program that will output Icon format files such as Paint Shop Pro or Icon Forge, or there's a simple online favicon editor over at and a favicon generator on that takes a .GIF or .BMP picture and converts it to .ICO format.

The picture above shows some of the open tabs from my current Firefox session; the orange B is Blogger, the blue G in a green box is the original Google icon, next to it is ebay and on the row below is AngloInfo, a website which doesn't have a favicon setup (so shows the default white box) and then three of the new curly 'g' google icons.

It appears that Google's not yet rolled the new icon around all of its websites, and have both been changed as has Google Analytics and Google Maps, but Google Adwords is still the old fashioned square-box G icon.

And I've beaten the Googling Google blog to this news. Like I said, I need to get out more ...

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Bookings holding steady for 2008

Painting of the front of our Gite
I've not written for some considerable time about how we are doing with bookings for our holiday Gite this year, so to rectify the situation, a quick blog posting.

There's plenty of articles around in both the newspapers and on the Internet about over-supply of holiday homes/Gites in France is meaning many owners are finding that they've been struggling for bookings over the last few years, even having trouble filling the peak school summer holidays.

In our experience of renting our Gite over the last four years, we haven't seen any sign of a slowdown.

This year, as at the end of May 2008, we're now booked solid for all of June, July and August and don't have a single free vacant day until 31st August, then we're (as at right now) vacant for September, then we've a couple of weeks booked already for October. Compared to this time last year we're ever so slightly down on days booked (7 days less in total) but on pretty much the same as the year before, so all in all I'd say we are still keeping even with previous years.

One thing that does surprise me each year though is comparatively how few bookings we get through April and May. We've been over at Easter for the last 3 years running and at May half-term for the last couple of years, and have always found the weather to be really warm and pleasant - not baking hot but nice enough that you can sit outside on the patio and eat lunch and dinner, even in March! If I tried doing the same in the UK in March then I'd probably catch pneumonia!

Be interested to hear how other people's experiences of 2008 bookings are going?


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Free online copy of 'The Traveller in France' magazine

FranceGuide, the Official website of the French Government Tourist Office, has recently launched the Summer 2008 edition of 'The Traveller in France' which covers many aspects of France as a holiday destination - the glorious seaside, rolling wine areas, fantastic cuisine and cultural heritage.

There's special articles on France’s varied coastline, the great outdoors, city breaks to places like Montpellier, Tours, Bordeaux or Orange as well as an article on some of the talented artisans who maintain and rejuvenate some of France’s finest monuments and buildings.

You can order a printed copy of this guide plus others about holidaying in France such as Golfing Holidays and Wine Regions from the French Tourist Office brochure request site or you can view an electronic online copy (and print it yourself or save it to PDF) by going direct to the Traveller in France magazine.

Of course if this has wetted your appetite for your own French vacance then I can recommend a rather nice little country holiday gite in Brittany ....


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Conditional CSS required to workaround an IE bug

I sometimes wonder if working on our holiday home website is going to be a job for life?

In March I wrote about fixing several HTML incompatibility problems that meant that the website wasn't properly HTML 4.01 compliant (as measured by the W3C HTML validator); then in April I separately wrote about what seemed to be a simple request to create a bulletted list of features ended up with discovering an obscure Internet Explorer display bug, well a month later, I've found yet another problem.

The problem is this:

To get the bulletted list to appear properly in Internet Explorer I ended up having to add a zoom: 1; declaration to the CSS style for the bulletted list, vis:

ul.feat li {
    display : inline;
    padding : 0 1.3em;
    background : url (/theme/tick.gif) no-repeat;
    zoom : 1;

But unfortunately then when I used the W3C CSS validator to confirm that the CSS style sheet is CSS 2.1 compliant, the same 'zoom: 1' line gets rejected as it's not valid CSS.

So how to fix? What I ideally wanted to do was to keep the style sheet as standard (compliant) CSS (so big tick from W3C), but then for anybody accessing the site with Internet Explorer include the necessary additional CSS command to ensure that everything displays properly.

Fortunately there is a reasonably easy way to accomplish this with IE CSS Conditional comments. These are additional HTML commands that all browsers other than IE just ignore (as they think they are HTML comments), but that IE will process - i.e. you get specific HTML commands that you can target at Internet Explorer users only.

So what you do is to define an additional CSS file that contains your "non-standard" CSS commands for IE users and then with a conditional comment direct just your IE users towards using this additional CSS file:

<!--[if IE 6]>
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="iefixes.css" media="all">

This example means that any Internet Explorer 6 users will process just the additional CSS file and there are similar conditional comment options if you want to target specific CSS at IE5, IE7, all IE users or specific ranges of IE versions. Examples of the different options and how they all work are over on Dave Woods' blog.

For me I determined after testing with different versions of IE that I actually needed to target the 'iefixes.css' file at all IE users so I used a <!--[if IE]> conditional format in the head of the single affected page and now everything validates OK.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Due a VAT refund from Google Adwords

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Google Adwords telling me that they'd reviewed by Google Adwords account and decided that my VAT setting was incorrect as my account was being used for business purposes (i.e. I was using Adwords to "gain an economic advantage by promoting goods or services on Google AdWords") rather than non-business purposes.

According to Google I had either declared that my adwords account was being used for non-business purposes (unlikely) or that I had not entered a VAT number (definitely the case as I'm not VAT registered). As a result of this VAT was being charged on my Google Adwords Adverts at the Irish rate (21%) as all EU customers are managed from Google Ireland Ltd (EU).

The email then went on to explain that under article 194 of European Council Directive 2006/112/EC as a non-Irish resident business I should be responsible for accounting for VAT in my home country, and thus Adwords have ceased charging me Irish VAT on my Adwords adverts.

Finally the email concluded with telling me that I may be eligible for a refund of Irish VAT charged by Google Ireland Ltd that I had errantly paid.

Digging into the Adwords help files I found a definition of whether Adwords is being used for business purposes or not, whether VAT applies to Adwords or not which also said that "Advertisers with a business address in the EU, but outside Ireland, may self-assess VAT at their Member State's local rate if they are using Google AdWords for business purposes", and finally instructions on how to declare for self assessment of VAT within Google Adwords.

I did find this all somewhat confusing as there's no easy way of making a VAT self-declaration in the UK as my rental income turnover is considerably below the annual VAT threshold.

Potential eligibility for a VAT refund was triggered by me checking my VAT details on my Adwords account and basically confirming that the account's 'company name' matched the name held on my bank account as this is who any refund cheque would be made payable to.

Well not really expecting much from it I duly verified my company name details and today was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Google Adwords telling me that I am eligible for a refund of past VAT charged by Google Ireland to the tune of £67.90.

Very nice!

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Finding mis-spelt listings on ebay

Nothing to do with France this posting (so turn the page if you're not interested!)

I came across a pretty neat site today, TypoBuddy that searches on ebay for common misspellings in item listings.

The idea is you put in what you are searching for and then TypoBuddy searches on ebay but with variant spellings of the words you've put in. So searching for "xbox star wars" you'll find entries such as "xbox star wrs", "xbox star warzs", "xbox staa wars", etc which hopefully other people won't have found and thus will close for a lower selling price.

Well that's the theory anyway, how did it work in practice?

Personally I found the user interface a bit confusing because firstly I was told there my eBay results were "48 typos of 'wars' with xbox star" but when I clicked the link, I got nothing back. What was happing was that TypoBuddy found 48 different word variations of 'wars' (waars, waz, etc) but hadn't actually undertaken the search on ebay until I clicked the link, when nothing was actually returned - meaning either ebay users can type properly (unlikely) or the suggested misspellings were out.

TypoBuddy is just one of a growing set of such auction finder sites; a couple of others I tried out were Gumshoo and FatFingers.

Each of these search sites has similar features although they all differ slightly.

TypoBuddy allows you to try each misspelt word in turn and also does searches of
Fatfingers is I think one of the older search tools it tries less aggressive misspellings than TypoBuddy
Gumshoo has a very nice user interface allowing you to filter out junk listings, find those with free shipping, search for new/used items and a neat trend analysis to see if the seller's rating is on average going up or down over the last 30 days.

So do they work?

Well sort of. Trying searches for "xbox star wars", "Christian Dior" and "home theatre system" I generally didn't find many "hidden auction listings" but Gumshoo and TypoBuddy both turned up a "Home Cinema System Theartre" and Fatfingers turned some "xbox starwars" games.

Christian Dior was the most successful search as FatFingers and TypoBuddy managed to turn up listings for Chritian Dior, Christain Dior, Cristian Dor and Christain Dior, Chrisian Dior and Chirsian Dior.

If you're really keen to find such listings then you probably need to use more than one search engine; Gumshoo definitely looks nicest but has the poorest results and FatFingers and TypoBuddy both seem to be much better with FatFingers perhaps slightly ahead.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

BBC and ITV launches freesat - a new source of expat TV?

BBC Logo
After many years of talking about it (and also owning the Freesat trademark), BBC and ITV have just announced that they're launching the FreeSat free to view satellite digital TV service and as a holiday Gite owner I'm quite interested in this news.

It's not at all that well publicised by Sky but they've been offering their own Free satellite TV service since 2004 which operates by the rather unruly name of FreeSat from Sky - a tongue twister of a name mainly caused by BBC already owning the FreeSat trademark name!

Sky would of course you rather purchased one of their contract offerings but it's little advertised that if you buy a Satellite dish and a Sky decoder then you can receive some 200-odd channels without requiring any kind of decoder card or subscription service at all. Admittedly an awful lot of the channels you can receive are not the sort of things you want to watch regularly (unless you like shopping TV or adult phone sex channels) but there is still more than enough that you can watch without a decoder card - BBC1, BBC2, BBC3, ITV1-4, Men & Motors, Zone Reality, Film 4, CNN, France 24, CBeebies, dozens of radio channels, etc, etc.

For some strange licensing reason you don't receive Channel 4, Channel 5, Five Life, Five US and Sky Three without a decryption card but you can pay a one-off £20 fee to Sky and receive a basic decryption card which enables you to watch these additional channels without any further monthly subscription. If you want to watch Sky One, UK Gold, More Four, E4 and most of the movie and other entertainment channels then you do have to take out a monthly subscription, but for me with our French Gite, the basic channel set is sufficient.

It's also not all that well advertised but the Astra Digital satellite broadcasts not just to the UK and Ireland but also to much of Northern continental Europe. For our Brittany Gite a standard-sized receiver dish is all you need but the signal reaches as far down as Spain and Italy (although a larger dish is usually required).

Installing the Sky Dish (in the dark)

Back in March 2005 we bought a second hand Sky decoder box off ebay (they're readily available for £30 or so, usually from customers who are upgrading to Sky+ or SkyHD) and a satellite dish from a nearby BricoMarche in France and then I climbed up the ladder and erected the dish. A bit of wobbling it from side to side before we got the best signal we could and the job was done, a perfect UK TV picture. I did decide to start doing this at about 7:30pm in the evening so that's why it's rather dark in the picture (and it was even darker by the time I had finished), but all in all it was a comparatively easy thing to do.
Since then we've bought a second decoder box and also put Sky TV into the master bedroom in the Gite so you can watch TV in bed - luxury!

It's not immediately apparent from the Freesat website whether they're also broadcasting their 80-200 channels on the Astra satellite (so in other words my existing dish is already aligned to receive the signal and I wouldn't need to move it), or whether the list of channels is going to be substantially different from the Sky FreeSat offering, although the BBC digital package comparison Q&A seems to imply that there will be more major movies and sports programs on the Freesat offering so it's definitely one to keep an eye on.

I've just found in the Freesat Q&A that Freesat is "broadcast from Astra 2 at 28.2° East and Eurobird at 28.5° East" so my existing Sky dish which is aligned to the Astra 2 satellites should be able to pickup the signal without any problems.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Loosing it - French house keys, sunhat, room key, passport and more

Of late I seem to be loosing it big time.

I'm not talking about loosing the plot (although I sometimes wonder about that as well), but I'm actually talking about how I seem to be getting incredibly forgetful and keep on loosing things.

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to go on a short business trip to South Africa as one of the qualifiers for the 'Hundred Percent Club' at work. I had a fantastic time over there, went around a national park game reserve and saw Elephants, Giraffes, Hippos, Rhinos, Zebras and more; rode a series of Zip wires over a canyon; mountain biking round another park; ate a lot; drank a bit; oh yes, and did do some work as well. A wonderful time was definitely had although the 12 hour flight each way wasn't the best fun I've ever had.

Whilst I was there I managed to loose my hotel room key and then a day later loose my sun hat.

I nearly didn't get to South Africa as the night before when I was packing I discovered I couldn't find my passport.

I'd had it only the week before when we'd all returned from our Easter holiday at the Gite, and I was convinced I'd "left it out handy" somewhere, but I couldn't find it anywhere in the kitchen, my study, the car, the lounge, the bedrooms, in short anywhere.

For the next 4 hours we turned the house upside down searching everywhere for the wretched passport. In the kids toys, the kitchen cupboards, under the beds, in all the waste bins; but no joy.

I phoned the 24 hour Passport helpline but as I'd lost an existing passport (rather than needing a renewal) and it wasn't a "matter of life or death" I was told the best they could do was a 7 day turnaround for a replacement - argh!

By 3am in the morning I was getting pretty close to admitting defeat and that I wouldn't be going to South Africa; and then I found the passport standing up on the floor of my study, end-on where it had landed after falling on the floor from the table I'd put it on "where it would be handy to get to". A lucky escape.

The frustration of loosing my passport has just about topped the frustration I felt in January when packing to go to the Gite and finding (once again the night before) that I couldn't find the keys for the French house.

As we're over in France at most half a dozen times a year the keys don't get used between visits and so twice now I've managed to completely loose them.

Loosing them for the second time was more galling than the first time as I'd resolved to "put them in a safe place" so they didn't get lost again. The first time I lost the keys and after spending hours looking for them they eventually turned up in my car under the drivers seat where I'd put them as we'd driven away from the Gite the previous holiday.
For some reason I'd decided to put the keys in the storage tray under my car seat and there they'd remained for several months.
Luckily I remembered where I had put them otherwise I might still have been looking for them.

After this experience of loosing the keys I decided to put them somewhere safer and so put them in a plastic box in the kitchen.

Liz got fed up with the key box lying around the kitchen and so I took the box into the garage and put it inside the crate of things I was accumulating to take to France on the next trip.

With having two homes we find we've often got things we want to take to the other house so tend to accumulate them all in a crate so it's easiest to remember everything when we go over.

At the time it no doubt seemed logical to put the keys in the 'France' crate, but all that happened is that when I loaded up the car I put the whole crate in the car without looking at what was in it and so we then spent several hours looking in vain again for the keys which were already in the car!

After I finish writing this blog post I'm going to have to go and check where the French house keys are as I'm not absolutely sure where they are again.

Wonder what I'll loose next?


Friday, May 02, 2008

Buy your own corner of Brittany - 6 acre forest and lake, £45,000

Le Croisty, Brittany

Whilst looking on ebay for a particular tourist guide to Central Brittany that I saw whilst I was over there last I came across an auction for 6 acres of land and a 1 acre trout lake in central Brittany that looks very tempting for just £45,000.

There's no electricity onsite and no planning permission for a dwelling either (it's classified as "leisure land") but a 5 berth caravan is included in the price so if you want a real getaway from it all place and like fishing then it sounds ideal.

Unfortunately it appears to be about an hour's drive from our own Brittany Gite otherwise I'd be extremely tempted myself ....

Here's the link to the advert on ebay that runs until the end of May 2008: Land with lake & woods

Unfortunately no sign of the book I wanted on ebay so I'll have to buy a copy of Central Brittany (coast to coast) guidebook from Amazon.