Haapsalu-tely fabulous

The opening up of Eastern Europe presents an opportunity for some great value weekend breaks in some fabulous and previously inaccessible places. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are all so attractive that already, you’re almost more likely to hear English voices than indigenous ones. On our recent trip to the Baltic state of Estonia, the rumours of Tallinn being swamped by the shameful phenomenon that is the UK stag party thankfully turned out to be exaggerated. However, two days were enough to explore the charming capital, which left the question, “Where shall we go now?” “Haapsalu”, suggested the lady in the tourist office. “Bless you!” I replied.

Tallinn’’s central bus station turned out to be anything but central, but we found it and were soon ensconsed in a steamed-up coach, heading through the Americanized suburbs and into the pre-coastal hinterland, which proved to be as gratifyingly desolate as we had hoped, each village more run-down and dilapidated than the last. The journey having been enlivened by the boarding of a group of completely vodka-bladdered teenagers on their way home from an all-night party, we were dumped at the “central bus station” of Haapsalu. This was the disused railway station, where turn of the century spa-users had descended in preparation for being transferred to their mud-treatment hotels, but is now a museum. Here, away from any tourists, no one had enough English to be able to help us, so we had to strike off blindly through the reed beds in search of the town. In the well sub-zero temperatures, we noticed that the reed cutters worked on regardless, even though the Baltic was frozen (yes, frozen) as far as the eye could see.

Skirting the lake which separated the town from the sea, we came upon the centre. The square contained an odd mixture of the old (several imposing houses in states of advanced disrepair) and the new (a truly incongruous deserted bowling alley), plus a police station, a couple of pubs (into one of which we disappeared for a couple of hours), a disco which had once been a cinema, and a beautiful folk museum, fronted, for reasons which were unclear, by a statue of the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller.

Haapsalu must have more museums per square kilometer than any other town in Europe. There are (count ’em): Läänemaa Museum, Ants Laikmaa Museum, Cyrillus Kreegi Museum, the Communications Museum, the Railway Museum, the Evald Okas Museum, the Castle Museum and the Haapsalu Art Gallery.

The focal point of the town is undoubtedly the impressive Episcopal castle in the centre, currently rapidly being restored with help fom the EU. Estonia has been ruled by the Germans, Danes, Swedes and Russians among others since the first occupation of the country in the 13th century, and all these conquerors have left behind fortified buildings.

Haapsalu Castle is a 13th century Bishop’s castle with an attached Dome church, set amidst the 16th century walls marking the expansion of the building. We ascended the tall Watchtower for impressive views over the city and the bay. In the Chapel of the Dome church is the site of the legend of the unlucky White Lady, walled in the castle alive as punishment for her sins.

Accommodation in Haapsalu is excellent value, as is eating out. In the summer, visitors can enjoy the beaches, the yacht harbour and, of course, the spa facilities in the various hotels. It’s a lovely place and ideal for those who like to go somewhere a bit different. As for us, we huddled in our Eskimo outfits, took a warming swig of delicious Vana Tallinn liqueur and headed back through the marshes for the bumpy bus ride back to Tallinn.

From the Mid-Hampshire Observer

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Bird Of Paradise

Dozing by your own pool as the monkeys gambol round you, or swimming in the azure Caribbean Sea by a deserted beach. It sounds impossible, or at least hopelessly expensive. But we’ve found a way to do it.

Yellow Bird is a sweet, private cottage with its own pool, just a minute’s walk from the idyllic Oualie Beach on the island of Nevis (pronounced Neevis), the little sister of St Kitts. I found it by googling “Private villa with pool” or something along those lines. The helpful UK owner explained that, just out of season, it can be very affordable, so that was a good start.

British Airways fly to St Kitts, so you can use Avios points (which used to be Airmiles). It’s surprisingly easy to collect loads of Avios, merely by shopping in a certain supermarket, buying your petrol from a particular garage or getting your gas from a certain supplier. Before you know it, and without any real effort, the price of the flight has tumbled.

It’s a mid-morning flight from Heathrow, so easy to get to. Before you know it, you’’ve watched a couple of films and are landing in Antigua prior to a frankly surreal belly-flop over to St Kitts, the huge jumbo simply skimming over the waves, only a couple of thousand feet above the water. From there, it’s a quick hop over to Nevis, either on the sedate government ferry or a wilder (and more expensive) water taxi, better than a fairground ride. Before dark, you’’re quaffing your first Carib beer at the Gallipot waterfront bar.

Nevis is one of the Caribbean’’s most unspoilt islands, largely untouched by tourism. There are a number of sugar plantations which have been transformed into stately restaurants and hotels. Our annual treat is to visit the Golden Rock for a glorious lobster sandwich. They also, amazingly, let you swim in their pool. By not actually sleeping there, I reckon you’’ve saved yourself several hundred dollars a night. Right on the beach is the Nisbet Plantation, once home of Nevis’’ most famous resident, Fanny Nisbet, wife of Captain Horatio Nelson. This is the only historic seafront inn in the Caribbean. In the capital, Charlestown, there is a small but fascinating Nelson museum, containing the largest collection of Nelson memorabilia outside England. Up in the hills is The Hermitage, the oldest wooden structure on the island, and near Newcastle lies the Cottle Church, the first church in the Caribbean where both slaves and masters could worship together. Other places of interest on Nevis include the Botanical Gardens and the Medical University of the Americas, but you’’re not necessarily there for sightseeing.

Yellow Bird is an amazing place. Set on its own, up a few steps on the edge of the tropical forest, if has its own, completely private deck with a well-maintained pool and lush gardens. Here you are visited by beautiful birds, butterflies, tree frogs and green vervet monkeys. One day we counted over thirty leaping round the garden. Yet Yellow Bird isn’’t in the back of beyond; there are two good restaurants within a couple of minutes’’ walk and an excellent shop, Manza’’s Last Stop, just down the road. They make their own fabulous fruit juices.

There’’s no problem with getting further afield, either. The bus service which passes the front gate is amazing. They pass in both directions every few minutes and cost practically nothing. That means there is no need to hire a car, another substantial saving. If you want, you can rent bikes at Oualie, which is also a centre for a wide range of water sports. The very adventurous can hike to the summit of Mount Nevis (you need a guide), but there is a wide range of less strenuous hiking trails.

Needless to say, nightlife is not a feature of Nevis, but here are lots of fabulous places to eat. Our favourite is Sunshine’s, a wooden beach bar on the glorious Pinney’’s Beach. Watching the sun set while chomping lobster and downing one of their lethal “Killer Bee” punches has to be one of life’s greatest experiences. And guess what? It’s not expensive.

http://www.yellowbirdnevis.co.uk

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Safe As Houses?

I was looking round the unofficial Bob Marley museum in Trenchtown. I’’d been taken there by Turnip, driver of a decrepit taxi, who had befriended us the day before. There was some debate among the slightly unfriendly guys running the place as to how much to charge me for admission, but they settled on ten dollars. On the deck in front of the house where Marley grew up, two guys were flagrantly smoking crack while another was cleaning his nails with a large hunting knife. “I wonder if I’’m in any danger?”, I thought. I’’d left Birgit on her own to go shopping in Kingston. Would she be all right too?

Of course, everything was fine. The next day, Turnip took us out to Hellshire Beach, where we were quite clearly the only tourists among the Kingston families out for a Sunday swim. Giant sound systems shook the whole beach as we crunched our way though a lobster caught specially for us. But in the shacks behind us, there were definitely dodgy dealings going on, and Turnip had had to negotiate animatedly to get a parking slot. We never even considered there might be a safety issue.

The next evening, we set out to find a particular music bar recommended in the guide book, and got completely and utterly lost. No one seemed keen to help us as we wandered along increasingly deserted and badly-lit streets. Was this a sensible thing to do in a city like Kingston? We didn’’t really give it any thought.

All this was three years ago. It was only when reading a “Warning Of The Week” slot in a newspaper’’s travel section that I realized that actually, we were probably being rather foolish. Out of curiosity, I took a peek at the Foreign Office website’s advice for Jamaica. Good grief!

““There is a risk in walking alone in isolated areas or on deserted beaches even in daylight hours.”” Whoops.
“”Don’’t walk at night.”” We did.
“”Only hire taxis authorised by the Jamaica Tourist Board.”” There was no way dear old Turnip’’s jalopy had ever been licensed by anyone. In fact, he’’d wooed us by driving slowly alongside us and enticing us in.
“”Try to vary which restaurants you use.”” We went to the same one several times.
“”Avoid large crowds.”” It was Bob Marley’’s birthday so of course we went to an outdoor concert.
Well, we had a great time and it makes you wonder whether you’’d actually go anywhere if you followed all the official advice. If you read the Evening Standard and digested its contents, you’’d never step outside your front door in London, such is the catalogues of muggings, rapes and random attacks chronicled within. But having perused the Kingston advice, I thought I’’d reconsider another couple of recent holidays in the light of what the Foreign Office says (my wife and I have reached the age where we want to travel a lot and we want to travel independently). It was quite a sobering read.
A couple of years before, we’’d rented a lovely villa in Tobago. After a series of independently-booked, self-catering Caribbean island holidays, this seemed like a great option – and it was. But we were slightly startled to find that we had a 24-hour guard and triple locks on the doors. Nevertheless, we wandered round in the dark, visited deserted beaches and, on at least one occasion, stumbled around the place in a rum punch-induced stupor. If we hadn’’t been adventurous and willing to engage complete strangers in conversation, we’’d never have met Michael de Souza, creator of the now mega-franchise Rastamouse. We also visited the home of the eccentric German sculptress Luise Kimme, who had twelve guard dogs and massive barbed wire defences and claimed she never left her compound. What does the Foreign Office have to say about Tobago?
“”There have been a number of serious robberies against tourists. Some of these incidents have been accompanied by violence, including attempted rape.”” Ulp.

“”Caution is advised when renting villas in Tobago.”” Ahem.

““Visitors are advised to visit isolated beaches only as a member of an organised group.”” Oh dear.

Now this is when it gets really serious. We had the most wonderful, carefree time in Tobago, but, weeks after we returned, we read that a Swedish couple living in the same street as our rented villa were hacked to death with machetes in their own home. That concentrated the mind.

Not enough to deter us from taking an independent coastal holiday in Kenya the next year, though. It has only been the recent subsequent series of kidnappings and murders in this area that has made us realize that we may have been not only naïve but perhaps genuinely foolhardy.

We had a gorgeous villa and there were a couple of staff on hand. Our “servant” Bernard wouldn’’t let us go anywhere outside the grounds on our own, insisting on driving us to and from restaurants and waiting outside while we ate. He was shocked to see me setting out on a walk around the area and demanded to accompany me every step of the way.
Kenya: ““Remain vigilant at all times.”” We didn’’t.
“”Muggings and incidents of armed robbery can occur at any time.”” Hmmm.

“”Attacks can occur anywhere, but especially in isolated areas such as empty beaches.”” I’’m beginning to feel ill.

So what can we learn from this, particularly in view of planning future holidays? One response is clear: We have always had a wonderful time and never encountered any trouble, therefore there is nothing to be concerned about. On the other hand, we have probably been exceptionally lucky. But to what extent should the official advice be treated as gospel? I looked at the advice regarding places we have recently visited for weekend breaks, such as Riga and Vilnius, and they are pretty doomy too. Certainly, the reports in our local weekly paper would incline you never to go out on a Friday night in your home town.

We can’’t just become recluses, but one thing we are agreed on. We’’re going to be a bit more cautious in future, but we’’re certainly not going to be put off searching for adventure.

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Carry On Carriacou

The Swiss Family Robinson … My father wanted me to read it, so I pretended I had. Swallows and Amazons … I tried to make my children read it but they didn’t even pretend to. Robinson Crusoe … scary. Lord of the Flies … even more so. And Oliver Reed with … ooh, what was that woman called? Damn sexy anyway. Yes, Desert Islands ‘R’ Us.
But where do you find a desert island? I had a plan that included a whole load of ever-diminishing islands, which, if all went well, would lead eventually to a Crusoe experience.
First stop, Barbados. If you ever thought about flying anywhere with Virgin, get on the internet and book now. It’s unlike any other flying experience you will ever have. From the moment you sit down, beautiful blondes ply you with alcohol, food, tea, ice-creams and anything else you need (within reason) to occupy you in the few free moments you have between watching uninterrupted Hollywood blockbusters on the dinky little screen in the back of the seat in front. That’d soon cure Dennis Bergkamp of his fear of flying.
In the immigration queue at Barbados, we met a lady who was going to stay with her thirty-year younger Barbadian lover. “Do you think he will like my dress?” she asked. Not knowing his tastes, we said we thought he would. Behind us was a Londoner called Rob, returning to his Grenadian homeland with a device for sterilising the beer silos in the Carib brewery. He’d been back the month before and picked up a rôle in the first feature film ever to be made in Grenada, “The Duppy Project”, only to blot his copybook by getting off with the leading lady. No, he said, he wouldn’t be going to the premiere.
We spent two days in Grenada, and besides checking out the capital St. George’s, were led to a secret hot spring, buried deep, deep in the rainforest. We paddled, plucked bananas from the trees and gathered nutmeg kernels from around our feet. Grenada is the Spice Island, after all.
Our destination (reached with the aid of a tiny yellow eight-seater plane) was Carriacou, an island with a population of just under six thousand, just thirteen miles long and one of the few spots in the Caribbean not to have been spoilt in any way. There are no “resorts”, no cruise ships call here and we were the only tourists. Yes, in theory it was Hurricane Season, but the last hurricane here was fifteen years ago and the only manifestations were the occasional short shower of warm rain to dance around in, plus a slight surfeit of mosquitos.
The advantages of being the only tourists soon became clear. Just a few steps from our house was a beach which effectively was private, since there was never another person there. A trek over the hills led to Anse La Roche beach, accessible only by hiking or by boat. No one was there either. Down the coast was the aptly-named Paradise Beach, miles of glorious sand with nary a person to be seen, yet … yes, it wasn’t a mirage, a sweet wooden beach bar called Hardwood. Here resided Joy and Joseph, who was later to turn the Crusoe dream into reality. And the final perk: For eating out, all you had to do was choose a restaurant, ring it up, say what you’d like to eat and they would open specially for you. We became used to walking into rooms in which just one table had been laid. Lobster a-go-go, by the way.
But first, more islands. The Osprey took us to Petite Martinique (not to be confused with Martinique or Mustique), where we bought a divine take-away Roti before hopping a water taxi over to Petit St. Vincent, a privately-owned millionaire’s hideaway island which kindly tolerates riff-raff like us lolling on its beaches and snorkelling in its waters. But here, if you have the money, you can hire a cottage, so it isn’t a desert island either.
The dream was finally attained one idyllic day, when Joseph ferried us over in his self-constructed boat to Sandy Island, a speck of silver sand with its own coral reef, one and a half palm trees and a couple of manchineels. Normally there might have been a yacht or two anchored nearby, but today they were all off sailing somewhere. It was us, the pelicans and shoals of millions and millions of brightly-coloured translucent tropical fish. While we lay in the shallows, they flopped around on our chests. We’d packed a Carib and a mango and kept saying, “God, life will never, ever be better than this.”
The people of Carriacou are wonderfully kind and hospitable. Many of them live in conditions of cheerful poverty and would love to welcome visitors who will take the island as it is and not seek to impose an alien culture on it. This adventure didn’t cost much more than a package tour, but it was truly a life-altering experience.

From The Hampshire Chronicle

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Christmas in Paradise

It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Some friends who live in Grenada wanted to visit their children in the UK for Christmas and offered us a house swap. Well, would you have turned it down?

Fast forward a moment. We’d been in Grenada for a week. Our daughter and her friend were meant to be flying in a few days later but got stuck at Gatwick in the snow for three days. Now we were picking them up from the airport and had some lovely things in store for them: the warm, beautiful weather, then, on the way home, the incredible Christmas lights at the roundabout near Grand Anse, and then a meal amid the beautiful twinkling fairy lights at Mangrove Hideaway. They’d love it! Except that, as they exited the terminal, the rain was torrential, and as a result, all the lights had been switched off. For a moment, they must have thought they’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

But only for a moment, because our Christmas in Grenada was incredible. The internet was telling us how the UK was shivering in the cold snap, while we were fulfilling the ultimate holiday dream, spending Christmas Day on a virtually deserted Grand Anse Beach with champagne and crisps, before returning to the house for an open air turkey dinner cooked by the girls. The evening before had been a riot of fun, partying like crazy at Prickly Bay Marina, with what we agreed was the best pizza in the world and a fantastic band led by Barracuda Man, plus the best and cheapest rum punches we found anywhere.

We’d been to Grenada once before, but only for 24 hours on our way to Carriacou in 2003, so hadn’t seen anything of the island. That’s where Vaughn came in. We’d been offered a tour by Henry’s Safari Tours and jumped at the chance. We’ve travelled widely in the world, but this was the best tour we’d ever experienced anywhere. The girls jumped into the Concord Falls, while I was slightly more interested in the Rivers rum distillery, although the tiny sip I took of the strong stuff nearly blew my head off. Lunch was a delicious Grenadian feast at Helena’s Ocean View Restaurant in Sauteurs, shortly after the fascinating nutmeg factory and shortly before the bizarre but charming Glebe Street Museum, full of things like a portrait of an owl, helpfully labelled “Portrait Of An Owl”. By the end of the day, we felt we’d learnt a massive amount about Grenada from the incredibly articulate and knowledgeable Vaughn, who later revealed that his house had recently burnt down, not long after being reconstructed after Hurricane Ivan.

On that day, Vaughn was driving, but we had been lent a car and took a while to get used to driving on Grenada’s roads. I soon descended into road rage at what appeared to be impatient drivers hooting at me so they could overtake, but soon it became clear that they were merely politely alerting us to their presence. Nevertheless, descending the hill from the Grand Etang forest towards St George’s in heavy rain but with the sun directly in my eyes, was the scariest driving experience of my life, as I could see literally nothing but was aware of a deep gutter on my left and a sheer drop on my right. It did make for a good rainbow though.

Culinarily speaking, our greatest triumph was the cooking of seven (yes, seven) lobsters, which we collected direct from the boat in Lower Woburn. As we feasted on the delicious meat, I reflected that the cheapest lobster I’d seen on any menu was 75 EC dollars, while we’d paid just 100 EC for all those lobsters. Bargain! We planned to eat out as much as possible but in the end (no way were we going to risk drinking and driving), we ended up walking over the hill to Le Phare Bleu on several occasions, as it was just a five minute walk from the house. We didn’t risk the beautiful but pricey Västra Banken lightship itself but found the Poolbar restaurant a great place to chill with nice food, very cheap Happy Hour Carib Buckets and live music of varying quality. We disgraced ourselves by allowing our guard dog to follow us into the complex, whereupon she promptly stared a dogfight in the middle of the restaurant, scattering the diners in terror. This is by no means the “real” Grenada, by the way, more the sanctuary of well-heeled European yachtie types, but still a beautiful place to relax.

Talking of Carib, I’m afraid I’m addicted. We adventurously ventured to the brewery itself and bought two crates, which I’m embarrassed to say I single-handedly emptied in a week. It’s nectar.

We just had to try BB’s Crabback in St George’s, as Giles Coren had pronounced it the “best restaurant in the world”. I don’t think even BB himself would claim that, but the food was indeed delicious and he fitted us in without a booking, even though an entire touring UK cricket party was also there. We left before it got noisy. We sadly didn’t make the highly recommended Fish Friday in Gouyave, but other random places we tried included an incongruous but rather sweet German restaurant on the harbour, the aforementioned Mangrove Hideaway (while the lights still worked) and the more upmarket Dirty Dock, great for plane spotting. But none of them could match the simple majesty of the rotis at the Hard Wood Snacket in Carriacou, where we’d taken a day trip with the Osprey (shockingly referred to by the locals as the “Vomit Comet”). But that’s another story.

One thing’s for sure – no future Christmas will ever measure up to this.

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Busman’s Holiday

Busman’s Holiday

Three things softened the blow of turning sixty: the winter fuel payment, the bus pass and the free swimming. The free swimming has already gone and surely the bus pass is next. This added urgency to my plan to hit the road with the bus pass and see how far I could get. The idea, as the sun came out in June, was to take a day as an experiment and see if there was any hope of it working as a full-on holiday.

The prospect was scary. The only bus I take with any regularity is the E1 to and from Eastleigh and if that’s anything to go by, the risks are manifold. For a start, there’s also an E2, which has the same starting and ending points but takes a completely different route in between. Apart from that, it tends to arrive very late, very early or not at all. Any of these would threaten the route obligingly provided by a website called Traveline, which plans bus journeys. I decided to try and reach Gloucester, where I grew up.

The start could hardly have been worse. The E1 took me to Winchester bus station, where I was due to wait half an hour and then take the X24 (what is it with these letters?) to Andover. “You’ll have to get yourself up to Peter Symonds,” said the lugubrious lady in Winchester’s uniquely sordid bus garage. This would have meant absolutely nothing to anyone not local, but I knew what it meant and the news was not good.

Peter Symonds is the local sixth form college and it lies a good mile (uphill) from the bus station. I knew there were road works in the area but not that the buses made no attempt to divert round them but simply ground to a halt there. The humiliation of not even getting past the first hurdle would have been too much to bear, so I set off to jog, on the hottest day of the year, in search of the X24. As I was suffering from plantar fasciitis (don’t ask, it’s an extremely painful foot), this was inadvisable but what other option was there? A taxi would certainly have been cheating.

As the Peter Symonds complex has three different entrances fronting on to three streets, I positioned myself where I could see all of them. Like a mirage, the X24 appeared and drew up at a stop labelled 77. Of course, I should have known. I ran the hundred yards to the bus and breathlessly explained to the driver, “I have walked all the way from the bus station”.

“Why?” he asked. “We go to the train station anyway.” As this would have been a much shorter walk, I was not pleased.

“They didn’t tell me that.”

“I know, we keep telling them. Hopeless, aren’t they?”

At this stage, therefore, I was actually going backwards, heading back into town the way I had just walked. But at least I was on the road, positioned in the spot I love: upstairs front seat on an unsurprisingly otherwise empty double decker.

In Andover, there was a stand for bus 80, as designated on Traveline, but it ominously said it went only to Marlborough, “with connection via route 70 to Swindon”. Hmm, connection. With things being so haphazard, “connection” was actually quite a loose concept. But no fear, a large sign (albeit with several letters missing) pointed to a “Bus Information Kiosk”. This turned out to be a Shopmobility depot, where a kind lady told me, “There hasn’t been a Bus Info Kiosk here for years. You could try asking one of the drivers, but I wouldn’t count on anything they say.”

One thing that had not crossed my mind for a second was the matter of toilets, and the fact that buses don’t have them. For a middle-aged gentleman with incipient prostate issues, this was going to be a problem. Andover bus station Gents was inevitably “closed for refurbishment”, so I followed an instruction to seek out “alternative facilities in the shopping centre next to Argos”. This at least was open but the hand dryer wasn’t working. Of course you never discover this until your hands are wet, leaving you the option of trying porous loo paper which gets stuck to your hands, or walking around flapping like a seal. I opted for the latter, but otherwise felt quite at home in the shopping centre, as it was identical to Eastleigh’s, right down to all the same shops in the same order.

The number 80 arrived in plenty of time, but the driver locked up and disappeared, only returning some ten minutes after it was due to depart. How so? Of course, he, too, had had to walk all the way to Argos for a pee and had had to flap his way round the shopping mall. He was a really nice chap.

“Are you going to Swindon?” I asked. “It says something about changing in Marlborough to the number 70.”

“Oh no,” he explained. “It’s the same bus, I just change the number.” This one had double legroom in the front upstairs seat; it felt like an airline upgrade.

The route took us round the periphery of ugly and desperate army barracks, along a road called, ghoulishly, “Somme Road”. A couple of army wives with pushchairs got on and off. The nightmarish vision of Tidworth gave way to Salisbury Plain, a beautiful landscape cruelly scarred by tank tracks,

The 80 / 70 delighted by disappearing down single-track country lanes to picture postcard villages where no one got on or off. My crow’s nest afforded me a bird’s eye view of Savernake Forest, thatched roofs, perfect cottage gardens, idyllic pubs and tiny shops. This only got better as an increase in horse boxes signalled the proximity of Marlborough, so it was an unpleasant shock when we suddenly crossed the frantically noisy M4 and headed into the awful reality of Swindon.

Full marks, though, to the bus station, where the number 51 to Cirencester was purring in the adjacent bay, ready to leave. This was almost Swiss efficiency. It was only a single decker but it had the novelty of actually having passengers. I was relieved to have a couple of seconds to stretch my legs, as another unthought-of matter had arisen: that of discomfort. The trip from Andover had lasted one hour and fifty-one minutes, pretty much the maximum you could take in one go.

The naughty 51 departed a full three minutes ahead of schedule, so it was a good thing the 80 / 70 had been punctual in arriving. The 51 soon made amends by diverting into glorious places like South Cerney and the frankly bizarre up-market holiday camp that is the Cotswold Water Park.

There wasn’t much chance to explore the Roman city of Cirencester because the next bus arrived immediately. Rather excitingly, it was a “Cotswold Green” (all the others, apart from the E1, had been prosaic Stagecoaches). This bus (the 54A, fact fans) was the ultimate proof that you can use your bus pass as a tourist and get your touring holiday for free. Far from hugging the A419 as expected, it diverted via the narrowest of lanes into the sweetest Cotswold villages with names like Sapperton and Frampton Mansell. Excitement was caused every time we rounded a bend to confront terrified car drivers coming the other way, all of whom dutifully reversed when faced by a vehicle far too huge for such roads. A minibus – or even a Smart car, actually – would have sufficed for me (surely the randomest passenger they’d ever had) and my sole fellow traveller, a nice African lady who’d been visiting friends in Cirencester. We tumbled down the Alpine hairpins and into the Stroudwater Valley, where the old woollen mills are now scruffy factories manufacturing all manner of odd items.

Stroud, very near to where I grew up, is now an “alternative” town in the manner of Glastonbury, ideal for a spot of people watching. I managed to get the final bus of the day, the 93 to Gloucester, which had a hard time puffing up the 1 in 6 gradient to Whiteshill. Arriving in a filthy bus station in a classically misjudged 70s city centre destruction zone was a major comedown, but it fitted with the obvious conclusion of the day. Service buses aren’t designed to get you from source to destination, like trains are. Imagine if you had to do some business and had to take a whole day to get there and another to get back? What the buses do, however, achieve is to offer a transport lifeline to all the little places between A and B, which was very convenient for a tourist like me, enjoying the landscape and smelling the culture, all for the price of … zilch. To prove the point, and with renewed confidence, I took the opportunity, on the return journey the next day, to stop off and explore beautiful places like Painswick, Cirencester and Stockbridge. As luck would have it, several of the return buses took completely different routes. Cotswold Green number 28 wound its way through the most perfect limestone Cotswold villages, Rodborough, Minchinhampton and Box. Then, the 79 from Andover to Stockbridge (incidentally the only bus of a sensible size for the type of road and number of passengers it was carrying) took in the most glorious villages of Hampshire, the Clatfords, Wherwell and Chilbolton. Even the bus from Stockbridge couldn’t resist a detour through King’s Sombourne. From there, it was back to the E1 (not the E2, remember?) for the home leg.

So it worked. Of course, I then had to make it a habit. I even vaguely had an idea of trying to have a fortnight’s free holiday on the buses and, sorry about this, attempt to write a book about it. But now, I’ve got a bit of a phobia about it, and I’ll tell you why. Trips to Guildford and Chichester proved uneventful. On the latter, the route goes through East Wittering (where you pass the end of Keith Richards’ drive) and the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth, enough to make any analyst of the UK’s social make-up salivate. But then I became over-ambitious.

Some friends were playing in the Sidmouth “Fringe” folk festival in Devon, so I consulted Traveline and it revealed that I could get there one day and back the next. The route went: Eastleigh, Romsey, Salisbury, Blandford, Weymouth, Exeter. The Salisbury to Blandford bit was surreal, because the bus does a massive detour through the enormous and sick-makingly bleak Blandford army camp, where a soldier joins the bus to check you haven’t got any bombs in your rucksack, but otherwise, there is no sign of anybody getting on or off. Shortly afterwards, the bus bombs off down a tiny lane into the charming village of Sixpenny Handley, where it dwarfs the tiny cottages it scrapes past.

The last leg was on the UK’s most famous bus route, namely the X53, an incredible five-hour journey along the Jurassic Coast, dipping into idyllic places like Abbotsbury, Beer and Lyme Regis. While challenging on the bladder, the satisfaction of getting all that for free was overwhelming. I did indeed manage to attend the festival (just as well, as I was virtually the only person there) and get back the next day.

The mistake I made, the following summer, was to try to go one bigger and better. The idea was to visit some friends in Ilfracombe, in North Devon. Traveline said it wasn’t possible, but some astute clicking showed that it was. It involved the same route as before, plus subsequent legs from Exeter to Barnstaple and from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe, where, amazingly, evening buses still exist. But doing the X53 for a second time, on those hard, upright and austere seats, sandwiched among malororous, endlessly gossiping old dears (they’re not daft, they can see the attraction of a free trip to the seaside as well) became unbearably boring. The whole journey took twelve and a half hours (the return was even worse, but I’ll spare you the details of that). It just took for-bloody-ever, lurching down almost farm tracks to places like the picturesque but hardly double-decker-worthy coastal village of Beer.

By the time I got on the Barnstaple bus, it was mid-evening and chilly, but at least, by now, I was alone on the double-decker, top and front as usual. I was just beginning to drop off when we stopped in South Molton, and suddenly, I had a companion. Plonking himself loudly onto the seat next to me was a frightening vision: A huge man, about mid-thirties. He was gasping, had a red face and was wearing those voluminous long, baggy combat shorts that heavy metal fans favour. His legs were completely covered in scratches and bruises, many still bleeding, and despite the fact that it was pitch dark outside, he was wearing sunglasses.

He jutted out a massive, horny hand and grasped mine. “I’m Gavin,” he grunted. “What’s your name?”

After the introduction, there was silence for a brief few moments. I wished I’d had a newspaper or some other way of avoiding having to look at him, but reading on transport makes me sick. The peace didn’t last long.

“OCD, mania, psychosis, depression, I’ve got the lot,” he barked, by way of a conversation-opener.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” was my feeble response.

Inevitably, the life story followed. He’d been in and out of prison six times for acts of extreme violence. He’d been put on all sorts of medication, none of which had worked and had been used, instead, for suicide attempts. Now, he was on his way home from the doctor, who had prescribed him something new. Rather in the manner of Mr Barraclough from “Porridge”, I chose to patronise him.

“Well, I sincerely hope it’s a success and helps you get your life back on track,” I offered.

“I just took a couple, had a couple of pints and a bit of blow,” replied Gavin.

“Really? Well, you seem very nice and calm now.”

“Yeah, but I could turn at any moment. Last night I punched out three pakis because they were looking at me funny.” He was staring at me.

That was it. Not only psychotic but a racist too. I had to be outta there. I truly felt like a sitting duck, waiting to put a word wrong. Luckily, Barnstaple wasn’t far and I encouraged him to talk about Ilfracombe, where he came from. As we drew into Barnstaple’s dingy bus station, he looked at his watch.

“Ilfracombe bus is in five minutes. We’ll catch it together.”

No bloody way. According to my piece of paper, there was one in half an hour. I lied to him and claimed I’d had a text from my friends, saying they’d pick me up in Barnstaple. He seemed satisfied by this (I was dreading he’d ask for a lift), so I escaped with my life and scuttled round a corner in search of sanctuary. The pub I found didn’t help. There was a couple having a loud and acrimonious bust-up in the corner. There was another fracas going on in the street as I emerged and yet another in the bus station. Gavin was there, but luckily there was a queue. He was at the front, shouting into a mobile phone, so I joined the back. He went upstairs, so I stayed down and then got off two stops before the terminus, to avoid having to meet him again. I felt truly sorry for him in a way, but I was shit scared as well.

On the way back, each bus was progressively later and I kept missing connections. UK bus stations are the most dismal places in the world to spend time. The X53 was thirty-five minutes late getting to Poole.

On second thoughts, then: Buses? Nein danke.

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Help Me Ronda

Ronda, the most famous of the Andalucian “White Towns”, is a perfect destination for a short break. Although it can be swamped with tourists at the height of the season, at any other time it is a quiet and amiable place. I visited in June and it was almost deserted.
Now that there are flights from Southampton to Malaga, Ronda is easily accessible to Chronicle readers. It’s just a couple of hours’ drive inland from Malaga, yet it could be a world away. The first glimpse of Ronda, perched like a white puff of smoke on its own private mountain, is a breathtaking sight. Once you’ve arrived, the views outwards from the town walls are just as spectacular.
Right in the centre of Ronda, the El Tajo gorge is crossed by the eighteenth century Puente Nuevo viaduct. It’s fun just to stand on the bridge and take in the seemingly endless vista, but, if you have the energy, it’s also rewarding to climb down one of the steep paths into the gorge and gain another perspective on the viaduct (see photo). Here you can hide behind rocks and imagine yourself to be in a Western shoot-out.
Another must-see is the beautifully-preserved and still fully active bull ring (one of the first to be built in Spain), again positioned right in the centre of the town. It was here that Ernest Hemingway based scenes in “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and a nearby street is named after him. A small fee will allow you to explore for as long as you want and will also gain you admission to a beautifully-presented small museum.
One jewel of Ronda which is easy to miss is the Casa del Rey Moro, tucked away down one of the scores of steep cobbled side streets. Here you can pick your way down 365 slippery steps to a little platform at the very bottom of the gorge, giving a uniquely different perspective which few tourists seem to discover.
Among the many other places of interest in Ronda are the thirteenth century Moorish baths and the slightly over-rated Mondragón palace. But probably the most rewarding activity is just to wander, taking in the nooks and crannies, the unbelievable views and, of course, the occasional “cerveza”.
The only problem with eating out in Ronda is the excess of choice. Some streets in the centre consist almost entirely of restaurants, but, disappointingly, they all seem to offer very similar, standard fare. This is not the venue for a gourmet weekend.
Accommodation is plentiful and wide-ranging. At the top end, “Alavera de los Baños” offers Hotel du Vin standards, with prices to match, but would make an ideal romantic hideaway. Me, I checked into the “Hostal Colón”, which offered en suite rooms at 3000 pesetas a night, which I worked out to be about £12. When, after three days, I asked them to tot up all the various breakfasts, teas, sandwiches, mineral waters and beers I had accumulated, they waved me away, declaring that everything was “inclusivo”.
Now that’s my type of hotel!
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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A Game of Dominoes

Dominoes can be a frustrating game. Just are things are going along smoothly, you unexpectedly experience a setback. Just like the Euro-Domino, in fact.
What is the Euro-Domino? It’s a train ticket which allows you to travel anywhere within a certain European country during a particular period of time. You can buy them for three, five, seven or fourteen days and you can use up those days any time within one month. For those who enjoy carefree train travel, the Euro Domino is ideal, but not always as straightforward as it seems.
The advantages are obvious. You buy your ticket in advance and it is considerably cheaper than buying as you go along. You also have the flexibility of being able to decide on the spur of the moment where you want to go – in theory at least.
The disadvantages only become apparent as you go along and, to be fair, the average Euro-Domino traveller is probably the sort of person who doesn’t particularly worry about setbacks. The biggest problem is that many fast and main line trains require supplements to be paid. These are not covered by the Domino ticket, so pockets have to be dug into.
That, however, is not all. Many trains, especially in busy seasons, get so full that seats have to be reserved several days in advance, thus effectively negating your alleged flexibility. It’s best to be aware of this before setting out, because otherwise (and I’m here to tell the tale) you can find yourself far from home, with an apparently valid ticket which won’t actually allow you access to the train because you have omitted to obtain a reserved seat. This can be just a little bit frustrating.
The first Domino week I did was in Switzerland. Everything you have ever heard about the magnificence of this country’s trains is true. They run to the millisecond and cheerfully trundle up and down the steepest and most snow-covered mountains. The Domino system works perfectly and can be recommended without reservation.
France was a little more problematic, in that the entire railway system is so fixated on Paris that it is well-nigh impossible to continue anywhere in a straight line. You keep having to return to Paris in order to travel from region to region. The TGV, though as fast as legend suggests, can get very full and needs to be booked well in advance. The regional trains can be almost as slow, unreliable and uncomfortable as ours, end even less frequent.
Both the above points apply also to Spain. While the branch lines are nicely uncongested and the stations (frequently in the middle of nowhere) can be quite beautiful, standards of service can be disappointingly casual. I’ll never forget a horrific two hours spent at Granada station in a queuing system not dissimilar to a supermarket deli counter, waiting for a surly, chain-smoking clerk to issue an expensive reservation.
So, Dominoes is a great game. The Euro-Domino is a bargain, but it pays to be well prepared.
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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Amsterdamnation

My wife always has good ideas. On this occasion, we had been wondering what would make a good present for an impending big birthday of George, a friend of mine to whom we owed many favours. It had to be a surprise and it had to be special.
She was leafing through the Echo Travel Section and came across an advert for cheap flights from Southampton. “Why not take him to Amsterdam for the weekend?”
When you ring up these companies, they make it so smooth that you’ve booked before you realise what you’re doing. Within minutes, the flights were reserved and paid for. All that was needed now was a hotel, and that also was arranged in a trice by a friend of mine who is currently working in Amsterdam. He booked us into the Bridge Hotel, in a prime position on the bank of the Amstel.
George and I both work in similar businesses in a small town. Within minutes of the present being handed over, the phone lines were buzzing.
“I hear you and George are going to Amsterdam for the weekend …”
“Yes.”
“Ho ho, say no more, know what I mean, etc.”
“What?”
“Well you know what Amsterdam’s famous for, don’t you?”
“Er .. canals? Tulips?”
“Come on, Oliver, you’re going for the dope and the red light district, aren’t you?”
Considering that neither of these things had even entered my head, it came as something of a shock to realise that these are the only two things for which Amsterdam is famous … even among its own population.
But first, there was the little matter of checking into the hotel. The receptionist, along with everyone else in this most cosmopolitan of cities, spoke perfect English. When I returned to point out that I had requested a room with two beds, not a double one, she admitted, “Well, I did wonder, but, you know, Amsterdam is that kind of city.” She explained the situation in Dutch to the cleaning lady, who could not contain her mirth. “Twie Männe!” she guffawed. “Yes,” I added, “but not twie that kind of Männe.” Not that anything was of avail, since the hotel was fully booked.
I haven’t shared a bed with anyone but my wife for twenty-odd years, and she tells me I snore, fart and shout out swearwords in my sleep. George and I crept into the respective outer limits of the bed and concentrated on not doing any of the above things. Even friendship has limits. In my dream, two beautiful Indonesian girls entered the room and insisted on taking me and George out on a tour of the city. But it was only a dream.
In the morning, we asked the receptionist about hiring bicycles. “Good idea,” she said. “You will be able to visit the red light district and …. (conspiratorial leer) … the coffee shops.”
“Well, actually we wanted to go to the Vondelpark and the Flower Market.”
“Yes, but I’m sure you will want to visit the red light area and the coffee shops on the way.”
In the bike shop, it was even worse. The assistant was a real live wire. “You don’t want extra insurance? But you will be leaving the bikes in dangerous areas and …” – he turned to me, God knows why – “especially you, will be going to the coffee shops. After that, you will probably have an accident.”
Rather pompously, and probably also out of general timidity, we indeed did avoid these famous areas, until tempted into a canalside café called, appropriately in view of the way the city works, “Chaos Café”. There we threw caution to the winds and started drinking beer. Prior to that, we had decided that the combination of alcohol and brakeless bikes in a frantic and almost completely anarchic traffic environment could well be lethal. The Heineken they served was pleasingly weak and we soon got talking to the charming barmaid and her equally charming friend. “Have you been to the red light district yet?”
“No, we thought it might be a bit dangerous.”
“Oh no, everything is very calm, because of all the coffee shops. You must have visited the coffee shops?”
“Well …” We looked at each other. “Not yet”, I said,” but we plan to visit the red light district and the coffee shops this afternoon.” Finally, we had come to realise that the recommendations were genuine and not necessarily an oblique and uncomplimentary inference that we looked like drug-addled dirty old men.
“I am bloody well going to go into all the porn shops and I am bloody well going to have a joint”, I thought. And so it bloody well transpired, the latter being planned first in order to provide courage for the former.
It didn’t work at all. First, there were two humiliating false starts. In the first café we entered, neither of us had the courage to ask for anything other than a beer. The second one turned out to be a cyber café. This was even worse. Before we knew what was happening, we had booked ourselves twenty minutes of computer time. We thought of sending e-mails to our friends, before realising that we only knew our own addresses and abjectly sending messages to ourselves.
The third café looked more promising. There were large murals of Bob Marley and reggae music boomed from its murky interior. George ordered some “space cake” but I was hyper by then and pointed to a box of joints. Sensing my inexperience, the barman enquired, “Is this the first time you smoke?” I nodded sheepishly. “Be careful”, he warned. ” Very strong, very strong”.
Needless to say, neither of us felt anything whatsoever. We both concluded that it was a complete scam. After all, you’re hardly likely to go to the police and complain, are you? “I’ve had enough of this”, said George. “I’m buying a bottle of wine.”
the Red Light district was marginally more interesting. Certainly, the display of baffling devices was comprehensive, as were the wall-to-wall video cassettes with unlikely-sounding titles. My favourite was “A Mother, a Daughter, a Fat Woman and a Dog”. To judge by the cover photo, the title was a literal rather than a metaphorical description. After a while, we realised that all the shops were duplicating themselves and that most were obviously part of a chain. As, shockingly, were the “Bob Marley” coffee shops.
The ladies of the night, in their little cabins, were disappointingly unalluring and, once you’d noticed that most of them had several rolls of kitchen towel beside their couches, not in the least bit tempting. Still, one of them actually did utter to me the immortal words, “Hi there, big boy”. How did she know?
After that, the touristy things we did were less daring but more satisfying. We spent a wild and wonderful evening in the Melkweg, a brilliant music venue where we saw the reassuringly wholesome and ultra-funky Luscious Jackson. Then we went the whole hog with a full-scale vegetarian Indonesian Rejstafel, quite an experience because it was so spicy that it rendered both of us completely unable to speak for nearly an hour.
In the morning, we hired a small electric boat to ply the canals. The charming girls in charge of the boats recommended a good route. “You will pass through the red light district and the coffee shops,” they said.
“Oh no we won’t,” we replied. But we did anyway.
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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Norfolk and Good

On the M25 on the way to the Norfolk Broads, the traffic was at a standstill in the torrential rain, but we comforted ourselves with the reassuring thought that we were heading for the land of Arthur Ransome’s “Coot Club”, an area of tranquil beauty where we would be able to relax and forget the hurly-burly of daily life.
Yes, well … Arthur Ransome was writing a long time ago. The similarities between the M25 and the Broads are startling: long, straight, featureless and permanently jammed. Although, to be perfectly accurate, a better analogy would be Tesco’s car park on a Friday evening: a procession of vehicles searching fruitlessly for a parking space. As dusk encroaches, you start to panic. Where can we tie up? Okay, you can drop anchor in the middle of a broad, but then you can’t go to the pub.
Ah yes, the pubs. They really have it sewn up, you know. You can moor up outside them but only if you a) pay a fiver for the privilege or b) eat an over-priced meal in them. The first night provided us with quite an adventure. We stumbled through the monsoon to a large pub with a big family room. We all commented on the fact that the chips were real, not frozen. How refreshing! But not for one family, who complained about their quality.
The chef was at the end of his tether after allegedly serving 300 meals that weekend. He charged out of the kitchen and slammed a potato onto their table.
“You wanna see a f……. potato? That’s a f……. potato! In this pub you get real food. If you want frozen food, you can f ….. off back to your council house!”
Unfortunately, he had chosen the wrong family. The father was large, tattooed and musclebound while the wife would have given a fishwife a bad name. It was obvious that a major brawl was about to break out, especially when the chef charged into the kitchen and re-emerged with a large catering container full of chips, clearly planning to pour them over the customer’s head. Along with the rest of the cowering clientele, we slunk out into the car park, adults shivering and children wide-eyed.
As it turned out, it was a good thing the chef hadn’t done a Basil Fawlty and demanded to know whether the other customers were satisfied. Comparing notes back on the boat, we discovered that the salmon and prawn pie had contained neither salmon nor prawns, while the chicken curry had thrown up remarkably little chicken. You could imagine hands being timidly raised: “Er, well, actually ….”
The pubs got better, but not much. On the second night, we were enticed to moor outside a hostelry in Horning. There a man was on duty especially to reel you in, like a fish. By this time, it was so wet that you could hardly tell where the river ended and the garden began, and he was appropriately attired in waders. He then woke us up at 6 am by noisily re-arranging us in order to squeeze in yet more captive customers.
The next night we were at Reedham Ferry, where things looked more promising until the local folk musician came on and played every cliche finger-in-the-ear folk song known to man. His set culminated in a lusty singalong entitled “Norfolk and Good” (try singing it out loud). The children were even wider-eyed than before.
Before finally giving in and opting for the “anchor in the middle of a broad” option, we had one last despairing attempt. The pub in Stalham was one of those where fifty percent of the menu was “off” and the very loud jukebox specialised in speed metal. We ate our second choices surrounded by the black leather-clad and heavily-pierced locals, to the strains of Metallica and Megadeth. Yum! From then on, we settled for take-aways from Somerfields in Beccles.
Probably, a Broads holiday is wonderful if the sun shines, but as it was, we just had to keep on the move, which was especially problematic because the hire boats don’t have windscreen wipers and you can’t see where you are going. A further problem is caused by the fact that you have to lower your entire roof before going under bridges. In a tropical storm this is inadvisable, so various routes are inaccessible to you. This meant that, in two days, we had explored every available inch of the Northern Broads and had to take the plunge of negotiating Great Yarmouth, about which the guide book was highly doom-laden, and rightly so. It was terrifying.
What you have to do is calculate when low tide is and set out from Stracey Arms two hours beforehand, in the knowledge that the river is now tidal and that you will not be able to stop or moor up anywhere between there and the coast. Instructions for dealing with the various bridges, narrow channels, vicious currents, traffic lights and other hazards of Great Yarmouth are detailed and complicated. You couldn’t do it without someone reading them out loud to you.
Except that some people obviously do. Here another hazard comes into the equation. Not only are we incompetent landlubbers but so is practically everyone else on the Broads. We have all had a laughable minimum of instruction. We, however, are trying to follow the rules about speed, position, etiquette, etc, while many of the others cheerfully ignore all that, instead acting as if they are in bumper boats in a theme park.
On the way to Great Yarmouth, therefore, we saw one terrified family stranded at 45 degrees on a mudflat. Negotiating one of the bridges, we narrowly avoided a head-on collision with one boat while nearly being rammed from behind by another. Once on Breydon Broad, a speedboat full of “Hullabaloos” streaked past, leaving the flotilla of pleasure boats bobbing and plunging and in genuine danger of sinking.
On the way home, the M25 seemed quite a pleasurable prospect.
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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