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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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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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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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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Echo Beach

The sound of the Rainstick is a melancholy one. It’s a noise which attracts a bizarre collection of addicts to the beach at Eype, just outside Bridport, on the West Dorset coast. In the case of the Rainstick, the sound is created by little stones tumbling through a network of twigs. At Eype, it’s the waves breaking with metronomic regularity onto the steep bank of pebbles which form the shoreline.
So timeless and reliable is this sound that it tends to induce laughably frightening thoughts such as “How many pebbles are there in the world?”. These are thoughts which may or may not cross the minds of the small but dedicated number of people who, rain or shine, winter or summer, day or night, can be found sitting on the pebble bank, staring out to sea for hours on end. What it is about certain places which gives them the power to mesmerise in this way?
In the week we spent at Eype, rain fell ceaselessly for 72 hours and it was shrouded in fog for the rest of the time. Yet the (well-hidden) caravan park was full, the campsite was full, the B & Bs were full and no one showed any discontent or desire to leave. They must have been regulars, since it takes a real effort to get there. The lane is so winding and narrow that some people assume they’re on the wrong road and turn back; anyone attempting to approach on foot has to negotiate steep, tortuous cliff paths.
One afternoon, I was stopped by a middle-aged gentleman who pretended he wanted to ask the way. He introduced himself as being a Russian poet from Leningrad and, within moments, had produced from his rucksack a slim hardback book containing his own poems, all dedicated specifically to this small stretch of Dorset coastline. The almost spiritual sincerity shone through so brightly that I read them avidly. Each poem had also been painstakingly translated into Russian. He hailed a passing walker to take a picture of me studying his literary work.
Leonid is by no means the only one to find Eype beach artistically inspirational. The African master drummer Noah Messomo holds highly atmospheric drum workshops here (“turn right”, say the directions) and the artist John Skinner leads beach sculpture sessions. Musician Jackie Leven credits the locality as influential in his work, and the singer and songwriter Polly Harvey is specifically inspired by these very waves and pebbles.
At 1 a.m. one night, we met in the lane a woman called Fiona and her young daughter who had driven that day all the way from Rotherham. Their husband and father had deserted them ten days earlier and they’d chosen Eype beach as the place to “find themselves”. Overcome with emotion as they told their story, they nonetheless were obviously gaining in strength and determination from their pilgrimage. They had two Rotweilers. “Don’t trust them,” said Fiona. “They don’t like men.”
Even in the middle of the night, there are figures hunched up on the top of the pebble bank. With their Hurricane lamps and their Thermoses, the dedicated shore fishermen of Eype spend most of their lives there. They never seem to catch anything, so what are they doing? It’s obvious: They are composing songs, writing poems and discovering the true meaning of life.
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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The Péage of Unreason

Despite the fact that I suffer from a motorway phobia (not such an uncommon thing as you might imagine), I found myself saying to the family, “You know, maybe motorways aren’t so bad after all”. It was Sunday lunchtime, late July, just outside Calais. The autoroute was almost picturesque, its central reservation crammed with attractive flowering shrubs, and there was not a single car, lorry, caravan or “mobil-‘ome” in sight. I was cured!
Twenty-four hours later, we were all reaching for the Valium again. South of Dijon, the lorries were back, the Dutch were back, the Brits and the Germans were back and the péage was once again the Highway To Hell. In fact, it was Hell.
Now we remembered why we’d sworn never to drive the length of France again. What was worse, we’d just worked out that, by the time you added up all the petrol and the frequent and astronomical péage tolls, it would have been almost as cheap to put the car on the train and travel without terror.
People love national stereotyping when it comes to drivers, but it doesn’t matter where they come from, as soon as they hit the French péage, they all go completely crazy. It’s almost as if they’re saying, look, we’ve paid for this, so we’ll do what we like.
“What we like” consists of switching lanes without indicating, weaving in and out of traffic like a snake, exceeding the speed limit as a matter of honour, flashing, hooting and gesticulating and, above all, seeing how close you can get to the car in front while travelling at 100 miles an hour.
The autoroute has magnificent signing. One of the most useful notices is a frequent and gigantic hoarding pointing out in pictorial fashion that you need to keep at least two of the white lines they have helpfully painted at the side of the road between you and the next car. If not, it says, you’re dead if it chooses to brake suddenly.
Fine. Except that not a single person takes the tiniest notice of it. The authorities might as well have saved themselves the millions of francs the warnings undoubtedly cost. Yes, so it’s just human beings exercising their right to take risks, like they do by smoking, mountaineering and walking to the North Pole. The only trouble is, they’re taking risks with me and my family as well as their own.
So it wasn’t surprising that every few kilometres, there was a pile-up. We saw a Dutch caravan which had ended up vertical rather than horizontal, numerous shunts and one scene where people were actually being laid out by the side of the road. The thing to look out for is a sudden blaze of brake lights and hazard warning lights immediately in front of you. This is a signal for you to slam on the brakes and do likewise, hoping that the person behind is reasonably alert.
The péage has huge and very impressive gantries which provide you with useful information such as “belt up in the back” (observed as much as the “keep your distance” signs are) or advance notice that the next “aire” will provide live entertainment for children. The one to watch out for, however, is “Bouchon”. This, conveniently, is a direct translation of the English word “Bottleneck”, and what it means is, keep going at the same outrageous speed, but be ready to leap on your brakes and switch on your flashers at any moment.
On the way home, something really peculiar happened. One of the many ignored signs is one advising drivers to “take a break”. This is something you can actually do in France (as opposed to in the UK) because every few kilometres there are very nice little “aires”, or resting places. Being obedient, we decided to do just that, and the three attractive females in the family promptly lay down on a blanket and fell asleep. I, the unattractive male member of the family, went to the loo and was startled, on my return, to find that a battered old Renault had parked next to them. In it were two young Marti Pellow clones (dark pony-tailed, handsome, unshaven), who were observing the girls closely.
Having just read a newspaper article about motorway bandits, I momentarily and mistakenly sensed trouble, until it became clear that they had merely broken down. The Renault wouldn’t start, so I offered them a push. It did the trick, the engine sputtered into life and they set off down the slip road. But then, inexplicably, they started to reverse, and came all the way back to us.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“We want to say thank you,” replied Marti One.
“Oh, that’s okay.”
Marti Two cupped his hand to his mouth and inhaled, imitating taking a drag on a joint.
“Would you like to ‘fume’ something?”
Ala! So it wasn’t only hairstyles they had in common with Marti Pellow.
I declined the offer.
“Une bière, peut-être?”
“No thanks, we’re driving.”
So, with friendly waves and cries of “Bonne route”, we parted company and they drove off.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” wondered the girls.
We would. At the next péage toll barrier, the Two Martis had been pulled over and their car was being disembowelled by several gendarmes. I felt awful, simultaneously guilty and not guilty. After all, if I hadn’t done them the good turn of giving them a push, they wouldn’t have been busted.
There must be a moral here. It’s just that I can’t work out what it is.

From the Western Daily Press

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Blessed Virgin Island

The airport at Tortola, the main British Virgin Island, is currently being extended. Before too long, 777s will be able to land there and that may well spell the beginning of the end of this island’s uniquely unspoilt character, which thrives on the extraordinary contradictions you encounter every step of the way.
The most obvious of these is the fact that, despite the Britishness of the islands, the currency is the US dollar. In Tortola you drive on the left, not all that easy when using a left hand drive car, all the vehicles being imported from the US.Virtually the entire island has a 20 mph speed limit, enforced by some of the most uncompromising speed bumps in existence.
We stumbled by mistake into the Sugar Mill Restaurant, expecting it to be as informal and laid back as the other eating places on the island. “Will Sir and Madam be taking dinner with us this evening?” enquired the flunky. The food was actually fine, but you couldn’t help thinking back to the same morning, when we had breakfasted in the adjacent Carrot Bay Shell Museum. Egberth Donovan will cook you a breakfast so gigantic (three huge pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon) that you couldn’t possibly hope to finish it. This will cost you five dollars, the price which you would pay for a beer in the Sugar Mill.
Egberth will tell you that, despite the unrivalled value of what he offers, he can’t make ends meet. Why? There’s one main reason. An increasing number of visitors to the islands are choosing to stay at one of the “all-inclusive” resorts which are beginning to spring up. Most of them prefer to remain cocooned for their breakfast rather than walking a short distance to support Egberth.
Just round the corner from the Shell Museum you can find one of the Caribbean’s best-known social treasures. Constructed entirely from driftwood and cardboard and held together mainly by discarded bits of bikini, Bomba’s Shack is the ultimate den of iniquity. Its charm lies in being so unashamedly upfront about its decadence, with “mushroom tea” (ahem) on sale, a notice offering a free tee shirt to any woman removing her top, and a wall full of Polaroids illustrating the many customers who have done just that. The culprit? Bomba’s “special” punch (seven eighths neat rum, plus secret ingredients), which turns grown men and women into gibbering wrecks.
Just along the coast, Smuggler’s Cove must surely one of the most idyllically secluded beaches anywhere in the world. To get there, you have to hire a jeep and drive for half an hour through sub-tropical rain forest along a track that has more potholes than surface. But it’s worth it.
You certainly wouldn’t expect to find a beach bar at Smuggler’s Cove, but there is one. Bob Denniston, the 82-year old proprietor, operates a little Honesty Bar because he’s not there that often and even when he is, he’d rather sit and shoot the breeze than act as a barman. You delve into a cobwebby back room, past a rubber shark, and help yourself to your Carib beer from the fridge, placing your dollar bills onto a plate on the bar. You can then go and drink it in the sea.
The people from the resorts would never find Smuggler’s Cove, but you can bet that, within five years, there’ll be a metalled road leading there. Enjoy it while you can.
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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Un, deux, Troyes

Mention the French city of Troyes to any English person and you’ll probably get the response, “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there.” This is because it is efficiently by-passed by the A5 autoroute, meaning that anyone travelling from the Channel ports to the South of France will have seen Troyes on signposts scores of times but probably won’t have stopped off for a visit. This is an error!
To clear up the first question everyone asks, the pronunciation is as in un, deux trois, and not as in “Helen of …”. Troyes is the capital of the Champagne region, and large amounts of the sparkling nectar are drunk here, even though the bottling plants and cellars are mainly in nearby Reims.
The medieval city of Troyes is a charming place to wander round and, because it’s not nearly such a tourist magnet as it ought to be, it’s pleasantly quiet. Fairy-tale half-timbered buildings, impeccably restored, cluster round the market place and down the numerous narrow alleyways, the best-known of which is the “Ruelle des Chats”, or “Cat Alley”.
The city centre is enclosed within a network of roads which, on a map, exactly resembles a champagne bottle cork, and is thus known as the “Bouchon de Champagne”. Within this area, you can stroll from restaurant to creperie to bar unhindered by traffic. Just outside the central area lies the Catholic cathedral, which dates from the twelfth century and contains some of the most stunning stained glass windows to be found anywhere in France. Just adjacent to the cathedral is the Museum of Modern Art, with an ever-changing collection of top quality abstract works.
Once you have soaked up sufficient history (the Seine, incidentally, flows through the city), Troyes presents unusual shopping opportunities. The area’s main industry is clothes manufacture, so on every corner there are “bonneteries” selling “seconds”, and also a large number of full-scale outlets offering designer clothing at bargain prices. Among labels manufacturing in the Troyes area are Le Coq Sportif, for sports gear, and Le Petit Bateau, for children’s clothes.
During the day, there is much to explore. Within half an hour’s drive lies the Forêt d’Orient, a vast wooded area rich in wildlife and ideal for walking, cycling and picnicking. At the centre of the forest is a large lake with extensive water sports facilities and even its own artificial beach!
Dining in Troyes is extensive and traditional, with the emphasis firmly on meat. The local speciality is Andouillettes de Troyes (coarse sausages). And before you leave, don’t forget to head up into the hills and visit a few of the local small champagne vineyards, where you can taste the goods and buy at bargain prices.
So next time you’re on the A5, don’t ignore the Troyes signs – follow them!
From the Hampshire Chronicle

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Cream of Jersey

If you are at all concerned about flying, a trip with flybe to Jersey needn’t worry you at all. You wander down to Eastleigh, climb aboard, fasten your seatbelt and you’re there. Well, there’s just about time for the ignored duty free trolly to blast up and down the cabin, but that’s it. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are commencing our descent …”

To be frank, when we returned from our Jersey weekend, the feeling we had was more or less that we might as well go every weekend, so simple was it. A lot simpler, for example, than battling with the traffic to get to Devon or Cornwall. The initial impetus was to attend the first-ever Jersey Rock Festival (see below), but a brief search of the internet had thrown up the following ridiculous bargain: The Les Charrières Country Hotel was offering three nights’ bed and breakfast for £99, including a free car. I’ll repeat that, including a free car. And it had a nice swimming pool, fitness centre and carvery restaurant as well. It turned out to be every bit as attractive as it sounded, witrh no catches. Who knows what bargains they have on offer this summer? Check their website for details (see below).

The car is actually quite important, in that Jersey isn’t a place you can wander round on foot with any degree of success. Yes, the island is small, but the road system is dense. They are narrow and seldom have pavements, so cycling also isn’t an attractive option, outside of the specially designated cycle routes. But driving here is relaxing, as (unless you are Jim Bergerac with your little red sports car) you have to adhere to a 40 mile an hour limit, even on the token few hundred metres of dual carriageway around St Helier.

Our visit coincided with a heatwave, so most of the time was spent on the beach. Having checked out several equally appealing stretches of sand, we settled on St Brelade’s, which was just perfect, with every facility, yet pleasingly quiet. The feel is very much that of being somewhere like Granville in Normandy, except that St Brelade’s has the ubiquitous branch of Pizza Express. Two tips for St Brelade’s: Don’t tangle with the man who rents out sun loungers (he doesn’t do deals), and do take a master’s degree in understanding the incomprehensible scratch’n’sniff car parking system.

Rather like the Isle of Wight, Jersey has a wealth of things to do should the weather misbehave. There the similarity ends, however, as Jersey is a far more attractive proposition – and that’s coming from someone who actually loves the Isle of Wight as well. The world-famous Jersey Zoo, founded by Gerald Durrell and dedicated to conservation, is unmissable, as are the stunning Mont Orgeuil Castle at Gorey and the fascinating Jersey War Tunnels. The island also specializes in special events, such as the international Air Display (September), the Festival of Motoring ((June) and of course, the famous Battle of the Flowers (August), to name but a few.

We couldn’t resist the deliciously tacky “Jersey Experience”, in which the island’s history is enacted in a baffling audio-visual extravaganza, presented, for reasons unknown, by a lugubrious John Nettles disguised as a Captain Nemo character. I’m not knocking it, as it was great entertainment and also included a free round of mini-golf, set up in such a mad way that anyone useless at golf (me) can still win.

As a festival bore par excellence (every Glastonbury since 1980, numerous Readings, Knebworths and heaven knows how many others), people often ask me what is the best festival I’ve ever attended. The perhaps surprising answer is Jersey Rock. After the success of the original festival in 2004, this year’s effort promises to be even better. It’s hard to explain what the magic is. The community feel, perhaps; the fact that it is compact and doesn’t involve camping; and most of all (in stark contrast to other festivals) an intelligent coherence in the bands they book. The 2005 festival featured Southampton.s excellent Delays, plus two bands whose profile has risen enormously in the intervening twelve months: the charming Subways and newly-crowned megastars Razorlight. Razorlight’s dummer Andy Burrows, who is from Winchester, commented, “The Jersey Festival holds great memories for us. It was the first time when we were able to tell from the audience reaction that things were really taking off. The atmosphere was incredible.”

For the 2005 festival, promoter Warren Holt (an islander whose dedication and energy is crucial for the success of the festival) has secured an even more stellar line-up, with glam New Yorkers The Bravery (who will no doubt disrobe in the sun, since they stripped at Glastonbury in the rain), plus the nu-baggy of Kasabian and chirpy Geordies The Futureheads. He could scarcely have selected a more promising set of up-and-coming acts. The venue is the same as in 2004, namely the Jersey Royal Showground in Trinity. If you want to go, act fast, as the capacity is only 7500.

The highlight of our weekend last September came in an unexpected way. Searching for an idyllic harbour-front meal (we considered Rozel, but settled on the even more attractive Gorey), we stumbled upon the Moorings Hotel, in the shadow of Mount Orgueil. Hesitant at first (we feared it would be too posh), we were rewarded with a quite sensational five-course gourmet extravaganza for just £25 a head, served with impeccable courtesy and attention. You are unlikely to find a better culinary bargain anywhere in the UK. Will we go back this September? You bet!

From the Mid-Hampshire Observer

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