Puffin’ round Iceland

Puffin’ round Iceland
The name of the gourmet restaurant was “Lakjarbrekka” and one of the principal items on the menu was a “Puffin Feast”. Naturally, we recoiled, although later, I couldn’t work out why. If chicken and turkey are okay, why should we worry about eating puffin? Because they are more cuddly? It’s like eating cows and being shocked at the French for eating horses – illogical, really.
Anyway, I opted instead for a “Lobster Feast”, and, overlooking the fact that the poor thing had probably been boiled alive, sat down for the best meal of my life: The king of crustaceans, prepared in about eight different ways and served with as much ceremony as if we were visiting heads of state. Our visit to Iceland was getting off to a great start.
The next morning, we received the explanation for why the shower in the apartment smelt of rotten eggs. It was on account of the sulphur in the water, created naturally in the geothermal springs which supply hot water and central heating to the whole island. The Blue Lagoon, near Keflavik airport, is where you can try out he waters. Not quite as idyllic as it sounds (the architecture is austere and the lagoon is actually the overflow from a power station), it is nonetheless quite an experience, not dissimilar to a sauna, as you alternate between the surprisingly hot baths and the sub-zero temperatures outside.
Wandering round Reykjavik is a relaxed and pleasurable experience, as the capital is so charmingly laid back. The waterfront is beautiful; the range of excellent art galleries is wide and the cafés and bars so warm and welcoming (and not as wildly expensive as you may fear). Naturally the music of Björk is ubiquitous. Our highlight was an hour spent in the architectually sensational Hallgrimskirkja church, where a gentleman was playing free-form jazz on the organ and the building benefited from having no decorations whatever – no flowers, stained glass, candles, nothing, a refreshing contrast to a recent visit to Rome.
The back-packers among you are well catered for in Iceland, with a huge network of hostels and bus routes which could last you a month. We weekend-breakers had to settle for a minibus tour, one of many which can, if you have time, develop into snowmobile rides, glacier safaris, horse trecking or dogsled excursions. Our knowledgeable driver (a Devonian who had established the Ba’hai faith in Iceland, don’t ask) took us first to Pingvellir, where the tectonic pates shift and Europe meets North America. A visit to the stunning Gulfloss waterfall led on to the highlight of any visit to Iceland, an encounter with the hot springs of – guess where – Geysir. The idea is that you go as close as you dare, then run for it as they erupt. That’s when you realize the almost humbling uniqueness of Iceland, a country of great prosperity, ecological purity and virtually no crime.
And we were glad we had spared the puffin.

From The Hampshire Chronicle

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24 Hours From Tulsa


Tulsa is uniquely associated with one song. The only trouble is that the entire point of “24 Hours From Tulsa” is that dear old Gene Pitney is still a day and a night away from Tulsa as he sings of his indiscretion in a hotel room which means that he can “never, never, never go home again”. And neither Gene nor songwriters Bacharach and David had any connection with Tulsa anyway. It merely met the requirement of being a two syllable town beginning with a consonant.
Tulsa isn’t easy to get to. Despite the lonesome whistles of the freight trains as they traverse the downtown area, there is no Amtrack passenger service to Tulsa and nothing much in the way of buses either. Luckily, there’s Tulsa International Airport, accessible from Gatwick via a brief stopover in Minneapolis.
You get around by car, car and car. This is quintessential mid-America, where you drive absolutely everywhere: to the malls, to the bars and above all to the churches. This isn’t just the Bible Belt, it’s braces and corsets too. There are simply thousands of churches in Tulsa (I counted 3420 in the Greater Tulsa Yellow Pages): Methodist, Baptist, Adventist and any other kind of – ist you care to mention. Most of the buildings are gigantic, and on Sundays they need extra shifts of police to control the churchgoing traffic. Confusingly, the illuminated signs announcing guest preachers are identical to those advertising visiting bands in the nightclubs. Thus, cruising for some music on our first night, we pulled into several church car parks before eventually locating Fishbonz, a classic student-filled mid-West roadhouse.
The pervasive air of religious fervour in Tulsa had an unexpected spin-off when our daughter got her finger stuck in the car door on the forecourt of a shopping mall. As she writhed screaming on the floor, a lady pushed forward through the crowd. Good, we thought, a first aid expert. No such luck – the lady was kindly offering to pray for her!
The next day, I caused complete consternation by suggesting walking, ooh, all of 500 metres to the local gas station to buy beer. Walking? The very thought! But that was as nothing compared to my attempt, as a pedestrian, to purchase a burger at Sonic’s Drive-In hamburger bar. The system couldn’t cope with this unconventional behaviour, so I had to pretend to be a car, stand in a bay and communicate via intercom, the burger eventually being delivered on roller skates.
But the churches aren’t Tulsa’s only buildings of note. Tulsa is dubbed “Terra Cotta City” on account of some quite charming and very unusual art-deco landmarks, including many listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Probably the best known are the Brook Theatre and the Union Depot, but we were most impressed by the Adams building on Cheyenne and 4th. It felt more like Barcelona than Oklahoma. All the wealth in these buildings came from the oil boom in the 1920s, commemorated in the 8-storey high statue if the Golden Driller, who stands proudly outside the Exposition Center. Tulsa still has an air of prosperity. It’s a technological centre, with the rusting old oil pipelines now carrying fibre-optic cables.
So if 24 Hours From Tulsa could be virtually anywhere, how about 24 miles from Tulsa? Ah, now we’re talking. “Route 66” is a better song anyway, and Tulsa is the place to get a real feel for the Mother Road. The route of dreamers and drifters takes you out from West Tulsa to Sapulpa, with its restored Main Street and its Route 66 memorabilia shops and roadside diners. The rest of Route 66 has been subsumed into the interstate system, but here you can really get an impression of what it must have felt like in the glory days of the 40s and 50s, when Sapulpa was an oil boom town. The museum run by the local historical society is a gem.
Another place to get your kicks is in Tulsa’s parks. Far from the flattened dustbowl expected by readers of The Grapes Of Wrath, Tulsa is set in undulating hills and woodland. Our park of choice was Hunter Park. Here you can play disc golf, a gentle form of golf played with frisbees rather than clubs. There’s also a range of museums and art galleries, the most prominent being the Philbrook Museum, which houses Italian Renaissance art. Music lovers will be intrigued by Cain’s Ballroom. the Carnegie Hall of country music, as well as the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Tulsa’s favourite musical son is Leon Russell, sixty years old this year.
There are plenty of other good day trips, especially if you’re interested in the 39 federally registered Native American tribes which reside in Oklahoma (the word itself coming from two Choctaw Indian words meaning “red man”). Just 70 miles south east of Tulsa, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, lies Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation. The town itself is dull, but just outside it lies the Cherokee Heritage Center, a magnificent and profoundly moving tribute to the thousands of NativeAmericans displaced and forced to trek half way across America on the Trail of Tears, to their new home in Oklahoma. Here we were also given a personal demonstration of Indian crafts and a guided tour of the reconstructed Indian village.
At the slight risk of OD-ing on Heritage, another great day out is to Bartlesville, where Frank Phillips discovered oil (inevitably christening it the “66” brand) and used some of the proceeds to create his Woolaroc Ranch, nowadays a wildlife park and beautifully presented museum, largely filled with Western and Native American paintings. A hundred miles further on into the Ozarks, but definitely worth the effort, is Eureka Springs, a kitsch but irresistible mountain spa town and artistic community. Its speciality? Jacuzzis For Two in every B and B. Whoopee!
From the Independent on Sunday

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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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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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My Holiday Disaster

To be fair, we were warned. When in Poland, the guide book said, be prepared for the public toilets to be challenging. Snort. For veterans of the original, now fast disappearing French “Flush and Run” specials, what possible terrors could Poland’s conveniences hold?
You can’t avoid them, unless you’re teetotal. The seductive nature of the extremely strong and outrageously cheap beer (“piwo”, such a sweet name, don’t you think?) means that an occasional visit is essential.
It was my wife who first alerted me to possible problems. Disappearing into the depths of the cellar of the central arcade in the “Reynek” (market place) in Krakow, she took a worryingly long time to reappear. It transpired that, after a lengthy queuing procedure, she had been severely told off by the “babcia klozetowa” (brutal old lady in charge of handing out the regulation two sheets of toilet paper). My wife had had the temerity to protest (via sign language) that this wasn’t much of a deal for 40 groszy. But the main hold-up had been caused by a fruitless search for a flushing mechanism and a fear of public humiliation if she re-emerged without having flushed. It was only after having finally given up hope that she discovered that the mechanism was activated by opening the cubicle door.
A couple of piwos later, I had no choice but to follow. Sure enough, I promptly had a run-in with the babcia klozetowa, who tried to claim that I had performed a function other then the one I had. You see, a pee costs 40 groszy, something more substantial costs 50 groszy. On this occasion, I was accused of trying to get away cheaply, despite the fact that her beady eyes had been on me throughout the operation.
What happened at the gloriously down-at-heel Hotel DomTurysty in Zacopane (jewel of the Tatra Mountains) was, however, more than a joke. Taken short (50 groszys worth) in the breakfast room, I wrongly assumed that the hotel’s facilities would be free. I had already entered the loo when I realised that I had no money. Pounced upon by the duty crone, who thought I was leaving, not arriving, I had to suffer a tyrade of abuse as I tried to explain that I was just going back to fetch my fee.
On returning, I proffered the 50 groszy, which were quickly pocketed. Unfortunately, she thought it was in payment of my alleged previous foray, and now refused to let me in. When all pleading failed, I had no choice but to return to the dining room yet again, to get another 50 groszy.
This gained me admission (thank God), but in the kerfuffle, the guardian hadn’t given me my two sheets of loo paper, a fact which I didn’t actually realise until I physically required it. A furtive peer out of the cubicle door revealed that the crone had now gone off for a break. The only way to get hold of any paper was to hop, trousers round ankles, to the attendant’s kiosk and remove the paper from where it lay, enticingly, on a shelf. I don’t think the two Dutch backpackers who witnessed this operation will ever get over the trauma.
From the Independent on Sunday

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