Blues Traveller

I can remember it in detail. The most emotionally charged performance I’ve ever seen was at the Boar’s Head in Wickham, Hants (now sadly razed to the ground). Hearing John Campbell’s supremely musical rhythm section introduced as being “from Austin, Texas”, I determined: Austin Texas, there I have to go.
When Joe Ely turned up at the same venue mere months later with the same musicians accompanying him, it simply confirmed this determination. This hard, taut, electric country / blues / r & b was totally my kind of music and I had to get me some more.
Then an odd thing happened in Southampton. On an ordinary Tuesday night, Bobby Mack and Night Train appeared at the Brook and blew me right away. Bobby says goodbye individually to all his audience members after each show. All I could find to say to him was: Bobby, you made me want to visit Texas so much, I’m going out to buy the tickets tomorrow.
So now I’ve done it. I’ve savoured the “Live Music Capital of the World” and there could be no more thrilling destination for a music lover. Austin has over 100 live music venues which function seven nights a week, all year. You could stay there for months and never repeat a venue or a band. Bliss and sore ears.
Hopelessly jet-lagged and not caring at all, I staggered down the hill and along 6th street in pursuit of an in-store appearance at Waterloo Records by Billy Bragg, plugging his Mermaid Avenue album of Woody Guthrie songs. Bill had already been and gone, but it didn’t matter. Arriving on 6th is exactly as you’d dream. Suddenly, you are aware that the humid air is filled with the sounds of booming bass guitars, chunky Stratocasters and thwacking hi-hats and snares. Like in New Orleans, the only problem lies in deciding which doors to enter, but it doesn’t really matter because the beer is cheap everywhere and nobody troubles you at all.
The majority of the bars have traditional “blues bands” as we know them, but greatly more authentic than you’d find in British pub. In true Hamburg style, they play for hours and hours. I was looking for something special, though, and as Blues Travelers have to accept, was constantly frustrated.
When the Hoax played in Austin, they opened for Guy Forsyth and it was Guy I was trailing. Good news! He’s playing at Flipnotics today! Bad news! The asterisk in the listings mag means it was a lunchtime session and we’ve missed it. Good news! He’s playing at Carlos ‘n’ Charlie’s on Wednesday evening! Bad news! We’re leaving on Wednesday afternoon! It would have clashed with Joe Ely at Antone’s anyway, but you could have taken in both, Austin’s that kind of place.
So it was time to access some true funk. Antone’s on 5th Street is a world-famous blues cavern with heritage and musical excellence dripping down its walls. But each September it devotes four nights to the funktastic George Clinton style soul-rap of legendary James Brown saxist Maceo Parker. This impossibly hard-edged ensemble features Fred Wesley, JB lookalike Sweets Shirell on backup vocals and the world’s most sublime Hammond player. We danced till 2 am and only gave up because of exhaustion. By the way, Antone’s has a novel way of making sure there’s no crush at the bar. Out in the crowd are satellite bars in the form of fairy-light-decorated baths of ice filled with bottles of beer.
But were we going to find some blues? Following the guide-book’s advice, we headed away from 6th to Guadeloupe Street, where Texas State University students stumble from venue to venue (they’re only yards apart). The Hole in the Wall was great but Roberto Moreno’s band was deeply influenced by Crowded House, so it was into the car and out to North Lamarr and the Saxon Pub, which this week featured, among others, the ubiquitous Guy Forsyth as well as Omar and the Howlers, who have a residency.
We took a chance and chose a real thriller. The unpromisingly-named Monte Montgomery does things with an acoustic guitar you’d never dream possible. His country-rock craftings, his truly “Austin-tight” trio and the lovingly-created roadhouse atmosphere of the venue (plus the odd Tequila or two) made this the best evening of the jaunt. More bad news: I was compelled to buy albums by both Maceo Parker and Monte Montgomery.
The blues quest now shifted to New Orleans. A quick glance at the line-up at the House of Blues revealed that we would be missing Dr. John, Gregory Isaacs and Jimmy Cliff, but … oh, joy: Tonight, the Fabulous Thunderbirds.. Who would the support be, I enquired at the box office. “Get here early, sir. It’s Guy Forsyth.”
Deep was the disappointment when we arrived at the House to find “cancelled” notices on the door. Wherefore art thou, Guy? We are destined never to meet. Compensation was at hand, though. The legendary R.L. Burnside was to step in.
This unbelievable venue (busts of the blues greats are built into the ceiling and the rest rooms dispense free after-shave and condoms) had grabbed R.L. from his gig the previous night at the Maple Leaf and also found a support. The uninviting-sounding Willy Jaye Band turned out to be a cleanly-rocking, power bar-room trio influenced clearly by Stevie Ray Vaughan but with a nod in the direction of Hendrix too. It was interesting that this most discerning of audiences snapped up all Willy Jaye’s CDs in record time. Oh, and another thing: The bassist was a dead ringer for the Hoax’s Jesse Davey. So cut the jibes about Frank Spencer berets; they’re cool in New Orleans, you know.
R.L. Burnside is definitely one of a fast-disappearing breed (whiskey-addled, ancient, toothless bluesmen) but a lot of fun once you’d got over the initial shock at the presentation. There was no bass guitar, a guitarist who looked like a German footballer and acted as guitar roadie and general physical support to R.L., with a drummer who was disturbingly prone to solo outbursts. Chuckling away at his own incomprehensible between-song raps, R.L.’s take on the blues is indeed fascinating: extra bars added here and there kept the band on its toes and you really felt this was a pointer back to a tradition which is becoming so watered-down as to be virtually unrecognisable. The lush environment provided a nicely ironic touch.
Our last night was sad, for similar reasons. Lured by the legend of Tipicino’s (all the blues greats have played here), we found a tourist-oriented venue plagued by the dreaded blandness of a digital sound system. John Carey (latest album featuring the Memphis Horns) was completely emasculated by this awful environment and must have been devastated at the poor reception he received. We took our leave and would advise: New Orleans, cool, but for real music lovers, Austin is unmissable.

From Blueprint magazine

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Bergidylle


Although I am just about vegetarian, I don’t have the discipline to be successful at the vegan lifestyle. My wife is a Wurst-eating German but was happy to try out the “Bergidylle” (mountain idyll), which I had found on the internet. It advertised macrobiotic breaks in the beautiful Fribourg region of Switzerland.

With the stunning efficiency for which the Swiss transport system is renowned, we were whisked by train and bus from Geneva (a short hop from Southampton) to the tiny village of Schwarzsee. There, our hostess Edeltraut Peissard picked us up and we scrunched our way up and up through ever deeper snow until we reached the indeed truly idyllic apartment which was to be our home. With an incredible view over the mountains (1200 metres up and with hardly another house for miles), two beautiful rooms and a cosy wood-burning stove, it was a perfect hideaway.

Breakfast (included in the extremely reasonable price) was our first taste of Edeltraut’s strict “Rohkost” diet. Not only does she not eat meat or any dairy products, she also only eats raw fruit and vegetables – and looks enviably trim and healthy on it. The trolley wheeled into our room was groaning with every possible variety of nut and berry, each impeccably annotated with a neat yellow label explaining its provenance (mainly from Bergidylle’s garden). A minor crisis was averted when we admitted we couldn’t do without milk in our tea and also didn’t fancy rice water on our muesli. Edeltraut wasn’t at all judgemental and undertook a major expedition into town in search of milk.

The breakfast was such a revelation that we ordered the optional evening meal, which turned out to be a variation on the Fondue idea, whereby we dipped raw vegetables into a hot broth. Challenging on the old molars, it was nonetheless delicious and something unique to savour. It was a relief, too, that the accompanying basket of goodies contained various organic wines and beers.

We feared we’d be blotting our copybook by requesting a visit to the extremely carnivore establishment at the bottom of the mountain, the Mösli-Restaurant. But, keen to support the local economy, Edeltraut drove us down there (for some obscure reason it has a Rolling Stones theme) and cheerfully provided torches for the return hike – quite a challenge after a few schnapses.

We’d been enjoying walks round the lake and visits to various waterfalls and ski-lifts, but the greatest treat was Edeltraut’s half-day snow-walking extravaganza. The tea-tray size shoes, complete with lethal spikes, enabled us to get right off the beaten track and up into the clouds, feeling quite like Hillary and Tensing as we scaled peaks that would otherwise have been inaccessible, and looked down with scorn on the skiers below.

And all his hardly more that a couple of hours away from home. We’d go back tomorrow.

Find out more at www.bergidylle.ch

From the Hampshire Chronicle

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On A Swiss Roll


Everything you have read about Swiss railways is true. They are clean, fast, efficient, run to the millisecond and are more than a tad expensive. The private ones, I mean, the ones that creep up and down the mountains like caterpillars, rather than the pleasingly economical state-funded ones which ply the cities.
Anyway, we had explored the beautiful cobbled streets of Zurich, done some serious hiking in the Berner Oberland, shopped like crazy in Lucerne and Interlaken, and now we were on a mission, namely to scale the Eiger and conquer the Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe, as it is branded). What? No, by train, of course.
If you are going to tackle the Jungfraujoch in this way, choose the right day to do it. We didn’t. After paying a cool £70 each, we boarded a train otherwise populated by Japanese touring parties and headed on up towards the highest railway station in Europe. Unfortunately, two thirds of the journey is spent in a tunnel inside the mountain, surreally watching on-board videos of the outside world you can’t see, while stopping at subterranean stations whose sole point is to allow the tourists to look out of a window and admire the view – which, on this particular day was an impenetrable fog of nothingness.
When you reach the summit, even on a good day, it has been turned into something along the lines of a theme park, with restaurants, exhibitions and ice sculptures. On a bad day, such as the one we chose, two thirds of the facilities were closed, which I would have thought would have merited a discount. No chance.
Undeterred, we set out the next day on an altogether more rewarding adventure. The Rigi is a mountain adjacent to the Vierwaldstättensee, an hour’s boat ride from Lucerne. As the boat glides soundlessly into the village of Witznau, the rack and pinion railway is waiting to haul you up to the summit, dropping off post and schoolchildren along the way. And the destination is simply magical.
The reason is that, when you are at the top, you are actually above the clouds. Above you, all is a stunning azure blue, while below, the peaks of lesser summits poke out from the cotton-wool clouds like islands in an ocean. The silence is total and the utter purity of the air you breathe is the most refreshing thing you’ll ever experience.
If you want to, you can stay overnight in this unspoilt paradise, a good idea if, like us, you choose to go out of season and take advantage of the tranquility. Well-signed pathways allow you to walk or sledge your way either all the way back down to the lake’s edge (it will take you three and a half hours) or to one of the tiny stations, where the returning train will pick you up again.
We reckoned that, travelling by Easy Jet from Luton to Zurich, you could be at the top of the Rigi in six hours from Winchester, making this a more than sensible weekend destination. We’ll go again.
Oliver and Birgit Gray travelled with Easy Jet from Luton to Zurich.

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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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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