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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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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Tobagonian Paradise


Sometimes on holiday, things just work out well. For a start, our boat trip over to Little Tobago turned out to be an individual tour, as there was no one else on board except the guide. We had an hour on this desert island bird sanctuary, making contact with Blue-Crowned Motmots, Frigate Birds and Boobies. On the way, we snorkelled off Goat Island, the private island where Ian Fleming wrote many of his Bond novels. It’s up for sale for £1.25 million, which would seem quite a bargain if you had the cash. The only trouble is, there’s nothing to do there, but it’s only a five-minute boat ride from the decaying but still splendid Blue Waters resort.

Literally the moment we arrived back on dry land, the heavens opened and a tropical storm lashed the shores at Speyside. We were fine, though, safe in the sanctuary of the amazing Gemma’s Tree House restaurant, tucking into a lobster feast of unrivalled excellence, before heading off to bathe in the cooling waters of the Argyll waterfall. As I said, sometimes things just work out well.

For a start, the “villa” we’d booked turned out to be the height of luxury, complete with private pool, maid, four bathrooms and a security guard. Conveniently, it was a mere couple of minutes’ walk from Pigeon Point, probably the most photographed location in the whole of the Caribbean. Also within easy walking distance were a cornucopia of fabulous and reasonably priced restaurants. We tried them all and were disappointed by none: Iguana, Pelican Reef, Dillons Seafood restaurant (yet more lobster, mmm). Just by Store Bay beach, you can take in the sunset with a cocktail (you can’t beat a good rum punch) at the mildly decadent Crown Point Hotel. Generally speaking, we found better value at the least posh places: the only establishments which seemed over-priced were the luxurious Coco Reef and the over-hyped Seahorse Inn, while the gloriously down-market Golden Star offered fabulous value with its combined three course meal and Wednesday talent show, a crazy event which was worth the journey alone.

As for culture, well, it’s the steel pans which are the trademark of Trinidad and Tobago. You can hear them everywhere, but the most popular opportunity is at the weekly Sunday School in Buckoo, an anything-but-religious experience. For people with less traditional tastes, fantastic reggae booms nightly from some of the rum shops, not strictly legally, it seems. Another Sunday experience not to be missed is a visit to Luise Kimme’s castle-like art gallery, where this eccentric but lovable character presides over hundreds of brilliantly colourful semi-abstract life-size sculptures.

We decided not to bother with hiring a car, since the tours offered by Tour Tobago are so comprehensive and such good value. With the help of proprietors Reuben and Carrie, plus the ever-informative Lynden, we found out everything there is to know about the history, culture and wildlife of this outstandingly beautiful country: the rain forest, the music, the art, the climate, the history, the food and, of course, the huge range of tropical birds.

Getting to Tobago and back isn’t hard or too tiring. You can fly direct or stop off in Grenada. We were there for ten days and would have happily stayed on for double the time. It’s beautiful, friendly, unspoilt and welcoming. You could hardly ask for anything more from a holiday.

From the Hampshire Chronicle

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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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