Denmark in Polly Pocket, 2022

Our journey started in the fun city of Harwich, quite a good place to embark from because it’s so horrible that you are glad to get away. The only place we could find to park up was a pub called The Castle and as I entered to announce our arrival, I could see that a very rowdy party had just arrived. We anticipated a dodgy evening but actually they all sat down to dinner and were very quiet. We had a classic English pub meal as a farewell and retired to Polly, who was parked up in the little pub car park with another couple of travellers. The £20 facilities were minimal to say the least, in stark contrast to what we were to experience in the next few weeks.

In the morning, the boat was surprisingly packed with rather pleasant Dutch families with young children. This must mean that Dutch families like coming to spend their holidays in England, quite a strange thought really. We immediately hit the motorways, which in Holland seem to have particularly frightening and unpredictable road markings, not to mention strange and dangerous traffic light sequencing. As usual, I was terrified because my motorway driving phobia is in the process of turning into something that affects me as a passenger as well as a driver. Luckily, Birgit is the world’s best driver, which helps a lot. Our target was the city of Delft, where we found a superb modern campsite situated next to a wildlife park in the suburbs. We feasted on tinned sausages and beans on toast and got stuck into to the magnificent DVD series Bates Motel, which was to occupy us for the next couple of weeks.

The next day was dedicated to exploring Delft, and extremely rewarding it was. Delft is an absolutely beautiful city with echoes of Bruges and Amsterdam. Attractive buildings front numerous canals and we managed to put in 15 thousand steps, including a tour of the Delft pottery. A fantastic river trip was conducted by a hilarious student who pointed out all the dents he had made over the years, even adding a couple as we chugged along. We sought out a gorgeous canalside pub for a sunny beer and even found a great Asian snack bar near the campsite. Birgit wanted croquettes and I wanted spring rolls and both were on the menu.

I had been slightly dreading the next day’s outing, which was the world-famous Keukenhof tulip display, but actually it was one of the highlights of the trip. What seemed like an expensive admission price actually turned out to be well worth the several hours we spent among the gorgeous blooms and beautifully cultured parkland. Then it was a long and tedious motorway drive to a tiny woodland campsite in a place called Overjissel, where we were the only guests. We hoped to get away with not paying because there was no one there, but a guy turned up in the morning to take my money. It was then that we identified a significant problem. As had happened in previous years, there was obviously some kind of gas leak and our first canister, which was supposed to last for about a month, was already completely empty. The only solution was for me to switch the actual canister on and off each time we cooked from then on. On the way to Birgit’s friend Gitti’s house near Bremen, we spotted a camper van dealer and stopped to ask his advice. His advice, while stroking his luxuriant beard, was, ”Forget it, you’re never going to find a canister like this anywhere in Germany and you will also never find anybody able to fill it, because the fittings are so unusual.” Oh well.

Gitti provided us with a lovely asparagus lunch on her mini-farm in the countryside before we had to hit the road again to Elmshorn, where we were to stay with my old school exchange teaching partner Gert. We weren’t sure how we would get on, because it had been a very long time since we had seen him and his wife Margrit, but they were extremely welcoming, allowing us to put all our stuff in their fridge and also do some washing. Having identified a camper van dealership in the area, we drove there in the morning and were greeted by the fully expected shaking of heads and negative response regarding anything we could possibly do to sort out the gas, so instead we bought a small gas stove that we could use if we were to run out.

This was our 41st wedding anniversary and we were determined to make it a good day. First we visited the futuristic Philharmonie building with panoramic views of the city, then had the compulsory ice cream, spent an hour in the warehouse museum and several hours in the incredibly brilliant Miniatur Wunderland model railway display. I promise it is much more exciting than it sounds. Birgit had her heart set on asparagus and steak for supper and my doubts about whether we would find such a thing were confounded by rounding a corner and finding a smart and delightful restaurant serving just that exact repast.

The next morning was initially spent in a supermarket stocking up on cheap beer and food before a long, wet and not particularly exciting drive to Tønder, just over the border in Denmark. The campsite was situated next to a leisure centre, where there was a bizarre gathering going on of people who go skiing together in the winter and caravanning together in the summer. As was the trend absolutely wherever we went, they all clustered round Polly Pocket, demanding to inspect her in intimate detail and expressing their jealousy despite their own huge and opulent mobile homes. “Please may we look inside?” was a familiar request almost every day.

The adjacent swimming pool provided a great location for a morning swim, prior to spending the day in the pretty town of Tønder, whose museum was outstanding and contained a tall tower full of designer chairs created by Hans Wegner, a famed furniture designer. There was also a display of quirky pottery with a Covid-19 theme. In the evening, confused to hear loud bass tones coming from somewhere, I investigated and found there was a country-rock gig going on in the leisure centre. It was sold out and anyway didn’t sound good enough to tempt me to spend the whole evening there, so instead, we self-indulgently snuggled down to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, something which I normally don’t confess to anybody, on account of concern about my street credibility. Now it has reached such a state of self-parody that watching it is almost a credible thing to do. It did go on upsettingly late, until way past my bedtime.

The next morning saw me taking a wallet that I found in the gents’ toilets on the campsite to the reception, where I was informed that the owner was in despair, having thought he had lost it forever. A few minutes later, he identified me, embraced me and insisted on giving us two bottles of wine by way of thanks. Would it have been too much for me to ask for white instead of red (as we don’t drink red)? I decided that would seem ungrateful.

Just near Tønder is the unspeakably beautiful village of Møgeltønder, where we admired the frescoes in the gorgeous church and the palace where Prince Joachim lived until recently. Nearby was the island of Rømø, on which we suddenly found ourselves driving across an enormous beach, where the sand is so compacted that vehicles can access it. We drove almost to the seafront, parked up and went for a long and invigorating walk.

The campsite we found was almost deserted and foolishly, we entered the attached restaurant, where we proved the truth of the adage that you should never buy a pizza from anywhere whose speciality is not pizza. It was outrageously expensive and piss-poor. The next morning saw a successful trip to the factory where they make Ecco shoes, although we did initially march straight into the administration building instead of the outlet shop. Like me, Birgit has foot issues and Ecco are the only shoes she can wear, so she was delighted to find a couple of pairs and stock up for a while. The rest of the day was spent in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, climbing the high cathedral tower, shopping and eating ice cream. It was a pretty place with a posh campsite where we could read and have a quiet evening.

The next stop was an absolutely delightful campsite in the sand dunes near Hvide Sande. It had an indoor and deserted swimming pool, where we swam every day for the next four days, because this had been planned as a longer stopover. On previous trips, Birgit had been subjected to having to drive far too often and far too far, so we had arranged to have extended stops at various points along the route. Supper was a magnificent German creation called Miracoli, which is spaghetti with tomato sauce and so-called secret spices. I created this in the luxurious kitchen which was available for all to use. This was a feature of every Danish site we went to, so civilised, so useful, so obvious when you think about it.

I certainly don’t plan to describe all our meals, but you can take it for read that virtually every day we had a Danish pastry in the afternoon and some form of tinned monstrosity in the evening (trying to save gas by not cooking potatoes or pasta). Every day we had long walks on the beach, through the dunes and the marshes, but by the fourth day it was starting to get chilly and on the final night it was extremely wet and windy, to the extent of keeping us awake, as the van rocked in the tempest. We had decided not to eat out very often, simply because we knew the Danish prices would be so high, at least for those on a UK pensioner’s income, but the following day we did have a fish and chip lunch in Glyngore, a pretty village and fishing port.

Now it was time to hit the most northern point in Denmark, the pretty city of Skagen. First we visited the amazing sunken Rujberg Knude lighthouse in the dunes, which had been physically picked up and moved a few hundred metres inland to stop it being engulfed by the sand. On reaching Skagen, we undertook a very long but beautiful walk on Grenen Strand, out to where the two oceans (Skagerrat and Kattegat) meet. It’s probably one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen.

Our first full day in Skagen was one of those days you can describe as perfect. Slightly grudgingly paying a high admission fee to an art gallery, we entered through the front door to be confronted by what appeared to be two Monet prints … except that we quickly discovered that they were in fact Monet originals. A couple of his most famous paintings, which rarely leave Paris (and when they do are only allowed to leave for a maximum of six weeks) were on display. We had amazingly pitched up in Skagen two days after they had started to be exhibited there. My breath was quite taken away and I stood and gaped at them for quite a long time.

In town we found a new ice cream shop that had just opened. We had already discovered that no café in Denmark sold either decaf coffee or English breakfast tea. As these are the only two hot beverages I drink, it was quite frustrating, but the delightful owner recommended me to try quince tea, which was delicious. On the campsite, we were able to hire bikes. Cycling facilities in Denmark are out of this world. Virtually every road will have a cycle track running alongside it. Inspired, we did a big bike tour out to the Sand-covered Church, yes, another place that had been threatened by encroaching dunes. While we are on the subject of identifying things that are particularly Danish, on most days we indulged in an ice cream. There are ice cream parlours on every corner and your ice-cream comes, if you ask for it, covered in some outrageously sweet gunk which is pink and appears to be melted marshmallow.

It is true that things like beer are extremely expensive, as are meals out, but I guess it’s all relative because the Danes earn on average £5,000 a month. Also, the beer is extremely strong so you don’t need many of them. As it turned out, I brought the full unopened packet of Alka-Seltzer I’d taken with me home untouched, because I drank so little and didn’t have a single hangover. The Danishness I’d expected was fully in evidence, everybody speaking perfect English, everybody being friendly and the environment being pristine (no litter anywhere) and absolutely no sign of any kind of deprivation. No wonder it’s claimed to be the happiest country in the world; the quality of living is higher than anything I’ve ever seen in any other country. Of one thing there was no evidence: multiculturalism. That was something we missed.

We parked our bikes outside one of the many harbourside seafood restaurants and tucked into to a glorious repast of mussels, shrimps and langoustines. If we were going to eat out, we were going to do it in style, even though (another surprising bit of Danishness) you had to order and collect your food at the bar, like in an English pub. With that in mind, and to round off the evening, we sought out the nearest Skagen had to a dodgy pub, in which I indulged in a local liquor shot, which was passed out through the window. Entering the pub was less pleasurable because it was full of smokers. Yes, smaller pubs in Denmark allow smoking, even though the population looks startlingly healthy. It was actually rather frustrating, because many of the corner taverns looked very appealing, but we were unable to enter them.

Overnight and all the next day it was horribly wet and windy, again keeping us awake overnight. In Skagen there are houses of famous artists from the Skagen school which you can visit, so we did that, seeking out Anchers Hus and Drachmanns Hus. They were charmingly quaint places but we got completely drenched going from one to the other. At this stage there was little to be gained from staying where we were, so we moved to another local campsite which we spotted had a swimming pool and splashed around in there for a while, completely alone. In the rain, we retreated to the van and watched a film we had been lent called The English Patient, which we found unbearably tedious and pretentious, despite the many Oscars it claimed to have won. Yes, we had finished Bates Motel and to my horror I realised there were two further series that I had failed to buy. Instead, we moved on to a German series called Charité, which was absolutely great.

The inclement weather persisted the next day as we moved on to Ebeltoft via some dramatic and exciting Viking graves which, like many historical attractions, were free to visit. We ended up on a campsite which was actually not the one that we had planned to visit but the adjacent one, which was sadly far more expensive. It was, however, very scenic and we were able to park overlooking the ocean and sit on a small pier sipping aperitifs on a bench as a fisherman unsuccessfully cast his line multiple times with no result. That night, once again, we were buffeted by very high winds

There was an attraction in Ebeltoft which I only entered because I knew Birgit would like it, but in fact was completely blown away by the glass museum. Here we were able to watch glass being blown and experienced some outstandingly brilliant glass artworks. This place and its adjacent frigate ship Jelland, which we also visited, set a trend at the other end of the scale from the free admission attractions. It makes you realise how lucky we are in the UK to not pay for entering museums and art galleries. In the space of 24 hours we paid enough admission fees to cover an annual National Trust subscription.

That night saw us arrive in the city of Aarhus, where we had chosen a campsite situated at the end of the futuristic light railway system that has recently been built. It was so wet on our walk to the tram stop that we had to cower under umbrellas and some bushes for fifteen minutes, getting splashed by passing cars, but it was all worth it because the Aros modern art museum was sensational. So too was the pleasant Latin Quarter, where we were privileged to enter the beautiful cathedral while rehearsals were going on for an organ concert, which meant we got the whole caboodle for free. The guidebook told us about something very unusual in Denmark, namely a restaurant that was both cheap and good. Indeed, the only way to get into it was to pitch up at 5pm and get into a queue. This place was called Olinico and we had the most sensational three course meal for less than we would have spent in the UK, sitting smugly as customer after customer was turned away for not having got there in time.

We drove on the next day to the attractive town of Silkeborg (where the museum featured Tollund Man, a rather likeable bog-preserved warrior with a mysterious past) and boarded the world’s oldest steamboat for a long lake and river cruise. It included a stop-off at Denmark’s highest hill, which was actually not very high at all but still took quite a bit of puff to reach the summit. The campsite just outside Silkeborg offered a great day to do a bit of lazing around and chatting to neighbours. We took a chance and set off on a gorgeous walk through the woods down to the idyllic lake and wandered among the millionaires’ mansions. There must be a lot of extremely rich people in Denmark, including the kind lady who was working in her garden when we stopped to ask for directions. She’d been married to an Englishman who obviously was successful in business. On their divorce, she was left enough money to buy her lakeside mansion outright. When I commented that it must have cost a million or two, she merely replied, “A lot more than that”.

The next stop was Yelling, where KIng Harald Bluetooth established the Christian monarchy around 900. In Yelling, you find the runes declaring his rule. We were to hear a great deal more about Harald Bluetooth and his various relatives in the coming days, as we visited a number of different Viking sites, something we felt was essential on any visit to Denmark. As the weather was poor, we spent the afternoon in a castle (Ekeskov Slot) which looked as though it was going to be a theme park, an idea at which I bridled. It actually turned out to be brilliant, containing huge exhibitions of vintage cars, a slightly intimidating maze (where I got completely lost) plus a treetop walk with which to engage with my vertigo issues.

The next day was spent entirely in the van as it was so wet. It was a pity because we were right on the seafront and should have had a great view of the Storebælt Bridge. Instead, we stayed in and watched the appropriate Bridge Of Spies on DVD, before creating a rather sophisticated egg salad in the camp kitchen. The following day was not a particularly good one. We drove through hail and thunder, sheltering in the excellent Viking ship museum at Ladby before deciding, because of the weather, to enter the Hans Christian Andersen museum in Odense. This was our only major disappointment as tourists in Denmark, because it was poor quality and outrageously expensive. Some tech-obsessed nerds had somehow managed to squeeze all the joy out of the fairy tales and the whole thing was just a massive bummer (as I said in my Trip Advisor review. I only do those if somewhere has been either exceptionally great or spectacularly awful).

We drove on through the monsoon on the motorway, not doing my phobia any good at all. We took the decision to move on to another campsite simply because it had an indoor pool. I cooked another dose of MIracoli in the kitchen and we watched a sexy film called The Reader with Kate Winslet, which was quite good but we were still cold and feeling fed up. We were beginning to have issues with the electrical hook-up, which is very important because it enables us to watch films and keep things cold in the fridge. Using gas for this wasn’t an alternative because of our gas supply issues, so one way and the other, Polly Pocket’s technology seemed to be letting us down. This was making me feel quite anxious because I am a technical dunce and couldn’t do anything about it. For the next few days we battled with the electrical issues before eventually realising that we had simply been very unlucky and plugged in to defective mains supplies at two camp sites running. So it wasn’t Polly’s fault at all!

We spent much of the next day wandering rather aimlessly round a woodland sculpture park, which was actually fun and intermittently impressive, although completely random. Another absolutely outstanding museum was the so-called Welfare Museum in Svendborg. This was situated in the town’s poorhouse, which amazingly had only closed down in 1974. With clear and detailed information and exhibits, a logical layout and strong human interest aspects, this museum was the best of the entire trip and certainly put the Hans Christian Andersen place into perspective. We repaired to the super-hip harbour area, where I fulfilled my long-overdue ambition to consume the enormous prawn open sandwich I’d been dreaming of, accompanied by some super expensive craft beer, while we lounged on deck chairs on an artificial beach. 

The next morning it was time to finally cross the Storebælt Bridge that we had been observing from afar for so many days, and pay a mere £30 for the privilege. In Trelleborg, on the other side, there was an excellent Viking fortress where we spent several hours before arriving at a quiet family campsite and continuing to battle with the electricity issues, observed with some interest by the weekend campers. Many of the sites we stayed on were almost entirely filled with people who have their caravans there permanently and treat them as weekend homes. The bigger campsites were visited more by people like us, travelling off-season in mobile homes and normally parking up just for one or two nights. These vans are invariably two, three or even four times the size of Polly Pocket and we are always dwarfed by them.

Other than that, though, the other travellers, who were almost entirely either Dutch or German, showed very little sign of wanting to interact with us or anybody else. It’s a slightly strange world that I really wish could be a bit more friendly. You stand next to complete strangers doing the washing up and the only response you get to any cheerful remarks you might make is the odd grunt. One of the more surreal experiences is when you line up in the morning awaiting your turn to pour your piss into the chemical waste pit. The amount of urine some people can generate in a night is astonishing. In my typically paranoid way, I convinced myself that the unfriendliness was a Brexit knock-on and went out of my way to be ultra-friendly and communicative, but received very little in response. Almost all the mobile home owners travelling out of season are pensioner couples, some of whom don’t seem to address a word to each other all day. In the main, it was more fun to be on the smaller family campsites populated by Danish people, who at least would always nod in a friendly manner and say hi.

What about the British travellers, you ask? There weren’t any. In the five and a half weeks we were on the road, we didn’t see or meet a single UK tourist.

The Roskilde music festival in 2000 was hit by a tragedy in which nine people were crushed to death during Pearl Jam’s set, but the Ragnarock music museum oddly doesn’t mention it. We spent a fun couple of hours in there learning about Danish music history, of which I knew little. The festival re-creation was unconvincing to say the least. More exciting on balance was the huge Roskilde Cathedral, where all the Danish kings and queens are buried. What a bunch of reprobates! Nearly all of them were alcoholics who frequented prostitutes.

Now it was time to visit the island of Møn, which is dotted with frescoed churches, several of which we entered and marvelled at the eccentric and sometimes quite brutal artworks on the ceilings. Every day in Denmark, we passed several of what we called Lego churches, which seemed to have been mass-produced to a single design and simply plonked in each village. The only place in Denmark that features cliffs, white cliffs indeed, is Møns Klimt. In order to appreciate them, we had to first walk down 500 steps and then somehow get back up them. This was pretty exhausting but we had a good sense of achievement when we managed it without being too out of breath.

The campsite we had chosen in the very dull town of Sakskøbing turned out to be pretty rough and ready, but it was all we needed. Every town in Denmark has several Turkish pizza grill establishments and we felt the time had come to try one. In the town square there was a very pleasant and refreshingly cheap one, where I asked for gorgonzola on my pizza. The chef must have taken my request rather enthusiastically because it came with immense globules of gungy cheese which proceeded to give me horrific nightmares all night.

We had intended to spend the following day doing washing and general admin but as the washing machine on the campsite was predictably out of order, we instead decided to explore the island of Lolland, which turned out to be a fine decision. The town we chose was called Maribo, in which we found a gorgeous lake, a beautiful cathedral and a very nice coffee shop. In the tourist office a kind lady recommended two places nearby. One of them was frankly incredible: the Dodecalith standing stones, a gigantic installation of granite structures and electronic music positioned overlooking the sea in a slightly elevated position in a huge wheat field. We had frankly never experienced anything like it and were quite overcome with emotion. On the way home we popped into the Krenkerup brewery, a craft beer establishment attached to a castle, featuring delicious and mainly pretty potent concoctions. We sat outside in the courtyard in blazing sunshine and sampled several of the beers. The only downside of this brilliant day was being beaten at Møbi for the 8th time in succession in the evening.

We were due to leave Denmark the following morning and I found myself feeling quite tearful, because I had grown so attached to so many aspects of this beautiful country. However, things quickly deteriorated when I foolishly checked my online banking and found that British Gas had deducted £550 and was threatening to do so every month from now on. After a sleepless night freaking about this, I decided eventually to ring them and, after hanging on for half an hour, embarrassingly discovered that the whole fiasco was entirely my fault because I had submitted a wrong meter reading. My relief was tempered by acknowledgement of what an idiot I had been.

Feeling reassured, we boarded the car ferry to Puttgarden (Germany) and drove through the Schleswig-Holstein countryside, stopping in slightly down-market Grömitz for an ice cream and a walk on the promenade. This was enlivened by Birgit’s ice cream being snatched from her hand by a huge, aggressive seagull.  The normally reliable sat nav took us, via three other wrong ones, to a very hard-to-find campsite near Neustadt in Holstein, where we finally got the washing done and Birgit had her long-awaited sauna. Again there were problems, because I was supposed to take the washing out and put it in the dryer, but sadly I hadn’t understood where the washing machine was. The one I found was empty and I convinced myself (why?) that someone had stolen all my pants and socks. When I suggested this possibility to the receptionist, she flew into quite a rage and shouted at me for not paying attention. The washing was eventually found in a completely different building from the one where I had been looking. For dinner we were down to Lidl canned soup and super noodles.

The campsite was prettily placed near a sandy beach, where we spent a genuine holiday day lounging around and watching people rather unsteadily paddle boarding and kayaking. I was determined, before we left Germany, to dine in a Greek restaurant (they’re everywhere) so we set off for Neustadt in Holstein, a pretty harbour town, where to our amazement we found ourselves parked up directly in front of a beautiful such establishment, where we were able to indulge ourselves in meat and beer in the evening sunshine before wandering over to a local brew pub to round things off.

Just about five weeks after setting off, the next day was to be our final one camping in Germany. Wishing to indulge in a nostalgia trip to my old student haunts in Schleswig-Holstein fifty years previously, I had expressed a desire to visit Plön, a beautiful town set on a series of giant lakes and crowned with the most spectacular castle. It wasn’t without its difficulties because when we found an ice cream shop, we discovered that, along with many establishments in Germany, it didn’t take credit cards. Then, when pitching up for a boat trip around the lake, we were inevitably told the same thing, which meant a long jog back into town to a cash machine and catching a much later boat. Still, it was idyllic, and the beautiful day was rounded off by catching a performance by a trombone orchestra consisting of around 200 members rehearsing in the castle grounds.

From there it was non-stop socialising with family and old school friends in Bremen before heading back onto the very crowded, lorry-filled motorways which took us to Hoek van Holland and the end of Polly’s sixth European trek. On the whole she behaved pretty well and we managed to get home without having exchanged a single harsh word, which we felt was quite an achievement.

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Haapsalu-tely fabulous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Mid-Hampshire Observer

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Bird Of Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Safe As Houses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carry On Carriacou

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

From The Hampshire Chronicle

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Christmas in Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Busman’s Holiday

Three things softened the blow of turning sixty: the winter fuel payment, the bus pass and the free swimming. The free swimming soon went and surely the bus pass is next. This added urgency to my plan to hit the road with the bus pass and see how far I could get. The idea, as the sun came out in June, was to take a day as an experiment and see if there was any hope of it working as a full-on holiday.
The prospect was scary. The only bus I take with any regularity is the E1 to and from Eastleigh and if that’s anything to go by, the risks are manifold. For a start, there’s also an E2, which has the same starting and ending points but takes a completely different route in between. Apart from that, it tends to arrive very late, very early or not at all. Any of these would threaten the route obligingly provided by a website called Traveline, which plans bus journeys. I decided to try and reach Gloucester, where I grew up.
The start could hardly have been worse. The E1 took me to Winchester bus station, where I was due to wait half an hour and then take the X24 (what is it with these letters?) to Andover. “You’ll have to get yourself up to Peter Symonds,” said the lugubrious lady in Winchester’s uniquely sordid bus garage. This would have meant absolutely nothing to anyone not local, but I knew what it meant and the news was not good.
Peter Symonds is the local sixth form college and it lies a good mile (uphill) from the bus station. I knew there were road works in the area but not that the buses made no attempt to divert round them but simply ground to a halt there. The humiliation of not even getting past the first hurdle would have been too much to bear, so I set off to jog, on the hottest day of the year, in search of the X24. As I was suffering from plantar fasciitis (don’t ask, it’s an extremely painful foot), this was inadvisable but what other option was there? A taxi would certainly have been cheating.
As the Peter Symonds complex has three different entrances fronting on to three streets, I positioned myself where I could see all of them. Like a mirage, the X24 appeared and drew up at a stop labelled 77. Of course, I should have known. I ran the hundred yards to the bus and breathlessly explained to the driver, “I have walked all the way from the bus station”.
“Why?” he asked. “We go to the train station anyway.” As this would have been a much shorter walk, I was not pleased.
“They didn’t tell me that.”
“I know, we keep telling them. Hopeless, aren’t they?”
At this stage, therefore, I was actually going backwards, heading back into town the way I had just walked. But at least I was on the road, positioned in the spot I love: upstairs front seat on an unsurprisingly otherwise empty double decker.
In Andover, there was a stand for bus 80, as designated on Traveline, but it ominously said it went only to Marlborough, “with connection via route 70 to Swindon”. Hmm, connection. With things being so haphazard, “connection” was actually quite a loose concept. But no fear, a large sign (albeit with several letters missing) pointed to a “Bus Information Kiosk”. This turned out to be a Shopmobility depot, where a kind lady told me, “There hasn’t been a Bus Info Kiosk here for years. You could try asking one of the drivers, but I wouldn’t count on anything they say.”
One thing that had not crossed my mind for a second was the matter of toilets, and the fact that buses don’t have them. For a middle-aged gentleman with incipient prostate issues, this was going to be a problem. Andover bus station Gents was inevitably “closed for refurbishment”, so I followed an instruction to seek out “alternative facilities in the shopping centre next to Argos”. This at least was open but the hand dryer wasn’t working. Of course you never discover this until your hands are wet, leaving you the option of trying porous loo paper which gets stuck to your hands, or walking around flapping like a seal. I opted for the latter, but otherwise felt quite at home in the shopping centre, as it was identical to Eastleigh’s, right down to all the same shops in the same order.
The number 80 arrived in plenty of time, but the driver locked up and disappeared, only returning some ten minutes after it was due to depart. How so? Of course, he, too, had had to walk all the way to Argos for a pee and had had to flap his way round the shopping mall. He was a really nice chap.
“Are you going to Swindon?” I asked. “It says something about changing in Marlborough to the number 70.”
“Oh no,” he explained. “It’s the same bus, I just change the number.” This one had double legroom in the front upstairs seat; it felt like an airline upgrade.
The route took us round the periphery of ugly and desperate army barracks, along a road called, ghoulishly, “Somme Road”. A couple of army wives with pushchairs got on and off. The nightmarish vision of Tidworth gave way to Salisbury Plain, a beautiful landscape cruelly scarred by tank tracks.
The 80 / 70 delighted by disappearing down single-track country lanes to picture postcard villages where no one got on or off. My crow’s nest afforded me a bird’s eye view of Savernake Forest, thatched roofs, perfect cottage gardens, idyllic pubs and tiny shops. This only got better as an increase in horse boxes signalled the proximity of Marlborough, so it was an unpleasant shock when we suddenly crossed the frantically noisy M4 and headed into the awful reality of Swindon.
Full marks, though, to the bus station, where the number 51 to Cirencester was purring in the adjacent bay, ready to leave. This was almost Swiss efficiency. It was only a single decker but it had the novelty of actually having passengers. I was relieved to have a couple of seconds to stretch my legs, as another unthought-of matter had arisen: that of discomfort. The trip from Andover had lasted one hour and fifty-one minutes, pretty much the maximum you could take in one go.
The naughty 51 departed a full three minutes ahead of schedule, so it was a good thing the 80 / 70 had been punctual in arriving. The 51 soon made amends by diverting into glorious places like South Cerney and the frankly bizarre up-market holiday camp that is the Cotswold Water Park.
There wasn’t much chance to explore the Roman city of Cirencester because the next bus arrived immediately. Rather excitingly, it was a “Cotswold Green” (all the others, apart from the E1, had been prosaic Stagecoaches). This bus (the 54A, fact fans) was the ultimate proof that you can use your bus pass as a tourist and get your touring holiday for free. Far from hugging the A419 as expected, it diverted via the narrowest of lanes into the sweetest Cotswold villages with names like Sapperton and Frampton Mansell. Excitement was caused every time we rounded a bend to confront terrified car drivers coming the other way, all of whom dutifully reversed when faced by a vehicle far too huge for such roads. A minibus – or even a Smart car, actually – would have sufficed for me (surely the randomest passenger they’d ever had) and my sole fellow traveller, a nice African lady who’d been visiting friends in Cirencester. We tumbled down the Alpine hairpins and into the Stroudwater Valley, where the old woollen mills are now scruffy factories manufacturing all manner of odd items.
Stroud, very near to where I grew up, is now an “alternative” town in the manner of Glastonbury, ideal for a spot of people watching. I managed to get the final bus of the day, the 93 to Gloucester, which had a hard time puffing up the 1 in 6 gradient to Whiteshill. Arriving in a filthy bus station in a classically misjudged 70s city centre destruction zone was a major comedown, but it fitted with the obvious conclusion of the day. Service buses aren’t designed to get you from source to destination, like trains are. Imagine if you had to do some business and had to take a whole day to get there and another to get back? What the buses do, however, achieve is to offer a transport lifeline to all the little places between A and B, which was very convenient for a tourist like me, enjoying the landscape and smelling the culture, all for the price of … zilch. To prove the point, and with renewed confidence, I took the opportunity, on the return journey the next day, to stop off and explore beautiful places like Painswick, Cirencester and Stockbridge. As luck would have it, several of the return buses took completely different routes. Cotswold Green number 28 wound its way through the most perfect limestone Cotswold villages, Rodborough, Minchinhampton and Box. Then, the 79 from Andover to Stockbridge (incidentally the only bus of a sensible size for the type of road and number of passengers it was carrying) took in the most glorious villages of Hampshire, the Clatfords, Wherwell and Chilbolton. Even the bus from Stock-bridge couldn’t resist a detour through King’s Sombourne. From there, it was back to the E1 (not the E2, remember?) for the home leg.
So it worked. Of course, I then had to make it a habit. I even vaguely had an idea of trying to have a fortnight’s free holiday on the buses and, sorry about this, attempt to write a book about it. But now, I’ve got a bit of a phobia about it, and I’ll tell you why. Trips to Guildford and Chichester proved uneventful. On the latter, the route goes through West Wittering (where you pass the end of Keith Richards’ drive) and the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth, enough to make any analyst of the UK’s social make-up salivate. But then I became over-ambitious.
Some friends were playing in the Sidmouth “Fringe” folk festival in Devon, so I consulted Traveline and it revealed that I could get there one day and back the next. The route went: Eastleigh, Romsey, Salisbury, Blandford, Weymouth, Exeter. The Salisbury to Blandford bit was surreal, because the bus does a massive detour through the enormous and sick-makingly bleak Blandford army camp, where a soldier joins the bus to check you haven’t got any bombs in your rucksack, but otherwise, there is no sign of anybody getting on or off. Shortly afterwards, the bus bombs off down a tiny lane into the charming village of Sixpenny Handley, where it dwarfs the tiny cottages it scrapes past.
The last leg was on the UK’s most famous bus route, namely the X53, an incredible five-hour journey along the Jurassic Coast, dipping into idyllic places like Abbotsbury, Beer and Lyme Regis. While challenging on the bladder, the satisfaction of getting all that for free was overwhelming. I did indeed manage to attend the festival (just as well, as I was virtually the only person there) and get back the next day.
The mistake I made, the following summer, was to try to go one bigger and better. The idea was to visit some friends in Ilfracombe, in North Devon. Traveline said it wasn’t possible, but some astute clicking showed that it was. It involved the same route as before, plus subsequent legs from Exeter to Barnstaple and from Barnstaple to Ilfracombe, where, amazingly, evening buses still exist. But doing the X53 for a second time, on those hard, upright and austere seats, sandwiched among malororous, endlessly gossiping old dears (they’re not daft, they can see the attraction of a free trip to the seaside as well) became unbearably boring. The whole journey took twelve and a half hours (the return was even worse, but I’ll spare you the details of that). It just took for-bloody-ever, lurching down almost farm tracks to places like the picturesque but hardly double-decker-worthy coastal village of Beer.
By the time I got on the Barnstaple bus, it was mid-evening and chilly, but at least, by now, I was alone on the double-decker, top and front as usual. I was just beginning to drop off when we stopped in South Molton, and suddenly, I had a companion. Plonking himself loudly onto the seat next to me was a frightening vision: A huge man, about mid-thirties. He was gasping, had a red face and was wearing those voluminous long, baggy combat shorts that heavy metal fans favour. His legs were completely covered in scratches and bruises, many still bleeding, and despite the fact that it was pitch dark outside, he was wearing sunglasses.
He jutted out a massive, horny hand and grasped mine. “I’m Gavin,” he grunted. “What’s your name?”
After the introduction, there was silence for a brief few moments. I wished I’d had a newspaper or some other way of avoiding having to look at him, but reading on transport makes me sick. The peace didn’t last long.
“OCD, mania, psychosis, depression, I’ve got the lot,” he barked, by way of a conversation-opener.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” was my feeble response.
Inevitably, the life story followed. He’d been in and out of prison six times for acts of extreme violence. He’d been put on all sorts of medication, none of which had worked and had been used, instead, for suicide attempts. Now, he was on his way home from the doctor, who had prescribed him something new. Rather in the manner of Mr Barraclough from “Porridge”, I chose to patronise him.
“Well, I sincerely hope it’s a success and helps you get your life back on track,” I offered.
“I just took a couple, had a couple of pints and a bit of blow,” replied Gavin.
“Really? Well, you seem very nice and calm now.”
“Yeah, but I could turn at any moment. Last night I punched out three pakis because they were looking at me funny.” He was staring at me.
That was it. Not only psychotic but a racist too. I had to be outta there. I truly felt like a sitting duck, waiting to put a word wrong. Luckily, Barnstaple wasn’t far and I encouraged him to talk about Ilfracombe, where he came from. As we drew into Barnstaple’s dingy bus station, he looked at his watch.
“Ilfracombe bus is in five minutes. We’ll catch it together.”
No bloody way. According to my piece of paper, there was one in half an hour. I lied to him and claimed I’d had a text from my friends, saying they’d pick me up in Barnstaple. He seemed satisfied by this (I was dreading he’d ask for a lift), so I escaped with my life and scuttled round a corner in search of sanctuary. The pub I found didn’t help. There was a couple having a loud and acrimonious bust-up in the corner. There was another fracas going on in the street as I emerged and yet another in the bus station. Gavin was there, but luckily there was a queue. He was at the front, shouting into a mobile phone, so I joined the back. He went upstairs, so I stayed down and then got off two stops before the terminus, to avoid having to meet him again. I felt truly sorry for him in a way, but I was shit scared as well.
On the way back, each bus was progressively later and I kept missing connections. UK bus stations are the most dismal places in the world to spend time. The X53 was thirty-five minutes late getting to Poole.
On second thoughts, then: Buses? Nein danke.
Nein danke.

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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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