millionreasons: (marnie)
The receptionist at Hotel do Carmo presses a glass of cava into our hands, and later on, in a backstreet restaurant, after traditional Madeiran tomato soup with poached egg, the waitress brings us complimentary Madeira wine and there is more cava at breakfast. So far, I like Madeira.

The hotel is '70s themed with dark furniture and attitudes to match, the receptionist notes that Dave and I have different surnames, as well as a sest menu from 1974: soup, plaice, veal stroganoff, dessert. I wonder if the poor chef sits there day by day wondering why no-one wants his food as the tourists go out to eat salad by the sea. There is a massive photograph of Marilyn in our room (there is a key to the rooms in the foyer: room 207 has Sinatra, 310 Hepburn, 405 James Dean etc, apart from room 1 which features Concord). The bar plays tinkly piano jazz version of She's Leaving Home and more obscurely, Baby Plays Around by Elvis Costello.

We are between two rivers (safely tamed), one of which we cross to get to the town hall square, past the pink and ornate ex-British consulate, now a series of shops, past the remains of a ruined fort, a shop selling cookware and religious statuary - buy a set of saucepans and get a free Virgin Mary stirrer (later, we see a shop selling wooden dildos and barbecue equipment), round the cathedral square, down near the marina where English pensioners sit with chips and glasses of Poncha (lemon, rum and honey cocktail) under globular lights, looking out on the cruise ships on the water, gigantic glittery cites afloat.

In the morning, we walk uptown to the Santa Clara nunnery and take the guided tour. In 1566, the nuns took off to the aptly named Nuns' Valley (or Curral das Freiras) because of pirate invasion. Nuns v pirates! It would make a great Disney pic. We learn about Captain Zarco, who, despite the name, wasn't a pirate - he was the first Portuguese to settle Madeira and he ended up running half of it. He's buried here; his granddaughters set up the convent. In ye olden days, the first born daughter in a family took holy orders and the first son became a priest. In England, the second, less important sons became vicars. I think we've got it the right way about.


In the chapel, there are 51 seats for a full complement of nuns, each decorated with a frankly creepy angel head (the abbess's seat has a crowned angel). The convent is full of surprises, furniture made from sugar cane boxes (from the days before slavery killed the Madeiran sugar trade), cupboards which open to reveal frescoes (fresci?) and stones slide back to show us gravestones (this one stood in the main church for a while but priests kept tripping over it, which sounds like a Father Ted plotline). There is also a Jesus icon, which the richer families used to take away and play dress-up with. So much of Catholicism seems to involve dressing up, but it's this kind of kitsch OTT side of Catholicism rather than the no contraception/abortion/sex before marriage, or paedo priests, that is attractive to Protestant atheists.

Further up is the 17th century fort looking out over the bay (for pirates). There's no-one around and it costs nothing to go in and look at the views. If this were England, there'd be actors dressed as sailors, a gift shop and an £8.50 entrance fee (£6 children and OAPs). Here it's just us and the picosaurs (lizards) running up the walls, bougainvillea, swan like cacti and orange flora. We go into the delightful cafe opposite the convent and take tea.

We walk down Avenida Amiga, the pedestrian avenue of cafes, gelaterias, (we have a madeira cake (bolo de mel) ice-cream) and theatre. Down to the seafront, which is more tourist central with its lobster restaurants, catamaran trips, tuk-tuks, one living statue (sitting down) and one non-living statue of Ronaldo.

We take more tea at the Lojo Do Cha, which does a hundred different chas and a mean line in scones with passion fruit curd. We try out the swimming pool which is on the hotel's roof with a view of the cable car and mountains but it's far too cold, even for us Brits.

Some things I have learned. Funchal means fennel, although it's not on any restaurant menu; a galao, which was a cafe con leche in mainland Portugal is a latte here, one needs to ask for a chinesa; I went 'round Porto and Lisbon wrongly saying obrigado, rather than obrigada. I bypass this sexism by saying obrigad, or, since everyone speaks English, thanks. Other things: Madeirans are taller than mainland Portuguese, I remember towering over 4'10" matriarchs in Lisbon.

In the evening, we try out a curry joint, which is only catering to English tourists, so it's only OK. At least here, everything opens at 6.30 p.m. so the OAPS can be in bed by 9 p.m., unlike in Spain where you often see English people lurking around restaurants at 8.30, waiting for them to open.

There is no crime on Madeira, so it's surprising that the next morning, we're woken up by a car alarm. Through the old town with is art galleries, restaurants and decorated doorways (murals, collages, 3D shell decor, ironwork) to take a trip up the mountain to Monte by cable car. The journey takes ten minutes in which time we've seen the whole of Upper Funchal, from pink dollhouse type buildings to colonaded houses with pools, to huts clinging to a precarious existence on the side of the mountain with a chicken, a sheep and a vegetable patch. Cats sun themselves on roofs.

In Monte village, we find a fountain-cum-shrine, a bandstand, a church we can't go into because of restoration (we climb the church tower nonetheless), a cafe, and lots of tourist goods: bracelets, bolo de caco (Portuguese garlic bread), hats, religious tat, get your picture taken with a falcon, or a parrot. It's a far cry from Sintra, where everything was shut. Men in straw boaters push people down the hill in toboggans, or stand around playing cards. Nails have been hammered into the walls for them to hang their hats and personal effects.

We go into the Tropical Garden, with its orchids, Chinoiserie, Japanoiserie, water features, statues, aviary, thousand year old olive trees, tiled murals, Buddhas, dragons, koi carp, swans, a duck house that a Tory MP would covet, succulents and ferns. Lots and lots of ferns. There is also a free tasting of Madeiran wine. They sure like to give it away.


The cable car cafe has no veggie food so we improvise, Dave has ham and cheese toastie (sem fiambre) and I have a mixed salad with deliciously fried cubes of polenta. The Lonely Planet food nazis would not like Madeira as every menu is translated into several languages, often with accompanying pictures. Later, we have a pastel de nata in a cafe near our hotel, it is not as good as those in Lisbon, the pastry is shortcrust rather than flaky, the egg custard more custard than ovo. In the evening, we go out for an indifferent pizza, but we do try green wine, which is young Portuguese white wine, and look out at the illuminated trees, all done up in their finery for Saturday's carnival. There are electrical masks and booths selling Poncha and chocolates. The town hall is lit up pink as we walk past it with the jewellery box hills behind.


Off on a road trip to Santana, 16 km and 90 minutes around winding, precarious roads on a bus. I don't look down as we career around the shifty mountain roads with their flimsy looking barriers. First, we travel to the hiking district where a lot of people carrying Nordic poles get off and then on through tiny villages with a glass encased Mary and aloes in terracotta pots, meat hung in nets, air-drying, a solitary white steeple. Goat. Gourds. Mist smoking off mountains. Wooded hills like green broccoli. Rows of round lettuce in market gardens, thousand upon thousands of nasturtiums, giant buttercups, marigolds, geraniums, California poppies, spiky orange bird of paradise blooms, and blue Pride of Madeira, silver trees with branches standing on end, like frightened hair, cedars, junipers, laurels. people in army fatigues cleaning brush. Coming out of ancient woodland into a clearing where the only sign of civilisation is the bus stop and a recycling bin. There are dolls tied to lamp-posts, which I thought might be to do with carnival, but they have signs attached to them, like a warning.

At Santana, we take pics of the palherios, timber and thatch cottages. In the olden days, after they stopped being used as peasant huts, they became cattle sheds, but now they're back to being cute homes, or tourists attractions, selling flowers, Poncha, sweets, handicrafts, postcards and so on. Some have had their thatch removed and replaced by corrugated iron and are used for storing tools or plants.


There isn't much to do after you've seen the houses, so after a pleasant lunch, we get the next bus back and sit with coffee and cake and wi-fi in a cafe before visiting the cathedral when it's open again after its four hour lunchbreak. It's more tasteful and refined than some Spanish churches (apart from the private altar), with no dress-up icons. Near the cathedral, we watch a pre-carnival parade that comprises men playing a tune on clarinet, trumpet and drums whilst teenage girls, dressed variously as an angel, devil, sheriff and mime artist, dance among them, trying to get passers-by and tourists to join in. The young woman sat next to us on the plane told us she was dancing in the carnival but we don't see her. Just think, we could have all this if Henry VIII hadn't fancied Anne Boleyn.


In the evening, we eat at the rather posh Mozart restaurant with delicious food enlivened by a shitload of freebies: wine, bread, amuse-bouche, palate cleanser and digestif (more Madeiran wine).
I miss the fortnight wait for holiday snaps. When you get back, you want to see the landscape again, but in five years time, you want to see yourself in them, what you looked like then. Holidays are simultaneously going into the future (the climate of a few months hence) and the past (old fashioned places where tradition still rules).

We walk through Jardim de Santa Caterina to the Hotel Zone which is where the Victorian entrepreneurs built their first hotels (and where Maggie and Denis had their honeymoon - I want to find the place to spit on the steps). I assumed it would be all colonial palaces and shady avenues, but it's basically a busy main road. We find the bus-stop and take the Rodoeste autobus to Camara de Lobos, a seaside village full of boats, cafes, drying scabbard fish, and tourists. Up above there are lines of lines of plantain plantations. An old ship patrols the harbour. Churchill used to paint here, which explains why there's a Winston Churchill restaurant up the hill, although no artists have set up easels on the quayside.


After we've wandered around and had the requisite coffee/beer, we hang around the bus-stop with the English until it turns up (there's no timetable) to breakneck the journey back to Funchal where we have tea and sandwiches at the civilised tea rooms and then wander down to the yellow fort, now the Contemporary Art Museum and look inside a fancily alter-ed church.


The restaurant situated in an old salt warehouse where I wanted to spend our last night is full up ("No chance," says the waiter), so we go to a place in the old town that has vegetarian options (omelette, pasta, lasagne) and a load of OAP Brits. I'm looking forward to seeing a few people under 40 when we get back. Dave has a flambee for pud, they do also crepe suzette, peach melba and banana split. I don't mind British culture abroad, this is how peoples mingle and grow, but it's always 1970s culture: steak and chips. Full English. Roast dinner every Sunday, whatever the weather. Entertainment in the hotel from an ITV Saturday evening name. Nescafe. PG Tips. Restaurants still serving these meals better up their menus for when the oldsters die off. Luis, the waiter who's been here since was 15 (he looks about 35 now), talks about how nothing has changed since then ("Sometimes we move the furniture around"). But they give us complimentary Madeira wine and pomegranate liqueur before and after the meal, respectively, so I'm not complaining.

There're only two more tourist experiences left to do in Funchal: Blandy's wine lodge and the mercado. The latter is too touristy but the former offers a tour and tasting for pennies.


We spot a fine vintage, quaff some Bual and then there's only time for lunch before the airport run.

millionreasons: (wine)
Bus tube plane bus tube Barcelona. We chose to stay in the Poble Nou district as it is close to the Primavera festival, but it's pleasant in its own right - an ex-river bed pedestrian avenue lined with trees and cafés, gelaterias and textile factories that are now art hubs. The traffic islands are mini-parks. I was expecting Stratford but have arrived in Prenzlauer Berg instead. It even has a water tower, but unlike the one in East Berlin, it's never been used as a concentration camp. There's a very different atmosphere to Central Barca: less busy, fewer tourists, more relaxed. Islington to the Raval's Shoreditch. We are sharing our apartment with Henry and Hazel from Hemel Hempsted Watford, and Salvador, a grumpy Spaniard, who lets us in and gives us the all important wifi code. There is also a fondue set if we get really bored.

We check out the nearest cafe con lecheria, then to Mercadona to buy supplies, including Horchata (made from chufas) and make our way to Dom's, who is staying on the same street, avoiding the rain bursts that attempt to turn the old river bed into a new one, for cerveza and then paella and walk down to the festival to pick up our wristbands and watch one of the warm up acts, Sky Ferreria, who is a sort of electronica Pat Benetar. Very much of the Katy Perry school of girl-rock. It's still raining, we have one umbrella between four, so we head back to the Raval, stopping at the London Bar with it's faux art nouveau signage, mojitos and glittery back drop wallpaper (think The Phoenix Club). We get a cab back to the Rambla Poble Nou and that’s Day 1 done.
Day 2 starts off with rain, again. We go to the beach and the outdoor gym, through Placa Prim, which is a sweet little square, lined with many Catalan flags, and eat lunch in an old photographic studio. There are hundreds of red bicycles for hire everywhere. I want to cycle along the promenade but the bikes are not available to tourists, only residents. On the other hand, Barcelona council has provided a lot of public toilets, none of them with loo paper or soap.

I try to learn Catalan from menus: pa is bread. formatge is cheese. Cafe amb llet is cafe con leche. It seems like an Esparanto-ish mix of French & Portuguese. We make our way via the beach to the festival, and I drink my tigermilk (vodka and horchata) under the eye of the security guards. We wander around, I look at the festival fashion: boys - band t-shirt, black jeans, beards, midfielder hair, tote bag; girls: hot pants or summer dresses over leggings, glow sticks to find friends in the dark, tote bag. I have got it all wrong, my t-shirt is 1980s Madonna. There's also the international festival penchant for headgear: animal heads, devil horns, floral headbands, Sesame Street heads and just hats. Also, some people with faces painted, presumably feeling that they missed out in childhood.

We listen to some bands - Grupo Expertos Solynieve: Spanish Americana, Real Estate: indie estate agent strumming, Midlake: prog shoegazing with flautist, Warpaint: a dreamy Runaways, St Vincent: electrosynth funkrock:- Annie is a mixture of David Bowie, Lady Gaga and Debbie Harry, with a voice somewhere between Sinead O'C, Bjork and Liz Fraser. She and her keyboard player do an excellent robotic shuffle - teetering back and forth on teeny heels. Oddly, it looks better on stage than on the screen, the opposite of Warpaint's rocking out, which looks very cool on the big screen, but a bit awkward on stage. Finally (for me), it's Chvrches who are electronicageddon. The clouds set silver over the towerblocks, but I get the last metro home. I was worried that I wouldn't find the tube station, but I just follow the line of men selling cans of beers. And I navigate back to the flat via an amusingly named bar.

Salvador lives an odd lifestyle. We often find him texting on the sofa at 4 a.m and he mysteriously disappears and reappears. A carpet salesman comes in for a visit. He looks surprised each time he sees us as if he's forgotten we're staying there. I want to ask him about his life, but he speaks no English and my Spanish is limited to making sure I don't accidentally order meat.

We meet up with Lawrence for breakfast and then tube it over to the Raval to meander around the old town and then go to Dos Trece for a workers' lunch (3 courses and drink for under €10 - it seems to be compulsory for restaurants to offer these). We hang out at Gareth's central BCN flat for a while before making our way to the festival via a biblical downpour and the number 4 tram. Outside the festival gates, a man with a guitar is entertaining the sodden masses by playing the Wo oh oh oh oh wo Arcade Fire song.

Today my vodka is refused at the gate so I have to drink it all at once and spend an odd half hour feeling a bit mental and trying to do Busby Berkeley moves with my umbrella. We watch a band at the Unplugged stage, although the music is not acoustic. It's a tiny stage, shaped like a big instrument flight case, perhaps it should be called the Buffalo Bar stage.

Today the fashionable clothing is slogan rather than band t-shirts. You Can't Sit With Us, All My Friends Are Artists, Good Grammar Is Sexy, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, I Haven't Showered For Days. I have got it wrong again, my t-shirt says: You are ace.

The big bands today are Slowdive and Pixies. Soon I'll have experienced every band I liked in 1991 but couldn't afford to see live (will the Telescopes and the Siddeleys reform?) Someone films the Slowdive set on her ipod mini, but the screen, not the stage. Later, a man in a headscarf and a 'kerchief films the Pixies' gig - a pirate video. I wonder how many of these gigs are ever watched again. but at least these amateur film-makers shoot the whole band - the professional cameramen focus on the female musicians' feet, legs, crotch, face, but only the male musicians' faces, guitars, pedals.

I have developed a bit of an OCD habit of patting my left pocket (purse) and back pocket (tube and festival pass), so that I don't lose them, but I do misplace Dave and Dom for a while, wandering round the festival in the dark on my own, before they find me again. I lost my friends and walked alone, it's 1.30, I want to go home, I went to call my mother, I said "Mother, I can never come home again, because I live in a nice part of London now, and I don't much like Doncaster - alright!"

Homemade fried egg sarnies for breakfast (woman cannot live on croissants alone). Spanish for free range is picc a terra (peck at earth).

A dreaded sunny day so let's go where we're happy and I'll meet you at the puertas del cementerio. Unlike in an English cemetery, no-one here is buried underground, they're stacked up five storeys high. A towerblock of the dead. Like the roads, it's laid out in a grid system and in the centre are fantabulous mausoleums. On the way there, we see an overturned car surrounded by people, we stop and gawk before realising it's a set, someone is employed to direct dry ice towards the car, another to tell us not to take photos on our phones.

We have lunch in Aguaribay, Poble Nou's vegetarian restuarant, and get to the festival early as Dave wants to see La Sera, pleasant American indie pop that sounds like '90s faves Tigertrap or Cub. Indie boys in kagools look hopefully at the lead singer/guitarist. Then it's Islands, which I tolerate because they play opposite an amphitheatre so I can sit down. Next up is Television, doing Marquee Moon. I'm not a big fan, but I thought I should see them before they go the big black and white screen in the sky. Ironically, the TV screens are turned off during their set.

I didn't know I wanted to see an ex-Hollywood child star singing Velvet Underground songs about pizza until they cancelled. Instead we watch Earl Sweatshirt, a rapper, whose father is South Africa' Poet Laureate. This leads to a long discussion about gangsta rappers being actually from nice backgrounds (Kanye, Chuck D etc). Later, we see Kendrick Lamarr who is, as he reminds us as several times, from Compton, CA. He sees Barcelona as being just like his 'hood, which I'm not convinced by. If he'd compared Compton and Middlesbrough, I may have concurred. His band must have lost their luggage because they're wearing AFC Barca shirts. Anyway, he has a 4 real rags to riches background, which leads me to thinking about how now hip-hop stars rap about their individual lives, the hard time they had growing up in South Central or BedStuy, but how they made it, from the streets to the boulevards, whereas when i was a youngster, the bands (Public Enemy, NWA, The Goats etc) recorded the collective black experience - resistance to the police,the politicians, the racists, not about how much money they'd made.

Last of the night is Helen Love, with a Downstairs rather than Upstairs at the Garage sized crowd, all singing and bopping along. She doesn't do my favourite Love song, Long Live The UK Music Scene, but maybe references to the Longpigs, Bluetones, Ocean Colour Scene and Gina G are not so relevant now. Then again, she performs Does Your Heart Go Boom, which mentions Kula Shaker, Bush, Atari Teenage Riot, and hatred of Manchester United (post-Ferguson, it's a bit old-fashioned to despise ManU). She also does Punk Boy, which was the soundtrack to that queer, sultry summer of '94 when I returned from une année scolaire in France to find everyone wearing Adidas and listening to Blur.

We sit in the food hall, hoovering up what remains of the vegeburgers, burritos, churros and pizza until I give up before the sun comes up and go home. An enterprising fellow is selling instead of cans of beer, €1 sandwiches, which go down like hot cakes, or indeed bocadillos calientes.

The festival makes me think of the movie Spring Break, the feeling that this life is real and real life is false, that this is the way you could, indeed, should live all the time.
We go to the Parc Ciutadella, which as well as having two post-Primavera stages also features magicians, escapologists, large versions of board games, pirates playing the Blackadder theme tune, children's activities, a mammouth and a cockerel-dragon, and a magnificent Gaudi fountain. I'm hot like a dog.

We then do Barselona: Ale and Hopps, an English style pub where the craft ale comes in half or full pints and the food menu is vegan (maybe more Williamsburg than Hackney), onto a touristy place in Barrio Gotic for Aperol Spritzes and then finally to a Gambian bar for €3 mojitos under a flyover and plentiful samosas from the Indian takeaway next door. Barcelona has changed - a new Gherkin style office block, lots of touristy chain (frozen yoghurt, bubble tea) and gift shops, but it's still multicultural, still happening. Dalston would kill to be BCN. T'estimo Barcelona.

We try to go the Park Guell but it is now charging €8 entrance - the fee isn't the problem so much as the queue to get in. Even people with advance tickets are in a line. By charging, you're legitimising the experience, it goes from being a thing of beauty to a tourist must-see. Accordingly, there are men selling fantacocacerveza as well as tat (Gaudi lizard fridge magnets next to the non-Catalan Flamenco dancers). Still, there are free bits, where you can see Gaudi's princess castle, but it's no longer peaceful and special.

We get the metro down to Barceloneta for tapas, ice cream, beach-sleeping and sea-swimming (you can tell who's English (long shorts, t-shirts) and who is Spanish (speedos, bikinis)), before going onto Mies Van De Rohe's minimalist pavilion near Placa Espanya. I discover later that it's not the original, but a 1980s copy. I feel swizzed, especially as we paid €5 to see what you can basically view from outside of it. I prefer the maximalist neo-Gothic Catalan art gallery, where we sit in the setting sun, drinking mojitos and listening to an English couple threaten the cervezaaguacocacola sellers, whom they accuse of stealing their laptop: "I will fuck your life up. I will make your daughters into prostitutes".

We go back into town and eat at Rita Rouge, an international restaurant with a sort of veggie menu and then it's one last taxi ride back to Poble Nou, and adéu Catalonia.

millionreasons: (wine)

There are a surprising number of people on the tube at 6.30 in the morning. I feel bad for those poor people who have to be in work for seven a.m. At 7, we are on the train to Gatwick, by 9, we are on the plane, eating a BA breakfast (yoghurt, croissant, juice) and in Bologna by midday, sitting in the flower-filled courtyard of our B&B in the San Francesco district, eating cake provided by the landlady, Alberta, who doesn't speak much English, but does try to press coffee and wine onto us. Our room has exposed beams, netting, and an olde worlde charme.

We wander out to do the sights: the Pizza Maggiore, the Basilica, the twin towers, the medieval Case Isolani shopping centre with  holes where mercenaries shot arrows into the walls rather than kill the beautiful, adulterous lady whom they had been ordered to murder, the Neptune Fountain, the Palazzo commune (town hall), medieval castles and buildings on stilts jutting out into our path, and the porticoes, the covered walkways that cover the city. There are on-off rain showers, but you don't need an umbrella because you can walk pretty much all around the town hardly getting wet. Some are sculptured, some are curved, some shadowed, some covered in fresci. Later, Ella Fitzgerald wafts through one arched-way and a theremin player entertain in another. Orange-lit, they are also used as bike lanes, or teen hangout spots. The only problem is that they trap the cigarette smoke and even though a smoking ban in restaurants was introduced two years before the one in England, it hasn't cut down on the smoking, as well as the Tabbaccheri, you can buy a pack of fags from machines in the wall for about half the price of Britain's. Bologna is known as il rosso, for its politics and its buildings: all the houses are red, yellow, burnt orange, terracotta, ochre, sienna.

We stop off at the guidebook-recommended Bicco D'Oro for an admittedly delicious hot chocolate con panna, but are ripped off to the tune of €12 - it's not a bustling brasserie with white-aproned wait-staff, it's a small cafe. Later, we have a veggie meal for €14 so can't help but feel somewhat tourist taxed.

Alberta does us proud for breakfast - toast, eggs, home made jam, yoghurt, cake, strong Italian coffee, and a beautiful, yellow-eyed gattino who becomes my friend after I let her lick egg yolk and butter from my fingers. I've never had breakfast in a foreign B&B before, it's always a pensione with no breakfast or a 2* hotel with a buffet. Just as my washbag shows my history of staying in other hotels and removing the spoils, so the choice of hot beverage displays a country’s colonising past: English breakfast tea, Italian roasted coffee. Still, if Italy hadn't been beastly to Abyssinia, no-one would be drinking antipodean-made flat whites in Soho. Calazione is accompanied by instrumental jazz on the stereo, much to Dave's disgust.

We walk past the Collegio di Spagna, the Chiese San Paolo, the mercato, which isn't a covered hall of food, but loads of shops selling loads of food. We sit at the Neptune statue (the Eros of Bologna) and listen to some jazz (to Dave's relief, the quartet also play the themes from Star Wars and Indiana Jones), then to the Borso, once a stock exchange, now a library with Roman remains under a glass floor, comfy chairs above said floor, and a fascinating ceiling.

The Basilica is shut so we go up on the Terrazzo for great views over the city and the faraway hills. Up into the university district, past thousands of students eating pizza in the Piazza Verdi, where we have a little snack of "Greek" pizza, cross the road away from the Medieval buildings onto a long tree lined boulevard and the Orto Botanico. Probably not worth visiting a botanical gardens in October but there is a herb garden, rock garden, lily pond and zucco (pumpkin) display.

We walk around what use to be the Jewish ghetto, not a foundry but where the Jews were herded when the papacy took over the running of the city in the 11th century. The narrow streets and high walls remind me of Andalucia, but with yellow rather than whitewashed buildings. We have a second lunch of spinach pastry and an afternoon cappuccino at Caffe Rubrik and then nutella and honey ice creams from Gelateria Giani, eaten in the Piazzo Maggiore until a woman in a white wig making kissy noises and holding out a tray for money approaches us. The San Petronio basilica has re-opened so we seek sanctuary in there. It's peculiarly plain for a church in a country that's the heart of Catholicism but the guidebook suggests that this is because Bologna has always been a seat of learning (their university is the oldest not just in Italy but in Europe) and the churches were to show Bologna's power and to cock a snook at Rome, rather than for lavishsly praising the Almighty. Indeed, there's a recreation of Foucault's Pendulum, which demonstrates the earth spinning on an axis and a meridian sundial. There’s not quite a monument to Darwin, but there may as well be. Unlike Canterbury, St Paul's, York, etc, entrance is free; I thought Bologna's most aggressive nuns would be hanging around the door asking for donations, but no (earlier, a nun on a bike even thanked us for moving out of her way). Perhaps the Catholic church doesn't need the money, or perhaps it wants churches and cathedrals to be accessible to all. After the church, we walk up Bologna's Bond St: Swarovrski diamonds, Lush, Foot Locker, the first I've seen without police incident tape across the doorway.

In the evening, we meet Stephen who has relocated here from Brighton. We find him on the party street: Via Pratello and he takes us to out for aperitivo i.e. to several bars where I drink Spritz (on-tap Lambrusco topped with a Campari like drink called Apero, which makes a nice bitter/sweet concoction). The boys have German beer because Peroni et al are apparently verboten. One of the places does a €2 buffet if you buy a drink, it's a bit like the unlamented defunct chain Deep Pan Pizza's anti-Atkins buffet: pasta, lentils, bread, pasta, but it fills a gap. We end up at a deaf vegetarian bar, serving up falafels and a signed talk about aboriginal art. We sit in the back and learn filthy phrases in Sicilian.

Steve encouraged us to ditch our plan to go to Ravenna as Florence is only 37 minutes away by train. Arriving at the station in the morning, we eschew the fast train as it's twice the price and wait at Platform 6 for the slow train. And wait. And wait until a man tells that we are in the wrong place and only charges us €1 for this information. There’s Bologna Central, Bologna Est and Bologna Ouest - we need a different part of the station. The fast train is still there, a sleek and shiny TGV that departs 7 minutes late. Ours is a scruffy slam door closed carriage Hitchcock thriller train that nonetheless arrives 4 minutes early. We watch the rolling hills and nestling villages of Emilia Reggiano go past. It looks much like the English countryside but with different houses. There is a fine for smoking on the train - €7.

The other downside of the cheap/slow train is that it arrives at Firenze Riffredi, which is sort of like coming into Kings Cross when you want to be in Brixton. We decide to walk down to Florence central and we get to see the Firenze the tourists don't see, namely the ring road and the crenellated football stadium. We arrive at the Duomo slightly exhausted, the midday sun is out and so we just go to the nearest tourist restaurant with a seat indoors. God, or maybe the Pope, knows what it's like in summer, it's pretty awful now, stuffed with tourists and tat. We do the Duomo and its Baptistery with the carved bronze doors, the Piazza Signoria where, like Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, all the classical reproductions are together so you don't have to bother going to the Academy of Fine Arts to see the original (Michaelangelo originally put David here in the Piazza until he/it was moved to the museum). Much to my disappointment, we don’t witness a murder. Then Ponte Viechie and the Arno and ice-cream south of the river (half the price of those north) in an Ile de France type area of water and ice(s).

The cathedral shop sells both Jean-Paul II or Benedict rosaries and a Jean Paul 2013 calendar (although not one of old Hitler Youth Ratzinger), which I imagine is the Cliff Richard calendar of Italy. They also sell movie posters, including one for La Dolce Vita, which I believe the church tried to ban.

Sit in Piazza Republica and look at posters for a lost dog that tug on my heart-strings until Dave points out that it's viral marketing for a Woody Harelson film called seven Psychopaths. I lose the ability to "read" marketing when I'm abroad.

Go back to the train station and people-watch. Being in a foreign train station feels as if my handler is about to arrive with some information. We get the high speed, air-conditioned Shinkansey train back; the display screen tells us where we are (and how late we are running) on the route from Milano, Roma, Bologna, Firenze, Napoli. The romantic possibilities of train travel. I think I am an interrailer-manqué as I never did that in the summers between university terms, never had the money nor the companions.

Up late, breakfast with il gattino who is running up and down the living room and biting my fingers, before walking the 2.5 miles along the Portico di Luca. Yes, as if all the other arcades in the city aren't enough, this one, comprising 666 unbroken arches, is the longest in the world. You can keep your statuary, Florence, here we have a very long walk up a hill. It's the pilgrimage up to the Basilica di San Luca, which looks over the city. The first 200 arches or so are a normal shopping street dominated by cake shops, presumably for the pilgrims, until it makes a sharp left at a folly and then we're on a steep incline, with shrines every so often, pics of the Virgin Mary, some of which look like Cecilia Giménez has been having a go at the restoration. The arches themselves have all been restored in the memory of a loved one, expect the ones that have been done up by Bologna city commune. By arch 333, I'm out of breath, by 444, flagging and sweaty, 555, legs are hurting but finally we make it up to the top and sit on a bench eating pear cake I saved from breakfast, as there is no cafe up here. God has provided a toilet and a gift shop, selling adorable Virgin Mary snowstorms, but seriously, Catholics, how many snowglobes does one person need? A trail up a hill deserves a coffee, surely.

Surprisingly, inside the church, you can walk around the altar which is far more fancy than in other basilicas (basilice?), incense, candles, gold, flowers, Virgin M pictures, Come on Catholics, if you want to impress the atheist protestants, this bling is what you need. The view of the city is blocked off, perhaps the people who built the church didn't want the pilgrims to look at the depraved secular goings on. There are loads of confessional boxes and I wonder if anyone climbs the hill just to confess that they blasphemed whilst struggling up the hill.

We walk down the hill and have a rather nice lunch of pasta, aqua naturale, and tiny strong sugary espressi in an anti-Lonely Planet restaurant (English translations, pictures of the dishes) near the main square, next to some jolly Americans from Boston and then get the bus to the airport. Gatwick brings technology win! as we go through the automated passport control (I was a little worried my face wouldn't be recognised as I am very jowly on my passport photo) and then technology fail! as the stupid ticket machine won't let us buy a single using a railcard. Southern Rail, you are money-grabbing bastards.

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Rain follows us all the way up the A1, M1, the M25 and the M3, only stopping as we head into Lyme Regis, a town famous for tragic figures, Louise Musgrove, Sarah Woodruff and the less tragic Mary Anning who discovered the ammonites which now feature in the town's railings and streetlights. We've only been there twenty minutes before I get into an argument with a local as I've "nabbed" "her" seat in a tea-shop. She repeats this three times until I remonstrate with her. I'm not quite out of London mode yet. We walk along the Cobb, and then by the side of the Cobb, which seems designed to splash sea water over tourists for the amusement of locals, like a log flume, but unlike Miss Musgrove, I am too much of a wuss to jump even two steps off of Granny's Teeth. The Cobb has blobs of tarmac on it which looks like a cow has wandered over. Seagulls steal ice-creams and pull chip packets out of bins. The front has all kinds of hotch potch buildings: thatched houses, fishermen's cottages. Georgian terraces, crenelated places and art deco pads. People leave their doors un-locked. You get the impression that nothing has changed here for years except a new coat of paint on the gaily coloured beach huts. I bet there's a Lit & Phil, a Light Operatic Society and a Tory MP.

Later, after drawing with David at air-hockey, but beating him on the crazy golf course which overlooks the sea, eating a microwaved meal in a pub, exploring the park which has rosemary and thyme planted in it, but not parsley or sage, crossing over the tiny bridges that line the street down from the still working watermill, we sit outside a bar and drink hot chocolate and beer in the soft evening light over the swoop of the town.

Lady, love your countryside, your motorways are very nice

I'm woken up by seagulls. We eat breakfast from a trolley in the window alcove of our B&B room, which is better than having to be presentable in a dining room. We drive around the coast to Seaton which is rather the Worthing to Lyme's Brighton - mobility scooters, caravan parks on cliffs, gift (tat) shops, but we do find Lyme Regis's veggie cafe (displaced) and a fabulous electric tram that goes up and down the estuary where we see cows, sheep, rabbits, egret and herons. I feel cheated by the weather which is warm and sunny - having seen the forecast I eschewed suncream and sunglasses for galoshes and a sou'wester.

We've seen Seaton, now we must drink Beer - a little fishing village that, if it were in Cornwall, Rick Stein or some other Saturday Kitchen-friendly celeb chef would have set up here. As it is, there are tea rooms and cafe on the pebbly beach where we sit and eat ice-creams in the sun. Which promptly goes in behind dripping clouds, but it's enough to redden my arm and face. I'd forgotten what it's like to be sunburnt.

Dave buys some local lager, stout and ale from what I'd like to report was called The Beer Beer-Off, but it was boringly just named Off Licence.

Onto Witheridge via Tiverton, which looks like a northern (ex) industrial town - red brick terraces with satellite dishes attached to roofs. Witheridge is country village with a market square, a pub, a post-office-cum-general store, some thatched pink cottages, and a B&B where we're staying, which has woven baskets on the wall for sale. They're pretty good, but I do wonder how much money has been made by artists and artisans displaying their watercolours, knitted objets and driftwood sculpture - less than 1% of B&B takings, I'd wager. Then again, I do wonder if people open guest houses to put all their unwanted Xmas presents of ornaments and knick-knacks.

As it's called Two Moors, I thought the B&B would be on the edge of Exmoor, but it's actually on the Two Moors Way ('twixt Ex and Dart), which we walk a tiny bit of, north and south out of Witheridge, but it's too muddy so we turn back, not before seeing the new housing estate which looks weird and out of place. In the pub, people talk with Northern, London, Black Country and American accents, so maybe the place is more cosmopolitan than it would first appear. Or not, as the landlord who looks like Adrian Mole's dad, starts with the Irish jokes (sic), admires the comedy stylings of Mike Reid and then sets off about the Olympics which will be bad, not because of the crackdown on bunting, missiles on roofs, closure of roads and towpaths, or being allowed to say "2012" without the thought police crashing through your ceiling, but because there'll be "20,00 extra refugees afterwards who will disappear and start claiming benefits". I guess the Mail or Express headline today featured the word "swarms" or "floods".

The woman on the table next to us complains about a) her daughter in law who doesn't understand that Ron needs his space, and b) all of her ailments. Not sure why old people think other OAPs want to hear about illnesses, it can only depress them. The pub is also a home for battered cats, one eyeless, one tailless and one with half its fur missing. The cyclops cat is called Twiglet and he sits on a barstool, expectantly. Not sure if he's waiting for Twiglet's Tupple, the brewed on site beer that is named after him. The jukebox plays the best of your parents' record collection: T-Rex, Van Morrison, The Animals etc.

The wild and windy moor

I'm woken at 4 a.m., 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. by church bells and the light from under the curtains that fall to within 5 inches of the sill. We eat breakfast and chat to the landlady. She asks us if we went on a fossil expedition or visited the museum in Lyme. No, but we played crazy golf, I refrain from saying. She home schools her children (who look quite normal). I tell her about the landlord's Daily Mail racism and she says that he doesn't like her because she's a single mum and because she takes trade away from the inn side of the pub. I wonder (to myself) if she shouldn't have gone to Totnes, she might have been happier there. This is why I like B&Bs - you get a little slice of someone's life without the need to maintain a long relationship with them.

We set off for Dulverston which seems like a big city after Witheridge - three tea-rooms, a deli and a heritage centre which is showing an exhibition on Exmoor sheep. Take the scenic route up to the coast, over the rain-splattered moor. We don't see stags or beasts or Johnny Kingdom but there is a small pony, wild foxgloves, sheep in fog,  and managed hedgerows cut into abstract topiary. St Etienne's Tiger Bay provides a suitably moody soundtrack.

Back on an A-road, we go through Coombe Martin where houses are painted cerise and we see the unlikely sight of two Hassidic Jews sitting in a car outside of an alpaca farm. To Ilfracombe, Allan and Lisa's house and the veggie Grassroots cafe. Around the harbour and up to St Nicholas' Chapel-cum-lighthouse in the drizzle. I spot that previous lighthouse keepers were called Summerwill, the same name as one of David's uni friends. He texts her and it turns out that they were her great great grandparents. We go back down and then up the Capstone Hill, Ilfracombe's version of Arthur's Seat. On top is a statue of a girl who fell to her death twelve years ago.

Damien Hirst wants to erect another sculpture here: a bi-sected pregnant woman. He has a restaurant int he town as well, not sure how rotten the meat is. In gift shops, you can buy knock-offs of his glittery skulls for £12.99. David mentions how many green and white Devon flags he's seen. Allan claims that both the DDL and the DNP exist and their song is especially anti-Cornwallian "We'll send you back to where the flag is black".

It's getting worse, you've hardly said a word since you set eyes on the horizon

It's Lundy Thursday. We take the MS Claes Oldenburg to Lund Ey - Puffin Island and home to Sarah Lund's paternal ancestors (possibly). I thought the ferry would be similar to the Isle of Wight boat, but it's more like a fishing smack with a bar. I am not a good sailor (too many early morning rough channel crossings - the smell of the vehicle deck, the vomit, the greasy eggs sliding across the plate in the cafeteria) and have to quit the deck for the cabin where the chairs move around and Scout groups throw up into bags (those of us who were drinking German Pernod last night suffer the most). I'm not going to disguise myself as a boy and run away to sea anytime soon.

But we arrive without chucking up our breakfast and make our way up the long hill to Marisco Tower (the pub) which does locally caught crab, soay sheep cheese and Lundy cabbage. No it doesn't, it sells pasties microwaved to within an inch of their lives, jacket potatoes and cheesy chips. But unless you have the foresight to have brought a packed lunch, this is the sole culinary opportunity. Greggs should open here, they'd clean up - at least they know that the worst thing you can do to pastry is to microwave it. The pub has a large collections of board games (which is what you do if you're here for a week and it rains, I suppose), including Lundy Cluedo (the puffin in the lighthouse with the rock?). I wonder if Ocado deliver here - possibly they do a helicopter drop with tourists fighting for tins of olives and Duchy Original biscuits. I decide that this would be the best place to escape to, come a SARS outbreak or zombie attack - they ask people to bleach the toilet seat before and after use so that we don't bring the Norovirus to Lundy.

We sit and look at the view, and the nauticalia and ghoulish shipwreck map on the walls. Then we go to explore, seeing seals in the harbour, ruins, lighthouses, puffins far away, the native sheep, the blue blue sea, a stern church, boggy clover filled fields, rock formations, gleaming silvery-bronze cliffs, ponies, purple, pink and yellow wildflowers, a lemony mint herb, fields of grass waving like the sea, dry stone walls that mark 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 of the way across the island (and to keep the North Lundians out, they hate those bastards). There were 129 other people on board the boat, but we soon lose them into solitude.

Back at the shop, we buy ginger beer, ginger biscuits and stem ginger. The guy behind the counter says that the passage back should be easier, and he's right, it's calm as a baby's bottom.

Got 99 problems, but a beach aint one

To Woolacombe where, 33 years ago, I lost my sister. My mother still goes on about this, but I was a 6 year old au pair, what do you expect? I should've demanded remuneration of 1.5 ice-creams per hour, then I might have felt motivated to do my job. Even though we walked all around that beach looking for her, it looks bigger now.

Dave and Allan go surfing and I lie down for two hours (Rachie don't surf). I can't remember the last time I just sat on a beach. The problem with working part time is that you can't think: I'm being paid by my work to sit here, not on a Friday anyway. I stir myself to buy a bag of chips and to get away from the Brummie next to me who is going through all her relatives on her phone to tell them that they're on holiday, it's sunny and they had a curry for £7 last night (bring your own beer). My skin frazzles in the sunshine, you forget how bright and windy it is at the seaside, as opposed to London's humid haze that never burns you.

We take our leave and set off on the Atlantic highway into Kernow, past cornfields, a solar farm, men on motortrikes, the Kilkhampton scarecrow festival, which has a Jubilympic theme: the royals, David Beckham, a scare-horse and particularly good use of hedges, one rider jumping a hedge, another canoeing its way through it. Good work, village festival.

We're staying in Bude, in a B&B which has a view of GCHQ on one side and a golf course on the other; this monstrosity means that we can't cut across it to get to the town. The road is called Downs View - once common ground and now private. Golf clubs: first up against the wall (etc) - excepting crazy golf, of course is. We walk around the town, to the harbour and the rebuilt castle, past the pasty shops to an Indian restaurant - we've got to Friday without playing the curry-house card.

I love a sunburnt elbow pointing at the sea

We go to Clovelley, a twee, car-free village that has an admission charge. I balk at this at first: I grew up in a village and no-one paid to get into that. Pay £2.65 on the bus to get out of it maybe. But maybe this is how towns will run themselves in the future when the Tories manage to outlaw councils - touristify them enough to charge entry which will pay for road resurfacing etc. The entire village is owned by a descendant of the Earl of Stradbroke, so he can do what he likes I suppose, but it seem a damning indictment of the feudal system if the the Lord can't raise enough revenue from his land-ownership and tithe-collection without any left to restore cottages or pay alms at Christmas. Or maybe it is just late capitalism - you gets what you can out of the things you own. I suspect that many English people would like to live like this, under a benevolent Lord, no council coming in with their CPZs and red tape, no governments with smoking bans and speed restrictions.

Anyway, we stump up the admission fee and go down the steep hill, visit the donkeys (who take things up the hill, sleds take them down) and the chapels, the fisherman's cottage and the Charles Kingsley museum, down to the harbour and the shingle beach to the waterfall, stroking the Clovelly cats as we go. It reminds me of the Victorian town in Ironbridge crossed with Venice.

I have a "Ladies' Lunch" in a tea-room - cucumber sarnies, plus cream tea and we sit ouside in the garden, where the waitress decides that our table is too small and tries to make us move onto an already occupied table. "This is for six people," she admonishes the three women sitting there. We wait 'til she's gone and then move back again. I can hear her complaining in the kitchen about us: "You try to help people..." I bet her daughter-in-law lives in fear.

We walk up to Clovelly Manor and wander around the walled garden which is awash with summer flora and then....

...and then we go home.

millionreasons: (Default)
The plane glides through an upside down traffic light sunset and we float over tubes of neon light that are the city of Malaga and its cars. Here's a thing: the airport (Gatwick) and the airline (easyjet, which I swore never to use again after the lost luggage incident) are fine. Good, in fact. I feel disappointed that I'm not able to do my customary airline complaints. OK, the man at security did make me take my hands out of my pockets (I am 38 years old).

We get the autobus aeropuerto through an out of town landscape of palm trees, furniture stores, lit up pharmarcias and the massive faux-deco San Miguel brewery. The town has that South European smell of piss, garlic and diesel. Over the sewagery river/storm drain is the hotel which is chintzy, but clean (let us not mention the bolster pillow horror) and quiet - there is no traffic or sociopath noise, but unfortunately David has a cold so there's cough and sniffery all night. Every day he's snufflin', snuflin'.
To La Panto cafe for toast and coffee and a complimentary chocolate heart left over from Valentine's Day, then around the old town to look at the Roman amphitheatre (complete with over-excited kids and a Real Roman), some churches, a shop selling purple and gold men's shoes, palm-lined avenues, orange trees and geraniums, and to the, erm, shopping centre for a tortilla bocadillo.

It's a beautiful, brilliant day, bright sunshine with a slight sea breeze. We keep seeing English people in shorts and vests (the Espanol are still in winter coats). It feels as if we're "owed" some sunshine after Porto last year (4 days of rain) and Gibraltar in 2010 (worst rain in southern Spain for 20 years). I'm very superstitious about things I have no control over (buses, weather etc).

We set off on the bus to Granada on the mountain-surrounded motorway, past palm trees, pointed conifers, olive groves, white-washed houses, windfarms, cars on poles overlooking the road indicating scrapyards, a giant black iron bull on a hillside. There is no toilet on the bus. Either the Spanish have cast-iron bladders or are hiding she-pees under their skirts. There is also just muted chatter, no mobile phone yammering.

The Granada guide books warns us: "The city centre is a long walk from the bus station", but we do it anyway along long, dull, busy roads until we get to the Puerta De Elvira, the arched entrance to the old town. There's an odd smell once we've passed through the gate, as if someone is maturing cheese in nail varnish remover. Perhaps they paint the stone walls with chemicals to stop them mouldering. Walk along a traditional windy, cobbled street that scooters whine down to our hotel where we find a friendly, tri-lingual receptionist, a big room and free internet downstairs in the foyer that they've tried to make a little bit Moorish with pot plants and marble flooring.

We go out to the cathedral, through squares hosting cafes, palms and hordes of shrieking song-birds, and wander up the lower streets of the Albayzin which reminds me a little of Porto without the tiles; marble and cobbles, old falling down houses with a surprise of a street lit up by tea (chocolate, peach, caramel, red, Pakistani teas) shops, souvenir shops and many Moroccan lights in coloured glass. The modern Moors are slowly reclaiming what was once theirs. We eat at Kasbah, a sort of Moorish-Med restaurant which does a vegetarian menu. The gazpacho and hummus are very nice, so let's draw a veil over the microwaved borek and the creme brulee which was neither cream, nor burnt.

Because the average South European country focuses on lunch rather than breakfast, we have the buffet in the hotel. For €11, I'd expect a Swedish style smorgasbord extravaganza, but it's just cereal, bread, pastries, cheese, juice, and coffee. Not a smoked herring or ryvita in sight. Somewhat girded, we set off up the Albayzin again to get beautiful, literally breathtaking views of the Alhmabra surrounded by the icy-blue Sierra Nevada in the bright bright sunshine. It's very empty, hardly a soul around until we get to the Plaza Mirador de San Nicholas where guitarists and hawkers are hanging out. David frets that he needs a wide-angled lens. Or just two eyes and a swivelling neck. Further up is the Sacramonte area where houses have been carved out of the rock, once inhabited by flamenco-inventing gypsies, now hippies.

Back down the road, to the side of the Dorro river (more of a brook really), all stone bridges, 11th century ruins, an Arabic bathhouse which anticipates Oscar Wilde with its star shaped ceiling vents, and back to Plaza Bibi-Ramblas for sandwiches and juice. We have a look in the Carral de Caravan, a Moorish caravan park turned theatre turned coal hole turned thing tourists can go and look in for free, before walking up the water-dappled park to the Alhambra.

On advice, we booked tickets on the internet and then picked them up, rather bizarrely, from a bank's cash point, but what we failed to realise is that you have to go into the posh palace before you can see the rest of it. It's wonderful though, all tiles, ancient arches, water features galore, stray cats more interested in sandwiches than strokes. It's pleasant just to sit in the shaded gardens and watch the German tour groups go by. Fortunately, given the amount of running water, there are a lot of toilets here, which is more than you can say for the rest of Granada which features drinking fountains but no public loos (later, too late, we find out that it's normal to use los aseos in cafes). After the palace, the gardens, the art gallery, and the fort, we go up to the Generalife which is where the Moorish kings spent their holidays (obviously there was no easyjet in those days) which is supposed to have a staircase of water, whereby you can trail your hand in the handrail of running water as you climb the steps. Unfortunately, it's not on today, presumably because of the drought but never mind, we often get it at home when the pipes burst.

Some months ago, we watched a documentary about Moorish Spain; the presenter claimed that the Granadan Moors asked the Maghreb Mujahideen to come help them when los Catolicos decided to ethnically cleanse Spain - the ascetic North Africans were shocked by the decadence of the Andalucians, with their fancy music, art and culture.

We get a much needed bus back into the town and got to Mundo Manila for veggie food and herbal tea (I've now caught the cold). It's a slightly self-consciously groovy hang out with pro-Cuba pictures and photos of Gandhi on the wall. They play Crosby, Stills and Nash, acid-jazz and Nick Drake on the CD player. A small, owner-less dog wanders around the laptops. There is a Portland bocadillo on the menu (salad, tomato, grilled courgette and aubergine) but no Williamsburg (soy-ball, peanut butter, banana) or Dalston (lahmacun, hummous, coffee, in day-glo bread). But the food is fine and they bring Dave tapas with his beer, a cheesy dough ball, a soup, a poco paella. Many of the bars offer beer and a tapa for €1.50 or thereabouts, but not knowing what you're going to get puts me off. I don't want a hunk of ham, octopus eyes, or los testículos de toro.

We try to go back the next day for breakfast but are foiled by its later opening hours at the weekend. Our Plan B - desayuno by the cathedral is also closed, so we wander up to Plaza Nuevo where things are open and visit Schwarma King for a pancake breaky with mint tea on a sofa amongst translucent curtains and tiles. It's a far cry from City Kebab House on Stoke Newington High St.

We set off in our hired car to the A92, stopping at Baza where, in the absence of cafes with a menu, we sit on a bench and eat supermarket quiche sliced into portions with tortilla chips. People stare at los Ingles locos as they walk past. Well, Bazaians, get a laminator and create a ruddy menu, why dontcha. Onto a minor road, through miles of scrubland, windfarms, closed down petrol station, cranes to nowhere, a lone horse, prickly pears, almond-blossom trees, white washed villas clinging vertically to rocks, marble factories, everything ochre and sand-coloured, all looked over by mountains of loving grace that make my ears pop. No roadworks, no cones hotline, no tailbacks at Junction 7. It reminds Dave of California and me of Nevada, although we've never been to either. It's spaghetti Western country. We drive for miles without seeing another car until we get to Albanchez, a tiny Spanish town with an attached English estate that the locals call Los Llanos (the plains) where David's parents now reside. I thought the estate would look like a horrendous Benidorm development, but it actually fits quite well into the scenery, each house teeters on top of the next, wonderful views of the mountains, which glow as the sun goes down, the lights in the town making it look like a Moroccan village. It's also a bit authentically rustic rather than suburban, no potable water, gas from bottles, electricity from the developer/builder's grid. We sit in the sunshine drinking juice. and in the evening go out to Meson de Irene, which I can only describe as a Spanglish chain restaurant on an industrial estate. As well as bacon 'n' eggs and fish 'n' chips they do raciones and I plump for broad beans and white asparagus. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that it's still winter here so the beans are frozen and the asparagus from a jar. I do get fresh, not tinned, pineapple and cointreau for desert though.

In the morning, we wander down into the town and have a drink at the hotel, looking at the hills like brown elephants, before walking up the steep hill in the midday sun. Unlike Granada, there's no narrow streets or tall buildings to shelter in and I am a little sunstroked by the time we get back and develop a headache that lasts another 3 days. Remind me not to visit in August. We also walk up Signal Hill (well, the last 150m) for the views and the attempt to get a prickly pear off of a plant (fail) and to Cobda to fill up water bottles from the natural spring. Cobda also has an exercise park that many Spanish towns seem to sport, small machines you can use for free, an outdoor gym. It's effectively an adults' play-park and would that we could have them in Britain without instant vandalisation. In the evening we look at Jupiter and its moons through Dave's dad's telescope.
And now we must say ¡adios! until we see Almeria once again, and drive westwards to Granada. It's great to be back in a city. Young people, cafes, buildings. Living in a city, you feel the peace and quiet when you visit the countryside, but living rurally, the noise and bustle when visiting the city is awful until you get used to it, whereas the silence in the countryside only gets worse. We check back in to the same hotel, but are given the room next to our previous one, which is now occupied by the worst of neighbours: English teenagers. Fortunately, they don't screech all night, but they do inexplicably decide to move all the furniture around at 7 in the morning. We go for a walk around the University district and have helados in the sunshine. In the evening, we go out for pre-meal tapas once again at Mundo Manila (quite exciting wondering what they're going to bring - a tapanade and guacamole dough ball and some Russian potato salad) before going to Hicuri for pisto, gazpacho and cerveza artisinal.
It is ¡Andalucia Day! We are leaving Andalucia! by bus, another bus, plane, train, tube and bus, which all goes smoothly apart from a certain traveller remembering he'd left his phone on the hotel bed just as we're about to board bus #1. Everyone on the plane seems to have bought the Daily Mail, which apart from four NHS Doctors Are Evil stories (softening up the public for the Great NHS Firesale (strangely nothing about who will benefit from the Tory sell off (clue: Tories))), they've also re-started their Anti-Fuel Tax campaign. If they want a fucking campaigh, they should address the fact that airport shops selling bottles of water after security take full advantage of the fact that you can't take water through (Dave has been forced to give up his un-opened 200ml of orange juice in case he becomes an alchemist and mixes it with shower gel to make a dirty bomb, or something). €3 for a bottle of agua is surely more of a rip off than a tank of petrol.

millionreasons: (absinthe)
Usually, I start off any journey report with a complaint about airports and airlines. However, Gatwick is the least worst London airport and Air Berlin is sehr civilised; it sets off and lands on time, and gives us a pretzel, a soft drink and a chocolate heart, so I'll complain instead about the train to the airport, an unheated (because it's balmy at 6 in the morning, no?) clapped out Thameslink piece of rolling crap stock with the logo scrubbed out and a First Capital Connect sticker stuck over. The train equivalent of a second hand transit van with the previous business owner's logo painted out in a slightly different colour to the main paintwork. Anyway, it at least arrives on time and we set off into the skies. We don't fly over London, but can see it in the distance, a jumble of spiky towers looking somehow unimportant amongst the mass of fields and countryside.

Land into Hanover, capital of Lower Saxony, provider of both our Saxon forebears and our Hanoverian monarchy. I don't see anyone who looks like me or Elizabeth II, although people do keep trying to speak to me auf Deutsch, so maybe I seem familiar. We follow the red brick path around the city to the Holocaust memorial, the opera house, the half bombed Alteskirche which remains a ruin, similar to St Dunstan's in the East in the City, and the Neues Rathaus to look at models of the city in 1689 (small), 1939 (big), 1945 (destroyed) and today (sprawling) and to go up in the strangely slanting elevator to the viewing platform to take in the stadt panorama.

After a borek in a Turkish cafe, we meander down the river to the Altes Stadt with its churches, a 14th century house, public art, a mini-library outside the Marktkirche, a paved pedestrian area, and half timbered houses. It's fake though - these are not the same houses that stood here in 1939, they are a collection of the surviving Mediaeval buildings moved here post-war. The rebuilt part of Hanover seems to have been designed by the same brutalists that got ahold of England in the '60s - all three lane one way traffic-sodden streets, flyovers, underpasses, overpasses, TV towers, grimy concrete office blocks. Call me a mimsy sentimentalist but I much prefer the old town, even if it's not really real. We have delish koffee und kuchen at Hollandische Konditerei, then visit the Markthalle, which looks from the outside as if it would sell live crabs and currywurst, but is actually a Borough Market-esque international food court; unfortunately I'm not hungry enough to buy anything.

We take the envy-inducing train to Göttingen - double decker carriages! A whole car reserved for bikes! (not just two spaces you have to fight to use with wheel chairs and buggies). This isn't even the fancy ICE train, just a normal commuter transit. However, by the time we've arrived a Reggie Perrin style 11 minutes late (because we had to allow the fancy ICE train to go ahead of us) into Göttingen and the noisy German teenagers have irritated me, I've changed my mind somewhat. We are picked up by Nico and driven to his and Gus's house in Bovenden, a suburb a few miles away, to meet their baby Faith and cats: friendly Lila and shy Lily, and to eat lasagne and drink Pilsener.

Spargel im Spargel

In the morning, we walk up to Burger Plesse, an olde worlde Rapunzel castle on a hill (a steep hill). It's raining as we walk through the forest so the red squirrels, pine martens and wild deer that purportedly live here are hiding somewhere. Up at the castle though, whilst eating Spargel in butter sauce (not as good as green English asparagus, but fab to eat local specialties; as a vegetarian, it's quite rare) and ice-cream sundaes in the restaurant, the sun comes out, and on climbing the tower and admiring the views, I spend a happy quarter of an hour sunbathing on the metal roof.

Later, we go out on the bus to Göttingen, past the strawberry hut, Cafe Nostalgie with its spooky doll-lined windows, Netto, Burger King etc. Burger King appalls me somewhat - the Germans invented the Hamburger, the Americans took the notion and ran with it and now sell it back to the Germans. Like the gastronomic (I use the word loosely) version of the Beatles. The name Burger King makes no sense - how can one be a townsman and a Koenig at the same time?

Anyway, Göttingen is a small university town, twinned with Cheltenham, and bizarrely, Hackney, famous for churning out Nobel prize winners as well as Bismarck and the Bros. Grimm. It also has a goose girl statue that graduating students must kiss. We eat flammkuchen in the restaurant under the Rathaus, trying to get rat-arsed on Dunkel beer, then sit in the square eating more ice cream and apfelstrudel.

Set off on the autobhan to Kassel. We are deep in mittel Deutschland, probably the exact centre of the country, in the south of the North, and just over yar hills used to be the DDR. That forest once housed a Russian listening station. Outside Kassel is the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, an astonishing 18th century melée of picnic park, fake Scottish ruin, Apollo's Temple, a Baroque Schloss turned art gallery, and an imposing yet phallic Hercules monument-cum-water feature that would make the average garden fountain give up in shame. There's time for sandwiches and salad in the grounds before huffing up the hill in time for the water extravaganza, which has taken place for three hundred years and now, every Wednesday and Sunday at 2.30 p.m., you can see the water starting off as fountain before setting off on a spectacular descent down the steps until it erupts into the green pool below. People crowd around the sides of the steps, camcorders at the ready as if for some important religious ritual. Small boys jump out of the way at the last minute. They move quickly down the hill to the next stop, watching the water trickle over a man-made waterfall, hardy types jumping from stone to stone, until it GUSHES into an acqueduct which takes the water along until it SLOSHES down in a straight hydra-curtain until finally it falls into the final pond before it WHOOSHES up into a huge geysir type fountain. Not so much the awesome power of nature as the astonishing power of engineering. Georgian man's determination to bend nature to his will. Amazingly, it's all free.

Fahren fahren fahren auf dem Deutsche Bahn

For you, ze holiday is (almost) over. Nico drives us back to Göttingen and we get the ICE train to Hanover (no double decker train, no noisy teens, no tardiness). It's Bank Holiday and everything is dead. Have a coffee and walk up though the Georgian park to the Herren Häuser Garten, another stately home turned park, although this one does have a €5 entrance fee - hardly on the level of Kew. First into the Grossergarten, the classically designed formal gardens with more water features, topiary, a maze, some classical (and golden) nudes, a small but pleasant roserie, a fig house. It's sehr pleasant, but not that inspiring. Ordered neatness does not do it for me. I much prefer the Botannical gardens, but after a few cactii and orchid greenhouses, I am too exhausted to take in much of the lilyponds, lupin borders and dahlias, although I enjoy the pop art sparkles of the grotto. We eat lunch in the on-site café, which offers vegetarian options ranging from cheese salad to chips. I plump for kartoffelsalat and Dave has a Berliner Weisse - a light beer with green (or red) syrup. It tastes very much like lager and lime. Funny how what it is considered de trop in England is terribly sophisticated abroad (see also Cinzano and lemonade; sherry and soda does not have the same cachet. I suppose Pimms is the exception to this, but how much marketing have they had to do to push the idea that Pimms = posh?).

Some plant-saturated 5 hours later, we go back into the town and eat the sort of ice cream that would make Augustus Gloop sick, before light-railing it back to the airport where we've arrived far too early and sit disconsolately in Departures with nothing but a shut café for company. When it does finally open, I'm charged €2.70 for a bottle of water although it's actually €2.95 with a 25c plastic bottle tax, which is fair enough except there's no alternative. I'm sure the guy at the kasse, although amiable, wouldn't give me tap water and there are no water fountains here. If airports insist on taking our water away then we, the passengers, must insist on free water after security. Rise up my brethren and sistren! Wir haben Durst!

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We hire a couple of bikes with tyres suitable for the tarmac-less tracks and set off for little Sark, across the Coupee causeway to the far south. Tractors, bikes, horses and pedestrians share the paths like I wish cars, buses, bikes and taxis could in cities. We leave the bicycles propped up against a hedge and walk down to try and have a gander at Venus Pool and then to the abandoned silver mines and Port Gorey.

It's great to just be able to leave unlocked bikes whenever we want to access cliff footpaths, and when we buy some picnic provisions from the shop and they go into the front basket, I feel like I'm in an Enid Blyton story - all we need now is some smugglers, some evil gypsies and a dodgy uncle. Indeed Sark does seem very 1950s - no crime, no cars, summer fetes, most people friendly and considerate, but with the modern conveniences of mobile phones, cappuccinos and (intermittent) internet.

We stop off at the Caragh tearoom and chocolate factory to share a flapjack with a cat who, through no fault of its own, has ended up living in a tea shop rather than a fish restaurant and has adjusted accordingly.

Dave has turned cartographer and is mapping the island to share on wikimapia. Obviously there have been OS maps for years, but google maps is lacking in details. He tracks his trail as we go onto the Pilcher monument and try to have a look at the Victor Hugo caves (Jesus, that guy got everywhere). We stare out at Brecqhou, the island owned by the Barclay Bros, trying to peer into what's going on there but we can only see a red crucifix on top of the hill. Further around the island, at Window in the Rock where we sit and eat our pique-nique, we can see a Disney/Ludwigian style castle. Curiouser and curiouser.

The final excursion of the day is to La Seigneurie where the chieftain of the island lives in a cute Norman-style pile whose grounds are open to the public if you're prepared to pay. There are lovely formal gardens with water features, a pink daisy avenue, a grapevine, a pirate scarecrow, a shadow clock, and a maze, and on the other side of the house you can visit a duck pond with finger-biting mallards, a turreted dovecote (with a real dove), and a collection of objets - a non-mechanised phone box, an apple press, a grain mill, a monks' well, an Elizabethan cannon and a pet cemetery.

We eat at Le Maison Pommier which was recommended as "good for vegetarians" from everyone to the lady in the health food shop to Kristina at the Petite Poule bistro cafe. We enter into what is effectively someone's home, the toilet is the house bathroom and the bar area is the dining room. It's a bit like Fawlty Towers on gourmet night: the waitress doesn't speak English, the wine waiter doesn't know what wine they serve by the glass, there are three free tables but we're sat in the bar-dining room for half an hour with a couple from Guernsey who tell us: "It's always like this, but the food is delicious". They're quite right, although half way through our meal the oven stops working and I'm so hungry I do consider stealing the Guernsey couple's roast tomato soup. "You can't do that, it's their anniversary," David tells me, "They have different rules here on Sark."

The restaurant has some outdoor lights, but after that it's all black, we navigate by the stars, following Jupiter back to the B&B. I can see the milky way and staring at it whilst I walk makes me feel like I'm looking at the edge of the universe. I've walked home in the dark before, in Cumbria where it was just a short stroll up a hill and in Goa where we almost bumped into a cow, but could navigate by the lights of the hotel complexes. Here the cows are safely fenced away but there's always the risk of an errant lightless bicycle coming one's way. Weird how your senses attune, the crickets and grasshoppers raising a symphony, the wet smell of trees and grass, and I feel like I know the way better when there's no other visual distractions. Also weird is how exposed you suddenly feel when you can't see anything. I know nothing dangerous will happen, my ears are listening out for tractors, but the fact that you can't see if a knife wielding maniac is approaching is rather odd. Fortunately, Dave has a Swiss Army knife of a phone, it has a torch and a constellation finder. Stopping to use the latter, I feel the shock of something soft around my ankles - it's a very friendly cat, unaware that its night vision is better than ours. Further on at the Mermaid pub, young people are listening to loud music, quietly. Back in the Avenue, we have to move to the side when a horror film bright light heads slowly towards us. Dipping its headlights, we can see that it's a tractor pulling a caravan marked 'ambulance' behind it. It brings home the vulnerability of island life. I joked earlier that moving here would be like retiring to Dignitas.

Walk down to Dixcart Bay in some unpleasant cold wet stuff the weatherman calls rain. We pass the Dixcart hotel, "The haunt of Victor Hugo" - (blimey, even his ghost gets everywhere), and go through a wooded area with ferns and fronds and ancient dripping trees. It feels like a primeval forest and this feeling continues as we clamber down to the beach with no people, no ships, no fisherfolk, only the sea, the rocks, the birds. We've just crawled out of the ocean for the first time and quickly evolved into the fine specimens of humanity standing here. Or stupid sub-species, as I decide to try and beat the tide in the arch and then mistime it so I'm left with sopping wet feet for the next 6 hours. On the way back, I spot a giant mushroom and a tiny door but I don't eat one and attempt to enter the other; I'm not trying anything else youthful and impetuous again today.

We walk out on the road indicating the lighthouse, which we can't see from the Point Robert bay (although we do see some pretty spider webs) and then I get a wet feet strop-on and refuse to lunch at the Petite Poule bistro on the grounds that it isn't a bistro (sample meal: beans on toast) and we walk down the very steep harbour hill to the Harbour Cafe - which is closed. After mooching depressively around the smaller harbour, le Creux, I bribe David back up the hill with the promise of a free meal and a ticket onto the tractor bus to take us back down the hill. La Petie Poule welcomes us in and makes up for its food with its friendliness and Dave takes advantage of his free lunch by ordering two lattes.

I read the Sark Newsletter whilst we eat. It's an odd local rag, half of it complaining about "people who poison the work and reputation of Sark’s largest investor" (i.e. the Barclays) from the safe haven of Guernsey, also an investigation into the Stocks Hotel failing to get planning permission for their extension, a list of conseilleurs who refuse to take the Sark Newsletter and then a puff piece about the Victor Hugo boulangerie. On the tractor-bus, we see two tractor-fire engines setting off to the Celebration of the Sea festival. Now all we need is the tractor-police man.

I've been worrying since April about only having 45 minutes between disembarking the Sark ferry and boarding the Guernsey-Portsmouth boat. Fortunately, it's a lot more organised on the Guernsey side and it all works out fine and we're personally escorted to our cabin which has four beds (David momentarily freaks me out by saying we'll have to share the cabin), free breakfast token, a little cosmetic bag with shower gel and cap, and shoe shine (should we feel the need for shiny shoes as we dock in England) and a view of, um, the lifeboats. I feel like Kate Winslet on the posh decks in Titanic (although we're SOPH, rather than POSH). We eat some rubbish in the brasserie cafeteria, I take a pill and am knocked out for the next 8 hours, waking up into a milky-misty Portsmouth morn.

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Onto the train with ten seconds to spare, locate the quiet carriage (which means only three people making mobile phone calls) and travel Pompey-wards. I have previously been through Portsmouth on the way to catch various ferries and found it a dank and depressing place and, as we walk towards Southsea, I see no reason to change my view. The B&B looks like my student rooms of yore and smells of cat wee. The landlady is surely the model for Mrs Overall. There are incontinence sheets on the bed. I'd like to say at least it's clean, but it's not clean. At least it's quiet. Deathly so.

However, I'm forced to revise my position on Portsmouth as we wander through the town. Albert Road is a lively mix of restaurants, pubs and antique shops. Towards the front, there's a giant fiberglass dinosaur and a small seasidey area of arcades, minigolf and candy floss. Onto the Millennium walk and into the old town and harbour with its Nelson memorabilia, old forts, and Georgian houses. We eschew the Spinaker tower for the historic dockyard and the Gun Wharf Quays where we visit the Cadbury Factory shop but don't buy anything because I'm too depressed that advent calendars are already in stock, and a pasty/coffee shop that really wants to be a franchise, but hasn't quite got there yet. I keep a lookout for any 40 year old black men who look like they joined the navy aged 10 so I can ask them if they voted Tory, but then David points out that he was in Plymouth.

I am surprised by how nice everyone is  - you'd think that as they live in Pompey, they'd be miserable, but apart from a few drunkards, the people are all really pleasant. I start a coughing fit in the pasty/coffee shop (I am recovering from pleurisy/bronchitis/TB/woman-flu) and the woman working there offers to bring me a glass of water. You don't get that in Oxford Street Starbucks. We eat lunch in a bog-standard soup 'n' sarnie kind of place and the woman comes over to ask us if everything's Ok with our meal. Later on, because it's raining, we go to the cinema and the man selling the ice-cream explains to me which flavours David has chosen - usually the minimum wage multiplex workers look like they'd kill you given a quarter of a chance. We went to see Scott Pilgrim which I thought I would hate, but I adored it (review).

Eat at Wagamama (honestly, this is like a first date to an out of town provincial shopping centre). I'm pleased to see that the franchise has barely changed its menu since I first ate in the Tottenham Court Road outlet some 14 years ago (although the juices now taste watered down). We walk back through the rain soaked empty streets and what with meandering through the student area and the film we've just seen being about people in their 20s, I feel a deep nostalgia for being 22 and a profound ennui at being 37.

You've hardly said a word since you set eyes on the horizon

I change my mind about the niceness of Portsmouth when we arrive one hour early, as instructed, at the ferry terminal. You'll be boarding in half an hour, they tell us. At 8.55 a.m., we're still waiting whilst the security guards argue about which door we're going to board through. At 8.56. we're finally allowed through, or rather the people in front of me are, I'm stood waiting for the woman to tear off the perforated part of my ticket whilst she shout on her walkie because she's forgotten to take the boarding card of a man in a wheelchair who's already gone through. After several minutes of this failing to multi-task two simple things, I snap at her to canyoujustletmethroughplease. Fortunately, we're not going to miss the ferry because it sets off 40 minutes late, eventually explained by confusion between cargo for Jersey and cargo for Guernsey. They do this trip every day, you'd have thought they would have got the hang of it by now. Considering that ferries have long been losing customers to cheap airlines and it's a real mission in terms of time and money to go by boat, you'd have thought that they would make an effort to provide an efficient and pleasant service, especially as ferries have the reputation of being like the last days of Sodom (and sometimes Gomorrah as as well); I remember one particular Hull to Hook-of-Holland hellscape in the days before the Eurostar.

We nab a seat at the front of the boat in the Quiet Lounge (which means only two out of three televisions are on). Someone should set up a Guardianista ferry service for the guilty rich who want to reduce their carbon footprint. Instead of lasagne and fish 'n' chips in the brasserie cafeteria, there'd be locally produced organic cheese and tomatoes, filtered water and highly trained baristas. Instead of a loud kids' area, there's be a reading room where people could borrow one of the Booker longlist and sit in silence, emitting knowing chuckles from time to time. Instead of the bar-casino, there'd be an interpretive dance group acting out a period of local history of the destination country.

Anyway, seven hours later, we arrive in St Peter Port, Guernsey and walk up the esplanade to our hotel which is quite the opposite of yesterday's and our room even has a seaview. Set off to explore the town. The Channel Islands are supposed to be France-in-England but unless you count the Victor Hugo Boulangerie and some of the street names being in franglais, it looks more like a large coastal town in southern England. Penzance, perhaps. It looks like Cornwall, if the industries had changed from fishing and tin mining to cream teas and Rick Stein a hundred years earlier. There're all the high street shops and the same amount of road traffic you get in British towns - give the English a narrow cobbled winding hilly street and they like nothing better than driving a SUV down it. Dave tells me that the original Channel Islanders were Norman and that's how they 'became' English when Guillaume le Vainqueur took over our fair isle. I think it's Ok to call the Guernsians English. As long as you don't call them Jerseyites. Or god forbid, a Sarkese a Hermian, or vice versa. As for those Alderneyans - well, everyone hates those drunken bastards. Dave thinks that Guernsey is like Gibraltar - ex pat community, fortifications, £ sterling that you can't actually use in Britain and a VAT-free shoppers' paradise. There are also English phone and post boxes but in Swedish yellow and blue, respectively.

Indeed, when we go out to eat at one of those 'bistro' places (English masquerading as French) that always raise my ire (lack of bread to go with pate, lack of freshly squeezed fruit in my 'freshly squeezed' juice) the people behind us are talking about Richmond, Surrey and the other table about the photoshoot they've just done - we could still be in Hackney.

Following on from this Olde Englisheness, we go to watch Swtizerland vs England until I get bored and go home on my own to write a rant (honestly, if there weren't a deficit, the Tories would still be making cuts "to keep the market stable and remain competitive internationally" and anyone thinking Nick Clegg and his chums will pull out of the coalition is like Winston Smith putting his hopes in the proles. In the latest Private Eye, there's a tale of Vodafone managing to wriggle out of paying £6bn worth of tax, but I don't see the BBC (or other television channels or indeed newspapers) reporting on that. It's just asylum seekers eating swans in their half a million pound council houses. I'd rather my tax dollars go towards asylum seekers, not (just) because I'm a bleeding heart liberal, but because I don't want to trip over homeless people every time I leave the house.

To be continued...
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We take the Heathrow Express which costs £1 a minute, but it's worth it not to sit on the Piccadilly line for 80 minutes. Through the police state of Heathrow (Dave accidentally smuggles through 150 ml of face wash) to the plane where I, un-eager to shell out £3 for the official headphones, watch Sherlock Holmes with no sound (it doesn't really detract from any enjoyment I get out of it) and then land at Reykjavik airport in the middle of a field of purple lupins. Our minibus, travelling through the treeless green and grey Highlands landscape, is full of Americans talking rubbish: "She's got powerful energy. Powerful, loving, amazing energy" "She's very earth and that comes through in a very glorious spiritual way" "I think it's great when you can follow your spirit."

I look through the tour booklet to try to find a trip which doesn't involve anything active. No horse riding, no snowboarding, riding on snow mobiles, snorkelling or walking on glaciers. Some nice scenery and a cafe is all I require. We arrive at our hotel, (the Leifur Erikson; named after the first European to land in the US. There's a statue of him outside the hotel looking like he's about to infect some Mohawks with smallpox.) and then rush out to find a bar that a) does food and b) is showing the Engerland match. We find a few places that do one or the other, but not both (I don't count nachos as food) so hastily bolt down some noodle soup in a cafe that has a range of condiments on the bar like a chippy (there is MSG to sprinkle on top if you like) and then go to the nearest pub to watch a dismal performance whilst drinking Viking beer (we resist the urge to buy a bucket of Carlsberg for 2000 kr). I prefer the adjacent cafe-bar which does cake and "Irish" coffees - I have a French hot chocolate (with Cointreau) and then feel quite sick and have to walk it off on a mini-tour of the town. We go into a bar that sells Dimon (sic) Albarn sarnies (Salami, Camembert, lettuce, tomato, if you must know) that apparently you need a "battering ram" to get into at the weekends, but we find a table quite easily. Reykjavik is supposed to be jumping on a Friday night but it's quite empty. Either the recession has hit people, or they're still recovering from yesterday's National Day or we're just too early. By 11 p.m. local time (midnight BST), I'm falling asleep on a sofa in the hotel. The hotel rooms are pretty basic (no toiletries, no hair dryer, no alarm clock) but the reception area is good to sit around in, taking advantage of free wi-fi and coffee. The darklessness is odd, reminds me of my student days in Sunderland when you'd go out to a club at 10.30 when it was just starting to get dark and then come out at 2 when it was starting to get light and there seemed little point in going home to sleep. I'm too old for that now, I fall straight asleep, even without eye-mask to keep out the light.

My thoughts so far: Reykjavik is a smaller, friendlier Gothenburg with its port, cute houses and plentiful cafes. Icelanders seem very innocent and trusting, no-one checks my signature on credit card transactions, or our tickets on the bus, bikes are propped up against shops (or secured with the kind of lock that would make a London thief steal your bike just for the fun of it), purses and bags are left on tables while the owner wanders off. There's a notice in a bookshop that "only 3 magazines" can be borrowed to read in the cafe upstairs. It must be a shock for them when they go out into the world. Despite their liberalism, there are strange laws. Beer was banned until 1988 (before that, people drank low alcohol beer mixed with vodka), there are lists of official first names, so you can't call your kid Britney or Maverick and you can't take your spouse's name (or change your name to Smith) which is not a strike for feminism, but to preserve the cultural heritage of the -son and -dottir suffixes. The tourist industry is capitalising on the Eyjafjallajökul eruption - you can buy Eyjafjallajökul postcards, mugs, t-shirts, even some of the volcanic ash in a jar. There is an "Iceland - we have no cash but we do have ash" range of merchandise. There is a special Eyjafjallajökul coach tour. I like the habit of jugs of iced water on counters in hotels, bars, cafes, swimming pools, and restaurants. One can never be dehydrated here. I am also quite fond of hummous on my bread instead of butter which is offered at several places.

I get a bit obsessed with the language which has changed little since the Viking days (indeed, there is the equivalent of the Academie Francaise which decides on new words). A sign in the airport toilets states that Smoking is Forbidden - Reykingar Bannadur. Looking at the map of Iceland, all the little villages dotted around the coast end in the suffix -vik. So Reykajvik must mean smoke cove (I find out later it means Smokey Bay). Vick and Wick must be the same word (and of course the word Viking means sea-farers). Language learning is detective work and assumption. At school, I had the choice to learn a second language of German or Latin. I took German to GCSE level, but I really wanted to study Latin as I thought I would get a better understanding of English and French (plus the teacher gave more plus-points, and plus-points meant end of term prizes) but on reflection, having a knowledge of both French and German means you can grasp the gist of most West European languages (except Lithuanian) although oddities remain. The Icelandic word for fruit is avextir - where on earth did that come from? It looks Basque.

After breakfast (Scandi-style: muesli, yoghurt, ryvita, cheese, fish (one type only, we're not in Sweden)), we go into the impressive modernist Cathedral which is right opposite our hotel. It is the antithesis of a Catholic cathedral, no gilt, no stained glass, no life of Jesus or the Saints, no pomp and circumstance, just Scandinavian clean lines, the smell of new paint, and comfy pews. We go up into the Empire-state inspired spire (via a lift; fortunately no protestant work ethic makes us climb the stairs) and look at the view, which is grey. It's drizzling like a bank holiday in Great Yarmouth, so we go into the nearest caffeine outlet and then head to the harbour to the art gallery which is warm, dry, free and has great toilets - I could stay all day. We have a look at the Erro exhibition - mash-up collages, mixing history with, um, contemporary history, hence Galileo sitting at a computer, Chairman Mao and the Manhattan skyline, the battle of Trafalgar with modern warfare, Catholic kings drawn in a Jewish caricature way, characters from a Goya painting watching the ice hockey on TV, and Nelson Mandela as Christ with his crown of thorns. I'm not sure what it all means but it's reasonably entertaining. 

Upstairs is Vanitas by various artists including a still life of empty plastic bottles, human body parts carved out of chocolate, intestine and fallopian tubes arranged like a pasta meal, and lots of rubbish artfully arranged. Again, I don't know what it means, but I like looking at it (or in the case of the chocolate, smelling it). We sit in the magazine library and start a physical game of chess but play against the computer on David's phone. Needless to say, the computer beats us in very few moves. Bobby Fischer would be unimpressed.

Round the pond where we see some Eider ducks (Eider a duvet in French) to the National Gallery to look at some modern Icelandic art which has no theme except it's Icelandic. You can pay to go see the Edvard Munch exhibition or the Cindy Sherman but I've seen The Scream in situ (Oslo) and there's only so much Sherman-dressed-as-other-people you can stomach before you want her to stop doing it. I prefer the tables in the cafe, one has a Charlie Chaplin cut out seated with you, another is covered in Volcanic ash, a third with transfers of Icelandic moss and the last with a coin slot and note to tell you to pay 1kr if you sit there. The cafe, despite its enticing display of melons and meringues, is closed, so we mosey on up to Ecstasy's Heart Garden which is not a porn shop but a cute veggie cafe that does anything you want as long as it's soup or chilli, but it's quite tasty and cheap.

We set off to walk to the Botanical Gardens, via several churches and the totalitarian sculpture park, through the suburbs and then the dreariest industrial estates, past the grim looking Hilton hotel. Unlike English out of town areas, there is no McDonalds. I wonder what they'd sell - McPuffin burgers and shark nuggets, perhaps. We stop off at the second outpost of the Art Museum, which, unlike the first one which was housed in an old docks warehouse, is in a 60s building that looks like it could be the civic centre in Droitwich. I'm more interested in the ceiling than the art (and having a nice lie down). Further on, through the park to the Botanical Gardens which has water sculpture, a greenhouse with a lilly pond, some ducklings and goslings and a nice cafe for afternoon cake (or in David's case, his second lunch).

Back in the town, it is sunny (no wonder Icelanders don't go to bed til 3 a.m., the sun doesn't come out til 7 p.m.), so we walk around the harbour, before eating at a veggie buffet place filled with (bizarrely) French people. We go into Kaffitar, Iceland's answer to Starbucks, except the coffee is nice and they don't sell orange mocha frappucinos. They do sell Snickers pavlova cakes though, which I foolishly eat. Back to the hotel via what has became my favourite street, Frakkastigur which is full of colourful clapboard ('n' corrugated iron) cottages, cats, and stoops. If you can tell the prosperity of a nation by the size of their domestic animals, then Iceland is still a first world country. There's a red house with "free stuff" painted on its wall. I pick up a pair of trainers in good nick (I still have the green jumper I took from a similar wall in Brooklyn - I go around the world collecting people's leftovers.)

Holidays expand to fit the allotted time. If we were here for 5 days, it'd seem too long, but 3 would be too little. We take the Golden Circle tour on allegedly the biggest coach in Iceland. The guide tells us every single fact you could ever want to know about Iceland (histories, marriage contracts, political parties, what percentage of people work in which industries, the economy (gone), sizes of lakes, sizes of glaciers, flora and fauna, tales of Eric Clapton who has a summer house here, prison statistics, a (possibly apocryphal) story of an escaped convict who got caught after making donuts on his Lada (?) etc etc etc etc) as well as other long rambling stories with no point, or indeed, end (no wonder the Icelanders liked their Sagas so much, they could natter on for days). Dave remarks that it's a bit like Eurovision when the host country takes advantage of having Europe's ear by over-sharing about their country.

We stop at a geothermal power station (which reminds me of rubbish school trips to working farms and glass factories (and also Coach Trip)). The guide gives us much info on geothermodynamics, transmission pipes, sulphur, hydraulics and weather patterns. What is actually interesting is that Iceland is powered by 70% renewable energy - we know where to come to when the gas/oil/coal runs out (although Iceland will be flooded with melting glaciers by then). Stop off for a photo opportunity of rain, steam and streams. Baby sheep and horses, glacial views.

Onto Þingvellir whence comes the words Thing and Veld (from the sandblasted volcanic landscape of Iceland to the massive plains of South Africa). Þingvellir was the old Parliament seat and is also the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (and occasionally quake). Apparently, the French revolution was all the fault of Iceland - a volcano eruption spread ash over Europe, killing crops and leading to extreme dissatisfaction amongst le peuple et les paysans. Cross a money bridge where people have thrown 10 kr coins into the pool. Some have missed and they sit on a ledge like a waterfall game in an amusement arcade, but the ones that have hit the clear water shine like quartz.

Onto the Gulfloss waterfall (and the Gulfloss waterfall cafe where I have the best bowl of tomato soup, ever) and then to the original Geysir which is not that impressive ever since someone threw rocks into it. It's Strokkur that's the fun one, bubbling blue and exploding, as well as another pool with a secret cave in it, and a bright blue pond. Unfortunately, we're only allocated 40 minutes to look at these wonderful things before we're back on the coach to go and look at some church or other. Apparently, Icelandic bishops weren't allowed to wed, not for reasons of sexual purity, but because their wives would be entitled to half their property - which wouldn't be so great for the church.

Go to a Thai cafe which seems pleasant enough but it all ends in toilets not too long after. We sit in an underground bar with chai and apple cake and I start flicking through the free (and old) magazines. In an I:D mag from 2007 there's a picture of a boy from 1989 who looks like someone who lived up the road from me. In fact he has the same name. In fact the article is by Alasdair McLellan who I also went to school with and who once made me a Cure and Kylie remix tape. I've scanned in the article here and here, in which he talks about the village where I grew up. How very very odd to read this 2000 miles away – it might be commonplace for people from that there London to read about their old classmates but not for this Donny lass, even more so to read about my very village. It just goes to show how little....

But other people's coincidences are like other people's dreams, and other people's children (boring).

The minibus comes to pick us up promptly (I was a little worried as its price was £6 cheaper than the official Reykjavik Excursions tour but all is fine. Rachel recommends Net Bus) and we're off to the Bláa lóninu, a milky blue sulphuric mist of hot water with massaging waterfall, steam room, sauna, relaxation (reclining) seats, free shampoo, conditioner, hairdryers and white silica mud masks (Dave fails the metrosexual test by slapping it on randomly; not so much First Slayer as First Xander), a (rubbish cafe) and a hungry hippo. OK, this last one is provided by David who carries me around the pool on his back. There's even a bar (although unlike Club Tropicana, the drinks aren't free). The air is cold but the water is blissfully hot - the opposite of Hampstead Ponds on a balmy day. If you put your head under the water, you can hear the dragons that keep the water warm with their fiery breath. I could stay here for the rest of my life, but unfortunately we have to go to the airport, spend our last Krona on rjoma kulur and krop sweets, and fly home.

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You do know England are playing rugby today, says David as we are taxi-ing to St Pancras. Against France? In Paris?

My life does not revolve around the sporting calendar. Fortunately, our train carriage is not full of rugger buggers but people discussing the varying cost of hire cars and an English man behind us trying to impress a French woman by telling her about the famous people he's met:
Richard Curtis? He's really nice. And his wife, Emma Freud. She's really nice too. Michael Palin from Monty Python? Really nice guy. I went to Madonna's house once. Didn't meet her but spoke to her bodyguards. They said she's really nice.
Dave and I reminisce about the celebs we have seen in London Town. Les Dennis? Packed my bag in the supermarket once. Tony Robinson? In front of me in the queue at Carphone Warehouse buying a mobile for his young-enough-to-be-his-granddaughter girlfriend. Neal Pearson? He gave me A Look on Oval tube station escalators. I once sat next to Griff Rhys Jones in Wagamamas (the cheapskate).

We arrive at the Gare du Nord six minutes late (which is on time in the Eurostar world) and get a tube to la Bastille and walk to our hotel. I picked one more or less at random, not too expensive, not too cheap (I once stayed in a £16 a night Parisian hotel - I'm sure that the man next door was in the last stages of a fatal disease) and in a reasonably central area which turns out to be north of the river, a gay and Jewish district, housing lots of restaurants and called Le Marais (the marsh). Yep, we're in the Parisian equivalent of Stoke Newington.

The man on reception bossily tells us to come back at 1 p.m. to check in so we have some lunch, ending up somewhere called Cafe Richard purely because it does sandwiches vegetariens (expensive ones - I hate to be a cliche and moan about Paris prices, but £25 for two sarnies, one coffee and one water? Feels like we're in Oslo). Check in and then set off on a long walk: past l'Hotel de Ville to the Centre Pompidou (going up to the viewing platforms because Dave wants to see the Tour d'Eiffel) and then les Halles, around the Louvre and through the Tuileries, past the Gare/Musee d'Orsay to the Place Concorde and then down Les Champs Elysees to the Arc De Triomphe before getting a metro to the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower 'cos I'm exhausted (If Tony Hancock had been a woman there'd've been none of this "A pint? That's very nearly an armful" nonsense).

We pass many people selling Eiffel Tower keyrings. Outside of the tube, they are 1 for a euro. Further down you can get 2 for a euro, then 3; the best offer is 4 for 75 cents. We also pass some chuggers and I wonder if L'Acadamie Francaise has invented a word for them yet or whether the activity is just le chugging.

je chugge
tu chugges
il/elle chugge
nous chuggons
vous chuggez
illes/elles chuggent

I can still conjugate comme une salope.

This is my (I count 'em) tenth trip to Paris, but David hasn't been before except for a fleeting visit ten years ago when Fosca played on a boat on the Seine. Now there are bike lanes, sushi restaurants, people smoking outside cafes instead of inside and everything is wee-fee enabled.

It seems to me that people should have the same experience of a city when visiting it and I like it when we both feel our way around a place, stumbling over menus and trying to decipher signs in railway stations. I feel like I'm revisiting old haunts, remembering places I've been to in previous lives, with previous amants, back to the time when I studied French and spoke French and lived in France. The experience is unequal; I can tell David about Haussmann but not the etiquette at each cafe.

Anyway, we queue for the rest of the day in the Tour d'Eiffel west tower line, entertained by a would-be Gramisci whose act is to run up to people and say something inappropriate such as Ma Femme to a man, Monsieur President to a small child, Mon Pere to a young woman etc, getting into people's photographs and making kung-fu moves at anyone who looks slightly Oriental. Everyone in the queue finds this highly entertaining. We are not amused. There are also people giving out free hugs in which Dave participates. I would like a free polite handshake, or maybe a free nod 'n' wave.

Several hours later, we have got to the front of the queue for the bag check and can now get into the queue for the tickets. Then it's the queue for the entrance. Finally, the queue for the double decker lift and we're trundled up to the second floor and we check out the views.

There aren't any mannequins but there are some cardboard tableaux. We've splashed out for third floor tickets and whilst the view is not any more spectacular (in fact, I'm feeling a little sick), but what is amazing is the sense of height and being able to see the very top of the tower. There is a toilet so I have a very high-up wee. I wonder if the cleaner tells people at parties that she is the lav lady at the top of the Tour.

The lights come on as we're leaving.

Take a double-decker RER train back to le Marais. There are two veggie restaurants in the 4e mentioned in the guidebook; one is shut, the other is shut down and it's starting to rain in a fairly serious way so we head into the first place we see which has some meat-free options, a Lebanese restaurant which is pretty delicious. Maybe we should just go on holiday to Beirut.

I love Paris in the Springtime

Go for petit dejeuner at an American diner around the corner. The clientele are half British people wanting eggs rather than bread and jam for breakfast and the other half Americans complaining about the service. The waiting staff is English, the fry-cook looks North African. I amuse myself by observing the way English and American people do things. The English sit down whilst the Americans wait politely to be seated. But the English ask: "Can I have eggs and bacon please?" whilst the Americans state what is going to happen: "I'm going to have the eggs over easy with home fries with a side of pancakes. I'll take a coffee, oh and bring me some water, lots of water, and ice chips." The menu is in English with some small jokes in French; coca-cola is translated as Beaujolais de Texas and French Toast as pain a l'Americaine.

Afterwards, we walk around la Place des Vosges which reminds us of, variously, Bath, Liverpool, St Mark's Square and Grammercy Park, and have a gander at the Art Nouveau synagogue nearby. Take the metro to Anvers and the funiculaire up to the Sacre Coeur. Join the tourist-throng by the door and go into the cathedral where a Sunday mass is taking place. The combination of choral music, people taking the sacrament, the candles, and the soaring architecture is very affecting although, as Dave points out, not believing in God is a stumbling block to being religious. The place feels like a Hindu temple with people coming and going, some watching, some praying, some in a religious fervour, some just admiring the art.

We wander around Montmartre, looking at the Moulin de la Gallette, and la Pigalle (there is a massive queue of middle aged tourists outside of  le Moulin Rouge) and eat an overly-healthy lunch in Au Grain de Folie and then take the RER (single decker this time) to la Defense and look at the fun things in amongst the imposing office blocks.

We have a coffee in Comptoir Casino which is less swanky than it sounds; it's the cafe inside the shopping centre. I imagined we'd be in the Cafe Deux Magots drinking une grande creme, but a shopping centre is as good a place as any to people watch and philosophise. Alain de Boton was philosopher in residence at Heathrow Airport after all and Julian Baggini went to Rotherham to think deep thoughts. Get the RER back to centre-ville and then to Ile de la Cite where Notre Dame is smiling golden in the late afternoon sunshine. It's fitting to end the weekend here since this is where we wandered between hotel and soundcheck a decade ago. Unlike the Sacre Coeur, you're allowed to take photographs inside.

Cross the bridge to the Ile St Louis and buy chocolate and caramel ice creams and eat them walking up the Quai Orleans, looking at the boats and the river before taking the orange line, destination Bobigny, back to the Gare du Nord.

30 Rock

Mar. 1st, 2010 10:24 am
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[Insert usual complaints about airports here. Include the 35 minute wait to go through security and that when we finally did get to the front of the queue, the man in charge of putting the bags through the scanner inexplicably walked away, leaving no replacement. Add in a bit about the government wanting to keep us safe from terrorists but not to the extent of ensuring that there are enough staff employed by the airports to do so].

If it's good enough for John and Yoko, it's good enough for us: we're going to Gibraltar, near Spain, the only part of Britain that is currently warm. Touching down, it does seem British enough - the roadsigns, postboxes,
phoneboxes, buses, car registrations, petrol stations, street furniture and drunk teenagers in the middle of the road all look familiar enough, but people are driving on the right and the rock looms over awesomely (in the old sense of the word) as we walk down Winston Churchill Avenue. The hotel is definitely English - damp (our rooms smells like an overused basement rehearsal studios), reasonably indifferent and, as we discover, serves a rotten breakfast.

Walk down the cobbled Irish Town in search of something to eat. Fortunately my hair has faded from dyed red to its usual murky-blonde so I no longer look Celtic (we know what happens to the Irish here). Settle on an
Italian place in the main square which does a decent pasta and risotto.

It's raining. Across the harbour there's the San Rocque oil refinery basking in the sunshine. The rain in Spain falls mainly in Gibraltar, it seems. We tour the town, taking in two
marinas, two cathedrals, a cultural centre, cemetery, court, coffee shop (for lunch), cats, curry (for tea) as well as the pretty Botanical Gardens and a wildlife park populated with rescue beasts: apes and mini-apes, pea-hens, terrapins, tortoises, gremlin-faced tamarins
, bats, prairie hamsters dogs, parrots and pot-bellied piggies. We also go to the museum which has 14th century baths (very Moorish), stuffed animals (there's a law that says any provincial museum must provide examples of taxidermy), Neanderthals in a fake cave, a scale model of the Rock and pics of Gibraltar then and now (although now seems to be 1977). I read about the referenda held over the years. In the first vote, held in '67, 44 people wanted Gib to become part of Spain. 12,000 were against the idea - which is hardly surprising since Spain was fascist at the time. in 2002, the question changed slightly - should Gibraltar be ruled jointly by Britain and Spain? No-one seems to have ever asked them if they wanted to be an independent country, but judging by the "Proud to be British" t-shirts in shops, I guess it wasn't an issue. The Spanish seem to be quite hypocritical about it - one of the places you can sail to in Morocco is Ceuta which is part of Spain. The Moroccans want it back; the Spanish want to keep it.

Also in the museum is one of my favourite things: bad
mannequins (there's another one of these hiding in a weird doorway near the convent-cum-Governor's Mansion). There's also much historical information about fighting and wars and sieges and so forth. I do wonder if the Gibraltarans should have just left the place as a fortified garrison town and just let it fade rather than trying to reclaim land from the ocean (the sea usually gets its revenge) and built leisure centres and casinos and marinas and expensive waterside restaurants, that chav-glitz stuff, and tried to lure people in with low taxes and no VAT. But that's just me. My favourite part of the town is the windy back streets with scooters shooting up where you're suddenly out of Britain-lite and into Andalusia - shuttered whitewashed houses, glimpsed ceramics in hidden courtyards behind heavy gates, potted palms, headscarved women, men carrying bags of Moroccan bread, little shops selling hair oil or jars of vegetables, with incongruous British papers and magazines hanging outside and getting damp in the rain.

With its
olde signs and 1980s produce (Lee and Wrangler jeans in shops and ads for Ford Talbots) and sticks of rock and souvenir ashtrays, pubs selling shepherds pie and scampi and Bass and Boddingtons, banoffee pie on every cafe menu like it's 1997, chocolate and crisps at the corner shops, Marks and Spencers and Top Shop (I'm surprised that there isn't a WImpy and a Littlewoods), pictures of the Queen and Where's Maddy posters everywhere, it feels like we're in a warmer Great Yarmouth, but all life is here - as well as the Llanitos
, there's a mix of English, Moroccans, Orthodox Jews, Indians, Scousers, and Spanish who cross the border each day to work. Listening to the Gibraltese in the street, a mix of Spanish and English spoken in a weird Welsh-Indian-South African accent, is like being at home when I pass the Hasids talking in Yiddish then throwing in English words. The Spanglish of Gibraltarans is what led to the word gibberish.

We eat at an Indian place at the Marina; across the bay the oil refinery is lit up like a Christmas (palm) tree. Back at the hotel and watching the news, it seems that it wasn't only the peninsula that was precipitatious, the whole of Southern Spain has had flooded car parks and ruined basements and people crying. I feel like a Swede watching news about The Big Freeze in England.

Even though Franco went to a special part of hell in 1975, the border didn't open up fully until ten years later. Nowadays you can just walk across, waving an unopened passport and you're in Spain and everything looks slightly different. You do have to cross the
airport runway to get there (a level crossing comes down when planes are taxi-ing and a sign warns about littering).

I expected La Linea to be like Tijuana, a border town with people offering us tours, ferry tickets, drugs, but in reality there's just an unhappy looking man selling lotto tickets, some closed down restaurants, a McDonalds (in Gibraltar it seems that Burger King is, erm, king) and a friendly Information Office where a woman gives us a tourist map of the town. We locate the bus station and, after changing some sterling into Euros, buy a bus ticket to Tarifa.

Through a scrubby, industrial landscape to Algeciras where the ferry goes to Tangiers and where streets signs are in Spanish and Arabic, up verdant hills with ear-popping sea views and
aerial art installations, cows nibbling grass under shadows of vast windfarms, viaducts, goats and chickens in back yards, a statue of Don Quixote on a moped, ponies, a housing estate that David dubs El Barnsley (a back-to-back row of terracotta terraces), agricultural shacks, the ruins of cottages. I pretend that we're on Coach Trip (my new favourite daytime show) and decide to vote off the man opposite us for olfactory reasons.

According to the guidebook, Tarifa has a "laid back bohemian vibe" and to prove this, we find a
cafe with throw cushions, sofas, palm trees, Massive Attack on the stereo and a smoothie menu.

The town also produces a pretty old town with the usual stuff: whitewashed houses,
flowers on walls, tiny cafes and shops, old churches, tiled street signs. There's also a fort and a more mysterious castle and a flat white empty beach. I'm surprised that no English people have set up behind windbreaks with flasks. I find it odd that it's so empty - even during an English winter people walk their dogs or go metal detecting or beach-combing. Here, there's only kite surfers accompanied by cows and some evil looking blue jellyfish

It's lovely to walk along in the freedom of skirt and sandals, that first instance in the year when the sun hits your face, the first heat of it. The smell of sun on skin. We go back into the town for coffee (him) and helado y chocos (me) before getting the bus back to La Linea and eating, rather shamefully, in Pizza Express. At least the pizza is sort of local food. It really can't be pleasant eating roast dinners in July - the Mediterranean diet doesn't seem to have hit this part of the Med as yet. GIbraltarans going to England must be surprised that London people subsist largely on sushi, noodles and curry.

Up the rock. The man who operates the cable car points out the simians to us and when we go into apes den we see them: cheeky monkey, playful
monkey, grumpy monkey, pensive monkey, funny monkey, shagging monkeys, fighting monkeys, clever monkey, cute monkey, thieving monkey, monkey keeping an eye on Spain, and bottom inspector monkey. We go into St Michael's Cave which is like a cathedral, the stalactites the organ. If you look at them long enough, it's like gazing into a fire and you see all sorts: an ugly sheep, a totem pole, gargoyles and grotesques, broccoli (this last one from David).

We walk around the rock via the zig-zaggy Mediterranean
steps to Jews Gate and the Pillars of Hercules. This seems like a good idea at the time: lizards, chickweed, wild asparagus, prickly pears, candytuft, the blue blue sea, tunnels and caves, abandoned look out posts, graffiti from 1940 and no-one else around, but it's exhausting on the old feet and two hours later, when we've got back to the road and are hiking the last mile to the siege tunnels, I'm wanting to join a taxi-tour. The tunnels are blessedly cool and feature more bad mannequins but by this time, I'm considering stealing a mobility scooter. Fortunately the Great Siege Exhibition is shut and so we do the Moorish Castle, the last stop, quickly.

People talk about the oddness of Little England in Spain, but what I find stranger is
the mix of the industrial and the beautiful and here now to be looking at the aeroplanes setting off from the viewpoint of the battlements of a 14th century castle which has withstood ten different sieges.

We walk down
Castle Steps, which would be quaint if my feet weren't bloody stumps at this point,
to the town. These trainers weren't made for walking. Sit in Casemates Square and watch the sun go down whilst eating a late late lunch. The food is terrible but the al fresco part is cheering. On the way back to the hotel, we stop off for a restorative milkshake. The people serving are extremely enthusiastic about milkshakes and talk us through the extensive menu. I think my over-riding impression of Gib is the pleasantness of the people, friendly and helpful without being all up in yo fizzle over the top - an element of British reserve remains.

After a sleepless night due to scooters zooming up the hill outside the hotel at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., we start the day off at Sacarello's coffee shop, along with all the old ladies of Gibraltar, before walking around the RAF offices and the dry dock to the 100 ton
supergun, an exhibition included in yesterday's ticket to the rock which the man on the booth kindly accepts (mind you, the place is hardly crawling with tourists). Personally, I find historical military artefacts rather dull but a)  I am on holiday with a boy and b) there's a nice view across the Straits to Morocco.

'Round Rosia road to what appears to be a
lido (without the vital component of a swimming pool). The sea is a little less picturesque on the Atlantic side. Walk through a spooky tunnel to Europa point which is the home to a Mosque, a lighthouse, a ruined mini-fort with moat, a shrine
, a weird pyramid, and the last point in Europe (although, technically, Tarifa is further south). There is also an abandoned shop which could be a great cafe (Gibraltar definitely has a gap for its own throw cushion and smoothie hangout).

Back into town and lunch on sev poori and aloo tikki at an Indian chat house, and then have a rest back at the hotel. My feet still hurt. In the evening, we eat at the rather posh Gauchos: bizarrely, an Argentinian steakhouse is where we have the best food (asparagus pancake, stuffed mushrooms, tomatoes in blue cheese sauce). We read the guestbook: several people complain that they've spent £100 and were not given a free bottle of booze. Some people are never happy.

Get the bus around an industrial estate and landfill to Both Worlds and the surprise of Catalan Bay, a little
fishing village hewn into the side of the rock, quite literally in the case of the Caleta hotel, and have a drink at the bar accompanied by some cats.

There aren't the wide white sands of Tarifa; indeed, the beach looks like it needs a major clean up, but it's pretty nonetheless. We walk up to East Beach. This isn't even pretty, just derelict, so we sit in a traffic jam back to the hotel before packing and going to Casemates square for a final meal - chips 'n' mushy peas in the Moroccan-owned fish restaurant. Immigrants in Europe always amaze me; the waiter chats in English to the English, Spanish to the Spanish and French to some French people who bowl up (presumably he speaks Arabic as well). 

We walk over the level crossing to the airport and wait. And wait. And wait. And wait, before finally boarding, some hours later and I try to take
pictures of the sunset out of the window on my laptop.

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Get the second Eurostar of the day to Bruxelles, through shiny sunny French countryside into rain-soaked Belgium. Feels odd as we change trains at Brussels Midi/Zuid not to be meeting Did, one time resident, now safely ensconced in Nottingham. It also feels a little weird to be visiting Amsterdam aged 36 - sex shows and marijuana seem to appeal more to the 20 year old me and not the current aged self. Hedonism is so tiring.

Under a regulation enshrined in law ever since King Leopold I unified the Belgians in 1830, you're allowed to use your Eurostar ticket to the very edge of the country, so we only had to purchase a ticket from the last outpost of Dutch Belgium, making the price of travelling to Amsterdam the same as a peak single from London to Folkestone (and the Belgian/Dutch intercity trains are far more spacious and comfortable than a train going Kent-wards).

I try to learn Dutch from the Eurostar menu card; if I want a rode wijn (red wine), kaasbrood (cheese sandwich) or kitkat (kitkat) over the next few days, I'll be OK. David, having living in South Africa for several years, has some Dutch, although it's mostly 18th century and offensive (or, if you're Anton Du Beke, faintly non-PC). If we get stuck, we'll just do a Steve McLaren and anyway, the British steadfast refusal, in the face of globalisation and EU unity, to learn any languages other than Latin has forced the rest of the world to speak English.

My point is proven when we step off the train and got to the nearest fritehuis and I try to buy "frite med satesaus" to which the server replies: "Large or small". David sensibly goes for chips with fritesaus (mayo) - I am not convinced that chips and peanut sauce are a natural combination.

We walk through the old town, stagpartyville, all Heineken bars, striptease and kebabs as well as tourist traps such as The Amsterdam Dungeon and Madame Tussaud (sic). The Dam square hosts living statues, the usual mechanical men and wizards and knights but also Darth Vader, Batman and Jim Carey, aka The Mask. The square is also home the royal palace, which is under tarpaulin wraps.

Our hotel is actually a room in someone's house, quite noisy as you step directly into it off the road and you can hear the owners clanking around upstairs, but is located in the Jordaan, a lovely canal-strewn area.

We walk around, looking at the funky little shops, the sit-up-and-beg bikes, the narrow boats, and the cute-shaped houses. It reminds me very much of Ghent but with a little Scandi-chic thrown in, along with the famous laid back Dutch vibe: the bikes are all shoppers because there's no reason to hurry anywhere on racers, and they comfortably share the streets with vehicles and pedestrians. Our host seemed unbothered about when we would pay: "Yeah, Sunday, that'll do. Monday, maybe". This chillaxing works against us though when we go into a place advertising Coffee and Bagels only to find out that "the kitchen is closed" (I'm not convinced you need a kitchen to spread cream cheese onto a bagel) and the second cafe isn't sure if they're doing scrambled eggs "because it's busy". None of this is done in a 1970s more-than-my-job's-worth style, but I can imagine your average American being confused.

Past the Anne Frank Memorial, the Anne Frank House, the Anne Frank House queues, and the elephant parade. Past countless museums - along with the Sex Museum and the Marijuana Museum, there is also the Pianola Museum, the Tulip Museum (a flower shop), and the Houseboat Museum (a houseboat). I'm surprised that no-one has thought of setting up the Cycle Museum (a bike).

Through Chinatown, the lane of coffee houses and the red light district where lluminous bikini-clad women in windows are starting to grind their pelvises. It all seems quite tame, perhaps these are the teatime prostitutes and their night-time colleagues are more hardcore. No-one tries to make us go into any sex shows or offers us any blow (David told me that we'd be accosted by drug dealers as soon as we left the station, but the only people who spoke to us were a Spanish couple wanting their picture taken in front of Madame Tussaud (Yes, if you give me a good reason why, I said (in my head)).

I suppose the whole thing seems more honest - in Soho there are peep and striptease shows and both lap and pole "dancing", which promise titillation, but not sex (in theory, anyway). Also, the sex shows are (again, in theory) for men and women to watch men and women (and presumably for men and men to watch men and men), rather than the whole scene being about men watching women gyrate around.

One wants the prostitutes to be safe and industry-regulated, but the purpose of prostitution - men buying women in order to scratch an erotic itch and the normalisation of that still troubles me, that (some) men feel that they have a right to purchase whatever they want, whenever they want it. The Rough Guide to Rough Sex states that full sex costs around 50 Euros (presumably the writer did some research) which seems very cheap - I wonder how much is offered for 'extras' and how many women take them up on it. I also read that only 4% of the prostitutes are Dutch and 40% of the sex-tourists are British, and a side-note tells us that two men stood in red light windows for a month as a "social experiment" but no women entered to pay for cunnilingus or similar. Prostitution is still a one way street.

I wouldn't want to form philosophies from tourist t-shirts, but I saw two one seemed to sum up the whole thing. It stated "The Simple Truth" with a picture of a stick woman with a heart where a heart is and a stick man with a heart where his penis is. The simple truth isn't that men are ruled by their dicks, the simple truth is that they have created a world where they are allowed to be. The simple truth is that men can control their urges to buy sex just as women can control their PMT-urges to batter men's faces in.

Rant over.

We wander over the canals, looking at the swans (sex swan, sex swan, you're my sex swan) that Dave thinks are Holland's lonely, bereaved birds who have flown to Amsterdam to hang out with other cygnetletons. I think they're just creating an ironic symbol of avian fidelity amongst human promiscuity.

Eat at the Flying Saucer, a neighbourhood vegetarian-ish wholefoody sort of place. Despite Holland's forays into African and "East Indian" colonialism, the most popular ethnic restaurants seems to be Thai or Argentinian. As with the sex industry, blame the tourists.

CIty of bikes, this is the city of bikes

Woken up by the bells from the Russian-domed Westerkirk. We walk around trying to find a cafe that is a) open b) does breakfasts c) has seats and d) isn't extortionately priced - the exchange rate makes everything Oslo-expensive. £2.80 for a coffee! £6 for a sandwich! £8 for a veggieburger! £12.50 for some tofu and vegetables!

We hire bikes from Bike City and cycle down the canal to the Vondelpark for a Sunday constitutional,

then down to the Magere Brug, one of the first bascule bridges, through a shopping centre area which reminds me of Hull's Princess Quay and Liverpool's Albert Dock and where shops are wrapped up for Xmas, and then an olde worlde of canals and tall warehouses that brings Hamburg to mind; ports all of them. Stop off for a rain-defying hot drink and then an attempt to go through the Artis park, but it costs euros to do that so we circumnavigate it instead and go down to the old Jewish area where Rembrandt also had a house.

Despite the cycle-friendliness (we pass a multistorey bike park on our way to the station) of it all, there are still times when I have to stop as a car is whizzing past, too fast and others when tourists walking on the road just. won't. get. out. of. the. way. Still, the poor pace of the dutchbikes is good for sight-seeing; you can't hurtle around, and I like the egalitarianism of everyone having more or less the same bicycle (and again I can see why there are few racers here, their wheels would get stuck in the tram tracks).

Eat at a burger joint, disarmingly staffed by Cillian Murphy's teenaged cousin, and then sip sweet beer in a bruin cafe before retiring.

Get lost around the canals and end up sitting outside a pavement cafe with croissants and koffie verkeerd like we're in Paris or something. Walk to the pretty Nieuwmarkt with its turreted weighing house and its Chinese and European supermarkets where we buy provisions for the train to Brussels as the one on the way here only sold cheese sandwiches and cup-a-soups (and they'd run out of cheese sandwiches), and some dried gago gado sauce for Richard. David comments that R is the only person whose friend is going to Amsterdam and asks them to bring back spicy peanut sauce. He wanted me to buy 20 packets for him - I can just see that going down well at customs: So these suspicious brown packets - this is intent so supply right here. No, officer, they're for personal use only, I have a peanut problem. In fact they're not for me, they're for a friend.

On the train I ponder national characteristics and how they often don't live up to stereotypes. Germans actually have a dry sense of humour, Italians, living in a byword for corruption and lax attention to the law, tell you that you shouldn't cross the street when the pedestrian light is on red, stiff-lipped English people blubber on X Factor, fabulous French fashion seems to consist of red jeans and back to front rucksacks. In Brussels, the home of petty bureaucracy, they park on roundabouts and reverse out of underpasses. And here in laid back Holland, they are actually terribly obedient. Again, they wait for the green man before crossing the road, they drive correctly and they follow the queuing system to the letter. Perhaps the whole relaxed attitude to prostitution and drugs is less about liberalism and more about their love of regulation and fear of lawlessness.

millionreasons: (absinthe)


Last time there was an election in Britain, we went to Alton Towers for the day and so missed out on all of the self-important commentary from the various self-important persons. This weekend we are heading out in the stultifying heat to the heartland of the riders of the political gravy train, Brussels. I do hope that we’ll bump into Robert Kilroy Silk.

Through South London, Kent and into the tunnel, outside of which we don’t see throngs of asylum seekers attempting to illegally enter Albion; however, there are several middle-aged British couples clinging onto the top of the train in search of a new life, economic freedoms and a petite gîte in Brittany. Cross the invisible line into Belgium and arrive at Bruxelles Midi to meet Did who is nowhere to be seen. Well, not until we go downstairs. After an exciting 40 minutes’ trawl around the station during which we miss several tube trains and trams whilst running between the two, we end up getting a taxi, whose driver opens the window when we go into the underpass and turns up the radio to drown out our English chattering. Welcome to l’Europe.


Brekky at le Pain Quotidien and when we get back to the flat, Charlotte has arrived and so we go out into town through a park which houses an arch to celebrate/commiserate the 50th anniversary of Brussels’s independence and then to the strangely designed EU building, the fish market and the Mannekin Pis, which is wearing nothing today as it is too hot. After this cultural interlude, we return to doing what we do best – snacking - and visit le Roi de Belges, une fritterie, la Morte Subite and finally the splendid art nouveau hôtel Le Metropole in la Grande Place which is utterly French in its rude waiters and delightful surrounds. Did joins us and he and David start on the Kwak, an 8% beer that tastes as light as lemonade, is served in a test tube and should really be called Krak. We go onto a Lebanese resto for a grande mezze and “moist towelette” lemon puddings.


Back to the flat and we start an Old Grey Whistle Test DVD marathon, complete with arguments about music. I am far more enamoured of the Prefab Sprout/Orange Juice/Aztec Camera section of the DVD than the 70s acts – I just can’t watch the Thin Lizzy performance because of Gary Moore’s bad hairdo and Phil Lynott’s appalling headbanging.


Ghent is hot. The train to Ghent was hot. Ghent’s churches and cathedrals are cool, with air-conditioning providing by God hisself. The religious statues freak me out a little, I keep thinking that they’re those “performance artists” who spray themselves silver and then stand very still for cash.


The town smells of waffles and sugar which keeps me in a permanent state of hunger. We eat lunch in Tasty World where there is a choice of about 25 vegebugers (I have broccoli burger) and then wander about, taking in a boat trip to admire the architecture, including the smallest house in Flanders, and trailing my hand in the cold cold water. Going to Belgium is like having a holiday in two countries – Brussels is like a small French city and Flanders is so Dutch: no-one speaks French and the houses remind me of the Boer areas of South Africa. The boat driver points out another Mannequin Pis; apparently all Flemish cities have one as an emblem. The tanners used it as a mascot: their customary way of softening leather was to have small boys wee on it.


I think that this says most of what you need to know about Belgium. The other thing is that they make cappuccinos with UHT milk, which is appalling. We sit by the river until the weather breaks and then shelter indoors, before going to the Friday Market square to have beer and Cecemel in a cute old-fashioned pub called De Zwarte Kat. I love being abroad and sitting around in caffs and bars and not having a clue what people are talking about. The inane chatter of others becomes charming; pointless babble, the local colour. Wander around an area with strange buildings and even stranger shops, before going to a pizza place where reading the menu in Italian is easier than in Flemish. Catch the tram back to the station and get the train with half a minute to spare.



Go through passport control and head for the café. Before us in the queue, a gaggle of middle-aged bleached blondes are tutoring the waitress in English. “No, not tea! Cheese, that’s what I want. CHEESE. And tomato. I think she’s understood now,” whilst we cringe, Observer Europe in hand, behind them. Unfortunately I can’t remember that an apple turnover is une chausée de pomme so have to point and smile and hope to make up for the failings of our education system with a 50c tip.

I like train travel. Even in England where 6 or 7 times out of 10 it goes horribly wrong and I end up stranded in siding outside of Finsbury Park for 2 hours, or seated behind a) screaming children b) a deaf ipod wearer and/or c) a mobile phone addict, I love to sit and watch the countryside go by (yep, even Peterborough). I like the way checking in to the Eurostar involved putting a ticket into a machine rather than queuing up for half an hour with irritating people. I like the way that pointy-nosed European trains look like hungry lizards. I love to fly, but I hate airports, travelling to airports, airline food, booze ‘n’ fags greed in the duty-free shops, the ear popping and sinus pain, the air conditioning and the dry smell, the air stewards and their fake smiles, over-bearing make-up and pimping of Tommy Hillfiger perfume. The first time that I took the Eurostar I was just flabbergasted that I could get on a train and step off into a foreign country without the ferry to remind me how separate and ‘other’ the continent is. It’s so exciting when you look at a departure board in a European train station and see where you could end up - Amsterdam was only 3 hours from Brussels.

When we get home, we find out that Jack Straw has been sacked and a mechanical heffalump has been menacing London.

January 2017

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