Category: Tourism

Missing in Istanbul

It was hard to put my finger on it. Initially, it was just a sense of absence. But I couldn’t quite work out what it was. As our holiday drew on, the sensation became more profound. I started looking around me to see if I couldn’t spot the problem. But how to see something that isn’t there? That’s a tough one. But it gnawed on me. An itch that wouldn’t go away. I kept pondering this mysterious shortcoming. Of course, I eventually, I found the answer to my question. There was something missing in Istanbul. And I wanted to know what it was. But first, let’s look at what wasn’t missing….

The Exotic

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How can the meeting point between east and west be anything other than a blend of intoxicating culture, music, art, noise and food? Nothing is at it seems, and new tastes and experiences are around every corner. But most of all, nothing beats waking up to the call of prayer in Asia, and an hour later you are washed, dressed and a 20 minute boat ride from Europe. At no stage are you ever under the illusion that you are close to home.

Getting Around 

The Tunel Tram

The ferries are fantastic, with regular services whisking you to a selection of well placed ports for just a few pence. There’s also a decent bus services, again at just a few pence a trip. There’s a pretty expansive metro system too. How much? You guessed it. Just a few pence. Taxis are just for emergencies. They are not just a couple of pence. The unwary may find a short trip takes longer than expected and costs not just a couple of pounds. Get a plastic travel card which can be topped up. It makes life easy. And it’s safe to say Istanbul is not missing a good transport network.

Shop Till You Drop

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You can’t have a big city without a big selection of shops to go spend your hard earned money. Istanbul doesn’t disappoint. There are plenty of bazaars, markets and corner shops aimed at the tourists. And there’s an even healthier selection of everyday shops to get essentials. I like walking around the everyday shops, wherever I am. Just to see what Jaffa Cakes are called in foreign lands. I didn’t buy any Jaffa Cakes though. Mrs P and I did come home with 1/2 a kilo of freshly groun Turkish coffee, a box of mixed Turkish Delight, a steel pepper grinder, assorted bags of pepper and spices and a bag full of fridge magnets.

Street Life

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The streets of Istanbul bustle with life. What sort of life and what sort of activities depend on where you might be. In Taksim, the people are young and hip. On the European side, they are a bit wealthier. In our part of town, on the Asian side, they were friendly, down to earth people, working hard to make a living. By the river we found them playing dominos in street cafes. On every side they were friendly. Istanbul is, by any definition, a pretty safe city with a dozen vibes to choose from depending on your mood.

The Easy Life

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Every big city needs it’s nearby happy place to escape to. Istanbul has a series of pleasant, green and hilly little islands, all within an hour by ferry of the city centre. The water is clear and refreshingly cool. Too refreshingly cool for my taste. I’m a Pacific Ocean kind of guy. I need warm water with waves to jump around in. But I liked our trip to the islands nonetheless. The bike ride to the church at the top of the mountain was nice. Coasting back to the town was nicer. The delicious ice cream was the nicest. But if the ferry ride isn’t for you, you can always jump on a bus to the Black Sea. We did that too. The water was still too refreshingly cool for me. But I dipped my toes, just to check another body of water off of my To Do list.

Islamic Art

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Istanbul is an Islamic city. It’s not, however, the sort of city that throws gay people from towers, stones adulterous women for their indiscretions or decapitates infidels. If that has cleared anything up for you, you’ve been watching too much of the wrong sort of TV. Islam is not a religion of peace. No religion is. It does have a problem with extremists, as do all other religions. But in Istanbul, you’ll just get to enjoy the fruits of President Ataturk’s secularist policy that saw the country look forward toward the west, not backward to the south east of Arabia. The Blue Mosque is a sight to behold, as is the Hagia Sofia. I also really enjoyed the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, which boasted a treasure trove of literature, pots and pans, fabrics, and paintings from down the centuries.

World History

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The Hagia Sofia is the epitome of the blend of east and west. Once a church, then a mosque and now a museum. But there are better places to learn Turkish history and their place in the world over the years. We went to both the Dolmabahce  and the Topkapi palaces, which were as magnificent in their splendour as many a western European palace. They both told the story of Turkey. From their role in the Roman Empire, which culminated in the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire through to the Republic. With plenty more told about the before and afters of all those eras.   I enjoyed seeing the 4.5 ton chandelier gifted to the Turks by Queen Victoria, hanging in pride of place in the grand hall at the Topkapi. And pleased by this too. Normally, you read about absent artefacts with a note that they can currently be seen in the British Museum in London. Needless to say though, I didn’t have to wait too long to find a sign saying just those words. We Brits are such a crafty bunch of collectors of world history. Or thieves. Depending upon your point of view. But anyway. Suffice it to say. Istanbul does not lack for a sense of history.

The Missing Piece Of The Jigsaw

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So what was it that was gnawing at me? I’ll tell you. It’s the architecture. The palaces are grand. There are interesting buildings here and there. One of two areas have some nice stone structures and cobbled streets. There are the many mosques. There are also smatterings of wooden buildings with windows shutters that wouldn’t look out of place in the deep south or eastern parts of the United States. But truth be told, there was an awful lot of brutalist concrete and glass blocks and buildings that remind you of London in the 1950s and 1960s, as the country rebuilt in the bomb craters of World War 2. These were, for the large part , the dominant architectural style of the city. What was missing was a sense of grand, identifiably Turkish architecture with long avenues and boulevards of stylish mansions.

Six on a Shoestring

The shoestring traveler. The term might imply a person who is easy going, willing to make sacrifices and happy to accept sub standard service. To a degree, that can be true.  But there are many types of shoestring traveler and the 21st century shoestring traveler is a demanding  sod. This is a world of Groupons, reduced incomes and increased competitiveness. Shoestring traveling is no longer entirely for hapless hippies trying to make do on what they have, but also for savvy bargain hunters trying to get the maximum for their tourist buck.

I, and Mrs P, are that latter sort of shoestring traveler. And proud of it too! I don’t need luxurious hotels. I have long maintained that the nicer the hotel, the more time you spend in it and the less time you spend looking at what you really came to see. I don’t need taxis or tour buses. I want to experience the places we visit at street level. I don’t need Michelin star restaurants. The best eating experiences are usually the ones the locals go to.

What I want is a cheap flight, a clean and comfy bed and for my senses to be stimulated, titillated and satisfied. I’d much rather have a couple of four or five day breaks away rather than one fancy long weekend. Time is precious, and I’m not just looking for how little I can spend, but how much I can do in a limited time. We’ve hit seven destinations in just over a year, although I’ve wrapped them into a list of six. We did Bratislava and Vienna in a single trip as they are so close together. Here’s how I rate them from from top to bottom.

1. Budapest

I cannot even begin to tell you how easily Budapest wins this little competition. It scores top marks in every department. Flights are as cheap as they come from Stansted. Our hotel was an absolute bargain at about £16 a night. Food is reasonably priced, if not always cheap cheap. Having said that, there are eat-all-you-can buffets which include alcoholic drinks in the deal. Get there early and you’ll not need dinner, nor breakfast the next morning. Budapest is becoming more popular, but the crowds still, foolishly, head to Prague. That makes getting into places of interest easy with few queues.

Best bits: Everything. Absolutely everything. Walks along the river Danube, the Opera House, the House of Terror, the thermal baths, the trams and metro, the cuisine is up there with any other international cuisine you can name, the architecture, the history. Worst bits: I genuinely cannot think of a single thing.

2. Bratislava/Vienna

Vienna is an expensive city, both to fly to and to stay in. The budget conscious traveler goes the smart way. Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world, and Bratislava is as cheap to get to and stay in as Vienna is expensive. It’s an interesting city in its own right, worthy of giving a day or two of your time. It’s clean, friendly and easy to get around. It’s also quite small, so you will quickly run out of things to see and do. So jump on a train and an hour later you are in one of the grandest, boldest, most beautiful and historic cities on the planet. The architecture is a wonder to behold. The museums hold treasure troves of the worlds finest art and artifacts.

Best bits: The Christmas Markets are great for some seasonal shopping. Mulled wine and beer. Those fabulous museums. Worst bits: It can be bitterly cold in winter. Those fabulous museums are fabulously expensive. There are so many of them and they each seem to want 15 euros or more. They are, however, all worth every cent. Vienna is also very busy.

3. Krakow

Krakow is a beautiful city, Poland’s shining cultural diamond. It’s almost as cheap as Budapest, both in getting there, staying there and eating. We had a sizable studio for less than you’d expect to pay for a dorm bed in most cities.There’s no shortage of history, and tragedy. Auschwitz is an obligatory bus journey away.  Schindler’s factory is within the city borders and the city is almost a Holocaust museum unto itself. But it’s more than that. Much more. It’s a beautiful and ancient place. Walking around the city is a easy and there’s a hidden gem of a church/museum/house round every corner. It’s certainly one of the most interesting cities we have visited.

Best bits: the Milk bars offer filling food for next to nothing. The Holocaust is everywhere in Krakow, if that is what you’re looking for. The people were the friendliest of all the places we went. Worst bits: Nada. I have nothing bad to say about the place.

4. Amsterdam

A city of tulips, windmills, canals, coffee shops and prostitution. So goes the stereotype. Actually Amsterdam offers a lot besides. Despite its position at the heart of Europe, it’s a calm oasis compared to London or Paris, but busy enough to have that big city atmosphere. Small enough to walk around, but with an excellent tram network if you want to rest your feet. Getting to Amsterdam is very inexpensive – perhaps it’s the cheapest of Western Europe’s capital cities to fly to. Eating out is not cheap however, but the food is good. To be fair, there’s little to separate Krakow, Bratislava, Vienna and Amsterdam in this list. I could have put them in any order.

Best bits: The Van Gogh museum is one of the best art oriented museums I have visited. Renting a bike. The Heineken Tour. Worst bits: The centre around Dam Square is untidy and full of Brits. The shoestring traveler will probably be priced out of staying in the centre. That’s a plus point. Nuff said.

5. Marrakech

Marrakech is everything you want from a short break from the UK. It’s exotic, cheap as chips, the sun warms the skin even in winter and it is utterly different from home. It’s in Africa, but it’s still little more than three hours flying time. You’re enveloped by an intoxicating blend of smells, sounds and sights the moment you land. It’s a city made for exploring by virtue of the labyrinth of alley ways and streets that guarantee you’ll be lost within minutes, no matter how many maps you have with you. The call to prayer is hypnotizing.  The language similarly so. Plan on shopping and wander the souks with no regard as to how you’ll get out.

Best bits: the plethora of Arabic/Islamic design, the charming hotels and guest houses, the Jardin Marjorelle and the souks. The views of the Atlas mountains. Worst bits: the pollution is chronic, the food was disappointing (although there were a couple of exceptions), the pestering sales antics of vendors and the unwelcome attention single women receive.

6. Paris

As easy as it was to put Budapest at the top of my list, it’s even easier to sit Paris at the bottom of it. Paris is everything the cost and time constrained traveler doesn’t want. It does have a certain beauty, but the horrendous time wasting queues you must suffer to see anything, the crowds in general and the high prices for anything mean Paris is the one city I would recommend you giving a miss. Despite it’s reputation that suggests otherwise. Add to my list of complaints the fact that much of city smells like an unkempt urinal and most shops and places of interest consider that they are doing you a favour rather than viewing you as a customer. The food? If you want to spend top dollar, I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. Eating on a small budget is not possible. And even when spending a reasonable amount of money – well, when I did that I got chips with my boeuf bourginon. Need I say more. Ironically, though, if I had to choose one of the cities on my list to live in, perhaps I would rate only Budapest higher.

Best bits: The Pere Lachaise cemetary, the Catacombs, the parks. Worst bits: Every museum queue, the prices, the food, the same-ish architecture that is Paris.

So that’s my list. I’d like to make it longer. We have a few more destinations we’d like to visit. Berlin, Pisa/Florence, Munich, Dubrovnik and Malta feature high on that list. Moscow would too, if the visa requirements weren’t so onerous and the cost so high. If any one has other suggestions for bargain hunting, VFM orientated, tight fisted shoestring travelers, do let me know!

Amsterdam’s Seven Sin Free Adventures

Amsterdam is a place that can be done in a hazy, rushed, adrenalin and cannabis fueled weekend. Or a city that can be explored at leisure. Many Brits come to do the former, and are unlikely to leave the very centre of the city.  We, on the other hand, came to do the latter. To be fair, one doesn’t take one’s non smoking wife for an orgy of pot smoking and prostitution. And anyway, this was my third visit to the city. The first two were twelve years ago, as a singleton. I may have partaken in some of the city’s pleasures. But if you must know, I kept my dignity intact. I was asked to leave a brothel, but that’s another story for another day.

But anyway, I am waffling. Back to this trip. So what does one do in such a city of vice if vice is not your thing? There’s plenty to do. Absolutely loads. Some of it costs. Other things need planning. There are other things which are free! I like free. Let’s start with one of those.

Walking

Amsterdam is such a walkable city. If you look at a map, it may seem daunting. But these are not New York sized blocks. They are far more manageable. It’s easy to navigate too. And if you can find a canal, you can regain your sense of direction in a jiffy. There are plenty of canals to stroll along and neighbourhoods to trample though. Jordaan, Nine Streets and De Pijp were our favourites. There’s also Vondelpark, a huge expanse of grass and trees, paths, fountains and entertainment.  Of course, this is free. You should definitely set aside one day to just walk the city. You’ll be saving yourself 7 odd euros on a tram pass too.  Just remember to wear comfortable shoes and watch out for the cyclists and trams, both of whom will conspire to kill you if you give them half a chance.

Cycling

Walking not your thing? Need to get about a bit quicker? Rent a bike. They are available everywhere. Most seemed to charge between 10 and 15 euros and come with locks. Some wanted a 50 euro deposit. We rented ours from our hotel, and needed only to leave them with our credit card numbers. Which they already had.  The bikes are ever so easy to ride and just as easy to find a parking space. There are cycle racks everywhere. If they’re full up, which happens often, then just lock them up against a wall nearby. Mrs P and I both love cycling. Me more than her, perhaps. I miss the Ciclothon on Sundays in Mexico City. Every day is Ciclothon day here in Amsterdam. Amsterdammers ride them through rain and shine.

Heineken Tour

The Netherlands like their beer. They brew quite a bit of it themselves. Heineken is surely the most famous brand they possess though. Have you been on a tour of a beer factory before? Then you know what to expect. This one is better than most though. It tells the story of the company very well through pictures, exhibits, old items, video and text. It’s a genuinely interesting story. And of course you get some free beer at the end. Free? Well, included as part of the 18 euro entry fee. You might notice that taking a trip on a boat down a canal doesn’t feature on my list. That’s because you get one with the Heineken tour. A pleasant thirty minute trip in a Heineken liveried barge to take you back downtown. That was enough canal boat fun for us.

There’s also a free gift at the end of your ride. What is it? Don’t get too excited. Should I spoil the surprise, or let you find out yourself? Heck, I may as well tell you. It’s just a postcard. But it is a unique postcard, with something a little extra attached. It’s a tour that is well worth the money, what with all that beer, the boat tour and mystery postcard thrown in. I must confess though, I really don’t like the taste of Heineken.

 

House of Bols

Another alcohol related tour. If you go along on Fridays after 5pm, it’s just 9 euros and a few cents. Otherwise it’s 15 euros. It’s easy to find, just across the road from the Van Gogh museum. Bols is, so the tour tells us, the oldest distillery company something or other in the world. They first started brewing up way back in the mid 15th century and have been at it ever since.  Which is a long time ago by anyone’s standards. Their most famous concoction is genever. The British copy which hit the shelves at a much later date is the most famous gin. Once again the dutch lead the way, only to have their product and market usurped by the Brits.

The tour is a blaze of colour, lights, smells and tastes. There’s the standard tasting session at the end. One cocktail each and a couple of tasters of the liquers themselves. They do have some truly imaginitive flavours. I chose a vanilla and strawberry flavoured cocktail. My tasters were banana and caramel. In the end I threw them both into my drink and created my own brand new but not yet patented cocktail. I shall call it the Dutch Gut Rumbler. Mrs P and I both left half cut. One cocktail and the tasters were more than enough.

Van Gogh Museum

Art galleries are where pretentious people go to look more intelligent and sophisticated than they really are. I should know. I go to galleries reasonably often. And I always leave with a false sense of sophistication that I lacked before entering. I assume I also look more intelligent. Maybe, or maybe not. However, there are some art galleries/museums which I do, really, genuinely and thoroughly enjoy. There’s not many of them. But this is most definitely one.

The museum is the story of the artist told through his paintings and with a few canvases of his contemporaries. Van Gogh is someone I can relate to. He decided to do something, went to classes briefly, quit them and then just played around, working it out for himself. Through experimentation, reflection, conversation and more experimentation he developed his own style. I don’t think he can be regarded as the finest painter ever, by any stretch of the imagination. His career lasted only a decade after all, from his decision to become and artist to his untimely death. But by the time he’d finished, he’d created something new and influential, changing the world of art. I truly enjoyed the story of Van Gogh’s life. The audio guide might set you back another five euros, but it’s well worth it.

Zaanse Schans

It’s always nice to head out of the city. From Amsterdam you have plenty of choices. We choose Zaanse Schans to go see some windmills. There are other windmill options, but this was the one day of our trip that rain was forecast. Zaanse Schans has a museum and other indoor things to do and see, so it seemed the sensible choice. The forecast was spot on, and we spent the couple of hours of drizzle learning about the hardships that the founders of the local villages endured.

There’s a whole bunch of windmills to see, each doing something slightly different. Eight of them at least. Maybe more. I lost count, as the ones in the distance came into view through the mist and then disappeared again.You can go in them all if you wish, at 3 euros a go. Or just buy a 10 euro Zaanse Schans card which gets you into the museum and one windmill. I chose the mill crushing peanuts to make oil. I love the smell of peanuts.

Getting there is easy too. Just jump on the No 391 bus at Central Station and you’re there in about 45 minutes. The train journey is quicker, but you’re left with a 15 minute walk from the station. There’s a whole museum, all those windmills and a village of wooden cottages selling tacky souvenirs, overpriced cheese and local fare to walk around. Save your legs for that I say.

Anne Frank House

I’ve read the book. We all have, haven’t we? It’s tragic. Stalin didn’t get much right, but his notion that a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic, seems right to me. I’ve walked around Auschwitz and other sites of genocide and massacre. They are shocking. But the scale is often incomprehensible. The story of Anne Frank, a single girl in a small family, hiding in a house in Amsterdam gives the Holocaust a very personal and emotional side to the story. It’s a story we can easily digest, understand, relate to and the horror of the unwritten ending rams home the terror and evil of the Final Solution.

We went to the Anne Frank House. We looked at the queue. We started walking towards the back, ready for a wait. We got to around the corner and saw a sign, indicating a 45 minute wait from that point. We looked at the queue, which stretched all the way to the end of the street and then along the next. The people at the 45 minute sign were clearly at the beginning of the queue. I had no patience to wait two or three hours. I left very, very disappointed. This was the one place I wanted to visit most. I highly recommend buying tickets online well in advance. They seem to be sold out a week or two in advance.

In fact I recommend buying tickets in advance to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum too. I did manage to snag a pair to both places which saved a lot of time. My photos? Heavens, I have sets and sets of them. Some, taken with my HTC One, are on Google+ here, here, here, here and here. Others taken with a proper camera are on 500px here, here, here and here.

Amsterdam

We’ve just enjoyed a short break to Amsterdam, that happy-go-lucky bastion of tolerance located bang in the middle of Western Europe. Have you been? Let me set the scene. It’s been a glorious, warm summer across northern Europe, and although it was cooler last week, the sun still shone, warming the soul, a constant light breeze freshened the skin and bright blue skies dazzled the eyes. It was a beautiful week to be out and about on the streets of Amsterdam. Before I continue, let me add to the scene. Press play below, and then read on…

We strolled for mile upon mile, down meandering alleys, along leafy avenues and beside glittering canals. The city is criss-crossed with canals. It’s hard to walk for five minutes without finding yourself strolling over a small hump of a bridge, often bedecked with baskets of pansies and other colourful flowers. The canals are a very visible reminder that this is a country where water once reigned supreme. Huge stretches once belonged to the sea, including the entirety of Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.

In the daytime, under bright sunlight, the clear water in the canals reflect the tall buildings that line up along the banks. In the evening, the same structures can be seen as silhouettes stretching across water which sparkles and glistens with greater intensity as the sun lowers itself closer to the horizon. The buildings of Amsterdam are unique, and yet unmistakeably Dutch. Unique as in one building is never quite the same as the one next to it. Tall and thin, each building is lined up against the next. Are they blocks with individual external decor? Or just individual buildings built against each other? I cannot say.

Water can play tricks on perspective. The buildings often look to be leaning at impossible angles when you look at their reflections in the canals. But this is no trick. As you look away from the canal and up at them, you see that many of them actually do lean at impossible angles. It’s almost like being back in Mexico City. Except, of course, you’d see no reflections in the green waters of Xochimilco.

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We walked past many coffee shops. Smoking inside bars and restaurants has been banned, as it has in many places across the world. But the coffee shops have an exemption. So long as you don’t smoke tobacco. I understand that few people enter such premises to smoke tobacco. And many prefer to smoke outside anyway. The pungent waft of burning cannabis will fill your nostrils regularly as you walk around. But no one seems to mind. I think it’s quite a pleasant smell.

Whilst the aroma of tolerated drug use fills the air, the breeze is also busy carrying the sounds of ringing bells. The deep, solid sound of a tram bell as the carriages approach you. And the light high pitched ringing of bicycle bells as riders alert you that they are coming through. The city is full of pedal bikes and scooters. No one seems to own a fancy bicycle. Just a standard city bike. Comfortable and cheap.

The city is flat, so gears aren’t terribly necessary. And they do get knocked about a bit on cycle stands, so it’s best not to invest in expensive, extravagant paint jobs. Cyclicts have their own paths, but at every junction there’s a confusing mish-mash of tram, cyclist and pedestrian lanes. Add in stoned pedestrians to the mix and it’s a wonder of the world that there are not too many accidents. There’s the potential for a fatal crash at every corner.

You’ll also hear the noise of a myraid of languages. This is a 21st century Babylon. But a Babylon where man defeated god. There may be a multitude of tongues, and as garbled a collection of ethnic origins, but they seemed to have learned them all. Not once, even outside the touristy areas, did we find someone who couldn’t speak English. They regularly, and seamlessly, switched to Spanish for the benefit of Mrs P. This insane ability to pick up different languages is perhaps just as well. Dutch, like its close cousin German, is a harsh language. I understand not a word of it. They might, for all I know,  be amicably chatting about a church fund raising event for orphaned children in Africa. But it always somehow sounds like they are planning an armed invasion of some poor country, detailing a gory genocide and sharing tips on how best to disembowel someone.

Once upon a time, the Dutch were inclined to build empires and challenge the traditional naval powers of Europe. The wealth gained in those years is still evident. Indeed, for a fleeting moment of history, the Dutch were the dominant maritime power of Europe, having the temerity and tenacity to beat the English fleet on the high seas not once, not even twice, but thrice. They even had the cheek to sneak up the Thames and run off with a prized English war ship, the rear of which is still on show at the Rijksmuseum.

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This didn’t last though. The English became the British and set about proving a pair of well worn sayings true. The first, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. King William of Orange and his English bride were invited to assume the British throne and an alliance was made. We adopted the Dutch take on capitalism and set up a stock exchange. You did know that, essentially, the whole point of a stock exchange is to enable the government to fund military excursions overseas, right? It served us well. The second saying? The British lose every battle. Except the last one*. Suffice it to say that the dutch didn’t come out of the Fourth Anglo Dutch War very well. We ceased joining them and simply took what they had. Including what was then New Amsterdam.

Mrs P and I continued our walk, away from the Rijksmuseum. We hit the centre and wandered into the Red Light District. You’ll actually find windows with that familiar red glow across all parts of the city. Why red? They make the ladies look more attractive. I must confess that many of them looked perfect girlfriend material. Of course, there were some that were not so attractive, and the red hues did nothing much for them. Mostly, they look bored, chatting on mobiles and smoking cigarettes. Sometimes you’ll see a window with the curtains closed. Occasionally you’ll see a door open and a gentleman walk outside, eyes to the ground, looking more than a little ashamed of himself. Everyone of them did look the type that might need the services of one of the working girls.

It is, they say, the oldest profession. Why hide it? The Dutch don’t. It’s legalised, regulated and taxed. No one seems to mind. Some rows of windows are next to posh wine bars. One evening, we saw a wedding party disembark from cars to get some photos with a canal as the backdrop. From our angle, the lovely lady in shimmering white was cast against the red windows of a row of brothels. They hadn’t noticed, I’m sure. They are just a normal part of the street scene. Like a McDonalds perhaps. In fact, just like a McDonalds, but with the golden arches turned upside down, and perhaps just a slightly darker, seedier shade of red.

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Electronic music seems to be popular in Amsterdam. We heard the familiar deep bass line booming from cars and apartments. That’s not our scene though. We went to a jazz club instead and enjoyed a live band. You did press play, back at the beginning of this post, didn’t you? That’s the band we went to see, recorded on my phone. Jazz is a mysterious sound. I’m technically ignorant, as far as music is concerned. But to me, jazz sounds just a little bit random. Often out of tune. Missing notes all over the place. Informed members of the audience applaud mid song for no apparent reason.

It shouldn’t work. It just shouldn’t. And yet it does.  Jazz is intelligent music. If jazz were a conversation, it would be like chatting  to a friend with more degrees and Phd’s than you can shake a stick at. You nod and pretend to understand, marveling that so much knowledge fits in such a tiny space as the human brain. If jazz were a food, it would be Mexican mole, with an intoxicating blend of chili and chocolate. If jazz were a city it would be Amsterdam. Neither should work. Or even exist. Yet they thrive. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated places on earth. And this is despite having such an open gay scene, a permissive attitude to drugs and prostitution, a lethal concoction of bikes and trams and a violent sea that is knocking on the gates of the city.

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I suspect much of this is due to a good education. A tolerant outlook. And a willingness to compromise. It may also help that they don’t spend months and years and millions of euros bitching about ‘official languages’ and worrying about the total denigration of society if biblical morals aren’t upheld. Amsterdam is a city which takes your prejudices, your notions of right and wrong, your moral ideals, your sense of logic and chews them up. And then spits them out, right in your face. I love Amsterdam.

*Actually, this saying in normally applied to the British army, not navy. But it serves its purpose here.

10 Great 2013 Vacation Destinations

The summer is in full swing, and that means it’s about time to head out of town for a nice warm vacation! Hitting the nearest beach is always an easy option, but if you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous this year, here’s a quick look at 10 trendy 2013 vacation destinations all over the world.

1. Montenegro

For those who like a more active summer vacation, Montenegro is a flawless option. This European treasure of a destination features both natural and architectural beauty that makes it postcard-worthy, but is also known for cycling and hiking trails that can keep you active.

2. Amsterdam, Netherlands

Notoriously a city for vice, Amsterdam has “cleaned up” in recent years, and the result is actually a more well-rounded vacation. Nightlife is still a blast, and in addition this city is clean, beautiful, and full of enjoyable food and sites.

3. Dominican Republic

An emerging “gem” of the Caribbean, Dominican Republic remains a bit less touristy than some of its neighbouring islands, making it perfect for fans of natural islands. Enjoy the relaxing and affordable beaches free from massive crowds.

4. Las Vegas, Nevada

Gambling is becoming more popular every year, as casino enthusiasts constantly try their luck on Internet platforms like Betfair Casino, etc. So if you’re such an enthusiast, why not try a real casino in Vegas this summer? World-class resorts and decadent pool venues only enhance the trip.

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5. Nepal

If you like adventurous destinations, you’ll be pleased to know Nepal is back on the map! A recent civil war had tourists hesitant to visit in years past, but now the stunning mountainous landscapes are open for activity.

6. Montreal, Canada

Often noted as North America’s most European city, Montreal in the summer is a treat. Often praised as one of the world’s happiest, cleanest and most culturally interesting cities, it’s amazing for fans of city tourism.

7. Solomon Islands

This is another great island destination for people who like things the natural way. Compared to the rest of the South Pacific, these islands remain natural and gorgeous. Enjoy a tranquil holiday at a beautiful eco-resort.

8. Christchurch, New Zealand

If you’d like to visit a unique city, Christchurch is a great option. Largely rebuilt following recent earthquakes, Christchurch has shown impressive innovation, and is now thriving in a somewhat unorthodox way.

9. Zambia

Unfortunately, African destinations tend to change year in and year out based on various conflicts, but in 2013 Zambia is a safe, gorgeous and entertaining option. Particularly if you’re looking for a safari vacation, take a look at this beautiful country.

10. Iceland

Iceland has been trendy for years now, but has also been tough to afford. However, recent economic struggles, though unfortunate, have made things a bit easier on tourists, which means this might be a good time to check Iceland off your list.

Arundel Castle

The British Isles are littered with castles. Some are in ruins, many are still in excellent nick. A few have legendary status, such as those at Windsor and the Tower of London. Others are hidden gems. Mrs P and I took a train ride along the south coast to Arundel Castle. Hardly a hidden gem, but it is a little off the normal beaten track for castle groupies.

It was a beautiful day. After two years of constant gray, where the only question would be whether it would drizzle or pour, we deserve some good weather. After the coldest spring on record, summer is turning out to be kind. Temperatures regularly above 20 degrees Celsius, sometimes hitting mid twenties. Today will see highs of 30 degrees. Most importantly, from a photographic point of view, this means blue skies. Britain is beautiful when covered with a blue sky.

Arundel, I am sure, is beautiful in any weather. But I prefer the blue sky option. And the Blue Sky God delivered. Well done him! Parts of the castle have been around for hundreds of years. The interior is as glorious as any other castle I’ve seen, bar Windsor. It’s still occupied by a duke. Most surprising, it’s occupied, as it has long been, by a Catholic duke.

He is also Earl of Arundal, the oldest surviving peerage in England. I suspect he comes from a long line of wise men who knew how to keep their heads down. In the olden days, Catholic nobles had a tendency to lose their heads with a stoke of an axe. So well done to him and his ancestors for their canny ability to know when to duck.

The photo below was embedded from my 500px site. I like 500px. I have decreasing passion for Flickr. You can see my Arundel collection on 500px. I love the layout. I love the slideshow. If you’re a stick in the mud, you can also go see the collection on Flickr too though. Which do you prefer? I’m interested to know.

Thailand Reworked

Thailand, 2001. One of the last trips I took with a friend. Later that year, with everyone I knew all out of vacation time and me with 10 days still to burn, I hit the backpacking trail solo. And never looked back. There#s a lot to be said for solo travelling. No compromise. One hundred per cent your holiday. But that’s not to say I didn’t have a great time in Thailand with one of the best friends. I sure did.

We landed in Bangkok and headed straight for Pattya, a beach resort, at the recommendation of a fellow passenger on our flight. The flight, incidentally, was a Garuda Indonesia plane with smoking and non smoking sections. One of the last of that type, surely? Our original plan to go down the peninsula had been derailed by tropical storms. We got to Pattya, realised why it would appeal to middle aged and elderly gents, and headed straight out. We hadn’t come for ladyboys and ‘teenage Thai wives’.

We rented a driver, guide and minivan for a ludicrously low price for 10 days of touring Thailand. The price even included hotels. We went into the jungle clad hills. To wildlife parks. To British war cemeteries. And to the infamous Bridge Over The River Kwai. You may have seen the film. If you have, you might know that the film was made in Sri Lanka. A country I posted about recently. And yes I did, I saw the ‘Bridge Over The River Kwai’ there too. Well, I saw a few bits of concrete and metal that made the foundations. They blew the bridge up at the end of the movie, after all.

The biggest highlight of the trip was a hotel built into the side of a river along the River Kwai. Paradise. One of my favourite places on planet Earth. We were due to stay just two nights. We stayed four. It had all the modern luxuries. But with none of the modern blights. Open plan wood was the theme, not concrete blocks. If only I could remember the name of that hotel. Nevermind. I’ve recently re-processed the photos I took and uploaded them to Flickr – click here.

The Exotic Day Trip

You might look at the photo below and wonder where we’ve been on our most recent trip. Which far flung land does that rather grandiose structure call home? If you guessed India, you’d be on the right track. Wrong continent, but right track. That marvelous piece of architecture was built about two hundred years ago in Brighton, as a bit of a playhouse for the Price Regent. Indian design was all the rage back then. Welcome to Brighton, the original quick-getaway tourist destination for the wealthy crowd of London Town! It’s less than an hour from London on the train. Or about two and a half hours along the coast from Bournemouth, our starting point for the trip.

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Brighton, like most English towns and cities of any size, has a rich seam of history, intrigue and culture running through it. But today it is famed for being a centre of new media, its slightly hippy-ish shopping, fantastic wall murals, being the gay capital of the UK, and of course for its piers. One of which is grand. The other, sadly, is just a burnt shell now separated from the shore. Hordes of tourists still descend on the town (the twenty and thirty-somethings, usually in large packs) intent on a weekend of binge drinking and partying till the early hours.

We came for a bit of shopping and sightseeing, not the night life. And I for some photography. I’ve already written a couple of posts on my photography blog – click here. I used my phone camera extensively, but did snap a few shots with my Fuji for upload to Flickr – click here. Did we like Brighton? Yes, we did. Of course. Although. But. There’s just something about Brighton that’s a little bit…I don’t know.

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A lot of English towns have had to reinvent themselves in recent years to adapt to a changing world. Brighton feels like it tried too hard. Which is ironic, really, because at first glance you’d have assumed everyone just got thoroughly stoned and went mad with a limitless supply of spray cans, then chilled out on the beach eating gluten free organic veggy pizza while braiding each others hair, before putting on a selection of mad hats and colourful clothing to strut around town. Someone encountering Brighton for the first time might wonder if the town inspired the book Alice in Wonderland. But this Brighton didn’t exist back then. So perhaps it’s the other way round. So, yes. We liked Brighton. But if truth be told, we preferred Bristol.

Bristol

For hundreds of years, til the Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the great cities of the North West and Midlands, Bristol vied with the likes of York and Norwich to be the country’s second city. Behind London, of course. It was a key port that traded with the rest of Europe, and later the world. It didn’t entirely miss out in the Industrial Revolution, as the Clifton Suspension bridge stands testament to.  Since then, Bristol has had to reinvent itself. It’s done so pretty successfully.

BAE and HP have major bases here. Concorde’s maiden flight from British soil was made from here. Concorde’s final ever flight landed here. SS Great Britain, once the world’s largest passenger ship is berthed here. And nine million tourists a year come here. Which surprised me. I’d never thought of Bristol as a tourist destination. But I go where the bargain train fares take me, and from Salisbury train station, Bristol is a very manageable and affordable day trip.

I now understand why millions of people come to Bristol. It’s a fabulous city. Full of fantastic old architecture, ala Bath. There’s a lot of funky new architecture as well. The nasty post war concrete blocks are to be seen here and there, but they’re gradually on the way out. The city is buzzing with art and culture. There’s a huge range of restaurants and cafes. Antique shops. We even stumbled across a Mexican importer, where Mrs P stopped and stocked up.

There’s a lot of live music, in the streets, in parks and in bars. It was a much bigger city than I expected it to be. It definitely gets the Mexile Seal of Approval. We’ll be back. Till then, here’s a few shots I took from around the town on Flickr.

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