Tourism

Screenshot_17

Roam Around Ringwood

El Gringo Suelto recently took us on a tour of his ‘hood, Boston MA. It was a fascinating guide around the local attractions in the place he calls home. Even if he wished home were somewhere else sometimes. Say, Mexico City. I guess many people think of the US as being a young country. In many respects it is. From a British perspective, the history of the States began with the pilgrims, with only a vague acknowledgement that native peoples had been doing something or other (mostly other, nothing worth mentioning) for some undetermined period before we arrived.  Gee, if it weren’t for John Wayne and his movies, we might not even know anything of them at all.

Anyway, young as the US is, it’s still been a going concern for a while, and the old things seem, from a foreign eye, to be better preserved than in Blighty. The US hasn’t suffered from the pressures of dwindling free space, nor German bombs, in the same way the UK has. He found a graveyard dating back to 1634 and a house dating back to 1661. They are old. And it had me wondering, what hidden history is in the town I live in? Could I find anything boasting a greater age than that graveyard in Ringwood, Hampshire? So let’s have a stroll round my home town.

In theory, finding something to best that Boston graveyard shouldn’t be difficult. Ringwood is an ancient town. Seriously ancient. There’s a limited number of towns which can trace themselves back to William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Fewer still that can find traces of their history, albeit with unusual spellings, in documents further back that that. Ringwood, or should I say Runcwuda is one such place with records going back to Saxon times. This isn’t surprising, as you can see from the photo above – a river. The River Avon, to be precise. One of many River Avon’s in England. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many River Avons, there is a simple answer. The Roman invaders would ask the local inhabitants the name of the river. The Saxon word for river is avon – the Romans were told what is was, not what is was called. The results of those misunderstandings survive today.

Ringwood also sits next to the oddly named New Forest. It is anything but new. But its proximity obviously aided the viability of Ringwood as a town. The New Forest has been a favourite haunt of hunting monarchs for centuries. Hunting is thirsty work, I’m sure. I wonder if a dehydrated king ever stopped at the Fish Inn to quench his thirst? Perhaps. Like many of the older cottages in the town, it’s got a thatched roof. The Fish Inn, I understand, has stood there on the banks of the Avon since the 1500s. I can’t tell you any ancient stories from the Inn, but I can tell you that that is where I spent the evening to see in the new millennium.  The bridge next to it is undoubtedly old too. It is known simply as the Old Bridge. But I’ve been unable to put a date on it.

The building in the photo above clearly has a story. The plaque says it all. The sign on the side of the house suggests that this historic little plot (pun intended) is currently up for grabs. I dread to think how much it costs to heat an old place like this. More than my salary I suspect. Still, the fuel bill was probably the last thing on the Duke of Monmouth’s mind. And the fuel of those days was no doubt cheap. The New Forest providing plentiful supplies of the stuff.

Let’s go into town. It’s much like any other old town in southern England. Shops closing down. Coffee shops taking their place. We have a new one arriving soon. Thank goodness. I frankly don’t know how I’ve survived these last few years with only seven coffee shops within 60 seconds walking distance of each other. I kid you not. Ok, maybe I kid you a little. They’re within 120 seconds of each other. But still. We do still have both a butcher and a fishmonger in town, despite a proliferation of supermarkets. That’s a bonus that not every town can boast.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising though. Ringwood is a market town. In fact, there was a cattle market here right up until 1989. It has since been replaced by a Waitrose supermarket. There is still a street market. It was once the highlight of the week and an essential part of life. It is now appalling, selling junk that people won’t buy on eBay and meats that supermarkets wouldn’t touch.

But let us journey on, in a quest to find something old. The Fish Inn has already put the nails in the coffin of Kim’s 17th century graveyard. But surely Ringwood has something even older to offer. Let’s move onto the main church, that of St Peter and St Paul. I say main church, because Ringwood had as many churches as it has coffee shops. Gee, if a vicar cottoned on to what I’m thinking, then maybe he’d get some people inside God’s office. I digress, let’s go to church and cheer up Mr Vicar.

The church turned out to be a trove of information. This is the third church to have stood on the site, with the first dating back to the Saxon era. The second, a stone structure, fell into disrepair in the 1800s and was replaced with this beauty. So, it is quite modern, but what surprises does it have in store inside? As it turned out, it had an ancient treasure indeed.

The treasure in question was a memorial brass, dedicated to a former rector by the name of John Prophete. He died in 1416, and this was made shortly after, although I couldn’t find a precise date. Only that it is 15th century. The church does hold older relics though. There are roof bosses in a case up on one wall, but I didn’t photograph them. I saw them, but thought they were comparatively modern. Ooops. I did go looking for a 13th century tomb by the main gate, but couldn’t distinguish it from other elderly tombs.

So, the church turned out well. Same century as the Fish Inn, but probably a few years younger. Was that the oldest thing I could find in Ringwood? Actually, no. Let’s walk back to the river and check out a little cottage. We walked past it earlier, as it sits right next the the Duke of Monmouth’s former abode. The Old Cottage Restaurant. These timbers were planted in the 1300s, and is the oldest thing I have managed to photograph today. I’ve never been inside. To be honest, they do a pretty magnificent job of making it look permanently closed. Or perhaps they just prefer to keep out the riff raff. Invitation only sort of a thing.

Screenshot_17

So there we have it. A tour of the town of Ringwood, in Hampshire. The English Hampshire. Not the new fangled one near where Kim is. Does the blogger tour of the ‘hood stop here, or has anyone else got a potential career of virtual tour guide in them? More to the point, can anyone best my 14th century relic? You can? I can see see this becoming competitive. Bewarned. If you force me, I shall get on the bus and go for a ride. I have a trump card. Not the 2,000 year old ruins of a Roman villa a couple of stops away. No, my trump card comes at the end of the bus ride, here. But for today let’s leave the tour with one final photo. Something that is a fixture of every British town, village or hamlet. The war memorial. Always embossed with the names of the unfortunate victims. Currently festooned with the bright red poppies for Remembrance Day.

Screenshot_18

Screenshot_1

Banqueting House

London hosts a treasure trove of hidden secrets. As do most cities. Let me introduce you to one of them. It’s far better hidden that most of the capitals secrets. It’s hidden in plain view. If you’ve been to London, you’ve almost certainly walked past it. You almost certainly glanced at it. It’s name might even ring a bell. But unless you’ve really been through the depths of your guidebook, or have an especially deep interest in the history of Londinium, then that first glance probably isn’t followed up by a second glance.

I’m talking about Banqueting House. It’s on Whitehall between Trafalgar Square and Westminster. But it’s on the wrong side of Whitehall. Tourists march down to the Thames with ‘eyes right’ to see the curiously helmeted soldiers outside Horseguards and to see Downing Street. Else they are looking behind at Horatio atop his lofty perch, aka Nelson’s Column. Or are looking forward, perhaps with starstruck eyes as the Elizabeth Tower, aka Big Ben, looms into view.

Poor Banqueting Hall. No one looks to the left. Not for long. Yet this imposing building isn’t simply on Whitehall. It is Whitehall. Well, the last remaining piece of the Palace of Whitehall. The Palace was, at its height, the largest in Europe, overtaking both Versailles and the Vatican. The origins of the Palace date back to the thirteenth century, but it was the infamous Henry VII who took it on (or rather took it from – Cardinal Wolseley was the victim) and developed it to a state of unrivalled grandeur. He married two wives there, and eventually died there. For more than a century and a half it was the official residence of the English monarch. Until one day, just before the end of the 1600s, a fire broke out and reduced almost the entire structure of the palace to ashes. But Banqueting Hall survived.

 And still survives. There’s a massive Reuben on the ceiling commissioned by Charles I, which is still in situ. It cost three thousand pounds, an extortionate amount in those days. Was it worth it? You could have asked Charles I himself. Maybe someone did, but perhaps we’ll never know. It was the last piece of art he saw, we do know that. Or at least, can safely assume so.  He was lead through Banqueting House, pushed out one of the windows onto a temporary scaffold and beheaded one cold January day. He probably had a lot of things on his mind, other than that pricey Reuben of his.

Visiting Banqueting House today is a less traumatic event. At just £5 per person it doesn’t exactly cost an arm and a leg, let alone your head. If you’re up in London and travelled by train or coach, you can get a two fer one, making it even more of a bargain. The audio guide is genuinely interesting (as opposed to the dreary monotone monologues that most places pass off as audioguides) and best of all, the hall has a half dozen bean bags littered on the floors. You can lie back and admire than Reuben and listen to the audioguide at your leisure. And let’s face it. A morning of walking through the streets of London is tiring work. This is a nice opportunity to grab forty winks.

Photos? Of course. But just a few. My preferred photo viewing experience, 500px, is here and my traditional host, Flickr, is here. Criminally, I neglected to take a photo of the outside of the building. This is truly poor form, and I apologise most sincerely. The outside of this building is so important. It was the fruit of the great Inigo Jones loins. Not as famous as Christopher Wren, but every bit as important, if not more so. You may have seen countless British stately homes and mansions and marvelled at the architecture. The designs of which were all inspired by the fabulous architects of Italy. Inigo Jones, however, was the first.

He went to Italy. He saw Italy. He came back and copied Italy. And Banquesting House was the first of those creations, inspiring countless recreations across these green miserable, drizzlely grey and pleasant lands. He pioneered this large scale theft of continental design and engineering. He was rewarded handsomely for it, I’m sure. These days, he’d probably get a Cease and Desist writ.

PA270027

Camera 360

The Republic of Ireland: Five Cities to Add to Your Itinerary

Regardless of whereabouts in Ireland you’re considering visiting, you will be met with a perfect blend of city life and outstanding natural beauty. Whether you’ve got a hankering for a city break or you’d prefer to have somewhere that is a gateway to the natural world, you won’t be disappointed. Plus, if you hire a car, you will be able to see a bit of everything, with many cities within easy driving distance of eachother. Wherever you decide to explore though, consider these 5 cities when it comes to planning your itinerary.

Waterford

While it’s probably most famous for its manufacture of Waterford crystal, there is much more to this city and its surroundings than you can imagine. Book yourself into the Waterford Travelodge for a day or two, and you will be able to delve into the Viking history of the city as well as venture beyond the city limits into the rural countryside beyond.

Galway

Packed with culture, tradition and atmosphere, the City of the Tribes is an absolute must if you’re heading for the west coast. Whether you have plans to explore the Aran Islands and Connemara National Park, or you want to absorb as much of the vibrant city life as possible, you’re in the right place.

Cork

Whether it’s the plentiful festivals you would prefer to plan your visit around, or you’d prefer to explore beyond the city and head for Mizen Head, the most southerly tip of Ireland, there’s plenty to see and do here.

Donegal

Located at the northern tip of the Republic of Ireland, Donegal borders Northern Ireland and is an ideal place to stay if you’d like to incorporate both countries into your visit.

Dublin

Of course, a list of potential visiting spots wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the country’s vibrant capital – Dublin. This awesome cosmopolitan city is packed with charisma, character and a stupendous atmosphere. From the nightlife in Temple Bar to the culture of the castle and beyond, you could easily while away a day or several in this upbeat, captivating city.

Take your pick from these cities or look further afield to ensure that your visit to Ireland will be perfectly tailormade to suit your dreams.

Camera 360

Screenshot_1

New York, New York

It’s trendy to repeat the name New York. It’s just how it’s said. I can’t think of any other city that needs its name to be said twice. But then, each city has its own little catchphrase. It’s London calling, not Paris, after all.  New York is perhaps deserving of its moniker. It truly is twice the city compared to most other metropolis’. I had a week there in 2003 and blew more money in those seven days than I had in two months in Mexico. But it was worth every penny. Or cent.

I saw a show on Broadway – Thoroughly Modern Millie. Which remains the best musical I have seen. I walked from Harlem to Manhattan. Twice. The first time deliberately. The second, due to lack of choice. I watched the most artful robbery ever, along with a little crowd of onlookers that the robber had gathered around. Yes, the robber gathered his victims around him. He did a trick with a dollar bill. Then a five dollar bill. They were good. He asked if anyone had a twenty. They gave him a bill, and he performed another trick, and returned the note. He asked for a hundred, and someone gave him one. And he ran.

I walked around the site of the World Trade Centre. I took the Staten Island ferry to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. I did a walking tour with an Anglophile university lecturer – for a third time I strolled half the length of Manhattan. I had a fantastic time. Alas, I brought back so few photos. Memory cards were pricey in those days, with limited space and it was a long holiday. But I’ve found those old snaps on disk, snazzied them up a little and uploaded to Flickr. Snazzied or not, they remain mediocre. At best. Click here to have a look.

Screenshot_1

Screenshot_2

Paradise in a box

It is no surprise that when someone mentions Dubai, regardless the context, everything related to luxury instantly comes to mind. The tiny little country occupying no more than roughly 4000 square kilometers of land space in the United Arab Emirates sure makes up for its size in material grandeur. Anywhere you look you see skyscrapers touching the clouds, Ferraris, Bugattis and Lamborginis fighting for parking spots, and one private airplane after another crossing the skies.

Luxurious hotels

The luxury is endless, and to make sure visitors get the same experience as the residents, the hotels are equipped with everything you need and more to feel as if you have just ascended into heaven. Among these, there is the Burj Al Arab, also known as the most luxurious hotel the world has ever seen. They say it is more than just a treat to the eye – it is a symbol of modern Dubai. And, who is to say otherwise? For this is potentially as close to paradise in a box as you can possibly get.

Magnificent architecture 

The magnificent architecture has resulted in the Burj Al Arab Hotel being one of the most photographed hotels in the world. However, while the stunning silhouette built to resemble a billowing sail is hard to take your eyes off of, it is the service within, along with the fascinating interior designs, that makes the Burj so extraordinary. Each and every room is a luxury suite spanning two floors. Everything you can see is state-of-the-art classified and the views are indescribable.

Extra guest care

If you feel like going all in on your hotel experience, choose the upscale package and enjoy extra guest care services including anything from in-suite check-in and a private reception to your own personal 24/7 butler and a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. If you do want to drive by yourself, you can pick and choose whichever dream car you wish from their fleet of luxury cars available for rent. Among its unique over-the-top amenities you also find an attached heliport and a hovering tennis court where none less than Roger Federer and Andre Agassi have hit a few balls together.

Futuristic Dining

Once you are done spending the day like any other royalty around, you will probably be in need of some food and drinks. Luckily, there is not a shortage of that either. You will find a wide range of futuristic dining and nightlife options to choose from, one more breathtaking than the other when it comes to both flavors and atmospheres. And, while you are at it, do not forget to swipe your American Express platinum card for some extra points.

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.

IMAG0719_1

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.

IMAG0669

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.

IMAG0733_1

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.

IMAG0603

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.

It Roks

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.

5

The Happy Accident

How did I used to plan my next holiday destination? There was little planning. Often none. I’d pick my next adventure on a whim. I’d see a photo I liked. Or hear someone mention the place. Or find an affordable airfare. It needed to be exotic. Sunny. And the trip must be manageable in a fortnight. My knowledge of the land at the other end of the flight is patchy, gleaned from a Lonely Planet guide while in the air. I sought, essentially, serendipity. In Sri Lanka, I found it. Which is apt, as the word serendipity originates from an old name for Sri Lanka.

I landed in Colombo in March of 2003, just a few months before my first Mexican trip. Also three months before my blog came into existence. So it’s not a place I’ve ever blogged about. Which is a shame, as it’s one of the most wonderful countries on the planet. A pearl in the Indian Ocean. Colombo had nothing to make me want to linger. I departed as soon as I arrived.

Sri Lanka is possibly the most beautiful country I ever visited. I have to say that I wouldn’t regard it as livable, long term, as Mexico. But it was truly an unforgettable place with countless memorable experiences. From the elephant sanctuary in Kandy, to the former British hill station with it’s stone cottages and snooker hall, to the ancient fortress atop the red mountain of Sirigya, to the lush wildlife parks in the south east and finally to the perfect beaches along the south coast.

The people were so friendly. The snakes less so. The photo of my foot with a couple of red spots stands testament to my encounter. What sort of snake? I didn’t see it. I was walking, foolishly barefoot, in long grass. Probably a cobra. They are the most populous. Not the most venomous snake in the area though. Had it been a Russell’s Viper, it would less likely have been a dry bite. Dry bites are good. You don’t die, which is always a good thing.

I released turtle hatchlings onto a beach at Mirissa Bay. I taunted a cobra at a witchdoctor’s place – revenge is a dish best served cold, and at a safe distance. I checked out some fantastic Buddhist temples and monuments. I even got to check out the temple housing one of the Buddha’s teeth.

I travelled on a train where, to actually get a set, you have to throw your backpack in through an open window of a carriage and climb in after it. All this before the train has even come to a stop. I still wasn’t quick enough to get a seat. But remember, Sri Lanka has the friendliest people. A lady pulled two kids on to her laps and threw a third on the floor. They occupied just one seat between them, which she gave to me.

I surfed the best waves I’ve ever played in. They were huge. Towering above me. And if I timed it wrong, and let the wave break on me, I got a pounding. It was like being in a washing machine on fast rinse, as I was dumped 50 metres onto the beach. But the sand was so soft and free of rocks that, providing I could hold my breath long enough to make it to the surface again, even that was a blast.

Sri Lanka was a two week whirlwind of curries, sun, smiles, waves, sand, greenery and fun. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Even the books I took with me was perfect – a John Simpson memoir and John Le Carre’s, The Constant Gardener. I now have the full sized images processed and uploaded to Flickr. If you want to see them, just click here. If not, there’s a small sample below. Are you seeking your own moment of serendipity? Go to Sri Lanka. It’s really what a backpackers dreams are made of.

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.

S0091129

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.

DSCF1091

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.

DSCF1022

When ski trips go downhill

I did it! I invested in a pair of skis. On previous snowy excursions I’d always trusted in my friend Rob to lend me his spares. Rob is a proper enthusiast. He has all the best gear and has scratched off most of the top resorts in his ongoing quest for the perfect run. I’m a little jealous of Rob if I’m honest…

When starting my search, I was almost blinded by the sheer variety of colourful patterns on display. And who knew there were so many brands? After days of indecision, punctuated by nights of feverish dreams invaded by a never-ending procession of ski livery, I eventually settled on a snazzy pair that featured all the latest technology. I’m still not entirely sure what that is, but I’m pretty sure it’s something probably I need, maybe. If you don’t own skis, it’s difficult to describe the warm glow of self-satisfaction to be enjoyed when you finally do.

My smug satisfaction didn’t last long though. On our very first excursion my fabulous skis and I were separated on the slope as I wrapped myself around a tree at high velocity. Thank goodness I was wearing a helmet, but unfortunately my leg wasn’t so well protected and I was carted off to hospital. Luckily I’d taken out Allianz Ski Insurance and winter sports cover; otherwise the emergency treatment and early trip home could have cost me a pretty penny. Still, when I got home, my girlfriend and family were waiting to dote on me hand and foot, so it could have been worse. And now that I’ve travelled the long road to recovery, I’m almost smug enough to go back and try again, more carefully this time though!

Disclosure: this is a guest post.