This is a public service announcement by the Mexile in association with an awful lost of frustration and angst. Roughly 24 hours before Mrs P and I were due to fly to Mexico for our two week holiday, there was what I shall refer to as an ‘incident’. I won’t bore you with the details of the ‘incident’. Just one of the consequences. The most pressing consequence. Mrs P was no longer in possession of her Biometric Residence Permit. This Continue reading “Travelling On A Lost/Stolen BRP”
What to say about our short break in the Scottish Highlands? I could write a short essay on the quality of the guest house we stayed at. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that Lochview was wonderful, one of the finest (possibly the finest) guesthouse we have ever had the pleasure of spending a night in. Clean, fabulously comfortable beds, welcoming and helpful hosts and a cracking breakfast for a very reasonable price. Oh, it has terrific Continue reading “The Highland Review”
Got mountains. Got camera. Got Adobe Lightroom to turn it all black and white. Well, aren’t I just the new Ansel Adams? Obviously I’m not, for a whole bunch of reasons that don’t really need to be explained. But it’s nice to pretend for a moment. Ansel Adams arguably had a slightly more dramatic mountain range to shoot. Just don’t argue the point with a Highlander. He will kill you, turn your skin into a smart new jacket and Continue reading “Just Like Ansel”
There’s a good set of benefits for those of us lucky enough to work on the railways. As is to be expected in a unionised industry that is very proactive when it comes to collective bargaining. As things should be in most industries if you ask me, but that’s another story. Pay, pensions, holidays and more all have generous terms. But there’s one benefit I really do like making the most of. The travel perks. Continue reading “The Caledonian Sleeper”
Spring is in the air. In a metaphorical sense more than a literal sense. The days have gotten longer and sunset has been deferred an hour thanks to the switch to British Summer Time. Crocuses and cherry blossom are in bloom. The sun shines brightly on good days, giving us deep blue skies with pillow white clouds. Early morning are greeted with a chorus of birdsong. But if you closed your eyes over the last week, you mightd be Continue reading “Mapperton House”
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….
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.