"Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious "
Peter Ustinov, English actor, director, writer, raconteur
TRAVEL_ODDITIES

JOURNEYS
   5688 views   
Sierra Leone; home to the Bounty Bar beach, charming locals, and an odd airport transfer...
posted by Richard Green on 28/02/2017
 

A beautiful and deserted beach in Sierra Leone. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I visited Sierra Leone in 2009 in order to write an article about what the place was like after the country had spent years known abroad only for its horrendous civil war. I was bowled over by the place and its people and plan to return. The country is has been declared free from Ebola since November 2016.

The following is a version of the piece that appeared in the Sunday Times in 2009.

***

"Would you like to be carried to the speedboat or do you prefer to wade?" is not a question I've had to face before on an airport transfer - but this is Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest countries, and there's no bridge from the international airport to the capital city.

So, glancing down at my leather shoes, and looking along the beach at two local businessmen in suits, ties and the arms of local fishermen, I opted for a carry-out, too.

One of the most bonkers airport transfers I've ever taken. Photo My Bathroom Wall

There are other ways to get from the airport, but they are a lot less appealing than a 30-minute skim in a speedboat: a tediously slow ferry that leaves only when jam-packed; an unreliable former Isle of Wight hovercraft; and the most dangerous, an airline that uses former Russian military helicopters.

You may think these matters ridiculously beside the point, considering that I'm talking about Sierra Leone, a country famed for boy soldiers, blood diamonds and precious little else. The locals, though, will quickly point out that the war finished in 2002, that there were free and fair elections, and a peaceful transition of power 18 months ago, and that a tourism boom must be just around the corner. And perhaps that's not as crazy as it might sound.

The prewar fundamentals are still here: fabulous beaches and reliable winter sun, plus mountains and monkeys, slave forts, unspoilt islands and colourful markets. And getting to Freetown is easy, with nonstop BMI flights from Heathrow that take seven hours, only 30 minutes longer than those to The Gambia. There's no jet lag, everyone speaks English and even the three-pin plugs are the same.

Just 14 miles south of the capital, on the magnificent powder-white, if prosaically named, River No 2 Beach, the tourist potential is glaring. It faces west and spans miles of undeveloped bay, backed by palms and lush jagged hills, and is bisected by the green water of River No 2 on its sidewind to the sea.

Of all the beaches in all the world, this was the one chosen to feature in the old 'A Taste of Paradise' adverts for the Bounty Bar. In truth the beach plays second fiddle to swimming costumed models taking slo-mo mouthfuls of the chocolate bars, but the beach looks alluring too. 

My chalet facing No 2 Beach brought back the best of backpacking memories. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

I was the only guest at the one development on the entire beach: a community project where the whole village chips in to run seven beachside chalets. For £34 per night you get a large room with a big veranda, B&B - they are concrete and tiles, but have batik wall hangings, a clean bathroom (no hot running water, though) and a comfy double bed with a big mosquito net.

After a day walking along the beach, swimming in the sea, talking to the fishermen, eating a fine fish dinner for a fiver and taking a boat trip to a rock pool by a waterfall, I flicked on my iPod and watched the sunset from my veranda.

Keep it simple simple; the good life at No 2 Beach. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I'd backpacked a lot in the 1980s and 1990s, and being here kindled powerful memories of my first forays to Thailand and Bali, Fiji and Goa. It's not what I had expected of Sierra Leone, but there I was nonetheless, rediscovering the potency of a sunset seen from a beach hut, wafted by the subtle scents of sea spray and hibiscus, with towel and togs drying on a line, cold beer in hand.

Fishermen bringing home the catch to No 2 Beach. Photo My Bathroom Wall

But this place still has a way to go. For example, some of the roads in Sierra Leone are shocking - Freetown's tarmac hardly reaches the city limits on the main road south to the beaches, which turns an 11-mile drive into an infuriating hour's slog. There are good paved stretches further down the peninsula, but the lack of infrastructure is a big brake on tourist development.

Busy market scene along the road to Banana Island. Photo My Bathroom Wall

It hasn't stopped the locals preparing for an influx, though. Take Tommy, the bare-chested, 40-year-old owner of the Hard Rock Restaurant at nearby Lakka Beach. When I asked him about his place, he said: "I started to build this during the war, in 1997. It took me eight years - slowly, slowly. Before the war there were 500 French people here every week, but after the war it is quiet. I hope new tourists will come soon, though."

I looked both ways along the beach. There wasn't a single tourist in sight. I asked what he would suggest for lunch, and glancing over his shoulder towards the fishing boats, he said: "I have some nice barracuda."

Moments later, a young guy dashed down the sand and rushed back with a big fish. Cooked as a kebab, with rice and a mildly spicy onion and tomato garnish, it was delicious.

The next day, on a boat heading to Banana Island from the tiny hamlet of Kent, a greying young man in a green and white African-style suit asked: "Excuse me, may I ask what nature of endeavour brings you to my country?"

He was David Jones, the Kent head teacher, and his was typical of the omnipresent courtesy of Sierra Leoneans.

Everyone passes with a "Good morning, how are you today?", or in the local Krio language, a "How de day?" or "How de bodi?".

There were a lot of how de bodis lobbed my way on the short walk from Dublin Wharf - basically two large cotton trees and a couple of canoes - to the eight rondavels of the island's guesthouse. It's another community project, this time with more thoughtfully decorated huts, hot water, lighting provided by solar panels, and fantastic views back onto the mountains and beaches of the mainland.

The arrival and departure hub for Banana Island, Dublin Wharf. Photo My Bathroom Wall 

I walked around the tip of the island with Michael, a local lad who showed me the overgrown foundations of a Portuguese fort and the village well (still in use). He couldn't remember when the Portuguese were here, so he took me to his uncle, the venerable Lord Moo. I sat on a bench on the tidy patio of his titchy house and waited for the old man to emerge from tending his cassava plants.

The affable and wise Lord Moo. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Hobbling over, he sat heavily and reclined next to me. With a wonderfully resonant voice, he told me that during the American war of independence, the British had promised to free any slaves who joined them in the fight, and how 50,000 of them had done so, some of whom were subsequently liberated and shipped to Freetown. "That is why we have so many British names for villages - Waterloo, Wellington, Hastings, Wilberforce - it is gratitude from the slaves who came here as free men."

Lord Moo didn't like Freetown. "People in the city," he said, pointing up to a big, green bunch of bananas in his tree, "they can't leave anything to ripen. Those bananas are not ripe. They will be perfect in maybe three more days, but in Freetown they are taken to market too early, to exchange for money. That is how people in the city live. They cannot wait for anything."

View from in front of my rondavel at the Banana Island Guest House. Photo My Bathroom Wall

On my last night in Sierra Leone, I stood at the bar of Freetown's best nightclub, Paddy's. I looked out to sea and thought about Lord Moo and his garden.

I couldn't agree with him about Freetown, which for my money is the prettiest town on the West African coast - good beaches, fine old colonial buildings and the mountaintop suburb of Hill Station, sprinkled with wonderful old stilted bungalows. Of course it's ramshackle, with terrible traffic and some grinding poverty, but if you like West Africa it's friendly and feels quite safe.

In fact, it's been a while since I last got so attached to a place so quickly. When it came to leaving, I checked out of my hotel with big handshakes all round, vowing to return. Then, in shorts and sandals, I waded out to sea and into the waiting speedboat for my trip back to the airport.

Sunset on Banana Island. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours.

04 Reasons to be cheerful: there is now a more reliable link between Freetown's Lungi Airport and the city, though the journey still involves a bus and boat journey, via Sea Coach Express. The 30 minutes on the 'ferry' can be bumpy, but if you do suffer from seasickness, the road journey from the airport to the city can take four hours, so you may want to take your chances on the boat. It's strongly advised that airport transfers are booked in advance of travel too. UK based tour operators Rainbow Tours and Undiscovered Destinations both offer tailor made tours to Sierra Leone. Or Overlanding West Africa and Dragoman run overland trips through the country.
   
30 Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.
   
31 Getting there: there are direct flights to Freetown from Paris with Air France, Brussels with Air Brussels and Amsterdam with KLM. Other routes include Royal Air Maroc from Casablanca, Kenya Airways from Nairobi and Accra, and Air Côte d’Ivoire from Abidjan and Monrovia.
   

 


JOURNEYS
   6536 views   
Walking in Montenegro with the folk who devise the routes for walking holidays...
posted by Richard Green on 24/02/2017
 

Montenegro's poster boy island of Sveti Stefan, now the upmarket Aman Resort

I opened the expensively heavy curtains of my suite, barely resisting the urge to sing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ – and gazed out over the most perfect Mediterranean view. A smile-shaped beach. A giant yacht resting at anchor in the bay. And, rising to the right, a picture-book jumble of red roofs. If the Adriatic Coast is a beauty, this stretch was 24-carat supermodel-sensational.

Croatia? Not quite. Slovenia? You’re getting colder. Yet trust me when I tell you that you’ve seen those russet tiles in scores of brochure snaps and poster shoots over the years. This is Montenegro, and if that piece of information leaves you non-plussed, well, that’s the point – I wanted a holiday that would take me far from the madding-ding crowds. This tiny coastal country stands on the cusp of becoming a major Mediterranean player, as popular with tourists as its big-name neighbours; for the moment, though, it’s largely unknown. And it’s possible to have significant chunks of the place to yourself.

Nowhere is its cusp status clearer than here at Sveti Stefan. A miniature outcrop attached by causeway to the rest of the coast, the islet slumbered away 500-odd years as a fishermen’s village, barnacled with cottages like something from a child’s storybook – until the post-war years of Hollywood stars and voyaging royalty, when the Communist rulers of Yugoslavia reinvented it as a resort for celebs on the Med. Holiday here in the ’60s and ’70s and you’d have heard the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Princess Margaret echo in the cobbled lanes – interspersed with the Vesuvian arguments of the Burtons, Richard and Elizabeth. This summer – after a scouring renovation by Singapore-based luxury hotel company Aman Resorts – it’s ready to cast more glitter over Montenegro when it opens at the end of May, those cottages painstakingly reworked into 50 suites of sumptuous-but-muted Aman-appeal.

The private beach for guests of the Villa Milocer at the Aman Sveti Stefan. photo My Bathroom Wall

On the beach there was just me, a lifeguard and a crisp-shirted chap to ferry out cold drinks I got a taste of what it will be like (and took in its beauty from a distance) as I breakfasted at Villa Milocer, on the shores overlooking Sveti Stefan. Built in the ’30s as a holiday home for Yugoslavia’s Karadordevic royals, the villa was later swiped by Communist president Tito as his summer pad. A couple of years ago, Aman Resorts restored it as a bite-size preview of Sveti Stefan, out in the bay. As I quaffed egg-white omelette and guava juice, shaded by Milocer's vine-covered terrace, insects whirring in the early morning heat, I concluded that Montenegro is perfection. But it’s the kind of perfection that costs – the villa's 12 suites will knock you back upwards of £600 a night each – yet it’s so quiet in these parts that a feeling of exclusivity isn’t exclusive to those who are paying for it.

What you do get for your money is a sandy beach, 800 olive trees, and something that Sveti Stefan’s suites will never deliver:a Flickr’s-eye view of the island itself. Breakfast over, I strolled to the adjacent Queen’s Beach (‘for guests only’). There was just me, a lifeguard and a crisp-shirted chap to ferry out cold drinks from a little cabin. It’s rare to find such a pristine slice of peaceful paradise in the modern Med – and who knows how long it will last in Montenegro? This diminutive country, home to just two-thirds of a million people, is beginning to appear on the world’s radar, even if many of us couldn't place it on a map. Madonna has visited, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones have been house-hunting, and a Monte Carlo-style marina is taking shape.

And beyond Villa Milocer and Sveti Stefan? I was keen to explore – but not in the Madonna-worthy black Mercedes S Class that the villa uses for airport transfers, and which would clearly mark me out as a tourist among the beaches and wilderness. On offer at the car rental company was a dented Chevrolet Spark with three hubcaps missing. Gingerly I signed along the dotted line.

Cruise ships call into the fjord-like inlet at Kotor

I wound down the windows, slipped on sunglasses and fumbled for the radio. There wasn’t one, but who cares? Remote, romantic expanses were mine from the first bend. Wide and cliff-hugging, the coastal road took me north, swooping into the town of Budva, which – dare I say it – already felt a tad commercialised, with bobbing yacht masts and a thronging walled Old Town, rather like a mini Dubrovnik. Soon I was happily back on my own, my next port of call Kotor, just a few kilometres from the Croatian border, but a world away from that country’s manicured honey pots. Lying at the end of southern Europe’s largest fjord, the town delivered glimpses of international invasion – a London-registered super yacht at the quay side dominated the Mediaeval city walls – but the cliffs flanking the town soared hundreds of metres skywards, rendering everything man-made fragile and fleeting.

Switchback road winding up from Kotor to the mountains, and the Gulf of Kotor. Photos My Bathroom Wall

It was quiet, but I wanted utter peace. In search of more isolation, I pointed the Chevy inland. A squiggle on the map traced four hairpin bends, which turned out to be 27, and as the tyres squealed on the bends, I realised how the hubcaps had gone missing. At the last curve I looked down: beyond the fjord and Kotor town, shimmering far off in the hazy Adriatic, was an armada of mega-yachts. This was Porto Montenegro. I’d read about it in glossy magazines. Touted by its billionaire backer as the ‘Monaco of the Adriatic’, the site is in fact a former Yugoslav naval base. Gazing at it now you see a swanky near-future. Transformations are ushering in a 600-berth marina, upmarket holiday homes and – for the benefit of the Michael Douglas/Madonna crowd – a shiny, pricey new hotel.

As quickly as the vision materialised, it vanished. One tunnel, three bends and the sea was out of sight, as Montenegro-beyond beckoned me back into a pretty, pine-scented Adriatic past: forests of evergreen, shady cypress trees and, suddenly, the entrance to the mountaintop mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic-Njegoš. I parked the car and walked the last bit through needles of sunlight, to a soundtrack of my own scrunching feet.

The mountin top tomb of local big man Petar II. Photos My Bathroom Wall

European summit: the view from Petar II's tomb (Ivan Blazhev) Almost seven foot tall, Petar II Petrovic-Njegoš made a big impact on Montenegrin history. Polymath, prince-bishop, poet and sharp-shooter, he had a great party piece – asking guests to lob a lemon into the air, which he then blasted to bits. His solemn, sculptured tomb is fittingly OTT, glinting with gold leaf and black marble, and set loftily atop the country’s second-highest mountain. At 1,660m, it is huff-puffingly challenging to reach – many of its 461 steps (I counted!) have been tunnelled through solid rock. Once I’d made it, I drank in the views over the almost-treeless mountainscape, savoured the solitude and contemplated. This man was a singular Montenegrin, a very big fish in a very small pond.

There’s more to discover about him 12km on, in the mountain stronghold of Cetinje. It is home to Biljarda, Njegoš’s former palace-home, which translates as Billiard House and rolls out 25 rooms without losing its rustic appeal. The curious name alludes to the billiard table he ordered to be carted up here – and in the upstairs front room you can find the eponymous item. One careful owner, excellent condition.

You’ll love little Cetinje if the Duchy of Grand Fenwick means anything to you. It was the name of a fictional alpine mini-state featured in comic novels by Leonard Wibberley. The tiny nation was pitched into ludicrous situations whereby it became a power-broker between the world’s great nations – most famously in the 1959 film The Mouse that Roared, starring Peter Sellers, in which they come to own a bomb that can destroy the planet.

Lord Byron thought this ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea' Untouched by modernity, Cetinje has a similar filmic, fairytale appeal. Its population is barely 20,000 yet, between 1878 and 1918, it was Montenegro’s capital. It is a town that invites you to wander – past fading facades and along tree-lined avenues, all steeped in an ambience of sublime tranquillity.

Before the country was swallowed up by Yugoslavia, the great powers wooed it with emissaries and embassies.

The latter are still here – almost a dozen of them, cute and comical, pinpointed by helpful maps in the town centre.

The French example is a rather grand fin-de-siècle affair (now part of the national library), the British (these days the University of Montenegro’s music department) is a lovely pink-coloured building with a tarnished coat of arms above the door, and the Bulgarian is a modest restaurant.

The former embassies in Citenje; clockwise from top left, Ottoman, Italian, British, Russian, Bulgarian and French

I walked and walked and – a very happy hiker in this leafy corner of the Adriatic, keen to find the quiet heart of the place – continued to walk, through forest glades into the pretty town of Rijeka Crnojevica, where a splendid old stone bridge stepped delicately over the little river Crnojevic in three loopy spans.

It was impossible to stroll by the The Stari Most cafe/restaurant and not stop – even if the young waiter with the sculpted physique and impressive height wore a bored expression that suggested the Communists had never left. The outdoor tables and delightful view of the bridge implored me to stay awhile, as did the excellent food: a plate of local cheese and ham, then fish soup, made from lake-caught carp out of nearby Lake Scutari.

Laid back Rijeka Crnojevica, a gateway to boat trips on Lake Skadar. Photos My Bathroom Wall

I could have idled for hours in this bucolic throwback, but I’d arranged for a boat to return me to the spot where I had parked the car. The said vessel arrived at the appointed time, and down the river I drifted, to the gentle thrum of the old tub’s diesel as it followed a channel of water through a lake of giant lilies. With a mountainous backdrop and cormorants flick-diving in the foreground, it felt as if the 20th century had yet to arrive, let alone the 21st.

A boat trip on Lake Skadar, before an impromptu swim. Photos My Bathroom Wall

Suddenly a large hand grasped my shoulder, shocking me back to the present, and the old boatman wheezed, ‘You want swim?’

I had no bathing trunks – I was wearing khaki shorts – but I jumped at the chance and, my man having tied up at a landing stage, I leapt in. Lulled by the lunch, I bobbed about in waters that were deliciously cool and reviving, savouring a Montenegro that might not exist in a couple of years. The poet (and celebrated swimmer) Lord Byron called this part of the world ‘the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea’ – and, for the moment at least, it very well might be. But go now, before boatmen stop offering unscheduled swims just because it’s a beautiful day.

***

I travelled as a guest of HF Holidays. Other tour operators to try include UK-based Headwater Holidays, Authentic Adventures, and the The Natural Adventure Company. For more information see Visit Montenegro


STATUES LARGE AND SMALL
   4780 views   
The supersized statues that commemorate the heroic defence of Brest Fortress, Belarus...
posted by Richard Green on 23/02/2017
 

The Belarussian border town of Brest is a 'Hero Fortress' - as designated by the Soviet Union for the exceptional fighting spirit shown by its defenders at the outbreak of the German-Soviet war of 1941-1945. There are 12 'Hero Cities', including Murmansk, Smolensk and Stalingrad, but just one fortress has the title. 

First impressions of the city would leave anyone feeling pretty flat - just a wide main street with precious few places to eat and drink on it, and housing estates fanning from it on both sides.

But walking through the huge Soviet star of the fortress entrance heralds an exercise in remembrance on an industrial scale. The day I visited it was quiet and cold; an atmosphere only accentuated by the monolithic statuary and pock-marked fortress buildings inside.

I've always found these hyper real and masculine faces and bodies arresting, and the ensemble at Brest is one of the best there is anywhere.

The fortress was built by Russia in the mid 19th Century, and the 1918 treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed here - which ended Russia's participation in the First World War, though on humiliating terms for the country. The German army marched into the town in 1938 in order to hand it back to the Soviets, and then again in 1941 as part of their surprise attack on the Soviet Union.

The exact numbers and dates seem to be controversial, but it is undoubtedly the case that the defenders of the fortress held out for several days against overwhelming odds. The Soviet Union lost approximately 27m dead in the Second World War and it's little wonder that the twelve Hero Cities and one Hero Fortress were heavily used for propaganda purposes during and after the war.

But a visit to the site is a very moving and profound experience, and one heightened by the sculpture park and semi destroyed old buildings.

It was slightly surreal to find a small cafe and bar inside the fortress complex, but I gratefully bustled into its warmth and sat down to eat a bowl of chickpeas and drink a larger. The complex is certainly not the sort of place I'd want to be in the night, and sadly the brutality of the fortress, the cruelty of the occupation, and the killing of the city's Jewish population by the Nazi's, to the casual visitor sort of swathes the city somewhat. At least on a winter's weekend, pavements nearly deserted, hotel dull and overheated, and locals making their way dourly back to their homes, it seems that way to me... 

***

04

Reasons to be cheerful: Brest

24

You can't always get what you want

puzzle

Fitting Brest into a holiday: Fez

31

Getting there: the small airport at Brest has seasonal flights to the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, operated by the national carrier, Belavia. Alternatively there are around 20 trains per day to Minsk, from where Belavia operates flights to many European capitals.

weather

When to visit: best is Spring (April and May) and Autumn (September and October), when temperatures are in the mid 20’s and the skies are clear. Remember that winter nights can be cold and summer days are regularly over 40 degrees.

35

More info: UK-based tour operators offering trips to Belarus include Regent Holidays and Undiscovered Destinations. Or there's locally based Paradise Travel. For information on the fortress see Brest Fortress, and for general country information visit the Website of the Republic of Belarus

30

Visa and safety: Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.

 

 

 


ISLANDS
   3626 views   
You may not have heard of the other Mauritian island, but it's beautiful, warm hearted and sees remarkably few tourists...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

Thanks to the unfettered building of ever more could-be-anywhere resorts, the holiday paradise of Mauritius is fast losing its lustre. Yet there is another side to the island. In fact, there’s another island to the island. It’s called Rodrigues and it couldn’t be more different. Just 11 miles long and five miles wide, it’s 360 miles east of Mauritius, has only a handful of family-run hotels and a close-knit Creole population of 38,000 that loves to dance, fish for octopus and picnic by the beach.

This forgotten little corner of the Indian Ocean has a tiny airport, which sees four turboprop flights a day, all from Mauritius, and just one petrol ­station. It’s part of the Republic of Mauritius, but locals scrunch their faces up at the mention of Mauritius main island. Many haven’t been there and are perfectly happy that way. Those that have say it’s too built-up, too fast-paced, and lament the fact that many of the beaches there are now private, unlike the gorgeous free-to-roam sands of Rodrigues.

My taxi to the hotel was driven by a plump 29-year-old called Au Pin. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and pointed his beat-up old Toyota past small box houses that reminded me of South Africa. He asked if I’d like to buy a beer at the next roadside shack.

The ice-cold bottle of Phoenix set ­me back the equiv­alent of 75p. With the windows wound down, catchy local music on the radio, octopus drying on wooden frames in the lagoon and the tropic-scented air wafting by, it was worth a dozen “cold towel, sir?” certainties that I might have encountered on a more tourist-focused island.

And for the hell of it, rather than for an extra fare, Au Pin took me to see the island’s largest church, St Gabriel’s. It’s snug in a high hollow in the middle of the island and is built of coral. I entered just as the choir practise reached a triumphant crescendo.

At the evening meal, the buffet included ‘salad enhanced with octopus’ By the time we reached the Mourouk Ebony Hotel — on the other side of the island from the airport — I’d learnt about Au Pin’s wife and kids, his worries and plans. Foremost among the last was expanding the little shop attached to his home. We pulled over to pick up his new sign. He puffed with pride and showed it to me as if it were a certificate: “Au Pin — General Retailer in Foodstuff and non Foodstuffs”.

If you crave branded toiletries, signature dishes and rainforest showers, look away now. The reception-cum-dining- room-cum-shop of the 30-room Mourouk Ebony had evolved from use rather than been designed from scratch.

The rattan chairs were saggy and had been repainted several times, an aquarium sprouted Chinese bridges and figurines above its waterline, and the “telefon cabin” by the reception desk was like something from a Jacques Tati film.

The welcome was warm, though, the line of red-roofed chalets pretty and the view of the vast, empty beach and dreamy lagoon magnificent. I tried the pool, read on my veranda and walked along the deserted beach. The only people I saw were two local families setting up a barbecue in the shade, who waved, and a young French couple hand-in-hand in love, who said bonjour.

At the evening meal, a young, tall-hatted chef was sweating and fretting over large steel buffet trays of casseroles, curries and salads, which included one called “Salad enhanced with octopus”. After dinner, staff moved the chairs to make way for a band and dancers in orange and blue floral shirts. There’s a mania on the island for Sega, a flirty dance where men and women cut in close to impress with their gyrations.

I’d normally recoil at the thought of hotel staff providing entertainment, but here it happened unannounced. I spotted the pretty room maid, the woman from reception with the big glasses and the thickset security guard, all having enormous fun. Their gusto and unbounded pleasure won everyone over. Except for the cutting in and out, the dancers’ feet remained firmly planted, which the barman said harked back to the days when the Creoles of Rodrigues were slaves and forced to make their recreation in leg irons.

To tour the rest of the island, I sought out Willy, the big-smiling scooter- and kiteboard-renter, who laughed heartily when I suggested showing him my driving licence, said nothing and tossed me a set of keys.

The island isn’t swaying palms and lush jungle, and there isn’t a stick of sugar cane. Much of it is quite stark, in fact, with scrub and forest tufts. And the villages aren’t cutesy and clapboard, but earthy and less kempt than on Mauritius. But everywhere I went, strangers waved hello and conversations started effortlessly. I drove at 25mph for four hours and wasn’t overtaken once.

I crossed the backbone of the island by Mont Limon, up at 1,300ft, lingered in several shuffle-speed villages, bought some sizzling barbecue sausages at a beach stall, and in the far southwest of the island found the superb François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve.

The island was home to the dodo’s cousin, which was called the Rodrigues solitaire. It was similar to the dodo: flightless and unsuspecting. With solitaires the only game in town, early settlers hunted them from the face of the island, and the earth, in double-quick time — perhaps as early as 1761. There’s a lumpy leftover skeleton of one in a cabinet here.

There’s no hope of reintroducing the solitaire, but the Aldabra giant tortoise — from the Seychelles — is playing stand-in for two endemic varieties, also lost centuries ago. The reserve has a trail through a little gorge where dozens of them lumber about in the sun, munching the grass into lawn-like ­perfection. The last-surviving endemic mammal, the Rodrigues fruit bat, is being nurtured back to large numbers here too.

I didn’t have time for a dive, but chatting to tousle-haired Benoit in the dive shack, it was made passionately clear to me that I was missing a real treat. Apparently, the giant lagoon, a marine park, is three times the size of the island. Born on Mauritius, Benoit was in self-imposed exile on Rodrigues. “In Mauritius, the diving is from basalt rock,” he said. “Here, it’s all live coral. There are no big developments and no pesticides used on the land. So the lagoon is unpolluted.”

The locals say that Rodrigues is what Mauritius main island was like decades ago. To me, it felt wonderfully warm-hearted and innocent, and very authentic. If you like the sort of place where a waiter might pull up a chair to explain how to catch octopus, where the person next to you at a bar will almost certainly say cheers, where beaches are empty and arrivals are blissfully cold-towel free, then Rodrigues could be for you.

I travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours.

Getting there: The Sir Gaëtan Duval Airport sits at the far west of the island and is served six or seven times a day by Air Mauritius to Mauritius, plus Air Austral has started a service to Saint-Pierre de la Réunion on the French dependent territory of Reunion. Both are great options for a two island trip - flying to Rodrigues after a few days on Mauritius or Reunion. 

For more information, see Tourism Rodrigues and Tourism Mauritius
 


DESTINATIONS
   5572 views   
10 desert regions and what's to see beyond the sand...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

Sweeping seas of dunes, hospitable locals and sunsets to savour: the world’s desert regions are wonderfully romantic. Whether you choose camel training with the Bedouin, trekking with the Berbers or luxury lodging in Monument Valley, the exhilaration, stillness, clean air and stargazing will leave you longing to return. Here are 10 of the best deserts, and how to holiday in them.

America’s Southwest: The states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada could have been where the phrase “wide open space” was coined. Crank up the country and western, stock up on bottled water and drive through the inhospitable beauty of Death Valley, past the towering rock spindles and mesas of Monument Valley or along Nevada’s Highway 50 — dubbed the Loneliest Road in America. Set cruise control and steer through a land of tumbleweed, ghost towns and Joshua trees, then party at the oversized oases of Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

Tourists stroll the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, North America's low point, at 85 metres below sea level

About 100 miles to the west of Monument Valley is the Amangiri, a super cool take on how a desert resort should be. Or the Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley was built in 1927 and is an institution of desert tourism. It sits on a natural aquifer - which has given life to a micro pocket of lushness and has been used to fill a sumptuous swimming pool. My heart sank to see the attached golf course though.

Jordan: On my last visit to Jordan, as the wheels of my plane hit the pink dusty runway, the young woman next to me proffered an enigmatic “Welcome to the desert”. And boy, what a desert it is. Crossed by the north-south sinew of the King’s Highway, Jordan includes the Dana gorge, the ruins of Petra and the superlative dunes and mountains of Wadi Rum. Jordanian hospitality is justly celebrated, the infrastructure is good and there are top-notch hotels and simple Bedouin-style camps to sleep in.

Petra's so called Treasury blushing pink in the dawn light

The Wadi Rum Bedouin Desert Camp is a good stab at creating a homely Bedouin atmosphere. It's admirably simple too - you sleep in traditional tents and dine in a larger lean-to. When I was there it was perhaps a little too close to nature though, as the sandy floor seemed to conjure scorpion-infested dreams. These days the tents are more substantial and nicely raised off the ground. There are no such worries in the Dana Biosphere's Fenyan Lodge- a delightful 26-room vegetarian bolt hole styled on a caravanserai.

See Visit Jordan

Morocco: South of the Atlas Mountains, the valley floors are traced by date palms and sand-coloured settlements. Further on, the villages are fewer, the palm groves more marooned, until you’re enveloped by the sublime stillness of the Sahara. There you can trek the great dune fields, then camp out at night, or gaze at the shimmering scene from the comfort of a luxury converted kasbah.

Aït Benhaddou was an important stop on the caravan route between the Saharsa and Marrakech

About a four hour drive southeast of Marrakech is the Riad Caravane; a lovely 8-room riad in a short stroll away from the kasbah village of Ait Boulmane - used as a filming location in The Man Who Would be King and Gladiator. Or an hour further east is Dar Ahlam; a 12-room desert lodge in Skoura with high walls, luscious decor and fine dining.

See Much Morocco

United Arab Emirates: Like many desert people, the Emiratis love  a good sunset - well actually any sunset. They celebrate the safe passage of another scorching day by heading off in their 4WDs for family desert picnics where they feast, fraternise, and run the quickly cooling sand through their fingers. You don’t need Emirati pals to experience this, though — several desert hotels cater for locals and tourists alike.

Desert falcon with trainer. It's the national bird of the UAE and must have its own seat when being transported by plane

About 80 miles south of Abu Dhabi is the crescent-shaped Liwa Oasis, which borders the vast Empty Quarter. Qasr Al Sarab, a luxury resort, offers Beau Geste bling — it’s styled as a desert fort, but with tasteful rooms (some with private pools) and a romantic restaurant.

Sir Bani Yas Island, 160 miles west of Abu Dhabi, was once the private pleasure park of the revered Sheikh Zayed, where he entertained the global great and good, and helped to save the Arabian Oryx. (The world’s largest herd is here.) His relatively modest guest palace is now a stylish 64-room Sir Bani Yas Anantara resort, from which you can take an Oryx safari, canoe in the mangroves, cycle over hills or lounge by the pool.

See Sir Bani Yas and Visit Abu Dhabi

Rajasthan: India being India, its deserts are rarely deserted. Indeed, Rajasthan is about the most flamboyant part of the country, with forts, palaces and towns that teem with colourfully clad locals, not to mention the magnificent moustaches. Push on past Jodhpur and you’ll come to the Great Thar Desert’s fort of forts, Jaisalmer. This magical castle has narrow streets and an intoxicating atmosphere, almost overwhelmingly so during its festival (February 23-25).

The Amber Fort near to Jaipur in Rajasthan

Oman: The locals are the most gracious givers of directions — a care derived from the days when bad directions could mean death in the desert. Roads are few, but well maintained and quiet. The low-rise capital, Muscat, is a super place, as is the city of Nizwa, the Hajar Mountains and the Wahiba Sands, where there are several excellent desert camps. Salalah it at the far south of the country and now has a few good beach resorts, but it is also gateway to the Empty Quarter — a sea of sand larger than Spain — that has to be seen to be believed.

A range of 400ft high sand dunes in the Empty Quarter of Oman. Photo Richard Green

The Rotana Salalah Resort is a splendid new beach resort with Arabian decor, excellent food and fine swimming pools. In the east of the country on the edge of the Wahiba Sands is the luxurious Desert Nights Camp. Here you'll find Bedouin style decor in its tented suites and very good service too. 

Egypt: Alexander the Great consulted the oracle at Siwa oasis before his eastern conquests. The temple is a ruin, but the patchwork of orchards, mud houses and magnificent dunes makes an unforgettable trip. Not far from Alexandria, there are poignant reminders of desert conflict in the scruffy town of El Alamein, home to many memorials to the fallen. And in the country's far south are the mesmerising ruins of Abu Simbel.

These four colossus of Abu Simbel, carved in the 13th Century BC are each of Pharaoh Ramesses II

Chile: Front runner for the title of oldest and driest desert in the world, the Atacama is a 600-mile sliver of Chile’s far north. It has weather stations that have never detected rain, and parts of it were used by NASA to test its Mars landers. Yet, partly by harnessing the moisture in marine fogs, plants and people have made it home for thousands of years. San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty oasis with superb desert lodges, an excellent archaeological museum and tours to the nearby Valley of the Moon.

Twisted rock formation in Chile's Atacama Desert

Australia: The Red Centre is dominated by Uluru, the arresting red rock that is six miles in circumference and sacred to Aborigines. Old settlements and ranches cling barnacle-like to the desert floor of western and central Australia, too, and make fascinating pit stops. The best way to appreciate the distances and the desert is a trip either down through the Tanami Desert from Darwin or up from Adelaide on the luxury Ghan train.

Clouds passing over Uluru, a gigantic sandstone monolith sacred to Australia's native people

Tunisia: The south of the country is a fascinating slab of the Sahara, with spectacular scenery and short driving distances. The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed here, and the troglodyte dwellings at Matmata had cameo roles in several of the Star Wars films. You can even drop in at Luke Skywalker’s place — now the somewhat scruffy Hotel Sidi Driss. A few hours’ drive away are a swathe of Saharan dunes called the Grand Erg Oriental, the mirage-like oasis settlements of Zaafrane, Ghidma and Ksar Ghilane, and the desert city of Tozeur, famous for its old town’s intricate facades.


GHOST TOWNS
   2820 views   
All's fair in love and war they say. Tyneham, the English village destroyed by friendly fire...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

The village of Tyneham's story is a tragic one. Near to Lulworth in south Dorset in the UK, the surrounding area has beautiful little villages, green rolling hills, and the famously handsome coastline of the Jurassic Coast - so called because of the erosion that has exposed innumerable fossils. 

Another feature of the area is its connection with the British Army - in particular to its tank warfare training. The excellent Bovington Tank Museum is a short drive away too, which is a terrific place to visit and learn about the history of the tank, which is all well and good. But the MOD (Ministry of Defence) own the Lulworth Ranges, a 7,000 slab of rural Dorset that since 1917 has been given over to live-fire practise for tanks and armoured vehicles.

Part of the Armoured Fighting Vehicles Gunnery School, the land includes what was once the peaceful hamlet of Tyneham. It was inhabited since Roman times, is mentioned in the Doomsday Book and has a limestone church built in the 13th Century at its heart.

As well as the church, there was a school, a rectory, post office and several little rows of cottages, but just before Christmas 1943 it was all requisitioned in order to conduct firing tests. The fad for bumper stickers saying 'will the last person to leave so and so...' is over, and I never much cared for it, but in the case of Tyneham, the last of its 225 souls forced to flee did something profound. They left a note on the church door. It read - "Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly."

Sadly, although the evacuation was supposed to be temporary, the writer of the note, and all the other villagers never did return to live in their former homes. The land was compulsorily purchased by the army in 1948, and has been in use for training ever since.

Visiting is a poignant experience. True, the number of people wasn't large, the buildings are modest, and its ghostliness is overshadowed somewhat by the fact that there are other perfectly normal villages just a few miles away. Even so, walking round the village makes you think that it could just have easily happened anywhere in the country and how powerless everyone is in the face of the armed forces at times of war or peace.

Tyneham was just the place unlucky enough to be in the firing line, and so it goes. Literally too, as over the years its buildings have been damaged by shelling.

The scene is surreal enough as it is, but is made more so by having a good chance of seeing tanks in the distance on the route into the village. Sometimes the area is used for live firing, during which times the village and surrounding area is closed to the public - that said, it is open most weekends and public holidays. See the Tyneham & Worbarrow Website for more information on the village, and to find out when it is open. More generally there's Visit Dorset


GETTING AROUND
   3999 views   
Rise above the chaos and polution of Bangkok's streets, on the Skytrain...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

Anyone who has sat hunched in a Bangkok tuk-tuk knows two things about the place: first, it's one of Asia's most exciting cities; second, it has an almighty traffic problem. Those motorised rickshaws are fun, but with gridlock threatening (an estimated 1,000 new cars hit the street every day), they're a lousy way to get anywhere. Far better to rise above the mayhem and take the Skytrain instead.

This elevated railway is the antithesis of the streets below. It's efficient, clean and easy to use, and it whisks you over the jams in air-conditioned comfort. It solves another Bangkok bugbear too - the baffling layout. There's no central point, just an amalgam of fuzzily focused areas that has visitors yearning for a beaten track. Well, here it is: two simple lines that make up a tour with fantastic views and theme-park simplicity. Hop aboard.

THE START: kick off at the fabulous Chatuchak weekend market at Mo Chit, the northernmost stop on the Sukhumvit Line. It's a maze of 15,000 stalls, with plants, pets, food, handicrafts and lots of clothes - many wannabe Thai designers start their careers here. You'll be lost in no time, but don't worry; that's half the fun. Catching the cacophony early is best, from about 9.30am, before temperatures rise. Handicrafts are around sections 22-25, and you'll find fascinating food stalls, with exotic local fruits and spices, in sections 6-8.

It's a short walk to the Skytrain station from here. Flop into the welcoming blast of air-con and get ready for some superb views - the tracks are about level with a fifth-storey window. Sit on the left-hand side and you won't miss the Victory Monument, a bombastic obelisk commemorating a victory over the French. As you head south, the cityscape grows more shiny and new, with towering hotels and office blocks and, to the left, Bangkok's tallest building, and briefly the world's tallest hotel, the 88-storey Baiyoke Sky Hotel.

The Skytrain track creeps higher as it approaches Siam Square, the nation's shopping showcase, and the swish facades and double-height intersection of the two Skytrain lines are downright futuristic.

FIRST STOP: Siam Get off at Siam station and leave by exit 4 to enter the recently opened Siam Paragon Siam Paragon. This mammoth mall is every bit as glitzy as those in Singapore or Hong Kong, with Ferrari and Maserati dealerships tucked in-between French Connection, Levi's and Miss Sixty.

Hungry? Good. Bangkok's street food is tasty and shouldn't be missed, but it's fashionable to eat in shopping centres right now, with the big malls competing to offer cheap gourmet-style market favourites for a couple of pounds. Tuck in here or at the nearby MBK mall.

Now walk west along Thanon Rama I, cross the busy Thanon Phrayathai and turn right into Soi Kasemsan 2. At the end of the lane is the Jim Thomson House. Still the city's most famous farang (foreigner), he was the charismatic OSS (forerunner of the CIA) station chief here for a spell in the 1940s, and later rejuvenated Thailand's silk-weaving tradition. It's sumptuous stuff, and you can see the fabrics - and his collection of Asian antiques - to best advantage on a tour of his six traditional Thai teak houses.

BACK ON BOARD: National Stadium Reboard the Skytrain here, a couple of minutes' walk from Jim Thompson's. You want the Silom Line, heading for Saphan Taksin. The train weaves over the traffic on Thanon Rama I and turns south, past the vast lawns and whitewashed grandstand of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and Bangkok's most pleasant park, Lumphini. Then you veer right at Thanon Rama IV, where the night is given over to a market packed with designer fakes and the city's most famous fleshpot, Patpong.

THE FINISH: Saphan Taksin The Chao Phraya river sees the end of the elevated line, but just underneath the station is the Express Boat pier. This is a contender for a great public-transport route as well, but that's for another day. Hop one stop upriver to the Oriental Hotel, once the grandest non-royal building in Bangkok - possibly outmoded, but never outclassed. Take an outside table by the water's edge, order a cocktail, and watch the hotel courtesy boats switch on their nocturnal silhouettes of white lights.

Details: a single Skytrain ticket from a coin-operated machine costs 20p-60p, depending on the journey. A one-day pass is £1.50, a three-day pass £1.80, from a ticket office. Trains run 6am to midnight. Find a good detailed guide to the routes and stations at the Bangkok Mass Transit System


JOURNEYS
   3939 views   
Sikh and ye shall find...community, piety and fun, in Amritsar's Golden Temple...
posted by Richard Green on 16/02/2017
 

A few years back I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and wrote the following piece, which appeared in the Sunday Times.

The flat, dusty streets of Amritsar, 250 miles northwest of Delhi, were choking with traffic and hawkers. The temple gates were almost within reach and the postcard-pushers knew it. I’d been polite so far, but now I waved my arms about and shouted, “Shoo!”

I walked into the temple compound, still swatting the air, but suddenly the midge-like hawkers were gone. It was as though an invisible force were stopping them from entering. Glancing back, the most pesky postcard-seller caught my eye and briefly interrupted his Churchill-Churchillian sulk with a smile.

I relaxed immediately.

At a busy row of benches, a greying lady in a rose-red sari mimed that I should take off my shoes and socks. She removed hers, too, then scooped up mine and bustled over to a long counter. Exchanging them for tokens, she hurried back and pressed a metal disc into my palm, closing my fingers around it as though it were precious. My grandparents used to do that when treating me with a five-pound note: I’d not thought of that for a long time.

She gathered in her sari and led me to a sawn-off oil barrel. It was full of head scarves. The few men not already wearing turbans were pausing to grab temporary head cover, a requirement for entry to the temple. My helper was more diligent, though — rejecting several scarves before teasing out the right one, Ali Bongo-style. It perfectly matched my shirt, and a tall Sikh boy with an insurmountable grin stopped to tie it on. My self-appointed chaperone single-clapped in delight.

Next, she led me to the entrance proper, where we paddled through a shallow pool to cleanse our feet. She held my elbow for balance and we climbed the steps together.

At the top, she leant against a column and proudly pushed me forward. There, framed by the white arch, was the 400-year-old Golden Temple of Amritsar. It was familiar to me from pictures in countless Punjabi restaurants, but in real life it was much more impressive. Shimmering in the heat, it loomed lightly, like a mirage. Its giant gilded strongbox glared bullion-brilliant, and paradoxically appeared to float at the centre of a giant olive-green pool.

My companion sighed contentedly, namaste‘d me goodbye, and walked off along the marble poolside path.

Emerging from the inner sanctum, where Sikhs were filing past their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, I walked by a formal grassy area. Having just bathed ceremonially in the pool, men were drying their long, long hair in the sun.

Further on, a crowd milled outside a large brick building, where a toothy man handed me a large metal thali tray, big and round as a hubcap. A young girl in western clothes said hello and asked me where I was from. She explained that this was the langur hall, where free meals are served round the clock.

It was a two-storey building the size of a Victorian school. Catching my bemused look, the girl launched into an explanation. “Fifty thousand people a day eat here, can you imagine? Guru Nanak, our founder, started it so that all Sikhs should eat together and show we are not agreeing with the caste system, like in Hinduism, and that men and women aren’t keeping separated, like in Islam.

“The people cooking and serving are volunteers, too,” she continued. “All sorts of people, you’ll see. We are calling it seva. It is the voluntary work we are doing at a temple.”

A bell rang and the heavy wooden doors opened. We shuffled inside and sat cross-legged on hessian mats, at least 1,000 people, I reckoned. There was a tug on my sleeve: two wily little kids with worn-through clothes and quick movements asked my name, shaking my hand energetically. Opposite, a portly gentleman with a magnificent beard adjusted his sword and bowed his head minutely in welcome.

Sumpreet, the sassy girl from outside, explained that the boys were poor and possibly came to eat every day, while the man was a rich businessmen. A little shyly, she added: “I am studying for a geography degree, and come only when an exam is nearing and I am needing extra luck.”

A line of servers scurried in from behind. They slung chapatis and dished out dhal with hilarious inaccuracy, but they were volunteers, and already the next sitting was agitating at the door. It’s the same in gurdwaras everywhere; rich and poor, young and old, men and women, all eating together. The food may be basic, but the symbolism was fine fusion.

Without Question, the Golden Temple has all the grace and beauty of the Taj Mahal. It’s not as big or as grand, but it is certainly as stunning. And while the Taj is a mausoleum, moribund except for the swarms of tourists and touts, the Golden Temple pulses with the energy of a thriving living community — the spiritual and temporal centre of the Sikh faith.

It is hardly visited by non-Indian or non-Sikh tourists, but there is an information office. After a cup of tea, information officer Sundeep Dalbir Singh (Retired) led me on a free tour of the temple.

Mr Singh was an old man with a forthright chest and bow legs. He had served in the Indian army before independence and referred to the Raj constantly, usually while staring into space, as though he were remembering a long-dead pet.

I followed him up the narrow steps to the museum, where walls were crammed with paintings. They were of the Sikh gurus and their followers, teaching, fighting and suffering, but mainly suffering.

In front of one particularly gruesome canvas, my guide scrunched up his face excitedly, like a schoolboy recounting an infamous scrap, saying that these three martyrs were tortured “very extensively, very extensively indeed”. Each “very” was projected loudly, like when a giant first appears in a bedtime story.

Another picture showed a Sikh being sliced in two with an axe — lengthways; and another panel brimmed with black-and-white photographs of Sikh youths who had been shot by the Indian army. They were like school portraits, but madly macabre, and “very extensively” began echoing all around.

So much for blood and guts, bricks and mortar — I had a killer theological question that I wanted to air. So I asked: “What’s the main difference between the Sikh salvation and the Christian heaven?” He thoughtfully twizzled his thinning grey beard and fell silent for a long time. A very long time. Then, with eureka certainty, he said: “The Christian heaven has better facilities.”

It was mid-afternoon when the heat finally won out and, overcoming my shyness, I “went local” and joined some other pilgrims snoozing in the dependable shade of a loggia.

Lying on the marble was refreshingly cool, like face-pressing a fridge door in a heat wave; and wafting over the water on a jasmine-scented breeze came hypnotic chanting amplified from the temple roof. I fell asleep.

Suddenly, a young boy in a white dhoti was frantically prodding me awake, shouting: “The water is coming; the water is coming — look!” Advancing at a slow walk were at least 100 people. Sikhs were scoop-filling buckets from the edge of the tank, then passing them on to the next person in the chain. The pails swung across the crest of the crowd, water spilling and pails clattering. When they reached the last person in the row, the water was hurled over the marble. It was like watching a Sikh Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Then the crowd engulfed me, too. It was like a childhood summer — foot-stampingly happy days spent spraying friends with garden hoses. By the time a teenager tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a heavy pail, I was laughing aloud. “What on earth is going on?” I asked with a happy shrug.

“We are cleaning the pathway. Here,” he said, handing me a full bucket. I took the weight, then hesitated and looked around. This couldn’t really be allowed, could it — in what is the Sikh equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral? I lunged forward like a first-timer in a bowling alley and the water arched through the air, splattering onto the white stone. The youth beamed, grabbed back the bucket, then rushed off to the pool.

This was a long way from my village church in Derbyshire. All I remembered from there was frustrated fidgeting and drowsy daydreaming. What a shame that they never let us help wash the aisles.

***

I travelled as a guest of CTS Horizons.

Geting there: Amritsar's Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee Intenrational Airport has flights with Air India to Birmingham and Delhi, with Air India Express to Dubai, Indigo to Delhi, Mumbai, and Jammu (beginning May 2017), Jet Airways to Delhi, Malindo Air to Kuala Lumpur, Qatar Airways to Doha, Scoot to Singapore, Spicejet to Delhi, Dubai, Mumbai and Srinigar, Turkmenistan Airlines to Asgabat, Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent, and Vistara to Delhi and Mumbai.

More information: for more on the temple itself see www.goldentempleamritsar.org, and for more on Idia, see incredibleindia.org


ALL AT SEA
   4241 views   
Chugging out of Bangkok in a 100-year-old rice barge...
posted by Richard Green on 15/02/2017
 

The ungainly, yet rather endearing Anantara antique rice barge. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The sky beyond the riverbank grew mauve as the temple bell tolled the dawn. I sat on the edge of the bed and gazed out of the window of my cabin, watching a longtail boat of schoolchildren piercing the rafts of water hyacinth. A tugboat passed, its captain, in a white vest, brushing his teeth at the wheel. I felt a world away from the stresses of Bangkok, but in fact I was just a dozen miles or so upstream from the city’s chaos.

The three-day cruise from central Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River in a 100-year-old rice barge, was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in or around the city. I’d always pegged cruises as being impersonal and distancing you from the culture on shore, yet these few days afloat proved to be both intimate and revealing.

Dawn from my cabin. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The Anantara Song is made of teak and looks a tad comical, with a bulbous front and rear, a deck high out of the water and a canopy on top — like a little Noah’s Ark. But the chief butler, Johnny, welcomed me aboard reverently. He rewarded my minimal effort of climbing up the few steps — as he did every time for everyone over the next three days — with a lemon-grass-scented cold towel and a glass of iced water. He introduced me to the first mate, Milky, Captain Lekky, and Witty, the chef, as well as my fellow passengers: couples from Guernsey, Hamburg and Bangkok.

The first stop was the Wat Arun temple, where the landing stage was taking a bruising from tourist boats. A different guide met each cabin group; mine was Tommy. After a whistle-stop tour of the rocket-shaped spikes of the temple, we sat by a fan in the throne hall discussing Buddhism, the traffic and, hushedly, the ailing king’s health.

A few minutes further upriver was the Royal Barge Museum, where eight 160ft barges were on display. Tommy explained that the Chao Phraya is called the River of Kings, and that its royal pageants started in the 12th century.

Once past the giant Rama VII road bridge, we ate lunch at the shaded table on deck. Then I sat on a padded lounger at the prow and watched the city give way, intermittently, to wooden houses, jetties and stalls, and countryside. To our right, a flock of large whitish birds descended gingerly onto a tree, their spindly legs treading the air in quest of a branch strong enough to support them. Johnny told us that they were Asian open-billed storks, and handed round binoculars.

Mon Temple, with offerings of Fanta Cherry rightly to the fore. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Our next mooring was at the island of Koh Kret, home to the ethnic Mon people, who arrived from Burma cen­turies ago. The tree by our barge was reputedly saved from being felled by two young boys. Now it’s part of a temple and bedecked in flags, with an offerings table and a line of cherry Fanta bottles in pride of place.

My cabin had a double bed, and a bathroom with a blue-tiled shower and Bulgari toiletries It was a delight to walk down the village alleyway. An earnest-looking man was crafting clay dioramas, a long-haired youth strummed a guitar and taxi-mopeds returned from the school run. I bought a cold drink from a stall holder, who tried to make it a job lot with a toy gun and a herbal tea — good for “removing beer bellies”.

That evening, with the boat moored by a monastery, we relaxed on deck. A mosquito buzzed by my ear, but almost before I could flap, Johnny handed round insect-repellent sprays. After a River of the King sundowner cocktail, we dined on lobster with green bean salad, chicken in coconut-milk soup, duck in red curry, kale with black mushroom and oyster sauce, and bread and butter pudding.

The barge passes a large Buddha statue in a little village. Photo My Bathroom Wall

A Thai woman, Sunree, talked about the importance of water in her culture. She was originally from a village with no roads and said: “My dad threw me into the water when I was three, with a coco­nut to cling to. I learnt to swim that way, and swam and swam, and didn’t want to get out for all my childhood.”

The next morning, after giving an ­offering to, and receiving a blessing from, the 91-year-old head monk, we sailed on to the former Thai capital, Ayutthaya. In its 14th-century heyday, it was a city of more than a million people, with 5,000 foreign traders and emissaries.

After a brief tour of Wat Panancherng, inside which the huge seated Buddha seemed too big for his building, a car and guide took me to the heart of Ayutthaya. The main island is a thrilling ensemble of golden stupas and crumbling temples. The city was founded in 1350 and remained the Siamese capital for 417 years. It’s not as jungly or as vast as Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, but there’s a similar romantic essence to it.

The on-land highlight for me, though, was the Bang Pa-in, or Summer Palace, a sprawling, Potsdam-like ensemble of royal whimsies 12 miles south of Ayutthaya. I climbed a 100ft tower, built so the king of Siam could watch herds of roaming elephant, and paused at a memorial to the king’s consort and three children who drowned nearby. None of her servants lifted a finger to save her, because to lay a finger on her — as royalty — would have attracted the death penalty. I saw a collection of vintage English-built king’s carriages — hence why Thais drive on the left — an opulent Chinese pavilion and several European-style palaces. Afterwards, I helped my guide, Ann, collect a bag of little white flowers for her friend’s chest infection. The infusion is a remedy.

The car dropped me by a small khlong, or canal, where saffron-robed young monks operated an electric gondola across the 100 or so feet of water to where the barge was berthed. It was a gorgeous spot, just off the Chao Phraya, by a bulky monastery and a lighthouse where a wordy plaque seemed relieved to wind up its historic spiel with “at last this lighthouse stopped working”.

A double bed in the bijou teak cabin, and the forward lounging deck. Photo My Bathroom Wall

There’s always scenery on a river cruise, so, despite the wood-panelled cosi­ness of my 260 sq ft cabin, which had a settee and a table, I preferred the deck. The four cabins are air-conditioned, with a small ladder to a double bed and, down some steps, a very decent bathroom: blue-tiled shower, wood-latticed floor, full-sized basin and Bulgari toiletries.

Weaknesses on the cruise were the slightly patchy level of guiding, tepid showers and bland spice levels, reined in for the western palate I imagine. Yet these things were far from my mind when we steamed back into Bangkok. I lounged at the prow with earl grey and biscuits, watching the longtail boats, ferries and giant barges as they churned up the muddy water. Just as I felt a drip of sweat forming on my forehead, Johnny swivelled one of the outdoor fans to waft in my direction.

I travelled as a guest of Anantara Cruises


BARS AND PUBS
   3914 views   
Remembering the opening of Europe's longest bar, at London's St Pancras Station
posted by Richard Green on 14/02/2017
 

Europe's longest bar, Searcy's Champagne Bar, has trains pulling up right alongside

You might have thought that St Pancras station was beautiful or quirky, but you would never have called it glamorous. Not until now, that is. With the opening of Europe's longest champagne bar - all 315ft of it, equivalent to four train carriages - St Pancras just got sexy.

I'm sitting at about the 180ft mark, on a brown leather banquette, heated to ward off the chill under the vast arches. The champagne is flowing, the oysters are sliding and, just feet away, behind a glass partition, a Eurostar train is easing its way down the platform - next stop Paris.

St Pancras International station is the UK terminus station for Eurostar services from Paris and Brussels

I confess that I'm from Derby, and St Pancras is my station. By that, I mean it's where the main line from Sheffield and the Midlands has terminated since it was built in 1868; where I alighted for college in 1983 (I never quite got around to going back on a permanent basis); where I ran along the platform, heading home for my brother's wedding; and where I queued in the cold, trying to get north in time for Christmas. It's not a place where I have ever drunk champagne.

Now there are more than 40 varieties from which to choose, from a glass of Jean-Paul Deville Carte Noire NV for £7.50 all the way to a bottle of Krug Collection 1949 for £2,700. There are just two bottles of that last one, kept in a nearby safe. Impulsives, please note - you'll have to allow 15-20 minutes after ordering for chilling.

If I'd asked for either of those drinks at the Shires - the old railway pub that was apologetically tucked away in a corner nook - I'd have got a black eye and 15 or 20 minutes of seeing stars. It was an unspeakably grotty place, serving scowls and poorly kept John Smith's bitter. The floor was sticky, the games machines were distracting and the meat pies were utterly miserable.

A crisp-suited waiter hands me the new bar's food menu, snapping me out of my reverie. There's a champagne breakfast at £17.50, with plates of canapés from £7.50 and open sandwiches from £6.50. Proper open sandwiches, these: not the train wrecks of mangled sausage, egg and ketchup that were scraped together at the old platform-side Traveller's Fare cafe, but "Gubbeen, heirloom tomato chutney on granary bread", no less.

The bar is on the platform level under the glorious Victorian roof

Ah, and here comes the 16.12 from Brussels, gliding along the platform. Through the windows, the passengers look excited, some a little stunned. They've had their Waterloo: nice though the curvy roof was, this entrance is as grand a station arrival as you'll find anywhere in the world. A little girl waves from the window and, caught in the spirit of the place, several diners on the next table wave back.

If I have one gripe, it's a selfish one: the country's and the Continent's gain is my loss. You see, next time I catch the train up to Derby, it won't actually depart from beside the champagne bar. No, no: services to the Midlands have been shunted to a new annex just beyond, where the vaulted ceiling, and the magic, stops.

Still, us Midlanders don't really mind being nudged out by Eurostar, and our platforms are only a short walk away. After some bubbly in style, the 12.04 to Sheffield will never be quite the same again. And who cares about the 12.04 to Sheffield, anyway? I'm definitely coming back here just to glam it up, sans train tickets.

***

The above article was published in the Sunday Times on the 18th of November 2007; the week of the bar's opening. Since then I have indeed returned - on many occasions - though usually when meeting friends and relatives visiting from the Midlands, including Sheffield.

The bar looks and feel pretty much as it did when it first opened, though I've found that sitting at the tables down the side of the train can mean slow service sometimes, especially at the beginning.

31

Getting there: St Pancras International Station is served by the Kings Cross St Pancras tube station, which is on the Circle, Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan lines. See https://tfl.gov.uk/tube for station and tube line info.

35

More information: see Searcy's Champagne Bar and St Pancras Station. And for info on the many bars and restaurants nearby - especially up at the fashionable Granary Sqaure, see www.kingscross.co.uk


LIVERY OF THE MONTH
   5957 views   
Rossiya's flying Amur tiger livery...
posted by Richard Green on 14/02/2017
 

    The striking Amur Tiger face on the nose of the Rossiya 747

Liveries don’t get more striking that this tiger face painted onto the nose of a Rossiya Airlines Boeing 747.

Designed to highlight the plight of the world’s endangered species – and specifically here the Amur Tiger – a subspecies of the Siberian or Manchurian Tigers, the livery is in conjunction with the Amur Tiger Center.

The livery first appeared in June 2015 on the front of what was then a Transaero Airlines aircraft, but airlines demise in October 2015 put the survival of the livery in doubt. But Rossiya Airlines – a wholly owned subsidiary of Aeroflot took on all of the airline’s 747’s and has decided to keep the flying tiger on its jumbo registered EI-XLD.

The Amur tiger is the most northerly subspecies of a tiger (also known as the Siberian or North Chinese tiger). Once found throughout Russia’s Far East, northern China and the Korean Peninsula, some 95% of the world’s population of the tigers are found in Russia – concentrated in the Primorsky Krai and the southern Khabarovsk Krai. The population plummeted to just 40 animals in the 1940’s, but now seems stable at around 540. The greatest threat to the Amur tiger’s survival is unsurprisingly humans, with poaching causing around 80% of their deaths.

Rossiya's general livery since 2016 has a 'turbine blade motif, which gets denser towards the tail to 'create a sense of flight and continual motion', apparently.

How to make Rossiya Airline to work for you?

The airline is wholly owned by the Russian government, was formed in 1992, and is based at St Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport. A few years back the Russian government restructured the airline industry and merged Rossiya with Aeroflot and several domestic airlines. The company now operates from St Petersburg to 15 European cities, plus to Russia's south, near and far east.  

A few facts: Rossiya has a fleet of 61 all western built aircraft - including Boeing 737's, 747's and 777's, and Airbus A319s and A320s, with an average age of 12.8 years and operates routes to 80 cities in 15 countries.

The aircraft sporting tiger nose is scheduled on the Moscow to Simpheropol, Punta-Cana, Phuket, Bangkok and Goa routes. See more of the ‘Tigrolet’, as Rossiya calls it, at Rossiya Airlines 'Tigerlet'

One more thing...Rossiya's 747 has a rival - turning heads at the February 2018 Singapore Airshow is the prototype of the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer's E190-E2. Knowing that as a prototype the aircraft will be parked up at various air shows in the course of its duties, Embraer has gone a step further and painted a cockpit windows cover to complete the Tiger face.

The tiger faced E2 prototype, as designed by a junior technician employee

The tiger face joins another Embraer E2 aircraft that has been painted with the face of an eagle. Chief executive of Commercial Aviation at Embraer John Slatterly was dissatisfied with livery proposals from outside agencies, and in fact went with the suggestion of a junior technician employed by the company - Clodoaldo Quintana.

The Golden Eagle E2 prototype having its painted visor fitted. Photo Embraer


FLYING NOSTALGIA
   5468 views   
The last Concorde finds a new home in Bristol. How to find it, and the 17 others...
posted by Richard Green on 13/02/2017
 

The last Concorde to fly was moved to a new hangar/museum on February 7th 2017. Photo Airbus/Aerospace Bristol

Since the simultaneous take off of the first two passenger-carrying Concorde flights in 1976 - one from Air France and the other British Airways - the Anglo/French Aérospatiale/BAC supersonic airliner caught the public attention like few aircraft before or since. It was sleek,  glamorous and fast - with a cruising speed of just over twice the speed of sound (that's 1,300 miles per hour), it immediately earned cache for those who pilot, crewed and travelled in it.

It carried just 100 passengers at a time, in a narrow fuselage and with small windows, but the crews went the extra miles to make the flights special experiences. But with engines developed for military bombers in the 1960's it was very noisy too.

I've lived in London since the early 80s, and nobody could ignore the roar of Concorde as it roared on take off or rumbled low on landing right over the centre of the city. And it was its noise footprint that was partly responsible for its lack of commercial success, both in its day to day noise levels, but also thanks to the unavoidable sonic boom that would thunder over vast distances as it flew overhead.

Fine for London to New York, but not so good from London to Singapore say, where the aircraft were required to fly sub-sonically across Europe, before opening the throttle over sparsely populated areas of Arabia. The local Bedouin said it was responsible for making their camels miscarry.

The Concorde is moved into its new purpose built hangar at Aerospace Bristol. Photo Airbus/Aerospace Bristol

Planned for era of cheap aviation fuel, the oil crisis of the 1970s made the Concorde's extremely expensive to operate, which saw the number of potential airline customers fall from 16 to two. BA and Air France persevered with their niche flagship plane, operating it across the Atlantic to New York, Toronto, Miami, Bridgetown, Mexico City, and Rio,plus down to Dakar and east to Bahrain and Singapore. 

The Paris crash of 2000, despite being caused by debris on the runway left by a previously departing aircraft, shattered confidence in the Concorde and requiring modifications that grounded the aircraft for a year. It first flew again inauspiciously landing full of employees on September 11th 2001, just before the World Trade Center attacks. The passenger slump that followed, plus Airbus refusing to manufacture spare parts, was the end for Concorde.

Hard to imagine anyone doing this for another jetliner, but there were thousands of people across London out to view the last passenger flights. In fact three flights were scheduled to arrive one after the other on the afternoon of Friday the 24th of October, 2003. I stood on the roof of News International's Pennington Street printing works and offices, along with a knot of other employees - and everyone on the travel desk - and watched the three planes pass by.

Planned for era of cheap aviation fuel, the oil crisis of the 1970s made the Concorde's extremely expensive to operate, which saw the number of potential airline customers fall from 16 to two. BA and Air France persevered with their niche flagship plane, operating it across the Atlantic to New York, Toronto, Miami, Bridgetown, Mexico City, and Rio,plus down to Dakar and east to Bahrain and Singapore. 

The Paris crash of 2000, despite being caused by debris on the runway left by a previously departing aircraft, shattered confidence in the Concorde and requiring modifications that grounded the aircraft for a year. It first flew again inauspiciously landing full of employees on September 11th 2001, just before the World Trade Center attacks. The passenger slump that followed, plus Airbus refusing to manufacture spare parts, was the end for Concorde.

Hard to imagine anyone doing this for another jetliner, but there were thousands of people across London out to view the last passenger flights. In fact three flights were scheduled to arrive one after the other on the afternoon of Friday the 24th of October, 2003. I stood on the roof of News International's Pennington Street printing works and offices, along with a knot of other employees - and everyone on the travel desk - and watched the three planes pass by.

This February has seen the last ever Concorde to fly moved to a purpose built hangar at Aerospace Bristol, at its Filton site just north of the city.

The new hangar clears the aircraft wing tips by just a metre at either side, and is part of a £19m project to exhibit the aircraft, which is due to open to the public in Summer 2017.  

The Filton site has a long association with the Concorde, as this is where the aircraft were designed and built. Airbus have been looking after the aircraft since it made its (and all of the Concorde's) last flight into Filton in 2003. 

Aerospace Bristol plans to take visitors on a journey through more than 100 years of aviation history, starting with the Bristol Boxkite biplane that was made here. There will be sections on aviation's pivotal role in the two world wars, through the technological advances of the space race, and up to the Aerospace industry of the present day.

See Aerospace Bristol

What happened to the rest of the Concordes?

There were only ever 14 Concordes in passenger service - seven each with Air France and British Airways. Plus there were six Concordes made during the development and testing phase. Thanks to the popularity and uniqueness of the Concorde, all but two are on display - or are about to be. The exceptions are the aircraft registered at F-BTSC that crashed in Paris, and F-BVFD, which was broken up in 1984.

In the UK there are Concordes at the...

Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset is dedicated to the history of British naval aviation. Over 100 aircraft are on display spread across four large halls, each with upper viewing galleries, where visitors can look down onto an excellent collection of aircraft - including the Sea Harrier, the Supermarine Seafire (the naval version of the Spitfire), and one of the Concorde test aircraft. See Fleet Air Arm Museum

Britain's largest aviation museum is Imperial War Museum at Duxford, 13 miles to the south of Cambridge. This is where the Imperial War Museum's oversized items are displayed - over 200 aircraft, vehicles and vessels. Its seven halls are on the site of Duxford Aerodrome, used by the RAF in the First World War, and many historic buildings there are still in use today - including hangars used to maintain aircraft during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. Duxford is a base for several Air Shows too, the most well known being the Duxford Air Show, Flying Legends, and America Air Day. 

Highlights of the collection include the world's only Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8, built in 1916, The Panavia Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon, the Messerschmitt Bf-109E, and even a 2,200 mph Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft. Its Concorde is the only one in the country with a working droop-nose. Any delta wing aircraft - such as Concorde - adopts quite a steep angle from the horizontal at low speeds - and the aircraft angled upwards at the front during landings meant that its pilots couldn't see forward past the long pointed nose. Consequently a drooping nose was developed, where the nose cone could droop by 12.5 degrees.

See  Imperial War Museum Duxford

Brooklands Museum is near to Weybridge in Surrey, about 25 miles southwest of London. Brooklands is famous for being the birthplace of British motor sport, however, it also played a key role in the development of early British aviation - with Bleriot, Hawker, Sopwith and Vickers all having bases here. The Daily Mail's 1911 Round Britain Air Race started and finished here, and had a celluloid reprise in the star-filled comedy 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines' film of 1965. The film involved a fictional air race from London to Paris and featured perhaps some of the most brazen racial stereotyping in the history of cinema - think impetuous Italians, Prussian-bearing Germans, and a cowboy cocky American.   

The collection ranges from racing cars and motorbikes to aeroplanes. And as the the first Concorde planning meeting too place between the British and French here, it is fitting that the museum is the proud owner of Concorde G-BBDG. The imaginative Concorde experience staged by the museum involves a pre-flight briefing and a virtual flight.

See Brooklands Museum

The nose of Concorde G-BOAA at Edinburgh's National Museum of flight. Photo the National Museum of Flight

Scotland's National Museum of Flight is 22 miles to the east of Edinburgh, on a well preserved World War II airfield. The museum has the first aircraft collected by any museum in the UK - Percy Pilcher's glider, a remarkable hang glider that he called 'The Hawk' and which flew for 250m in 1897. He was well on the right track and was developing his engined Triplane when he made a public demonstration of the Hawk glider and died after falling 10m to the ground. 

Other aircraft in the museum include the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Sea Hawk, and also passenger planes like the De Havilland Comet, BAC 1-11, Vickers Viscount, Boeing 707 and Hawker Sidley Trident. Two hangars housing 30 Second World War era aircraft have recently been redeveloped, but the star turn is Concorde registration G-BOAA, which has a walk through and around audio guide. See National Museum of Flight Concorde Experience

Passing the Concorde at Heathrow on landing. Photo Richard Green

Heathrow Airport, London - G-BOAB languishes in a disused car park at Heathrow Airport. The only way you can really see it is sometimes as a departing or arriving passenger if the wind is blowing from the west and you are using runway 27L. There have been wild rumours that it will be shipped to Dubai or even parked on a barge on the River Thames, but chances are it will just stay where it is - a strange reminder that Heathrow was once the home base of half the world's Concordes.

Manchester Airport's  Runway Visitor Park. The park is right by the airport and has good views of the arriving and departing aircraft, and as well as having Concorde G-BOAC in a hangar that can be toured, there are also other aircraft on display (including an ex RAF Nimrod, DC-10, Trident, and AVRO RJX), a restaurant, children’s play area and aviation shop.

In France...

Air and Space Museum, Le Bourget - www.museeairespace.fr

Musee Delta, Orly - www.museedelta.free.fr

Airbus, Toulouse - www.airbus.com

Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris - displayed on three pedestals

Around the world...

Auto & Technik Museum, Sinsheim, Germany - www.sinsheim.technik-museum.de

Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, New York, USA - www.intrepidmuseum.org

Museum of Flight, Seattle, USA - www.museumofflight.org

Grantly Adams Airport, Barbados - www.barbadosconcorde.com

For more detailed information on all things Concorde, see Heritage Concorde


DESTINATIONS
   4544 views   
Carthage may be a ruin of a ruin, but Tunis is Terrific
posted by Richard Green on 12/02/2017
 

Now I know that ancient Carthage doesn't have a high profile in travel, so much of the anticipation was conjured by my own imagination. Yet having been to so many ancient sites and enjoyed them all, I was most definitely expecting rather more than I found...

***

I looked out over the remains of one of the great capitals of the classical world, and found it to be rather disappointing. I was sweaty thanks to the 36C in the shade heat, but there wasn't isn’t a single portico or plinth to provide any shade. There was however, a shabby museum, a few meagre foundations and the odd scrap of masonry, but I’ve seen more statuary in a garden-centre cafe. It’s wasn't what I’d been expecting. One newspaper's travel section claimed that “Carthage is a mind-blowing place even if, like me, you soon tire of ruins, statues and frescoes”, while another gushed that it “would take a week to explore properly”. Really? Could I have gone to the wrong place by mistake?

My day hadn’t started well either. When I’d arrived at Carthage-Salammbo station, there was no obvious sign to “ancient Carthage”, just smart suburban villas, neatly trimmed bougainvillaea, and parked cars. I followed my nose towards the sea, until I got to a little kiosk. The ticket I bought there told me I was at the 'Tophet'. Apparently it was a walled garden where the Carthaginians buried thousands of their own children that they'd sacrificed to the gods — for good luck don’t you know. They did this every time the threat of war loomed, which surely in the long run may have contributed to their terminal losing streak. Either way, it’s a pretty grim spot. The bones and ashes of 20,000 children, along with those of sacrificial animals, were buried in little urns.

I left the mud-floored vault of baby tombs when the hairs on the back of my neck couldn’t take any more, and walked along Rue Hannibal, where I came to a couple of suburban ponds fringed with modern posh housing. This unimpressive water was all that was left of the Punic port, in its day the most impressive navy base on the Mediterranean. Spurting sweat and swatting flies, I almost gave up and scuttled back to Tunis city centre, but I'd flown from the UK to see this, so I regrouped and reopened the guidebook. Apparently, the Roman centurion to-do list for the sacking of Carthage included: kill the men, rape the women, sell the children, and burn everything to the ground. The latter probably exceeded expectation, as it's said that the city of Carthage burnt for 10 days. Then they wiped away any trace of it by removing the stone for new builds elsewhere.

And to rub salt into the wounds, they did exactly that, and rubbed salt into the soil to destroy it. It's no wonder that 'Carthaginian' has entered the language for meaning complete over the top annihilation. 

What is there left to see, then? Extremely little it seems, but the guide book implored that I should “capture something of the flavour of its epic history by climbing to the top of Byrsa Hill”. To check I wasn’t in a parallel universe, I walked up the steep residential streets of Byrsa Hill and, as I went, reflected that things could have been so different. I love poking around ancient sites. The Acropolis, the Coliseum, Petra and the Pyramids, all are superb. But here I am at the summit of Byrsa bloody Hill, and there’s nothing of Carthaginian Carthage left. The Romans wrecked it all. I so should have gone to a better school.

Just then, I heard an anguished curse and looked round to see a teenager swearing in Italian after stubbing his toe trying to kick a stone. But wait, what’s that behind him? In the distance I see a large pillar; a whole, intact, standing-upright-so-you-could-hug-it pillar. It’s part of the Antonine Baths, the remains of the second-largest Roman baths in the world. But I’ve had enough of the Romans frankly, so I go back to the beach near to Sidi bou Said.

***

Writing an article for a newspaper or magazine usually means having to be more polemic that you might otherwise be. And just like when taking a picture of something, you have to choose where to point the camera and how much of the scene to include in the shot, so it is with writing.

With Carthage, it's true that if you arrived entirely unaware and unprepared, you probably would react as I did above. But couching the article in rather naive terms meant that I sound as though I hadn't ever heard of Carthage and was expecting to see something more substantial like say the Lighthouse at Alexandria or the Colossus of Rhodes - just kidding. 

As it happens the site is in a beautiful location overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, and although I cropped the piece to focus in only on the ruins there, I actually explored Tunis for a few days after my visit to Carthage. I've been several times and love the place, and especially it's seaside cliff-top village of Sidi Bou Said.

Carthage old and new. Vibrant textiles in local shops, and performer at the Carthage Festival. Photos Tourism Tunisia

The Carthage Jazz Festival is in its 12th year and in 2017 takes place between March 31st and April 9th. Performers include Liam Bailey, Myles Sanko, Tom Odell, Pink Martini, Cocoon and Aaron. See Carthage Jazz Festival. Villa Didon comes as quite a surprise - a swish hilltop property with a terrific restaurant terrace and super modern rooms with great views over the Gulf of Tunis. It has a smart swimming pool and snazzy rooms with Star Trek-like sliding doors.   

***

Some places to look out for when in Tunis;

The Medina of Tunis

The tourists in the narrow-laned souks are Tunisian or French. And it’s a hassle- free antidote to Marrakech. There are magnificent mosques and madrasahs, and calming mint-tea vendors; try the Ottoman-era opulence of Café M’Rabet, too.

An unusually quiet moment in the gorgeously atmospheric Café M’Rabet in the Medina of Tunis. Photo Richard Green

The Bardo Museum

This superb museum houses one of the best collections of Roman mosaics in the world, from tea-towel-sized portraits to the 1,400 sq ft depiction of Neptune astride a horse-drawn chariot. Open daily, except Mondays; £2.70.

The TGM train

This little line runs from the city centre, across the lagoon, to La Goulette. Join the rest of Tunis here for a fabulous Friday fish supper: Avenue Franklin Roosevelt is lined with promenaders and huge ice-beds of fish. Next stops are Carthage, Sidi Bou Saïd and the seaside suburb of La Marsa. Trains every 20 minutes, 65p one way.

View of the Bay of Tunis, as seen from Sidi Bou Said. Photo Tourism Tunisia

Sidi Bou Saïd

This clifftop village is an arty retreat full of brilliant white houses and vivid blue doors, like a Punic Portmeirion. Check out the super cliffside restaurants and cafes, such as Café Sidi Chabaane and Dar Zarrouk.

A doorway in Sidi Bou Said. Photo Richard Green

Dar El Jeld

The most atmospheric dining room in Tunis, in the courtyard of an Ottoman mansion. Excellent local dishes and wines match the stylish surrounds and service. There is also traditional live music, or for a seductive Berber dance display, hit Café M’Rabet on a weekend evening. See Dar el Jeld

Getting there: Tunisair is the national carrier and flies from Tunis across Europe, North and West Africa, the Middle East, and to Montreal. Other airlines flying to Tunis include Air France, Alitalia, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines. 

Always check your government's travel advice before booking, and check that your travel insurance is valid in this country. See here for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.

For more information see Discover Tunisia


CONSULTANCY
   3290 views   
Film making, Solar energy, and editing...
posted by Richard Green on 07/02/2017
 

Head of Development: This is Insomnia

'This is Insomnia' is a film, advertising, music video and digital production company based in London. For a taste of our work see This is Insomnia

In the run up to the UK's 2015 general election, anti immigration sentiment was stoked by sections of the media, and Channel 4 broadcast of documentary called 'The Romanians are coming'. It slurred the UK's Romanian community enough for some great Romanian friends to descend on my flat with a video recorder and an understandable grudge.

Dragos Telgas and I filming by the River Thames. Photo 'This is Insomnia'

We recorded a short video message, and went on to crowdfund the making of '13 Shades of Romanian', which I presented and co-wrote. It's been shown on TV in Romania and has won five international awards. 

Head of Marketing/Communication: Aerial Power 

Aerial Power is developing 'Solar Brush', a drone designed to clean solar panels. Our drone is designed to raise the efficiency of solar power production by targetting the desert regions of the world. Sunshine is abundant in these areas, but often labour and water are not; as desert regions tend to be remote and fragile environments away from population centres and fresh water.

Cleaning costs represent up to 60% of plant operational costs in the Rajasthan desert for example, and the alternatives to our drone-based cleaning method are either manual cleaning, or semi-automatized mechanical solutions. The cost of cleaning panels with SolarBrush is a fraction of that with manual cleaning, even when using the device in medium/low wage economies. We calculate savings of up to 80%, based on one drone servicing a 1MW power plant and cleaning each panel every four days.

For more information see Aerial Power

Cultural Ambassador for Kaunas, European City of Culture 2022

I helped edit the 'bid book' (the document that lays out the would-be plans of candidate cities) before it was sent to the EU in Brussels, and assisted with international media strategy and advice. Kaunas won the bid and is Eurpean City of Culture for 2022. For more information see Kaunas 2022


 
Related content

Maestro of modernism: a look at Erno Goldfinger's North London lair...
  3759 views. First published 01/05/2019
 
Socialite and shockingly bad driver Rose Macaulay 'discovered' the 'little playa of Torremolinos'...
  7013 views. First published 02/04/2019
 
Mother Russia, Christ the Redeemer and Mr Patel: the world's biggest statues...
  6212 views. First published 18/10/2018
 
The little cottage near Cape Town where Cecil Rhodes decamped to holiday, and where he died aged 49...
  3818 views. First published 19/08/2017
 
Moscow honours Peter the Great with a 98m statue...of Christopher Columbus?
  5640 views. First published 28/06/2017
 
The giant babies sculptures that nonchalantly scale Prague's TV Tower...
  2841 views. First published 04/06/2017
 
A waterlogged statue shows General MacArthur permanently returning to the Philippines...
  6149 views. First published 23/05/2017
 
Delhi's Raj era statues have been coralled into its dusty and forlorn Coronation Park...
  5188 views. First published 01/05/2017
 
A bust of the Cook Islands first premier, Sir Albert Royle Henry, with shell necklace, petal headgear and spectacles...
  6105 views. First published 29/03/2017
 
A brush with life on a Soviet era housing district in Kaunas, Lithuania...
  4331 views. First published 05/03/2017
 
The supersized statues that commemorate the heroic defence of Brest Fortress, Belarus...
  4779 views. First published 23/02/2017
 
A calamitous haircut in Freetown, Sierra Leone...
  4117 views. First published 24/01/2017
 
If you are in Mexico City you should see how Trotsky spent his final years (and minutes)...
  3638 views. First published 04/10/2016
 
  © 2016-2019 Richard Green. All Rights Reserved. All digital assets shown on this website remain the copyright of their respective owners.