It is an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon in Funchal, balmy capital of the Portuguese isle of Madeira. Most businesses have closed early and the few people I see on the streets march by with unusual purpose. Everyone who lives here knows what is coming.
I walk into one of my favourite restaurants near the harbour without a reservation. Yes, they have free tables. The place should be packed with tourists who arrived this morning on the gargantuan cruise ship docked in the harbour a few hundred metres away. They know what’s coming.
The sun has set by the time I leave the restaurant and Funchal is transformed with pretty street lighting, raised flags and a steady stream of people walking towards the promenade. Everyone has gathered to see the main parade of the Madeira carnival.
This well established annual event is a highlight of the year (there are many) although none of the official publicity has suggested a time for proceedings to start. This is a laid back culture after all.
Street vendors are doing a steady trade. There are queues for coffee (Madeiran’s are fuelled by caffeine) as well as Poncha – the brilliantly simple island hooch, consisting of Madeiran rum, freshly squeezed fruit juice and honey.
People have arrived early to grab a prime viewing position.
Everyone seems to be wearing more than me on this mild evening which shouldn’t be surprising since this is the “winter” period for residents (a mere 18 degrees Celsius today), while the older tourist demographic would no doubt have their thermostats turned up were it the same temperature at home.
I hear the leading parade float long before I’m able to see it above a sea of heads. It looks like all of Funchal’s young people are in the parade and they aren’t the least over-dressed.
At this point I should confess that I have only previously watched carnival parades in colder climates. The Grassington Festival for instance was a wonderfully fun example of a British carnival but this evening’s Latin blooded affair has more in common with Rio than Yorkshire.
The Funchal carnival is all about passion, colour and sequins. Nobody is going to call you out for wearing too much bling.
It’s hard to get a good view with so many enthusiastic party goers in front of me, but who cares – I love it! The crowd love it!
The guys and (mostly) girls in the parade love it too.
Massive effort has gone into preparations for this year’s event. The floats are magnificent and the glamorous costumes remind me of some 1930’s broadway production
The parade consists of numerous themed floats, each with an accompanying ground force of performers – be it dancers, drummers or both
The floats are never ending, which might explain why town was empty a few hours ago.
Every float is pumping out it’s own music. There’s a Latin theme with the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive thrown in for variation
This is not a night for introverts.
The whole of the island is represented by tonight’s parade, although the carnival itself is running over a couple of weeks across the island.
I love the inclusivity of the parade. A wide variety of people from across the island are involved and their joy is infectiously transmitted to the crowd.
The sheer effort that has gone into the costumes, body painting and choreography is spectacular.
It’s hard to imagine that all of these exotic performers have day jobs or attend school. Today they have come together for a cabaret that will live long in the memory.
I walk to the end of the parade where the performers have broken formation into social groups. The buzz of energy is receding as people catch their breath. If the parade has been poncha then the aftermath is definitely coffee.
For some revellers the evening is winding down as they head back to other neighbourhoods
Others will head off into town to party all night long. Their celebrations have only just started.
For me the night is over and I have loved every minute of it. I would return again just for this event, although there are many other must-see festivals in the Madeiran calendar, such as the remarkable Flower Festival I was fortunate to attend on my last visit.
Needless to say there is a hung-over feel to Funchal on Sunday. The parade route has been meticulously cleared and cleaned but there are clues of last night’s party. A couple of costumed paraders sip juice at a bar (have they even slept?). A waitress still shows signs of face glitter. Even my cable car ascent to Monte captures the aftermath of last night’s events…
The parade may be over but the carnival goes on. Madeirans, generous in spirit, welcome the outside attention that their festivities attract and there will be regular representatives at the iconic fish and flower market over the coming days
Madeira may be a mound of rock poking out of the Atlantic 600 miles south west of Lisbon and 300 miles west of the Moroccan coast but it has a vibrancy that belies its size. There are many other annual highlights to attend such as the Atlantic Festival, the Jazz Festival or the Wine Festival, though I’m sorely tempted to return for the Carnival. When else might I get to wear face paint?
It’s our final morning at Casa Motului. I may have indulged a little too enthusiastically in last night’s complimentary offerings of Palinca (plum brandy) and Visinata (sour cherry brandy) – spirits that sit in the 40-60% proof range. Many people make these popular Romanian spirits and I expect the proprietors generosity is enabled by considerable vats of home made produce.
This Sunday morning we are enjoying a leisurely breakfast when an elderly gentleman dressed in a tattered brown suit comes knocking at the door. It seems he is known by one of the owners sons who lets him in and lays out a very generous measure of visinata (!) for the chap. He approaches our table carrying a large sack over his shoulder and introduces himself by kissing M’s hand and telling us he’s 94, before producing a rustic hand made wooden jug from the sack. Would we like to buy one? It’s the kind of memento we would love to take home with us but it’s going to be too big to transport.
“But you have a car?” asks the gent. Yes, but we are flying home. “Where have you come from?”. England, we explain. He goes silent and wears an expression of incomprehension. We might as well have said that we were visitors from Mars. We give him little cash and some bananas that we aren’t going to get through and he works his way around the breakfast room, selling his entire stock before polishing off the visinata.
Sunday is market day in the remote neighbouring village of Ariesene and that will be our final port of call before we leave the Apuseni. We pack and drive the 2km into the village, passing our 94 year old friend who is just completing a slow walk back – a route that he could conceivably have been walking since the early 1930s. We have seen many old folk walking between villages. Hard work, pork fat and palinca have made the Motzi indestructible it seems.
Most of the market goers are elderly and some seem over dressed for the ocassion, possibly for church but also because standards must be maintained for any communal gathering. The social aspect of this Sunday market appears to be at least as important as the opportunity to buy things.
First impressions are of a street market you might find anywhere on your travels but on closer inspection there are some distinctive differences to the ones I’m used to.
Villagers queue outside vans that are packed high with cabbages. They are buying carrier bags full and taking them home to pickle. Sturdy men and women of pensionable age think nothing of hauling large sacks of cabbages, potatoes or onions on their shoulders.
One stallholder is selling live chickens for 25 lei (£5). Their young child sits quietly in a carboard box next to a cage and a lady playfully asks whether the boy is for sale.
Several clothes stalls are run by gypsies who have travelled from further afield. Everything looks second hand and nobody here is likely to have the money or time for designer gear.
Farmers and smallholders are well catered for. My favourite stall is selling leather bridle gear and the type of alpine cow bells whose dull chime you regularly hear in these parts. Nearby I see a display of wood cutting equipment. A frail lady who looks around 80 years old is lifting a heavy axe with a sturdy 4 ft handle. She scrutinises the blade and feels the balance and I wonder if she will be chopping the logs or whether this is a purchase for a younger family member. Part of the appeal of this market is imagining the lifestyles and livelihoods of the buyers and sellers.
Today we are not in the market for cabbages, axes or cowbells (in retrospect I wish I had bought a cow bell) but some hand made mountain cheese would be welcome. Given the variety of produce on sale it’s a little surprising that there is no cheese to be seen. We are given a tip-off to continue down the road past the school and ask at the third house on the left…
We leave the hubub of the market behind. Some free roaming cows have crossed the river to graze and block the road. Just as we think we must have gone too far we spot a(nother) little old lady standing quietly by herself outside a normal looking home. We furtively ask about the “brânză”. She tells us that we need to speak to her daughter and beckons us to follow her through the garden to the back door. The daughter appears and explains to us that she has no cheese ready at this moment but she does have milk and can make some for us if we are able to come back in the afternoon.
In a parallel universe we hang around until later because fresh cheese made by hand from milk of the mountains is going to be out of this world! Unfortunately our return to Cluj cannot wait and we are left to imagine what we are missing out on.
The cheese episode serves as a metaphor for so many travel experiences, whereby a tantalising glimpse of some other world raises more question questions than it answers. During our short visit to the Apuseni I have learned that the hard working Motzi people have an intrinsic bond with this remote rugged landscape. In these times of dizzying change they maintain their long standing relationship with the land and livestock.
We drive gingerly through the crowded market street on the start of our journey home and give way to a cart coming the other way. As it draws alongside us the horse decides to stop and will simply not be moved. There is quite a scene with traffic backing up and all eyes are focussed on this mini drama until a stallholder intervenes. He picks up and moves from the pavement a small silver toy windmill that spins in the breeze. The horse is pacified and on he trots. This muscular working horse was simply frightened by a shiny toy and this random Motzi man had the innate understanding to realise the problem and know how to handle the horse. Sometimes it’s the little things that leave a lasting impression.
I hope to return to Motzi country some day and when I do I hope to find it just as I left it. Just with freshly made cheese.
How best to describe the Apuseni region of Romania? This Carpathian mountain range emerges a 90 minute drive west of the northern city of Cluj. The hills become progressively more densely packed and dark forests of evergreen blacken the horizon, broken only by a few denuded golden deciduous trees that are fast succumbing to the season.
From time to time we rise out of from some deep narrow valley into a clearing to see rustic traditional wooden houses scattered like dots up into the hills within fields enclosed by hand crafted fences. A scattering of cows munch the steep slopes, their neck bells chiming bluntly as they move. Smoke drifts down into the valleys as villagers fend off a cold grip that descends when the thin autumn sun recedes
Every livestock owner is the process of assembling traditional tall and narrow haystacks for winter feed.
On our journey we regularly see piles of freshly hewn timber by the side of the road. It’s common to see a toothless old lady dressed in black walking between villages. Men in traditional hats work the fields, chop timber with axes, build new homes. Older men share a bench and talk, sparingly it seems. Words, like natures resources, are not wasted in these parts.
Traditional gypsy wooden horse drawn carts roll by like open narrow boats with only rubber tyres as a concession to modernity. Come nightfall these primitive carriages crawl perilously along pitch blank rural roads with no lights or reflectors. On a recent night drive in Transylvania the rear of an unlit cart loomed suddenly into view and I caught the fleeting snapshot of a shawled lady pointing a torch to the tarmac as two children hung onto her. The old ways and new ways don’t always mix well.
This is the region of the Motzi – a quiet spoken people, straightforward but welcoming. These hard working folk are thoroughly self reliant due to generations of life in largely unconnected communities.
The Apuseni sits in the outer fringes of Transylvania but has a distinct character. Closer to Hungary than Bucharest this is a land of folklore and tradition, tied inseperably to the environment. There are few major employers here. You sustain yourself, your family, your village from the land. Tourism is growing in importance as evidenced by the winter skip slopes in Vartop. The few visitors at this time of year are drawn to outdoor pursuits such as climbing, walking, cycling, plus the mountain air.
Although only modestly heralded on the international stage the Apuseni has world significance for cavers due to its extensive underground systems. A cave at Scarisoara contains the worlds largest underground glacier, which until relatively recent times served as a cold store for the villagers food in the summer.
My preparation for the visit didn’t turn up much information online. Romania is years behind the UK when it comes to the provision of information and services on the internet and the Apuseni is no exception. The extreme landscape means there are plenty of areas without a phone signal and when phoning to book a B&B (forget online booking!) it’s entirely possible the landlord will only check answerphone messages once every day or two when they are in range of a signal.
There are plenty of things to see and do that you only discover on arrival – just like how things used to be everywhere else. Our host at Casa Motolui – a through and through Motzi man – tells us that if we drive to the next village we will find a field where we can hire a horse and cart to take us to a waterfall. Sure enough we find 2 rough and ready carriages and their steeds, their respective owners sitting in silence with cigarettes in hand. We choose the more expensive carriage (approx £18) on the basis the alternative is a pony drawn death trap with a driver that looks like he’s on day release from prison.
Our driver is a friendly jovial Motzi and his steed – Bujor – looks up to the task of hauling flabby city types over rough tracks. The next hour is a non-stop delight, save from the constant fear we may fall off the carriage as it rattles alarmingly over the boulder strewn path. We roll by wooden hand crafted cottages and on into the woods. Our path crosses the stream a few times but the log bridges can’t sustain us and so we simply ford the water.
We don’t mind in the least that Bujor simply stops when he is tired and needs a break. At these times we hop off and walk alongside while he catches his breath, poor thing. This is a joyful experience despite the fact that we could have walked the route just as fast. One of the countless waterfalls in this area awaits us at the end of the track. It’s all lovely.
In the afternoon we drive out of the valley up hairpin roads that start off tarmac and become progressively rougher. Cows gaze on in curiosity while farmers spare us a glance before continuing with the business of the day.
It’s all so intimate and a little like driving through the shire of The Hobbit. Our destination is the village of Scarisoara and our first appointment is in an authentic traditional wooden dwelling that serves as a shop for the villagers to sell their craft produce. The timber beams are so low that I can barely stand upright and I wonder if that’s because malnutrition used to stunt peoples growth.
There are a wide range of hand made items to be seen, including a long Bucium wooden horn that looks a bit like a didgeridoo and is an historic musical instrument of the region. There is an attractive range of pottery, the ubiquitous palinca spirit and a selection of jams and syrups made from mountain fruits that I know will be bursting with flavour, all at ludicrously cheap prices.
Our Renault (ef)Fluence hire car is soon groaning under the weight of jam and we haven’t even started what we came here for.
Scarisoara owes its popularity to the world renown cave that awaits our visit. A pleasant 10 minute stroll up hill through the golden autumn landscape doesn’t hint at what is to come. We pass a number of abandoned wooden vendor tables and boarded-up vending huts adorned with signs advertising cheese pies and affinata (blueberry spirit) and it’s clear that this place gets considerably more busy in the tourist season.
The path leads to a wooden “office” where an unlikely looking ticket salesman barely looks up from the Romanian soap on his portable TV as he takes our payment. Only as we attempt to leave does he jump up and share some statistical facts about the cave while pointing at a couple of faded dusty hand-drawn schematics on the hut wall.
Armed with a few titbits of knowledge we head down a steep metal Escheresque starcase lining a great chasm in the ground. The descent is perhaps 100m, during which the temperature drops from 18 degrees to freezing. And that’s important because this cave is famous for containing the largest underground glacier in the world.
There isn’t a whole lot to see, largely because there are almost no lights down here, but it’s worth a visit if only to imagine the time when villagers used the cave as a cold store during summer. How did they get down here? Which poor soul had to make this perilous journey just to get something from the fridge? Were any villagers strangled for asking their returning partners to “just pop back down love – I forgot to mention we need some of that wild boar”.
This self-guided tour takes less time than the ascent. We have witnessed so much beauty and contrast today and yet there has been almost no sense of that raw display of nature being corrupted by tourism or commercialisation. The physical isolation of the Apuseni may go some way to explaining this but also perhaps it comes down to the mentality of the Motzi people. They have been living in their own way for a long time and they aren’t going to change any time soon. At least that’s what I hope.
In my imaginatively titled blog Show Bank Show I described my attraction to London’s celebrated South Bank, from Vauxhall to Waterloo and beyond. It occurred to me that you never hear anything about the North Bank and so, in another leap of originality, I hope to persuade you that the unfashionable side of the Thames is worth a little of anybody’s time.
On this unseasonally tropical September Friday I chose Lambeth Bridge as my starting point purely because this is the point from which I expected things to get interesting. I have always found Victoria Tower Gardens to be a peaceful haven away from the madness of Central London and today is no different. With a backdrop of Westminster’s Victoria Tower I see a handful of joggers, the odd morning sun worshiper, kids playing together, a man dressed in a white suit and white bowler hat urinating against a tree – a familiar and comforting snapshot of the England we know and love.
I hadn’t previously taken a close look around this park so the Buxton Monument – a fabulously ornate memorial to the end of the slave trade – was new to me. The ancient ensemble of parliamentary buildings forces the walker away from the riverside at this point and over to Parliament Square, which is fine for me as there is always some show to enjoy here. Except today there are no protests or film crews as Parliament has been prorogued by the disgraced and incarcerated Boris Johnson (at the time of writing he’s still PM can you believe).
With so much recent activism outside parliament the square is cordened off in order to allow the incessantly trampled grass to recover. A casualty of democracy. The towering stone mass of Westminster is all but obscured by scaffolding as exorbitantly expensive renovations take place. This could all have been avoided if Guy Fawkes had been better at project management.
With little architecture to point the camera at a scattering of tourists are gravitating towards the various Statues that surround the square.
I resume my walk heading back towards Westminster Bridge. A conglomeration of tourist tat stalls are engulfed by visitors this morning. Crudely molded metal models of Big Ben, Queen masks, postcards of Buckingham Palace and much worse will soon be shuffled off to the darkest corners of the homes of friends and family of today’s visitors.
The lamest Darth Vader impersonator stands precariously atop a speaker pumping out Star Wars music while people take photos and chip in with a few coins. Nobody appears to take the slightest interest in the kick-ass statue of Boudicca above. Welcome to London.
Also attracting no attention is an adjacent line of cycle taxis. This is hardly a suprise when you see their rates. A couple of fares and their day has been a success.
The commotion soon fizzles out as I head east along the Victoria Embankment. Bazalgette’s mammoth 19th century construction project created a much needed sewage system upgrade and new transport links – robust victorian architecture that has stood the test of time. This fascinating Museum Of London piece describes the scale and ambition of Bazalgette’s work – a truly big job.
A couple of suits are speaking to camera outside New Scotland Yard. It’s less dramatic than it looks in TV crime thrillers. I’m disappointed that the famous rotating New Scotland Yard sign is not moving. Perhaps justice does take a day off. Here’s a YouTube video of it rotating, which shows that some people have too much time on their hands.
The next substantial building is home to the Ministry of Defence. A simple garden is decorated with statues remembering various military campaigns and characters. It would be easy to miss this space because the dramatic riverside memorial to those lost in the Battle of Britain inevitably draws your attention.
London and the Thames corridor particularly are dotted with numerous statues and memorials but few can be so effective in telling a story.
I pause to sit on one of the benches that look out across the Thames. The river is busy today with pleasure cruises, passenger ferries and disconcertingly massive waste barges being towed out to some disposal point beyond the city. The London Eye rotates imperceptibly and swarms of people enjoy the full South Bank sun. It’s much quieter here on the North Bank and there is merciful shade from trees along the embankment.
Beyond this point there are few uninterrupted views across the river due to piers and moored boats, which is fine because I’m heading into Whitechapel Gardens – a favourite place of mine. I stumbled upon this by accident while working in the city and today it is just as I remember it.
This lunchtime it is an oasis of calm. The colourful planting in these well maintained gardens is a delight.
Heading beneath Hungerford Bridge I emerge outside the entrance to Embankment tube station which looks unexpectedly quaint and as pretty as any tube station could reasonably aspire to be.
The station adjoins yet another green space – Victoria Embankment Gardens. More colourful borders and numerous statues (I’m a bit statued out now) attract the lunchtime office crowd and this gathering look disinclined to return to work for the afternoon. At least productivity levels are going to be zero if they do.
The hypnotic pitter patter of a cooling fountain completes the illusion that I am at some rural retreat a world away from central London. Only my need for refreshment forces me to leave. Seriously, where are all these people buying their lunches?
Somerset House is next up on the left. They operate an ice skating rink in the winter months but I have never visited. Temple tube station probably only serves office workers during the week. I had hoped to check out Temple Gardens which look lush and inviting on Google Maps but it turns out that one can only gain admittance by getting a law degree and an internship at the judiciary. I am reduced to glancing through the railings at smart law firm employees relaxing on the grass, ties loosened a touch in concession to the heat. This is where my North Bank oddessy ends. The river front east of here becomes polluted and industrial for some distance until Tower Bridge.
Instead I head uphill towards the Royal Courts Of Justice on Fleet Street where an array of wine bars already lubricates an exodus of legal types as they conduct their final “meetings” of the week.
It’s the next day. Against my better judgement I find myself on the sunny South Bank jostling through a tide of corpulent sharp elbowed tourists. To think I could have been lying in the cool grass of Whitechapel Gardens listening to the cricket. There’s a time for everything.
London’s Barbican has been something of an enigma to me. I’ve walked through it in the past on the way to some other destination and formed some hasty conclusions. Over a weekend in May I got to spent some time there and it turns out that I was wrong about just about everything…
On face value the Barbican is a large scale experiment in inner city living, consisting of chunky slabs of tower blocks raised on stilts, surrounding a large arts and entertainment venue. It occupies a prime location in the City Of London and yet, dwarfed by a vertical forest of steel and glass neighbours you could pass close by without noticing it.
First impressions of this 60’s development are that it was designed using duplo lego bricks and then brutally assembled in the kind of depressing mottled concrete that has attracted derision and wrecking balls in towns across the land. Derby’s Assembly Rooms sits firmly in this unfashionable bracket and there is little sentiment for it. Much of my student life in Sheffield was played out to a backdrop of harsh concrete flats spawned in the same era that garnered an unenviable reputation. If you have watched The Full Monty you can picture the scene.
The Barbican may share many design elements of other berated projects but – it is a resounding success. Yes, a one bedroom flat here costs 700k and plenty of high profile names call it home but money alone cannot explain why this 60’s vision of the future works on so many levels
I’m feeling a little self conscious today, not because I am taking photos in a residential area but because I have seen 2 large groups of photographers with the same idea. A little intrusive, no?
Like these other photographers I can’t help being drawn to the lines and shadows cast by such a regulated structure. It’s bordering on the hypnotic and amidst all this starkness shafts of sunlight and well tended beds of greenery become amplified in effect. The centrepiece is a marvelous lake that serves as an oasis in this unlikely estate. Almost everything looks like it has been designed in Minecraft. It’s a surprise that the ducks are not rectangular.
If you have found the lake then you have been successful in navigating the labarynthine walkways that defy any logic. You have also found your way to the jewel in the crown – the Barbican Centre.
I first visited on a quiet Friday with few people around and was seduced by an interior that has the nerve to stick to the design principles of the exterior. Great open spaces are sparsely furnished with flat communal sofas. There are bold ramps and unnecessarily angular stairways that lead to over sized balconies and walkways. The floors are carpetted, fittings are brass and – well that’s about it for fineries and fittings.
The ceilings and lighting are some gloriously imagined 1960’s Stanley Kubrick vision of a future spaceport. I mean, just look at this!
I love the way in which there is simultaneously a huge amount of open communal space and yet numerous little intimate enclaves in which you can sit quietly doing something smug on your iPad. The interior – like the exterior – succeeds in making you feel welcome and included, despite the daunting scale of this endeavour. There can be no more relaxing space in London.
The Barbican Centre is not without its frustrations however. Getting lost is only fun for a while. There are emaciated people in some dead-end corner right now praying for their dying cell-phone to connect so they can be located and rescued after 15 days of solice.
I’m on the first floor balcony and I can almost touch the music library which is also on the first floor just yards away, except there is no walkway there. In any action film chase sequence this would be a jumpable gap. It takes me 20 minutes to find a route, involving going downstairs, walking across the large atrium, taking a lift and then walking down some steps. The helpful staff here are used to requests for directions.
It’s the weekend and I’m back to check out a free classical musical festival. My knowledge of classical music is fleeting but it’s never too late to learn. There’s a different vibe to the Barbican Centre today with many hundreds of people here to enjoy the concerts. My first encounter is at St Lukes Church – built 250 years before the Barbican and now subsumed by it. It’s very satisfying to find a 16th Century building within the grounds of a 1960’s estate, which in itself is shadowed by a 21st century skyline.
The 12 Ensemble – only numbering 8 today – deliver an hour of unadulterated joy. They are vibrant and yet sensitive in their delivery and with my eyes closed their live performance takes me to another place. I’m so impressed that I watch their next performance (eyes open) in the Barbican Centre later on.
This time they are fronted by guest star Miloš – an internationally acclaimed classical guitarist. He lives up to his lofty reputation with a supremely charismatic performance that has everyone on the edge of their seats. Even the fractious younger in row 1 shuts her gob for the duration, absorbed by the show.
On Sunday I’ve the pick of London but how can I not return to the Barbican? At noon the events kick off in the main hall. What a beautifully presented and illuminated stage. This is clearly a fabulous venue for the arts.
None other than Stephen Fry introduces the Britten Sinphonia Orchestra by reading a remarkably personal letter – the famed Heiligenstadt Testament (do click the link!) – penned by Beethoven to his brothers. The stage is packed with musicians whose international standing is only eclipsed by rock star conductor Thomas Adès who fronts their ensuing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Seriously though, what do conductors actually do? They’re just air drumming aren’t they?
I can’t remember the last time I saw a full sized orchestra at close quarters. It’s an experience I want to repeat soon and regularly. How do you adequately describe music through writing? Every musician here is a richly talented individual, recognised and feted in their industry. Together they produce magic, beauty and raw emotion.
The middle sections are grand and rich in texture, the crescendos are, almost overwhelming, and then a soloist punctuates the vast hall with a raw and gentle honesty that humbles everything before it.
To think that I only decided to check out the programme on a whim. I can’t get enough of this and so, with the clock ticking down to my train home I leg it over to a nearby venue for one final gig. Pianist Jayson Gillham has attracted his fair share of fans. I’ve never heard of him. I’m an ignoramus.
Honestly, I don’t know what he played. It wouldn’t even matter. He delivered the most sublime, intimate interpretation of his set. I have never witnessed a musician of any genre commit themselves more fully to expressing a work of music. If that wasn’t enough his dialogue between pieces bristled with humanity. With an artist of Jayson’s pedigree delivery of even the most technically challenging piece is a given and all energy is focused on expression. I think I have a man crush.
And with the end of that performance the bubble is broken and I’m back in the concrete realm of the Barbican.
I’ve been struggling with a question over the last few days: Why does a complex versed in architectural language that has failed elsewhere succeed so impressively here?
I think there are a number of reasons. Location for sure. The generous scale such a vision demands. The accentuation of light and nature against this regulated urban backdrop. And there is a sense of identity and relevance that a vibrant arts venue can bring to any setting.
The Barbican may not have the loudest voice in London but it has a lot to shout about. I’ll be back. With a map.
If you really know me then you will know that I am rather obsessed by Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. If you have read HHGTTG then you will also realise that everybody who has read HHGTTG is in fact obsessed by HHGTTG. If you haven’t read it then you should. The radio series is compulsory listening. The TV series is fun and suitably quirky. The film is mostly harmless. I think that covers all the bases.
Anyway, my reason for bringing this up is that a central plot line revolves around galactic refugee Arthur Dent’s epic struggle to get his hands on a decent cup of tea following the unfortunate destruction of planet earth by a Vogon constructor fleet. Today I am Arthur Dent. The tea is coffee.
I’m in London. It’s my first visit for a few years following a 6 month stint in which I blogged the hell out of the capital. So I have my finger on the pulse and I’m not going to settle for any lame ass tourism as I’ve loftier ideas today:
10am: A photo exhibition at British Museum, another
11am: Another photo exhibition at The Photographers Gallery (free before noon)
PM: A Scandinavian market in Rotherhithe where I’m going to luxuriate in a decadent chocolate brownie and velvety smooth coffee
Life’s simple pleasures and all that. Truth is that today is all about the coffee and cake.
It goes wrong pretty much from the start. A pre-museum tea fails to materialise. 80 percent of cafes around Holborn don’t open on a Saturday. So it’s onto the British Museum where a long queue for entry takes me a little by surprise. They are checking bags today and there’s a branch of Currys in my rucksack. I finally make it into this magnificent building but there’s no mention of the exhibition. I ask at the information desk. They know nothing about this. Huh?
Regardless, it’s a beautiful building so I take half an hour to absorb the place and nip up to the top floor to take in a couple of exhibitions – one on postcards which is nothing to write home about and another on Captain Cook which is a little short of discovery.
Onto the Photographers Gallery which is a favourite drop-in of mine. With my organised schedule today I’ve only half an hour to spare before my next move so I’ve come at opening time because entry is free until noon. Except that it’s not. The management decided to move free entry from 11-12 to 5-6pm. They changed their policy last night. Like you do. Fine – I pay to glance around the gallery for 30 minutes and then it’s time for a dash across town for the much hyped Scandinavian coffee that will make everything alright.
As I leave the gallery it dawns on me that today’s massive anti-Brexit rally may have a bearing on my travel plans. Oxford Street is awash with protestors who are all headed towards the march. As an enthusiastic Europhile it’s heartening to see such a turnout but the fate of our country must wait seeing as there’s coffee to think about. I descend into Oxford Street tube station to begin a complicated journey to Rotherhithe.
At Green Park events take a sharp turn for the worse as I alight for a change onto the Jubilee Line. Huge mistake. The escalators down to the platform are all dedicated to churning an endless stream of protestor up from the Victoria Line. After 15 minutes I give up waiting and head back to the Victoria line in order to continue onto Stockwell where I can change lines. Except now the congestion is so severe that trains are no longer stopping here.
It takes another 20 minutes to leave the station as an endless throng of people overwhelm the station on their way to the march. The full scale of the demonstration becomes apparent at street level. Over a million people have brought this part of London to a standstill. There’s a part of me that wants to repurpose my day, join the march and seize the moment. But I NEED that coffee and cake now. Resistance is futile.
Tired and decaffeinated the options for motorised travel appear to be pretty much zero. The tube is out of bounds. There are road closures in all directions and every bus is stationary with its engine turned off as every route has become overwhelmed by human traffic. There’s no point in continuing south as that’s where the action is. The only option is to jump on a rental bike and pedal anywhere north. It turns out that bike is the only way to get across town right now.
It’s getting late. I’m tired. If I was an RPG character my health would be near zero and the puniest of trolls would be circling with their cudgels ready to bring my quest to a premature end. Time for Plan B: Cycle up to King’s Cross, jump on the Northern Line a few stops down to London Bridge and pillage Borough Market for coffee and cake.
Borough Market – once trendy destination for hipster vendors and bearded instagrammers – has long been usurped by the ever-present tide of change in the London food scene. Until 3:30pm on November 15th when it once again became acceptably popular for reasons nobody fully comprehends.
This is my first visit for several years and I’m understandably cautious about returning, lest the gurning face of Gregg Wallace should cross my path. The market is still every bit as popular as it once was. Now give me the coffee and cake dammit! Obviously it’s not that simple. There is a sea of dawdling foreign tourists to swim through. Here’s the thing. I love Europe. I am European. I am a citizen of the world. Theresa May would hate me if she got around to acknowledging my existence. But today the fruits of the EU have conspired to deny me the coffee fix that I so desperately need. That’s about as anti freedom of movement as it gets with me.
But there is no freedom of movement at Borough Market today. It’s packed, and it’s not like anybody is buying much. The tourists are taking photos of artisan honeycomb with their iPhones. The instagrammers are shoving their zoom lenses up the nostrils of the stall holders. It’s like some kind of participatory art installation.
In the last 4 hours I have been squashed by strangers, baked in the subterranean depths of Green Park and cycled like fury across West London, all without refreshment. There’s a delicious aroma of apples from a cider stall. Maybe that will take the pain away. It’s a fresh and wondrous liquid. It’s what cider should be, not what it tends to be. But it’s not coffee.
In a hallucinatory state I shove old couples to the ground and trample across their prone bodies to make headway. I apologise. I’m still English after all. Chocolate brownie procured. Just need to get my hands on some sodding coffee now, except the stalls have either disappeared or become so niche that I wouldn’t know what to ask for. Glucose free Andalucian matcha tea? No – just a bloody coffee!
Monmouth coffee looms ahead – a friendly and reliable port in this storm. Except that there’s an escheresque queue of people waiting to be served. I’ll bet they are just here because of some review. They are probably going to order tea and water. Damn them.
I’m writing this as a broken spirit from some chain coffee shop across the road from Borough Market. My cup contains a liquid that tastes almost but not quite entirely unlike coffee. The moment is gone. It departed several hours ago, yet I kept chasing it like some fool. There’s a metaphor for Brexit in there somewhere. You work it out.
Why haven’t I written about Madeira before now? Probably the same reason I haven’t written any blogs for a long while – I’m now a farmer (see all the allotment posts). Better late than never, which also describes my feelings about not having visited Madeira until relatively recently.
This rocky island is the summit of a dormant volcano poking out from the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa. If you haven’t visited this Portuguese outpost you will probably be aware of the wine and cake bearing its name. So far so good but there’s more. So much more that it passes the test of one of the (few) places on my travels that I could happily live in under different circumstances, such as a lottery win or bank heist. Let me elaborate …
This may prove your major obstacle. The airport runway has been dramatically extended into the sea in recent years but that hasn’t solved the problem of cross winds.
My inbound flight was unable to land due to high wind speeds and after instead touching down on the neighbouring rock of Porto Santo the flight was eventually diverted to Tenerife where the passengers had to spend a night before the journey could be completed the next day. This sort of thing is happening a lot and it’s a real blight on the islands substantial tourist industry.
Climate and Topology
Once you are there you can enjoy fabulous mild to hottish temperatures all year-round – great if you want to sit on the beach. Except there aren’t any beaches of note. Recently some homes have been lost to wild fires and storms that have flooded some coastal areas washing people out to sea. Still want to come?
Madeira boasts a remarkable landscape and has been described as Little Switzerland, which really doesn’t do it justice. There is barely a flat surface on the island. It rises as cliffs from the sea up to heady peaks that look down into vertigo inducing valleys. You can be basking in the sun in the coastal capital Funchal at the same time somebody is trying to peer through the mist in mountains just a few miles away.
The North of the island could pass for the Scottish Highlands with sturdy cattle grazing the verdant rocky hillside.
Until relatively recently the many villages and small towns on the island were connected tenuously by a crude system of roads and tunnels that effectively discouraged travel.
Today you can travel around and through the landscape with great efficiency due to an astonishing number of modern EU funded tunnels and bridges that have transformed life on the island and made exploring Madeira a joy.
The toy town road system has only partially domesticated travel. Rock falls are a frequent occurrence and my own travel plans have been scuppered by closed mountain routes. Furthermore the very steep narrow roads of the capital Funchal will leave nervous drivers needing a glass of Madeira or two. Another pitfall awaits if you fail to appreciate the fuel demands on a car mercilessly flogged up hairpin roads for 45 minutes. When the fuel gauge on my rental hit zero I was able to coast downhill for 25 minutes to the nearest fuel station using nothing but the brake pedal.
If I had to choose one thing that makes Madeira a must-visit island it would be the truly astounding array of plant life that thrives in this environment. There are a number of popular gardens you can visit in Funchal but there’s really no need. The average roadside verge may well provide home to the sort of exotic plant life that you would pay to see at home.
Madeirans take great pride in their gardens and a walk of the streets will reward you with an abundance of front garden colour and more species of Orchid than you knew existed.
It is perhaps because of the isolated history of Madeiran communities that the people here have learned to be very self-sufficient. A high proportion of residents grow their own produce. The volcanic soil is rich in nutrients for growing and the climate is great, which just leaves the need for water.
And that leads to another remarkable Madeiran tale. A vast network of water channels called levadas has been constructed over the years to bring water from the mountains down to the communities.
The closest parallel to UK agriculture would be the endless pattern of dry stone walling hand-built and maintained by farmers over generations. Today the levada network draw a considerable numbers of tourists who come to walk the paths alongside the Levadas. I’ve walked a couple myself and these utilitarian paths traverse parts of the dramatic interior that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.
Food and Drink
I don’t write about a place without mentioning food, usually in too much detail. It goes without saying that the produce grown in this garden of Eden contribute to fabulous cuisine but this is overshadowed by the seafood. Supermarket fish counters groan under the weight of species we can only dream of in the UK, although that doesn’t explain why the islands of Great Britain offer such an impoverished selection of fish to consumers.
Specialities here include the vicious looking Espada – a prehistoric fish caught at great depth which looks less threatening on the BBQ, and limpets grilled in butter and garlic. They are to die for!
The legendary Mercado dos Lavradores fish market in Funchal has long attracted more tourists than serious shoppers due to its enticing displays of fresh Espada. As a side note I recently read a 1970’s National Geographic featuring Madeira which included a picture of the fish market. It hasn’t changed one bit in 40 years.
Many tourists travel home with a bottle or three of Madeira wine. It’s great. Then there’s the madeira cake. It’s not great. That’s just my experience.
Life and all that
Life in the populous capital of Funchal is doubtless a little different to that in an isolated hillside village but there are some universalities. This is a low-rise island. People have gardens and grow things. There appears to be is a cohesive social infrastructure. All good things. As a tourist I particularly like the numerous quinta that are available to rent. A typical quinta is a grand colonial era villa with impressive dimensions and a thriving garden.
I would heartily recommend you seek out a quinta ahead of some sterile hotel half way up the hillside. Nothing beats drawing open curtains in the morning and walking onto the balcony to smell the intoxicating aroma of hibiscus and see the sun beaming off the sea. My quinta had the bonus of a banana tree which thoughtfully deposited breakfast onto a sun bed each morning.
I took to reading an English-speaking news blog throughout my stay and it was full of the domestic issues we might have at home albeit on a smaller scale. Traffic jams in the capital resulting in just 10 minute delays – yes please! As a tourist you can dodge all this by staying in bed a little longer or delegating responsibility to the excellent bus service. Don’t get the wrong impression – life here seems to run at a mercifully slower pace than in mainland cities.
Madeira hosts its fair share of festivals including the appropriately named Atlantic Festival. I arrived at the end of a Flower festival which was spectacular if not a little gratuitous on an island that is effectively home to a year-round flower festival.
Each village seems to host some festival of its own such as the lemon festival that I attended. It was just lemons.
Even when the flights are disrupted a steady stream of huge cruise ships dock in the harbour at Funchal. There’s a port-side area of Funchal that seems to be geared up for bewildered folk who wander in from their ship, sit in the first tourist restaurant they find, buy some Madeira wine and then drop by Starbucks before returning to their vessels for the night.
Madeira – tick. I guess they generate some tourist income but that’s the equivalent of travelling to the UK and just visiting Stratford Upon Avon. You’ll leave without much authentic experience of an island drowning in authenticity and individuality.
One such icon of Madeiran individuality is the Monte toboggan run – a bizarre rapid descent of Funchal’s steep roads while seated on a wicker sofa being “driven” by sturdily shoed gondolier types. It makes little more sense when you see it first hand but it does look like fun. This all takes place on the public highway and the only thing preventing a collision with cars at junctions is a potentially intoxicated marshal wearing high vis.
A couple of weeks after I returned home there was a news article about one of the toboggans careering into a parked car and injuring the incumbents. You just know their insurance isn’t going to cover that.
I can’t finish without mentioning Madeira’s most famous son Christiano Ronaldo. CR7 (as he has been branded) is omnipresent within these shores. There is not only a statue (obviously) but an entire Christian Ronaldo museum. I haven’t been but I imagine a series of wax works all in various horizontal states – lying down, rolling around, waving imaginary wax red cards, etc.
I hope to have painted a picture of Madeira, although it feels like I have hardly scratched the surface. There can be nowhere else like it on the planet. This remote outpost of Europe packs so much into such a small space and has so much to call its own. If travel is about experience then there can be nowhere finer to visit than Madeira. Just so long as your plane is able to land…
What makes for travel adventure in this day and age? I reflect upon this over my holiday reading: “The Sudden View” – a literary classic written by Sybille Bedford in 1953. This account of an extended visit to Mexico relates the tale of 2 women travelling by steam train through the southern US states, across the border to a land they know only through reputation and tenuous recommendation. It’s a journey not just into the unknown but into a bygone age of travel.
Today’s world feels distinctly smaller. Travel has become more of a commodity and destinations a marketed product. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, but the truth is that a sense of adventure always comes down to personal experience. There may be few untrod paths these days but there are many untrod by us individually.
Imbued by the spirit of discovery I set out on a circular coastal walk from my quaint holiday cottage in Fowey. The sun is out and my weary knees are not complaining for a change, or maybe I’m just not listening as I head out through the fields of corn.
Having recently planted sweetcorn in our allotment I’m very pleased to observe a 40cm gap between rows as this is pretty much how I set out my own planting, albeit on a rather more modest scale
There’s a very rural feel to this walk so far. With no sea view yet I could be in Shropshire but for the faintest taste of salt in the air. Gradually there are more clues. The path gradually descends and a lone seagull hovers briefly before gliding back over the tall hedgerow. Am I imaging it or are herring bone walls a coastal thing?
It occurs to me how relaxed I have become. Walking is brilliant for emptying your head of all that everyday nonsense you carry around unwittingly. I’m in the moment and ever so slightly blissful.
My first human encounter givs cause for concern. A jogger running toward me stops to ask me which direction the sea is in. I had rather hoped it was in the direction she had come from…
Fifteen minutes later the verdant passage takes a sharp left and drops reassuringly towards an imagined coast. And there – out of nowhere – is a sudden view.
I can see a grand country cottage set in immaculate grounds across a placid lake. A duck paddles into view. I hadn’t expected this. When the path reaches the shoreline things begin to make more sense. The small lake sits behind the arc of Polridmouth Cove.
This scene is enchanting. The southwest coast path intersects a manicured postcard cottage view to the right and the rugged Cornish bay to the left. The effect is quite intruiging. There’s not another soul to be seen and I spend a couple of minutes absorbing the view in a world of my own.
Unlike the relentless crashing waves of the north Cornish coastline this southern sea is flat and inviting. There are countless flat stones and I feel compelled to skim some. I skim some. The beach is mine alone. I long to be a resident of the adjacent cottage, just a stone skim behind me. This is a bubble I wish to remain in.
The bubble bursts. Three scallywag friends race across the sands, their excitement palpable! A lady, their owner, hoves into view with a look of mild exasperation. One of her hounds is joyfully playing with a ball that belongs to a dog in the adjoining cove and now she will have to take it all the way back and apologise to the owner. Such a British scene.
It’s time for me to move on. Gribben Head beckons. The path heads up onto the cliff over a lush carpet of grass that appears to have been meticulously mowed. I’m reminded of a similarly idyllic climb some 15 years ago upon suspiciously perfect spongy lush grass atop the commanding chalk cliffs on the Isle Of Wight towards The Needles. That was a hot summer dream of a walk, capped off by the king of cream teas at a remote farm cottage. That cream tea…
Over my shoulder the coastline unfolds past Polridmouth Cove to the Fowey Estuary and the hilltop extent of Polruan, then beyond. The land of smugglers. The land of Poldark, if you are a BBC marketing executive or an employee of the Cornish tourist board.
The monolithic Gribben Tower has been on my radar since the descent into the cove, but only now do I realise it isn’t a lighthouse. In fact it’s an 84ft tall “daymark” intended to help sailors pinpoint Fowey harbour. An information board tells me I have visited at the wrong time of month to go up the tower. It also claims that regional author Daphne du Maurier framed many of her novels around this headland, with Rebecca specifically set at Polridmouth – a mere stroll from her latter years dwelling in Menabilly.
As the path continues due north it flattens up and offers clear vision over the wide bay to Charlestown – if only I could recognise it. I hope to spot a seal basking on the rocks below but today they must be out fishing. The walking is easy and broken only by the passing of a comically endless train of ramblers. I start of with Hello, and transition through Guten Tag to Grüß Gott as I realise this is a German, no – Bavarian walking party. I have encountered a lot of Germans enjoying this part of Cornwall. They get it.
The miniscule harbour at Polkerris Bay provides a peaceful sanctuary for the few who are visiting today. Limited access and parking mean that the beach can never become too crowded, while a pub and hip beach café mean visitors are well catered for. There’s time to pause for a coffee whose mediocrity is forgiven by the friendliness of its serving.
My route breaks from the coast at this point to return inland across farming country. A mercifully brief steep climb leads to a farmyard with outbuildings that I want to nose into but there are workers about so I pause only to admire the tractor.
Tractor enthusiasts (they do exist) would share my appreciation for the beauty of this beast. As a child I had a die-cast model just like this. This is either a modern clone or really just that old, though it looks in good nick. The surrounding fields hum with activity as machinery works the land. My path is cordoned off for a detour around a field of crops being harvested today, before crossing the Saints Way – a 27 mile walking route from Fowey on the south coast to Padstow on the North.
This strikes me as a fun 2 day trek for some future visit, to be topped off with fish and chips plus a pint of Doom Bar overlooking Padstow harbour.
Every inch of land on the path back to Fowey appears to be cultivated. Where is the fallow field? After half a mile two cottages flank my way and outside one stands a trestle table bearing surplus produce beneath a hand written sign that says Help Yourself. I liberate an oversized cucumber with lunch in mind. But the walk isn’t quite over yet and there’s time for one final sudden view.
I love pigs. Any creature that is happy dozing in a puddle of mud has my admiration. This small holding is home to a couple of sows and a litter of not-so-thin piglets. One of the mums sniffs her way over to see me. What can I give her? I have nothing … oh, the cucumber.
Poor mum. One of the piglets is pestering her for milk and she doesn’t seem in the mood. Eventually she gives in and is besieged by little snouts all wanting a feed. So much for the easy life.
Ten minutes later I’m sitting in my cottage garden with a cool drink. The GPS tracker records the route at around 6 miles over a leisurely 3 hour period. I pick up my book to find Sybille is getting to grips with Mexico City but all I can think about are the images and sensations of this morning’s mini-adventure. Reading can wait for a dull day at home. There are more untrod paths to discover here – starting with one that leads to lunch…
You have to travel a long way from the UK for guaranteed sunshine in February. Long haul for the sake of the weather doesn’t really sit well with me but it’s surprising how easily long months of winter gloom can change ones mind.
Imagine flying a seemingly endless distance to the coast of Mozambique in south east Africa. Then continue for another 1000 miles out to sea with only the land mass of Madagascar briefly interrupting your view before touching down on the island of Mauritius.
You might expect such a remote destination to be short on narrative yet Mauritius has plenty of character and much to call its own.
The Dutch were the first to set up base on the desolate island in the 17th century, treating it as a military outpost and naming it after their nobility. After they abandoned the island the French grabbed it for their own before the British came along and took Mauritius by force. Throw in the slaves shipped in from Africa and the Indian immigrants who came to work following the abolition of slavery in 1835 and you have a lot of human diversity on an island that was uninhabited only 200 years earlier.
Roll on 2017. Here is what I experienced during my stay…
Today you can (and should) visit a Rum distillery. Sugarcane is not native to the islands but was brought in by the colonisers in order to produce Rum which was a principle factor in keeping sailors happy and navies running. Now sugarcane seems to grow on every exposed patch of land.
For a long time the distilleries were producing low grade Rum for naval distribution alone but now (some) Mauritian Rum is held in high esteem.
Needless to say I tried every single variety on my factory visit in order to honour this important industry.
Another agricultural mainstay, tea, thrives in the southern region with its stable growing conditions. The British were predictably in charge at this point.
A trip to the Bois Cheri tea factory is well worth it. Even before I arrived the sight of hunched labourers hand-picking leaves in the plantations was quite an eye opener. This must be such a physically demanding job.
The factory tour, following production from leaf to sealed box, provides an assault to the senses. You have the sea of green leaves as they are hauled around the building.
There’s the not unpleasant smell of unprocessed tea leaves which no doubt loses it’s appeal after a few work shifts. You have the heat of the ovens used for – I’m not sure what, because the sheer racket of the manufacturing machinery drowned out the voice of the tour guide.
You couldn’t describe the facilities here as state of the art. Much of machinery appeared to date from the 50’s and there is still a high reliance on manual labour.
The tour ends at a café balcony where you can try a dozen varieties of tea while admiring grand lakeside views of the plantation.
When you consider the physical barriers to visiting Mauritius and the fact that island does very well out of agriculture and services it’s no surprise that the booming tourism industry is selectively geared toward those seeking a high end luxury experience.
If you want go somewhere tropical for relaxation Mauritius provides a fine choice of destinations and hotels. Aside from the climate which seems to ticks along at around 30 degrees all year long (watch out for the odd cyclone) the beaches are fabulous, and as for the sea…
The snorkelling might not rival that of the “neighbouring” Maldives but a coral reef that encircles the island creates a 300m apron of warm shallow water – perfect for watersports. I safely enjoyed snorkelling and kayaking, with the only danger coming at the hands of a pedalo that would only turn right. A GPS trace of my route would have looked like a drunk bumble bee.
That said you wouldn’t want to try and swim across the reef. The rest of your life would look something like: Get sliced to pieces on coral; Be mauled to death by sharks; Sink to the bottom of a very deep sea trench.
Fortunately there are Catamarans and sea planes for those wanting to venture further from shore.
Of course tourism these days isn’t just about sitting on a beach. People visit for a variety of reasons and nature tourism is a growth area.
You only have to look out at the palm fronds to catch the wildlife bug. I fell in love with the vivid red Madagascan Fody – as charismatic as they were colourful.
This chap followed a set routine of flight each day between three trees, proudly protecting his territory from any unwanted visitors. The Robin of the island.
Another favourite was the Red Whiskered Bulbul with its punky head feathers and tuneful call. Less often seen but commonly heard was the Common Myna – famed for its mimicry.
The most famous bird of Mauritius, indeed the most ubiquitous icon of Mauritius is omnipresent, despite the fact that it became extinct 350 years ago.
Everybody knows the legend of the Dodo, the flightless bird that was driven to extinction by its first and last predator – man. It’s everywhere. On book covers, T-shirts, postcards and even on bank notes.
Another species hunted to the verge of extinction has made a notable and welcome return to these shores. The giant turtle may once have appealed to the hungry settler but now they are drawing in the tourists. Meeting these remarkable creatures was unquestionably the highlight of my time in Mauritius.
I was even able to feed them during my trip to the Crocodile park – a curious zoo/eatery where one can view the crocodiles and then eat them at the restaurant. I’m pleased to say giant turtle is no longer on the menu.
As a footnote I was interested to learn that Charles Darwin spent 10 days in Mauritius as he developed his theories of evolution. Such a remote island would surely have provided valuable insights into his studies. When I realised that one of the hotel staff was called Darwin I asked if he was named after Charles Darwin. He said he wasn’t sure – his grandmother had chosen the name. I think we can be sure…
Ten days on a remote island as a tourist probably doesn’t provide the soundest base for understanding a nation but as ever I just try to interpret what I see and hear.
Mauritius has been deemed to be the richest country in Africa. Since I didn’t see any extreme trappings of wealth on my travels around the island I think it’s safe to say that the money is not distributed evenly. All the same I didn’t witness homelessness, begging or overt poverty, which you increasingly observe in Britain.
The Mauritians I talked to were hard working and in many cases held down more than one job depending on the season.
Schooling is free here and literacy rates have increased above 90%. Children learn English and French (the official languages) while many also speak Creole – a variation of French originally spoken by African slaves brought over to the islands by colonists.
There is a University on the island, while some rich families send pay for their children to attend University in Europe. It’s little surprise that most young adults speak at least one more language than me!
A bus trip to the nearby town of Goodlands was educational. The buses may be ancient but they provide value and entertainment. Every passenger seems to know every other passenger with boarders patting the shoulders of seated friends as they walk the aisle. Smartly dressed ladies converge to share the latest news. All smiles!
Mauritians take pride in their properties. Even the most humble homes I saw had colourful and well maintained gardens.
The market I visited was a considerably hotter version of markets everywhere, with fabric stalls, fast food and fresh fruit. There seemed to be a slower pace here with no pressure to get things done quickly (the heat?) and as an outsider it was an unpressured and friendly experience.
On another sweltering day the bus was taking an eternity to arrive so we got a ride in a “share taxi”.
These popular taxis will take multiple occupants to the same destination for a fixed fee so you end up paying a low amount with whoever else jumps into the cab. I loved the social aspect of ride sharing and it was heartening to see the devotion this driver had for his clapped out vehicle – his means of income.
Unusually for me I haven’t droned on about food yet. Tropical fruit is part of the Mauritian diet. Pineapples and coconuts were in plentiful supply but we missed out on apricots and avocados – it wasn’t the season. Fish is another obvious staple.
I read that at many coastal villages there is a man who meets fisherman as they return to shore and negotiates a price for the catch, which is then sold on to the public and restaurateurs. This man is known as a Banyan because he waits under a banyan tree for shade!
It’s not clear how much of this is anecdotal but I did witness a fisherman selling a sizeable marlin onto a man, who I nosily followed to a car park where the haul was put on ice ready for a delivery.
The scales may be electric and the Banyan man waits in the shade of a bar rather than a tree but the tradition seems to live on.
You could look at the history of Mauritius and conclude that this was a nation of division. Successive colonisers have plundered the islands resources, subjugated Africans as slaves and made fortunes off the backs of low paid immigrants. Even today you can question the financial equality of islanders, the richest of whom may call Mauritius home purely for tax reasons.
The Mauritius I witnessed felt like a much more inclusive nation, confident in its values and looking to the future. People work hard but they are supported by the state and by their communities. There is education and opportunity for young people.
The last day of my visit happened to be the 49th Independence Day of Mauritius. I was taken with how this day was being embraced by islanders who wanted to celebrate their nation.
At a flag raising ceremony at my hotel the staff sang the national anthem and guests were told how the national flag colours represented the struggle for freedom (Red), the Indian Ocean (blue), the light of independence (Yellow) and the agriculture of Mauritius (Green).
The descendents of today’s inhabitants came from Africa, India and Europe to live on this remote African outcrop in the Indian ocean. Islanders know their history and acknowledge a tangled and tumultuous past but unite behind a new shared identity of Mauritius. I’m lucky to have witnessed the birthday of a nation. And to have eaten a slice of its cake.
Too much information? The good news is that if you want to come just to sit on the beach drinking cocktails it’s great for that too.
As an occasional day walker my trips into the Peak District don’t tend to extend beyond Bakewell due to constraints of time. While there are countless wonderful day walks to be had in the White Peak I have recently been pining for the striking landscapes of the Dark Peak further north where the edges become rougher and everything is turned up a notch.
My original plan was to start from Eyam, traverse Froggatt Edge, pass by the Chatsworth estate down to Bakewell before heading down the dales of Lathkill, Wolfcote and Dove, ending at Ilam on the third day. A lack of accommodation in Bakewell (of all places) put paid to that idea. Another plan involved the rugged delights of Snake Pass and Ladybower but the options for stopping over were even worse.
Eventually I threw away the notion of a linear walk and booked YHA accommodation in Castleton and Edale from where circular day walks could give the fix I was after. Now why was that so hard?
Youth Hostels have changed. Gone are the days where you have to contribute to communal cooking and washing up. The facilities have improved and there is a wider appeal, which is a good or bad thing depending on your outlook.
Castleton YHA has a baronial feel about it. With the first chills of winter on the way I’m grateful for the open fires that dot grand stone fire places of this old country manor. I’m less grateful for the screaming groups of school kids who are running amok in what must feel like a scaled down version of Hogwarts.
If I was them I would be just as excited.
Saturday morning is purpose made for walking. Breakfast is coffee and a bite on the green watching folk come and go beneath the Celtic cross, before frittering half an hour chatting with the encyclopaedic proprietor of an outdoor shop on the subject of boot makers of the Dolomites.
Finally I drag myself out of the shadow of Peverel Castle up a village road which almost immediately hints at the scenery that will define this walk. Rustic cottages frame the sort of scene you might expect to find to in the Yorkshire Dales or Lake District
The topography of today’s route is guaranteed to provide some dramatic sights – weather permitting. Before long the tarmac runs out and those views begin to reveal themselves.
If half of the visitors to Castleton are here to walk, cycle or hang glide then the other half have come to see the caves the town is famous for. I pass Peak Cavern and then Speedwell Cavern at the head of Winnats Pass.
The path ascends steeply to Treak Cliff Cavern where new seams of Blue John have recently been uncovered decades after the last major find. The landscape is really starting to open up and the sun finally makes an appearance as I ascend to the mouth of Blue John Cavern, which seems to be attracting cave enthusiasts by the bus load.
The foot of Mam Tor provides richly rewarding views north over the valley to Barber Booth. I wait awhile to absorb the rather unexpected scale and colour of this scene, plus the unexpected warmth of the winter sun. Then it’s a long gradual climb uphill for myself and the 100 other day walkers.
This section of path is attractively paved. It is hard to imagine the effort required to build and maintain a path like this, let alone one at a higher altitude beyond the range of any vehicle.
…which is probably why the paved path doesn’t last for long…
The ridge path towards Hollins Cross is a dream to walk, serving up outstanding views for minimal effort. The cross in question was removed a little over a hundred years ago and apparently, in even earlier times, the route was used to transport coffins from Edale over to Hope.
I overhear a group making call to the emergency services about an injured party member. Various parties are engaged with Duke of Edinburgh awards activities so perhaps this is an exercise? Fifteen minutes later the thumping rotors of an air ambulance suggest otherwise.
If I had ever followed up on my passing interest in Geology I might be able to explain the forces of nature that formed Back Tor. It certainly provides a great photo opportunity and a Japanese group are taking full advantage. Castleton has an international appeal I hadn’t expected with Americans, Russians and Italians amongst the other groups up here today.
I have really enjoyed this walk. This straightforward Peak District route has served a up rich variety of sights and points of interest. It has also been great to see such a diverse spectrum of people out on the hills.
Navigation has been a no-brainer and the weather has been kind. My march back down into Castleton is well timed as a heavy dark cloud threatens to put a dampener on things.
Not that weather is going to stop many people from getting out and enjoying themselves. After all, if you are going to make the effort of visiting the Dark Peak you aren’t going to be put off by the elements.
Tonight I’m going to enjoy the hostelries of Castleton. Tomorrow I’m going to take in the altogether more rugged landscape of Kinder. And the weather rarely does any favours there…
Cornwall and Surfing. I’ve never thought of one without the other.
My earliest associations go back to family holiday visits to the rocky inlet at Trebarwith Strand where each year I would look on as wetsuit clad figures would crash into the water for better or worse.
Nothing epitomises this life aquatic more than the three young Trebarwithian brothers, bronze skinned and blond curly haired, who would play out each carefree summer in red neoprene between rock and sea. I wonder where they are now.
It remains a mystery as to why I never made it onto a surf board myself. Frisbee and frenetic games of badminton on the golden sands were my distraction at low tide and once the beach was reclaimed by the sea we would scramble high up onto the rocks to watch the waves smash in below in the hope that some thrill seeker would get a soaking on the edges. And then to the long departed and sorely missed House On The Strand for cake and familial ribbing. At least we still have that.
Roll on innumerable years. St Ives lies south of my teenage memories. This picture postcard harbour town is best known for its artisan credentials as underpinned by the prestigious Tate Gallery. The westerly beach at Porthmeor may only provide a subplot to the town’s story but it attracts a small but dedicated chapter of surfers who plough the waves from dawn to dusk.
A daily vigil from the expansive ocean facing window of my hilltop holiday loft apartment is educational. With binoculars on full magnification I am able to sit in on a beginners surf school at the sheltered far end of the beach. An instructor demonstrates the transition from prone through to standing in a single fluid movement, now a well rehearsed reflex. He is almost encircled by a crab-shell arrangement of students who lay restlessly on their land-stricken boards with half an impatient eye on the rolling froth that begs their entry.
This afternoon I don sandals and make a steep descent to the beach with some camera gear. There are perhaps 20 independent thrill seekers in the water at the closest extent of the cove. To my untrained eye the conditions look a little hairy.
More experienced surfers bide their time. If a wave is too premature they ride over it. Too fully formed and they dive under it. There seems to be a lot of discussion between groups friends. Some barely attempt to ride any waves – their immersion in the rolling brine of Porthmeor purely social.
On this October weekday I have to wonder how surfing fits into people’s personal schedules – work, study or family. I guess if you really want to do something you find a way.
For every sculpted ride there are several wipe-outs, some spectacular! I’m traversing the beach with a temperamental zoom lens and the closer I get to the action the more I can smell the adrenaline. There’s a palpable sense of energy in the waves and I completely identify with the urge to connect with it.
Drawn further towards the breaking surf on a rising tide it’s not long before my sandals become soaked. At least now I can stop trying to dodge the water, but it is colder than I realised. The autumnal sun is frizzling away and my body temperature has plummeted but I still can’t drag myself from this scene. I’m forever holding out for one last action shot.
The waters are almost empty now and I catch a few words with one of the departees as he drags his board up the beach. Despite suffering with a cold has he been unable to resist the lure of the surf. With a broad smile he tells me that conditions today are brutal. Those entering the water have done so in spite and not because of conditions. “It’s all good!”.
I’m told to keep an eye on one young guy who is “the one to watch”. He’s confident for sure – out some distance beyond the rest. I reposition myself behind a rock out of a gusty wind that is throwing up white caps of foam in the bay, and zoom in on the maestro at work. Twenty minutes later it is becoming decidedly dark and I am chilled to the bone yet star child has done nothing but tread water.
The final stragglers are packing it in for the day and I follow suit, retreating through the gloom towards the faint warming glow of the Porthmeor beach café lights. A waft of stale frying oil floats my way and I’m not holding out much hope for a high quality cappuccino. Warm and wind-free will suffice.
Inside my lack of expectation is met. It’s quiet here now, just a lonesome well-wrapped holiday-maker sipping a hot chocolate and a couple of sandy surfers, their mandatory long hair wet and tangled from the day’s encounters.
From my window I watch the hillside lights of Porthmeor dot on one by one. The seaward view has assumed a bluish hue of monochrome, broken by the distant lamps of small fishing vessels and crabbers.
One human spec bobs on the surface 40 yards from shore. He’s still out there! Waiting for that perfect wave. The dream that won’t die.