Monday, 26 December 2016

Very nearly Vevey, Switzerland

"What are you doing for Christmas?" is a standard question coming up to the 25th, but this year, instead of trotting out the perhaps expected, "Spending it with family and friends", I said, "Going cat-sitting in Switzerland.

"Uh... What?"

Yup. This year, when I saw that work gap coming up at the end of December, the first thing that came into my mind was that I could use the time to visit another little corner of the world. A few years back, I stumbled upon and then signed up to a website that matches animal/travel lovers with pet owners who want to get away and know their beloveds will be cared for in their homes. (In case you're interested, it's called and if you do sign up, please say I referred you as then I'll get two free months.) Anyhow, it seemed to me a good time to make use of this again.

And so, voila, I was accepted to come look after a shy rescue cat near Vevey, Switzerland. Yes, thank you, that will do nicely. It looked to be a beautiful house, the cat light work and it was going to be easy to do without the expense of hiring a car.

Much like when I went to Uzès in February, people wanted to know if I'd be lonely or bothered by being by myself. The answer, I now know, is definitely not. Solo travel is one of the most empowering things you can do and, once you've done it, it gives you a self-reliance and satisfaction that will carry you on to further adventures and bravery, in travel and daily life. I recommend it.

If you don't know Switzerland, the first thing you find out is that it's all about trains. Trains and watches. Which means the trains are always on time. Always. They're also clean, comfortable and go just about everywhere. I was on a little branch line that ran twice an hour in each direction, taking you to the top of the nearest mountain one way and down to Vevey (pronounced Vev-ay) on Lake Geneva in the other. From Vevey you can catch a train all the way back to Geneva or on around the lake and it all goes like, well, clockwork.

Montreux, where the jazz festival happens every year and is, as we all know by now, the setting for Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water'– Wait, what's that? You don't know this story? Briefly, then. 1971. Deep Purple are in Montreux to record an album. Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention are doing a concert. Someone sets off a firework (a big one, presumably), which starts a fire. Everyone thinks at first it's part of the act (no one was too high to worry, man. Like...), finally realise it's for real and get out. The venue is ruined and a song is born.

It's also where Freddie Mercury spent a lot of time, so there's a statue of him on the lakeside. When I went there was also a very jolly Christmas market going on, from where I bought and ate a crepe and a vanilla-custard stuffed croissant. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

Another day I took the little train up to Les Peiades, where there are – allegedly – ski runs and sledding. Ahem. There was no snow. However, it was still worth the trip. Down below it was a cloudy, overcast day. But we burst through the cloud cover into the most glorious of blue-skies and sunshine. There was great walking and a picturesque mountain restaurant where a chocolat chaud made the perfect drink, while looking out at what looked like a lake of clouds.

I couldn't get over those clouds and the way they created two such different environments – the cloudy, gloomy one below; the sunny, jolly one above – or the way they behaved so much like water. Something about their texture was ever so appealing.

Vevey was worth a day's explore as well, with a few notable highlights, including the house architect Le Corbusier built for his parents on the edge of town. If you love ugly, concrete buildings, then you'll be a fan of his. Personally, when I saw the aluminium and concrete box he'd designed for his mom and dad, and how it was on a narrow strip of land hard by the main road, I couldn't help wondering if he were punishing them or if they just indulged him. I expect that his homes were nicer to look out of than to look on to. I hope so, anyway. I provide two pictures of it here: the entrance and as good a picture as I could get of the whole. To my mind – and I am a lover of houses and their design – it most reminded me of a trailer of the sort you'd find in, well, a trailer park.

Another reason to visit this pretty little city is that it's where Charlie Chaplin spent the last decades of his life and, again, there is a statue of him on the waterfront. In fact, the Swiss seem rather fond of waterside or even in-water statues, and I include a few others I saw in Vevey as well to prove the point.

After that, it was Christmas and I gave myself a day off the sightseeing and just went for a local walk. Swiss suburbia is not all that different from upmarket American small-town surburbia, if you discount the fact that every time you look up, the Alps are all around you. The thing is, it's a sight I just never get tired of. That and the way the clouds behave around them.

Which is why I'm ending with a picture taken from just outside the house I stayed in. Pretty spectacular. This was definitely a stand-out Christmas.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Picardy is perfect in autumn

 A lot of Brits get the ferry over the Channel, drive off in Calais or Le Havre and then... Zoom! They're off down south. The only thing they know about that first bit of France they land on – it's a region called Picardy, by the way – is that, pre the Brexit vote, they could buy cheap booze there.

However, even with the exchange rate going pear shaped for those who get paid in pounds, there are plenty of good reasons to pull up right here.

For a start, there's the food. This is moules et frîtes country and when they say moules, they don't mean the 15 or 20 mostly empty shells you get if you order this dish in London, where it's ridiculously overpriced. They mean an actual bucketful of fresh molluscs at a very reasonable price, which usually includes a seaview for free.

Then there's the vast sky that's an ever-changing picture. We were lucky enough to stay in a seaside apartment with a terrace facing the sea operated by Madame Vacances and every time I looked out at la Manche I was reaching for my phone camera, because it was so amazing – and so different from the last time I looked.

We were based in Cayeux-sur-Mer, a working fishing village that's had a lot of money spent on it recently, so that it now has a very enticing boardwalk promenade and groynes installed to keep the pebbles on the beach from getting washed away. It's also conveniently close to one of Picardy's prettiest towns, St Valery-sur-Somme. Here you'll find a medieval Old Town up on the hill with connections to Joan of Arc (the British kept her in a cell here on the way to burning her at the stake in Rouen) and a very pleasant, canal-side newer town, mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries, lower down. There's a Sunday-morning market (best buys were the local homemade jams), plenty of good restaurants and two activities worth getting involved in.

The first is the seal-watching boat trips – tickets are bought in the tourist office – and the second is the steam train that will take you via an hour's journey round the bay to Le Crotoy – and back again, of course. Top tip: get off in Le Crotoy, walk the 10 minutes to the harbour and have a prix fixe three-course lunch, then walk back to the station for the return ride.

There was one peculiar thing I noticed throughout our short break and that was the lined-up ducks. We've all heard the phrase 'getting your ducks in a row', but this was the first time I'd seen it. And I saw it more than once. The best suggestion I got was that they were hunters' decoys and that would be a soothing answer, because otherwise, how the heck – and why – would ducks want to line up in this way? Ah, well, one of life's little mysteries. 

We travelled to Picardy for our four-day break on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries, and treated ourselves to a cabin both ways. This is definitely the way to go. For a start, as soon as you board, you feel as if your French holiday has begun (though all the crew speak perfect English) and for a second, the cabin with en-suite facilities provides a place to sleep – of course – and a haven to retreat to, where you can take a shower, nibble on brought snacks, leave your stuff and generally be out of any limelight when you feel like it.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Essaouira, Morocco

I admit it upfront: I’ve never been anywhere as different as Morocco. Obviously, this is an entirely subjective viewpoint, but I grew up in New York City, lived in its suburbs, went to university in the US midwest (or maybe Ohio is mideast?), then moved to London, from where I’ve spent the past 10 years travelling my little heart out, trying to make up for lost time, trying to pack as much as poss into whatever time I have…

I’ll never forget my first trip to Crete, circa 1988. The flight arrived pre-dawn and we waited in a large square in Heraklion for the island to wake up and the buses to start running to take us, in stages, to a small town called Loutro, which in those days had no roads, so the last bit was done by boat. As we sat in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise, I was intensely aware of how different it was. Not just the sights and sounds, but even the air smelled different – warm, exotic to my nose. Maybe, before the traffic started, I even smelled wild thyme from the mountains. All I know is I was struck to my core by how other it all was: the voices speaking Greek, as the waiters began unpacking the tables and chairs to place outside their restaurants; the stray dog that attached itself to us, whose coat was dusty and coarse; the light, when at last day came, was a yellow I’d never seen before; the landscape, the shape of the buildings, the cars, the colours – everything – was just… other.

I fell in love with the differentness then and I’ve been searching for it again ever since, because like a junky who needs a bigger and bigger hit to get the same high, nowhere else in Europe was ever quite as new to me again.

But Morocco. It is utterly fresh and unusual all over again. The only thing I recognised was the hippy-style decor – hand-knotted rugs in earthy colours, piles and piles of cushions, candles in punched-metal or glass containers, tiles and terracotta, old-blood-coloured walls – but the hippies obviously took their cue from this country, not vice versa.

Some of it is so magically beautiful – like the resort we stayed in, Le Jardin des Douars, about 15 minutes' drive out of town –  and don't let the word 'resort' put you off. That's just shorthand for adobe-style houses with individually furnished and decorated rooms with their own private terraces set in the most incredibly lush gardens, so that every bush, vine and plant is a flowering variety, creating wonderful splashes of colour everywhere you look.

Then some of it is heartbreakingly dirty or small or desperate, like the man with the popcorn stall who had only about two bags worth of the stuff to sell. Either he didn’t want to waste the precious kernels by popping any that wouldn’t be sold or he hadn’t more to pop. That’s the sort of thing that makes me come over all tearful. Or the piles of pre-worn plastic sandals and flip-flops for sale, a cat sleeping incongruously among them. And then there was the ‘auction market’ as our ad hoc guide* called it, which was a walled square – or maybe just a space where a building used to be – filled with heaps of broken toys, old clothes, bits of cups… Rubbish, you might think, and everywhere a terrible smell, of dirt, excrement, who knows, because the mind doesn’t really want to take it in. But this was a market, a place where presumably someone might want to buy something or need to make a sale. I imagined, because of the rotting heaps of fabric, that what wasn’t sold just became part of the general debris…

And then there was the beautiful 11km-long sandy Mogador Bay, where for 150MAD (about £14) you could be taken for an hour’s camel ride, all the way to Castle Rock, alleged inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand, which he (again allegedly, but let’s go with it, for myth’s sake) wrote after spending three days here in 1969. If you’ve never ridden a camel over sand dunes, well, it has to be done. Alternatively, you could have a ride on one of the extraordinarily beautiful horses (though as small as ponies), each one with perfect confirmation – arched, muscly neck; rounded hind quarters; large brown eyes and flowing manes and tails. Probably bought for a song, but would fetch a good price back in the UK or USA, I couldn’t help thinking. Arabians or something like them.

Or the streets of the medina, some looking like a bombed-out war zone, others as if the scenes hadn’t changed for centuries. A picture I took, when given a ‘noir’ filter, looked as if it could have been taken circa 1950, maybe even earlier. Heaving with stallholders selling heaped-up piles of fresh mint, stacked round bread, a machine that stripped the sweet contents out of sugar canes, the liquid harvested in a glass to be drunk by the customer. No paper or plastic cups here – far too expensive. Likewise sacks: I saw a woman, squatting on the ground, selling thin-to-the-point-of-transparent plastic carrier bags. A man carrying a tray of cookies wandered up and down, hawking them with the words, “Fresh made”. It made me think of photographs I’ve seen of New York City’s Lower East Side from the turn of the last century. Hordes of people, always, moving up and down, shopping, going home or to work, or visiting or coming from school or going to mosque or… Just being out.

Then there was the fish market, on a pier, the Atlantic rollers hitting one side hidden by a high wall, ships unloading their catch on the other. All along, stalls selling everything from sardines to sand sharks to eels to dorade and more I didn’t recognize. Or you could buy them charred straight from the grill. Underfoot was a black squash that didn’t bear too much looking at; and I envied my companion’s lack of a sense of smell. It didn’t even smell fishy, but of something unspeakable. Rotted. Shit, maybe. But so much hustle and bustle. Bicycles and half-motorcyle, half-cart vehicles weaving through the throng. An 18-wheeler being loaded with ice-packed crates of small fish…

Does it sound ugly? There was ugliness and a certain disgustingness, but also an excitement. Everything – every thing – was unlike any thing else I’ve seen before. And? It was fascinating and alive feeling. And beautiful and amazing and… I’m already looking for the next hit.

*Wandering down one alleyway, we came to a shop selling medicinal herbs. The man whose establishment this was stopped us by asking about the book my companion was carrying, then was very insistent that my companion sniff crushed nigella seeds and, finally, giving us no choice in the matter, led us across an empty fish market, down this alleyway and that, further and further from the more-visited main streets, until we were getting nervous and on edge. Where were we going? Where was the promised ‘women’s co-operative’ making argan oil he was sure we had to visit? But finally, finally, we went through a doorway, in and out of the first room, to a windowless back room where an old woman sat on the floor cracking open argan nuts. He talked us through the process to oil, showing us the handgrinder, then took us back to the front room where another woman sat and offered us some half-eaten bread, which we declined, saying we’d just eaten (we had) and then we said thank you very much and scooted. It was all very… odd. We’d both, my companion and I, had the sense that anything might have happened: a robbery, maybe, or worse. But nothing did and so it has become a story… And perhaps our 'guide' was just showing us these women after all and why not? But that is Morocco. Random moments, acts of kindness and great hospitality, along with something unknown...
Castle Rock

Friday, 9 September 2016

Majorca in September

When the directions for finding our villa ran to three pages, a wariness took hold. I've been on many a trip that's started out so well – flying along a motorway, watching the klicks add up, making great time – only to lose it all and plenty more crawling along dark country lanes at night, trying to find the 'tall cypress tree just before the bins, then turn into the small lane on your right...'

I needn't have worried. Our destination, in the north-east of the island, in beautiful countryside between Pollença and Port de Pollença, was exactly where described. We arrived in 55 minutes with no kerfuffle of lostness and there it was: the wrought-iron gates, the wooden sign to the side, Finca Cuxach, and the key where we'd been told it would be.

Finca means farmhouse and Cuxach retains all of its rustic, traditional charm – bare stone walls, whitewashed inside, which are an arm's length deep; beautiful sandstone blocks for windowsills and doorways; tiles underfoot; ceiling beams and a terracotta roof; along with pretty still-life arrangements on mantelpieces and table tops – think earthenware bottles of varying sizes, a row of ladles along a wall, a mounted blue-flowered bowl and plenty of scatter cushions.

There are three bedrooms – one double upstairs with its own en suite bathroom – two down (one double, one with twin beds), along with a second bathroom all off on one side of the central entry hall/sitting room. To the opposite side is a large room with kitchen, dining and living space, so that, from the outside, the house looks entirely symmetrical.

Along with all the rusticity is fast wifi, satellite TV, CD player, microwave, dishwasher and all the usual kitchen gadgets and appliances, plus more than enough airport-bought paperbacks to keep you going for years if you forgot to bring anything to read. Outside is an enormous, shaded terrace with two eating areas, so you can mix it up or choose whichever is getting the darkest shade.

I've saved the best for last: a crystal clear, delightfully clean and sparkling-in-the-sunlight pool. It's the sort of amenity that has you saying, wherever else you may visit, "Shall we just go back to the villa?" when presented with possible ways of spending the rest of your day. Because it's quiet, peaceful, private. I literally had a moment when I felt the stress leave my body, lying on a lounger, listening to the nearby cockerell crow and realising there was nothing to do but just be.

Cuxach isn't in the middle of nowhere, but in an area of both working farms and high-end villas, some restored fincas, like ours, others more-recently built, but clearly with a lot of money. We couldn't see our neighbours, though we knew they were there, which is fine.

You might be thinking that, as we came in September, it would be cooler and this is the case at night, when you wake up searching for the sheet, but daytime temps were hovering around 30-31°C (that's upper 80s for you fahrenheiters), which is hot enough. We made it out of our domain every day and these were the highlights I'd recommend:

1. Formentor Lighthouse. Yes, everyone does it, but there's a reason for that. The winding road takes you past astonishing vertical drops and views that make you reach for your camera.

2. Port de Pollença. For the waterfront promenade, for the ice-cream kiosk at the Yacht Club Roundabout, for the people watching from a harbourfront café and probably for dinner one night. It's also the place to pick up one of the many boat excursions. We went on a half-day trip with the Maria Isabel, which promises no more than 12 guests and is a beauty of an authentic Majorcan sailboat.

3. Pollença itself. Probably the most beautiful of the Old Towns, with lovely squares, an astonishing church – it looks deceptively plain from outside, inside it's more heavily painted and ornate than Westminster Abbey – little one-off shops and plenty of dinner possibilities.

4. Alcudía, which made me think of a mini-Avignon with its castle-ly fortifications. The street market, which we found on a Tuesday, was a jolly affair and there was plenty of delicious fresh produce which is bound to tempt.

5. Palma, under an hour away – we did it in 50 minutes without breaking any speed limits – is definitely worth a day trip. Take a walk past the marina to gawk at the super-yachts, wander the Old Town streets, visit the Cathedral if you must, then collapse at a pavement café.

The best reason to go in September though, is that the summer crush has gone home to school timetables and jobs, and while there are visitors here all year round, it's simply that bit emptier and quieter, but totally still feels like summer.

Our villa came through TravelOpo. It sleeps six and prices start from £850 pw.

Oh, one last thing you might want to do here: look at the stars...