Posted by: travelrat | April 18, 2021

Cheese

Charles de Gaulle once reputedly asked how you can govern a country which produces 264 varieties of cheese? I have long suspected that France produces much more than that, and it was just a figure Mon Général just pulled out of the air. Then, a friend suggested he was not speaking of France but … Britain.

I’m not sure about that. Certainly, there’s a wide variety, but 264? Well, just to name some of my favourites, there’s Lancashire, Wensleydale, Red Leicester, Caerphilly, Double Gloucester … and Cheddar!

Of course, you have, no doubt, come across cheddar that wasn’t made anywhere near the eponymous Somerset village. I’ve come across Irish cheddar … even Canadian cheddar. And, in an Australian supermarket, I once came upon a packet of plastic-wrapped plastic purporting to be cheddar. The ‘genuine article’ … with a capital C … should, traditionally, be made within a 30 mile radius of Wells Cathedral, and matured in one of the many natural limestone caves in the region.

Some time ago, I visited the stall of a Cheddar cheese-maker at the Bath and West Show. After sampling their wares, I was asked to sign a petition, to make Cheddar a Protected Designator of Origin (PDO). I signed, and then was asked ‘Would you like to try some of our Stilton?’

Now, that is a PDO, and can only be applied to cheese produced in six factories in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. And, it’s a jealously-guarded PDO, too. I did an article about the area, and was only allowed into the factory to take some photographs in the company of a manager, on the strict condition that I didn’t name the factory, and didn’t include anything that might identify it in my pictures. So, really, all I got were photographs of cheese, just sitting there and being cheese.

Incidentally, no Stilton was ever made in Stilton! That’s the name of a Cambridgeshire village on the Great North Road, where the cheese would be taken in the coaching days, to be picked up by coach, and speedily conveyed to London.

Posted by: travelrat | April 15, 2021

Coach Trip

‘You can travel quickly:

You can travel comfortably:

You can travel cheaply.

PICK ANY TWO!

                                                (Sign outside travel agency)

Whether you live in Europe or you are just visiting, an inexpensive way to “see around” is to sign up for a coach tour. The idea of being carted around from city to city, cooped up with a horde of ‘coach potatoes’ does not usually make me go into raptures.  However, it is not too horrendous an experience if the tour chosen is one with a definite destination, where you stay for a few days. Those sad if today is Friday, this must be Salzburg cattle-droves are not the way to go!

Excursions from the destination are often included in the price. However, what many people fail to realise is that they are not compulsory! So, if trailing gang-handed around cathedrals and castles with 49 other people is not to your taste, there is nothing to stop you from ‘jumping ship’ and doing your own thing. Do not ask your guide or courier for recommendations, though. S/he will probably suggest that you join the excursion! Go, instead, to the local Tourist Information Office, and enquire there.

Take plenty to read on the journey, because there is unlikely to be much to see on the way. It is just like flying, only slower! One European motorway is pretty well like any other, as are refreshment stops, usually at motorway service areas. If an overnight stop en route is necessary on a longer journey, the kind of hotel chosen will usually just be satisfactory, and will hardly be the subject of many postcards home.

However, an overnight stop, even in a cheap, anonymous French motel, is a far better proposition than the overnight trip which some of the cheaper tours offer. A friend once told me about her nightmare trip to Italy.

‘I was sitting next to this fat old man, who took up three quarters of the seat, stank of cheap after-shave and stale tobacco, and snored and drooled all night’ she told me ‘Next year’ she added ‘I’m going to leave him at home!’

You might ask how the tour companies can offer holidays at such a low price, and you may well get part of the answer at meal-times at the destination hotel. This is the one of the down-sides … quite often, they will tell you that dinner will be served at 7 p.m. prompt and it is not negotiable. The meal will most probably be a set menu, and, while not too bad, is often rather ordinary, with portions too small for most of us.

That is because the price will have been mercilessly haggled between the hotel and the tour operator, so as to offer the most attractive price possible to the customer. The hotel, therefore, is working to a very tight budget.

For a similar reason, if you are travelling alone, single supplements are often just on the legal side of larceny. I can see the point of this in the case of single occupancy of a twin or double room, but I do take exception to paying extra for a room in the garret, in which I need to lie on the bed to change my trousers! Travelling with a partner, or like-minded friend will not only be cheaper, but will give you a bit of elbow-room, too.

If budget is not a problem, and a bed-and-breakfast option is on offer, I would go for that … but I would not expect too much for breakfast. Taking other meals elsewhere … or even paying the standard price in the hotel restaurant … enables you to eat what you want, when you want it. There’s a better chance of trying authentic local cuisine, too.

So, why go on a coach tour if you are going to opt out of most of the package? I look at it this way. When travelling in Europe, I’d suggest fly if you want to get there quickly. If you just want to get there, take the train, or a regular long-distance bus. But, to get there cheaply and have more money to spend at the destination, be prepared to put up with some discomfort and inconvenience on a coach tour.

Posted by: travelrat | April 13, 2021

A for … (again)

As promised last week, when I completed the ‘A-Z of Places’, we aren’t quite free of COVID restrictions yet. So, I’ll start back at A again, and this time I’ll deal with ‘things’ … and, hopefully, we’ll be travelling again before I’ve finished.

Alligator:

We visited Gator Park, in the Florida Everglades and went on an airboat ride to see the wildlife. In the Park itself, they keep a few alligators, in the unlikely event you don’t see any on the boat trip. Here’s a baby one; hard to imagine it’s going to grow up into a gnarly mean killing machine!

Alpaca:

Another baby, or cria. This one was taken in Peru, although you don’t have to travel there to see one. They can be found all over the world, bred for their superior wool.

Posted by: travelrat | April 11, 2021

Urban Myth

For many years, I wanted to visit Venice, and see, and photograph the fabled Grand Hotel Schitti. On finally visiting the city and doing some research, I found there was no such place. Even though I had heard several people speak of it, and even met someone who claimed to have stayed there.

A Google search will confirm this … that’s the problem with search engines. They tend to destroy many an urban myth. In fact, there’s one site, www.snopes.com , which seems to delight in spoiling good stories with facts.

We find, for instance, there was no such person as fireman Emil Hamburger, who is supposed to have said ‘Put that meatball in a bun! I gotta go!’ But, it’s still a great story.

My all-time favourite concerns a queue at a U.S. immigration processing centre. First in the queue was a Swede. When asked his name, he said ‘Ole Olsen’

Next came a Chinese gentleman, who gave his name as ‘Mee Sam Zim’

And that, they say, for many years, in a certain city (some say Chicago) there was an establishment called the ‘Ole Olsen Chinese Restaurant’. But, I have yet to see evidence, photographic or otherwise, that such a place ever existed.

Posted by: travelrat | April 8, 2021

Santorini

I suppose the natives of the volcanic island of Santorini will never forget the date 1450 BC. Around that date, Santorini erupted, to cause the biggest explosion in recorded history, and to wipe out a civilisation … although exactly how depends on which television archaeologist you believe.

The eruption left the world’s biggest caldera, or crater, and all that remained of its walls were the main island, the neighbouring island of Thirassia and the outlying islet of Aspronissi. Eight more eruptions have occurred since the one that all but destroyed the island.

About 45 AD the island of Palea Kamini appeared, triggered by another eruption. Another volcanic island, Mikra Kamini, appeared in the 16th Century, and 200 years later  Nea Kamini rose above the waves. Subsequent eruptions, the latest in 1950 caused this island to grow in size, and eventually engulf Mikra Kamini.

Today, Nea Kamini is an uninhabited pile, nearly devoid of all vegetation, and looking more like a pile of ash than anything else. But, nevertheless, it’s an interesting place to visit as witnessed by the many notices on the quayside on the main island, at the Old Port, below the town of Thira, offering boat trips to ‘see the volcano’. The boat used is often a kaiki, a wooden boat designed on the lines of a traditional fishing boat.

The ferry is really the only way to approach Santorini as it sails into the caldera, seemingly surrounded by sheer cliffs, with the white houses perched on top of it, looking almost like snow from a distance.

Traders from Venice bestowed the name ‘Santorini’ … a corruption of ‘Santa Irina’ (Saint Irene) … on the island. But, most islanders prefer to use the name Thira, the same as the main town.

Thira is a huddle of whitewashed buildings on the cliff edge. Its narrow streets offer many cosy little corners, where there’s a new delight to be found. Unfortunately, though, those narrow streets can’t really cope with the passengers from two or three cruise ships at once.

Thira’s main attraction is the view out across the caldera to sea, and many a restaurant or hotel has a balcony giving the best ones. A glance westward is particularly recommended at sunset, however, most cruise ships have sailed before this. But, for disappointed sunset-watchers, there is a webcam at www.santorini.net/volcano.html.

On the south coast of the island are the excavations at Akrotiri, where, about 40 years ago, the remains of an ancient city were found. This city was buried in ash, which protected it from the worst effects of the Great Eruption. Some say if it hadn’t been for that protection, the city would have been melted … or even vaporised!

When you consider the magnitude of the blast, which tore the heart out of what had previously been a circular island all those years ago, the crater of Nea Kamini comes as something of a disappointment.

The main crater is a massive double crater called ‘George’, after the then King of Greece. Some of the rocks give off a slight vapour. This is steam, and is quite normal; it does that all the time.

On the eastern side of ‘George’, there are some fumaroles; holes giving off steam and smelling slightly of bad eggs. That’s evidence that Nea Kamini isn’t extinct; it is merely dormant. There are also hot springs on the island, and on the neighbouring Palea Kamini, where the boats sometimes sail for their passengers to bathe.

Although it is possible that the volcano may erupt again, it is being watched very closely, and warning will be given.

‘And, if that happens’ say the guides ‘we have a very good tour of the vineyards on the main island we can do instead!’

Posted by: travelrat | April 6, 2021

Z for …

Zell am See:

A lakeside resort in Austria’s Tirol.

Zillertal:

Staying in the Tirol. In Winter, it’s a prime ski resort; all year round, the attraction is the narrow-gauge Zillertalbahn. However, it’s not primarily a tourist train, but an integral part of the local transport system.

That’s it for the weekly ‘alphabet session’. We can’t travel yet, so how to fill these pages? I’m going to go through the alphabet again, but this time, it’ll be about things, rather than places. I foresee problems with Q … unless I come across a quetzal or a quince by then. But, hopefully, we’ll be able to travel again before I get that far.

Posted by: travelrat | April 4, 2021

Staycation

Staycation. I dislike that word; sometimes I actually hate it. Mainly because it’s an unnecessary transatlantic neologism, but also because, in this country, it’s misused. Its original meaning was spending your holiday in your own home, and doing day trips. I used to do that a lot; I received a generous leave allowance, but no way could I afford to spend all of it by ‘going away’. But, what it seems to have come to mean is holidaying in your own country.

It’s no new thing, anyway. During WWII, there was a Government-inspired scheme to encourage people not to travel away for their holidays. Kendal Borough Council, in Westmorland established a ‘Holidays at Home’ programme … and the Secretary of that committee was Council official Alfred Wainwright, who went on to author that charming series  A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells.

Of late, I’ve been inundated with offers of a ‘staycation’ which doesn’t involve staying at home, just holidaying in the United Kingdom, or even just England. In the unlikely event that anyone responsible for such reads these words … may I point out that spending a few days in Penzance or Scarborough is NOT a ‘staycation’. I mean, if I lived in Toronto and holidayed in the Rocky Mountains, or journeyed from Melbourne to Cairns, that wouldn’t be called a ‘staycation’, would it?

And, it’s getting worse. The other day, I got email from a certain cruise line offering me a ‘seacation’. That is totally unnecessary. What the flaming crepes suzette is wrong with simply calling it a ‘cruise’?


 

Posted by: travelrat | April 1, 2021

Tram No. 1: Scheveningen-Delft

I’ve always been an advocate of exploring somewhere new by public transport, rather than sitting on a coach with forty other people, listening to a guide reeling off schoolroom facts.

Most cities have a particular bus or tram route that is outstanding in this respect, and one of the best I’ve come across is the Route 1 of the Hague Transport Company (HTM).

The Netherlands can be said to have two capitals. Most of the business and commerce is carried on in Amsterdam, while the Queen’s residence and the seat of government are in The Hague … or, Den Haag, to give it its Dutch name.

‘But, we’re really just a village!’ I was told ‘We were never granted city rights. That’s why we constructed a canal around the old quarter; for defence, because we weren’t allowed to build a wall’

Some say The Hague is now the biggest village in Europe, and Tram Route No. 1 joins it with two of its outlying suburbs; the seaside resort of Scheveningen, and the beautiful town of Delft.

Don’t ask me how much the fare is, though. Explaining the fare pricing system concisely is a bit like explaining the offside rule in soccer. Let’s just say I bought a 15-unit strippenkaarte for €6.70, and, after my return trip, I still had three units left.

Scheveningen.

This is really two towns. There’s the relatively new container port and fishing harbour. It celebrated its centenary only recently. Before they built the harbour, the fishermen used specially built flat-bottomed boats, which they hauled across the sands to launch them, with teams of horses.

To the north is the resort town, grouped around the pier and the Kurhaus, or spa. The two are joined by one of the longest, cleanest beaches I’ve seen for a long time. And, they like to keep it so. On my early-morning walk, I saw fleets of tractors with apparatus to pick up any jetsam, and rake the sand over.

‘We get a lot of Germans here’ said a friendly waiter ‘This is the nearest seaside many of them have’

As you near the pier, the bars, restaurants and beach clubs become even more prolific. Maybe the décor isn’t to everyone’s taste, but most of them have open fires, which are especially welcome when the evening breeze sets in. I ate in two of them on the nights I stayed in Scheveningen, and the food was excellent.

To see what Scheveningen was like in the days before they built the harbour, let’s go to the Kurhaus, and board Tram No. 1 for The Hague.

The Hague (Den Haag)

When the artist Hendrik Willem Mesdag heard the harbour was to be built, he determined to capture the essence of the old Scheveningen on canvas. But, he produced no ordinary painting … he painted the Mesdag Panorama. This was a cylindrical painting nearly 40 feet high, and 360 feet in circumference. You can see this by getting off the tram at the Mauritskade stop, and walking around to 65 Zeestraat.

And, you’re not going there just to look at a painting, but see how cleverly the artist has frozen a moment in 1881, and made it look exactly as if you are standing on top of a sand dune, seeing the town spread out around you.

Even if you’re not into art and architecture, you can indulge in retail therapy, or just hang out. I didn’t have to walk far to see multitudes of places where people could eat, or just drink beer or coffee while chatting with their friends.

But, the art galleries are different!  I checked out the ‘Escher in the Palace’ gallery in the Lange Voorhout Palace. I found Escher’s pen drawings and engravings absorbing and intriguing, but I was also attracted by the painting in the foyer, of a smiling Queen Beatrix, seemingly welcoming me to her palace.

We can’t leave The Hague without visiting its most famous inhabitant. ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ in the Mauritshuis. It’s on the top floor, so you’ll have to see the other paintings first. At the time of my visit, the exhibition was titled ‘Dream of Italy’, so the paintings were mainly full of light.

Finally we come upon Vermeer’s masterpiece. All I can say is this is a ‘must see’. No print or postcard could ever reproduce the delicate colours of the original.

And, Vermeer was born not far away, in Delft, right on the No. 1 tram route. So, let’s go to the Hofweg tram stop, right by the Binnenhof, or Parliament building, to re-board.

Delft:

I didn’t actually visit Vermeer’s birthplace, but it’s easy to see what inspired him. Delft is what everybody imagines a Dutch town should look like. Canals, tree-lined streets and quiet little corners. Only the Grote Markt is rather tourist-ridden, but this is where you go to buy the famous Blue Delft pottery.

Here, you’ll find genuine Delft and Far East-made Delft. Often, the shops where the real McCoy is sold have a little kiln and a pottery-painting workshop in the rear.

But, if you just want to see pottery, rather than buy it, I recommend a visit to the Lambert van Meerten Museum in Oude Delft, and view this 19th Century collector’s pottery and tiles, which decorate the entire house.

On the way there, I photographed the Oude Kerk, and was surprised at its leaning spire. The Tourist Office, though, told me that it did have a distinct list to port, and it wasn’t the result of too much Heineken! Curious thing is, it appeared almost perpendicular in my photographs. Did I maybe subconsciously compensate?

Another interesting museum was the Prinsenhof. This was the home of William of Orange, considered to be the father of the Dutch nation, assassinated here in 1584. It also has many artefacts covering the history of Delft.

At one stage in the Prinsenhof’s history, the building was a convent, and there’s still a quiet, remote atmosphere to the place.

It would round things out nicely if I said I rode the No. 1 tram back to my hotel in Scheveningen. But I didn’t. I cheated! I changed to a No. 9 in The Hague, which, on its way to Scheveningen, goes past the delightful miniature Holland at Madurodam.

Disclosure: This was a familiarisation trip sponsored by the Tourist Board of The Hague. All the opinions expressed here are my own: For much more information, go to www.denhaag.com

Posted by: travelrat | March 30, 2021

Y for …

Yukon:

Think of Yukon, and you usually think ‘gold rush’. This is Carcross … formerly Caribou Crossing … through which prospectors would pass on the Chilkoot Trail, on the way to the goldfields.

Yangshuo:

We arrived here in darkness, and this is the view from our hotel window, which greeted us the following morning. I think I could live here!

Posted by: travelrat | March 28, 2021

Tiles

I’ve been ranting a lot about the lack of travel shows in the 50-odd TV channels available to me. So, it came as a refreshing change to find Europe From Above on the National Geographic Channel. This is an excellent series of programmes, dealing with a different country in each episode, and I was particularly struck by the aerial views of the Millau Viaduct, the Corinth Canal and the Meteora monasteries.

One episode I was particularly looking forward to was Hungary; I’d got some good shots of the imposing Parliament Building in Budapest, and wondered what it looked like from above.

However, we only got the slightest glimpse; the shots of Budapest were mainly of rooftops. The remarkable ones are the ones clad in shiny, multi-coloured tiles. These were made at the Zsolnay (say the ‘Zs’ like a French soft J) factory, using a process perfected in 1860.

Now, I’m a little annoyed, because, when we visited Budapest in 2018, I do feel the guide should have called attention to them. I don’t believe she mentioned them at all … or it was only a brief mention, which I missed.

So, I only have one photograph … of the roof of the Matthias Church. And, to photograph others seems to me to be a good reason for another visit to Budapest.

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