Puglia the bread basket of Italy, home to the Trulli and Gallipoli, (though the battle was fought in Turkey not here), and my home for a week learning how to cook.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Puglia is particularly poor as there are so many half completed buildings. I think though that this is typical of many agricultural areas in Italy and in Europe. This area is normally responsible for 40% of Italy’s olive oil production. At this moment all the trees are pretty much diseased in this area, and are being dug up and replaced. This will take decades to do and an olive tree doesn’t produce fruit for 5/7 years. A tragedy of massive economic proportions; some of these trees are 2/3 thousand years old. The farmers have gone on strike evidently. I am not sure how that helps. But the EU is providing some help.
A day in Lecce, often called the Florence of the south, will reward you with many Baroque churches, a Roman amphitheatre and Pasticceria Natalie the best ice cream in town. €2.5 will buy you a cone, you can choose two flavours and you will have difficulty in finishing it. The churches, (buy a pass at the first one), which gets you into all the main ones. All examples of wonderful craftsmanship, in the Baroque style; so flamboyant, gilded and very over the top. St Matthews even has a Papier Mache´ ceiling.
Otranto Cathedral consecrated in 1088 has a mosaic floor, depicting the tree of life, with very weird looking animals, and an altar with 800 skulls. Actually, 3 glass cupboards much like anyone would have in their living room but instead of ornaments you will find a collection of bones and skulls. Martyrs who died for their faith (didn’t fancy Islam, and wouldn’t convert) so were murdered by the Ottomans in 1480.
The cooking is fun, I find I can make pasta and better still Orecchiette. The little ears famous around here and we put them together with some Cime di Rapa. This translates as turnip tops, though more like bits of broccoli and plenty of green leaves. All manner of Italian dishes follow, we are introduced to Lasagne using tiny meat balls instead of a ragout, and using cheese, mozzarella and provolone, rather than bechamel which makes the dish a bit lighter. Pasta isn’t drowned in sauce here, more dressed in it. Meat loaf, chicken and veal involtini, thin slices of meat stuffed with mortadella and cheese. Mortadella is used as a seasoning here and finds its way into all manner of things. As we are in the south a version of the Sicilian dish Caponata is conjured up, and what cannot be faulted is the unlimited quantity of wine that appears at mealtimes.
Having only had a tiny glimpse of Puglia there is certainly
more to see. As a region they are proud
of their local dishes, and I would happily go and explore more.
Road Scholar an outfit introduced to me by an American friend are
a non-profit organisation, into educational stuff, so not a bucket and spade
brigade, and the trip looked interesting. A whole bucket of bucket list stuff,
knocked off in one fell swoop. Eat your heart out Greta! 48 folk with a few hangers on, i.e. folk to
make sure we are all herded in the right direction at the right time, from
London to China and back; stopping off in Cairo, for the Pyramids and the
museum, Jordan for the Wadi Rum and Petra, etc etc. OK and Delhi for Taj Mahal,
China, the wall & forbidden city, a quick internal flight on a local
airline to see the Xian warriors. Hopping back via Cambodia Burma and Oman.
The trip started in the UK to see Stonehenge, and Avebury, a fish
and chip lunch (trad English for the US contingent), dear God how awful was
that. But then this isn’t a culinary trip. And the US contingent is everybody
but me. I’d considered dipping out of this bit and meeting at Stansted but
thought that I ought to pitch up and make friends.
Our leader is a lovely lady Annette (British) and, says it’s good
to have some British humour, aboard, i.e. me. The crew on the plane are great,
plenty of them to look after us, the Chef Darren is conjuring up good stuff,
and there is an engineer to check the oil levels too.
Mick Jagger and his entourage have rented this plane before, as have Guns N’ Roses so if it’s good enough for them.
After a back-door entry to Stansted, (there is one very funny lady
Marla here an expert on Easter Island, who specialises in butt jokes), into a
lovely lounge, our plane awaited and we all had our photos taken, next stop
Cairo is a dusty sprawling city of 22 Million, a fifth of the population live there. We arrived on Friday, their weekend so traffic was “light”. The place is a sprawl and a building site, much isn’t finished and isn’t going to be any time soon as tax is paid when it is. Apartment block after block of unfinished partly built, partially inhabited buildings abound. Some buildings have floors that have collapsed and people living in other parts of the same building. A “new Cairo” is being built and so is a “new Luxor” to contend with the burgeoning population. A new baby turns up here every 37 seconds. This is not a rich place, and a lot of people are working hard to make a living.
First stop is the Pyramids, the Sphinx and then the Solar boat museum.
There is a new museum coming, right next door to the pyramids and
the old museum, will be refurbished. The museum hasn’t changed in decades.
Artefacts were put in wooden and glass boxes in the 1920’s, or whenever and the
information on closely typed cards which are now greying and bending. Some of
the items are already in plastic wrap ready to move to their new home. What is
not in doubt is the magnificence of the collection and hopefully the new museum
will do the artefacts justice. Better lighting and air conditioning to make it
all easier to see and understand will help.
The King Tut stuff (plus the other pharaoh stuff), is fabulously amazing and the intricacy of its manufacture one feels wouldn’t be a walk in the park today. That is such an understatement, the workmanship and designs are unbelievable for the period, time and tools available. King Tut died 1325BC and the mask, is but a “bagatelle” in the 5000 or so items found in his tomb as one of the “unimportant” Pharaohs. The amount of extraordinary stuff that must be sitting around stolen from the tombs of the really important guys must be staggering. Or maybe just melted down ….
There is a papyrus in the Museum that reminded me of the Bayeux
tapestry. It is 35 Metres long but in pristine condition, telling a 35M long
story but still vibrant in colour as if it had just been written and painted
A short hop and we land in Aqaba a port on the Jordanian coast, or
the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to be more precise. Desert, 10 Million people
mostly Muslim, including 2M refugees from Iraq and Syria. They are clearly
We drive to the Wadi Rum, (wadi means a valley), in the desert, inhabited by Bedouin people who happily drive us around the desert to see the Petroglyphs (rock carvings of camels), give us tea and hope we will buy their wares. A lecture the following morning explains how the Bedouin, one of the Arab tribes that live here, cook, make their tents from material spun from the wool of their goats as well as their clothes which the women embroider. They make their cooking utensils, coffee pots too. Essentially if you have a camel some sheep or goats you are pretty much good to go. That said we didn’t meet any folk living quite so simply. Four wives are allowed but doesn’t seem to happen. Multiple children are one thing, multiple wives evidently quite another. Arranged marriages are the norm and it is incumbent on the groom to pay for absolutely everything. A house, a wedding, and a party which can be up to a thousand people!
Petra the following day exceeds all expectations. Our guide has got us to the right places at the right time for the light, to get the best pictures (an early start was worth it), and importantly we are first at the buffet lunch. As we leave there is a queue forming for a wonderful array of dishes, which feels like a bit of a mission to achieve, in such an environment. Though there is a back door to the valley, for the two restaurants to get the provisions in and out, it is just the visitors who must do the trekking. The locals who used to live in the caves and temples in the area surrounding have now been re-housed, and spend their days selling local wares to the tourists. Sadly, there are some children around who should be in school.
The clues (on the government printed map) suggest a 5-mile round trip into the pink city of Petra and back. My phone tells me I have walked over 4 miles by lunch and I am not walking back in the heat. I contract a deal with one of the young lads to ferry me back to the treasury on a four by four donkey, he tells me to relax whilst aloft. Relaxing is something one does in front of the telly, not miles in the air on a donkey. I manage to hang on but feel sorry for the donkey and so tip my guy and he actually looks pleased.
There is a lovely small but informative museum at the entrance to Petra and it would have been useful to visit first. That would have delayed our entrance and then missed the light. (Perhaps the evening before). A visit in the early morning is a must to get the best light.
Next stop Delhi, where I suspect we will be in smog, traffic and
throngs of people.
After a brief visit to the Jama Masjid (Mosque all open air so not a lot to see,) a rickshaw ride through Chandigarh Chowk to see the wedding market, was the highlight of the day. If you are getting married in Delhi you may come here for all the beads and saris and general paraphernalia that a wedding requires. These are serious events, presents like saris, gold bracelets and necklaces need to be bought for all the family, before any thought goes to the feeding of them. Typically, weddings can last over say 4 days. You start saving early. Our guide (who is unusually divorced) is not surprisingly encouraging her son to elope!
In the market the wiring is precarious but seems to work and
amazingly meters charge people for their electricity. Monkeys abound and it is
good karma to feed them. Bars on houses are not to keep the burglars out, but
to keep the monkeys out, they are so smart they will go straight for the
For balance we went to see what the Sikhs get up to in the
Gurudwara Bangladesh Sikh temple, the largest in Delhi, feeds 5000 or so people
a day, part of this religion is service to others. So, plenty of folk give up
their time to provide two meals a day, you can just turn up, any religion, rich
or poor. The only criteria are, you must just wash your hands, have nothing on
your feet, and wear a scarf, or something on your head. And you will get fed.
Maybe even with some of the bread I made. So, with no social security you can
get fed twice a day here!
The Oberoi is where to stay. Staff are fabulous everything works, nothing is too much trouble. The first morning one young man Tammy the restaurant manager asked me “ Can I assume you’re enjoying your breakfast” I said “you can if you want”. At which point he crouched down and asked me what was the problem. I told him I thought his scrambled eggs had been done in a microwave. This causes some consternation the chef was summoned and I was assured this wasn’t the case. Later at dinner the waiter asked me if I’d like some wine. I asked him where it was from. He said Spain, So I asked him what it was. He told me Goats do Roam. I said well that comes from South Africa from the Fairview Estate and they do have goats and I have been there, so yes please. His colleagues were tittering behind his back as this was going one. Anyway, from then on, my breakfast is supervised by Tammy and my wine glass is always full. Laundry is done to perfection wrapped up as beautifully as anything Harrods can manage and then returned in a wicker basket. I have a butler and task her with polishing my shoes.
There does seem to be a push in India to reduce waste and plastic.
Single use stuff is banned. Shopping bags are degradable fabric. The street food used to be served in leaves
or on unfired pottery cups which could then be discarded with impunity; they
now have small foil containers and plastic cups for chai. Not everywhere and
often a mixture, but unfortunately, a retrograde step.
China is cancelled. I am offered a derisory amount in recompense (which I reject and will do battle later) and am then wafted off to Jaipur 150 miles down the road.
Jaipur is in Rajasthan. Desert, camels, the Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal) built in 1799 with open windows to let the breeze blow through in the summer months and of course the Most Exotic Marigold Hotel!
Jaipur aka the pink city, a royal city established in 1727, population 5M ish and the capital of Rajasthan with a 21-year-old Maharajah.
Continuing the royal theme, the city Palace with its colourful striped flag can be visited and this clearly is a splendid place, silver pots for storing water the largest in the world, guarded of course and indeed there are guards all around the palace in various uniforms. The Maharajah is now opening his house (or the City Palace as it is normally called, and you can go stay via Air BnB.)
The C16 Amber (pronounced Amer) Fort on the outskirts of Jaipur, a home of Maharajahs past, has been neglected over the century’s but in its day must have been spectacular and the best preserved part, is the Hall of Mirrors.
Not having seen a Hindu temple so far, we arrive just in time for a service at the new all white marble Birla temple. A completely new experience for me, folk enter the main hall, then curtains are drawn to reveal statues of Vishnu (The Preserver) and his consort Lakshmi, both carved out of one piece of marble. As they are both elegantly clothed and bedecked with jewellery, flowers & wild make-up, I’m not sure spending money on the marble was worthwhile, as its not now obvious. The service fortunately of a short duration (which as there are no seats and my attention span is short), seems to consist of the priest in robes wafting incense around with a cacophony of extra loud music. Everyone then files past the priest and waft the incense over themselves, wander round the back of the two deities and receive a little holy water and then make a donation. Nonetheless it’s a beautiful temple and has a dome for the Muslims a pyramid for the Buddhists and the traditional Hindu spire or Shikhara.
Fairmont hotel one of the few places that had 50 rooms at short notice in Jaipur and evidently, they had to conjure up some extra staff to deal with us and it shows. That said the welcome as we return is noisy and enthusiastic. Two drummers with huge kettle drums at the outer door. Petals strewn over us from a height as we enter the hotel, and a sitar and drummer playing as we finally enter the hotel after security has looked at all our bags. The evening finds a bangle making chap complete with portable charcoal fire sitting in the bar along with an astrologer, dancers and singers. I get him to make me a bracelet. Many take advantage of the astrologer and come away very satisfied! I imagine all will live long happy lives and find new husbands. Of 48 there can only be a handful of men and with 2 exceptions married, one will never ever be married as he hasn’t cut his toe nails this century and the other an extreme live-wire, which will take some keeping up with.
The maintenance department is working hard, I nearly suggest my maintenance man moves in as he is visiting twice daily, the shower doesn’t switch off, the lights disappear as in a power cut, he tells me I haven’t put my card in the slot properly, righty ho off you go then; he fixes the point where the card fits. The toilet seat “can you glue it back to the toilet before I return”. Nothing happens and I call to ask them etc fix and the very nice lady enquires “you want your toilet seat in your room”, erm no I don’t, just attached to the toilet, a new one is conjured up just slightly less wonky than the last.
The room is damp, the place is old and traditional, the food is
fine but the fabric of it needs updating really. I have a massage and a facial
and because I don’t know the back way, I find myself walking through the hotel
in a dressing gown. The clothes I’ve had made have arrived as has a new ring now
made a little larger and I’m invited to sit to try it on. I think not, the robe
is only just doing its job, sitting would be embarrassing. Staff are willing but ineffective. The Oberoi
Delhi staff were not only willing & effective but absolutely fabulous.
With 4 days to kill before the next leg of the trip in Cambodia we find ourselves visiting a couple of factories one making blue pottery and another making paper out of discarded fabric. Fancy paper bags for Walmart amongst other stuff. We also have lunch at the Rambagh Palace Hotel. 30 years ago, when I was in India last, I had lunch here too, so I explore a little to see if there are any changes. The staff fall over themselves when I say I was here so long ago and make me very welcome. It is sumptuous and splendid and I’m sorry to return to my damp room in Jaipur. Whatever splendours Jaipur can conjure up. It is still India, cows roam the streets, pigs too in Jaipur, which weren’t obvious in Delhi. The poverty and disabilities of the beggars are profoundly depressing, the dirt and rubbish everywhere is of epic proportions. The government evidently is trying to change things and towns get prizes for being clean and tidy. There is clearly a mindset problem and will take some time to change. It isn’t obviously different from when I was here 30 years ago.
Cambodia it seems has never been free. Currently North Vietnam
seems to be in charge, and talking disparagingly about the incumbent regime can
land you in jail.
Jaipur to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat and assorted temples, if we had
a week there are 1,080 newly discovered temples in the area. Siem Reap means
the defeat of Thailand thus named after a war with Thailand in the distant
Our guide who was a small boy during the Khmer Rouge days lost his
father who was worked and starved to death, an uncle and 3 cousins. He says
everyone lost someone and it is clear why; of a population then of 7M, 3M were
killed. Anyone educated or a bit whiter than others or who wore spectacles,
were killed. When all of Hanoi was emptied then looted, he was displaced with
his mother. Sometime later he was allowed to return to find his house was
occupied by the Khmer Rouge and prisoners were kept there and routinely
tortured. Which as an 8-year-old he witnessed daily. One of our people the aforementioned Marla (a
very nice lady from Wyoming who spends some of her time awarding scholarships
to Easter Islanders who will then go back and help their community), asked him
further about his family and he said he had three children, and had lost his
wife to breast cancer; which is something that is untreatable it seems here, as
are all cancers. When you are in a hole
Marla stop digging!
As a result of the genocide special skills were lost. Cambodia
used to be famous for its lacquerware and it took two French brothers to come
to Siem Reap to teach the locals how to do it. The results are fabulous. Go
visit and buy.
We were here to see temples and the Sofitel is a good jumping off
point, French, so the food is good, and they know how to run things.
A 4 am start finds us at the Angkor Wat ticket office as they open
at 5 am. A $60 ticket buys you as much access you need over as many days as you
need. US Dollars here work very well, as 4,000 Riels is worth 25 cents. The sunrise is what we are here for and with
a lake in front of the temple the reflection is haunting. The whole temple was
a small city 5.5 Miles square and surrounded by a moat 200 Meters wide full of
crocodiles. The main causeway is under renovation so we crossed the moat on a
wobbly floating bridge. Bit like walking
down a pontoon to find one’s boat except somewhat larger.
The temple is dedicated to Vishnu. Vishnu gave birth to Brahma
through his navel and Brahma created the world.
Seems reasonable enough. The
walls are covered in drawings depicting the king, battles of soldiers,
Cambodians v the Thais, horses, chariots and spears. Apella or heavenly dancers
abound, many with shiny boobs where people (boys will be boys), have rubbed the
stone to a high polish. Now fortunately roped off just out of arm’s length.
Angkor Thom follows. This was a city and the last capital of the
Khmer Empire to the mid C15, 3k squared, housing 80 thousand people the stone
reliefs here depict scenes from life, cooking, food on a barbecue, eating,
giving birth (that one’s a bit difficult to fathom).
As kings came and went so did their religions, so if a Buddhist
King died and the next one was Hindu then the Buddhist trappings were removed,
so there are areas of wall that are essentially just defaced and erased. Hindu
trappings would then be installed and this alternated over several generations.
The temperature in the 90’s but with humidity at 94% it felt in
the hundreds and now thus drenched with sweat I was templed out and so chilled
by the pool, with my new best friend from Wyoming and with a bicycle riding
pool boy fetching and carrying cocktails and anything else required.
Mali’s will find you a good lunch/dinner in Siem Reap.
A quick visit to the tomb raider temple where Angelina Jolie
filmed was essential before our flight to Mandalay, Ta Prohm the “jungle
temple” so called as trees are growing out of the buildings. And they have had
over 300 years without interruption to do so. 2000 Monks lived here with 600
dancers back in the day, which sounds quite fun if you are a monk. India is
helping to restore some of the buildings which struck me as odd, as the last effort
India helped with was at Angkor Wat and they used acid to clean the temple and
it has turned black! But then what do I know.
Burma or Myanmar as it used to be called before the British came
Mandalay Burma’s 2nd city, our first port of call, with a
population of 1.2M, is rapidly being taken over by the Chinese, who marry
Burmese women and demonstrate their wealth by surrounding their houses with
razor wire! I asked our guide if there was much burglary in Burma and he said
“none”. I can attest to this as I never
managed to master how to lock my room during the 2 nights I was in Burma and I
have to say it was a busy as any knocking shop.
There was a procession of workmen, coming to fix the air conditioning,
replace an electric point that didn’t work, bring me a tonic water without a
glass or ice, return with glass and ice, drop on floor, return with the
cleaning up guy and then with a new glass and ice, all while I am wondering if
I can get out of my dressing gown before the next guy arrived, and perhaps go
to dinner. I leave eventually to come back to find the air con working!
Armed with the equivalent of “good morning” and “thank you” so
feeling fluent in Burmese, we set out on our first stop to see a silk factory,
making the best silk money can buy evidently, and if you’re getting married you
want some of this silk. It is back-breaking work in the heat of the day, over
95F in an airless factory breaking all sensible elf and safety rules, and there
are no fans. Not many workers either, they have gone home as too hot, only to
come back later and finish their day in the evening. Often working in pairs
with the finished pattern on the reverse, it is intricate work.
Many folk have yellow painted faces and this is called Thanaka and
it is a sun block made from the sap of a tree.
The men are wearing what look like sarongs, but are called Longyi
and worn by all men and women from teenage years. Boys wear shorts till then, a
hangover from the British Raj days. Like kilts the men wear nothing underneath,
mostly. Longyi is a tube of material, which you step into and then men tie in a
knot (and with some dexterity) can turn into shorts, sort off, if they are
fishing or in the fields, or walking through mud etc. Women do much the same
but wrap around, and make neater. You
need to turn these three times a day so you don’t wear out the seat of your
Longyi. They cost about $5 and men have about 10 of them. Nuns only 3 and they
are pink, monks the same and they are maroon. The dress is elegance personified.
They all look like Aung San Suu Kyi. Us lot look scruffy by comparison.
It is a short hop to Bagan from Mandalay; out hotel overlooks the Irrawaddy with boats lazily wandering up and down.
Bagan, became a UNESCO site on 6 July 2019, this means that our hotel
and others in the area, must close by 2020. The local people had houses here
till 1992, and indeed our guide lived here until then, in among the 2,200
temples in 19 square miles. Everyone was resettled, but they didn’t go quietly,
the water and electricity had to be cut off before folk would leave.
Bagan has about 11 days of rain, and 8 inches of rain a year, so
crops are sesame seeds, peanuts and cotton. No rice.
This isn’t really a culinary destination. Siem Reap was better for
food (the French influence helpful I’m guessing), here in Bagan it is much
cheaper and more cheerful. Alcohol is a problem;
Beer comes in huge bottles; local rum is cheaper than beer and much of the
adult male population are drunks evidently. So not much different from England
The history of Bagan is interesting, it was a prosperous trading
place, with a navigable river. In the late 11C Marco Polo came here. It was a golden age, Kings taxed the citizens
and built big temples, and people built their own small personal stupors and
temples for private worship. As they all now believed in reincarnation they
were investing in the future. In 1059 Buddhism superseded animism so sacrifices
ceased, and loving kindness took over!
Evidently news spread of this prosperity, and Kublai Khan feeling
insecure came down from the north and trashed the place, horses were no match
for the nice Buddhists, but they soon found the heat too much and went back
home leaving a mess behind.
Pagodas can be a temple or a stupor, stupors are inverted and conical with no entrance, and temples do have entrances, and important ones have relics, evidently some of the Buddha’s hair and bones can be found in a couple of the larger ones. As they are located at the top of the temple who knows what can be found there. One Thai guy fished out the jewels at the top of the temple that wasn’t big enough for anything larger than a baby to wriggle through. Anyway, he was fortunately caught at the border and now the temple is defaced by CCTV. On questioning as no-one could figure out how he had extracted the jewels, it turned out he had brought along a trained monkey. Fagin in Oliver Twist comes to mind!
Lacquerware dating from the 11C is traditional here and made using
techniques that wouldn’t be amiss in medieval times. Bamboo is split by hand
and foot, horse hair is used uniquely here, sanding is done using a bow
spinning a wheel. The lacquer is sap from the ~Thitsi tree collected by bamboo
tube and oxidation makes it black. 1 coat per week, minimum 5, but up to 20, and
each article polished by hand in between, then one can add a design or some
gold leaf. The results are quite spectacular.
Before departing from Mandalay, we visited the biggest book in the world. Tripiṭaka tablets at Kuthodaw Pagoda. 730 tablets all enclosed in their own little house, completed in 1868. Both sides of the tablets are inscribed with Buddhist texts. The king at the time wanted to ensure that the Buddhist teachings would stand the test of time. I can attest they are all still standing and the area is popular with wedding couples to come and have their picture taken in all their finery. (I didn’t gatecrash, the wedding isn’t for another 4 months.)
The Golden Palace Monastery is very close to here and worth a look. It is being restored by the American Embassy. The palace was originally a retreat for the king, and with a family of over 100 children, I am not surprised he needed some peace and quiet. The palace is made of teak, wonderful carvings and when fully gilded must have looked stunning. The gold has now worn off mostly, how much will be put back on will be interesting to see, and once completed there is talk that one won’t be able to visit inside, which seems somewhat daft.
Saturday evening sunny and dry heat zero humidity, and the Millennium
Hotel is dry too! Not even a tonic water to go with my gin, I task them with
getting some by the following day.
Oman is a small country a population of 5.6 M and Muscat the
capital has1.56M, 17 dialects are spoken. The safest place for women to live in
the world evidently after Luxembourg.
The Sultan is revered as there is now free education, free medical
care and 85% of Doctors are Omani evidently. Equals rights for men and women,
there are 5 women who are heads of ministries, women can drive, be in the
police and the army, and have equal land rights. At 23 you can apply for some
free land and you will eventually get 600 sq. metres on which to build yourself
a house. Land that is yours to sell at any time. And there are no taxes. I
surmise the Sultan is gay as he hasn’t married, has no heirs and has never been
seen with a woman in public. Our guide skirts round the whole thing.
The national dress for men is the dishdasha which can be any
colour but pink. Formal wear is white. I ask him what he is wearing underneath
as everyone wants to know, just like they were interested in what went on under
the Burmese guys longyis. A thin cotton
petticoat is worn under the long white robe and a vest on top. No pants and no
socks. He says young boys often wear belts to avoid accidents but adults manage
without. The dishdasha also has a tassel
round the neck and this is so perfume can be added so they all smell nice.
Abdul then tells us about Oud a local perfume and Amuaje. Amuaje is made from
jasmine, frankincense sandalwood and spices. He says we can buy some for
between 200/250 US at the museum. Or 100 US at the airport.
The Sultan Qaboos Mosque our first port of call in what is a whistle stop tour, is one of the largest in the world and no expense has been spared, the main chandelier made in Turkey, once the largest in the world now superseded by one in Abu Dhabi, weighs over 8 tons and has more Swarovski crystal imaginable. The teak comes from Burma. The women’s mosque can accommodate 750 and in total with the outside area all nicely marked out in marble, can accommodate 20,000 worshipers. The men’s Mosque is infinitely more spectacular and larger than the women’s prayer area. Has a one-piece carpet made evidently in situ and I can’t work out quite how you do that. Pictures don’t really do it justice.
Next stop the souk where frankincense burns together with other
local smelly delicacies. I buy everything required an incense burner the small
charcoal bricks the frankincense and some Amuaje. It smells lovely and I get a
small bottle for 20 bucks and think happy days. One of our party later does
spend the 200 or so bucks on a very nice colourful box and cellophane that would
do Harrods proud. Saffron is also cheap
here, there is wonderful metalwork and marquetry, with intricate backgammon
sets and lovely boxes. I’m spent up and
have enough junk.
The Bait al Zubair cultural
centre / museum is worth a visit, more a taste of life in Oman, the different
areas the clothes, jewellery customs, and what happens at weddings. Still the
groom is responsible for all costs and transport costs of guests as well. And
500 seems to be about the minimum number you have to cater for. Last stop the Al Alam palace used for visiting
dignitaries rather than as a home. The love affair with Britain is clear from
the metalwork, railings and street lamps. Supplied by the UK clearly, the gold
shields being 100% gold and I can’t see them lasting long in London, but then
this is the Gulf and Sharia law is still in force.
The trip finishes off on the Gulf of Oman with a sunset cruise on a dhow.
A place to retreat for mindfulness and meditation, to abstain, to eat healthily and to relax, so I’m not sure why I am writing this at 5.30 am in the morning. The big bell has sounded and we are all up getting ready for a sitting meditation at 6 am.
Squirrel room is my home for the week and I share with Sylvie a scientist from Paris who has forgotten her toothpaste. I brought all the stuff on the list much of which is unnecessary but forgot soap.So my ablutions for the week will be somewhat rudimentary. This is a twin bedded room, with all the luxury of home, floorboards, a lamp a window and some shelves.
Friday 14th afternoon check in with a short tour to find ones bearings was followed by an hour of stretching and yoga which was a little calmer than my sessions with Dolph but still quite demanding as I wrapped myself into a pretzel and held poses which were definitely challenging.Despite being in France the food will not be something to write home about. There is a glut of lettuce in the village and it will be served at every meal.It was last night along with cold pasta with tomatoes and onions plus fresh cherries.Vegan and no alcohol of course.
Part of this week involved a trip (in fact 2 trips) to Upper Hamlet (for single men, couples and families) another of the 3 villages which make up Plum Village France. Upper Hamlet is more male orientated so lots of Monks. A Neuroscience retreat is happening there with qualified scientists, professors therapists and the like, all having an interest in mindfulness and its use in depression, pain management and general cheeriness. We all went up there to hear a Dharma talk given by one of the senior sisters from our place. She sounds more like a teacher than a run of the mill nun. And spent an hour explaining mind and conscience which was illuminating, she missed out the last stage though when we all reach enlightenment, I’m guessing that’s because not many of us will get there.
Despite the early start, still finding too much time on my hands I volunteered to teach English. The Nuns many of them are Vietnamese, but they also hail from Sweden and Canada, want to learn languages. The retreat-ants are a varied bunch from all over Europe, Canada, USA, and a bunch of university students from Hong Kong, so if the nuns have some language skills it makes life easier.I may have found my calling. I’ve now got a delightful 22 year old Vietnamese Nun hanging on my every word. We sorted out the tool shed. The French man in charge wanted all his tools named in English and Vietnamese. So if any maintenance is required Sister Tien An will be right on top of things. After a couple of days I gave her some homework and tasked her with asking the fellow inmates what they did for a living, where they came from, and so on.I thought it a good way of her having a lot of extra English chats gratis as it were. And I was beginning to realise that teaching English was becoming hard work!
Part way through the week there is a “lazy day,” every one gets a lie in, no meditation in the dark; and breakfast at 8 am. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself, and that is the point to do nothing.I’m thinking of mindfully walking to find lunch and then mindfully cabbing back. In the event I was able to borrow a bicycle and ride and walk, up a humongous hill to Loubes Bernac a small village with a shop for coffee and a Perrier and I was able to pick up a supply of my favourite coffee. Followed by lunch next door at En Tout Simplicité. Salad, steak frites, fromage, crème brûlée, 25 cl vin plus coffee 14.50 euros. Go if your in the area, a mom and pop outfit and actually very good. There were a few other escapees too, who were amazed at my mode of transport as they faced a hot walk back in the sun.I was fortunate to freewheel back.
I have a book with me for the down time here, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. A tale of dashing across America from coast to coast, along with general debauchery, drugs alcohol and a little theft. I should have chosen better. The irony isn’t lost on me.
Meditation in various guises happens throughout the day, sitting, walking, walking very slowly and a new one was conjured up which is just delightful. Service meditation! So far prefaced by a cheery song or two, and once completed we are thanked by the Sisters who then lead us in another cheery ditty.What is this service meditation I here you say, well any jobs the sisters need help with and stuff that makes our lives better; so far, for me weeding the garden, that didn’t last long. I didn’t realise how back breaking and knee tormenting weeding is. I had a turn round Happy Farm, where a lot of our food is grown, and had a rummage to see what was growing. Next a group of us “cleaned” the forest, that was a little easier, raking, clearing paths, picking up forest debris and moving it. The idea to make a path for walking meditation, and we did indeed walk along our clean path the next day. The hopefully final service was preparing vegetables. I have managed to escape all the more serious cleaning stuff, loos, showers floors etc and a lot is required here.
The bell can be rung at odd times and to indicate meal times or time for the next activity. When it is rung one has to stop whatever one is doing and stand still. The idea being to bring us back to the present and to check in with ones feelings and body, re-centre as it were. Noble silences also prevail during mealtimes and then after the final bell at 9pm until after breakfast and that is even harder to remember. So the normal pleasantries good night etc are out of the window. Being a Brit this is quite hard as this sort of thing is automatic, especially as the first morning I woke up and banged my head on the ceiling letting out an expletive.
The Dordogne in all its greenness is stretching around here with serried rows of vines just ready for the tasting. A wonderful place that Thich Nhat Hanh found for his French home. Plum Village has now expanded so there are three villages but the man himself used to live where I find myself until his recent stroke and now he confines himself to Vietnam.
The second Dharma talk found me entrusted with the keys to one of the vans used for shuffling stuff around, and so I drove those not fancying the walk up to Upper Hamlet for our second talk. The speaker was a most handsome and engaging monk who looked well on his way to enlightenment.
The final night found us having a tea-party outside in the sunshine with a proper Vietnamese tea set with tiny cups and some music via a portable speaker. The grounds are full of plums tree so there has been home-made plum jam every morning, There is also a huge lotus lily pond complete with noisy bullfrogs and lots of mulberry trees with ripe fruit. I hadn’t seen a mulberry tree before nor one laden with fruit ripe for the picking. The nuns who are essentially sugar deprived what with no alcohol and no puddings, brought out to the tea party
a special jar of mulberry syrup they had made from mulberries and sugar, delicious, evidently the have to dispose once it ferments! One day coming back from a walk some of the nuns spotted some cherries that were rip on a tree and there was a frenzy to see how fast they could be consumed. They were kind enough to give me one as I was passing but I left them to it. Small pleasures.
Typical accommodation, the refectory and the morning bell with mulberry trees
Savannah to Puerto Rico via Philadelphia picking up Freddie and François on the way.
We arrived in San Juan, picked up a truck of a car, got lost, paid to get over a bridge and repaid to get back, then we seemed to get with it, on the navigating front. Or I did anyway, as I was in the front seat and not driving. One reason I prefer to drive.
The Wyndham Grand first stop for some lunch and swim-up pool action. A big barn of a place, multiple restaurants each worse than the last. Breakfast was fine, but then America and, Puerto Rico is an outpost of America can usually do good breakfasts. Its proximity to the Yunque National Park was its draw. The next morning was spent exploring this by car. All of Puerto Rico is still suffering from the aftermath of the last Hurricane in 2017, and Mr Trump’s salve of some loo paper doesn’t seem to have papered over all the cracks properly. That said the people are charming, and welcoming, unfortunately they can’t cook. But they make up for that with huge portions. So, the park although open had many of the stopping and parking places still in a state of disrepair. Anyway as no one was too keen on hiking this was fine. We also found a local beach Luquillo to hang on, with chairs to rent, plenty of parking, and a row of restaurants. I noticed the truck was freezing when we got back some time later as I was loading up bags and towels. Due to the fact I hadn’t actually turned the engine off! I opened all the doors quickly so no one would notice. Phew!
Wyndham Grand Swim up pool
Interesting information in the Wyndham?
Yunque National Park
No evidence of a hurricane here!
The next day we took the ferry to Vieques, a place recommended by Angel a Judge in San Juan and friend of Freddie and François He had survived the hurricane with his elderly neighbours sheltering with copious amounts of wine, with his shutters down on the 4th floor. When all died down, he found a foot of sand on his balcony but otherwise all ok.
The Vieques ferry from Ceiba serves locals first then tourists. So, it was our mission to get their early and we found ourselves first in line for boarding. Vieques is small and quiet and doctors and dentists and most shopping is to be found on the mainland. Hence the policy of locals first. As it was Easter time it was also a “local” holiday destination. And folk were prepared for camping on beaches and bringing with them industrial quantities of alcohol, loaded on trollies, their body weight in beer as far as I could see. The ferry is very reasonable and cost me $1 each way, not bad for a 30-minute ferry ride.
We picked up another car having left the truck in the ferry car park (engine off), and found our way to the Hotel El Blok, which is the best hotel on the island, there are B&B’s and other stuff but the hotel had a roof top bar with views, a kitchen that could cook and they did it over a wood fire. Sandra had the biggest room in the hotel and if you go, I suggest you ask for that. The others are fine but this is 4* not 5.
EL Blok with roof top bar
One thing being old and knackered, its another having a graphic on your ticket!
Is this any way to treat a fish?
The island is flat, boasts some lovely beaches many with loo facilities, though no beach restaurants chairs beds etc. The Riviera it isn’t. Our hotel gave us beds and towels so we managed very well. It was also a US army base and there are remnants of this round and about. The pace of life is slow like the rest of Island Caribbean and there are untethered wild horses to navigate too.
One night we took the bioluminescence tour of Mosquito Bay. Evidently declared the brightest in the world by the Guinness World of Records in 2018. Full Moon is the best time to go.
“In the waters of Mosquito Bay, there are organisms named Pyrodinium bahamense, Dinoflagellates (dinos). These “dinos” are responsible for this amazing natural phenomenon. When the “dinos” come into contact with another organism or shaken they produce a bright burst of blue light”. This is quite spooky, not confined to San Juan it happens in other places too. The hurricane disrupted the balance of the bay and it went dark, but has now recovered. They say brighter than ever.
We said goodbye to Vieques returned the way we came picked up the truck, and made our way to Ponce.
Arriving Good Friday, the cultural stuff was off limits, museums closed so we had a day of sun and slumming. There is a wonderfully preserved fire station the Parque de Bombas and a Cathedral which you can spend a few minutes in. I found Kings the ice cream parlour, where they proceeded to put more ice cream on the cone that was structurally safe so I lost some of it. But it was very good and was very cheap. And probably just as well I lost 500 or so calories on the floor. We found a lovely restaurant next to our Hotel Melia. Vistas, so called, as it was at the top of the building 6 floors up. Giving us lovely sunset views and a different view of the cathedral and fire station. We ate their twice due to idleness and we’d become so circumspect of the food in general. On our way out of Ponce we stopped at the Museo Castillo Seralles a mansion once owned by the Don Q Rum producing family who not able to afford the upkeep gave it to the state. Interesting as it was a snapshot back in time to the thirties and before.
Parque de Bombas
Rincon was our next destination, though due to some mix up, and for once I wasn’t responsible, we ended up in San Juan a day early. This didn’t matter, Booking.com sent us a massive refund repaying what we had paid, and then paid the difference of our upgrade to the Condado Vanderbilt. Hurrah!
The food picked up considerably in San Juan. This is the home of the Pina Colada and the only place I’ve seen where whole pineapples are hollowed out and the cocktail poured into the cavity. I’m sure some of you will now send me a list of places this happens and tell me I lead a sheltered existence. Serafina next door to our hotel was a good Italian, Marmalade in the town was also very good but also very expensive and sent you down the path of a tasting menu. A lovely bar in town was the rum bar Casitas so good I went twice. They “squeeze” ice cubes and make them square and then “brand” with the Bar Logo. Real bar tendering at work.
Most nights around this island Sandra had managed to sniff out a casino, starting at the Wyndham Grand. There are no joining rules like there seem to be in other places, you just turn up and waste money. Easy. I’m fine about a flutter and happy to lose 20 bucks here and there but it doesn’t actually do anything for my soul and so I ducked out now and then and went solo wandering.
One of the two forts guarding San Juan
Bacardi rum has its home in San Juan and a tour will tell you all about the Bacardi family and how the rum started and how they have evidently have to import sugar cane as Puerto Rico can’t make enough to satisfy the demand.
The original Bacardi art deco bar, all the way from Cuba
San Juan old town is fun to wander around. The architecture is stunning its Spanish history clearly visibly. Art galleries are everywhere. It is in places a little run down and unloved, owners of wonderful buildings have disappeared and decay has set in. Reminiscent of Cuba in some respects.
The history is interesting being a stopping off point for provisioning once the Atlantic had been crossed. Christopher Columbus was here. The Spanish colonised imported slaves to help build the place, there were uprisings and some very long time later the US got its hands on the place. But it is still an un-integrated organised region of the United States. Its indefinite status still sparks political debates that dominate in Puerto Rican society, I am told.
Charleston to Savannah, and we stopped off in Beaufort for lunch on the way. Savannah is the second place on this trip you can drink in the street. Not something I feel the need to do but good to know you won’t get arrested if you do. My research for things to see here relied almost entirely on the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Freddie and François gave me the movie on CD for Christmas giving me ample time to watch, anyway that escaped me.
Savannah laid out in 1733 is a town of 22 squares, horse drawn carriages, and delightful architecture.
The Mansion on Forsyth our hotel, is our first stop, to dump luggage and car and then to head out to wander the town rummage round some of the squares, and to visit Jim Williams’ house on Mercer Square. The scene of a shooting decades earlier where Jim Williams shot dead his gay lover. Three trials later he was exonerated, as it all happened in self-defence.
I spotted the house, which didn’t seem very open but had a tourist plaque on it, which was all I needed to know, so I knocked on the door and asked the very nice lady if the house was available to view and could we visit. She said yes we could look round, it was actually her mother’s house and she wouldn’t mind either, but that the house we actually wanted was over the road! (Had I been on my own I would have taken her up on her offer, you don’t often get to see inside people’s houses.) With Sandra in tow and her sensibilities it was unfortunately a no go. We beat a hasty retreat and found the entrance not actually in the square at all and had a docent guided tour. Relatives now live here so only the ground floor is open, but it is a marvellous example of a large family home in Savannah. Many of these houses had fallen into disrepair, Jim Williams was responsible for buying and renovating several of them and today still, houses are being fixed up all over town.
We eventually wound up at the lovely rooftop bar at the Bohemian hotel overlooking the Savannah River, which is twinned with the Mansion. A good reason to stop here was the benefit of the free shuttle back to our hotel. Both these hotels are modern, up to the minute fittings, and contemporary art abounds everywhere.
Dinner was at The Grey a converted Greyhound bus station run by John Morisano, very hands on and he stopped to say hi.
The chef is Mashama Bailey.
I found this place as she was the subject of a Netflix Prog. The food was terrific and well worth booking in advance for. After dinner ready for some music we ubered over to the Cellar Tavern underneath the Olde Pink House. Such a good night was had that the next day was a somewhat subdued affair Sandra bought drinks all round several times, all of Savannah was grateful.
Olde Pink house with cellar tavern and live music
Horse drawn carriages are a must do so we decided to have one just to ourselves this time in the morning, which meant little thinking and some recovery time. The Bonaventure cemetery in Savannah houses a number of famous folk. Jim Williams for one, Johnny Mercer of “Moon River” and “That Old Black Magic” for another. And we took a picnic for lunch from the Back in the Day Bakery. If you call into the office as it is a huge place, they will give you a map (for a donation of course) and there are picnic tables
The Pinkie Masters bar featured heavily in my essential reading before I got here so we decided we had to stop by. A real dive bar with a good old jukebox, lovely locals, and the owners are so keen on cocktails that they could even conjure up a Pimms; pretty unusual for the USA. Parking is pretty easy you just need to pay, but then you need to pay for everything her except for the air.
Dinner at The Atlantic a short trip out of town where a barbecue was cooking oysters rounded off Savannah. We left Saturday morning and I wandered over to farmers market in Forsyth Park over the road from the hotel worth a look if you’re there. All manner of produce, herbs, meat, cookies, pickles, bread.
Charleston was established in 1670 as Charles Town honouring Charles II of England. This isn’t a guidebook but the place burnt down a couple of times, moved and was rebuilt, but you can Google all that stuff.
I was the advance party Sandra would arrive in time for dinner from Los Angeles. The flight from New Orleans on American Airlines was uneventful and I hurried out to pickup my Avis car. A short queue, but they had all my info in advance so gave me the keys with no further paperwork. As I walked down the hill to the car park I thought I would need to drop Sandra off with the luggage when we flew to Philadelphia later in the week, as we wouldn’t want to push our luggage up hill.
It was then that it dawned on me that I had walked out of the airport without my bag! Had this been any airport in the UK it would have been impossible to get back into the baggage hall. As it was the US, the baggage hall is essentially on the street so any Tom Dick or Harry can come and steal your bag. Making my way back I called into the American Airlines office to find the person absent, I saw her soon enough she was making her way back to her office with my bag. In fact she had two, so I was not the only stupid one that day!
The Planters Inn is an old hotel full of charm and charming people. Supposedly with one of the best restaurants in town, as our first breakfast was so abysmal and as the next meal could be my last on this earth, we didn’t bother trying it. The staff though are delightful, have lots of other ideas for breakfast lunch etc, and are great at valeting the car. Rooms are big and each comes complete with a Teddy Bear, just in case you need a cuddle while you’re here.
I had a very decent lunch in the Palmetto Court across the road which is the restaurant that belongs to the Belmond hotel. I would stay here next time. The food was good on both occasions I tried it. Plus there is a rooftop pool and bar. The Thoroughbred bar downstairs exudes southern comfort.
Husk was booked for dinner one of the best restaurants in town, needs booking, and way in advance. They also have a bar with bar snacks, where less or no booking is required. Both are excellent. Sean Brock started this place and I found him on a Netflix programme with Anthony Bourdain. He has other joints in town too, if you have time to visit.
A horse and carriage ride seemed a good way to start to get our bearings. As we clip clopped round town our driver explained a little of the history. The houses many of them antebellum (from the Latin meaning pre-war, there have been several so take your pick). They were built in the days of no air conditioning. So were aligned in order to catch any breeze going. Many with outdoor porches or piazzas. These areas would have the equivalent of a front door, or hospitality door. If the door was open then neighbours could drop by for tea or mint juleps!
Later we opted for a guided walk for just us, rather that join a tour. This was useful to understand the history of Charleston and that it was the seat of the start of the Civil War of Independence. Having got somewhat wet on this walk and the anorak in the bag being deployed, I am pleased to say the day improved as we crossed the new bridge aka Arthur Ravenel Jr bridge to Mount Pleasant. Lunched at Shem Creek where the fishing boats come in and watched some Pelicans sunning themselves and fishing for their lunch. There is a lovely walk along the creek here and the place is all set up for fishermen, with water and a table for cleaning the fish.
Having seen one plantation house in New Orleans we decided another might be in order and made our way to Boone Hall. Not unlike Oak Alley outside New Orleans’s, indeed has its own oak alley, but their slave accommodation was made of brick, rather than wood. And there are 9 original slave cabins. Very small 12’ x 30’ single story houses with a hearth for cooking. The place is still farmed 320 years later. Peaches mainly. The slaves here also made bricks when they weren’t growing sugar or indigo. The house was rebuilt in 1936 so not v interesting but still gives a fascinating insight to southern history.
A couple of rooftop bars, the Market Pavilion Hotel and The Vendue at Charleston’s Art Hotel were great. Fig was booked for dinner also a must do and also book way in advance. I used the concierge to help here. Planters Inn is famous for its coconut cake and 11 layers. So after dinner we tried out the bar and the cake. Not sure it’s worth the effort. Bar is nice cake is ordinary.
As breakfast at the Inn had been such a disappointment, we found Millers All Day for breakfast on King St. The name is a misnomer it shuts around 3pm! But it’s very good for breakfast. We are in the land of grits and biscuits. Grits think weird porridge and I can do without it. Biscuits are like scones and they are fine.
As we had a “ghost walk” planned for the evening we just dipped into the Husk Bar before hand for some southern fried chicken and a cocktail. The chicken is their idea of a bar snack. I think it was a whole chicken; anyway we couldn’t manage it all. Go hungry!
A boat trip to Fort Sumter is interesting as this is where the first shots were fired that started the American Civil War. There is a montage inside the fort that explains the back-story and this is interesting if your illiterate as far as US history is concerned. Otherwise as a fort it’s not that great. Wales has better castles. Pages Okra Grill beforehand conjured up a good American breakfast. The boat ride there gives great views of Charleston and I imagine in summer a little relief from the heat. April is a good time to come here. Weather perfect for sightseeing. The humidity in summer is supposed to be high and of course there are more tourists.
Planters Inn sits opposite N & S Market Street between which sits a craft market. The sweet grass baskets are famous here, the craft originating in Africa and made by Gullah weavers. They are very expensive but worth a look. Considered and I quote “among the nation’s most prized cultural souvenirs”. There are some in the Smithsonian. There are none in Covent Garden.
There is also the Confederate Museum at the end of the market, full of artefacts to do with the civil war uniforms with bullet holes and the like, only a dollar or two for a quick run round.
On N Market Street was my favourite bar. Henry’s On the Market with live jazz and roof deck. Set over 3 floors, with a very comfy 1st floor area complete with fire where I whiled away an hour or two with a book. Our final dinner was at Felix’s on King St a short Uber away. I’d booked The Ordinary which was a converted bank next door, but the noise was unbearable, so we repaired to Felix’s, light, bright good and Frenchish.
Charleston is eminently liveable, historically very pretty, the food was good, and southern hospitality is all it is cracked up to be, and the pace of life is slower than the big cities of the North.
Leaving Charleston for Savannah we dropped in on the Angel Oak on St Johns Island a live oak tree between 400/500 years old.
Arriving in New Orleans I took a taxi a standard $36 into town. I knew I was in the land of tipping everything that moved, when I handed over my $40 bucks and got no change!
The Hotel Monteleone boasts the only hotel bar with a carousel in it. Installed in 1949. If you are lucky (and I was once) you can hop on and spin round, 360 degrees in 15 minutes. This plus nightly music contributes to it being the busiest and noisiest hotel bar I have ever been in. That said I did get chatted up by Mr Concrete from Fort Worth who bought me a drink one night and had a chat with a retired teacher and her daughter another.
Walking around in the dark on a Wednesday evening, the street thronging, bars buzzing, and music coming from all directions was more than I was expecting. Little did I know that this was pretty sedate and as the weekend came nearer things would heat up. More of everything. Bourbon St becomes pedestrianised in the evenings and a posse of policemen hang around keeping order. Though there doesn’t appear a lot for them to do. That said I didn’t stay up all night. I did however wander into Cafe Beignet and watched Steamboat Willie and his band (they appear nightly), while having a Margarita.
The food scene must be one of the best the US has to offer. Portions are sensible, as are the prices and so a three course dinner is not out of the question. Waiters are formally attired in DJ’s and dickie bows and tablecloths abound.
Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet are both good for breakfast and Beignets are the order of the day. Three deep fried bits of dough dusted in icing sugar for $3.50. I had one and gave the other two away. Akin to doughnuts without the jam. When in Rome.
The next day rained so much so I schlepped over to Frenchmen Street where there are an unlimited number of bars, with assorted bands, the only requirement is you buy a drink per set. So for $10 you are happily entertained and then can wander off to the next joint. So I started in the Spotted Cat then made my way to Bamboula’s where a doormen started chatting to me as I entered, as I wasn’t paying attention I got him to repeat his missive. He was advising me that I needed to buy a drink, really …… “I’ll write that down” ….. He says the drinks pay for the band. I don’t think so, the audience pays for the band as they come round with a bucket afterwards, which of course is fine.
There are plantation houses around and I visited Oak Alley in the morning. As it was pouring down, an hour each way on a bus didn’t seem like a bad idea. When the sun shines it can be very humid here and we are only early April, so I won’t be coming in the summer.
A trip on a street car is a must do, so with Claire and Mike who had joined me from Scottsdale we took the St Charles street car the end of the line, past some lovely antebellum houses (before the war, specifically the Civil War for those who aren’t Latin scholars). Plus some shot-gun houses. So called as there are no interior walls so if someone comes to the door and you are in the garden (and you don’t like them very much), you have a clear view and you can shoot them. We would probably call this open plan these days. End of the line found the Camelia Grill a great dive with counter seating and cheery wait staff in vintage uniforms, white jackets and bow ties.
Brennans for dinner and Mr Brennan seems like the Corbin and King of New Orleans as he has a chain of restaurants with no two the same. Lunch one day was the best (supposedly) barbecue shrimp in town at Mr B’s bistro and as that counts as an entree, during the week you can have either a Martini or a Bloody Mary for $1.5 bucks. There are a lot of happy hours and happy hour deals. 25 cent Martini anyone! You can drink in the street and pretty much anything goes. Smoking dope in the street too I saw one day. That may not be legal. Drinking in the street is. In fact for the nerdy among you there are only 7 places that you can drink in the street legally in the US. Savannah, Hood River, Sonoma, Las Vegas, Fredericksburg, Memphis and New Orleans. More of Savannah later.
I decided I ought to learn how to ride a Segway so took a tour with the only Segway company in town and had a tour of the area and the outskirts. Many of the houses in what was the poor black area have now been renovated, painted gaily and now command $500k and upwards, in the French Quarter the houses hide courtyards, swimming pools in places, and fetch up to $10M US. What they don’t tell you before you go on a Segway ride is that your feet will hurt. They should sell you a foot massage as well. As we rode out of the Segway shop I saw a massage shop advertising all manner of massages little knowing that I would be availing myself of their services an hour or so later.
The rain stopped play a bit in New Orleans but it is certainly a fun place. So much music everywhere, people busking on the street, in the bars and restaurants. I didn’t manage to eat my way through all the special dishes here but managed Etouffe, Gumbo, barbecue shrimp, grilled oysters, all excellent and the southern hospitality shines through everywhere.
Carousel Bar Hotel Monteleone
The only carousel you need to be 21 to ride.
Spotted Cat Dive Bar
Bamboula’s .. make sure you buy a drink here!
Camelia Grill and Claire and Mike
A dodgy segway driver
A great massage parlour run by a lovely Chinese family
Oak Alley one of the great plantation houses. Used to grow “White Gold”, no not Peruvian marching powder. Sugar cane! So called because of these very wet oak trees.
An example of the marvellous architecture to be found all over the French Quarter
Lanzarote is a Canary Island but with a difference, Benidorm did not stop here, it didn’t even get a look in.
César Manrique a talented Spanish artist and architect came via Madrid and New York in the 70’s and then took the local council by the scruff of its neck and got them to agree to: no high rise buildings, no billboards, all houses to be painted in uniform white and window shutters either, blue brown or green; land, sea, and green …an organic feel comes to mind. The result is all of a piece and pleasing to the spirit.
It is a place I return to most years. I continue to think I should buy somewhere here but then the thought passes as I realise there is much of the world I have yet to see. But it provides an easy place to be, the food is simple but fabulous. Grilled fish and Canarian potatoes (boiled in heavily salted water till the water evaporates), with mojo sauce, usually two sauces one green, one red, then add in a bottle of wine from the Bermejo winery (the bottle with a unique lip for pouring) and that is difficult to beat. The best baby squids or puntallitas/chiperones I have also had here. The Mar Azul restaurant in Manrique colours White and Blue, in El Golfo is the place to be for all of this. Be it lunchtime or even early evening watching the sunset. It is also fun to watch the fish being cleaned and the entrails being fed to the seagulls. Doesn’t get much fresher! Luis the chef patron has been here for over 20 years. He has a deft hand when it comes to grilling fish, and adorns it with a truck load of roasted garlic. Large honey rums and Cointreau on the house round off the meal!
The oenology is interesting here as the grape is principally Malvasia and each vine is grown in a round shallow hole often with semicircular wall built around for protection from the constant winds. So growing wine is very labour intensive. (Try pruning in and out of these holes). Red white pink and pudding wine can be found here. The bottles themselves are unique, Yaiza blue and the Bermejo with a lip for pouring. Though the wines do not travel really apart from the other Canary Islands, there isn’t sufficient quantity produced unfortunately.
For an occasional visitor a week will find enough to do, be it active or otherwise. The Timanfaya park I have tripped round several times, and they can cook chicken pieces on a grill over the remnant heat of the volcano, visit by all means but there are better places to eat. And the visit will rumble you round on a bus (no other option, sorry) and fascinating it is to see the volcanic landscape. Plus it is here in this volcanic moon-like landscape, they filmed The Planet of the Apes.
The island is easily drivable, some of the best roads in Europe carved through the lava. There are wineries to visit, César Manrique had two homes both worth a look. The capital like many island capitals is I think disappointing. There is a brand new marina and cruise ships are now coming in. The best new restaurant found was Naia on Ave César Manrique a pedestrian walkway around an inland harbour. An area that has been spruced up and is definitely worth a wander. Until next time.
Timple (TImplay) a 5 stringed kind of ukelele indigenous to the Canaries
Teguise market every Sunday morning
Glue all these bits together in the Timple museum and hey presto!
Famara beach the best spot for surfing and kite-flying. La Graciosa in the distance an island with 721 inhabitants now part of the Canaries! If you go the eat at El Risco, but book!
Bequia one of the Grenadines, is a jewel of an island, sitting next to Mustique the playground of the rich, but she doesn’t look on jealously. This is a real place, completely un-manicured like its neighbour, with lovely friendly people. Some visitors come by boat fall in love with the place and never leave. That is why I am here to visit friends who did just that. Mikey & Nicola arrived bought a patch of land on top of a hill with terrific views, and set about building a house unlike any other. Several years later progress hasn’t been swift and there isn’t a house (well not a complete house) but there will be … eventually …… when Island time allows. It will also have its own recording studio and stage.
It will eventually look like the two renders above, but in the meantime it is still a work in progress. The house made in the Phillipines, shipped to the Caribbean and the Architect on yet another continent. A logistical nightmare, but the perseverence is beginning to pay off. I am here for a party, Mikey’s 60th birthday. We are a bunch of his friends from the UK, USA and Australia. The party will be held at one of the best beach bars in the Caribbean, Jack’s Bar. There isn’t a Jack and having visited over several years I don’t think there ever has been, but there is always a warm welcome. The bar sits on Princess Margaret beach, (so called because HRH visited one day). The beach is found either by dinghy if you have come by boat, taxi or a short walk along the Belmont Walkway from the main town Port Elizabeth. So main it has two streets, front and back. This beach is a good place to spend the day, beds can be rented from the lovely Fay who also provides refreshments, and if you are a sole visitor she will look after your belongings while you have a swim. In the meantime we have a week of activities with the party midweek.
A boat trip to Petit Nevis on the Tuesday was a trip of 2 halves, a motorboat and a sailing boat.
Motor boat both ways for me and Dwight our captain had the great idea of stopping at The Liming, the newest hotel on Bequia for drinks. The lovely Sharo creating rather fabulous rum punches. We discover only one room is occupied .. not too surprising as the rates start from nearly one thousand US per night. The smallest pool a 5* hotel can conjure up, perhaps.
Petit Nevis is one of the uninhabited Grenadines and so we don’t stay long before returning via the Liming and as the sun goes down our boat turns into a nightclub and is soon jumping with music and dancing as we return to Port Elizabeth.
One evening we also had a Rum Shop tour, Mikey not getting to grips with the pole…I’m not faring any better, respect to anyone who can do this. Licensing laws are non existence and these small bars are just set up at the back of peoples houses.
Jacks bar decked out with marquees and every police officer on the island was in attendance to make sure all went well and prevent any gatecrashing.
The party was not a quiet affair, K J Denhert flew in with her band from New York.
Bequia is also embracing the recycling effort with re-usable bamboo straws instead of plastic! Sorry to leave this lovely island. Will be back for more soon.
Cordoba is part of the Golden Triangle, which also includes Granada where the Alhambra is found, Seville where the oranges are found and the famous Islamic palace, a fusion of Spanish Christian and Moorish architecture. My visit squared that circle as it were as Cordoba was the only one of the three I hadn’t seen. Arguably saving the best till last.
Pitching up in Cordoba in the heatwave gripping Europe meant temperatures of 45 degrees. Not something I had ever experienced before and I likened it to walking around in a tumble dryer. Hotter here than anywhere in India or Africa at the time! Siestas needed 3pm > 8pm and then after dinner an air conditioned bar for chilling.
But what we came to see made this all worthwhile.
Some of the 800 or so pillars
Hypostyle prayer hall (hypostyle means, filled with columns)
The Cathedral was inserted into the middle of all the columns some were removed to make way, and others painted
Pillars later painted and decorated!
An organ installed together with
Choir stalls so all could have a good old sing song!