Thirty years of age, from Tyre in Lebanon, Jabira had luxuriant, thick, tightly curled hair which contrasted with a complexion that was paler than what I would have imagined for someone from the Middle East. Faultlessly dressed in her pastel-coloured airline uniform, Jabira wore vivid red lipstick like a movie star.
Perching on the crew seat, at the rear of the aircraft by the galley, she told me that she loved to travel, and even travels on her day off. The conversation then moved in a more personal direction when Jabira told me that she was marrying a guy sixteen years her senior and that this was a good thing.
She preferred more mature men, and her rationale behind this thinking was that older guys are more experienced, they have seen lots of interesting things in life, were stable and are not always looking at other girls.
I immediately began to relax, because up until that point, I was going to be writing a stiffly worded letter of complaint to the airline head office. I was travelling to India once again full of anticipation and excitement, but I had just suffered the worst airline food and service in years of flying.
Feeling restless, I had torn myself away from the irresistible view of distant, foreign shores below me, and a vast, unending range of jagged, white-topped mountains interspersed with glacial lakes. Heading to the rear of the aircraft, I needed to do what every passenger must do after a few hours in their seat. That is when I came face to face with Jabira.
I interrupted her lunch break by remarking on the healthy and nutritious tuna salad that she was eating. Graciously, she then engaged in meaningful conversation with me and willingly surrendered up some personal and fascinating details about her life.
With an impending summer marriage, Jabira was trying to lose weight for her husband-to-be. She declared that at the age of 30 she was now old, and the older you get the more difficult it becomes to lose weight. Of course, I reassured her that she was neither old nor needed to lose weight.
Eventually, the Bursar came and interrupted our conversation, telling the crew it was time to attend to the needs of the passengers. I said goodbye to Jabira for now, and I wished her all the love and luck in the world.
Sitting down in my habitual window seat, now gazing out over a different landscape passing below like a geographical conveyor belt, I contemplated what had just taken place.
I had met Jabira and she had shared her life, hopes, and aspirations with me. My pent-up disappointment with the airline had all but evaporated because, at this moment, it simply did not matter anymore.
Later, she strode past my seat and gave me a knowing smile. I relaxed again knowing that I had been touched by the kindness of a stranger, and I was infinitely richer for it.
Rain, lots and lots of it. In fact, it was endless, and Sigra Road outside our hotel was rapidly becoming a river. It was September, and we were in Varanasi, North India, in the back end of the monsoon season. Clearly, all the locals were not bothered by it as everybody just carried on, even though by this time the street outside was under 1-2 feet of water.
Big, thick, deafening rain just kept falling out of the sky; heavily, incessantly, and persistently as we watched from the relative shelter of the Hotel Padmini, just around the corner from my friend’s house. I had never seen weather like it in the UK, and I was at once filled with excitement, awe and wonder at nature’s power to bring everything to a grinding halt.
The drainage along the road just could not cope. Too much water, too quickly with no let up. People were getting off motorbikes and pushing. Auto-rickshaws also could not withstand the deluge, and their beleaguered drivers had to dismount and physically force their vehicles through the dirty, brown water.
Cars broke down and again had to be propelled by human effort. But no one gave up, they just got out, got off and put their backs into it because that is what you do in this part of the world. You don’t let something simple like a massive weather system stop you from going about your daily business here.
Can you do a city break in a day? This is a question that has often perplexed me, so without further ado, I booked myself a reasonably early morning flight to Dublin, flying out from Bristol Airport. With a flight time of less than one hour, the capital of the Emerald Isle is very accessible. Living up to its green nickname, when the thick cloud finally parted over Ireland, the countryside below was the greenest of greens you can possibly imagine.
Down on the ground though I began to understand why, like my home county of Devon, it was so green. It was raining, heavily. ‘Good weather for ducks,’ my connecting coach driver was heard to say, and he was right on the money there. Not to be in the slightest bit perturbed though, I hopped on and took the short thirty minute coach journey into the centre of Dublin, arriving at Westmoreland Street.
Of course, arriving in the centre of any new city can be somewhat overwhelming, I mean what to do? Where do you start? I have to humbly confess that I conducted the briefest research into this fair city, but I was determined to make the most of my time here. It was now 10.05am and my return flight wasn’t until 7.40pm that evening, so here goes.
St. Stephen’s Green
Striding confidently in the direction of somewhere, I soon arrived at one of the green lungs of Dublin: St. Stephen’s Green. All the way there, I was constantly tempted to wander down one of the many side streets en route, but I resisted for now and continued onwards. This is a lovely piece of parkland , situated at the end of Dawson Street full of very tame pigeons it would seem. A quick wander through the park, down the autumnal leafy walkways and around the man-made lake, and I was ready for next segment.
By now it was late morning, and I was feeling a little peckish. I had read about the Beanhive Cafe, so it was a simple trot across the road from St. Stephen’s Green to the top of Dawson Street. Now I have to say that if you don’t like queuing, don’t come here. Why? Well because I counted 8 seats inside, and 8 seats outside on the pavement. And since it was a cool, grey and wet day, unless you are of the more hardy sort, you probably won’t go for the outside pavement option.
The Beanhive, run by a lovely chap called Fan whose family originate from the Far-East, appears to be perpetually busy – and deservedly so. The menu is wide-ranging and jolly mouth-watering. So, what’s a man to do when in Dublin? Well he orders the ‘Full Irish Breakfast’ of course. I put my order in and soon as a seat inside became available, I sat down literally as my tasty breakfast arrived. I was presented with a vast platter of food which I duly tucked into, although I wasn’t sure if there was any difference between the ‘full English’ and the ‘full Irish.’ No matter, it filled the proverbial hole, and after a quick chat with Fan I discovered that his wife was the actual owner of the business. Goodbyes said, I was on my merry way to the next stop.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
No visit to Dublin would be complete without popping into a place of religious significance, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral is most definitely worthy of your attention, if only for an hour. Inside you will find a rich source of religious history and Irish heritage. There are statues and plaques to various notable dignitaries and historic men who have helped shaped the Dublin of today. It is without doubt a beautiful building within, and will hold you in rapt attention for some time.
Just across the way from Dublin Castle and near the City Hall, the Oak is a great place to pop in if you have a major thirst coming on. Situated on the corner of Parliament Street, it’s a great place to watch the world go by. Perched on a plush stool, I was truly mesmerised by the stunning array of different whiskeys and gin on offer behind the bar. The usual major brands were present of course, but it was the sheer proliferation of independent distillers that was really eye-opening.
So whilst at the bar with my pint of Guinness (well what else did you expect?), which by the way is always part filled up then left to stand before finally being topped up to the rim, I engaged the young Irish barman Joshua in conversation. We mused about the truly dazzling array of spirits before us, imbibing (no pun intended), as much information as I possibly could.
Well I thought I would try one of the local whiskeys and unsurprisingly, I opted for the curiously named ‘Writer’s Tears,’ which is probably some kind of reference to writer’s block maybe… It was very nice, but at 7.50 Euros a shot, perhaps it’s a reference to the price. Oh well, time to move on to my next port of call.
For a fascinating insight into Ireland’s troubled history, a visit to Dublin Castle is a must. Famous for the handing over of power to Michael Collins and the newly formed Irish government in 1922, a visit here will certainly help put things in context. Because time was now rapidly moving on, I chose the tour of the State Apartments which was without doubt very interesting and certainly a productive and agreeable use of my then limited time.
One of the most interesting rooms is where the Irish president is inaugurated every seven years. You can’t help but be impressed by the grandeur of Dublin Castle, which is still used regularly for state occasions. The sumptuous dining room where international guests are regularly entertained and the portraits of a long line of British Viceroys that ruled this land during our seven hundred year tenure of power, are truly fascinating. On a more mundane note, Dublin Castle also functions as offices for a number of Government departments.
No visit to Dublin is complete without crossing the famous River Liffey via the charming and historic Ha’penny Bridge. Fabulously ornate, it will give you a snapshot of old Dublin. Charmingly, you will find masses of padlocks of friends, visitors and lovers attached to the bridge as a remembrance of their special time there.
And so to the finale of my day, a visit to the Temple Bar. Here you will put up with expensive Guinness, but in return you will be treated to an undeniably Irish experience. Inside, two musicians, Alan and Josh, were busy entertaining the assembled cheering and whooping crowds with some real Irish folk music. It was for me the perfect end to a varied and interesting day. And whilst I by no means covered all bases within this fabulous city, I think I proved actually, that you can do Dublin in a day. So what are you waiting for? Ryanair are still flying last time I looked.
It had been 14 long years since I had last visited the Port of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city after historic Athens. Capital of the beautiful region of Macedonia, it was pretty much as I remembered it, and no less wonderful.
Greece is famed for the stunning coastline of Halkidiki and its three fingers of land reaching down into the Aegean Sea, alongside its diverse and extensive archipelago offering a myriad of different experiences. But, if you avoid Thessaloniki you may be missing the proverbial ‘trick.’
For starters, it’s just a cool place to be and it is positively vibrating with life. If local cuisine and culture is your thing, it has it. If you love a bit of history, it has that by the bucketful and if your penchant is for a bit of glitzy nightlife, then say no more.
So, ambling down the promenade, I thought I would explore once again. After all, it had been a while. With the hot sun beating down on my receding hairline, while at the same time being cooled by refreshing sea breezes, I strode purposefully into ‘town.’
Stop and stare point number 1 was a newly wedded couple engaging in a photo shoot on the waterfront. This is a ‘thing’ now in Greece, or so my friend and local Thessaloniki resident Emmanuel tells me. After couples get wed, they can later find a suitable spot to have some more dramatic, artistic and different pictures taken. Well I think that is a great idea, and it was certainly fun and heartwarming to watch the happy couple posing for all sorts of romantic shots. Ah, true love never dies and all that.
Moving on, I carried on up the promanade towards the centre of Thessaloniki. Now it’s not everyday that you see a pirate ship but that is what I found parked in the bay. Not a real one of course (don’t be silly), but a suitably touristy copy for the holiday makers. Pleasure trips were the order of the day and since this one offered a free trip around the bay in exchange for the purchase of a single drink; well how could I resist?
Having boarded the pirate vessel, I soon discovered the exorbitant cost of aforesaid drinks. C’est la vie. Anyway, notwithstanding that, the ship pushed out into the shiny blue Aegean and the party started. And just to enhance the experience, one of the crew members was dressed very convincingly like a pirate. A definite salty sea dog in the extreme. The temporary crew members (us), were ceratinly loving it! Ah ha me hearties…
Our captain for the trip
Well one beer in and I was having the time of my life: sun, music, sea and a pirate vessel to boot. What more do you want? Sadly, it was all over far too quickly but very enjoyable if only for a while. Would I do it again? Almost certainly.
Next, it was time to hit the White Tower which was clearly visible from the harbourside. This extremely historical monument is also an iconic meeting place for locals who will basically rock up here for all manner of events and celebrations. It’s just one of those natural meeting places; a bit like Trafalgar Square in good old London. But more about that in part 2!
Geneva, in Switzerland, is a short flight from Heathrow, and consequently, is easily accessible from the United Kingdom or anywhere in Europe. It was my first time exploring this beautiful country, and I was not disappointed at all. Geneva itself, hugging the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), is a fairly cosmopolitan place by all accounts. But then, what would you expect from the city that is home to both the Red Cross and the United Nations? The Jura mountains provide a stunning backdrop to this lakeside metropolis, and the city itself is interesting enough with plenty of areas to explore.
Like in any city, street cafés abound where you can unreservedly indulge in a spot of people watching. Witness meetings between businessmen, couples enjoying each other’s company or maybe a pair of Swiss girls chatting excitedly in French in between cigarettes and food. To me, this is travel. It’s not just the places that you see but the people you meet.
Before you go anywhere though, pop into the Swiss tourism office in downtown Geneva. I found the staff, especially Anna who just paid a visit to London herself, very pleasant and helpful. Bulk up on useful local info about this city on a lake, grab yourself a city pass which will discount a number of activities for you, and of course a free map on which the staff will indicate key places though the useful application of a biro. Chris, my travel buddy, and I emerged ready to explore Geneva’s altogether lovely and engaging tourist offering.
OUT & ABOUT
Bus Tour: No city break would be complete without the ubiquitous bus tour. This particular bus tour was informative and interesting but sadly not open-topped. C’est la vie… can’t have it all I guess. The bus will whisk you around various points of interest, including of course the UN quarter of the city, home to various wings of this world-famous organisation: UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR and of course the UN building itself. The final part of the tour is conducted, rather uniquely, on a land train down some of the more narrow streets.
The Saleve: If you fancy something a little different, why not try a mini excursion up to The Saleve. A mini massif, just over the border in France, it affords amazing views across Lake Geneva and the city itself. Take a bus to the terminus, walk across the French border and ascend via a cable car to enjoy unparalleled views of the landscape below. It is well worth the effort indeed.
Boat Tour: No visit to Geneva is complete without taking a boat across, or around Lac Leman. It will certainly give you a different perspective on the city, and the boat tour I took was included in the price of the city pass.
Walking Tour of the Old City: This is also well worth doing. Old Geneva is fascinating, interesting and of course historic. You can wander around the old streets of Geneva, and in fact you should do – it’s immensely satisfying and relaxing. Strolling at your own pace, you can simply take in the sights and sounds of the old city. This is what holidaying is all about surely? We opted for the walking tour with an audio guide which was great. All the info you need right there in your hand and you can take things at your own pace. Perfect.
THE DAY WE WENT TO LAUSANNE
Well, it had to be done didn’t it? Hopped on a train we did and headed for that ultra-Swiss town of Lausanne. A train ride along the shores of sparkling Lac Leman on one side with row after row of vineyards on the other will bring you to this mini metropolis by the water. Like Geneva, Lausanne is interesting, historic and engaging. A climb up to the cathedral is well worth it (for the cathedral itself and the panoramic views across the city itself), so make sure that you include that in your tour, however brief.
We even found time for a jaunty boat ride across to Evian, the home of spring water, on the French side of the lake. We didn’t really have the time to disembark, but the journey was worthwhile nonetheless. As we headed back, Lausanne loomed large on the horizon. Soon enough we found ourselves sat outside café & bar drinking a local brew. Like I say, travelling is all about the people that you meet and soon enough we found ourselves chatting to Pete and his buddies.
Turns out that Pete was from Cardiff, but had found himself in Lausanne some twenty years ago, met a girl and never left. Well there’s a story that has been repeated a few times around the world I should imagine. Pete seemed quite content with his life as an English teacher who regularly topped up his wages by busking on the street. Well, Switzerland is an expensive country you know. Soon, we were joined by his friend Christine and I somehow managed to end up paying for her drink. A chance encounter with the locals (ex-pats included); now that is travel.
THEN WE WENT TO GSTAAD…
On the final day of our trip, we decided to leave the sparkling shores of Lake Geneva, and head on up to the majesty that is the Bernese Oberland. We skirted by Lausanne, heading purposefully for Montreux where we would change trains and start the long climb through the beautiful Alpine meadows that are so typical of this part of the world. One Swiss chalet after another seemed to float by, as the train carried us inexorably up and up towards our destination. Eventually we arrived in Gstaad which according to my learned friend was an uber-posh Ski resort. However, since it was early April, it was a deserted uber-posh ski resort.
After a quick visit to the tourist information centre, we were directed to the PostBus nearby that would transport us to the Aerial Cableway (very large cable car). The cable car runs every 20 minutes and takes approximately 15 minutes to reach the snowy peaks and ski runs of Glacier 3000. Halfway up, we stopped briefly only to be joined by a horde a skiers and snowboarders (unsurprisingly) and we were suddenly feeling very under-dressed.
Actually, as we emerged at the top of Glacier 3000 Snowpark, I definitely was under-dressed because I was, well, basically freezing. However, the views are simply stunning and literally take your breath away (sorry about the cliché). Prepared to be dazzled by an array of no less than 24 x 4000m peaks including the Eiger, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. If you’re feeling daring and not afraid of heights, navigate the spectacular Peak Walk by Tissot between two summits – it is stunning. For more information on all this, check out the Swiss tourism website: https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-gb/destinations/glacier-3000/
No doubt there is much more you can do in this wonderful country, but I don’t think that is half bad as a starter for 10, don’t you? I invite you to come and explore Geneva, Lausanne, Lac Leman, Gstaad and the beautiful, stunning, incomparable Bernese Oberland. You’ll definitely be coming back for more!
Delhi, with a population of more than of 25 million, is one of the mega cities of South Asia. And if you haven’t been yet, then you really should go. I’ve flown into the nation’s capital more times than I can remember, and yet it still retains a certain magnetism for me. Delhi is an ideal place to start your exploration of India, because there are so many other places within relatively easy reach. However, before you start trekking the length and breadth of India, stay a few days in the city and see what it has to offer.
However, here’s my recommended ‘must see’ list. I hope you find it helpful
The Rashtrapati Bhavan, otherwise known as the Presidential House, was designed by the renowned British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century. Built originally for the Viceroy, it now houses the President of India. Built from red and cream sandstone, it is striking in it’s appearance and makes a good starting point for your tour. Bordered by government offices on either side of Rajpath, you can simply view the Rashtrapati Bhavan through the black iron gates, and the tall Jaipur Column that stands sentinel in the foreground. Or, you can arrange to explore the presidential buildings, grounds and gardens by visiting: https://presidentofindia.gov.in/rbvisit/rbvisit.aspx
The construction of this red sandstone tower was completed in 1193 by the Delhi’s first Muslim ruler, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. It was built to commemorate his military victories, and standing at 73 m it is definitely worth a look-see. Once upon a time you could actually go inside and climb to the top, but when a stampede killed 45 people inside the tower during a power failure in 1981, it was closed to the public. Continued fears for public safety have kept the interior closed to this day because of the sheer height of the tower.
But you can still experience it’s impressive dimensions, and marvel at this neck craning piece of ancient architecture at ground level. With some interesting ruins and delightful gardens to explore, it’s definitely worth asking your driver to apply the handbrake. Don’t forget to call into the government emporiums during your tour to pick up those all important quality souvenirs, although you will buy cheaper from street vendors.
Lal Qila, the Red Fort, was completed in 1648 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in what is now called Old Delhi. This same emperor commissioned the Taj Mahal at Agra in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz. You cannot fail to be impressed by its lofty sandstone walls and battlements, which stand as mute testimony to the ruling Muslim dynasty across Northern India at that time. Accessible from Netaji Subhash Marg, the road running past the front entrance, the fort sits on the banks of the Yamuna River to the rear.
Worthy of your exploration, you can easily while away an hour or two roaming around the museums and fort grounds. Visit http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/231 for more info. Be aware that every tourist hot spot tends to attract a myriad of street sellers flogging every souvenir conceivable. If you are not interested, just say no or if you like, then barter!
The Lotus Temple
The Bahá’í House of worship is built in the shape of a lotus flower, and was opened in 1986. Whether you’re a follower of the Bahá’í faith or not, you will find the cool interior to be a restful haven of peace and quiet from the heat, noise and bustle of Delhi. The temple is set within manicured lawns and surrounded by nine serene pools of water. Be careful in the crowds outside temple though, as pickpockets can operate in the vicinity. Keep your hands on your bags and possessions to be safe.
Lodhi Garden, east of Nehru Park and located in the south of Delhi, is one of the green lungs of the city. If you want to get away from it all, and that’s only a matter of time, then this is the place to go. Romantic couples can be seen walking or sitting together on the grass, whilst others amble through and just enjoy the natural beauty around them. A wide bridge spans the lake there, and paved walkways invite you to delve deeper into this green oasis. The verdant seclusion in the heart of the city, provides peace and tranquillity and a welcome relief from the urban sprawl of Delhi. It’s very historic too as the gardens contain tombs dating back to the Sayyid and Lodhi Muslim dynasties of the 15th and 16th centuries, otherwise known as the Delhi Sultanate.
Built to commemorate the sacrifice that Indian troops made in WW1, it looks like an Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but on a smaller scale. Also designed and built by Lutyens, it is situated at the end of Rajpath and looks towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the far end. Flanked by the Children’s Park and the August Kranti Maidan on either side, it is a natural meeting point and a great place to gather socially. Here you will find Indian friends, couples and families coming to relax, chill out, get an ice cream or maybe indulge in some tasty street food. Again beware, as it tends to attract every street hawker imaginable, but it is a great photo opportunity and not to be missed.
Now we all like a bit of Shakespeare, don’t we? Well, what about some Shakespeare outside then? That is exactly what you’ll get if you turn up at Shakespeare’s birthplace in super Stratford-upon-Avon, and wander through to the enclosed garden and courtyard at the rear of the property. Just call out your favourite play by the legendary bard, and the two or three assembled Shakespearean actors, suitably attired in period costume, will enact a pithy scene for your listening and viewing pleasure.
These guys (and girls), are real pro’s. Making it look so effortless and easy, the impromptu audience are lavishly entertained with scenes from ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – and everything in between. To be quite honest, I could have sat there all day and lapped up this eloquent street theatre (or courtyard theatre if you want to be pedantic), and that would have constituted a perfectly acceptable day out, with time well spent.
Nestling on the western edge of the Cotswolds, Broadway is a must-visit destination if you are in the area. Why? Because it’s beautiful, and it simply oozes English village charm. In fact, it’s almost too perfect and too twee for its own good, but I just love it. It’s got lots of those lovely, unique kind of shops that magnetically draw you inside, inviting you to part with large sums of money for no real good reason at all – except for pure self-indulgence of course.
We came across a chocolate shop, a sweetie shop (selling a seemingly endless variety of sweets), and a lovely wine and gin store tucked away up a side street. A visit here was required of course, and after much chat with a chap called Dan around various drink related topics, we succumbed to the temptation to sample some of the shops wares. The whole experience proved to be immensely satisfying.
Broadway is a little gem, of that there is no doubt. One look inside the estate agent’s window will solidly conform this fact. So if you should find yourself meandering towards Stratford-upon-Avon, as we were, I would encourage you to pop in and have a jolly good look around. You are bound to find something that takes your fancy!
I am of course headed for delightful Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of Shakespeare. If you’re somewhat confused by the picture above, that is merely my geographical locator at this present time (Taunton Deane Services Northbound).
I was in Stratford less than three months ago, but I have to say that I am very pleased to be returning so soon. With me are three travelling companions, and I am sure we are going to have a blast. I’ll keep you posted!
Little Switzerland, well that’s what they call it anyway. I am of course referring to Lynton and Lynmouth, which sit happily on the North Devon Coast looking out towards the coast of South Wales. At somewhat of a loose end, I decided to park up in Lynton, and walk down the precipitous coast path to Lynmouth below. I have to say it is a fairly steep path all the way down (the ache in my thighs testify to this fact), but well worth it.
Lynmouth was buzzing as you would expect in the height of the summer break, with the August bank holiday just round the corner. I decided to make for the Rock House Hotel, accessed by a pedestrian bridge across the now united East and West Lyn Rivers. Here I was rewarded with a glass of chilled Elderflower Cider which was suitably refreshing in warm August sunshine.
There are in fact plenty of places in both Lynton and Lynmouth where you can not only enjoy something to eat and drink, but spectacular views of this dramatic coastline are virtually guaranteed. A word of warning though; the climb back up to Lynton is not for the fainthearted as it constitutes a good cardiovascular workout! If however, that all seems too much for you, then I would encourage you to take the cliff railway back up to the top. The single fare is £2.80 and worth every penny for the experience.