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Southeast Asia

In Travel on July 30, 2015 at 12:43 PM

I’ve started a couple of previous travelling pieces with fairly grand – and probably a little pretentious – introductions about a desire to travel some unexplored corner of the world, soak up new cultures, bla bla bla. So for Southeast Asia I could go on about the quest for adventure and getting a taste of a radically different taste of life in the “lands of the rising sun” (technically Japan is the land of the rising sun, but it’s a romantic description).

Now – because thankfully I’ve travelled a bit, I’m not really the type to travel for “spiritual awakening” and simply because of rapacious march of globalisation and the “Gap Yah” – three weeks in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is kind of just a ‘holiday’, albeit a quite intrepid one, rather than an ‘adventure’. Though we (me, Graham, Chris, Sam and, later, Dylan, James and Stephen) did pack a lot in, from bustling cities, to jungles, beaches, islands, temples, and more…

Bangkok

With that in mind, I’ll start on a (very tired) taxi journey from Bangkok’s main airport, Suvarnabhumi, to our hotel in central Bangkok, Lebua at State Tower, the 5-star one from the Hangover 2 with the rooftop bar. It’s some hotel, which my friend Sam miraculously got a really good deal on it – just 37 quid a night. Nestled right in the heart of Bangkok, it shoots up from the ground and offers air-conditioned luxury with spectacular views over the city. Meanwhile, right at its doorstep down below, people and vehicles resemble ants scurrying around as the ‘real’ Bangkok pulses with life – the street food, the heat, the intoxicating (or just plain filthy) array of fumes, the people trying to hawk their wares at everyone, and the traffic. It’s a dichotomy that would have your average Guardian writer soul-searching for metaphors of the high-rise hotel representing global hierarchy. But thankfully (in this sense) I’m not completely wracked with Western guilt at such things, so I loved it. The 64-floor-high Sky Bar, in particular, is stunning….

Skybar 2

Skybar 1

The only minor drawback is they strictly police the stairs to stop people dawdling on them, even though there was loads of space, meaning we couldn’t recreate the film’s famous image…

Hangover

As for Bangkok itself, it’s an intoxicating place, a rapidly changing melting pot of East and West – shopping malls and street markets; modern monorail and tuk tuks; skyscrapers and shanty towns. The best example of this is a big sign at the holy Golden Mount (Wat Saket) temple advertising the free wi-fi – while you’re among monks in bare feet praying and burning incense, who presumably take vows of chastity against mobiles and other ‘decadent modern mores’. I guess nowadays even sacred Buddhist places of worship can do with those Facebook check-ins. Everybody’s gotta eat, even monks.

The food, like the rest of Southeast Asia, is incredible. Street markets line every busy road, offering snacks at just five or ten baht (about 9p to 18p) and bigger offerings for about 50p to a pound, all of a great combination of flavour, spice and colour. The downside, though, is ‘Delhi Belly’. Thankfully, I was pretty unaffected, but unfortunately Sam, in particular, was.

Street 2

Street 1

Due to Bangkok’s sheer energy, the way it’s moving up in the world while still retaining a strong sense of itself, it’s easy to admire. It’s a little harder to truly love, though. Because that same energy also makes it hard to really connect to it. Walking the city streets, we all felt, to varying degrees, a mix of intrigue, or even awe, at all of it and mental/heat exhaustion.

Even being taken around is exhausting. We’d agreed a (very cheap) tuk tuk journey to a few temples while the drivers waited for us, with a brief mention we visit their ‘friends” shop. Turned out it was two shops and, in the second especially, we were basically locked in the shop and harassed into buying something. It was a back alley place selling clothes, including suits they’d export to the UK. I know people have got to put food on the table but it was a bit much – the staff in this small place outnumbered us four by at least two to one and one of them even physically restrained Sam (a bit) and told him to buy something. We worked out it was so cheap, around 30p each, because the drivers got fuel vouchers from the shop owners for supplying them with new customers…or prey.

There are some good ways to escape it, though. One is the speedboat you can take on the Chao Phraya River – driven fast enough to send jets of refreshing water splashing up at passengers. Another is the SkyTrain – a monorail system covering much of Bangkok. It’s a stunning feat of engineering. Just imagine the difficulty and protests if you were to build, essentially, a network of several-mile-long bridges running right above the roads in central London today – it’s pretty similar to that. Not only is it really efficient, it offers a great way of looking at the city – at around 30m high, high enough to escape the madness below but low enough to see the city in all its colourful details. It’s also really cool to have a city built in upwards layers, like a real-life Escher maze, yet more easily navigable, with some walkways and shops elevated to fit into the Sky Train network.

Koh Chang

Next up was Koh Chang, an island about five miles off the Southeast coast of Thailand, which from the ferry over reminded me of the island from Lost (the TV show) – steep, heavily forested hills towering up into dark, forbidding clouds. The island basically divides into villages and resorts around the small northern tip and along the eastern and western edges (about 10 miles long each). We were on the west, at a place called Elephant Bay in Bailan Bay, to where we got a very rickety, hilly minibus ride.

The place was great – with a bar/restaurant/games area and swimming pool which led right onto the beach (admittedly, the beach was really rocky but how many hostels have a beach?) and a friendly atmosphere even by hostels’ standards.

Elephant Bay 2

Elephant Bay

After a messy night (I’ll say no more, partly because I can’t remember, though I did film this fire-waver who was awesome), we were up, if not bright then certainly early, for a trek in the jungle. It was pretty hellish at the start I’m not going to lie. I was suffering from one of those hangovers where even walking to the shop for a coke feels is an ordeal – let alone a trek through the jungle in 30+ degree heat and 60% humidity (it’s so humid in South-east Asia that the forecasts often have a feels like temperature, which is often about five degrees hotter than the official temperature). A dip in the plunge pool of the waterfall an hour or so later helped, though, and after a couple of minutes of torrential rain I was feeling really refreshed. It became wearying well before it finally dissipated four or five hours later, but we’d have been sodden from the sweat and waist-high river crossings anyway – and it was worth it. After all, this is hardly the kind of thing you can do in the UK…

Jungle 3

Jungle 4

Jungle

The next day we went to Bang Bao, with an American girl and a German-Thai/English couple who bred huskies in northern Sweden (you meet all sorts travelling). More of the village seems to be on the pier than on the mainland. Along with all the usual shops, there are loads of restaurants (with seafood so fresh in some it’s alive on arrival), a medical centre and even a snooker hall. I had a great seafood soup with an even better view….

Seafood soup

Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

In the morning, we were headed for Siem Reap, Cambodia, a trip which I’d read on the internet involved a pretty hellish border crossing, over a 300m stretch of the border town Poipet colloquially called ‘no man’s land’. The internet was not wrong. Two-and-half-hours at the border (of a 12-hour journey involving seven different modes of transport); in the baking 35 heat; feeling like a criminal with various visa, health and passport checks; and getting mugged off of about 15 pounds in a scam by a savvy tour guide. (He told us, and others it transpired, to change money to Cambodian riel because it works out cheaper than US dollar – not true, in fact dollar is probably preferred – and then people, flustered by the heat and confused by getting hundreds of thousands of riel, unwittingly pay about 17% commission. Very clever in fairness.) And to add insult to injury, Graham paid about eight pounds for a standard bottle of water, as he gave ten times too much riel, and the woman, I think feigning misunderstanding, would not give change.

It set the scene for Cambodia to be honest. As soon as were there we were dropped off at a taxi rank where about a dozen taxi drivers were aggressively competing for our custom. And then when we agreed to go with one he still spent about five minutes trying to sell us his Angkor Wat tour the next day despite us telling him approximately a dozen times, with increasing bluntness, no/we’d decide later. It was the same in Siem Reap, where you’ll walk for a minute down a busy street and probably have near enough twenty people try to sell you anything from souvenirs, toys, food, drink, fish foot massages, massages, “massages” or “poom poom”. That night, a young girl, with a young baby on her arm, came up to Chris, giving him a sob story of how she “NO WANT MONEY, JUST MILK FOR BABY!” Then she grabbed him and basically dragged him to a newsagent and refused to accept the standard $2/3 milk, which Chris was (reluctantly) prepared to buy, instead demanding the $20 formula milk. Especially because of the smirk on the shopkeeper’s face which Chris noticed, he figured the girl would probably, if bought the formula milk, go straight back to the store and sell the milk back to the shopkeeper, who take a dollar or so cut in the ploy.

I appreciate Cambodia is, in material terms at least, a relatively poor country, so mostly I don’t begrudge this kind of thing (except stuff like the milk scam). Indeed, I kind of enjoyed it in general. After all, it’s Asia – it’s part of the experience. But it really was full on in Siem Reap, far more so than even Bangkok, and it reaches a tipping point where you stop politely declining people’s offers or requests, or even having some banter, and you start issuing very firm, rude “NO!”s (and thinking very firm, rude “FUCK OFF!”s). Or I did anyway. If you can take it all with good grace, you’re a better person than me.

Still, Angkor Wat, the world’s biggest religious monument, was stunning, even more so than I’d imagined. We got a brilliant tour guide who explained the temple complex’s history – originally built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire for King Suryavarman II (the internet helped with things I’d since forgotten). It took more than 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants about 37 years to build it – but it’s that immense and impressive that you think, in fact, 37 years is not bad going really, given five million tonnes of sandstone, collected from the holy Mount Kulen, were imported for its construction, on a mixture of canals, elephants, ropes, pulleys and bamboo.

Since, it’s been subject to fierce battles over its ownership along religious and political lines. After initially being built as a Hindu temple, and dedicated to the Hindu god of preservation, Vishnu, by the 14th century it had been converted to a Buddhist complex, which it is today, and statues of the Buddha were added to its already rich artwork and sculpture. Sadly, in recent years it has been the source of much political tension, and even armed conflict between Cambodia and Thailand – a consequence, I suppose, of what a wonder it is.

You start at Angkor Wat. Vast and ornate, it doesn’t disappoint. As well as the huge, majestic spires – recognisable from countless photos – there’s interest and intrigue in every pocket of the huge temple, including golden statues of the Buddha and magnificent stone murals. These tapestries depict, in extraordinary detail, weird and wonderful tales from religious mythology; boats, elephants, gods, musical instruments, heaven, hell and much more. One mural takes up a wall nearly 10m high and about 30m long, with about three different levels to represent the different stages of the reincarnation process. One section depicts an epic tug of war between one set of gods on the good side and another on the bad. Anyway, without wanting to unduly trivialise the religion, it was pretty fucking cool.

Angkor Wat 2

Angkor Wat

But what astounded me the most about Angkor Wat is that the Angkor Wat temple itself is only a part of it. In popular usage, Angkor Wat is actually a synecdoche, which does a bit of a disservice to the array of other wonders all within easy walking distance of it. There’s also Ta Prohm (which does have some limelight) – a temple which was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 17th century but, through happy accident, has found itself all the more spectacular for it, as huge silk cotton trees have grown into the temple and protrude high into the sky; a mix of nature and sculpture made all the more beguiling by its sheer serendipity.

Ta Prohm 2

Ta Prohm 3

Ta Prohm

Shockingly overlooked is the temple of Bayon (if that doesn’t ring any bells with you, that proves my point – I didn’t really know of it before I came). It sits in Angkor Thom – technically another complex from Angkor Wat – and is a massive, vaguely pyramid-shaped temple containing 54 huge Buddha heads which would not look out of place in Mexican Inca ruins. It’s like the very good footballer relegated to the bench and half-forgotten about due to the world-class player playing in his place.

Bayon

And there’s another temple, Phnom Bakheng. In itself, it’s not that impressive (purely speaking in relative terms), but being the highest point in the area – and actually for miles and miles around (geographically Cambodia’s flat as a pancake and frankly pretty dull) – it offers stunning views of the sunset and sunrise. We went for sunset; not the best of sunsets – quite cloudly – but still pretty special, especially when the sun crept out from behind the clouds to create incredible light effects across the landscape or when there was a golden glow to the whole panorama, like a sepia photograph.

Sunset 2

Sunset

Thankfully, the journey back to Thailand was a lot less stressful than the one there. Graham and Sam were so stressed by that – or more accurately Sam’s bowels were – they decided to fly, while Chris and I got an ‘express’ bus back to Bangkok. ‘Express’ is overdoing it, but it was quicker and the border stuff took about half-an-hour rather than two-and-half-hours.

Chiang Mai

We flew to Chiang Mai the next day, after a pretty boring night in a dead-end motel (I chose it because it’s next to airport which is well out of town, but it turns out there’s a really good tram link to the airport from central Bangkok anyway). As the short, hour-long flight progressed, the landscape gradually changes from flat farmland to verdant, green hills. Chiang Mai sits splayed out in a wide valley; a nice change from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, while still buzzy enough to be interesting. It sits on the first (ie most southern) point of the well-worn backpacker path/area known as the Golden Triangle, which also includes Pai, which we didn’t have time for, and Chiang Rai.

We got talking to this girl and these two Essex lads that evening. I know it’s very reductive to label someone based on where they happen to be born, but even from the first 30 seconds of chatting to him it was clear he was the worst Brit abroad stereotype – loud, arrogant, and somehow simultaneously narrow-minded and while also fond of the usual hippy bullshit of people “all being the same really”. We – and the whole hostel I’m sure – were awoken to a fight with him and someone else at around 3am. It transpired he and his mates had a bust up in the club, he passed out in a corner and had been picked up (in both senses) by a local ladyboy prostitute, who wasn’t happy when s/he came back to his hostel and he ‘no longer’ wanted his/her ‘custom’. To be fair, the ladyboy was probably responsible for much of the confusion, but judging from earlier I’d say he was far from blameless.

The next day we encountered some creatures with, frankly, probably a little more intelligence than Mr Essex – elephants. They were two families living on separate hilltops – grandmothers, mothers and children, and all women apart from a boisterous one-year-old male. The guide, Robert, an eccentric local with idiosyncratic English very fond of shouting “HAPPY ELEPHANT”, told us the males lived a few miles away and came down once a month or so, had their way with the women and then disappeared – “just like human!” laughing a very hearty laugh.

My god, can elephants eat! Before we met them we were warned to hold our bananas behind our back with one hand so they don’t see them and half assault you to get them (half assault because they are very gentle creatures – albeit very hungry, gentle creatures). They’re still all over you, but in an adorable way, because, all joking about their appetite and their sex life aside, elephants are such graceful, majestic, friendly, intelligent animals, with so much soul and personality. They were probably already my favourite animal before seeing them for the first time, at least in the wild.

Elephants 2

Elephants

You may be thinking now, and reasonably, how ‘wild’ they really are if white Westerners like me were there feeding, touching and photographing them. But the description is fair, because firstly this place was truly in the middle of nowhere (the road up to it was the bumpiest I’ve ever been on), and secondly there was a good arrangement where the elephants were completely free to go where they want, but had come to learn feeding time was at about 11 and bathing time after that. And from there they had obviously developed a good relationship with Robert and the other guides/villagers and, in turn, all those they brought along for four or five hours each day.

After feeding the elephants, we fed ourselves with some superb homemade food on a terrace by the river, before washing the elephants first in the river, then in a mud, then the river again to wash off the mud – a great, bucket list experience. I could be wrong of course, but elephants are so expressive it seemed fairly clear they were loving it too.

We met up with three girls from the elephant walking for dinner that night at this cool food market place, food stalls round the outside and hipster-y hay bales to sit on in the middle – a Shoreditch kind of place. There was also a brilliant night market, offering everything under the sun. This is true of a lot of Asian markets but there was a lot of good quality stuff in this one and you weren’t being harassed to buy something every five seconds (although that’s part of the fun). I got three football shirts for a total of about 20 quid. Probably fake, but they looked indistinguishable from the real thing.

The food court, market and conversation were good enough that we completely forgot we were meant to go to a ladyboy show. But judging from a video from someone else in the hostel we saw the next day, which showed a load of camp dancing to I Will Survive and such like and a white British (I think) lad being grinded on by a ladyboy, perhaps it was a lucky escape. To their credit, most of them look amazingly feminine. If they weren’t in a show, you’d never know (until it got intimate at least).

Chiang Rai

The next day, north on a minibus to Chiang Rai. Turned out the minibus stopped for 20 minutes at the White Temple, the main reason we’d decided to visit, before taking everyone else on to the Thai-Laos border. The temple was very impressive – striking in all white, beautifully ornate and endearingly weird and dark in places – pits of outstretched hands reaching up and an alien figure in the grounds.

White 2

White

White 3

But it was small enough that 20 minutes was enough time there. So at this point, with no one else staying in Chiang Rai, it seemed the decision to stay might have been a mistake. But after finding our B&B and chatting to the owner, we decided to rent mopeds and ride up into the mountains the following day – Chris, an experienced rider, with a proper motorbike and Graham on the back, me and Sam with smaller ones on our own.

That evening we went to the local market, because even if they’re not that great they’re always very busy and great for getting a sense of place. Here, we found out that Chiang Rai-ians love doing a weird Thai version of a Ceilidh (to be fair, Ceilidhs are pretty weird anyway) round a maypole, and massive car soundsystems, with sub-woofers which literally make you vibrate when you’re near them, and scantily clad girls dancing on top of them, like you would find in a Fast & Furious film.

Riding the mopeds the next day was an absolute joy. God knows you have to have some rather large testicles to ride one in Bangkok, but even the urban Chiang Rai was comfortable to scoot around as a moped virgin. The motorway – more like an a-road in Britain – was also easy to ride on, quiet and with a big hard shoulder which mopeds, and occasionally cyclists, tend to stick to. Out in hills it felt like a proper adventure – open road, wind-in-the-hair, Hollywood type of stuff (or Top Gear special at the very least). Surprisingly, for a remote region, the road was flawless too, so our eyes weren’t glued to it and we could enjoy views like this…

We stopped in Doi Mae Salong, a village/town sprawling out along the road with the slightly untouched air of Nepalese villages you see adventurers setting off for Everest from. Unlike the rest of Thailand we’d seen, most signs were not in English, and the waitress at the restaurant we stopped at spoke only very basic English – a sure sign we were off the beaten track. This was refreshing, though – this part of the world, like many others, is so well trodden now it’s nice to have a part you can (kind of) call your own. (That’s not a big complaint about the ‘commercialisation’ of places like Thailand – of course it can take the soul out of places but it can also foster understanding and provide much needed money. Also, popular places are usually popular for good reason and we were tourists after all.)

Back in Chiang Rai, we exchanged our mopeds for our passports (phew!) and got ready for the taxi to the Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border. The scenery on the journey was pretty if not spectacular, and improved by a stunning sunset; there’s something really evocative about chasing the sun as it sets.

Sunset

Slow boat on the Mekong

Chiang Khong probably underwhelmed even my low expectations – no streetlights and barely any more people or cars. It was about nine when we arrived but felt like 3am. Walking down the alley to our B&B, Graham said he felt like he was going to be murdered – and I think he was only half joking. And the balcony of the B&B was like a scene from A Bug’s Life. Still, it was only for one night.

Despite being able to see the boat directly opposite, over the river, from our balcony, we had to take a taxi about ten miles to south to the recently-opened Friendship Bridge. The immigration process certainly wasn’t very friendly, though. It took about an hour-and-a-half in total and included quite UKIP-esque statements on the visa document and poster on the wall – ‘our tax, our country’ and ‘smart immigration, strong nation’. It’s not that I particularly resent this (especially writing this after the Paris attacks). It’s just I found it a bit odd from Laos; it’s only got about seven million people in a country the size of the UK and a quick google suggests they have slightly more leaving than arriving. Any migrant would be unlikely to find much greater riches there than in any of its neighbouring countries (Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Myanmar). And I struggle to think why any terrorist would attack a peaceful, relative backwater like Laos. Anyway, the laboriousness of the immigration served to remind of the small luxury of being a white man with a British passport, in that many other places I’ve been I’ve had to do little more than flash it to get in (thank you, colonialism!). Plus, it was a Sunday – and as we’d come to realise Laos’ modus operandi at any time is, for better or for worse, slow (s-laaoooos, even).

Getting on the boat was a bit of an ordeal. Imagine the rush for a busy, long-distance train from a London station when it appears on the board – and then times that by about ten. The baggage storage was at the back so some were going that way while others were coming back the other way scrambling for a seat, but the gangway only really allowed for one person. One of the locals even got a motorbike on the front, despite there being so little space the back wheel was hanging off the edge. I didn’t have a seat for about five minutes and was propping up the tiny snack bar, constantly moving to let people past. I pride myself on the British attitude of ‘mustn’t grumble’, but the prospect of doing this for up to another seven hours didn’t appeal and I’m sure my demeanour betrayed that (I wanted it to). Thankfully, the captained magicked up a little stool and sandwiched me between two benches at the front at the expense of a local who went back to the engine room. My slight guilt was appeased when I learnt the locals – probably – paid nothing for the journey (I’d assumed they paid but less than tourists), which seemed fair to me. All in all, it probably took an hour from boarding until departure. It should be used to teach a lesson to those who moan endlessly about UK transport.

The journey itself was great – a true adventure on one of the world’s great rivers through the heart of the jungle; a great space for, if you’ll excuse the pretentiousness just a second, sitting back with a Beerlaos in hand, heaphones in ears and thinking about life. There really was next to sign no sign of civilisation for most of it. At one point a local, carrying a huge sandbag, got off at a tiny beach with only hundreds and hundreds of trees around, yet proceeded to take out his mobile and start talking to someone – impressive network coverage! You’d see groups of just a dozen huts with no apparent link to the outside world; as amazing and eye-opening as it was baffling to think about how it would be to grow up in such a place with (presumably) so little contact to anything else; do they do the basic childhood things like going to school, watch TV, play football?

Slow 1

Slow 2

Slow 3

Slow 4

The stopping point for the night was a place called Pak Beng, a small town, seemingly all of which had arrived at the pier to greet us…and offer us ‘luxury’, ‘top class’ rooms for the night and all manner of goods. We had to politely decline around a dozen people on the accommodation front (one bloke said “next year, then!” – fair play for the ambition), because we’d already booked. It was hardly luxury – the beds were hard and the whole bathroom got soaking because there was nothing separating the shower – but it did have a good balcony with a stunning view of a bend in the Mekong and the adjoining valleys.

Pak 1

Pak 2

We ate at the place next door, a quaint family-run joint, where we were served by a girl who couldn’t have been older than ten. I mean, if you thought too hard about it’s arguably a bit depressing that a pre-teen girl is working rather than enjoying her childhood, but then again she’s learning English, maybe she enjoys it and it was cute. And the food was very good too – first time I’d had buffalo.

After another, predictably hectic, start, the scenery the next day on the boat, while still impressive, had frankly lost a bit intrigue, after having seen seven hours of it the day before. But I ended up chatting to some other travellers and getting mildly pissed on drinking games, which was a good substitute.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang was the boat’s destination (well, the pier for it is about ten miles outside – probably a ploy so tourists basically keep the local taxi service afloat). Its Laos’ second city, but only has a population of 50,000 so still has a pretty rural feel. Mere metres from the main street, on the one side there’s the Mekong River and on one other Mount Phousi (“mount pussy,” as a South Korean we met called it, with a complete straight face). Its superb by night. Firstly, there’s a food street, a huge array of food crammed together in a small, sheltered alleyway, creating an intoxicating assault on the senses. And the main street becomes a tented bazaar of all manner of weird and wonderful gifts, garbage and goodies.

Luang 1

Luang 2

The next day we went Kuang Si waterfalls, well known and for very good reason – around six or seven cascading plunge pools of luminous blue between little falls and streams, in front of a massive waterfall around 60/70m high, which you can climb. You’re not allowed in the main pool which was a bit disappointing, but you’re allowed in and between all others. Back in Luang Prabang, we climbed Mount Phousi for the sunset – a spectacular scene of the sun reflecting on the Mekong and descending past the hills beyond.

Kuang 1

Kuang 2

We went to this bar later which had been recommended (in hindsight, possibly because it was the only real bar there). Weirdly, the cab stopped in a nondescript residential street and we were pointed down this dark alley, in which it felt a little like we were going to get stabbed in truth. But out of nowhere, a huge, spacious bar emerged. ‘Asian garden party’ probably best describes the theme – a huge room leading on to a tropical garden, with a pleasantly hippy feel – you have to take your shoes off and there’s loads of cushions and yoga mats lying about. There’s even a beach volleyball court! Alas, I didn’t get to have a go.

Then suddenly at 11.25pm a bell rang and people started heading for the door. It turns out that all licensed drinking in Luang Prabang stops at 11.30…Well, nearly all drinking, because lined up outside on the road was probably the entire fleet of Luang Prabang taxis bidding to take people to the ten pin bowling alley, where it turns out you can drink. I guess the law is such because of socially conservative custom (Laos is broadly Buddhist), but there’s an exemption for drinking done as a ‘secondary activity’ to, of course, everyone’s favourite sport of ten pin bowling. Whatever…it was an enjoyably novel experience. Turns out I’m a terrible shot drunk – though I’m not very good anyway in truth. Others were pretty damn good considering, though. One bloke on my lane was absolutely caning his throws through the legs. I was having trouble avoiding the gutter.

…Which is incidentally where I felt I’d slept, come the next day. I wasn’t even that drunk; it must have been some combination of the heat and humidity and the early start. I’d got up at about 7 30 to go on a boat trip to a cave of 4,000 Buddha heads (the others had booked on an earlier flight to Vietnam). It was a lot less impressive than it sounds truth be told, and I’d seen the same scenery from the boat, but a cruise down the river was a relaxing way to get over the hangover.

Hanoi and Halong Bay

The flight to Hanoi went ok – apart from an awkward journey in a taxi where me and two Germans who had agreed to share a cab had to speak to the drivers for 30 minutes before they understood or agreed to take all three of us, and then I really needed to….errm, relieve myself (we ended up stopping at what turned out to be a motorway patrol office, where the officer, although understandably bemused, kindly let me in).

Hanoi is a truly mad city, even busier than Bangkok, and the Old Quarter, where we were staying, is the maddest of all; a “permanent carnival of food vendors and sidewalk cafes accompanied by the constant whining chorus of internal combustion engines,” according to Thomas Fuller in the New York Times. Pedestrians zigzag between each other and the various goods from shops spilling out onto the tiny pavement, while all manner of vehicles, mostly mopeds, battle it out for the tiniest gaps of space in the road. The sound of car horns is so persistent it almost becomes a single, uninterrupted drone. And words really cannot do justice to how chaotic the crossroads are. There are no traffic lights in the Old Quarter, so each crossroads is basically a Battle Royale between vehicles of all descriptions, going in any directions. If that wasn’t enough, some motorcyclists carry big cargo like goods and furniture (only the rich drive), inevitably affecting their concentration and balance. You learn the trick of pedestrianism is to walk coolly, calmly and confidently, and the traffic will filter around you; but it’s quite a step – literally – to be confident in walking in a way which would, if you’re lucky, only result in injury in one’s home country. The sheer quantity of road users means vehicles rarely get up enough to speed to cause deaths, but injuries are very common.

Also, the huge use of motorbikes and mopeds, while useful in being nimble enough to keep the traffic flowing reasonably well considering, means the city is plagued by dust and pollution (it’s the most polluted city in Southeast Asia, and increasingly so), especially in the Old Quarter where the narrow, fairly tall terraced buildings hem in all the craziness.

It’s so manic that pretty quickly it got past ‘intoxicating’ and just became….Hanoi-ing (I was quite proud of that pun if I say so myself). I’m fully aware this may well sound like the petty whining of the western tourist. It’s true, to some extent at least, this is all part of the fun of Asia – and I liked Bangkok, hardly a tranquil place, for that reason. But being a London cyclist I’m hardly a shrinking violet, and there’s a tipping point – when you’re more concerned for getting from A to Z in one piece than enjoying the scenery and soaking up the atmosphere.

Thankfully, the hotel was very welcoming; a clean, modern, air-conditioned oasis in the hustle and bustle. Frankly, Hanoi had me beaten and, despite it being the first night Dylan, James and Stephen were there, I just wanted to crash on the bed and watch Wimbledon. (James and Dylan are childhood friends who had, separately, both long left for Australia, and James’ friend Stephen an Irishman who’d done the same.) But Graham – rightly – stopped me being a pussy and we headed out.

Now, without heavy luggage and a place to be going and with good mates, Hanoi was much more enjoyable. I love cities that are functional by day and buzzing by night (a bit of both if possible). Hanoi pretty much fails at the former but definitely succeeds at the latter. We went to a small area of the Old Quarter, where the streets are basically pedestrianised, with a great atmosphere of both families and revellers walking around, street markets, restaurants, people drinking outside, food vendors, street performers and shisha bars. We had a great ‘pho’ – the national dish of Vietnam, a rich beef stew – then went to one of the shisha bars.

The next day, we strolled to Quan Thanh, where thankfully there’s a bit more space (if you have a minute or two, google the city map and see how much more dense the roads are packed in the north-east of central Hanoi). West Lake was rather disappointing frankly, but near there was a park with various government and political buildings. I was by no means completely ignorant of Vietnam’s past and current politics, but it was very striking how socialist, even communist, the place is (I’ve heard south Vietnam is much less so, politically and culturally). You see various hammer and sickle symbols; red and yellow insignia; austere brutalist architecture; and ‘struggle of the people’-type statues that resemble Stalingrad.

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Hanoi 2

All that was certainly eye-opening, but it was a shame we weren’t actually allowed in the park. At one gate we tried and were very sternly told by the armed guard we were not allowed – the reaction you’d expect if we was guarding a different country not just some greenery. Security is even tighter outside the gate to the Presidential Palace on the edge of another bit of the park – in its yellow grandeur and neoclassical style, a marked contrast to much of the other grey socialist architecture. You weren’t supposed to take photos, but, being the great rebel and freedom fighter that I am, I sneaked in a couple. Then there was a massive, unused strip of road, about 200m long and a dozen lanes wide, which we were strictly told not to walk on, meaning we had to walk about twice the distance. It was a bizarre contrast to the madness of the roads just half a mile away in the Old Quarter.

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Just on from this is the National Assembly and the the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the memorial for the Chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam from 1951 until death in 1969, marking the spot where he read the Declaration of Independence in September 1945, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (‘North Vietnam’) and becoming independent from France. His embalmed body is preserved in the central hall, in a glass case with dim lights, guarded by a military honour guard.

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Hanoi 5

The queue snaked all the way down to the road and round the corner, maybe 200m in total, so we didn’t bother going in, but it was worth seeing. CNN International recently declared it the sixth ugliest building in the world, although I think that’s a bit harsh. It’s stark marble brutalism is certainly arresting, the type of building you won’t see much in the West.

Also, it’s a fascinating insight in the country’s culture. The hotel we were staying had mentioned how busy it gets, especially on Sunday, and a TripAdvisor review I looked at described masses of schoolchildren visiting it, praising the ‘father of our nation’. With no organised religion dominant in the country – according to Pew Research findings 45% follow Vietnamese folk religions, 16% Buddhism and 8% Christianity – socialism has seemingly taken on this mantle to some extent, in a not dissimilar way to North Korea, although to a far lesser extent obviously. And the country’s relative openness suggests much of the population is generally content, if not passionately in favour, of Vietnam’s political culture. I’m intrigued to see how and how much it – and other Asian countries – will change in my lifetime.

Then we took a bicycle rickshaw to the Vietnam Military History Museum, an interesting look in particular at the Vietnam war, on which, to my mind at least, there was at least a touch of triumphalism in the way it was presented (though in fairness it is a museum in Vietnam). The description by the incredible remains of a US bomber plane, for instance, seemed to take some glee in describing how it was shot down. Or maybe something was just lost in translation.

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Me and Chris went on Hoan Kiem Lake, much prettier than West Lake it turns out. Chris had returned, after visiting about four years earlier, to see if this legendary turtle living there was still alive. It was thought to be about 95 at the time, and, if I remember rightly, someone we asked said she thought he was still alive. What a trooper. There was, though, in the scenic middle part of the lake reached by a pretty, arched red bridge, a lot to commemorate turtles, including a pagoda-like ‘turtle tower’ and a life-size turtle in a glass box.

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Hoan 2

In Vietnamese, the name of the lake is ‘lake of the returned sword’, because – according to legend (which is to say, this is mostly bullshit, but more importantly entertaining bullshit) – emperor Le Loi King came across a shining metal bar which he had moulded into a sword and imprinted with the words ‘Thuan Thien’ (harmonious with heaven). He used it in a war with a neighbouring country and, when peace prevailed in 1428, on a trip to the lake, a tortoise rose from the water and shouted: “Please return the sword to the Dragon King!” Le Loi duly did, throwing the sword to the lake, and the tortoise took it and dove down, returning the sword to the Dragon King, a local god. And so Le Loi renamed the lake to commemorate this event.

Oh, and Stephen saw a dead dog being barbecued on the street (he showed us a picture). That was pretty eye-opening too.

Halong Bay

Next morning it was off to Halong Bay, an incredible area just off the coast of northeast Vietnam with around 2,000 karst limestone islands, rising out of the water like sea monsters from a cheap 80s B movie. You may know it from James Bond or the Top Gear Vietnam special which ends there with Clarkson sipping a tequila with the locals while watching James May negotiate the sea with a broken swan pedalo (It turns out the locals have since been removed and given compensation to move back to the mainland, as part of environment legislation included in Halong Bay’s recent UNESCO World Heritage listing, which seems a shame as, according to our tour guide, most are not that happy to have been moved and still fish out there a lot, and the tourism surely could – could – have been made to work sustainably with the small communities.)

But first, some pearl-making factory, which the tour company presumably had some kind of deal with. To be fair, it was mildly interesting, learning the complicated process about how oysters are farmed to create the pearls and then the technical process of extracting the pearls from the shells. But six twenty-something lads were not exactly the target market for that kind of thing. I enjoyed a comment from Stephen in the room with portraits of various high-profile figures with pearl necklaces on: “All these glamourous people… and then Angela Merkel. She’s hardly the height of elegance, is she?”

After the slight madhouse that is Halong City harbour, we were welcomed on board the Fantasea Cruises boat by Binh and his crew (all brilliant) with drinks and a superb buffet lunch of Vietnamese food as we cruised over to Sung Sot Caves – a huge, spectacular cave network lodged about 50m high one of the islands, illuminated in green and yellow by the lights. Binh was quite funny pointing what the different rocks looked like. There was one that couldn’t be anything other than a dick, but some of his comparisons were very dubious, like the slight recess ten metres from the dick he claimed was a vagina the dick was….errrm, aiming at. A Dutch bloke said: “He must be schmoking zee pipe.”

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Hal 2

The caves also gave a great view of an inlet formed by a few islands, and Binh told ‘Halong’ means ‘descending dragon’, referring to the myth of the islands being formed by a great dragon falling from the sky and crashing into the land in a snaked position, leaving only bits of land above water. There is a formal explanation, involving uplift of tectonic plates, but it’s far less interesting.

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After that, we kayaked around the islands – and even straight through one bit where a cave had gone all the way through the cliff face (not my video). Here, you could escape the many other ‘junk’ boats and cruise boats and find the uninterrupted views such a wonder of nature deserves (I don’t want to moan too much, because we were tourists after all).

The evening held another great meal; drinking; fishing (I had no luck and gave up after a few minutes); chatting to the Dutch family also on board, who were commendably adventurous in bringing three young girls to the other side of the world; and a cracking game of chess with Binh (I won but he probably would have if not for a single bad error).

We were up bright and early to probably the tallest island, which has a radio tower on top with steps up to it, offering a stunning panorama. It’s also one of the only islands with a beach and a place you’re allowed to swim – and a great little 5-a-side football pitch on the beach! We had a four-on-four game with a Kiwi bloke and his son, who, fair play to him, for a ten-year-old was absolutely throwing himself into challenges against men he didn’t know. The whole game in fact quickly became pretty mad, with diving tackles everywhere and one of those last-goal-wins periods which, despite people banging one in every minute or so before, lasts at least five minutes, as everyone defends a lot more frantically and people semi-bottle it in front of goal. I think the kid won it for us in the end – hero. It’s got to be the most scenic place I’ve ever played football. Sorry, Taribo West Rovers, it certainly beats under a railway line in Shoreditch…

Island 1

Island 2

We then headed back to the harbour, while doing a spring roll cookery course, and back into the minibus to Hanoi for basically the end of a great trip (aside from a monumental fuck up with Graham accidentally swapping passports with James and missing his flight).

There are many amazing places on people’s bucket lists, but Southeast Asia should definitely be up there near the top of them!

America

In Travel on October 29, 2014 at 3:57 PM

I’ve got a strange relationship with America – like many, I imagine. I suppose fascination is the best word – in the more common meaning of the word in terms of its size, scenery and symbolism, but a more morbid fascination with some of the crazier aspects of its politics; people who insist on teaching creationism as science, the obsession with guns and opposition to universal healthcare. So having gone a quarter of my life without venturing across the proverbial pond, I thought it was about time I changed this state of affairs…

Seattle

My first port (literally) of call was Seattle, set in a mesmerising mish-mash of bays, lakes, greenery, mountains and skyscrapers. Culturally, it seems brilliantly at ease with being a big American city, replete with multinational banks, skycrapers and a fair bit of international renown, and also having a bit of counter-cultural edge; it is, understandably, very proud of Hendrix, Cobain and others having roots there. There’s a great place called the Experience Music Project featuring a lot of their memorabilia, along with a sci-fi exhibit.

Maybe a local’s view would be different, but Seattle seemed to me to accommodate both the grit and the great remarkably well. And it recently became the first place in America for the Socialist Alternative party to be represented at council level – Kshama Sawant having been elected to council in November, on a platform which included a pledge for a controversial $15 dollar minimum wage. Sawant seems the kind of character whose ethics would stop her glorifying in the architecture built by and for huge wealth. But I’m not, so I enjoyed marvelling at this menagerie of megaliths, open-jawed up from the street. And down at them from the highest of them all, the Columbia Centre, which has the Skyview Observatory on its 73rd floor, three from its 284m summit (the bigger skyscrapers in London measure a relatively piffling 200m or so – the Shard 306m). It also gave rather pretty views around the rest of Seattle like this…

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On one side you have the Puget Sound, stretching out to Olympic Mountains in the distance with the sun shimmering on the water. On the other, the Rockies presiding over Lakes Washington and Sammamish with bits of Seattle’s suburbs squashed in between. And in between this, you have the narrow strip of downtown Seattle, with Mount Rainier in the distance, majestic for its size (it stands a mere 10m lower than the tallest Rocky mountain) and because it stands apart from the rest of the Rockies. Seattle also looks pretty spectacular as its from the Puget Sound as it lights up, as it was when I returned from Bremerton on the ferry.

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Looking the other way from Seattle, over the Olympic National Park

Looking the other way from Seattle, over the Olympic National Park

Portland

The next stop was Portland, a place which, despite it’s two million odd inhabitants, still manages to have a quaint, quirky feel. I’m sure it would annoy some – including quite possibly me if I lived there – for being ‘self-righteous’ and self-consciously twee, with all its organic quinoa, retro bookshops and yogic apucunture (I made that last one up – I think – but you get the idea). But, from my experience at least, it’s far less full on than Brighton or Shoreditch, which are probably the closest well-known British equivalents. The small town Totnes, Devon, is the closest I know in terms of the feel of the place. I lived in Brighton for a year and quite enjoyed it, but I did get annoyed about its in-your-face self-righteousness; lecturing you on how to live, what you can laugh at and when you’re allowed to find someone attractive. The good thing about Portland is it’s far more laid back with its lefty weirdness – more concerned with creating its own weird little world than harassing everyone one to change theirs; more let’s do this than let’s tax this, protest that, regulate this. In fact, Portland has no sales tax – as Oregon is one of the five states not to implement the tax. (I don’t really have a problem with sales tax – hospitals, roads and schools need to be paid for. But, to get into a Mark Corrigan-esque rant for a second, it’s annoying, as a Brit at least, that American retailers generally don’t include tax in stated prices. There you are, ready to pay for your burger with the correct change, sometimes meticulously counted in the alien currency – and the bloke behind the counter gives some stupid price like $5.57 and you just end up giving ten dollars.) I must add, however, that this might just be because I haven’t lived there, and don’t know about more mundane issues like parking or – as happened in Brighton – a couple of hippies climbing up to occupy a tree to stop roundabout changes which would have meant cutting it down.

Perfectly fitting this weird, wacky atmosphere, Portland has what has to be one of the greatest bars in the world, Ground Kontrol. It’s an absolute mecca for gaming – 70-odd old skool arcade games including Donkey Kong, Tetris, Tekken and, of course, Pac-Man. And all for free on the night me and a Kiwi I met went. (Wednesday was ‘free play’ night.) If you don’t enjoy it, there’s good chance you either have no soul or are a female – though, in a heartening sign of times, there were a fair few women there, and some rather good at the games too. One girl beat me at Pac-Man Battle Royale (not to say I’m an pro). Probably best of all, all the arcade games have beer holders on top or in between, allowing players refreshment in between gaming (it’s tough work, you know). Or even during gaming, as some games are basic enough to be able to operated with one hand. But these games’ simplicity – and of course, novelty – is their beauty. Thinking about it, since my first games console, a Playstation, I gain no more enjoyment as games improve technically; a feeling I think is shared by many people my age. Call it pretentious, but I think there’s some life lesson on treasuring what you have in that.

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And just up the road, there’s a mecca for bibliophiles – Powell’s Books, which claims to be the ‘largest independent new and used bookstore’ in the world. I can’t claim much authority on this, but I can say it is BIG. It even has t-shirts and stuff to say you were there…in a book shop! The store’s continued existence is a great testament to the success of the whole ethos of Portland, in the face the direct competition of online sellers like Amazon and the indirect competition on people’s time from increasingly tough jobs, box sets, sports and stuff.

There’s also a few natural wonders in the area. It’s only about 20 miles west of the spendlour of the Cascade Mountains, including, near Portland, the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood. I half-tried to get to the gorge by rented bike but it turned out the only real route up there after a while was a big motorway. Maybe I should have rented a car, but there was some decent scenery anyway. There’s also a great view over Portland to Mount Hood from the Japanese Gardens, a beautiful, ornamental space of bonsai trees, little bridges and traditional Japanese huts and little waterfalls (not usually my cup of tea, but the Kiwi wanted to go and I really enjoyed it). The gardens rest at the tip of Forest Park, a wooded, hilly area which stretches out in a thin strip about 10 miles northwest of Portland. There were trails following little streams and waterfalls, and trees large and numerous enough to silence the city noise and make you think you’re miles away from civilisation, when in fact you’re usually less than a mile away.

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Japanese Gardens

Japanese Gardens

Portland from the Japanese Gardens

Portland from the Japanese Gardens

One more thing, if you’re ever there check out Salt & Straw ice-cream store. The first time I went there, a weekday evening around 8pm, people were queuing well out the door – just for ice-creams! Having gone back the next day, I can safely say there’s good reason why. It’s probably something like what an ice-cream joint would be like if run by Heston Blumenthal; containing as it does a frankly baffling array of flavours and combinations, including goat cheese marionberry habanero, black raspberries & smoked ham, Granda Malek’s almond brittle with salted ganache and pear with blue cheese (sensibly, they let you try before try). Yet if those are anything like what I had, one scoop of woodchip chocolate sorbet and one of honey & lavender, they will be INCREDIBLE – a strong rival to Joe’s, a Swansea landmark, for the coveted title of Joel Durston’s Favouritest Ice-cream Ever.

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Klamath Falls

Next, Klamath Falls, a smallish town in southern Oregon I booked to go for a day, partly to space out the trip and avoid an 18-hour-plus single journey to San Francisco and partly because of the apparent splendour of Crater Lake, a huge lake in what is basically the lower half of a volcano, created by an explosion in Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. Alas, I can only speak of it from pictures, because the tourist bus wasn’t in season and it was too far (70 odd miles) to bike or taxi.

The train got in at 10.30pm and, on first sight of the town in colour – or lack of it – I thought it might have been a mistake to come here. (The evening before I was chatting to some Americans – the Coast Starlight does this cool communal dining thing – who knew the West Coast pretty well and mentioned that I was going to Klamath Falls. One said: “Oh…….Why?!” I was now thinking this reaction might have been telling.) Half-ruined buildings, empty roads, grassy wasteland, boarded up shops, derelict and anonymous warehouses – I was fully expecting some tumbleweed to roll by any moment.

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…Instead, minutes later, up rolled half a dozen police cars trailed by a huge procession – it was still going after about five minutes – of vehicles, floats and people, many of whom costumed, including an awesome dancing bear. Turns out it was Cinco de Mayo, a festival held annually on May 5 across Mexico and the States to celebrate Mexico’s improbable victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on the same date in 1862. I followed the procession to a park, where there was some Mexican dancing and stuff, which was diverting enough for a quarter of an hour but not something a person with precisely zero Mexican blood in them could be too interested in for anything longer.

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In the meantime, I’d rented a bike, planning to cycle up the west side of Upper Klamath lake and just see where I got to. The scenery was pretty cool, hugging the shore of the lake for two stretches, but the best part was the ride. The ‘open road’ is oft mythologised as a classic piece of Americana, but I found, here and elsewhere, that the idea suits two wheels very well too. More Americans should try it. (This isn’t really some eco, Guardian-reading self-righteousness. To be honest, I cycle in London more for the practicality and the pure enjoyment of it as much as environmental reasons, which are kind of a bonus for me. And I didn’t rent a car because I just thought it wasn’t worth the hassle and expense.) Most of the times on the highways, equivalent to Britain’s B roads or lesser A roads, you get these huge, open hard shoulders, which I treated as my own personal bike lane. Far easier than England’s small country roads. On a lot of roads there are hardly any cars anyway. Oregon may not be a state that stands out, because it does not have a huge city or an INCREDIBLE national park like Grand Canyon or Yosemite. But much of it is very scenic, filled as it is with hills, forests, lakes (like this ride), mountains and beaches.

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San Francisco

That night, I took the Coast Starlight overnight to San Francisco. The Coast Starlight doesn’t stop in San Francisco proper due its being the far side of the bay – instead stopping at Oakland, San Fran’s uglier, less popular sibling some would say. Practically, that was slightly annoying, but visually there is probably no better way to enter The City by the Bay than by boat across San Francisco Bay. The bay is almost a huge (70km by 20km) lake, joined to the Pacific only by the narrow Golden Gate strait, a three mile-long, mile-wide channel beneath the legendary bridge. Oakland lies to the east side of the bay and San Francisco on the west, reaching up to the tip of a strip of land between the Bay and the Pacific. Sailing across to it all the stunning skyscrapers loom large, then as you get closer the city’s little details reveal themselves along the long straight roads which reach up the city’s infamous hills.

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You can also see the Bay’s islands and peninsulas, including Alcatraz, though I was off there a few hours later anyway. The personal audio guide with interviews, narration and recreated scenes from the island’s days as a prison gives it a fittingly spooky atmosphere. I won’t spoil it too much but the only escape involves some ingenious papier mache, spoons, some emergency drainpipe and a waterproof mac.

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San Francisco itself is an immensely cool city, an intoxicating mix of history, scenery and romanticism which has exerted a magnetic pull on all sorts for decades. It is ‘what’s left of America’, according to a writer called Jerry Kamstra (Rich Hall mentioned him on his superb documentary California Stars) – a description that could apply on a general, political and geographical level.

The city has been destroyed a staggering number of times, notably by a 1851 fire and 1906 earthquake hitting 7.8 on the richter scale. Every time, it was rebuilt with a pace and passion, leading to its name ‘the instant city’. And this is what I love about San Francisco – it is such a huge, global city, and therefore inevitably is expensive, but retains an overarching feel of optimism, alternative cool and edginess. Sure, there are pockets of a similar thing in other big cities – Shoreditch in London, Venice Beach in LA – but it’s not like that is the raison d’etre of those cities. In the 50s, the city became the beating heart of the Beat Generation. Hippies, notably Hendrix, flocked to Haight Ashbury, culminating in the Summer of Love in 1967. And a little after it became pivotal for gay activism, with the election of Harvey Milk to the city’s Board of Supervisors, making him the state’s first gay person in public office. As Scott McKenzie sings: “If you’re going to San Franciscooo/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair/ If you’re going to San Franciscoooo/ You’re gonna meet some gentle people there.”

However, this quite literally flowery image does mask social problems. Homelessness is a huge issue, with approximately 1 in 100 people in San Francisco homeless, many drawn to the city for the combination of temperate climate, wealth and image. There has been some ethically dubious behaviour from some tech giants and their employees. And property is very expensive – about twice the price of the average property price for California, in itself the third most expensive state in the US – which unsurprisingly causes tension about ‘uprooted communities’.

The homelessness is certainly evident in Tenderloin. (The name has various explanations, The one I find most believable is that, so dangerous was – and to some extent still is – the area, the policemen who used to work there were given ‘hazard pay’, which allowed them to buy a more choice cut of meat…if they stayed alive.) A staggering 46% or so of people there are homeless. This area starts a mere block or two from Union Square – the beating heart of San Francisco, with its Macy’s and Tiffany’s and Hilton and Grand Hyatt hotels – which serves as a sharp reminder that the American dream comes at the expense of a fair few nightmares. I don’t to be smug and self-righteous, because I know that England, London in particular, has issues with inequality, but not to the same extent or starkness as San Francisco.

I took a tourist bus around the civic centre, the pier area and the upscale Russian Hill and Pacific Heights, up to Golden Gate Bridge, one of the seven Wonders of the Modern World. It offers a view of the Pacific one side and a spectacular panorama of San Francisco and the bay to the South. It’s especially impressive given it was built all the way back in the 1930s, in just six years. The casualty toll attests to the mammoth nature of the construction. Eleven were killed and a further 19 were saved only by some pioneering movable netting beneath construction areas (ten of the eleven were killed when the netting failed under the weight of the scaffolding). These 19 lucky/unlucky souls are now part of the ‘Half Way to Hell Club’, formed, with commendably dark humour, by four of the early fallers in hospital together. Those that paint the bridge must have to retain a similarly strange sense of self, given their job’s Sisyphean nature. To keep its distinctive ‘international orange’ colour (actually more a browny red), the painting of the 2,737m-long bridge must start again in the other direction as soon as the end is reached.

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San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge

San Luis Obispo

As I’m sure you’ll know, California has all manner of natural wonders. But a good load of it is actually very dull. If you cut California at all sides by and made it about half the size, all that you would be left with, the San Joaquin Valley basically, is dull as ditchwater. I know because this journey to San Luis Obispo took in about seven hours of its semi-desert. The three-stop journey is meant to be about six hours, which sets the train a pretty unambitious average speed of about 40mph. Still, it struggles to match that. It didn’t overly bother me – a tourist just needing to get to my destination sometime before nightfall – but it was (is) undeniably shit, and I feel for those who have to put up it with regularly. Wisely, most Americans don’t seem to use trains as a commuter/principal means of transport. Part of the difference in service and train usage, it must be said, is down to America’s sheer size.

They have this communal seating idea they practice on the Coast Starlight – a nice way to meet fellow travellers who you know will be willing to chat. I got on really well with the family the day before (the ones who warned me off Klamath Falls). He had an interesting life story and I enjoyed playing devil’s advocate to his mad, if well-meaning, ‘all you need is love’, hippy world views. He got his guitar out to play in the lounge after. That kind of guy. Anyway, the lot this time – three elderly people, who were nice but I didn’t get on as well with – were moaning about train issues and telling me about the long-troubled plans for a high-speed train between LA. Like HS2, it’s going ahead – or at least seems to be – but slowly and amid much controversy. They and others revealed – and it’s true, not just a passenger whine – that the vast majority of track that Amtrak runs on belongs to freight rail companies, who naturally get to throw their weight (freight) around. Four out of six of the trains I took were half-an-hour or more late in leaving and/or arriving – and the other two probably late at some point in my journey before catching up. So, not that the UK service is perfect, but let’s be grateful for what we have, eh. Or at least accept that it’s not as bad as the Yanks‘.

The journey improved in the last hour, as the train crossed into the northern reaches of Los Padres National Forest – up a few hills then winding down to reveal San Luis Obispo at the bottom of valley reminiscent of Napa Valley. Napa Valley is actually about 40 miles north of San Francisco – but apparently this area is also very good for wine, if that’s your thing. I like wine, but can’t tell much difference between different types beyond red and white. More of a means to an end for me, tbh.

Anyway, the next day, my only full day in San Luis, I had my heart set on the Pacific Highway 1, one of the roads that’s a regular fixture in those ‘top 10 best driving roads in the world’ lists. And a road even Jeremy Clarkson is happy to do 35 behind a caravan on (That’s a link to a Clarkson article. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Top Gear driving the road, but there’s loads of others.) I wanted to drive the most beautiful stretch of it, from Monterrey in the north to Morro Bay (5 miles from San Luis Obispo) in the South, but it just wasn’t practical in terms of money and being a lone driver – and one who hasn’t actually driven since passing about three years ago.

Still, I could cycle some of it. That’s one of the beauties of cycling – wherever you are in the world, you can just rent a bike and be off in five minutes. No licence, no insurance, no fuel, no instructions – no hassle. And in America, you can even put bikes on some buses – on these neat fold-out things at the front. So I did that as far north as the public buses go, Hearst Castle, a bizarre complex big enough to house a whole community; a pastiche of architectural styles its owner, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, had seen on his travels around Europe. Just to make it more bizarre, it was filled with his enormous collection of antiques which he wished to keep out of warehouses, leading to incongruities such as a private cinema lined with shelves of rare books. In all, it has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, 127 acres of gardens and pools (including the famous Roman-style Neptune Pool), tennis courts, cinema, the world’s largest private zoo and even an airfield.

In hindsight, I regret not going. But armed with a very basic bike, I wanted to make haste on the near 40 miles or so back to San Luis Obispo (SLO). It actually turned out to be a doddle and the miles sped by, with mostly flat roads, a surprisingly solid pair of wheels and a huge ocean breeze on my back. I probably looked a bit odd cycling on the hard shoulder of a state highway on a low-riding kids/mountain bike, singing and air-drumming – handlebars as ersatz drums – along to some Americana/feel-good road-trip tunes (Kings of Leon, Black Keys’ El Camino, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fleetwood Mac etc). But I don’t care – it was fucking bliss.

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Basically a whole lane all to myself!

Basically a whole lane all to myself!

And the stretch I did is not even the best part of the legendary coastline. That’s Big Sur, with its infamous Bixby Bridge – you may recognise an imitation from the new GTA – where the road meets the upper reaches of the Los Padres National Forest and is banked up on steep cliffs, presenting stunning views of the forest on one side and magnificent rocky bays and golden-sand beaches and the other (just google image or street view it…now). Back at Morro Bay, 13 miles or so from SLO, with more time on my hands than I’d expected, I had a look around to see what it had going for it. It’s got a big rock. It stands about 180m high on its beach and is the result of some sort of volcanic activity. It’s quite impressive, but still, it’s a rock.

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I asked the bloke in the tourist info centre about surfing but he said the best place was Pismo Beach 25 miles away down the coast. (It looked about five miles on the map – as a rule of thumb for a Brit in the States, presume everything is at least twice as far away as it looks). So I’ll cycled then bussed that distance. Turned out to be a pretty pointless trip, because the surf shop was closing about 30 mins after I got there and the place didn’t seem to be that impressive or exciting, at least relatively speaking, so I was regretting not cycling further up Pacific Highway 1 before turning back. But there you go. I guess I’ll just have to wait for Dave Brailsford’s call up for the Tour of California

Santa Barbara

The next day, after the home comfort of some Premiership action (City 4, Villa 0) with a Brit I’d met at the hostel – the restaurant owner looked confused when we asked for it but generously and gamely found it – I got on the Pacific Surfliner to Santa Barbara. It’s a stunning journey where the train gets so close to the golden beaches it feels it could cause enough wind to upset a few picnics. If it travelled at any kind of speed, that is. But so lovely is the journey that you don’t mind the time; it just pleasantly drifts by. With the ocean, an endless source of symbolism, stretching out before you, it’s a journey apt for a spot of soul-searching; the type of journey you expect to be taken by some ruminative character in a Sofia Coppola movie, while mulling over a struggling relationship. Well, you don’t mind when you’re not stuck staring at bushes for half an hour while the train gives way to a train carrying a load of oil, that is (I exaggerate for effect, but only a little).

If you close your eyes and think of California, I’ll bet the image you’ll have will be something very much like Santa Barbara – a long stretch of white sand, flanked by wide tall palm trees on a wide boulevard, filled with beautiful BMWs driven by beautiful people. (Are they even people? Or some kind of super-breed created by Abercrombie & Fitch in a malevolent ploy to boost their brand and, eventually, take over the world? I have my suspicions.) The kind of place, basically, which you can fall in love and loathing with simultaneously. When it calls itself the ‘American Riviera’, it does so with far more realistic pretensions to la dolce vita than the ‘English Riviera’ – Torquay.

Once checked into my hostel, I went for a wander, to check out Santa Barbara at sunset. It was nice, but just nice; I realised the sun wasn’t really setting over Santa Barbara, as it’s on a little stretch of the coast which faces south, not west. Western Santa Barbara was bathed in this amazing golden glow coming from over the hills from Lompoc/Santa Maria way. It was kind of teasing you that you weren’t there, but there were amazing sunsets I’d already seen and was yet to see.

The next day, I checked out the centre of Santa Barbara, with its stylish Mexican feel which originates from Spanish missionaries setting up base in the area in 1782. 30 years later, the Mission and the rest of the town was destroyed by a 7.1 earthquake and accompanying tsunami. After this, the mission fathers chose to rebuild the city in a grander manner. They didn’t really get to enjoy the fruits of their labours as the Spanish period ended ten years later with the end of the Mexican War of Independence which terminated 300 years of colonial rule. But the styles of the time remain to the day, at least in the centre of Santa Barbara. Most notably, the town hall/county courthouse. From the top of it, you get a great view of all the city and the Pacific on one side and the hills of Los Padres National Park on the other. And the day I was there, there were also some rather nice views on the bottom, as the courtyard was playing host to what must have been some kind of Hispanic Miss Santa Barbara or Miss California.

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It was nice, but I’ll be honest I didn’t feel I was missing out too much by only being there for a day. It’s the kind of place to be, rather than do.

Los Angeles

The train – typically late – followed the Pacific Highway 1 scenically for around 20 miles, before taking leave of it in Oxnard and taking a route north of the Santa Monica Mountains into the suburbs of LA, where I began to appreciate just how fucking huge the LA area is. You can draw two straight lines of unbroken urban development for about 80 miles, which would be like London stretching from Dartford to Oxford and Romford to Winchester – as well as out in other directions. I knew it was big, but didn’t know it was this big. What you may consider areas of LA, like Beverley Hills and Santa Monica and Long Beach, are in fact cities in themselves. In fact, probably little of what you think of as ‘LA’ is downtown LA, which is a mostly functional business and shopping district.

Hollywood, where I was staying, is pretty central, though – about 5/6 miles out. It’s actually surprisingly normal…in a way. A fair chunk of Hollywood Boulevard is filled with glamourous sights like the Dolby Theatre, the Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre, but turn right from Hollywood Vine metro stop instead of left and within 30 seconds you’re looking at a standard Toyota dealership a few (it seemed) unexceptional nightclubs, some cheap burger joints and the hostel I was staying at, the oddly named (and just slightly odd) Banana Bungalow. It was good, though. It was obviously converted from a motel as it had that stereotypical look and feel about it, but it had this big courtyard in the middle with a basketball net, table tennis (beer pong!) table, and a kind of living room area with big screen TV and pool and table football tables. I went down there with a couple of people, ignorantly watching a big basketball playoff game and – a matter of national pride this – schooling some Yanks and Aussies at table football (in fairness, one game I only won on the last ball). Funnily enough, I’d met the Aussies a few days before in San Luis Obispo. Small world.

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In the drinks in the Hummer, there was a twenty-something American bloke who called himself Chase. I just found him on Facebook, where Chase is his middle name and his first nam is John. You can probably get a fairly good picture of him just from that. But if not – he had a pony-tail, had been in LA for six months (doing, or trying, various creative things) and would say things like: “I’m here with some amazing new friends”, “let’s make it a night to remember” and “thank you for sharing your story with us, Joel”. In fairness to him, I just checked out some of his music (Soundcloud ‘Chase; of the Jungle), which is surprisingly good, and he was a nice guy – if a bit too nice. The others were cool, though – an American who couldn’t have been more different to Mr Chase, down-to-earth with a quite British dark sense of humour; an Australian pair with similar taste in music, comedy and stuff; and two Argentinian lads, whose English was minimal but we could speak the universal language of football (“Argentina for the World Cup?” *hands shaking to say no*, “Messi, Aguero” *thumbs up* “Argentina” *thumbs fairly down from both*). Chase had given the impression he knew some people and could get us into this and that club, but he couldn’t – the ratio of girls to guys of 1:6 wasn’t in our favour to be fair – so we went to this shisha bar which was good.

The next day I and a Brit from the hostel walked to the Griffith Observatory, which sits on the hill overlooking basically the whole sprawl of LA. Because of the location and the great views, it’s naturally been the location in many films and TV shows – Rebel Without a Cause, Charlie’s Angels Transformers, 24 and Mission Impossible among others. It’s the kind of place that lends itself to dramatic contemplation and grand gestures – or shooting a plane down with a sniper rifle, as you do in GTA 5.

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The Griffith Observatory

The Griffith Observatory

Hollywood sign up there on the right

Hollywood sign up there on the right

Then I went into central LA, which is impressive but maybe not as much as you’d expect, overshadowed by other parts of the sprawling city (or cities). The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was a fine building; an oak-coloured modernist structure of different angles and shapes which, impressive as old cathedrals are, seems to represent an attempt from the Catholic Church to move into the 21st century. (It would be nice if their moral teachings would follow suit…) I then went to Exposition Park, an museum area recommended by a girl on the train to LA. Unfortunately, the Natural History Museum, and I guess the others, was closed when I got there at about half 5. But it, and the USC campus opposite, looked very nice at least.

The next day I went on one of those sightseeing bus tours (the normal sightseeing ones, not the Starline celebrity ones). You may consider these a bit naff, but it’s definitely worth taking in LA, just because, again, it’s so fucking big. Seattle, Portland and to some extent San Francisco one can saunter in an afternoon and see most of the main sights. Not LA. I got on at Hollywood Boulevard, by Mann’s Chinese Theatre, where the bus took in the sights of Hollywood and Beverley Hills, which it turns out are actually pretty distinct; Hollywood a bawdy whirl of activity and surprisingly not that glitzy, and Beverley Hills, a separate city, the playground of the super-rich you picture when you think of Hollywood. The radio commentary was a bit cheesy and sycophantic, but I suppose this is to be expected on a tourist bus. God knows what the Starline tours would be like; probably guides and punters alike fainting in paroxysms of joy at seeing a Kardashian taking out the trash. It did give some interesting and amusing tidbits of information, like noting the corner outside an El Pollo Loco where Brad Pitt found fame – promoting said store dressed as a big chicken.

Just Captain Jack Sparrow chatting to Darth Vader, as you do

Just Captain Jack Sparrow chatting to Darth Vader, as you do

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Beverley Hills is simultaneously one of the most impressive and sickening places on earth. On the one hand, it’s full of beautiful, talented people – and the epitome of the American dream. On the other hand, there is just no fucking need for clothes that cost as much as a small house, as some there do, and the level narcissism and vanity is probably even greater than you would imagine. On Rodeo Drive, there was a yellow and black supercar, which I thought would have probably been driven once – to its spot. Turns out it’s a Bugatti Veyron, which belonged to Bijan Pakzad, in his own words “the most expensive clothing designer in the world”, who owned the House of Bijan the car sits in front of. He died of a stroke in April 2011 and the car has been parked there ever since in his memory. So admittedly, it’s not completely a tale of naked narcissism, but there are not many places where the people could afford a $1.7 million car, let alone afford to not drive. (Jeremy Clarkson-types would probably think it’s some kind of minor travesty that car capable of 253mph sits undriven). Anyone with vengeful tendencies on such a culture will be pleased to know GTA V features a very thinly-disguised Beverley Hills as ‘Rockford Hills’, and Rodeo Drive as ‘Portola Drive’. You can make a black guy from the hood rob what is presumably meant to be Beverley Hills Jewelry Buyers in the Jewel Store Job mission, and maybe even feel there’s some kind of Robin Hood sense of social justice to proceedings, (at least if you don’t choose the ‘smash the whole place up’ approach).

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The next bus went on to Santa Monica, with its palm-fringed seafront and golden sand. I bought a quesadilla and wandered down the famous pier. They had this huge communal yoga thing going on, as part of Wanderlust festival. I wasn’t tempted; mine is not really a yoga body in England, let among LA’s personal-training, kale-eating, juice-dieting female fitness freak types. Also, I can’t help put feel subconscious posing like some kind of deformed tree and I’m far too rational/boring in my beliefs to go in for all that eastern spirituality that goes with yoga. That said, I did go once and, judging by the pain I was in, I’m fully prepared to believe all of physical benefits proselytised by yoga’s witnesses.

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The assorted yoga-ers (‘yogees’?) were being addressed by some ‘change the world’ woman making the case about how politics and yoga are intrinsically connected. Turns out it was a woman called Marianne Williamson (I think). Judging by her website, she’s one of these self-help gurus/cod philosophers that are ten a penny in the States; the type who thinks All You Need is Love amounts to a serious, workable political doctrine, rather than just a good pop song. I’ve got mixed thoughts on these type of people. On the one hand, they’re usually very nice and decent people, and they can help people seeking peace, wisdom and comfort. On the other, so much of what they say is pretty vapid if not absolutely horseshit. For example, these two blog posts on the threat posed by ISIS, in which she calls on people to “use the power of prayer and visualization to lift [ISIS] above the pathology that drives them. We need to do this on a massive scale. Use the power of your mind, your religion, your spirituality, your meditations and your prayers to spiritually quarantine and heal these people, to call their souls back to sanity and love. […] Now, we need a miracle.”

In fairness, she doesn’t completely ignore or oppose the idea of military action, or excuse ISIS’ horror, like some do. But calling on people to pray and meditate for ISIS, however well meaning, is at best useless, at worst actually counter-productive. Can you really imagine some murderous, tyrannical scumbag in Syria reading about a peace vigil in the LA Times and thinking aahh, that’s nice, I think I’ll pass on persecuting those Yazidis today. Still, I couldn’t complain about the view of a couple hundred fit young women in yoga pants contorting themselves into ridiculous positions. (I wonder if Ms Williamson would see this as ‘an expression of deeply held desire to connect with spiritually beautiful beings’ or just misogynistic perving…)

The views were just as aesthetically pleasing along the mile or so stretch of beach and promenade to Venice Beach, which is a bizarre cornucopia of wonder and shit. On the beach-side you have stalls with people trying to hawk their wares – art, clothes, music, books, tattoos etc – and further on the famed basketball courts and Muscle Beach. You may know the former from White Men Can’t Jump. Due to the setting, the tournaments and the many pros who have honed their skills there, it’s got place in basketball folklore. The nearest British equivalent is probably Hackney Marshes – the Mecca of Sunday league football, with 88 full-size pitches.

There’s also Muscle Beach – a throbbing mass of pectorals and narcissism. Those in Venice Beach not wanting to get pumped up to the eyeballs on testosterone can go for less legal high of weed. I say less legal because it is legal ‘medicinally’, but obviously this is a big grey area, ruthlessly exploited here by the ‘Green Doctors’. Outside the two branches, there are these big green sandwich boards advertising ‘medical marijuana legislation – $40’, placards stating that ‘the Dr is in’ and shady looking characters in bright green jumpsuits (think what Guantanamo Bay prisoners in lime green), who shout at those taking pictures of the place. If looking at all that you think this is a reputable establishment and that said ‘doctor’ had any kind of decent scientific or pharmaceutical qualifications, chances are you’re either a naïve teenager or a fucking moron. But according to its customer review page on Yelp – where 38 out of 40 give it one-star, and the other two only one – it’s not just a bit shady but an outright scam, with people expecting to pay just the stated $40 or a little bit more but ending up paying sometimes $200 or $300. Needless to say, no one, at least it seems, is deemed ineligible for medically marijuana. Funny that. I’m not a puritan – I have got/get high now and then and I’m not really against cannabis legalisation – but California’s ‘medically acceptable’ drug law/culture does appear a bit of an awkward halfway house; if you’re liberal on drugs, just be proud of that and legalise it, like Uruguay.

The 'Doctor's' surgery

The ‘Doctor’s’ surgery

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Muscle Beach

Muscle Beach

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I went to watch an LA dodgers match that evening; not because I’m a big fan of baseball, just because I’m intrigued by the way Americans do live sport. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that, being a weekend game, it was at midday (which made me look a bit stupid when I asked a person about directions to the ground). Still, I wandered round Chinatown, which was pretty interesting, and up the hill for a fine view of LA skyline by night.

On the subway on the way back, there was a fella rapping along to his Mp3. Instead of the scoffs and evil eyes that would, I’m sure, be directed his way on the tube, no one seemed to mind much and one bloke – a white 40-something bloke no less – even said “that was good, man” as he left the train. I think that, and all the aforementioned positivity and self-help culture, says something quite profound about the differences in culture between us and our transatlantic cousins, particularly LA. I’m sure the novelty of people rapping on the tube would wear off if commonplace, but I do think we – with a well established culture of irreverence, irony and cynicism – could learn a thing or two from Americans’ almost relentlessly sunny outlook on life.

I think this positivity is a big paradox given its politics, which is so often characterised by nastiness, insularity and self-interest. Just look how Barack Obama is often described as an “un-American Muslim socialist” – and more. Obama brilliantly skewered the former with his Lion King gag and my friend has a good riposte to the “socialist” jibe: “well if he’s a socialist, he must be a lousy one because Wall Street profits have reached all-time highs under his government”. Yet that’s how is it – I think all Americans I saw or talked to seemed nicer than the indifferent you may get in the UK, and many were extraordinarily welcoming, friendly and helpful; it has been found to be the most philanthropic country in the world. Also, contrary to the stereotype, a lot of them get irony and self-deprecation too. I actually didn’t come across a true nutter when I was over there, which, frankly, disappointed me.

Palm Springs/Laughlin/Route 66 places

For the last week of my tour I’d signed up for a tour, going to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite and a few other places in between. So I was up early for that the next morning for that, doing the hellos to the others one the tour who seemed sound (turned out they were great). There was about 20 of us who had signed up as punters, hailing from all over the English-speaking world – seven Aussies, two Kiwis, two Fijian-born brothers living in New Zealand and Australia, a Swede, two Swiss, someone from Dubai, and me and two other Brits. And there was also the Irish boss of Top Deck, the tour company, and about ten North Americans in training/observation to be tour leaders, but it was kind of a holiday for them too.

The coach wound through the endless eastern suburbs of LA to our first stop, Palm Springs, a funny old place. Kind of like a big resort in the middle of desert, where a lot of old people go to retire or just for some winter sun, because it gets 350 days of sun annually (wouldn’t you get bored of the sun?). But it’s not completely your stereotypical old/rich/Republican’s playground as 7.2% of households belong to a same-sex couple (compared to a 1% American average), and Mayor Rod Oden, himself gay, estimated that around a third of the city is homosexual. As Urban dictionary rather crudely puts it: ‘Like golf, old people, heat and faggots?…Welcome to Palm Springs.’
We wondered around, had a margarita – why the fuck not? – and half-watched City celebrate winning the title, which I was impressed the Americans (and Aussies, Kiwis etc) had – just about – some knowledge of.

After that we drove on through the desert – past Joshua Tree National Park, but without really seeing it – to a place called Needles, the most easterly point in California, for Walmart and another break. The fact that there was actually a piece of tumbleweed blowing in the car park was pretty appropriate.

Then we stopped at a ‘ghost town’, this bizarre, tiny place called Oatman. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was hugely influential in the gold rush. But the US government shut down the mines in 1941 to produce other materials needed in the war effort. It struggled on for a while after, buoyed by travellers from US Route 66, but this was decommissioned in 1953 to make way for Interstate 40, and it was all but abandoned by the 60s. Over the years, other sections of US Route 66 were replaced until its eventual decommissioning in 1985. However – partly due to a yearning for the loss of the iconic east-west American highway and partly due to more prosaic concerns like paying the bills – people have come together to revive the road. Largely thanks to the work of Route 66 associations, buildings have been restored, the symbolic signage has been promoted and many sections have earned landmark status, all contributing to increased popularity and the survival of a big part of American culture and folklore.

So good for those involved. But it’s still weird. If you imagine the cheesy knock-off Wild West feel you’d get at a travelling fair or an amusement arcade, it’s basically that in a real place (‘bull-a-tin bored’ etc), with scattered properties housing about 128 people (figures from the 2000 census) and probably more wild donkeys. The donkeys casually roam the main street, fed by all the tourists, and a few them were, let’s say, pleased to see us. It was interesting for about half-an-hour, but god knows what it would be like to live there. We stopped a few other places similar, but not quite as strange, places, including Williams, Arizona, on which the movie Cars was based – and they had a couple of Cars cars there.

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Then it was onto Laughlin (‘loff-lin’), described as a ‘mini Vegas’. It originated in the 1940s as the South Pointe – the southernmost tip of Nevada – as a motel and bar for the silver miners and construction workers building the Davis Dam a mile or so upriver. In the 50s the workers left and the town all but disappeared. But in 1964 an entrepreneurial fellow called Don Laughlin, who owned Vegas’ 101 club, saw potential in there and a few years later built a small hotel and casino. After a few years, it was heaving so more hotels and casinos followed in the 70s and 80s, and the neighbouring Bullhead City emerged as a place where many of the workers could live. Also – not that it’s got much relevance but it impressed me because I thought this stuff only happened in films – in April 2002 it played host to a deadly fight between rival California gangs, the Hells Angels and Mongols, in which three died and six were arrested.

We took a water taxi a bit up the river from our hotel to another, which was pretty cool as at night the hotels have these big, brilliant/awful neon displays on the riverfront. We went to this karaoke place where I think we were the youngest there by a good 20 years. Judging by their song choices – obscure country stuff – it might have been 30. One bloke sang a song called ‘Show Them to Me’ – ‘them’ being ‘titties’. (Sample lyrics: “All the world will live in harmony/ It’ll do you good, it’ll give me wood, we’ll make history/ If you love your country, I’m gonna say it one more time/ I said if you love your country yea/ Then stand your ass up and show them big old titties to me”.) Having looked up the original singer and seen it’s a country-singer-cum-comedian, who has also a written a song called ‘Letter To My Penis’, I’m pretty sure it’s meant at least somewhat satirically. But judging by this bloke’s dead-eyed glare, he looked like he meant every word from the heart – or penis. I sang Ring of Fire with two others. But it was a good laugh, especially seeing one of the guys semi-harassed by a cougarish 50+-year-old (I think) when duetting on the “dirty version” of a Sheryl Crow song. He politely declined her offer to come back to her hotel and…“play cards”, I think it was.

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Grand Canyon

The next day – the Grand Canyon! I’ve tried to, like my favourite travel writer Bill Bryson, balance praise for an amazing country without becoming bowled over in arguably cliched, pretentious adulation. But you’ll have to excuse me for the Grand Canyon and Yosemite because they are just such breathtaking places.
I used to be very cynical about America’s often very stubborn belief in god, but I kind of understand it now I’ve seen some – just some – of the landscapes there. They’re so vast and beautiful that it’s arguably a bit miserly and killjoy to think of their existence as the arbitrary endpoint of perfectly explicable scientific process. Or maybe, like many atheists say, we should delight in the sheer fortuitous improbability of it all, including our own existence (winning the race against all those other sperm for a start), and gain wonder from that. I’m not entirely sure. My point is that I appreciate the strong instinctive, emotional pull the argument from nature has.

The drive to the South Rim takes you through the Kaibab national forest, a large plateau which makes the Grand Canyon all the more arresting. It’s the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen – a vast expanse detailing almost two billion years of the earth’s existence, painted in the vivid reds and oranges of the rock formations. You just don’t have anything that epic in the UK. It’s about the size of Wales (far longer but thinner).
After a while savouring the views, some of us got on the bus to the helicopter centre, Maverick Helicopters, for a flight over the canyon. I don’t know if the name was intended as a Top Gun reference, but I appreciated it.

We took off – with Ground Control to Major Tom in our ears, a great touch – and flew for about five miles over the flat Kaibab before the Grand Canyon came into view. When near it, you fly low over the trees and suddenly the ground just disappears beneath you, revealing the wonder below. As the pilot said, in a very pilot-y deep, husky voice, “welcome to the Grand Canyon…” Someone said afterwards it felt like her jaw dropped to the bottom of the canyon – and there was another 40 minutes or so of jaw-dropping views. Someone has done a good ten-minute edited video of a similar ride, and you can also Google Street view much of the Grand Canyon (and Yosemite), including hiking trails and all of the Colorado River through the canyon. But obviously there’s no substitute for the real thing, so I’d suggest not looking at too much as it would take away some of the mystique from going there.

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To top it off, we went back to Yahavai Point to have pizza while watching the sun set over the canyon, lighting it up in the most brilliant shades of red and orange. Earlier, we’d all been encouraged to put our names in a hat to be the bride or groom for a Vegas wedding (I did) and the bloke secretly chosen selected this as the spot to ‘propose’. If the groom gets a real proposal anywhere near as good as that, she’ll be a lucky girl.

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Las Vegas

After a night in Flagstaff – near where Walt and Jesse rob the train, for any Breaking Bad fans – it was off to Vegas. It really is like nowhere else on earth; simultaneously a testament to the limits of human ingenuity and stupidity. Rivers in a hotel?! We can do that. A rollercoaster going in and out of a building?! AWESOME. Massive water consumption with water shows and pool parties in the middle of the desert, highest suicide rate in America and most people in Gamblers Anonymous?! FUCK YEAH…..oh, errrmmmm….. When visiting Vegas, it’s a good idea to check your brain in at the door. (In fact, I learnt that what you will probably know as Las Vegas is actually ‘Paradise City’ – an unincorporated city, as all the tycoons joined up to rename it for tax reasons and to stop Las Vegas officials annexing the strip. Las Vegas itself is, I can only assume, a semi-normal, functioning city alongside to Paradise City. But for sake of ease, I’ll just call Paradise City ‘Vegas’.)

Just being in Vegas, walking around, is exhausting. The author Tom Wolfe once wrote: “one belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as five years.” Having never been, I can’t comment on the truth of that, but I do think the polar opposite is true of Vegas. There’s sights and noises everywhere and people offering you leaftets, vouchers or telling you do this and that every other second; Transformers, Elvises, Buzz Lightyears, blokes promoting their mixtapes, musicians, beggars, blokes promoting strippers and lap dances…to name but a few. It’s like an assault on all senses – including common sense (that one is my line, and I’m not going to lie, I’m quite proud of it). It is great, though – in small doses at least. I was there for two days and I – along with most others on the tour I think – couldn’t have handled much more. The sketch halfway through this episode of The Revolution Will Be Televised sums it perfectly.

Everyone thinks you spend so much in Vegas, and you certainly can. But you can see so much for free, just walking along the strip and around hotels. ‘Around’ is the right word, because they’re big enough to get lost in – intentionally, so you spend money. The best I saw were the MGM Grand, The Venetian, with renaissance architecture and a Venice-replicating canal system, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a two-thirds size Arc De Triomphe and a half size (165m) Eiffel Tower growing out of the main lobby. A few of the maddest I didn’t see properly were Caesar’s Palace and, perhaps the most spectacular/insane, the Luxor Las Vegas. It’s a huge dark bronze pyramid, with “inclinator” lifts scaling the sides, topped by a spotlight beaming a light into the night sky, thought to be brightest in the world. Apparently, they wanted the hotel to be even taller than 36 stories but couldn’t due to the beam’s light, which is said to be visible from LA 275 miles away, obscuring vision for pilots landing at nearby McCarran International. It also has a 43m-high obelisk and a replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza which is actually taller than the real thing!

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I knew it would be mad – it was madder – but what impressed me was how good everything was. I thought this kind of stuff would seem like cheap knock-offs, but it really didn’t. Of course, they’re importing culture artificially, mostly in service off getting you drunk and penniless – which you could convincingly argue represents the nadir of civilisation. But the least you can say is that the architects of that downfall are geniuses, in their own unique way, and that if the road to hell is paved with, if not good intentions, then at least a fuckload of fun.

…Not least shooting an AK-47. There is absolutely no reason why a white-middle class person with an office job from southeast England needs to shoot an AK-47. But I did, and, after some nervousness, it’s a fucking awesome feeling. We walked into this place, Discount Firearms & Ammo, and were met by seemingly every gun under the sun. If you’ve ever had the dubious fortune to be in a Sports World store, it’s about as packed full of stuff as that is – just with guns instead of cheap sports gear.

The guy teaching us was this eccentric 50-something Republican (that was fairly clear) gun nut. Nice guy, but a bit odd. He’d go from saying the most serious point about safety to light-hearted banter in a second, even when you were actually shooting. It wasn’t that I had any big doubts about the place’s attitude to safety, but seeing – and hearing, because it’s bloody loud – half a dozen people shoot lethal weapons didn’t really prepare for me jokes, about violent places in the UK for example (“you got Shottingham…”). Apparently, I was “a pretty good shot for a quiet guy”.

Guns, guns, guns! Guns galore!

Guns, guns, guns! Guns galore!

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The best way to describe the feeling is just POWER, which could bring out the excitable, infantile 10-year-old kid in most people I reckon. Certainly did for me. But, with at least some hypocrisy, I do find American gun laws and culture ridiculous. One of the girls in our group shot a gun, but, because she was not yet 21 (20), couldn’t drink or gamble in Vegas. (Although a good point someone made was that America’s drinking age is higher largely to stop drinking-and-driving which is more likely in America due to its geography – longer distances tempting youngsters to take the wheel when they shouldn’t.)

Just four days after I was back, Elliot Rodger – a mentally troubled young man with a vendetta against the world, or at least the women of it – went on a killing spree and killed six people. And later, a nine-year-old girl in a shooting range like I was at shot and killed the instructor because she could not handle the recoil from the uzi she was handling. Which begs the question: WHAT THE FUCK IS A NINE-YEAR-OLD GIRL DOING SHOOTING AN UZI?! The National Rifle Association Women Twitter account chose to focus on other things. Less than two days later it tweeted a link to an article entitled ‘7 ways children can have fun at the shooting range’, which would be morally dubious at the best of times. And this was not the best of times. Although, in truth, the case wasn’t unusual – an Everytown for Gun Safety report found over a child a week died in a firearms accident in America between 2007 and 2011.

Anyway, on a lighter note – the Vegas nightlife. The first night one of those stretch Hummer party bus things had been booked, which was pretty darn sweet. It took us various places including the infamous Vegas sign and a wedding chapel, for the “wedding” after the Grand Canyon proposal, which was great fun. The Elvis taking the ceremony packed in all the puns – “do you promise to love her tender, be a big hunk of love and never lead her to Heartbreak Hotel or have suspicious minds?” etc. etc. etc., and it all ended ten minutes later with everyone breaking into dance. Before, we’d chatted briefly to some locals who were getting properly married there, so for all I know the bride and groom, both Aussies, may now be legally wed in Nevada, America.

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After that, Pure at Caesar’s Palace. (At least I think it was. Vegas is baffling enough sober, let alone fairly drunk…). It was good, if not as spectacular as I’d expected. Much better, apparently, was Light at Mandalay Bay. I say apparently because I wimped out tired and so just heard the stories, of blokes rocking up with $1,000 dollars folded up, standing on a raised platform and ‘making it rain’ on people below. Proper hip-hop video shit. Apparently, these guys are a regular fixture. Some of the girls got about $60 or $70 dollars. Not bad.

I also went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Ka (partly why I was so knackered – it was tiring just trying to work out what was going on). I went along with others thinking it would be alright but ‘just a load of blokes prancing about in tights’. There were quite a few tights, but it was absolutely incredible – people swinging 50m across the stage from balcony to balcony; using pegs to run up this twisting, sometimes vertical stage; running in and atop kind of hamster balls on the end of an axis, being rotated 360 degrees and about 50 feet in the air; ballet-like fighting; and colourful costumes. And all without fucking up even once or slightly, to my eye at least. It’s hard to describe, but by all means watch this video – or even better just go. They’re coming to the Royal Albert Hall with Kazoo from January.

Yosemite and leaving via San Francisco

So as I said, Vegas is great, but just two days there and you’ll probably feel in need of some kind of spiritual cleansing. So it was good to be off to Yosemite – like the Grand Canyon, a place of nature so magnificent it leaves you grasping for superlatives. (Word to wise, it’s “Yo – sem – it – ee”, not “Yose – might” as a few people think.)

Most of the drive there, though, was very dull, frankly – desert with some far away hills. It’s true this can give off a nostalgic draw of the Wild West and a romantic sense of freedom; the ‘open road’. Or it can offer space to look out of the window, contemplate and think about life, as characters in indie films often do. But this appeal faded for me after about an hour, and it just went back to boring.

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Tioga Pass, the road right through Yosemite, is stunning, though – a mix of dense forest, snowy mountains, stunning valley vistas, waterfalls, running rivers and crystal clear lakes (one is so clear that it mirrors the landscape – Mirror Lake, appropriately). With such scenery it’s easy to see how it’s inspired almost religious devotion in many. A man called Galen Clark was one of the first to lobby to protect it due to its beauty. With the help of Senator John Conness and President Abraham Lincoln, he succeeded in making it the first land set aside specifically “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation” – a state park managed by California. (It’s the first protected environment in the world, but not officially the first national park because Yellowstone was granted protection in 1872 but had no state government to manage it.)

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Scottish-born naturalist John Muir, founder of the environmental group Sierra Club and “father of the national parks”, was also instrumental in its history. Believing the park was mismanaged under state control, he lobbied government for it to be under federal control, even taking President Theodore Roosevelt to hike and camp in the backwoods to convince him of its beauty in 1903. It obviously worked, as Roosevelt said: “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of the man.” And three years later Muir’s wishes were granted. Ansel Adams also merits a mention in the earlier preservation efforts, for his campaigning and stunning black-and-white photography of the park.

Thankfully, Yosemite – and the Grand Canyon too – seems to have stayed true to this ethos to this day, and does not absolutely teem with tourists. (Granted I was only there for a day, but this judgement comes more from speaking to an American on the tour who had worked there as a park ranger.) So it’s justifiably celebrating 150 years of preservation this year.

We went all the through the park to Mariposa, a small town a few miles out of Yosemite in its western foothills, had (a very nice) dinner at a restaurant and got to bed early to get up early for Yosemite the next day. The road from the west snakes into the park scenically along a river and then into Yosemite Valley, the bit where most visitors go, with well-known spots including the spectacular Yosemite Falls, rock climbers’ mecca El Capitan and Half Dome. I chose to do the Mist Trail, which climbs first Vernal Fall then Nevada Fall, snaking side to side on the Merced River. It’s so named because, sometimes, the water from Vernal Fall crashes against the rocks below and creates this mist even at the steps 10/20 metres above the plunge pool. And if you’re really lucky in there being a good amount of water in the river and it being a sunny day, as we were, the combination creates a majestic rainbow across the waterfall. Not only that but the mist, which felt like rain in parts, was quite refreshing and dried off quickly in the 25 degree heat.

The summit of Nevada Fall has a jaw-dropping view – mighty granite rising hundreds of metres near vertically out of the ground, the Merced River and towering pine trees below and, to the right, Liberty Cap rock rising a further 300m – 2,160m above sea level. (Don’t get too close to the edge, though. There’s a half-refreshing, half-alarming lax attitude to safety, as most of the edge is unfenced. Unfortunately, there have been several deaths because of this, and people getting caught swimming in the river at the top.) If the world was created by God – which I doubt but concede is possible – He was obviously in a good mood when he made Yosemite.

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That night we had we had a neon/Irish/80s night (chosen theme to vote on, and we just ended up picking the ‘all of the above’ option) – which went down surprisingly well in the small town of Mariposa. Granted, about a third were American anyway and it’s a small town in liberal-, Democrat-leaning California – not Texas – but still I think it fits into what I was saying about Americans’ welcoming nature. I don’t know if you’d get a similarly warm reaction in a lot of rural places in Britain to a load of drunk tourists. I’d like to think so, but Ukip’s rising popularity might suggest otherwise.

The next day it was on to San Francisco for the end of the tour, and all the farewells – sentimental but with good reason because they were all cool people, and far from the awful gap yah stereotype. (I don’t think these types are very common but they do exist – they probably tend towards Southeast Asia and Africa for ‘spiritual enlightenment’). And all of the in-training North Americans got the job, which was good. That evening, I went for a BBQ on the Ocean Beach with one of the North Americans who lived – kind of – in San Francisco. There was beer, burgers, good company, miles of clean sand and a golden bright sunset over the Pacific; the type of atmosphere that makes one fall in love with a place. If I had my pick of cities to live in in the States, it would probably be San Fran.

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I began the long flight began the next day, where it actually rained after three full weeks of glorious sun and hot-but-not-too-hot 25 degree temperatures. I’m sure there was pathetic fallacy in that. But I wasn’t really depressed to be going home; three weeks had been long enough to see some amazing places and meet some amazing people. And – partly because I try to think this way – travelling has made appreciate things about the UK with the eyes of a tourist, rather than someone who has just got used to a place or someone stressed and rushing to get to work.

If anything, having been to America only served to make the country seem like more of a mystery. Indeed, it doesn’t feel like that much of a country at all – kind of like 50 countries. Even in the quarter of the country I went there were vast differences – the chilled out cosmopolitanism of Seattle; the hippy mecca of Portland; the small town wilderness of Klamath Falls; the eccentricity and diversity of San Francisco and Los Angeles and the Vegasness of Vegas. One thing I can be reasonably sure of, though, is that you will not be disappointed if you visit America (West Coast at least).

It’s both of one of the greatest and worst places in the world. Mostly one of the greatest, though. They’ve been telling us that for long enough, haven’t they…

Interrailling

In Travel on September 9, 2013 at 6:08 PM

This summer, I booked to go interrailing with a few mates, in a bid to cling on to my fast-fading youth (for practical reasons too, getting on the cheaper InterRail tariff). Turns out they had to pull out, but after a little deliberation, I thought fuck it, I’ll just go anyway, and meet people on the way, at least for the odd night. And I must admit, as someone in journalism, albeit the first rungs, the image of carefree, urbane travel writer did, vaingloriously, spring to mind. So I’m writing this partly for posterity and self-satisfaction – writing old school, pen and paper on a train, feels quite liberating – but also in the vain hope someone might one day pay me to do this.

I recognise that people can come across as insufferably pretentious and ‘Gap Yah’ when describing their travels, so I’ve shamelessly tried to ape Bill Bryson’s irreverent humour on places and people in much of it. But then I did see some amazing places so there is some grandiose eulogy in here, which is genuine and, I feel, merited too. And it’s written in the past tense, because writing events that have happened in the present just feels weird.

I have no fiscal or professional links with any of the places or companies I’ve written about, but most of them were very good so I’m happy to pass any other information if people want it. And needless to say, Google is great for information (if sometimes sinisterly so). Especially Google Street View, which I used a few times writing this to jog my memory. Not the same as actually being there obviously – but for travel (kind of) which you can do for free, in a second, in your pants, it’s damn good.

It’s quite long – I have quite a lot of time off with my job, and obviously enjoyed writing it – but I’ve done headings so you can just skip or glaze over. Or you can do a ctrl+f and type in a place. In order, I went to Interlaken, Switzerland; Rome; Venice; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Budapest; Munich; Vienna; Prague; and Berlin. This is the version with all of it, but I’m going to cut it up, adapt a little and pitch it to publications as stand-alone travel pieces on one city/country.

All names of people I met have been changed. Not that there’s anything particularly private or pernicious in there, but it just felt like the right thing to do. A few bits of my trip were just too mundane for me to want to write about – and I’m sure too dull for you to want to read too. (Or, on the other hand, some bits were a bit too interesting for me to tell cyberspace – including my mum – about indiscriminately) So I’ll skip over them, and you can join the dots.

Hope you find it at least sporadically informative, instructional, interesting or amusing…

Switzerland

With that in mind, I’ll begin from the Dover-Calais P&O at about 1.30am (I was on a Megabus to Paris). Ok, so the Dover-Calais ferry is hardly the most exotic and exciting journey in the world, especially for Brits, but the night ferry has a really surreal atmosphere – a brightly lit object floating on – apparent – nothingness (this is from judging the single passing boat). Inside, it was just as odd – a kind of eerie vacuum of formica, leather and insomnia.

In fact, the lateness was natural to me, having come off a week of nights that same morning, but I got some sleep on the road to Paris, and after that on the super-quick TGV to Geneva. It struck me immediately how easy it is to travel round Europe. I was expecting at least a cursory glance of my passport going into Switzerland, as it’s not EU and has a reputation for a sternness, albeit a defiantly neutral sternness, a bit at odds with its location in the middle of Europe (think of the island in our ‘island mentality’). As it was, there wasn’t even any ticket barriers – nor it transpired were there anywhere I visited.

With about 90 minutes to spare, I went out into Geneva, but soon went back to the station due to a combination of not knowing how far the infamous lake was, heavy bag and even heavier prices on everything, right down to the McDonald’s. There’s just something not right when even the Maccy D’s options run into the double figures and the extras into the single digits. OK, so the pound is stronger than the Swiss Franc but not by that much.

Another Swiss stereotype I found, in my albeit limited experience to be completely true is that of efficiency. Everything on my way to Interlaken was clearly signposted, mapped and translated, and the trains ran like clockwork. I had to make two connections, for both of which they told me (in English – isn’t colonialism great?) when the train was coming – both just two minutes – and which platform I needed for it. I could have read it on the train platforms, but it’s nice little touches like this that make international travel stress-free.

I don’t want to sound, by implication, dismissive of British trains. In general, they fared pretty well with our much-vaunted European counterparts. But we mostly have unextraordinary geography to work with. Unlike Switzerland, which makes its train network both so remarkable and spectacular. The first trip, from Genève to Visp, seemed to chart the only available narrow strip of flat land in the country, starting by hugging the northern and eastern edges of the glistening Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), before following the Rhone river. First south, skirting the towering Alpine peaks inland, then, at Martigny, eastwards along the south of the country.

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva

As someone used to the tube and unspectacular suburban England train travel, it was a stark and pleasant change. Which was probably blatantly obviously to the other passengers, many of whom just going about their daily business – chatting, commuting, coming back from lacrosse training – seeming pretty indifferent to the magnificent scenery around them. But then I suppose you would become inured to it if it was your everyday, and came to associate it with routine and work. It’s all relative, keeping up with the Joneses and such. In a way I actually pity the Swiss. To them, their country is probably just ‘nice’ – to me, awe-inspiring. And they’d probably find places like Basingstoke completely intolerable.

On the next connection, Visp to Spiez, I found out what happens when the Swiss can’t go over or round it – they smash straight through it, literally. The line is the Lötschberg line, the ‘highest adhesion and standard gauge railway’ in the country (which I think basically means ‘normal’ train line). Nearly straight out of the station, you enter the nine-mile Lötschberg tunnel, where you remain for a slightly claustrophobic fifteen minutes or so. What makes it even more impressive is that the tunnel was completed in 1911, after a gruelling five-year construction which saw several setbacks, including 13 workers being killed when an avalanche hit a workers’ hotel and a further 25 dying when a part of the tunnel collapsed, meaning a whole new section had to be built.

The next leg, a regional Spiez to Interlaken train, was more spectacular still. It charted the southern edge of Lac Thun, often mere metres from its edge, offering stunning views of the mountains, which rose so dramatically from the lake they resembled (to this infantile mind at least) badly edited sea monsters rising from the sea in some cheap 70s B-movie. Except somewhat more pleasing on the eye.

Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from the train

And so into the Interlaken, where I found my very reasonable hostel for an uneventful night. The city rests pretty darn spectacularly between Lake Thun to the West and Lake Brienz to the Ost, and some fuck-off mountains to the nord and sud. The south especially with several peaks reaching well over 3,000 and even 4,000 metres, including Jungfrau (‘maiden’ or ‘virgin’) at 4,158m. A network of furnicular train rides sprawls over – and under – the whole mountain range, including the highest railway station in Europe, Jungfraujoch (3,471m), often called ‘the house on top of Europe’. Again, the line’s construction is an epic feat of engineering, a long tunnel boring through and up the rock-hard granite of the Eiger, where there is a stop and a viewing platform, and Jungfrau, where a tunnel leads you up to the Sphinx Observatory, offering a stunning panorama of several peaks one way and the 20km-long Great Aletsch Glacier the other. Also nearby is the Schiltorn, setting for Blofeld’s hideout in On Her Majesty’s Service, the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, from which Bond escapes, by ski, killing several henchmen in the meantime (as you do). And, of course, goes on to save the free world. In fact, the restaurant, in dire financial straits before the film, might not still be there were not for the makers’ payment to keep it going in return for filming there.

Alas, I thought the £150 price tag a little steep, so to speak, at the time – though after seeing all the above, I kind of regret it. Instead, the next day, I took the furnicular up to Harderkulm – still very fucking steep geographically, but much less so fiscally (about a tenner return). Indeed, it reaches up to a gradient of 64% – and is another century-plus-old Swiss feat of man-over-nature. As they say, necessity – in this case tourist dollar – is the mother of all invention.

Harderkulm furnicular

Harderkulm furnicular

At the top, I followed the trail a little way to the restaurant, which, for views, must rank somewhere (literally) up there with the best in the world.

The balcony of the restaurant and Lake Thun

The balcony of the restaurant and Lake Thun

The restaurant and its view

The restaurant and its view

From there, I decided to investigate further up. It was pretty easy at first, becoming progressively steeper and narrower, with some ‘don’t look down’ sheer(ish) drops. So the roadside-esque sign of a man stepping of a sheer cliff wasn’t the most comforting sight. Worth it at the top, though, where it turned out the sign was – rendering it a bit pointless really, as it could only serve to put off people who had done already braved some mildly treacherous path from going a further 10/20 metres to reach the summit, and the enjoy the resulting views and self-satisfaction. And what a view it was – a full 360 of a winding valley to the north, the aforementioned peaks of the Bernese Alps to the South, and Interlaken laid out like a toy town between the majestic lakes below. I appreciate this will sound unbearably pretentious, but looking out over that, with the strains of Ben Howard in my ears, all kind of felt right with the world. I even got signal up there. Which kind of sums Switzerland really – beautiful yet still functional.

The ominous sign

The ominous sign

Looking south, over the Bernese Alps, including, somewhere over there, Jungfrau and Eiger

Looking south, over the Bernese Alps, including, somewhere over there, Jungfrau and Eiger

Lake Brienz

Lake Brienz

The Bernese Alps and Interlaken

The Bernese Alps and Interlaken

I walked down by a circuituous route, sustained by the beautiful views and super-clear spring water from the mountain springs, helpfully piped into taps, and emerged near the foot of Lake Brienz. After a failed bus journey round it – unbeknown to me, the bus went on for two minutes, stopped and turned back – I found myself at Interlaken West, and spontaneously jumped onto a train to Grindelwald. But it was a private train, not covered by my InterRail pass, so not risking paying an exorbitant fee, I got chucked off/chucked myself off.

The path, with Lake Brienz in the background

The path, with Lake Brienz in the background

I could have chosen a worse place to get chucked off, though, than Zweilüschinen, the point at which the Weisse Lütschine river meets the Schwarze Lütschine, from the Lauterbrunnen and Lütschine valleys respectively. Incidentally, the Schwarze Lütschine is apparently so named because, historically, the people of the Lauterbrunnen valley said the people who washed in that river were so dirty it turned the river black – and these people retaliated by saying people from the Lauterbrunnen valley never even washed so the other tributary remained perfectly white. Lauterbrunnen valley especially comprises some spectacular rock faces and waterfalls (the link is a video, with the start and end showing Lauterbrunnen). Alas, I didn’t really know that then, so I turned back. And in fairness and I had walked quite a bit that day already – if you’re at least moderately fit and adventurous, exploring this area by bike would be a good option. Still, even if not quite as amazing as the Lauterbrunnen valley, the walk wasn’t half bad – along a mountain bike path following the river back to the Interlaken…

The Lütschine and surrounding valley

The Lütschine and surrounding valley

The Lütschine and surrounding valley

The Lütschine and surrounding valley

…For a well-deserved Rugenbrau, I thought. I joined a bloke I soon learnt was Ben, a Brit-turned-Aussie (with a lot of travelling in between), who was in Interlaken for a metal festival at the disused airstrip, having just been back home near Blackburn for a week. (He said, living in Australia, a flight to Basel and an hour’s train ride just felt like popping downtown.) Scenic, summery Switzerland didn’t seem like the most appropriate setting for Rammstein and co., but there you go. We soon joined a Brit who’d worked in the army and was now enjoying a quieter life (doing what, I couldn’t tell); a Canadian girl who’d played field hockey for Canada and was on hockey scholarship somewhere in Florida I think; her seemingly mute friend; and an American lad also on a summer college vacation (and who seemed obviously interested in the Canadian. Fair play, she was quite fit, and I saw them leaving to Grindelwald the next morning, although with the mute too it be said).

I was off to Rome, a fairly ambitious leg of the journey in one day, and so it proved in Italy. First, back on the regional train past the Man City-blue Lake Thun to Spiez. Then on the train South to Brig, which must be one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. The line actually runs in pretty much the same direction as the Lötschberg line, but stays largely overground, partly to serve smaller stations, and partly it seems just to show off engineering prowess. It starts off by carving a route along valley floors, then turns a full 180 to attack the side of a mountain, alternating between open air, half-tunnel and tunnel until it smashes right through the mountain. When you exit the tunnel, you are greeted with a spektakular vista, and slowly descend the mountain’s side into Brig, which isn’t half bad itself, sitting as it does in kind of near bowl, sloping up and watched over by majestic Alpine peaks. Such journeys can really remind you that train travel – divorced from routine, repetition, work, loud music and, in London, strangers’ armpits – can sometimes be an end in itself, rather than a mere means to one.

 Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from the train

Lake Thun from Spiez station

Lake Thun from Spiez station

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey

Spiez-Brig journey, coming into Brig

Spiez-Brig journey, coming into Brig

Next, as there was no direct train to Milan for a few hours, the train to Domodossola, as the Alps proper became foothills and Switzerland became Italy. The following train, to Milan, started out rather wonderfully, idling out of the last foothills and skirting the edge of the Lake Maggiore, near and similar to Garda. But then the scenery petered out into flat, dull farmland and the train’s tendency to stop at anywhere with so much as a milk bottle, as the Germans so wonderfully put it, started to grate. And really so when the train started crawling, at seeming jogging pace, between stations. I later learnt it’s a not uncommon problem in Italy, caused by having no free lines. But it brought out the indignant London commuter in me. Although not everyone else, who carried on with their reading and conversations as if an unexpected, unexplained half-hour delay was totally par for the course. A delay of even five minutes in south-east England causes a near riot – albeit a very British one full of tuts, apologetic phone calls and disgruntled letters to newspapers.

Lake Maggiore from the train

Lake Maggiore from the train

Anway, we arrived in Milano Garibaldi, eventually, where I had a fucking mare trying to get what I learnt was just two stops on the metro system to Milano Centrale – a saga which included two tickets and getting the train in the wrong direction (thanks to a local’s advice) and which lasted the best part of an hour. The mapping and signposting was shit too. Call me a geek for noticing, but next time you’re on the tube, especially if an untried route, consider how easy it is to get around.

Milano Centrale is very palatial, and suitably so for a city nicknamed the ‘Moral Capital of Italy’. Still, to indulge in more egregious stereotyping, it is Italy, so the departure board was littered with delays, several 10-20 minutes and a few much more. One train was 75 minutes late. I had wanted to get a slower train along the coast, partly for the presumed scenery, partly for price. But as it was nearly six and I still needed to travel, as the crow flies, about three times the distance I had all day, I decided to jump on a fast train. And fuck me was it fast. The speedometer on the info board was constantly wavering around the 300 mark (km/h but still). As much as Italy’s public transport leaves much to be desired, we could do worse than copy its high-speed trains for HS2 – Milan direct to Rome – around 360 miles – in just 2 hours 55.

The speed was particularly welcome at the start because the landscape of north-central Italy is, frankly, very dull. Then in the second hour the train seemed to spend longer in tunnels than not. The final third of the journey really was rather beautiful, though – an absurdly bright sun setting over the rolling Tuscan and Umbrian hills, and the train seemingly racing against the setting sun to get to Rome (or maybe that’s just because I kind of was).

The setting sun from the Milan-Rome train

The setting sun from the Milan-Rome train

At Roma Termini, the noise that greets you really is something (or anywhere, any time in Rome, really, except the Vatican). Car horns, revved engines, shouting – all employed very liberally on Italian roads – taxi-hails, passionate chatter, and European house from the cars of glamourous young, twenty-somethings. All of these noises fight to dominate the aural space. It wasn’t unwelcome, but a bit of a shock having just come from serene Switzerland.

I worked my way across the mayhem to the 105 bus – more mayhem, it transpired. I found it packed full of people – but no driver, a pretty crucial part of the whole bus concept, really. And still no driver after a further ten minutes. God knows how long some of them had been waiting, but the strange thing was that, again, people seemed to treat this as the most normal occurrence in the world. In London, there would probably be (polite) demands for an armed coup.

At the hostel, I realised, embarrassingly, I was meant to be there two weeks ago. But they were very good about it and, thankfully, given it was nearly ten o’clock, managed to squeeze in for the night, and see about tomorrow. My roommates for the night were Craig, a Canadian architecture student, and Chris, an Aussie recently graduated in history and trying to find himself and/or a vocation (he was off on a year-long working holiday in Japan after this jaunt round Europe). Went for a wander with him, to a studenty bar area, where he said no to the idea of a drink, quite possibly becoming the only Aussie ever, at least on holiday, to do so (some weak excuse about still feeling rough from the night before). Still, we got a very good pizza slice, from what looked like, to Italians at least, a bog-standard pizza joint.

The next morning, after some generous help in finding a place for that night, I dropped my bags off at that hostel and set off for the Coliseo. A few friends and family haven’t been so keen, thinking it too touristy and too much, but I found Rome thrilling and fascinating; an ongoing war between history and modernity, a city struggling to be both home a faithful preservation of a great ancient civilization and also a forward-looking 21st global capital. To wit, their metro system has only two lines, and the two other proposed ones are regularly delayed by having to tread carefully around all the city’s history (and, I hear, political and union wranglings – the bus drivers were also on strike this day). For my money, history usually wins the battle pretty convincingly, and for the better. But the conflict does give the place a thrilling, restless tension.

Not least on the roads. In this sense, the best way to describe Rome is a massive game of driver/rider/pedestrian chicken. It’s not just individuals’ attitude either; the green man will stop vehicles haring right into you, but that luxury isn’t extended to cars turning right (i.e. inside turn), which at the start left me either doing that stupid crossing-the-road half-run and, later, looking at the (obviously confused) drivers while indignantly gesturing at the green man. (I learnt this green man thing is common across Europe actually, but other countries’ drivers generally treat the situation as a negotiation rather a conflict).

I think it must be a thing about honour, because, as I’ve suggested, I don’t think order, discipline and punctuality, quite British virtues, are particularly valued in Italy. But woe betide anyone commits transgressions on matters of the heart or those going against an Italian’s integrity, like cutting up an Italian driver even a little bit, criticising their food, or so much as glancing at an Italian man’s girlfriend. How else would Berlusconi – a man responsible for quotes like “we could not field a big enough force to avoid this risk [rape]…we would need so many soldiers because our women our so beautiful”- be so popular?!

If you can stay alive to see it, though, Rome is a stunning city. Obviously everyone knows about the Vatican, Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain, but you’ll just turn a corner and there will be some amazing building or artefact, preserved almost perfectly from thousands of years ago. I hardly even knew about the Pantheon, or noticed it on the tourist map, until I stumbled into it, such is the wealth of incredible architecture in Rome.

In the afternoon, I found myself at the Parco Urbano del Pineto, which offers a postcard-perfect panorama of Rome below, sloping up into the distance. It’s here that the brilliant colour of Rome really hits home; a beautiful patchwork of pastel colours, marble white and muted yellow, orange and brown. Even the McDonald’ses looked stylish.

View across Rome from Parco Urbano del Pineto

View across Rome from Parco Urbano del Pineto

The park leads onto the Vatican, so I ambled over there to see what all the fuss was about. And I have to say, I went into St. Peter’s Basilica as an atheist………and came out an atheist. Maybe an even stauncher one. But it was incredible, and I could see how it could be so conversion…ary (?), although I couldn’t help thinking, why believe in a supernatural being when man can create something so immense? And hundreds of years ago at that (construction on this, the new building, began in 1508 and was completed in 1626). Surprisingly it was all free, largely of any extra moral and fiscal bothering too. Which was good, because I didn’t want to be guilt-tripped into donating to an institution with what could generously be called a dubious track record on morality. (The helping the vulnerable is good, but I’m not so keen on all the child abuse, calling homosexuals second-class citizens (or worse), and denying condoms to Aids-ridden Africa.)

The Vatican

The Vatican

The Vatican

The Vatican

The Vatican

The Vatican

The building is just vast, which you don’t quite get a sense of from pictures; huge arched ceilings and incredible sculptures, art and stained glass windows adorning every wall. I paid the (very worthwhile) €7 to take the elevator then steps to the dome. You climb up increasingly narrow, winding stairs, ingeniously squeezed into the building, until you’re basically climbing a curved ladder. The vista from the top, which stretches out maybe 30 miles from every side, is definitely worth the effort though.

Climbing to the top of St Peter's Basilica

Climbing to the top of St Peter’s Basilica

View over Rome from the top of St Peter's Basilica

View over Rome from the top of St Peter’s Basilica

Back at the hostel, I met another eclectic mix of people – Andreas, a German who, due to his accent and introduction basically naked from the shower, reminded me of Bruno; his South Korean friend he’d met on a university exchange; and Sarah, an American girl who nicely confounded the British stereotype that Americans don’t do wit or self-deprecation. Within an hour, we were heading out to a club, which was good. That’s what’s great about doing the hostel travelling thing; everyone’s really friendly, up for going out, and got at least a mildly diverting story about how they got there, directly and in terms of life in general, to sustain at least an hour or so’s beer converstation. And, sleeping six to a room while living out of a backpack usually roots out any airs and graces. (I was going to say pretensiousness there, but chose not to because of the obvious “Gap Yah” thing, which there is a bit of but it doesn’t bother so much when you are both kind of doing the Gap Yah thing. I wasn’t, and only actually took a week off work – I do a week on/week off – which was quite nice to say to all the ‘finding themselves’ youngsters, but maybe I was Gap Yah-ing in spirit a bit.) So it’s a bit like freshers week really. Although, unlike freshers, you have the benefit of knowing that if you don’t like someone you can quite easily never speak to them again, as they will probably be in another country, if not continent – not at your romanticism lecture or tennis social.

Venice

I set off for Venice the next morning – a much less eventful journey, in scenery as well as ease, but thankfully so as I was somewhat worse for wear. Any lingering hangover disappeared, however, soon after seeing the view from Santa Lucia station; a wide Italian square opening up onto a grand sweep of Grand Canal – surely a contender for best view from a train station.

Grand Canal from Santa Lucia station

Grand Canal from Santa Lucia station

In fact I spent probably half as long getting to the hostel-cum-campsite after working out directions to the shuttle bus from the station and a long wait there. I wouldn’t have been so British in demurring the one remaining seat to a Yank – living up to his nation’s reputation for assertiveness – if I’d known the next one wasn’t for another hour (three seemed to past in 15 minutes).

Turned out this place was a good ten miles outside of Venice. It was strange kind of place – a mix of families on budget holidays and young travellers in sort of high-quality tarpaulin huts, all sharing communal facilities. Mind, not many places you’ll get a swimming pool for just over a tenner a night.

Set off on the shuttle the next morning for Venice, which I soon found to be just as impossibly scenic as Rome. If in Rome modernity puts up a fight against history, in Venice it just submits to history’s romantic advances. Too right too, because, to be blunt, Venice serves no practical purpose other than just being; looking pretty. And of course earning shit loads of money from this. To wit, can you think of any other city of such renown where around 90% of the main city is completely devoid of any form of transport other than one’s feet – and, of course, boat? And as a measure of how prominent tourism is in Venice, around 60,000 people visit it every day – about the same number as permanent inhabitants in the city centre (a further 200,000 plus live in its metropolitan area). Indeed, many claim it is becoming too popular for its own good. And a recent death of a German tourist after a water bus collided with a gondola he was on has strengthened calls for greater safety measures on the city’s packed waterways.

But Venice does nothing in particular very well, what with being so beautiful an’ all. And my god, do the Italians produce some stunning specimens. It’s as if they round up all the ugly people and put them in a pen, or at least ship them off to the suburbs for the summer.

I ambled around for a good seven/eight hours, soaking up the atmosphere. Venice is a great place for walking because everything is packed so close together that you can walk the whole width of the main city in about an hour and the length in just 20 or 30 minutes. I did all the usual highlights – the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs and Piazza San Marco – as well as some free, fringe art stuff that was there as part of the Biennale (mostly pretentious modern art, including one video I think intended to convince readers to become environmentalists on the basis of a camera panning over a sea).

Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square)

Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square)

Grand Canal

Grand Canal

Looking out to the Isola Della Giudecca and a scuplted women with her tits out and no legs

Looking out to the Isola Della Giudecca and a scuplted women with her tits out and no legs

One of the more impressive pieces from the Biennale stuff

One of the more impressive pieces from the Biennale stuff

...And the bullshit eco art installation

…And the bullshit eco art installation

After returning to…camp, I suppose, and swim, shower, shave, shit and surf (the net), I had a beer with the other bloke in the hut, a Portuguese bloke doing random excursions around Europe having taken (semi-voluntary) redundancy a while back. Still popped back to Portugal, though, to stay eligible for his welfare payments, though. Can’t see many of his countrymen, suffering from unemployment and austerity, taking too kindly from that. But, hey, it’s not my life or tax money and he was alright, if a little negative (e.g. “there are so many tourists here,” only said semi-ironically).

Slovenia

Set off the next morning for Ljubljana, starting with the regional train to Gorizia. Here, I took a bus to the other part of the town, and in the process found myself slipping without even noticing into Slovenia. Again, it all seemed remarkably easy – not even a ‘you are now entering Slovenia’ sign, let alone a passport check and stern look from an officious man. Enough to make Nigel Farage go into a coma. I can just imagine him in semi-astonishment on the bus to fellow passengers: “it is that easy to go into a completely different nation?! I could be any old lunatic…well I suppose I am in a way,” then proceeding to chortle at his own statement and pull ridiculous faces. In fact, I went through seven borders (excluding Vatican City) before being asked to produce my passport, in Germany, the only place where I was asked except England/France. In this respect, I think the ease of movement InterRail affords, and all the resulting exchange of culture and resources it facilitates, is generally a great point in the EU’s favour. Although, I realise making a few middle-class kids’ summer holidays slightly more convenient should not be the dealbreaker in one’s opinion a political system as huge and frequently exasperating as the EU.

Anyway, back in Slovenia, I soon realised I was in a type of country Farage might deride as backwards and despise being in alliance with. The bus gradually emptied out in Nova Gorica, the Slovenian part of the city, until I was the only one who exited at the station, a big baroque building with a dozen or so lines which, I soon found, belied the fact that nothing actually happened there. No ticket office, no announcements, no signs and only two passing trains in the hour or so I was there. In fairness, everything in Slovenia on time; it just felt a bit like going back in time half a century compared to the other stations I’d visited and Clapham Junction back home. I boarded this poky little two-carriage train, graffitied all over – like I learnt a lot of Slovenian trains are – which gave it a cool effect. Raging against the machine – literally.

Nova Gorica station

Nova Gorica station

In keeping with the whole atmosphere, someone just decided the train would go on for one more stop, meaning I didn’t have to make a connection. And they even told me this personally. At Divaca, I eventually worked out that, yes, that narrow metre-wide, 30cm-high strip of concrete standing between platforms 2 and 3 was the platform where everyone was to board a big intercity train to the country’s capital. Really, there was no need for a yellow caution line; the whole platform was well smaller than most of those spaces on plaforms here. I jest. Because, thinking about it, it shows an unfussy, just-getting-shit-done attitude and an indifference to idiocy often absent from our ‘elf and safety culture.

'Platform' no.3

‘Platform’ no.3

I reached Ljubljana, and, it seemed, the 21st century, about 90 minutes later. Wasn’t the most spectacular entrance it must be said – just a load of anonymous buildings in a business district. The scenery improved a little on the way to the hostel – a lovely converted three-story house called Vila Veselova – but I did question if there was a good reason why Slovenia remained a relative backwater.

I soon found it there isn’t. The historic centre of Ljubljana is stunningly pretty under the lights, lending the yellows and peaches of the buildings a weird sort of luminescent glow. Especially the castle – the focal point of the city which sits up on a hill in the city centre, affording a ludicrously picturesque 360 of the city and surrounding area, especially at sunset…

Sunset from the castle

Sunset from the castle

Sunset from the castle

Sunset from the castle

The next day, I’d booked on a sLOVEnia tour through the hostel. So I took off in a minibus with Jenny, a Brit (the accent really becomes noticeable abroad) on a gap year; Tom, a nice if slightly vapid Aussie/Singaporean having just finished an exchange term in Holland; and Sandra, a 30-something American woman, who was frankly a bit boring and moany. The previous night she spent a good half an hour relaying her reservations about the tour to the tour guide, Rika. I thought, just go or shut up, love. As a testament to the the tour guide’s good nature, though, if he even was thinking the same, he didn’t once give indication of it. And he seemed to know everything not just about Slovenian history but about that of all the Balkans too.

We set off on a motorway to the south-west of the country, into the Karst region – defined by woodland and large, flat plains, former salt lakes, pockmarked by tiny hills jutting up and back down, former islands on the lakes. First stop was Predjama Castle, an imposing white fortress with an intriguing history, built into a cliff face. A rebellious knight called Erazem Lueger took up camp there in the 15th century when Austrian emperor Fredrick III, enraged at his insubordinance, had commissioned the governor of Trieste to kill him. Erazem remained besieged in the castle for a year and a day, baffling his enemies, who thought there was only one access point, by surviving on supplies he gleaned by a complex cave system which allowed him to travel to a nearby village. These included cherries, some of which he used to pelt his attackers with. Alas, Erazem met an inglorious end when one of his servants, having been bribed by attackers, placed a small signal flag by a toilet when Erazem was there, and the attackers launched a cannonball at him – literally catching him with his pants down.

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle

From there, we travelled to this spot, the name of which escapes me, where you have this great view across Italy (Trieste and the narrow strip it sits in), Croatia and Slovenia, including its small bit of coastline. According to Rika, and contrary to what I’d found, there’s a lot of hostility between Italians, particularly those from Trieste, and Slovenians, stemming from the city’s messy history – in which it swung between Italian, (Nazi) German and Yugoslavian rule – and propagated by stereotypes on both sides. And that’s before you even get to the stereotypes within the Balkans. Which are, if I remember correctly, Croatia – shifty and incompetent; Albania – backwards and shiftier still, being governed by mafia and old-fashioned concepts of family; and Montenegro – lazy and stupid (sample joke: “where are the best places to hide money from a Montenegrin? Under the shovel or in a book” – and, according to Rika, “they’re too stupid too even think of a comeback”).

Overlooking Trieste and Slovenia's coastline

Overlooking Trieste and Slovenia’s coastline

Slovenia sits above these – in status as well as geography, I learnt from Rika. He told – in a proud, patriotic way, rather than a smug nationalist way, I thought – of the country’s proud, independent character, borne of its turbulent recent past (it has only been independent for 22 years). And of how it cares for the environment and makes up for a relative lack of natural resources with a well-educated workforce and well-developed infrastructure. Which I took, and sensed, to be largely true, and which to be honest made me feel a bit bad about jumping to say it was so backwards. He neglected to mention the current financial problems and, according to Wikipedia, the price for this forward-looking society being high taxes and a lack of competitiveness. But it was nice to have to someone be so openly proud of his country without it coming across as overly superior or territorial – something I found quite common across Europe (Although admittedly some of that may just be down to me, a tourist not used to the daily grind of domestic news media and pub rants, imbuing that sense onto people, many of whom of course have a vested interest – tourist dollar – in bigging up their country.) This is something I think English people, myself somewhat included, find difficult, as our imperial past, coupled with a general sense of reserve and consideration, often renders uneasy such displays. Either on the person expressing it, the one seeing or hearing it or both. Take for one the hand-wringing over St George’s flags during major football tournaments. Even the left-wing Democrats’ political speeches in America are full of flag-waving and references to American exceptionalism (“this great nation”, “we”, “our”, “indominable spirit”, “shared history and value” etc. etc.).

Anyway, the next and main stop on the tour was the Škocjan Caves, probably the largest cave system in Europe, with an explored length of 6,200m and comprising a weird and wonderful selection of rock formations. Sounds really anoraky when put like that, but I defy anyone not to be at least mildly impressed by cascading rock pools, huge 20m towers of coalesced stalagmites and stalagtites and caverns as big as cinemas. The River Reka (literally ‘River River’) runs underground for just over 20 miles, including 3.5km along Hanke’s Channel, which is 10 to 60m wide and over 140m high, often expanding into huge chambers, including Martel’s Chamber, considered the largest in Europe. When we were there, the river ran well below, but still created a cavernous echo-y sound, and you could see the marks on the walls from where it had reached a good 50/60m above its current level. Alas, you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside – a rule to do with preserving the flora and fauna which was unfailing obeyed. (Indeed, the whole thing was very environmentally-conscious, being a UNESCO world heritage site and only allowing 150,000 people in a year, whether that figure is reached in December or September.) So you will have to Google them or look on the website. Here are a few of the area just outside, though…

Waterfalls outside the caves

Waterfalls outside the caves

Waterfalls outside the caves

Waterfalls outside the caves

Kind of crater outside the caves

Kind of crater outside the caves

From there, we went to this horse sanctuary place, apparently world famous in horsey circles, for the quality of its horses and for its ‘Michael Jackson’ horses which go from brown in childhood to white in adulthood (my joke, albeit very obvious). Other than that it didn’t move me too much, being a bloke, but the women really enjoyed it – and uber-happy Tom. We were all amused, though, by the tour guide’s story of how an American tourist once asked him, in all sincerity, “where do they keep the unicorns, then?” (His blunt response: “unicorns are a mythical creature”).

Back at the hostel, we had the welcoming drinks, with Rika, a very nice, homespun touch that I didn’t really encounter at other hostels. It did double as a chance to sell his tours – there were about six other similar ones – but it’s not exactly hassling or a conflict of interest to sell tours to tourists. We carried on the drinks in the garden – a disparate group of the aforementioned three (though the American bird, predictably, left after twenty minutes, moaning about something or other), one trio and one pair of male Canadian friends, a young couple from Taunton and a more typically cheery American woman. All nice people and at least fairly interesting. And the Canadians had an impressive knowledge of football – certainly enough to know to call it ‘football’ – a sure-fire way to gain a Brit’s approval. Indeed, North Americans in general surprised me with their knowledge of ‘soccer’.

After a while, we decided to see what Ljubljana had to offer in terms of nightlife. Not much, we found as we entered the honestly-named Disco Bar, where we were genuinely the only punters there at 11pm. OK, so it was a weeknight, but a summer one, and at a club in the country’s capital. At least we hadn’t paid for the privilege, so went back outside to the grand Zvezda square, where there was a good atmosphere; the kind of cosmopolitan drinking culture we at least tried to emulate with the introduction of 24-hour drinking eight years ago. So we sought opinion on the best place to go from locals – or as it turned out foreign students celebrating the end of term – the result a lukewarm consensus for Parliament. While not exactly Fabric or Ministry of Sound – it felt like a pub with chairs and tables taken out to make a dancefloor – it was decent enough. But not good enough to tempt me into having just three or so hours sleep, so I went back to get a semi-decent night’s sleep to get up for my 8:06 train, the only really feasible one.

Next morning, that train to Maribor, Slovenia’s second city in its north-east corner, through some pretty if unspectacular scenery. Then onto Wien, or Vienna, through some surprisingly very dull Austrian landscape, which became gradually more impressive – a bit like Switzerland’s slightly less popular and attractive younger brother.

Budapest 

From Vienna, a Railjet train to Budapest. And I have to admit, my first impressions of Hungary were not overly enamouring – mile upon mile of uninspiring, washed out farmland – a vision of grey Eastern Bloc drabness (to the first impressions of an ignorant Westerner anyway). Budapest, when we arrived after a replacement bus for part of the track affected by the floods, was a far more welcoming sight – a palatial building fronted by a grand glass arch, in keeping with much of the rest of the city, which really does make one feel like a king. Partly because of the a general regal air the place has, and partly because it’s perfectly normal to walk around with a 5,000 Hungarian Forint note (about £17) in one’s pocket. (Although I didn’t feel particularly big or clever when I ignorantly tried to buy a metro ticket with euros).

Budapest Keleti station (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Budapest Keleti station (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The next day, I went out exploring the city – with its multitude of religious and political institutions, a vast and impressive testament to the manic history of the place, which includes the Celtic Empire, the Roman, the Ottoman, The Austro-Hungarian, monarchy, communism, and, since the fall of the Wall (more later), a confident outward-looking capitalist democracy (my limited impression anyway). All of this is set to the stunning backdrop of the Danube, which dissects the city into two – historically, the administrative centre of Buda to the West and the economic trading centre of Pest to the East. And to Buda castle, dating all the way back to 1265, and overlooking the Danube and Pest and the rest of the city.

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

View of Budapest from Buda Castle

View of Budapest from Buda Castle

Munich

Got the Railjet back the other way to the Munich the next day…or at least I’d planned to. Because, for some reason, the train decided to stop halfway, in Vienna, meaning I had to get a train to Salzburg and wait nearly two hours there because, in a very un-German way, the next train to Munich firstly was due to go in around an hour and was cancelled anyway. And there was more issues in Munich. I asked a traveller-y looking girl – in my courteous but shit German – left or right from the metro station (I had a map, just didn’t know which way I was facing). Turns out she was going to the same place and had GPS on her phone so I followed her. After ten minutes, of what the hostel’s internet page said should be four, I got sceptical, so we asked a pair of locals the way. Or rather she did, being a German – down south for a socialist conference – who naturally spoke perfect English. Confident as their answer was, we followed that for another ten minutes or so until it felt wrong, and asked another a pair, a middle-aged couple, who completely shattered any of those Sun or sun-lounger stereotypes of Germans as efficient but cold people.

For they clearly didn’t know the way, as I gathered after about 30 seconds, but seemed absolutely determined not to let this fact hinder them in helping us. My newly-found German accomplice clearly couldn’t see their (well-meaning) uselessness, as she continued talking them for near 20 minutes. My favourite bit, which I could not help but laugh at, was the bloke saying: “I know where it is…but don’t know if this way *pointing*…or that way *pointing the other way*…”. Brilliant. After about three times I attempted to leave a few times, only for the guy to take offence that I wasn’t taking his useless advice, we finally, after about an hour, resolved to go back to square one, the metro station, and work from there. Where – just like another well-known, if rather less friendly, conflict between Britain and Germany – the Yanks eventually came to the rescue – Sarah, the American girl from Rome, who I knew was coming but I thought a fair bit later. Her rather better GPS got us to the hostel…near 14 hours after I’d left Budapest for what should have been one simple train journey. But, hey, all things considered – minor inconvenience and delay to a middle-class Brit gallivanting around Europe – it was a first world problem.

First thing the next day was the Lions’ first test. I’d gone travelling at this point, largely so I wouldn’t be missing much important sport, but the Lions I did want to watch. And in hindsight I’m glad I sought out places to watch them – even if Germany wasn’t exactly a rugby hot bed. So we went to a sports bar first, with Sarah gamely giving rugby – undeniably the finer version of people pummelling seven shades of shit out of each other – a shot. 

However, the first bar we went to didn’t look particularly sports-orientated – about three families eating, no TV on and and they seemed completely nonplussed by my combination of pointing, gesturing and broken German (“Du hast die Lions…*throwing imaginary rugby ball*… zum fernseher?” ). Anyway, after a drink – seemed rude not to when the manager spent five minutes looking for it – they directed us to an Irish bar nearby, restoring my faith in German reliability in the process. Worked out ok in the end, as we got there for the dramatic conclusion and the Lions won. Even Sarah, used to American football, was (mildly) won over – or at least had the decency to feign interest.  

So I set off around Munich in good spirits. Nice place, with a very relaxed, cosmopolitan air; wide, tree-lined streets, unhurried people and generous greenery. One park even had a proper game of cricket going on; a sign of metropolitanism if I ever saw one. For good and ill, a world away from Rome, with all its manic energy.

After wandering, we stumbled into the Hofbrauhaus, which I’ve since learnt is globally known (how many pubs have a gift shop?!) and has perhaps the greatest history of any pub in the world. It was built way back in 1598, by Bavarian Duke Maximilian I, moved and remodelled in 1897, and then bombed during the World War II, only being rebuilt in 1958. I suppose they did target important buildings. I jest. But only in part because, among its history, Mozart has claimed to have written opera Idomeneo after numerous beverages at the Hofbrauhaus ‘fortified’ him for the task; Lenin reportedly frequented when living in Munich between the wars; and it has been heavily involved in Nazi Party history. It was one of the beer halls used to hold functions and announce policies, including the twenty-five theses which saw the German Workers’ Party reformed as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, increasingly just abbreviated “Nazi”.

And it certainly seemed like some Mecca for drinking – a grand main hall, courtyard and several balconies, capable of holding around 2,500 (nearly 10,000 when transformed for Oktoberfest). And of course, replete with those brilliant German stereotypes of long tables, pretzels, meat, busty women in lederhosen, and, best of all, beastly two-pint glasses (which one very talented waiter managed to carry six of at once). They’ve got – or had – their faults, but the Germans sure know how to do gastronomy.

A double pint of Hofbrau (courtesy of Hofbrauhaus.de)

A double pint of Hofbrau (courtesy of Hofbrauhaus.de)

Hofbrauhaus (courtesy of Hofbrauhaus.de)

Hofbrauhaus (courtesy of Hofbrauhaus.de)

Inside Hofbrauhaus (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Inside Hofbrauhaus (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Vienna

Sarah and I headed off to Vienna the next day, on the same line that should have got me to Munich, but thankfully with less hassle this trip. In fact, by far the easiest journey so far. The accommodation was another Wombats (I’d stayed in one in Budapest) – a clean, well-maintained place, if missing a tiny bit of… je ne sais quoi, that there was at the Slovenian hostel for instance. We wandered about looking for somewhere to eat, settling on a quiet, unassuming little place serving…well, I didn’t quite know what in truth. Because armed with undue pride in my German and a desire not to appear the ignorant Brit I pretty much am, I went for a lucky dip with the ‘naschemark’, which turned out to be a decent little plate of ciabatta along with humus, cucumber and salad, and named after the famous market nearby).

Back at the hostel, we met Pieter, a South African travelling around Europe, it transpired, as much if not more for tax purposes as pure enjoyment (he worked four weeks on, four weeks off on a rig offshore Brazil). We headed down the hostel bar, where I came to find he had this odd demeanour – everything said with wide smile and enthusiastic tone. The type of thing I might have said of many Americans before meeting quite few on this trip and finding they’re largely pretty reasoned, reasonable, intelligent, even quite droll people (the ones who managed to get out anyway). On the plus side, he was easy to talk to, but I always felt a laugh was required for even ordinary stories and observations. And it made listening to his firmly-held, slightly right-wing views on South African politics quite odd.

The next day, pummelled as it was by rain veering between apocalyptic and merely British, Venice looked rather less majestic and pretty than the day before, bathed in summer evening glow like in Before Sunset. (Though I had little cause to complain, given the weather I’d had – not a drop of rain, 35 in Venice and Rome and 30+ in Slovenia and Budapest. Too hot if anything.) Partly as a result, partly because of general reputation, we alighted to the Museumsquartier – one of the biggest cultural areas in the world, with around 30 buildings showcasing everything from history, art, photography, dance, film and new media.

We plumped for the (nearly-very-rude-sounding) Kunsthistoriches Museum – museum of art history. It was quite impressive, but to be honest I’ve never been that into art and don’t even exhibit any sings that I’m growing into it, like I have with, for example, architecture (the Vatican, for one), nature and Neil Young. Sure, I recognise skill and endeavour in art (what I deem proper art, not wanky modern art) but it rarely moves me to great emotion or reflection.

To wit, I have realised whenever I’m in a gallery I find myself moving about five times quicker than nearly everyone else, moving between pieces of art like: that’s pretty good…that’s pretty good…that’s amazing…meh….that’s pretty good…that’s pretty good, little quicker than you just read that. I’m sure some of that is down to not understanding context, composition and such, but that stuff, you know, requires study and work, and there’s so many other good time-consuming things competing for my interest, like football and Breaking Bad. And, even if they didn’t necessarily come first, as Peter Griffin says in preferencing his TV over his kids, they are easier and more likely to be discussed at the pub.

That said, it was diverting enough – mostly portraits of royals and classical frescoes (As evidence of my artistic philistinism, I just Google Imaged ‘frescoes’ to check I had the right word. I think I do; think of Da Vinci’s famous one of man touching God, The Creation of Adam and you get the picture.) There was, though, a cool bit on the Egyptians, who are always good, and appeal to the kid in me (weird shit like mummifying people), the Age of Empires-playing teen (death and destruction) and the sophisticated adult (great achievements like medicine, education and architecture). And all this was there.

After that, partly thanks to the rain and partly thanks to a general overload of touristy and cultural stuff, we went to see Monsters University, which was thankfully in English (as nearly all films are) and, I later learnt, strangely out a good month before in England. Good film it was too; a funny little satire on university life. Then we went in search of food, specifically schnitzel that the area is renowned for. Being quite a traditional place with no translation, I tried out the ‘lucky dip’ technique again. Well, sort of – nearly everything still contained the word ‘schnitzel’ (which, for those of you living under a gastronomic rock, is a slab of fried meat covered in flour and bread crumbs). Turned out to be some tender pork, I think. Whatever it was, it was delicious, as was the remaining bit of Sarah’s I hoovered up. 

Went out with that night with Mr Excitable, Pieter. First to the hostel bar, then, on good recommendations, a club called Flex. It was basically the archetype of Germanic nightlife – underground, in an industrial-y space, with even more grungy, hardcore, industrial techno. But there was hardly anyone there, which meant it didn’t really work. I quite like lyrics in my music now and then. Germans’ love of heavy rock is perplexing to me, given the generally straight-laced nature of their society (I ignorantly bunch together Germans and Austrians in many senses). But maybe it is precisely because of that reason. Just look of Japan’s love of weird shit.

Prague

The straightforward Vienna-Prague train made apparent just how bad the Danube flooding was, as the water still, two to three weeks later, was submerging park benches and nearly reaching the train. When there, we decamped, alas not at the brilliantly-named Czech Inn but at the (reasonable) St Christopher’s Inn, and went to explore Praha’s eating and drinking and establishments, settling on a great little restaurant where I had some superb roasted camembert thing, then some bar. Wasn’t as dirt cheap as I’d been led to believe – the Czech crown has such an awkward exchange rate it’s hard to tell exactly in truth – but it was all very nice.

Flooding

Flooding

Flooding

Flooding

We went for a free walking tour the next day. These are tours, at most main European tourist cities, advertised through hostels where students, teachers or just interested people give a whistlestop tour of the city and politely ask punters to give whatever they can spare/think the tour deserved. A very admirable business model, and the guides seem to do relatively well out of it money-wise. I’d yet to go on one, through a combination of lack of motivation – due to circumstance, thinking they’d be a bit dry and wanting to do my own thing. It was very good, though. It was run by a Greek chap on an Erasmus year in Prague, and he told us the stories, mostly of medieval gore or the Iron Curtain, behind the city’s grand gothic and baroque buildings.

It started at the Powder Tower, the gate to the Old Town, and proceeded down the area’s winding streets to the famous Staroměstské náměstí, or Old Town Square, which houses the astronomical clock tower, which, dating from 1410, is the oldest still standing in the world. Every hour on the hour, a large crowd forms by to see a small trap door open and Christ march out ahead of his disciples, while death’s skeleton tolls the bell. The tour guide thought it was really naff and a great big con for tourist’s moulah, but I thought it was alright. Had a bit of novelty.
The rest of the tour mostly went around the Old Town and Jewish Quarter, taking in various beauties and oddities including a brothel in a converted church and a church where someone’s foot dangled from the ceiling, a relic from a medieval feud.

Staroměstské náměstí (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Staroměstské náměstí (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Clock Tower in Staroměstské náměstí (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Clock Tower in Staroměstské náměstí (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

We ended up at the courtyard next to Mánesův Most, a grand bridge over the Vltava, looking out to the majestic Prague Castle on the other side, which, after giving coins and thanks to the guide, Sarah and I went to explore, up the very steep hill. The castle itself was impressive, although a little bit of overkill given the amount of old buildings I’d seen and you can only really go downhill in this respect after seeing the Vatican. There was also some fairly diverting, very death-y, Games of Thrones-like things dotted around the site. One exhibit, for example, looked like a collection of instruments that would be used in a medieval version of the Saw franchise. On a brighter note, the castle affords a great view across Prague, sitting majestically the other side of the Vltava.

Prague (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Prague (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

View over Prague from the castle (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

View over Prague from the castle (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Looking up to Prague Castle (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Looking up to Prague Castle (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

That night, kind of getting lost on the way to The Church – the club one, not the brothel one – we settled on a good, little English bar in the main square, where a slightly grizzled old fella was playing his way, reasonably enough, through some dad rock – Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd and such. I would say it was nice to have to small taste of home but, aside from the fact that I was only away for a couple of weeks anyway, that’s the thing about travelling round Europe as a Brit in the 21st century – you never do feel like your a million miles from home. (Unless, that is, you’re a Daily Express-reading fruitcake). It’s really easy to get online, English papers are sold in most places, there are MacDonaldses everywhere, everyone knows the same football players and, through some combination of globalisation and imperialism , nearly everyone speaks conversational English or better, at least in touristy places.

The language thing made me feel a bit of middle-class English guilt in many places – but I can’t deny it was useful. I could go in to exchanges speaking French or German – or any other language I looked in the guidebook at – knowing there was a very good chance they had good to brilliant English to save the exchange when, almost inevitably, my Franglais, or what I’m coining as ‘Deutschlish’, was found wanting. Which was usually as soon as they replied. Often they just replied in English straight away, presumably because the opening gambit sounded fucking shit. I think there was only three people I spoke to where it was clear I could speak their language better than they could mine, including a 70-something-year-old Austrian woman, but not including a pre-teen French boy, whose English was already slightly better than my French. There was one up side, though. My German – B at GCSE, largely unused and forgotten since – was at such a level where I was competent enough to have an admittedly basic, and largely gesticulated, exchange, yet not advanced enough to know that, to native speakers, probably this like sounded I. Anyhow I’m starting on this Duolingo thing, to – hopefully – become more a little more cosmopolitan an’ that.

Berlin

A hassle-free journey the next day, straight from Praha, brought us to Berlin station – an amazing modernist piece of architecture looking like something out a sci-fi film set in the near future; an open-plan glass labyrinthe of a building where, just to show off presumably, the metro system is at the top and the trains are the bottom, with everything else in the middle. Speaking as a first-time visitor, it works not only on an aesthetic level, but a practical one too – often even from two storeys and 50m up, you can see physically see where everything is and just head there without even having to bother to read the signs.

Berlin station

Berlin station

Berlin station

Berlin station

And the subway itself was very efficient – in truth, just like the tube but cheaper and less crowded – and, this time, there was no uncharacteristically useless Germans at the other end to get us lost. The hostel was reasonable and friendly. I joined the owner and others in the cafe-cum-reception where they were streaming the (dull, it turned out) Confederations Cup semi between Italy and Spain.

The next day, we went on walking tour around Berlin, through SANDEMANs. Ours was through a slightly eccentric Brit, an expat school teacher by trade but so in interested in the city, its history and wanting to share that with “young minds” that he guided in summer holidays. It showed too, as he told, with varying enthusiasm and solemnity, of the many horrors of Nazi Germany and the grimness of a separated Germany. Berlin is, of course, a particularly interesting case in this because it was the only city to house both sides of the divide so starkly in just one city; a microcosm on the great political divide of the 20th century.

After the war, the country was divided up along lines roughly matching where the different nations had invaded. Britain took around a quarter to the north-west; America a large section in the south; France two relatively smallish pockets to the south and west. These were merged, as the Federal Republic of Germany, in May 1949, and the USSR took control of what became known as East Germany. However, Berlin, geographically in East Germany, was so strategically important that Britain, the US and France were unwilling to relinquish it, so all the allied forces agreed to carve up the city in a similar way to the rest of the country. Political tension ratcheted up between the two, as East Berlin, with around half the population, began losing many talented people, until 1961 when, with thousands of soldiers under the cover the darkness one August night, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall. (This first stage was ‘just’ barbed wire, but, ignoring the politics and ethics of it for just a second, in one night this was still obviously a mighty impressive operation. By its fourth and final stage, it stood as 11/12 feet of thick solid iron and barbed wire. And it worked, as escapes dropped 75% after its construction.)

This history is all strikingly evident in the city today. The tour started at Pariser Platz – depending on one’s priorities, either home to the majestic Brandenburg Gate or the place where Michael Jackson dangled his baby out of a fifth-floor window, at the five-star Hotel Adlon. From there we went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – or ‘Holocaust Memorial’ – an odd, harrowing piece of architecture; hundreds of grey concrete slabs of varying height, arranged in a grid pattern on an undulating surface. The architect behind it, Peter Eisenman, was intentionally vague about its symbolism – so that, admirably, viewers of all creeds, colour and ages could bring their own thoughts and emotions to bear on such an important, tragic issue. Having walked through it, my own is that the scale of and difference within the blocks represent how Jews (and others) were dehumanised, like dull concrete blocks.

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Nearby is the spot above where Hitler shot himself – a nondescript grass verge in the car park of some flats, left as such so Hitler is not actively commemorated. We then followed a similar line to the Wall, including the former Luftwaffe HQ – in a similar vein to the car park, now just a large tax office. Then onto Niederkirchnerstraße, one of the few remaining bits of two miles or so of wall left standing. As a gesture of remorse, political co-operation and progress, other bits of have been donated to various governments and institutions around the world. By this, is the frankly-named Topography of Terror, documenting the horrors of the Nazi regime – and in pretty graphic detail according to the tour guide (“Recommended, but you’ll need a strong stomach”). Again, it is managed commendably – a stark, uncelebratory building, with no fanfare, and free entry so there is no possible profiting from such evil.

Where Hitler committed suicide

Where Hitler committed suicide

Nearby is Checkpoint Charlie, a major strategic access point between East and West, so named because it was the third checkpoint and ‘Charlie’ designated ‘c’ in the NATO phonetic alphabet. It now stands as a busy junction, where a small brick line on the road marks out where the wall was, and a military-style checkpoint stands in the middle of the road. Here, there is a pole with a picture on one side of a stern-looking American casting watch over the East Berlin, and on the other a Soviet soldier sending an ominous glare over West Berlin. And a sign informing people, in English, Russian, French and German, one side that they are entering ‘the American sector’ and on the other that they are leaving. Needless to say, it was more for political front than tourist information. For you couldn’t just wander into the West, as some of stories and museum connected to the place attest. The total number of East German refugees since the Wall’s erection was 616,000, and although around half were through official permits, there were around 164,000 escapes through other countries and 40,000 direct escapes. This was in spite of the draconian punishment meted out to failed defectors. Indeed, an estimated 136, or even more, died while trying to flee.

A remaining part of the Berlin Wall

A remaining part of the Berlin Wall

Out of the desperation, though, come same amazing and amusing stories of determination and human ingenuity, chronicled around Checkpoint Charlie and in a museum there. These include: smashing through a Checkpoint Charlie gate (just after its erection – it was soon reinforced); slipping under a car barrier at the last second in a low-topped convertible; using meat hooks to scale the Wall; swimming 28 miles (Rostock, Germany, to Lolland, Denmark); using an air mattress to cross the Baltic; 14 people hiding, Bear Grylls-style, in various animal carcasses in a refrigerated truck; hot air balloon; and, perhaps most plucky of all, little cardboard boat. Of course, one shouldn’t dwell too long on such stories, for they represent less than 1 in 20 escape attempts, and an estimated 136 or even more died in the process. The tragic thing is some may have even considered these people the lucky ones, given the situation and the draconian punishment meted out to unlucky Republikflüchtigers (‘Republic-fliers’, or ‘deserters’). This act carried a standard imprisonment of three years, and often even more – longer sentences or execution in/deportation to the Soviet Union – if convincted of espionage on top of this. And people who aided and abetted escape were deemed ‘human traffickers’ and, as I’m sure you can guess, in for just as grisly punishment, if not more. In total, 75,000 people, or seven a day, were imprisoned for failed escapes.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Incidentally, there was some movement the other way, though nowhere near the same number (around 300). Unsurprisingly, the East German authorities were keen to paint these migrations as the moves of enlightened souls escaping political tension, escalating lawlessness and worsening economic conditions in the West. West German research, however, found more prosaic reasons; marital and family problems and homesickness. And some Allied military officials defected to avoid criminal charges or for political reasons – or just to get their end away. According to the St Petersburg Times, “girl-hungry GIs were tempted by seductive sirens, who usually deserted the love-lorn soldiers once across the border.”

I knew (a little) about the darkness of the Cold War before, but, being in Berlin, it really hit home how, though it seems a world away from my experience in middle-class capitalist/democratic Britain, the darker aspects of the Cold War were (just about) still happening in my lifetime – and probably yours too. And, no less, in a country just a few train rides away which I barely had to show a passport to get in, and whose open, democratic culture is now envied by many.

But that is what’s great about Berlin; it lives and breathes its history. Tales of medieval knights and stuff are interesting for sure, but don’t feel that directly relevant. Berlin is basically a living monument to Edward Burke’s infamous quote (attributed to others too): “Those who don’t history are destined to repeat it.” Germans today realise the horrors of Nazism (and much of the Cold War), but, bravely, don’t flinch from acknowledging it. As such, it now has an admirably socially progressive culture. As Boris Johnson says: “The most serious public order problem [in Berlin] at the moment is the tendency of Berliners to pursue the logic of their Freikörpeskultur (Free Body Culture) by actually fornicating in their many magnificent parks; and such is the climate of political correctness that they decided to means-test the fines. So if you are caught in flagrante in the bushes, and you have a job, you get fined 150 euros – but only 34 euros if you are unemployed. If that isn’t broad-mindedness, I don’t know what is.”

The then and now may seem paradoxical, but I’d venture that Germany is the way it is now precisely because of its history, and the wise, compassionate way Germans have dealt with it. Indeed, are dealing with it. Because, as the tour guide concluded, summing up why he loves Berlin by quoting the last line of a book (the details of which escape me), “Paris is always Paris – but Berlin is always becoming Berlin.”

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

The tour, thankfully, got a little lighter after that, aside from the square where the Nazi book burnings took place, taking in some grand political and religious buildings a wonderful chocolate shop, the wartime red light strip (now a fairly normal business strip) and other buildings, and ending at the imperious cathedral and Museum Island. Here, partly because the heavens just opened, we went into the Pergamon Museum, a collection of relics of the ancient world, particularly Egypt and Arabic. Most impressive were the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate. The former is named after the ancient city where it was built, marking out its acropolis, the important, elevated part of the city. It’s a mammoth construction around 35x35x20 metres, including a grand, wide stairway leading up to a pillared corridor and entrance, and raised sides depicting, in sculpture, the battle between Giants and Olympian Gods on its frieze. Ishtar Gate is, or was, the eight entrance the inner city of Babylon, and is shaped like a gate to a stereotypical old English castle, but striking for its magnificent blue colour embossed with gold animal engravings, notably lions. Being part of the Walls of Babylon, it was one of the seven wonders of the world, and with good reason, until it was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the 3rd Century BC. In fact, this version, which stands at 14 metres high, 30 wide, only represents the frontal part of the double gate – the bigger back part, which is in storage, being considered too big to fit into a museum. Both amazing structures have were meticulously excavated and reconstructed in the museum at the start of the 20th century – this new version of the museum was actually built to house the Pergamon Altar as the previous one was not structurally sound enough for its epic size.

Pergamon Altar (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Pergamon Altar (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Ishtar Gate (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Ishtar Gate (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Some light relief was definitely in order after a day of Nazism, Cold War and wonders of the ancient world, so luckily Berlin is just as good for revelry as it is for history. Well, I must admit I say that largely from reputation and bar crawl promo leaflets as from actual memory, because triple shots, which were the order of the day (or night) on our bar crawl, aren’t the most conducive to good memory (nor respectability). What I remember was good, though. And slightly disarming – for the foreigner at least. Because the Germans are very liberal about prostitution. Even at 8.30 on a normal, main road there was two Stricherin casually – though judiciously, in fairness to them – going about their…business. What’s more, they were attractive and looked healthy of mind and body too – not the drug-addled, psychologically damaged women of prostitute stereotype. Not that I acquired their services.

So a little worse for wear, I dragged myself out of bed to the station to say goodbye to Sarah (she was off to Amsterdam, where I couldn’t find a hostel for a night). and watch the Lions. This time, in an Irish bar from the start. A disappointing result, but – even given that it indirectly screwed up plans significantly – for the chance it would be anything like the following week, I don’t regret it. I was headed to Brugge for the night, but train to Cologne got in an hour after my train timetable said it would, so I missed the last connection to Brussels and was stuck there. I found out the cheapest available hostel was about €60 for a night, and it wasn’t even that highly rated. So I booked on a night train to Munich – just to have somewhere to sleep that night that wasn’t a park, though I think in some circles that’s considered bohemian when travelling – and went for a small wander around Cologne.

On the train, some arrogant tosser from the States took the fact that he was one of the only people in his country to speak German to upbraid me for mine, in a very superior, non-joking way, after he heard me speaking to the ticket inspector. Of course he was right, but my language ability is something for me and friends to mock, not strangers. He then asked if I was a student and went on to criticise my job, and I replied that he can think like that if he wants but that I’ve got a 2.1 from university (important to him as he was a classics lecturer, though he didn’t know what a 2.1 was which I told him was idiotic for an international academic), got a decent job which pays taxes and my way in life, and that I didn’t feel I needed to answer to him anyway. In hindsight, I wish I’d said something like: well, at least I earn my money in the real world, rather than get given it by a government, or rather taxpayers, to teach a load of teenagers how to masturbate over metaphor. But then the best lines of argument are always thought of in hindsight, TV shows aside. And I don’t really believe that anyway – I did a philosophy and religious studies degree, after all, so it would be a bit hypocritical.

The journey passed without event apart from that, as I got as much fitful sleep as my body allowed on an upright chair, on a stopping train. Thankfully got more sleep on the Munich-Paris TGV, though, which flies to Paris in about six hours. I couldn’t get rid of my heavy bag in Paris and I’d been there before, so I mostly just sat about waiting for the overnight Megabus back to London, reading (Will Self’s Umbrella – very odd and not recommended). Not the most exciting way to end the trip – though the White Cliffs and the bright sun dawning over and reflecting off the English Channel on the ferry was pretty breathtaking – but it had been a great trip.

Final thoughts

Loads of people speak about how travelling ‘opened their minds’ or ‘broadened their horizons’. It didn’t for me, but then nor was I looking for it to. I’m quite happy with my moderate, centrist views, and I certainly wasn’t looking for god or any substitute therefor. (Besides, I was only travelling to Europe for three weeks, not the other side of the world.). I just found had confirmed my idea that most men, aside from really important stuff like work and family, just want to watch/play sport, get drunk and get laid; and if combined, even better (women – god knows).

One thing I did take back, or have reinforced, though, is to try and appreciate where one lives, because the grass is always greener and all that. Looking at some places, I thought well, London has some amazing places and great culture too, and that I and others often, not unreasonably, half forget it as we see it with busy commuters’ eyes and associate London with routine and work. Whereas tourists see it at their own pace and afresh, through tourists’ eyes. So I’ve resolved to remember, even if I’m on a packed, sweaty tube train, how lucky I am to live in such a great city – and country. Of course, we’ve got flaws, but it’s hard, if not impossible, for things to be perfect for everyone. And as societies develop so do expectations, so, somewhat paradoxically, things often seem worse, as, naturally, people remember the breaks from the norm. To wit, how many people remember the nine out of ten train journeys in the UK which are on time and don’t crash? Besides, as I’ve said, even Germans today fuck up occasionally…

Joel Durston