In Search Of A Breakfast

My car had to go in to a workshop early today for the annual MOT check, and a full service. Julie followed me down, and brought me back in her car. I took Ollie out early for his walk, in case of the forecast thundrstorms hitting us later, then we decided that we would both like to go out and enjoy a traditional English Breakfast.

We could cook this at home of course, but it is a nice treat to let someone else do it for you.

Our first choice was the cafe at Corners Farm Shop and Garden Centre. Very close to the house, we could walk there. But it is on a fast road with no pavement or walkway, so we made the short drive.

However, we found the whole place closed and locked up, even the separate cafe in an adjacent building. There was no sign on the fencing to say why it was not open.

Never mind, we could try our second choice. Yaxham Waters restaurant, four miles south. We have enjoyed breakfasts there in the past.

Once again, we found it was closed, with obvious work in progress that coud be seen through the windows. A man saw me looking, and informed me it would re-open on the 1st of September, after what he called ‘extensive renovations’. That was an added surprise, as it was already a very attractive restaurant, in pleasant surroundings.

Undaunted, we drove back into Dereham town centre, parking the car in a car park that is free for three hours. A short walk took us to a relable cafe on the High Street.

You guessed it, closed! At least this one had a sign in the window, ‘Closed today due to unforeseen circumstances’. Third time unlucky, we decided to walk to the far end of the High Street, where we were sure that the restaurant ‘Tall Orders’ would be open. Luckily it was!

Unluckily, it was full.

The waitress told us she might have a table free in 20-30 minutes. But it was now past 11am. Breakfast menus might stop being served, and lunch menus begin. We said we would let her know, and tried the final choice across the road, Norfolk Kitchen.

Success! We got a table, and ordered our breakfasts from a very pleasant waitress.

After well over an hour travelling around, and having driven some 12 miles, we finally ate the breakfast we had been searching for.

My London Social Life

Despite being happy to be away from the noise and pollution in London, I have often lamented the lack of being close to restaurants and venues within walking distance of where we live now in Beetley. This is a selection of some of the places I miss since moving away from the Capital.

The Marrakesh Cafe, Camden Market, London NW1. A short stroll from where I used to live, at the edge of the bustling Camden Market, this cafe was an ideal spot to enjoy mint tea, whilst watching the world go by late at night.

The Jazz Cafe, Parkway, NW1. Even closer, this wonderful venue where you could eat and drink as you watched some great bands or solo artists. Although called The Jazz Cafe, it featured a wide variety of music, and ticket prices were always affordable. We had some great nights in there.

The Feng Shang floating Chinese restaurant, Cumberland Basin, Regent’s Park, NW1. Accessed from Prince Albert Road, literally at the end of the street where I used to live, this upmarket Chinese restaurant serves some of the best Chinese food in London, in a refined atmosphere. Pricey, but worth it, this was also my mum’s favourite restauarant.

Bar Italia Cafe, Frith Street, Soho, W1. A London institution, tables on the pavement allow you to watch the nightlife in Soho as you sip your overpriced double espresso or cappuccino. Nothing better after a night out.

Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, Soho, W1. Not far from Bar Italia, you will find this branch of the well-known pizza chain, with live Jazz performed since 1976. Enjoy your favourite pizza and drinks as you listen to some famous names of the Jazz world.

The Gourmet Pizza Company, Gabriel’s Wharf, SE1. Next to the River Thames on a converted wharf, this pizza place specialises in unusual toppings and little-known beers from around the world. You can eat inside or outside, so it’s a good spot even in the winter. A longer walk from where I lived, but combined with a stroll along the riverside, it’s worth it. And I always ordered the Englsh Breakfast Pizza, a full breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding) served on a thin and crispy pizza base. Yum!

Birthday Bounty

Even though it is something of a special birthday today, I didn’t want to receive a lot of ‘stuff’ as gifts. Stuff that a place has to be found for, and in a house with little remaining space. With that in mind, Julie’s main present to me is taking me out for two different birthday meals. One tonight, and again on Saturday. But she also bought me gifts, and all of them are useful.

A new windproof umbrella to replace the one I had been using for over 20 years.
A new PC keyboard to replace this one, because of some letters refusing to register and having to be re-typed.
A new wine glass engraved with the words, ‘Vintage 1952′.
New black socks with the same printed legend.
A straw hat for the summer to protect my head from insect bites.

In the post, I had already received a parcel from my cousin containing a nice hamper. Inside were special crunchy snacks, a Pâté to eat them with, and a lovely bottle of Merlot. My next door neighbour arrived an hour ago with a gift of a very smart ’70’ tea mug, and a card.

Now my cards are displayed on the window-sill, 12 in all. With no more post until tomorrow, I presume that is it for cards. But I am very happy with that, and grateful for all my gifts, and for the birthday wishes from the WordPress community.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday


I woke up thinking about food this morning. I wasn’t hungry, it was more by way of reminiscing about things I have eaten, in a reasonably long life.

As a child, I had no options. I ate whatever my Mum decided to give me, and with few exceptions I always enjoyed it. That involved basic food. Filling food like dumplings, stews, and suet pudding with jam for dessert. And cake. Lots of cake. In many ways, it was certainly a very unhealthy diet.

What vegetables we did have were usually cooked until they were almost a puree, and many were tinned to start with. Potatoes were generally roasted in beef fat, and some of the meals, like spam fritters, were deep-fried in the same.

It had to be very hot out before salad of any kind was served. Then it consisted of just cucumber, tomatoes, and lettuce leaves. It was often accompanied by hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, or tinned fish, like salmon. The only rice I ever saw was tinned, and in a sweet milk and cream sauce, usually baked and served as a filling dessert. Pasta was unknown to me until I was in my late teens, and no meal cooked at home ever contained garlic.

Like many women at the time, my Mum was also stuck in a cooking routine, with particular meals being served on the same days every week. So it was easy to anticipate what we would be eating on any given night. Eating out was rare, and a treat. Then it usually involved buying fish and chips, or meat pies and mash. When I was aged about thirteen, we went to a Chinese restaurant in Limehouse, and I had my first ever oriental meal. But even that was a ‘western’ version, with fried prawn balls, chow mien noodles, and sweet and sour pork.

This culinary tradition continued until I was old enough to make choices for myself, and had some money to spend on those choices too. My first hamburger and fries, in a local Wimpy Bar, and a frankfurter sausage in the same establishment. How exotic that all seemed to be back then. A taste of America, in a shopping street in Bermondsey. Once in my early twenties, and able to drive to different areas, I tried Indian food for the first time. Experimenting with curry that was so hot it made me ill, and finally getting the ‘dry’ rice that I had never tasted before. Unusual spices, huge Naan breads, and crispy accompaniments like samosas and bhajees.

I was soon on a roll. Italian restaurants in Soho; Osso Buco, Chicken Parmigiana, Tiramasu. Greek restaurants in north London, with endless choices of Mezze, Stifado, Pitta Bread, and salad with feta cheese. Authentic Chinese restaurants in Chinatown; crispy duck, steamed buns, tasty noodles, and spare ribs. It seemed like I was on a mission to try anything, and up for the challenge. Turkish restaurants with food very similar to Greek ones, and Spanish Tapas, when I had to ask the waitress to recommend her choices.

Then I got married, and started to travel abroad a lot. I had soon sampled caviar in the Soviet Union, and later feasted on smoked impala, in Kenya. I had eaten some amazing meals, and some pretty awful ones too. I declined to eat a deep-fried black scorpion offered to me in Beijing, though did struggle with a near-elastic duck’s foot, in the same city. Back home in London, the choice was constantly expanding, and I tried Ethiopian, Algerian, and Argentinian restaurants as they appeared. Moroccan food in London was even better than when I tried it in Morocco, and I eventually got around to trying Japanese food too. But uncooked fish was never going to be something I enjoyed, though I did like the cooked varieties on offer.

Now I am older, and can lay claim to have tried almost everything, (except insects) I sometimes miss the variety I once enjoyed.

But I can forget all that, by tucking into a nice full English breakfast.

London Life (3)

Part 3 of my old 2012 posts about London. More positive this time!


My previous two posts on this subject painted a less than attractive picture of living in London. They need to be balanced, to some degree, by this post about the positive side of London Life. After all, if it was that terrible, nobody would stay there, would they?

London has many parks, and most are well-known, even to outsiders. Perhaps the best two parks are the ones most used by locals, and less known to visitors to the centre. Primrose Hill, between Camden Town, and St. John’s Wood, offers one of the best views over London available from anywhere in the Capital. A short climb up the hill, which is surrounded by a small park, rewards the visitor with a marvellous vista, stretching across Central London to the river, and beyond. When it has been snowing, toboggans and sleds appear suddenly, and local children and adults alike, take advantage of…

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Trip Advisor

Do any of you ever write reviews on this site? Or perhaps you read them before choosing a hotel, destination, or restaurant? It has certainly become influential in recent years, but very often, some reviews have to be read ‘between the lines’. It is very easy for a disgruntled customer to try to destroy the reputation of a venue, eating establishment, or hotel. Just by ranting about one unhappy experience, they can have a detrimental effect on a business for years to come.

But if every customer writes a bad review, you can probably assume that there is something going on, and that the place is best avoided. On the other hand, unlimited glowing reviews of somewhere are to be treated with caution. They may have been put up by family and friends of that business, in the hope of raising its profile.

I have only added a few reviews on that site so far. As with any of my reviews, for products on Amazon, or films I have watched, I try to be as fair and non-judgmental as I can. Even if fifty others diners have bad-mouthed a restaurant, if I had a good experience on the night I ate there, I will say so. On the other hand, If I felt ripped-off, or badly treated, I will say that too, although one hundred others may well have been happy.

I have recently started to be contacted by Trip Advisor, asking me to review lots more places and establishments. It seems that I am receiving favourable feedback on some reviews, and they want me to add many more. They even sent me a short video, listing my ‘story so far’. Here’s a link to that.

So, if you have thought about adding your own review on this site, give it a go. It will help others make up their own minds, may save some people money or a wasted journey, and on a positive note, it will help those places that deserve to get more attention.

(I should add that I have no connection to this review site)

63 Candles

The sixteenth of March is always an important day in my calendar, as it is my birthday. Today I will be celebrating 63 of them, not a number that I am shouting about. To be honest, I might wish it was a much lower one. But there you go, Father Time cannot be cheated, no more than the ravages of a good but hard life can be erased.

Since the 1970s, it has been my habit to take a trip to the seaside on my birthday. The weather is often fine, but I go whether it is good or bad. When I was still working, I was always sure to take the day off as holiday, so I could pack as much in as possible. There have been memorable birthdays, in fascinating foreign lands, but even the most average ones were still great, at least as far as I was concerned.

For the first time that we can remember, Julie is unable to get the day off of work tomorrow. They have staff shortages, and are too busy to allow her to have a day’s holiday. This has left me feeling a little flat. Ollie will still be around of course, but he won’t appreciate the significance of the day. I could take him to one of the local coastal destinations, but then I would be restricted to just walking with him, and wouldn’t be able to go into anything. Besides, the weather forecast is not good, and I have to try to get someone in to sort out the broken central heating.

I will have to put my birthday on hold, until Julie gets home. Then I will open my presents, and we will go out somewhere for a celebratory meal. Even that is affected by ‘Norfolk Mondays’, where almost all the restaurants, and many pubs, choose to close on Mondays. I presume this is a bad day for business, but how will they ever know, if they don’t open? We could explore the more cosmopolitan delights of Norwich; the Big City, where most places are open. However, this is making a long day for Julie, who will have been at work, and then have to drive into the city, get parked, and return home much later than usual. We will probably go to a local hotel. As they have rooms and guests, they have to open.

This is all telling me to stop being so childishly enthusiastic about my birthday every year. History has a way of catching up with you, and life deals you bad cards now and then; like broken heating, and no holidays allowed. Even my traditional birthday list of suggested gifts was hard to compile. I just don’t need anything; and books, DVD films, and music CDs just add to the huge pile that already exists, jostling for the limited space in the office room.

Maybe at 63, I am finally growing up. Not too much though…

Holidays and Travel: Crete 1984 (Part Three)

Knossos was beckoning. This important site is considered to be the oldest city in Europe, and one of the best remaining examples of a Bronze Age settlement; we could hardly not go and see it. Just south of Heraklion, it was easy to find, not least because of all the traffic heading there. We had set off early, hoping to beat the rush. But the rush had set off early too. We queued to park in the car park, then once we had left the car, realised that we had to walk some way to the entrance. In heat approaching forty degrees, the sight of another long queue to get through the entrance booth was far from welcome. We paid our reasonable ticket price, and headed off into the large complex.

I would like to now tell you of the wonders of Minoan Civilization we saw there. Unfortunately, it all seemed more like a very crowded street market, populated with hordes of tourists from every corner of the planet. More coaches and tour parties arrived, until the place was crammed. Guides gave commentaries in a dozen different languages, all trying to make themselves heard over others doing something similar. What I managed to see was interesting enough, though mostly viewed across a sea of bobbing, hat-wearing heads. After an hour of this, we had both had enough, and agreed that it was not a good day for this trip. It may well be better organised now, but it also might be advisable to go outside of the main season for visitors.

I had looked on the map, and thought that there might be a more interesting route back from Knossos. Away from the main roads, I was sure that we would discover more about the island. I headed south, then east, towards Aghios Nikolaos. The roads soon deteriorated alarmingly, and also began to climb into some hills. Some consisted of little more than a series of sharp hairpin bends, and the tarmac had been replaced with a shingle covering. There was no room to pull of the road in an emergency, as on the left the drop became increasingly sheer. If anything larger than a small car had come the other way, we would have had no room to pass. We failed to discover any interesting sights, or pretty villages. The local people had wisely chosen not to inhabit this area, save for some remote farms, and the occasional religious building on some precarious outcrop. After an hour or more of this, things got quite bad. The road became so narrow, the bends so blind, that my wife actually got out, and walked ahead of the car. She was looking to make sure that the surface was wide enough to proceed; and it was, but only just.
Despite being seemingly lost, I was certain that we were at least heading in the right direction. I confess that I was very nervous, as at times I was driving inches away from the edge of a drop into the valley below. What seemed like an eternity was around ninety minutes, then the track stopped dead, at the junction with a tarmac road. I gave a huge sigh of relief and turned on to the small road, which seemed like a motorway after our recent experience. Ten minutes later, this connected with the main road, and I saw a sign that said right for Aghios Nikaloas, left for Heraklion. I was actually happy to be heading back to the small apartment.

The next morning, we wanted to go out again, but also to avoid the mountain-goat experience of our return journey from Knossos. I looked at the map, and a place that my friend had noted on there, Sitia Bay. This involved a drive through some hillside towns and villages, that we had seen in passing, when we had visited Vai Beach. Exploring these smaller places on the way was a delight. Not far from the main road, we found local villages and small towns (the names of which I cannot recall) where few tourists ventured. We stopped for an early lunch, parking close by a house that had tables and chairs outside, and a small advertising sign for beer. A friendly man emerged with menus. They were only in Greek, and he did not seem to understand any English. We ordered drinks easily enough, and he returned with a young woman, who spoke German. As my wife could speak German well, they managed to take an order for lunch, where we left it to the owner to give us what he recommended. There was a cool breeze up there in the hills, and it even managed to flutter the parasols over the table. What followed was the best meal we ate during our whole stay. A selection of starters was followed by a delicious lamb stew, accompanied by both salad and vegetables. After we had worked our way through this, he arrived with home-made sweet pastries and tiny cakes, accompanied by strong thick coffee. Our early lunch had run to over two hours, and when the bill came, I was sure that he had made a mistake. The young woman was summoned, so we could explain that it was too cheap. The patron laughed when he heard this, as he thought we were complaining that it was too much. The bill was for less than £6. Even back then, that was half of what it should have been, if not one third. We insisted on paying £12 in Drachmas, and they were so pleased, they walked us to our car, shaking hands on the way.

Sitia bay was a nice resort. I believe that it has been developed a great deal since, but we found it very pleasant, with a good beach that was a little stony and narrow, but went on a long way. There was a promenade area around the harbour in Sitia town itself, and we found a fairly isolated cove just outside of town. We spent the afternoon there relaxing, before driving back just as the sun was setting. We didn’t need another meal that night, so just adjourned to the taverna for drinks and a snack.

The next few days before our departure were spent doing little. I got an impressive tan from sitting around various beaches, and lying in the shallows. The mosquitoes continued to bite me, until I had more bites than I could be bothered to count; but the combination of salt water and ammonia pens made them just about bearable. We had to hand in the car the day before leaving for the airport. That left us stuck around the apartment, so we sat outside on the rocks for a while, got our stuff almost packed, and went off to the taverna in the early evening. A long meal followed, accompanied by drinking lots of Ouzo, followed by beers, and topped off with copious amounts of Metaxa brandy. As a result, I slept undisturbed for the first time since arriving.

I admit that I wasn’t sorry to bid farewell to Crete. The plumbing issues, constant insect bites, and relentless summer heat, had all combined to make this holiday a chore, rather than a pleasure. But we had seen a new place, enjoyed some unusual experiences, and eaten a lot of delicious food. I suppose that’s what a summer holiday is all about, when it comes down to it. Would I go back? No thanks.

Holidays and Travel: China 2000. Part One.

I had always wanted to see China. Ever since watching films as a child, and later reading about Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and others, it seemed a place of mystery, and home to a totally different idea of culture. Later interest in the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion in the 1930’s, and the Communist dictatorship formed by Mao, and I was more than ready to go and see this legendary country. But it never happened. Despite travelling to lots of other places, China had always seemed too daunting, too vast, and also too expensive. Over the years, I often wondered if I would ever get to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, and the other spectacles on offer.

In the late 1990’s, an old friend contacted me. He was working for an advertising agency, and he had been offered the management of the Audi contract, through an agency in Beijing. He was off to China, and he would be in touch, and let me know how it was there. His wife and son were going too, as it might be a long contract. After a period of settling in, and adjustment, he contacted me. At the time, I was single, and living in London. I had recently moved to a flat in Camden, subsidised by being in my job. (The LAS) I had a reasonable amount of savings, and a fair bit of disposable income, courtesy of that reasonable rent. I had two weeks holiday booked for September, and with a bit of shift-jiggling, I could manage a few days either side as well. The world was my oyster, and I was looking to do something extravagant. My friend suggested that I come to visit him in Beijing. He would put me up, in his luxury high rise in the city centre. Although he would have to work, his wife would be around most days, (and I knew her already) and he would arrange some weekend trips, as well as some interesting evenings out, after work. I made some enquiries, and found that I could fly direct, with British Airways, for around £700 return. With Visas, spending money, appropriate gifts for my friends, and a reasonable crop of souvenirs, I could definitely do fifteen days, for around £1500, maybe £2,000, at an excessive pinch. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and booked it all. I could never see a time in the future, when I would have such an opportunity again. OK, it was ‘only’ Beijing, but as that was my first choice anyway, so what was the problem?

I went to Oxford Street, and booked a scheduled flight with British Airways, which came in at a shade under £650, for the chosen dates. I also applied for my visa, to be collected from the Chinese Consulate, in Portland Place, a short walk from my flat. My friend was really happy that I was coming to visit. I went shopping in Camden, and bought his son a model car, and his wife some perfume. He would be content with booze, which I would get at the airport. I sorted my camera gear, ready for the photographic opportunity of a lifetime, and arranged all my leave, and finances. When the day came, I was more than ready. I took a cab to Paddington Station, and the Heathrow Express out to the airport. It was nice to be travelling on a scheduled flight again, so much more civilised than some of the package tours that I had become accustomed to. It was a little disconcerting to be travelling alone, though the prospect of being collected by, and staying with a good friend, assuaged any concerns. The flight was long and uneventful, but very comfortable. My arrival in Beijing was exciting, but the time of day meant that my friend had to drop me at his flat, and get off to work, arranging to meet four hours later, for lunch.

I learned the first rule. Do not sit behind the cab driver with your window open. Despite a humid temperature, in excess of 35 degrees, my old pal closed my window, and I soon discovered why. The Chinese spit. They do this constantly, and habitually. Everyone does it, from old men, children, housewives, to attractive young girls. All the time, day and night. Their culture demands spitting, to expel the things in their system that they believe are bad. They see nothing wrong with this, or with contaminating their walkways and paths with gobbets of spit. It is accepted, even encouraged. It is very different to what we regard to be acceptable behaviour, and it takes a great deal of getting used to. I also discovered something else that I had not expected. Six-lane highways, choked with cars, and wall to wall traffic. Tower block offices, western advertising signs, neon, and garish illuminations. Subway, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, and any other Western-influenced product or establishment you can think of. Every high street bank, familiar from the UK, and chain hotels from the same companies known so well here. I was left wondering what had happened to the China that I had imagined. I felt that I could have just as easily been in Chicago, or Hong Kong perhaps.

The flat, right in the heart of the business district, was luxurious. On the nineteenth floor, with panoramic views, tiled floors, and a well-staffed concierge entrance. I was taught my first words in Mandarin; ‘Neih Ho’, and ‘Shei Shei’, Hello, and thank you, both addressed to the immaculate staff in the foyer. I did not learn much more, save for something that sounded like ‘Jella Ting’, said to taxi drivers, when you wanted them to pull over on the right. After settling in, I met my friend in Subway, of all places, for lunch. I told him that I was disappointed, that Beijing was too modern, too western. He assured me that I would see the ‘real’ China during my stay. He also told me about his contract and salary, and the fact that his Chinese female ‘boss’ was only earning $200US dollars a month, and she spoke three languages. She also supported her family on this salary, as well as running a new car, so she wasn’t doing too bad. However, this was only a tiny percentage of what he was getting, over $200,000 a year! So some indication of how economics worked there at the time. It was nice to see his wife and young son again, and we spent the first night in the flat, catching up.

The next day, his wife took me to the shopping district, and to a large department store. We went everywhere by taxi, as it was very cheap, comparable to bus fares in the UK. I got cash from an ATM, a branch of my own bank in England, with the same pin number, and no formalities. I found the Yuan notes colourful, and the exchange rate was good. I bought cigarettes, at half the price compared to England, and we went for a light lunch, in a reasonable outdoor restaurant, that was acceptably cheap. Things that did prove to be expensive, were red wine, and some western sweets, that I bought for their son. We ate at home again that night, and I was introduced to someone from the Turkish Embassy (my friend’s wife is Turkish) who was a heavy drinker, and a complete hedonist. My head was spinning, as here I was in China, and I was eating Turkish food, and getting drunk with an Englishman, and a Turkish diplomat. I resolved to see more of the city, and decided that the next day would be spent exploring.

I started out early, and took the reasonable walk to Tianenmen Square. This was a long time after the televised demonstrations, and excessive reaction from the authorities, that have since given this place an infamous, rather than famous name. It is certainly huge, and home to many official buildings, heroic sculpture, and hundreds of tourists. I was a lone westerner that morning, and could feel what it was like, to be so out of place. Opposite the square, the huge portrait of Chairman Mao, so often seen on TV, marks the entrance into the Forbidden City, the main destination for me, that morning. Built in the fifteenth century, this vast complex, of almost 1,000 separate buildings, was the Imperial Palace of Chinese emperors until 1924, when the last emperor was forced to leave. It has since been a museum, and an amazing one too. To go into detail, would take a complete post in itself, but it is an overwhelming place, that cannot all be seen in one visit, let alone one day. The entrance fee was very reasonable, and the large numbers of tourists, almost all Chinese, really did make it feel as if you were wandering around in a populated city, at the time of the Ming Dynasty. The architecture is fully restored, and each level into the deeper depths of the city, towards where the Imperial family would have resided, is crammed with interesting statues and carvings, with the numerous buildings each housing exhibits. My camera was on overdrive, and I was so excited, I almost ignored the 35 degree heat, that was sapping my energy. I stopped and bought water, and a strange twisty bread confection from a vendor, and had a break. Carrying on later, I realised that I would never see it all, and even after almost five hours inside, I still felt that I had not done it justice.

On the way back, in the late afternoon, I noticed how many cycles, mopeds, and motorcycles were on the roads, and alongside them too. They all seemed to be heavily laden, often having to be pushed instead of ridden, so high and wide were the loads. Crowds of brightly-uniformed children were getting off buses and coaches, returning home from school, and street vendors were beginning to set up for the evening, in the streets around the main station. Crowds gathered around their stalls, which all seemed to be selling food. On closer examination, I realised that they were selling fried insects of some kind, grasshoppers, or similar. They were selling fast too, as hundreds of people walked around with the stiff paper cones, full of the crunchy creatures. And no, I was not tempted to try them. As I strolled back to my friend’s flat in the business district, I took in the sights and sounds of the approaching rush hour. Thousands of people,  and almost all of them, including children, and young women, spitting constantly. The traffic was already at fever pitch, and the strangely old-fashioned looking vans and trucks all belched black smoke into the sky. Looking across at the horizon, the pall of pollution was easy to see, hanging over the natural basin that Beijing is built in, like a cloud of low fog. I had to almost pinch myself. Here I was, wandering in Beijing, as if it was nothing. I could never have imagined this, thirty years earlier. I felt fantastic, but as I was alone, I had nobody to share it with. Perhaps the only downside to being a lone traveller, on that occasion.

That evening, we went to an expensive restaurant, housed on the penthouse floors of the same building my friend lived in. I was raving about my day, and how much I enjoyed this strange city. They were unhappy living there, they told me. They found the Chinese to be ‘difficult’, and were hoping for a transfer to somewhere else. They had not even bothered to visit the Forbidden City at that stage, though they did recommend a trip coming up that weekend, that they had arranged, along with a group of diplomats from the Turkish Embassy, and their families. I ate the best Chinese food that I had ever seen in that restaurant, though I confess to refusing a huge black scorpion, deep-fried, and offered as a complimentary starter. I just couldn’t do it. I had delicious braised eel, snake ‘cooked in its own blood’ (according to the translated menu), and various delicacies, best not elaborated on here. Other than the insects and arachnids, I did not refuse to try anything. We had numerous courses, and copious amounts of alcohol, and I went to bed thinking that it had been a great day indeed, one of the best ever.

The next morning, I took myself off to the famous street market, to buy souvenirs, and to get a feel of everyday life once again. I was a bit early, and many stalls and shops had not yet opened; but as soon as they saw me wandering around with a camera, and a presumably bulging wallet, they waved me in anyway. Disappointingly, most places specialised in clothes. Padded jackets, winter gloves and hats, ski wear, mittens, and waterproofs. This seemed strange in late summer, when I was sweltering, but this part of China does face harsh winters. I did buy a watch with Chairman Mao on it, his arms serving as hands. I still have it, but it no longer works, unfortunately. I had to haggle fiercely, even worse than in Egypt, or Istanbul. The start price was just laughable, hundreds of dollars. The whole transaction was carried out on a calculator, due to the language problems. After spending an eternity with this lady, I finally bought the watch for $10US, about £7 at the time. My friends later told me that I was too easy, and should have paid no more than £1, but it was acceptable to me. I took a taxi to Sanlitun, the embassy district popular with ex-pats, to have coffee and lunch. Taxis were all metered, and no attempt was ever made to rip me off. If you gave the driver a tip, he would be very appreciative. Sometimes I could see them cruising the area, hoping to get me as a return fare, waving at me as they went past.

I had not even been there a week, and felt that I had seen and done so much. The rest of the trip will be covered in part two, otherwise this post will be far too long.

Holidays and Travel: Rome 2002

I had never been to Italy. Despite a lifelong interest in all things Roman, as well as a passing regard for Marco Polo, Garibaldi’s Redshirts, and a fascination with the nefarious exploits of Brigate Rosse during the 1970’s, I had never set foot on the land that also produced the wines I loved so much; Barolo, Barbera D’Asti, and Chianti.

Julie was well aware of my love of Roman History, and my somewhat morbid obsession with the arenas, and the gladiatorial combats fought within them. With my fiftieth birthday coming up, in March 2002, she arranged a ‘short break’ holiday to Rome, as her gift to me. It remains one of the best gifts that I have ever received, and this is the tale of our trip to the Eternal City.

Even the chosen hotel was to be a delight. The Art Deco Hotel, close to the Central Station, so also close to many of the best sights to be seen. Small and friendly, liberally scattered with Art Deco features, both old and new, with a buffet breakfast, served in the bar. We needed no more, as the short trip was all about getting out, and seeing the place, not relaxing in the hotel. The weather was delightful, considering the time of year. Warm and sunny, with pleasant evenings for strolling too. We had a good guide book, and had done some research before leaving England. Having been fortunate enough to have visited many places before this, I was prepared for the possibility that it would not be all that I had so eagerly anticipated. I was more than pleasantly surprised, when it turned out to be in excess of all expectations, and became one of the best places I had ever seen, and one of the highlights of my life, up to that point.

The first destination had to be The Colosseum. I had seen representations of it in so many films, as well as the real thing on travel shows, and films like ‘Roman Holiday’. I had read so many books about it, I felt I already knew the place inside out, and I couldn’t wait to actually stand inside it. Walking there from the hotel, I could feel my pace quickening as we got nearer, finally reaching a spot where we could see it from an elevated position, across the road. The feeling that swept over me was one of awe. In an age where the word ‘awesome’ has become almost meaningless, this place took me back to the real meaning of the word. How it must have looked to a simple Roman, when it could still take my breath away, over 1900 years since it opened. Once inside, I was like a delighted child, almost scampering over and around the parts still accessible to visitors. I took countless photos, and could barely contain myself. Simply one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I could have spent all four days there. Even typing this now, I can recall that feeling, of seeing something so much a part of history, so well-known, yet still mysterious. I could imagine those toiling in the warren of tunnels and rooms beneath the floor, preparing animals for combat, or dragging the dead from the sand. This was a culture and a time almost incomprehensible to us, yet it laid the foundations of modern Europe.

Until I was actually standing there, I had been unaware how close the Forum was to the Colosseum. The whole area we know so well from films and books, is actually all interwoven, and leads off of a long avenue, that must have appeared truly magnificent, in the heyday of the empire. It is hard to make progress, constantly turning to gaze, and marvel at, the remains of buildings and statues once passed by Trajan, Caligula, Nero, and all those other historical figures. I could hardly take it all in, this veritable feast for the eyes. Not far off, the remains of the Emperor’s Palace, and the grassy outline of the once magnificent Circus Maximus. What a morning, a time to treasure, and to look back on always. Almost by accident, we discovered Trajan’s Column, as we stopped for a coffee, during an unexpected shower. This has been restored, and the carved reliefs, celebrating the victories in Dacia (Romania), are a sight to see; so clear, and easy to interpret.

The next day, we decided to get a tour bus, one that stopped off and picked up, so we could choose to go a little further afield, and have a look at The Vatican, on the other side of the River Tiber. On the way to the bus,we noticed a small cemetery, behind some vendors’ stands. Inside and outside this unprepossessing building, were the gravestones of soldiers and gladiators, some dating from dates B.C. They were lined up along the walls, some with translations of the inscriptions. This small diversion was in some ways, one of the most impressive parts of the whole trip, and I found this small area incredibly moving. The bus took us off to St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, both sites we considered essential to visit, during the short stay. I was unprepared for the sheer size of St Peter’s. It is simply enormous. I had expected something like St Paul’s, in London, but I believe that you could fit that cathedral inside the one in Rome, with plenty of room to spare. This high temple of Catholicism is so much larger than it seems on TV, or in pictures, little wonder it staggered the 16th century mind. Inside, the wonders continue, including statues as big as houses, carved from marble, and the overall effect of the place is to leave you slack-jawed and speechless. I actually became quite uncomfortable, at the contrast with this display of wealth and majesty, against the poverty in so many places where Catholicism is the main religion and power.

We later joined a long queue to enter the Sistine Chapel, part of the official residence of The Pope, The Apostolic Palace. This long line snaked a circuitous route around the building, passing many beggars, mostly elderly women, who lay in the street, as hundreds of clergymen and nuns passed by, oblivious to their presence. The crowds inside the chapel are significant, and it is not a place for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. The paintings on the ceiling are, once again, so much more powerful that you could ever imagine, from seeing them anywhere else. The sheer scale, and the vibrant colours, it is almost too much splendour. You also have to keep moving, so there is no time to linger on any particular feature. Despite the short time allowed, and the uncomfortable crush that has to be endured, I am very glad to have seen this. We later took in the Spanish Steps, eating in a marvellous restaurant near there that same evening. I threw coins into the Trvei Fountain, and managed to get a photo of Julie doing the same, with all three coins still in the air.

Rome is a place that has almost too much to see. The imposing Castel Sant Angelo, and the modern monument to King Victoria Emmanuel ll, The Arch of Constantine, The Pantheon, in Greek style, and the incredible Santa Maria Maggiore, the list just goes on and on. Outside of the tourist trail, we did not really encounter much of Italian life, as time was too short. We did eat some marvellous meals, in some of the most atmospheric restaurants I have ever visited. My fiftieth birthday was celebrated in the elegant Grappollo D’oro restaurant, near our hotel, and it was excellent. Julie almost destroyed her poor feet, as walking in the heat gave her terrible blisters, but she never complained. There was a lot we never got to see, as time and distance made it impossible. The famous catacombs, much of the other side of the river, the artistic district, and many other sights outside the limits of the city, all had to be neglected. In the short time available, we had a marvellous trip, and almost twelve years later, it feels as if I was there yesterday.

I don’t know if I will ever go back, but I doubt it. I do urge you to see it though, if you have never been. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed, by this most magnificent of cities.