Re-Post: Honeymoon In Marrakesh (Part 2)

This is the second part of a re-post, in 1595 words.

The next day, we went to look at the Koutoubia, and the gardens that surround it. Due to the celebration of Ramadan, the whole area was full of sleeping worshippers, resting during their time of fasting, and awaiting the call to prayer. We did not go into the Mosque, but walked around the gardens, which were dry in the heat.

We then went to explore the extensive market, set around the main square. This is a maze of tiny stalls and shops, most of which are selling the same things; souvenirs of Morocco, and different types of clothing. There were also spice and juice stalls, and a range of fruit sellers as well. The dreaded mopeds were much in evidence, buzzing in and out of the passages between the shops, occasionally bumping you, as they tried to wriggle past.

It was all much as you might imagine. Exotic at first, but with endless haggling, and shop owners pestering, until you soon tired of it all. We retreated to the oasis of our hotel, to relax by the pool with a cold drink.

The following morning, we took an open top bus tour, supposedly the best way to see the sights in and around the city, with some stops further afield in what was essentially a palm-tree desert. This was actually very amusing. There were so few tourists, the bus was presumably running at a loss. As a result, there was no guide commentary, and the headphone commentary advertised on the side was also notable by its absence.

The young lady supposed to be guiding spent the whole time downstairs talking to the driver. We were left to work out for ourselves what we were seeing, with the aid of a map in the tour brochure. We did make the most of the hop-on-hop-off facility though, so managed to see a fair bit of the area, including the famous Marjorelle Gardens and a stunning view of the Atlas Mountains surrounding the city.

Elementor #19753

The bus returned when it was supposed to at least, so we were thankful for that. The older parts of the city within the walls of the medieval Medina were a real delight, and exactly what we had hoped to see. With the lack of tourists, life was going on much as normal, so we were able to see the place as it should be seen, and not just as one giant gift shop.

The hotel staff had recommended two places to visit in the evening, as an alternative to eating in the hotel. One was a swish-looking courtyard restaurant, some distance away in the ‘new city’. This restaurant also featured in our small guide book, and was advertised in a ‘Marrakesh’ magazine we obtained. The other was an evening of folklore and entertainment at an all-inclusive price, with collection and return to the hotel included. We reserved both, though we had serious doubts about the evening of folklore, at a place called ‘Chez Ali’. The staff were insistent that it was a great evening, with unlimited food and drink, and lots to see and do. I imagined a large restaurant, with dancers and musicians.

We went to the nice small restaurant first, having negotiated a return taxi fee with a Mercedes driver who constantly parked outside the hotel, and who was recommended by the staff. (Undoubtedly on a commission) The place did not let us down. After a high-speed journey across most of the city, the taxi dropped us off, arranging to collect us later. He said the staff would call him on a mobile when we were ready.

The restaurant was excellent. We had drinks in the courtyard before going in for our meal, the interior set off by an indoor pool, and beautiful lighting. With superb service, and first-rate food, it was the ideal romantic evening for a honeymoon night out. The higher prices there were about the same as they would have been in London, as was the taxi fare. We got back to the hotel in time for a late drink around the pool, and reflected on a marvellous night out.

Two nights later, we were collected by minibus, to be taken to Chez Ali. We were the only passengers, and discovered that the driver would also serve as a guide, wait for us during the evening, and collect us after the entertainment. Another long drive began, this time into the desert away from all built-up areas. After some time, we asked the driver how much longer it would be, and were surprised to hear that it was still at least fifteen minutes away. We soon spotted what could only be our destination, lit by rows of coloured lights, a good five minutes before we arrived. The size of a small town, Chez Ali was actually a huge complex, surrounded by old walls, and entered by a long driveway.

As we got to the car park, our hearts sank as we saw dozens of coaches and umpteen minibuses, all jostling for space to drop off hundreds of people. It was like going to a football match, to have dinner. The driver told us not to worry, that it would be very nice, and that he would guarantee that we got a very good place. He was obviously in the know, as he was soon chatting to the door staff, and whisking us along -via a ‘photo opportunity’- to our tent where we would be served the meal. What followed, was a far from pleasurable experience, only saved by our sense of humour.

Inside the place, there were dozens of tents, all lined up along something resembling a ‘main street’. There were literally hundreds of harassed staff, suitably dressed in various versions of traditional clothing. Musicians played to welcome us, and our guide took us into a well-lit tent, the size of a circus big top. The first problem was that we were not part of a group. It appeared that it was very rare for couples to book this trip, and all the other tourists, from every country in the world seemingly, were in large groups of twenty or more. As the only couple, we were taken to a table at the head of the tent, and seated separately from the others.

Everyone looked at us, with that look that is a cross between ‘are they celebrities?’, and ‘who do they think they are?’. The food and drink arrived. It was an enormous bowl, containing meat that we thought might be chicken, vegetables roasted to extinction, and piles of rice and potatoes. It was pretty repulsive, and we felt the need to record it on video. We had to eat some at least, and some bread, as we had saved our appetite all day for the anticipated feast. The fruit, brought as a dessert, looked like what was left after the market had closed, and packed away for the night.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the entertainment began. Groups of musicians, dancers, and singers, did the rounds of all the tents, repeating their party piece for each one in turn. By the time it got to us, we had already heard it from the tent next door. It was also all so loud, it was impossible to hear yourself think. This was not a terribly expensive excursion, so it may sound churlish to complain. It was just that it had been built up to us as something very different, so we were disappointed. But at least we were laughing!

After the food was cleared away, we followed the crowds towards a large open area, with tiered seating. It was completely dark by now, so the dramatic son-et-lumiere that followed was surprisingly effective. There were various tableaux of historical re-enactments and parades, culminating in a display by riders dressed as Berber tribesmen, firing guns as they rode their ponies around the arena at breakneck speed. It might have been worth the trip, just to see the historical events in the arena. Might have been, but not really. We were pleased to be making our way back to the hotel soon after, happy to put the whole evening down to experience. One we would not be repeating. Here is a link, if it sounds like something you might enjoy.
http://www.moroccotriptravel.com/activity-fantasia-dinner-show-moroccan-folklore-chez-ali.html

The last couple of days in Marrakesh were spent peacefully relaxing around the hotel, which had returned to its former state of calm after the weekend invasion by the trippers from Europe. That had not turned out to be at all bad, as there were still not enough guests to make the hotel feel crowded.

The evening before we were due to leave, we went to the market to engage the services of a horse and carriage for a gentle tour of the old city. We had been advised to haggle, but I took just one banknote, worth slightly less than £18, and said to the driver (in French) “This is all we have left, we go home to England tomorrow.” He accepted this tactic, and we set off for almost an hour of gentle driving around the area. This was definitely the way to see the place in comfort, and far better than the bus, or walking. It was also the perfect romantic ending to a memorable honeymoon.

I have no connection with the hotel where we stayed, but I will add this link to their website, so you can see for yourselves just how nice it is. If you are ever considering a trip to Marrakesh, it is one to put on your list.

http://www.lesjardinsdelakoutoubia.com/fr/hotel-luxe-marrakech

Re-Post: Honeymoon In Marrakesh (Part 1)

I am reposting this from 2013, as not many of you have seen it. I Have divided the original very long post into two parts. This part is 1480 words. The second part will be posted tomorrow. There are no accompanying photos, as I was still using a film camera at the time.

I got married for the third (and last) time, in September 2009. We had a fairly traditional wedding, though in a hotel, rather than a church. It was a lovely day, and I will always have great memories of it. We decided to go on honeymoon to somewhere that neither of us had been to before. We had to consider the cost, as the wedding had used up some of the budget We thought that a week was long enough, so we could not go too far afield.

Places for consideration that would be new to both of us included Mexico, Cuba, Hong Kong, South Africa, and The Caribbean. These were rapidly ruled out, due to either the long flights involved, or the weather conditions in mid-September. North Africa looked promising, but I had been to Tunisia and Egypt before, which left Morocco as a good option. We had a choice of beach, probably Agadir, or inland, with Marrakesh as the most attractive prospect.

After some perusal on the Internet, and a flick through some brochures, we paid a visit to a large travel agent in Oxford Street, in London. As luck would have it, the agent had just returned from a junket in Marrakesh, and unhesitatingly recommended a hotel in the heart of the city. We looked at her suggestion online, and it really looked the part. It is called Les Jardins de la Koutoubia, as it is directly opposite the famous Koutoubia Mosque. The courtyard location, outdoor pool, and cool-looking terraces inside, all exuded Moorish style and architecture at its most desirable.

We decided to book independently, and get our own flights as well. Unfortunately, we were sorry to learn that Easyjet was the only airline with direct flights to Marrakesh. Other airlines go there, but they do so via other places first, putting hours on the journey. Undaunted, we booked with them, and arranged car parking at Gatwick. Holiday booked, we were suitably excited, and got on with the wedding plans. The hotel had been easy to arrange, and they even offered to collect us from the airport.

On the day, we found that it was not as bad as we had expected travelling with Easyjet, though we did make certain to comply with their notoriously draconian baggage regulations. On arrival at Marrakesh, we were pleased to see the promised good weather in evidence, and we were collected without fuss, for transfer to the hotel. We knew beforehand that Ramadan would be beginning when we arrived, and had expected this might cause some problems with cafes and restaurants being open, and possible restriction of service in the hotel. This was not the case at all, as the touristic nature of the place means that only the locals have to endure the privations of this religious season.

Arriving at the hotel, we could have been forgiven for being disappointed. The small driveway leading to the entrance was full of cars, and some very run-down looking workshops. The few shops looked to be stacked with unappealing goods, and a long wall running along the right side, gave no indication of the city beyond it.

Once through the unprepossessing entrance, all fears melted. It was simply wonderful. The reception was cool and shaded, and was home to one of the largest vases of red roses that I have ever seen. The cloistered courtyard, with the serene pool surrounded by sunbeds and relaxing leather chairs, was an early indication of the service and luxury to come. When we were shown to our room, we were not unhappy either. Everything we could have wanted was there. From a huge bed, to lovely Moroccan decor and fittings, as well as a TV if we desired to catch up on the news, and a balcony looking directly over to the Mosque that gave the place its name.

Also in view were the small but well-tended hotel gardens, and the half-size second pool. The hotel had an extensive underground spa facility housing its third pool, which was surrounded by dozens of candles, as well as lovely mood lighting, all providing a relaxing semi-darkness.

As we had opted for bed and breakfast only, we looked into the choice of the hotel’s three restaurants for our meal that evening. We had a choice of eating outside or in, and for the first evening, we chose the local food, stopping off first in the delightful old-fashioned bar, for a pre-dinner drink. The speciality of the house, the Koutoubia Cocktail, was the first on our list, and delicious it was too. The staff were all exceptionally friendly, and we learned that there would be few other guests until the weekend, when French and Spanish visitors arrived for just two days. The whole hotel felt half-empty, and in a good way, as we almost had it to ourselves; the perfect honeymoon location.

The meal was excellent, and I thought that we should explore after dinner. Leaving the hotel, I decided that the landmark of the Mosque would serve as a beacon, so we could not get lost. I thought that we should turn right, to look for the famous ‘Night Market’ in Djeema El Fna, the main square, which is also the main attraction of Marrakesh.

As someone who normally has a good sense of direction, I let myself down that evening.

Turning right, we entered what can only be described as the ‘Kwik-Fit’ district of the city. Every shop front seemed to be involved in the roadside repair and servicing of some of the thousands of mopeds that buzzed around the place. The pavements were clogged with vehicles, tyres, spare parts, and busy mechanics. The locals gave us quizzical looks, and it was impossible to make progress on the pavements, forcing us into the very dangerous roads.

Traffic is something not mentioned in the tourist guides. If you are considering a visit, then give traffic some serious thought. Crossing a road is almost impossible, and potentially suicidal; add to that the mopeds, and there are seemingly unlimited numbers of them, all appearing to try to run you down. They drive at you along the road, along the pavement, down alleys, across squares, even inside shops. In fact, anywhere you happen to be, or want to go, you will have to contend with moped riders whose one rule seems to be, ‘take no prisoners’.

After some time moped-dodging, we had still not come across the market. I carried on further, into the heart of the old town, passing tiny Mosques, bijou hammams, women-only bath-houses, and some Medresas. (Koran schools) It was a fascinating glimpse of real local life, but time was getting on, and we had still not found the market. We were hot and tired, and Julie was uneasy, as low rooftops and canopies now hid the Koutoubia Mosque from view, losing me my point of reference.

We were saved from further embarrassment by the arrival of a small group of street urchins. Probably no older than nine or ten, they latched onto us, and one of them said the magic words, ‘Night Market?’ I said yes, and they indicated that they would show us the way, by following them at the fast pace of a fit young child. It felt like a route march, and took some considerable time. There was always the possibility that they were leading us along some back alley, in the hope of robbing us, but I was not unduly concerned, as they seemed friendly, and the place did not feel remotely threatening.

After what seemed like an hour, but was probably twenty minutes, I saw the reassuring shape of the Koutoubai Mosque ahead, and moments later, they led us into the Night Market. Just to our left, perhaps ten feet away, behind that large wall, was our hotel! We had been within throwing distance of the square as we had gone out, and I had turned right instead of left! They asked for a reward, but as I had only large denomination notes, I gave them some small change, about 30p.

This was considered an insult, and they asked for cigarettes as well. Luckily, I had a packet spare, and handed them over gratefully. (This leads me on to something else about Morocco. It is a place for smokers. Smoking is allowed everywhere, in hotels, bars, and cafes. Some have non-smoking areas, but none were smoke free, at least in 2009. For a smoker, it is a paradise.) The Night Market was impressive, but we were too tired to enjoy it then, and resolved to return the next evening. This visit would be a lot easier, as it was only yards from the hotel, after all…

Re-Post: A Trip To China (Part Two)

This is a re-post of the second part of my visit to China in 2000.It is a long post, at 2,900 words.

By the end of the first week, I had more unusual experiences to recount. I had been for a meal in a Turkish restaurant, in China! It was different, to say the least, being served traditional Turkish fare, by Chinese waiters and waitresses. They even had the large Shisha pipes available, as well as totally authentic coffee. If it had not been for the staff, and the view from the window, we might well have been in Ankara. We had also been out with the previously mentioned hedonist, the Turkish friend, businessman, and ‘diplomat’. I got the feeling that he was a shady character, underneath his urbane, party-going exterior. If Turkey has the equivalent of the CIA, I would bet my car he was in it.

We went to his large house for drinks, before going out to eat. He had a ‘houseboy’, and other servants, and I was amazed at his ability to drink huge amounts of whisky without any apparent affect on his demeanour. He then took the whole group of us to a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, in a very smart area of the city. This was a really exclusive place, and served delicious food cooked in front of you, on sizzling griddles. I ate until I burst, as everything was so tasty. At the end of the night, this unusual man covered the whole bill, for everyone. When we left, he invited us to accompany him to a bar the following week, and my friend accepted on our behalf.

The weekend excursion was arranged through the Turkish Embassy, a family trip by small coach, to last all day Sunday, and including lunch. We left the apartment early, to get to the embassy by taxi for 8am. There was a group of around ten people there already, and I was introduced all round, instantly forgetting everyone’s name. I was also told the name of the place we were going to; a park in the hills, with amusements for the children, scenic views and country walks, and a hilltop restaurant. They had been before, as it was a popular summer day out for the more affluent Chinese, as well as foreign residents. I had forgotten the name of it, so looked it up; Muianyu. This is now called The Great Wall Slide, as on the way down, you can see a section of the Wall, at some distance. It was not called this when I went there, at least I don’t remember that.

This place is about fifty miles outside Beijing, so we got to see some countryside at last. On arrival, we went up the hillside on a cable car, that was a bit like a ski lift. The restaurant at the top was basic, but we had a lunch booked, and enjoyed a set meal in excellent weather. The small rides and amusements were very old-fashioned, and only for smaller children. I don’t think that they are there anymore. We walked around a bit, but did not get close enough to the Wall, as we had not arranged to go to this section. For our group, the attraction (apparently) was the ride back down the hillside, on the famous slide.

This is more like a toboggan run, the sort you see in the Olympics, though more sedate. That said, it does reach a fair speed at times, and the individual toboggans are supplied with a large brake lever, to slow you down. I was encumbered with an enormous, overstuffed camera bag, that I had to wedge in between my legs. I cannot recall seeing any of the Wall at any time on the way down, as I was preoccupied with not crashing into the rider in front. I did enjoy it, but this was marred to some degree by getting covered in thick grease from the brake gears. As this sounds a little crazy, I have included a video clip from You Tube, showing what it is like. It takes over five minutes to descend, and it seems a long time, as you are clattering down.

The next week started with a suggestion that I ought to arrange some trips for myself, as my friends were busy for a couple of days. I went over to one of the big hotels, and asked about a trip to the Great Wall at Badaling, and the Ming Tombs combined. I was assured that it would be a small group, only ten people, and we would have an English-speaking guide. It would last all day, from 7am, and lunch would be provided, with an afternoon stop for refreshments too. At less than $30US, I thought it was OK, so booked up for the following day. I had an early start, and met my group outside the hotel. I was the only English person, along with two Japanese, three French people, and four Chinese tourists, from other parts of China.

The minibus headed out of the city for the long trip ahead, and I got to see more of the China I had anticipated. Small villages, roadside shops and stalls, and a look at the agricultural lands outside the built-up areas. It was very hot, and I started to feel a little unwell. The rich food, heavy drinking, and constantly being on the move, was getting to me a bit. By the time we arrived at the Ming Tombs, I was not feeling too good. I told the guide to go in without me, and waited in the shade, with a cold drink from the cafeteria there. I was sorry to miss it, after coming all this way, but I had nobody to support me, and felt that I might pass out, or disgrace myself by being sick. I had to content myself with a wander around the edges, and some of the sights there. It proved to be a wise move, as by the time they got back, I was re-hydrated, and feeling much better.

We pushed on to The Great Wall, and it was worth the effort. This was a section that I had not seen on TV travel shows, and consisted of small forts, or bastions, connected by long stretches of the Wall. I was unprepared for both the sheer scale of it, and also the incredible steepness of the stepped sections. After being shown around some of the first parts, we went for lunch in a lovely old building, with an airy terrace where we could get some relief from the 38 degree heat and humidity. The guide then told us that we had two hours to explore, before leaving on the journey home.

I suffered badly, mainly from taking too much camera kit. My large Billingham bag was stuffed to capacity. I had three camera bodies, five lenses, a flash, two power winders, as well as an assortment of accessories, filters, and ten rolls of film. In the heat, on the near vertical steps, it became very difficult to manage. Ironically, I shot almost every picture with a Canon T90, on a 24mm wide-angle lens. I could just as well have left everything else behind, and I was taught a valuable lesson that day. The Wall was a sight to behold. It stretched as far as the eye could see. At one stage, I put a 400mm telephoto on the camera, with a x2 converter, just to see how far it went. I needn’t have bothered, as I later realised that it followed the contours of the hills and mountains for hundreds of miles of course.

I had to keep resting, because of the heat, and also from searching for photo opportunities that didn’t show too many other tourists, which was difficult. When it was time to leave, I was very pleased that I had seen it, as there could be nothing like this anywhere else on the planet. The afternoon stop was at a cafe that was part of a shopping ‘opportunity’, somewhere that sold expensive Jade souvenirs, and other carved items. I didn’t buy anything, but presumed that the guide must be on commission, as he tried so hard to get us to purchase things.

The rest of the evening at the flat was very peaceful, with a visit from another Turkish diplomat who came for dinner. After he left, we spent some of the time on the small balcony, getting the cooler air, and drinking Jack Daniels, chatting about the old days in London. When I went to bed, I put on the noisy but welcome air-conditioning unit, and slept like a baby.

I decided to stay in the city for my next trip, which was to be to the Temple of Heaven. Situated in a large park in the Chongwen district, this was about as far from my friend’s place as you could get, so I decided to take a taxi. I showed the driver a picture of the temple, from a tour leaflet, and he took me straight to the entrance. I bought a ticket to go in, and looked at a map on a board there. I suddenly realised that the place was vast, and actually covers an area larger than the Forbidden City. There are various temples, including the iconic building seen in so many photos of Beijing. The grounds are full of the most amazing trees, and it is all very peaceful there, despite a considerable number of tourists. I spent a couple of hours there, taking in the most impressive sights. I could easily have stayed the whole day, as there was so much to see.

Opposite the gate was a modern indoor market, full of local people shopping. I crossed the road, and went inside, finally coming face to face with real life in China. There were no tourists or foreigners there, and no prices or signs in other languages. The sights, sounds and smells were wonderful, and I saw everything for sale, from strange live amphibians (for eating), to jewellery. I bought a small piece of jade jewellery as a gift, once again bargaining with the help of an electronic calculator.

Leaving the market by a different entrance, I resolved to walk back, at least to see how far I got. I had travelled from east to south-west in the city, so I reasoned that a right turn would do to start with. I was soon wandering inside the fascinating Hutong district. This quarter had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The Hutongs were small dwellings, with outside taps, shared toilets, and no bathrooms. The families lived in one or two rooms, in a communal fashion. Were it not for the modern clothes, I felt that I could have been wandering around in the seventeenth century. People looked at me suspiciously, unused to tourists.

Before the Olympics, eight years later, the government demolished many of these dwellings, and forcibly re-housed the occupants. They did not want the outside world to think that people still lived that way, in modern China. Some remain, and are now a tourist attraction. I walked around a large area, as I was no longer carrying all my camera gear, having restricted myself to one camera, and one lens for the day. I did get a bit lost, but in a good way, as I later found myself out on the main thoroughfare again, approaching Tianenmen Square from the west. It was more by luck than judgement though, I am sure. By the time I arrived back, I had been walking all day, including the trip home from the park, which took just under three hours. I was pleased with myself though, as I had got off the tourist trail and managed to find my way around, unable to ask for help from anyone.

Other trips that week included the TV tower, a very high building affording great views over the whole city, and a trip to a different market, a special souvenir market, run by local people selling lots of interesting memorabilia from the Maoist era. I did buy a fair bit of stuff, including a classic ‘Mao’ hat, a ‘little red book’ in Chinese, and a nice assortment of posters and painted ceramics. I had to leave it at that, as I needed to cram all this extra stuff into my suitcase.

We then went out for the evening trip with the Turkish diplomat, arranged the previous week. It was just the three men, and we started off once again with drinks at his house. He then took us to the Sanlitun district, where I had been during the day. At night it was very different, with flashy bars and night clubs, all catering to well-off foreigners, and the more affluent Chinese. He was well-known everywhere, and relished his popularity. This was soon evident, when he was draped in a couple of Mongolian prostitutes, within minutes of arrival. I declined the offers of some of their friends. I wasn’t being prudish, I just found them unattractive; their gaudy make-up, and incredibly flat faces didn’t ring my bell. They did seem very popular with most of the men there though, and I was told that they were ‘incredibly good value’.

My friend and I spent most of the evening buying pirate DVD films from vendors who came into the bars. They had every film imaginable, and at $1US each, I couldn’t resist. Most of them played well when I got them back to London, though the three rows of subtitles, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, did get wearing, after a while. We eventually left the mysterious Turk alone with his girls, and got a taxi home. I didn’t see him again, and I wasn’t sorry. Despite his generosity, I felt uneasy around him.

Before departing for home, my friend’s Chinese boss insisted on taking us out for dinner. She viewed me as a kind of visiting dignitary, and despite telling her that I was only a Paramedic in London, in a very normal job, she seemed to imagine I was some sort of government executive. Anyway, her sense of hospitality would not allow her to let my visit go uncelebrated. She took us to the famous duck restaurant, Quanjude. Arranged over seven floors, and able to seat 2,000 diners at a time, this is one of the most famous restaurants in China. With the menu in Chinese, she ordered for all of us, telling me that we would have numerous courses, which would all be different styles of duck. It was a veritable duck feast.

We had it roasted, boiled, in a terrine, a soup, and fried with noodles and ginger. There were also the shredded duck pancakes, as well as duck livers, and other offal. I managed it all, and found it delicious, with the exception of duck feet. These were served as you might imagine, webbed and clawed, as if they had just been severed from the unfortunate bird, and fried. They were almost impossible to eat, with a texture like rubber bands. The Chinese diners actually ripped them apart with their teeth, but I had no appetite for these, and after sucking them politely for a while, left them on my plate. It was a very enjoyable evening though, and a great experience.

After paying the entire bill, the lady mentioned that she would be in London early the following year, and that I could return the favour.

(I am pleased to report here, that I did just that. I collected her from her Knightsbridge hotel, and took her to a specialist English Food restaurant in Bayswater. One very strange evening, I can tell you. She asked me what was good, and I recommended a few dishes, so she ordered them all. Unaware of the starter/main course tradition, she expected to get a variety of small dishes. I didn’t have the heart to correct her, and she must have wondered what was going on, when it all arrived at once. She did manage to eat most of it though, so full marks to her. I spoke to her that evening about how we found eating small dogs distasteful, as they were so loyal, and we had them as pets. She thought about this for a while and then said, ‘But you eat baby sheep’, before forking in her next mouthful. Back in Beijing, she told my friend that she had really enjoyed the evening, and that she found me interesting company.)

My trip came to a close, with a taxi to the airport, where I had to wait in the ‘luxury lounge’ reserved for foreigners. This was the only place where smoking was allowed, and all drinks and snacks were sold at an extortionate price. A very small coffee was $5US, and it went up from there. It was their last chance to get your currency, I suppose. I had really enjoyed the trip, though it was more of an experience, than a holiday. I had met some nice people, some strange people, and eaten some fantastic meals, the like of which I have never seen since.

I am the first to admit that I did not see a great deal of this vast country, or a lot of the ‘real’ China that I had expected to encounter. But I was glad that I had gone, and even looking back today, I would do it all again.

A Lockdown Saturday In Beetley

Next Monday, the lockdown restrictions in England will begin to be eased.

All school pupils will return, depite some opposition from the teaching unions. One relative will now be allowed to visit the elderly who live in Care Homes, though they must wear full PPE, and be the only ‘nominated’ visitor.

On the 29th, outdoor gathering will be allowed, with the previous limit on numbers (six) applying, and outdoor sports such as Golf and Tennis will once again be permitted.

In late April, hospitality venues such as pubs will be allowed limited opening, restricted to outside service only. Not good news for businesses that have no outside space of course.

A full return to ‘new normal’ is estimated to happen by midsummer, but that might change if infection rates go up again.

Here in Beetley, Julie had her second Pfizer vaccination last night, and my second dose of Astra-Zeneca is due in May. We will continue to wear masks where appropriate or complusory, and keep any social mixing to the minimum.

Some people are rushing to book foreign holidays, in the hope that full international travel will be allowed again. I still think this is very risky, but it is up to those people of course. Let’s just hope that they don’t bring back new strains of the virus, and start it all up again. Just for the sake of two weeks on a beach in Spain or Greece.

For us, including Ollie, it will be a week on the Lincolnshire coast, 90 miles north. It is not until September, by which time travel in England should be permitted.

If all goes to plan, this will hopefully be my last lockdown report from Beetley.

Fingers crossed.

Things I Have Never Done

Watching some tiny children swimming in the river near Ollie last week, a lady sitting on one of the benches said to me, “Don’t you wish it was deep enough for us to swim in?” I had to admit to her that I had never learned to swim. She raised her eyebrows. “Never?” I could have pointed out that had I learned to swim at any time and then stopped, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘never’. But I went on my way with a smile.

That got me thinking about things I have never done. Things that many people have done, even some people I know well. They are not necessarily things I ever wanted to do, and didn’t get around to doing, just things I have never done, for various reasons.

I have never been mountain climbing.

I have never flown an aircraft.

I have never jumped out of an aircraft.
(With a parachute)

I have never been bungee-jumping.

I have never written a book.

I have never been on a surfboard.

I have never kissed a complete stranger.
(A real kiss, not a New Year’s Eve kiss)

I have never had to have a surgical operation.

I have never felt my hair touch my collar.

I have never been up in a hot-air balloon.

I have never been to America, North or South, or to Australia and New Zealand.

I have never been on a fairground ride that turns upside down.

I have never read a Harry Potter book, or watched one of the films.

I have never been religious.

I have never been on a zip wire.

I have never had a tattoo, or body piercing.

I have never been to a rave.

I have never been to Ibiza.

I have never been to a music festival.

I have never tried inline roller skates.
(Rollerblades)

I have never played golf.
(Except Crazy Golf at the seaside)

I have never tried windsurfing.

I have never flown a stunt kite.

There are many more things, I’m sure. But that’s a big enough list for now.
Feel free to add your own things you have never done, in the comments.

Two weddings and a funeral

I am reblogging this post from Peggy in my new series of ‘A Reblog Offer’

Where to next?

Indian bride

Indian groomHello, called out a male voice.

I looked up from hanging out laundry on the roof of our hostel in Bharatpur. There he was on the next-door roof only a metre away.

Hello, I replied. He motioned me to approach. I waved, smiled, helloed again and hung up one of Poor John’s shirts. Hello, he called, come, come, he insisted.

Turns out he wants to invite us to his sister’s wedding that night. But we are six people and these are the best clothes we have, I said, pointing to my camping pants and merino top. This news didn’t faze him in the slightest.

Fortunately, Anand appeared on the roof and chatted with the fellow in Hindi. Soon it was all settled—we were going to a wedding.

As the day progressed, the neighbour on the other side of the hostel invited us to his daughter’s…

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Holidays and Travel: Rome 2002

With lockdown making us all wish we could be somewhere else, I am reblogging this 2013 post about a short trip to Rome. David and Jude have seen it before, but it may well be new to most of you.

beetleypete

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…

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East Germany, as a tourist

With my current fiction serial set in East Germany after WW2, I thought I would re-post this old travel article from 2013.
It may be of interest, though quite a few of you have seen it before.
A long read, at 3,500 words.

Before I went to East Germany in 1979, I didn’t know much about the place, other than the propaganda that we saw over here. I wasn’t even aware that holidays there were possible, until I saw an advertisement in The Morning Star newspaper, for a company that specialised in holidays to places behind the Iron Curtain, as well as countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, that had so recently been ravaged by war. The East German trip seemed to offer fantastic value. There were direct flights to and from Dresden, the services of a guide throughout, and coach travel to numerous destinations in that country. All meals were included, and the ten-day holiday took in such desirable sights as Leipzig, Meissen, and Berlin. (East, of course) The total cost for this, was an unbelievable £110 per person, cheap even all that time ago.

By this time, it was usual for my wife and I to take two holidays a year. We were both working, and keen to see as much of the world as we could afford. Because of the North European destination, we decided it was best to book for the summer time, and still amazed that this holiday actually existed at that price, we took our chances, and booked. It was not my usual practice in those days, to fully research a holiday before departure. There was no Internet then, and guide books were notoriously out of date. Besides, holidays to East Germany, with its reputation of repression, doom and gloom, and the infamous wall, were hardly common, so travel guides were non-existent. As an arch Lefty, it seemed to me to be somewhere that I should travel to, to see another side of the argument. So, I decided to trust to luck, and politics, and off we went.

The flight was not full, and we scanned the rows, trying to decide if any of our fellow passengers were to be in our tour group. It seemed unlikely, as most were travelling solo, save one large family group from Northern England, talking loudly near the front of the aircraft. Arriving in Dresden, I was all eyes. After all, this city had been the subject of the famous ‘fire storm’ bombing by the RAF and USAAF, in February 1945, and I had not expected to see much still standing. We were met by our guide, an elderly lady, a grandmother in fact, and a lady of great dignity, warmth, and friendliness. She spoke excellent English, though I later learned that she had never left Germany, and had even been resident in Dresden as a teenager, during the terrible bombing raids. Making our way to the coach, we noticed that the talkative Northern family were in our group, together with a few couples, and most of the single passengers who had been on the aircraft. It was a small group, only fourteen, including us. We were introduced to our driver, who would stay with us for the entire trip, and we left the airport, heading for our hotel in the city centre.

By this time, we had already travelled to the Soviet Union, so were used to seeing Communist iconography, inspiring statues, and lots of colourful banners. The route from the airport to Dresden centre did not have that much to offer, seemingly consisting of many rows of shoddy looking medium-rise apartment blocks, set in large estates. These were modern-looking, so we assumed that most had been built during the 1960’s. Traffic was reasonably light, and we got our first sight of the ubiquitous Trabant car, a vehicle that would have caused laughter in the UK, but in this country, was an expensive object of desire. On arrival in the city, we were pleasantly surprised to find a modern central area, not unlike an English New Town. Our hotel, near the bank of the River Elbe, was a comfortably appointed and newly-designed building, which exceeded our expectations. The following day, we had a brief tour of the town, before going out to visit the Zwinger, a rococo palace, housed within the old city’s defensive walls. Despite being destroyed by bombing, it had been fully restored to its pre-war state, and made for a pleasant excursion.

Some of our group had American accents, and we discovered that one couple were Canadians, who had travelled to the UK specifically to take this trip. They had relatives near Dresden, who they had never seen. Part of the family had emigrated to Canada before the war, and had managed to keep in touch on and off, ever since. The couple’s family made the long trip to Dresden to meet them, bringing many gifts, even though they were desperately poor agricultural workers. The Canadians met them in the reception area, and it was a very emotional scene. The Germans had to stay in a different hotel, as our hotel was reserved for foreigners. They were able to meet up for a couple of days, and the two members of our group stayed with them, not bothering to go on any trips. It certainly brought home the fact that the East Germans were not allowed to travel to the West, even though the Canadians would have willingly financed their journey. Despite feeling positive towards the Communist regime there, I was not so naive as to be unaware of some of the shortcomings.

The next day, we departed for Liepzig by coach, with a stop on the way to see the lovely town of Meissen, home of the famous porcelain. This is an attractive town, with an imposing cathedral, and impressive castle. The red-tiled roofs of the old centre give the place a fairytale feel, something repeated many times throughout our stay in that country. We also stopped briefly at Colditz Castle, famous as a prisoner of war camp in WW2. We could not go inside, as it was then in use as a psychiatric hospital. Leipzig was a delightful city, at least in the centre. Our hotel was a marvellous old building, that had survived the war. Built sometime around the late 1800’s, it was a masterpiece of faded glory. The high ceilings, huge windows, and ancient telephones, all made me imagine the grandeur that once was, and the dignified guests who had stayed there in the past. The centre of Leipzig still had cobbled streets, as well as pavement cafes, and a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere. Young people were everywhere, as this was the home of a popular university too. Wandering around, it was hard to believe that we were in a country so vilified for repression and severity. It certainly did not seem like it, that evening.

I was keen to see the battlefield of the famous battle of Leipzig in 1813, which was a defeat for Napoleon, and the beginning of the end for his conquests in Europe. Despite what was said in the UK, we were completely free to come and go as we pleased. Our guide suggested that we get a tram to the site, which was on the outskirts, and directed us to the large tram terminus near the hotel. My wife spoke some German, and I was picking it up quickly, due in part to the similarity of many words. We asked an old lady for directions, and she took us to the correct stop, then waited until the right tram came, before ushering us onto it, and waving goodbye. Other passengers explained how to buy tickets, and punch them ourselves. When we reached the stop, the driver directed us to the short walk to the battlefield. There was a museum, a large model diorama, and lots of historical information, all in German, of course. After a good visit, we retraced the journey to the hotel, and remarked how friendly everyone had been.

The next destination for us, was the capital city, Berlin. Any signs for Berlin were always accompanied by the words ‘Haupstadt der DDR’. It was as if you might forget that Berlin was the capital, or maybe they were just very proud of the fact. Another thing I had soon realised, was that Berlin was actually deep inside East Germany. Despite having a Western Sector, this city was a hundred miles from West Germany, leaving the western side with a small corridor through which to enter the city. Having seen and read everything I could about the Second World War, Berlin had been on my ‘must see’ list for many years. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Eastern Sector retained most of the ‘good stuff’, from a tourism, and historical point of view. The ruined Reichstag could be seen, (actually in the West, but visibly close to the border wall) The Brandenburg Gate, the Unter den Linden, the famous thoroughfare, The National Opera, and much more. There was also the huge Soviet war cemetery, the size of a large village, and the chance to perhaps see the famous wall. Our hotel was a five star affair; the modern Hotel Palast, designed like a stepped pyramid, all bronzed glass, and ideally located, close to most things we could want to walk to. As usual on this trip, it was a ‘foreigners only’ hotel, not accessible to East Germans.

So, we ‘did’ Berlin, and really enjoyed it. Those buildings destroyed during the war had been rebuilt, (except The Reichstag) and there were modern areas too. Alexanderplatz, with the tall TV tower nearby, was the natural centre, buzzing with all sorts of people during the day, and we took the opportunity to go inside one of the highest buildings in Europe, and take in the view. We toured the city, sometimes by coach, or on the underground, and saw all the sights during a relatively short stay. One morning, we were offered an outing, at no extra cost, to see the former Concentration Camp of Sachsenhausen, near Orianenburg. This had been in use from 1936, until the end of the war, and had been used to house political prisoners at first, and later, prisoners of war. This was the centre of the notorious money forging plan, where the Germans employed expert prisoners to forge banknotes in the currency of their enemies. The inmates would be forced to work in the nearby Heinkel factory, as well as making bricks, and undertaking other labouring jobs. Many companies still well-known today made use of this forced labour, notably AEG, and Siemens. Large numbers of the prisoners were executed here also, and it remained functional until 1945.

It is hardly a pleasurable experience to visit a Concentration Camp, but we felt compelled to go, to see for ourselves the extent of Nazi atrocities during the war. Like most other camps, the gates are emblazoned with the legend ‘ Arbeit Macht Frei’, the cynical notion that hard work would win freedom. Much of the camp had been razed to the ground, though some huts, including the medical experiment block, remained as small museums. A large memorial obelisk dominated the site, and there were outlines to show how many huts had existed when the camp was open. During this sombre visit, we began to take some photos. One of our group, a single man with an American accent, asked if we felt it was appropriate to do this. During a short discussion with him, the first time he had addressed us during the trip, we discovered that he had actually been a prisoner there as a young man, later moving to the USA, as he had managed to cross Germany after liberation. He also told us that one of the other single men, again with a US accent, had lost some of his family in the camp. Both men had travelled from America, for the sole purpose of this visit. We agreed that photography was probably in bad taste, though I did buy a tiny commemorative badge, from the small souvenir shop. One of the things we saw in the camp remains fresh in my mind. There was a large cinder running track, circling the centre. We were told that prisoners had to run around this, wearing new boots, often in the wrong size, to break them in to be worn by army recruits. They also tested different styles of footwear on this track, crippling prisoners in the process. On the way back to Berlin, we decided that we were glad to have seen it, but it did make you feel very uneasy about the association of tourism with so much depravity.

The next planned excursion, was an overnight stay on the Baltic Coast, in the seaside district of Rostock, called Warnemunde. This was an interesting diversion. In reasonable weather, we saw family groups of East Germans enjoying themselves by the seaside, eating ice cream, or sausage and sauerkraut in rolls, and behaving as we might, at any resort town in England. It was short and sweet though, and a little pointless, other than for the East Germans to show supposedly sympathetic Westerners that such places existed in the DDR. It is true that some of the group were sympathetic to the politics of East Germany. I certainly was, and the noisy family from Northern England turned out to be from The British Communist Party. However, most were nothing of the sort, including my wife, and at least five North Americans, with diverse reasons to be there, as well as some others from England, who had German relatives, and wanted to see it for themselves.

Back in Berlin, we were due to leave the next day, to return for one more day in Dresden, before flying home. We had not had the chance to visit the West of the city, so we approached our guide, to ask if that might be possible, expecting this to be politely declined. Once more, we got a pleasant surprise. Not only could it be done, she would arrange for us to stay an extra night in our Berlin hotel, with no charge. It would mean us taking a train after that, at our expense, and making sure we arrived back in Dresden in good time to catch up with the group, to fly home to England. She explained the best way for us to get over to the West sector, and sorted out train times for the trip the following day. It was even arranged to take the bulk of our baggage on the coach, to save us lugging it around. We were very happy, and it showed once again, that we were more or less free to come and go as we pleased. It also gave us the reasonably exciting prospect of being on our own, in the sinister capital of the DDR! As it turned out, no Stasi agents, or secret police appeared, to throw us into cells for interrogation, from where we would never be heard of again. It was all very normal.

The next morning, we waved goodbye to our group after breakfast, and headed off by underground train to Friedrichstrasse Station. I had hoped to cross through Checkpoint Charlie, like the spies in the films, but the guide had suggested this alternative as being quicker and easier. The situation at the station was one of the strangest I had ever found myself in. Arriving on one side, we were in East Germany, but the opposite platform was in West Germany, and we had to go through border control and customs, to enter it. The East German guards gave our papers a cursory examination, and waved us through. It was the West Germans who were perplexed. They couldn’t understand how we were coming through from the East, as they were so unfamiliar with tourists entering from this direction. They even asked us if we knew that we had come from the East, then grew suspicious and sullen when we laughed, and said ‘of course’. Leaving the station exit, we were back in the ‘Free World’, at least that part of it that was West Berlin.

The differences were instantly apparent, and not necessarily in a good way. For the first time since arriving in Dresden, we saw vagrants, drunks, shifty-looking characters hanging around, and young women who were obviously prostitutes. And it wasn’t even 11am! All the trappings of Western living were there, clustered around the station. Gaudy advertising, traffic jams, fast-food outlets, people of all races, and lots of military, many openly drinking outside bars, in uniform. As well as German Police and troops, there were American soldiers and British soldiers, some wearing kilts. Despite the reputation of the DDR as being police-controlled, and militaristic, we had not seen a fraction of the uniformed men there, that we saw in minutes, after crossing to the West. Once we had stopped for a coffee, we were at a loss what to actually see, now that we were there. There was the famous Zoo of course, but we could go to zoos in England. Outside the centre, there were apparently some nice parks, with ornamental lakes, but they would be the same anywhere. We settled for a trip to the Tiergarten, the large area of parkland, containing the famous Victory Column, and supposedly a pleasant area to stroll. We found the column, and went inside, up to one of the stages, that give panoramic views around. Otherwise, it was just like a large park in any city, so we set off for a look at The Wall. On this Western side, there were actually places erected not far from the Wall, where you could walk up and get a look at it. But it was just a wall after all, and other than its historical interest, hardly worth the effort.

After a late lunch, we reversed the process at Friedrichstrasse station, once more cautioned by West German guards that we were entering the East, until they discovered that we had DDR visas, and again eyed us with great suspicion. Back in Alexanderplatz, we actually felt relieved to be out of the West Sector, and strange as it may seem, felt almost at home back in the ‘Haupstadt’. For me, the most enjoyable part of the excursion, had been the process of entering and leaving, feeling like defectors, or undesirables, fleeing behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. So, despite being fairly bored during our time in the West, we were happy to have had the opportunity to see it. Back at the Palast Hotel, we went out for dinner, and then packed our few things, ready for the train trip to Dresden the next morning.

In the 1930’s, it used to be said of the Nazis, that they at least made the trains run on time. Nothing had changed in that respect, so we were sure to be at the main station in good time to get tickets, and not to miss our train. At the ticket window, I got a real shock; we were asked if we wanted first or second class tickets! I was staggered. There we were, supposedly in a ‘Socialist Republic’, and they had first class on the trains. Yes, you’re right, we went first class! It was still very cheap, and I really wanted to try it, as I could never afford it back home. It was nothing grand though, a somewhat old-fashioned compartment train, and we had the seats to ourselves. There was a buffet car, and very clean toilets at each end of the carriage. The ticket inspector arrived soon after we departed (on time, to the second) and he was grandly uniformed, as well as impeccably polite. The journey to Dresden was reasonably fast, and uneventful, and we got to the hotel a few hours before the evening departure to the airport. We did some last minute shopping, buying lots of chocolate, and other sweets, to give to our guide, for her grandchildren. She had been so lovely, and we knew that it was hard for her to buy goods from the foreign currency shops. We gave her the sweets at the airport, as well as some ladies’ tights, that were supposedly hard to find there. We also gave her £20 as a tip, that she could use to purchase luxuries. That was about a month’s salary for her then, and she burst into tears.

Flying back to England, we reflected on what a surprising trip it had been. The people had been friendly, and we had been free to come and go with no restrictions. The sights had been interesting, and the experience of our trip to the West had shown us that maybe things were not as bad in the East as we had presumed. However, we were not blind to the poor living conditions we witnessed in the large estates, or the poor quality of construction, the occasional power cuts, and shortages of many things we would have considered essentials. Mostly, I was sorry that the citizens were not allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Bloc, and that there was no fraternisation in the tourist-only hotels. I felt sure then, and still do, that many of them would have soon realised that those much-desired streets were not as golden as they had imagined.

Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Travel.

I woke up dreaming about being in a foreign country this morning. I am not sure where it was, but it was hot, and the sea was blue.

That made me think about how I haven’t been outside the UK since 2011. Of course, I had a lot going on back then. I was coming up to retirement, we were buying a house here in Norfolk, and my Mum was very ill. No time to think about holidays.

Then I settled here, and got Ollie. Once you have a dog, it makes you have to consider who looks after your pet if you travel abroad. Neighbours, kennels, or friends can all be asked or paid for, but is it really fair on your dog? After all, he has become used to being with you, and a sudden absence might upset his routine. So we started to go on short holidays in the UK instead, to places where we could take our dog.

But I can’t just blame pet ownership for not travelling. I had lost interest in the queues at airports, the cramped economy-class seating, and the inevitable delays and hassles. All that to get to a place not dissimilar to one I had already seen, with the possibility of upset stomachs, insect bites, and unsatisfactory accommodation. That first week away feeling like something fresh and different, but the second week appeared to just hurtle toward the departure date. More coaches, more airport hassle, and always the crowds.

I began to conclude that I am ‘holidayed out’, as far as travelling to the usual tourist destinations is concerned. I don’t have enough money to do it in comfort and style, and although there are some interesting European cities I have never visited, I really can’t be bothered to take all that time travelling, just to spend a few days seeing them.

So unless something unexpected happens regarding my finances, I doubt I will ever be seeing Venice.

Or Vienna, Budapest, Madrid, New York, or Lisbon. Or any tropical island paradise.

I have discussed this before on the blog, but I suspect my subconscious is still hankering after that feeling of a relaxing holiday.

To be honest, I’m not that bothered anymore.