Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Virtual travel

It’s quite a weird affair, this travel writing. I have to admit I do enjoy it, and the writing of my eTravellers series has recently taken me to some great places and made me appreciate them far more than I used to.
The problem is I cannot go everywhere. Well, I can visit all the towns and areas – and even the attractions – which I endeavour to do. But not all of the restaurants.
And that poses a problem. Because then, I am reliant on other people’s opinions rather than my own and can never be quite sure if they are accurate.
For example, using research from websites such as Trip-Advisor usually means that many of the reviews will be written by Americans, who’s opinions greatly differ from my own.
They say things like: the service was dead slow and the portions very small. But then, they are probably comparing it to Burger-king?
Or they mention: the red wine was really nice….when we know they quite possibly topped it up with Coca-cola.
Sometimes there is a one star review by a whinging Brit. You know the type, all beard and encyclopaedic knowledge on the fauna and flora. He will write: The langoustines would have been alright if they had all been the same size – or - we arrived for our table at 8pm, which I booked by phone, 4 years ago and then confirmed by telex, fax, email and text, to find the table wasn’t ready until eleven minutes past!!!!!
Often, it will be up to the wife to write, who says things like: the service was awful, as our waiter didn’t understand English, no matter how loud my husband shouted at him..
I will admit, any review that uses more than one exclamation mark is instantly ignored – as this is usually from insignificant people trying to be heard.
But still – it is my job to sift through this chaff, to try and establish whether an establishment is worth a mention, in a good way, or not at all.
I know, I know – I should write up the bad ones as well, but is that really fair?
If I wrote: …avoid this tardy little café at all costs, because it’s white wine isn’t served at exactly 8 degrees…just on the reasoning of Mrs & Mrs Edwards from Peterborough, I am not sure I would offering a proper service to anyone.
One guy wrote – admittedly he was German – the beaches were far too hot! Yes Günter - this was in Biarritz, in July. Even so, he probably had a point?
In the front of my books, I try and add a disclaimer, saying along the lines of: …the recommendations of this book were accurate at the time of writing and the author takes no responsibility for their reliability…which, in itself is a bit of a cop out, but I can’t add: …because he has never been there, and is relying on here-say…else I would have a thousand angry people on my case.
In my defence, all I can offer is that it is almost impossible to capture a whole French region in 6000 words that will please everyone. Last week a man commented on one of my books saying there was absolutely NO new information on the area that he didn’t already know - and he should know, because he lived there. And by the way, you spelled the name of my local restaurant wrong… and then gave the book a one star!
What did he want me to do, invent things? By the way, Mr Too-cowardly-to-leave-your-name, if you lift up all the cobbles in the Rue de Bastard, you will find a piece of Asterix the Gaul’s toenail!?
Yes, I only wrote 20 nice words on the small town of Nonentity, because actually there is bugger all there - except a river, a supermarket and crappy restaurant by the main road that serves half-cold pizzas and cheap wine that would dissolve your fillings!
But instead of writing this, I used the term – a functional French town, with all amenities but not much in the way of tourist attractions. Pretty fair, I reckon.
My God – an honest Hack. Who would have thought it? They should kill me and have me stuffed!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A gulf between golfs

Today I am annoyed…
One night here, two nights there, each time hauling 20 cases of clothes, food, wine and dirty dishes up stairs and lifts.
Travelling with the dogs is no easy task, especially on a tight budget.
Our final two holiday nights were planned to be in St Jean de Luz, in an apartment right on the prestigious Nivelle golf course. At 70 euros a round, Wendy had agreed that only I should play, her game not being quite up to the standard of a licenced club such as this. It was a noble gesture which I accepted with open club-face. As our hotel afforded us some discount on the course we spend the extra on a buggy, to ease me up the hilly course with my still aching Achilles tendon which I injured a few weeks back. Ever more nobly still, she agreed to drive the buggy - a chauffeured round, what bliss.  
3.27pm we were to tee-off.
3.25pm it started to rain. Just a shower, they said.
7.15pm we retuned with a three figure scorecard and rain dripping out of my golf bag and my underpants….as the downpour at last subsided.
Golf in the rain is not my favoured sport…why would it be when we live in a hot country like this? The Nivelle course may have a world-wide reputation, with its established trees and distant views of the ocean, but it isn’t my sort of thing really. All that Pringle and moustaches, Jaguar’s in the car-park and glowering club-captains, scrutinising your swing with distain. I know all this exists in UK but, usually, golf is a little more relaxed in France. Still, it was nice to finish our holiday with a game on a course I had been longing to play.
Whilst packing up on our last morning, feeling wholly guilty about Wendy not getting to play as well, I suggested, on our way home, that there was another course a few minutes up the road. Nothing flash, just a 9 hole. In fact there are 26 courses within 20 minutes of Biarritz, enough for 2 weeks worth, non-stop, if you have that much stamina.
Why don’t we drop in, play 9 holes, have some lunch and then head home, ending our holiday on a high note?
And…the sun is shining again.
It’s a deal.
Up this tiny track we went, until a beautiful mass of green appeared before us, to a back-drop of the sun gleaming off the vast Atlantic.
No stuffy old farts to scrutinise the pockets on my shorts or Wendy’s trainers instead of proper golf shoes. We were even offered free trolleys from a smiling receptionist.
Now this is more like it.
Wow, what a course - each and every hole a dream to play. Not the normal burnt up grass either, but lush and green fairways, with not even the traditional howling wind that one expects on a links.
5 holes up on the cliff-tops and then down steeply into a revine by the beach for 4 more, Wendy giving me a tough contest, me losing balls in bushes and lakes by the dozen. Fabulous!
I did manage a very narrow victory with a 20 foot put on the last hole, but letting her win would never have pleased either of us.
And so to the beach for a celebratory beer, Wendy’s round! A most splendid restaurant overlooking the Bay of Biscay drew us in for a beer, 2 plates of crisp salad and a bottle of chilled Sancerre. With steps down 20 metres to the beach, things got even better. For once, there was a lack of signs denoting a shaggy dog, with a red line through it.
Yes, the beach was dog friendly.
We couldn’t leave this, not now.
A quick check-in to one more apartment was all it took. Just one final shuffle up those stairs to one more dingy room. But no, this one has plenty of space, a great view of the sea and costs next to bugger-all.
Every dog has his day. And, for the four of us, ours is today.
And that’s why I am annoyed. If we had found this place on day one, there would have only ever been one shifting of suitcases…
And now, more decisions to be made.  Let’s stay some more nights….?
Phone the bank, quick.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Nun yesterday

Isn’t it strange the way two neighbouring nations barely communicate? For a few days we had been staying right on the French side of the Spanish border, and yet there were few Spanish cars in the town, no signs or even the remotest Spanish influences, apart from the odd Basquesque restaurant.
And yet, within a 7 minute drive, my pigeon French was no longer of use to us, as we crossed into Spain’s High Basque region. I am not quite sure what I expected at the frontier, a few armed and bored guards at least?  But there was nothing, not even a checkpoint. However, the difference was amazing, as though the other didn’t exist at all. No middle ground or no-man’s-land, just black and white – well black and red to be precise, as is the colours on the Basque flag.
No French wine, no french cheese, definitely no French rules. Amazing. We could be on the moon - only with worse drivers.
After a trip through the beautiful San Sebastian – called Donistia in Basque, as all the road signs are now in Basque first, then Spanish – with absolutely no hope of finding accommodation for us and two dogs, we found ourselves up on the clifftop, in a run-down hotel like something out of the Shining. I half expected Jack Nicholson’s grinning head to appear through our splintered bedroom door at any moment. The food was awful, the room grossly overpriced, the staff rude and the pool freezing. Apart from that…er, it had little going for it at all, except that it took dogs.
This Spain place….I’m not too sure I like it.
From there we took a coastal road that would have made some of Wales’ tiny tracks look like motorways until we passed through more Basque seaside resorts with about as much character as Coventry, eventually settling on one for lunch and a dip in the waves on a beach surrounded by 50 foot high terrorists slogans painted on to the rock-faces.
A little disappointed, from there we headed south, with a bit more enthusiasm, for I knew what lay ahead.
The hilltop town of Haro is a place I know so well, having visited it 4 or 5 times with friends over the years.
Its wine I know well, too – La Rioja. And what a treat it is.
Checking into a superb ancient hotel which was once an Augustine monastery, with arched façades and a wonderful courtyard, now converted to a huge relaxing and well-furnished area. It seems that in its 1400 year history, this place has had a few purposes, serving as a convent, military hospital and even a prison before now becoming the premier inn in the region.
And there’s more. Our luck was in, as there was a wedding on that night, so the room price was halved. 80 euros - a real steal? OK, it would be a little noisy, maybe, but we could deal with that.
After a great night out with friends around the Horseshoe chorus, a curved narrow cobbled street with more bars than a French prison, we joined in the tail end of the wedding party, albeit uninvited and slightly underdressed, and rubbed shoulders with some of Spain’s wealthy society for a short while. They do have some strange customs though, such as tossing the groom 6 feet in the air in the middle of the dance floor and catching him again for at least 10 minutes while the music pounded on. Poor chap. If he wasn’t sick after all that cake and wine, I think this endurance may have tipped the balance. Thankfully he held it all in.
To our delight, the next morning, we noted that breakfast was also included in the price, which is quite rare these days, so we tucked in to a feast amongst these splendid surroundings.
It was then that I realised the real difference between the Spanish and the French, when the couple on the next table ordered two large glasses of red wine, with their bacon and egg. At 9.30!
Tut-tut! Whatever would the Nuns have said?
We are back in France again now. And quite glad.

Friday, 14 September 2012

By the sea

I know! -  Jack Johnson, Genesis, and hundreds of others have written that line a million times with enough romance to make Chaucer himself sneer.
Certainly to me, having grown up in the dead-centre of England – no pun intended - the big blue wobbly skyline was always a million light-years from my daily life. Now and again we would get to go there on holiday, to mix with the grockles and sniff it’s smells, maybe with lobster or ice cream – or both.
But it was never real – not to me anyway. A place you went to, and then went home again to your daily truth. Just a blip on your weekly, yearly, whole-lifely existence.
But what if you liked it so much you wanted to stay?
Could you?
Does the big ocean hold enough interest to entertain you for more than a few weeks?
What do people do who live there?
These – and many more questions – have been nagging me for, ooo, a long time now. Because every time I see that giant blue horizon, something inside me jumps, and when I leave it, that same little something stays behind, sitting in the shadows and waiting for me to return.
Tonight I am there again.
A pretty little town, down near the French-Spanish border, in an apartment looking out on to the Atlantic. Madam and the dogs are asleep, and all of them seem exhausted. Me too - the big sea does that to you.
.But what else does it do - to your soul?
For a while now, I have felt the brine calling me and, for a similar time, I have been looking for where we could find some common ground.
Possibly, in this buzzing little town, called St Jean De Luz, we have met, that ocean and I. And I am getting a fluttering feeling inside.
You carry on buzzing awhile - for it is yours to do - doing your daily stuff that is wanton for your tourists. Perhaps, for a few days, I want to watch you with patience.
There’s a chance, maybe in the blinking phare of my mind’s eye, I could see myself being right here for longer than a holiday but – shhh - I don’t dare to tell.
Good-God – a farmer from inland living on the coast?
In the sun?
Wash your drizzled brain out with salt water and Rioja from the near-hills.!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Where is Peter Pan now?

Yes, I know I always tell everyone I am still 26, and for much of the time I believe that I am. I really do.
But this week….well it has maybe proved me wrong, just for 7 days anyway, because we have had a house full of vibrant 22 year olds, on holiday. And what do you do on holiday? Well you party, party, party, that’s what!
And it is well documented that I quite enjoy a party. You try stopping me.
Jeez. I wish someone had....
Hmm, at 51 instead of 26, they do start to take their toll. Especially as every night ends up well past the witching hour, and certainly with the fullometer banging its needle in the red.
No, I’m not complaining, I love all that. But this week I have to work, which requires keeping my eyelids open for more than 3 minutes at a time….and concentrating.
Thank god we are taking a holiday later in the week, else I might have to take a few days off sick.
Did Peter Pan ever grow old…?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

My achilles heel

Often in this post I inform of the lunacies that hail from our French Government and you may recall our most recent enforcement; that of the requirement of breathalyzer kits in all cars. Well it seems that our President has taken a step nearer to that of mad King George and stated that they should now be in all road vehicles, including tractors. This, as you can imagine, has annoyed the farming community somewhat, and we all know what happens when you upset French farmers. So if you happen to be in France in the next few months, expect blockades and burning effigies of Monsieur ‘Ollande on every road-side, with ruddy-faced farmers huddled around it supping red wine in protest.
The thing is, for once, he may actually have a point, especially using our local farmer as an example. Whenever Eric comes round here to collect his hay bales or cut some grass, he always makes sure it is early evening and then pops in for a quick aperitif – or 10. The last time he left, he dove straight through the electric fence destroying a dozen fence-posts and plunging the entire village into darkness. At least now I can suggest he ‘tests’ himself before he wobbles off into the night on his 200 horsepower killing-machine.
It doesn’t stop there either. The next idiocy going into the rulebook is the outlawing of sat-navs that locate the position of speed-cameras. Apparently, even if the sat-nav is switched off and stowed in the car boot, if it is checked by a local gendarme and found to have this facility enabled, the driver is liable to a 3 million euro fine and 4 months in the dungeons, irrespective of how fast they were travelling. One wonders if this rule is to be extended to drunken tractor drivers also, despite the fact that they can only go 35 kph?
On the subject of travel, once again one has to question the intellect of Ryanair staff. It seems that, besides their inherent rudeness which appears to be pre-requisite for anyone in a yellow and blue uniform, the latest insult to its customers was to put a passenger on the wrong plane. Yes, despite having his boarding pass checked at least 3 times by stewardesses who evidently couldn’t read, when surfer Toby Donachie descended the steps in what should have been the sunshine of Southern France, he was actually in Sweden! Unlucky, mate. You might need a thicker wet-suit for those icy waves. In response to this, a Ryanair spokesperson said and I quote: ‘….it is the responsibility of passengers to ensure they are on the correct flight…’ Um, really? Great - thanks. So let’s just do away with boarding passes altogether, then? That would save us having to print them out on your behalf or paying a thousand pounds each for you to do it for us? Bordeaux’s crappy little ‘low-cost’ hub could just become a free-for-all as we choose a plane to board at random while you are still busy making sure we only carry one bag and charge us an extra tenner for paying by credit-card when it is the only method available. It really is despicable!
No wonder I never go anywhere. Not that I can at the moment.
This week we have a house full of youngsters enjoying the exuberant sunshine in early September. Well, sunshine by day and then dancing by moonlight to an eclectic mix of strange music. Unfortunately, while trying to keep up with these twenty-somethings on the dance-floor, I have now sustained an injury to my Achilles tendon and am subsequently confined to my writing desk. The lengths people will go to, to get out of cooking for a week! I ask you?!
At least it gets me out of table-tennis for a few days, which has become our latest craze. After watching all that sport on TV, the two of us have taken up the mantle of trying to get into shape and le tennis-de-tableau has worked wonders for the fitness, although a little less for my ego, as Wendy tends to beat me in demoralising fashion most evenings.
Next week, heel permitting we are heading off on holiday. Some might say our entire life is a holiday, but I would be the first to contest that on the grounds that we are so constantly busy that the summer months go by in a flash. There is a reason we have delayed our little soiree until this late in the year, because we like to take the dogs with us, and sadly they are not allowed on the beaches in summer. This may possibly be a good thing, especially as our two would run riot amongst holidaymakers, Pooper nicking ice-creams off small children and Louis cocking his leg on sunbathers at every opportunity, but hopefully, by September 15th, the official date they are allowed back onto the sand, the beaches will be quieter. Even then the trip won’t be purely holiday as, in my new found career as a travel writer, I intend to put together some more short books for my eTravellers-guide series from the area around French Atlantic-Pyrenees and North East Spain.
In fact, a few weeks ago, we made a similar mission to the beautiful area on the North side of the Arcachon basin, known as Cap Ferret, just for the day. I have to admit it was a rather pleasant spot and would have been all the more so, were it not so busy. This pretty seaside strip, as well as being home to the famous Arcachon oyster business, appears to be the holiday destination for the entire city of Paris who, on the whole, are not particularly nice people. However, they are rather wealthy and quite prepared to be ripped off for everything from meals to house prices. According to one colleague, all the footballers have second homes here – a sort of Cheshire by the sea. And, of course, each and every one of them has a boat the size of Worcester, moored in full view, so their girlfriends can strut around on deck showing off their permi-tans and leaking false boobs. We did manage to find one reasonably priced restaurant though, which also served dogs. It seems, although canines are not allowed on the beach, they are welcome in all restaurants. France does have some strange cultures, really.