Friday, July 18, 2014

Visiting St. Helena - An Astonishing Island

Travelling for eight days for a four-day business trip, and then spending eight days wending my way home does seem peculiar in this day and age; as I write this, ensconced in a comfortable seat on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Montreal connected to the world by wi-fi, I marvel that I started my journey home on Friday last week, and it is once again Friday. It is the sort of journey that one thought was consigned to the mists of time, but here it is. And travel in this manner is simply wonderful.

Dinner on board - a tough life; and cabin A 26

It’s funny really; stepping back into some mythical time in the past doesn't feel that odd when one does it. St. Helena has been described as living in the 1950s, and to a point that is true, it also lives in the 1850s and when the mood strikes, the island lives firmly in the 21st century. Much the same can be said, of course, about many remote villages throughout the world, but the really odd thing about St. Helena is the absence of an airport.

It is an absence that is changing as the engineers and constructors from the able South African firm Basil Read construct an airstrip on the island. It is, one of their engineers marvelled, a project unlike any other. They had to start by building a wharf to bring their equipment in, they needed to build a road, import absolutely everything, scrape the top of a hill and use the aggregate to fill in a massive ravine, and then put down an airport. It will be open in 2016, and assuming that an airline actually wants to start scheduled service, and this is by no means a certainty, tourists will start to flood in; that, at least, is the concept.

To attract visitors, the island needs to get tour operators on side, as the world of travel is a highly competitive one, and this was the underlying reason for my presence on the island together with Erik Brown of Halcyon Travel and my old friend Clive Stacey from the London-based travel company, Discover the World. We travelled with Janet Shankland, the St. Helena tourist representative in the UK, and visited every nook and cranny, many guesthouses and hotels, and were left with the main question of why this jewel has been left undisturbed by tourists for so long.

The Famous Four - Erik, Janet, Max and Clive

No good comes from dwelling on the past, but suffice it to say that we all are enthusiastic about the possibilities of travel to the island, and in particular before the airport arrives. The boat trip, which can be truncated on occasion by flying to Ascension Island and shaving a couple of days sailing time from the Cape Town run, is utterly marvellous, and a perfect introduction to this quirky destination.

St. Helena is the ideal destination for generalists; it has history, architecture, Wyre Birds, hiking programs, flora to astonish, SCUBA diving or snorkelling, deep sea fishing and a plentiful supply of souvenirs and South African wine. It offers accommodation to satisfy every taste from delightful guesthouses, such as the Town House where we stayed, to accommodation in perfectly restored 18th century properties. Food is a bit of an issue, but there are restaurants, if one books, and predictably a Chinese that is open regularly. As more tourists arrive, however, this will most certainly change. Self-catering accommodation is also possible, an option that includes the delights of joining the locals for shopping on Vegetable Thursdays.

Passing the time is not an issue at all; the main centre, Jamestown, is a delightful Georgian village, stretched out along a two-mile valley. The harbour dominates one end, of course, along with the major public buildings, The Castle where Important Work is done, the court and library, the police office and HM’s Prison.

The Court House - appropriately defended

 It is also the starting point for those who want to climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacobs Ladder on its side (no idea how to turn images around)

This feature of the islands is interesting; built to allow soldiers garrisoned at the top of the hill, guarding the harbour, access to the fleshpots of Jamestown, the stairs (a solid 11’ each one) are a challenge to many. Clive among them, of course, who whizzed up them upon arrival and complained about his leg muscles for the next few days; I, realising that the nearest hospital was in Cape Town, refrained from showing off, and will try and learn Photoshop instead.

Continuing up Main Street, one is struck by the marvellous patina that the buildings exhibited; Georgian, lovely, solid and aged, they live in the continuum of life that stretches back to the days when 1300 ships each year called by for provisions. Jamestown has worn well, and its pubs (both a touch seedy, and I mean that in the most respectful way), and both entertaining function well, there are restaurants, grocery stores and all of the shops that a real High Street should have but few do. There are no chains, no clutch of estate agencies and no pretension; it is a lovely place.

The Market - 1860

The island does support, or at least maintain, a remarkable number of churches. Fortuitously connected to the incumbent Bishop, a cleric who curiously had known and rather liked my deeply un-clerical father and uncles for some thirty years, we were invited to dinner. Richard Fenwick, and his delightful wife Jane, are exactly what one would imagine of the Bishop of St. Helena and Ascension; a remote and really only geographically connected part of the Synod of South Africa, the parish counts over fourteen churches on the island, a couple more in Ascension and cares for the welfare of a people facing extreme change, and looks to the church for a degree of stability.

The Bishop - Richard Fenwick in fine form, and Janet, Richard and I after dinner

Dinner was wonderful; their house a lovely 18th century property, properly decorated with pictures, books and music, and redolent with conversation. Richard himself is a fine organist, and played for us as we enjoyed his cathedral; Jane is a very talented harpist, and an enduring memory of the trip will be sitting with Richard after dinner discussing the ways of the world, my ancestors’ drinking habits, London in the 1970s, and listening to Jane giving Clive his first harp lesson in the living room. Simply delightful, and a quintessential reflection of island life

But Jamestown is simply one small part of the island of St. Helena, and we left in the morning to explore more of this remote and unknown land.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The RMS St. Helena: Nautical, but Nice;

"The RMS" as she is fondly known,  is an odd ship; built in 1990, it was probably old fashioned before she was launched, and she remains the lifeline for the remote and rather wonderful island of St. Helena, with periodic service to the island of Ascension that lies some 700 miles to the north.

The voyage to the island from Cape Town takes six days, and far from being monotonous, she offers a wide variety of activities ranging from people watching to the gymnasium to the movie offerings and of course the food.

The people are the most interesting; built to accommodate a maximum of 155 passengers in three basic categories of cabins, with twin, four and six-berth units available, she rarely carries more than about one hundred. There are Saints heading home for a vacation, business travellers heading out to work on one element of the island’s infrastructure or another, government officials and some tourists. The ship is fairly small, at 6.500 tons, but sufficient to weather the unpredictable seas of the South Atlantic, and deliver her passengers and the 3,000 tons of freight she carries reliably and safely.

The ship is redolent of a time-gone-by. Of course, this is mostly because nobody travels on a five-day journey by ship anymore to reach a destination; we fly, although this is currently an impossibility for St. Helena as they have no airport. One is being built at the moment, and it is planned to be ready in 2016, and many hopes and fears are riding on the inevitable changes that it will bring to the islands economy and social fabric.

The ship offers deck quoits, shuffleboard, domino tournaments, beef tea and frog racing; there are bridge games and visits to the bridge, there are movies, a library and the simple pleasure of watching the water for whales and the occasional massive sea turtle. Conversations are started and drift off into the afternoon, to be picked up once more over an evening sundowner; all very civilised.

There is a wi-fi service, although of such a miserable balance between cost and speed, it is barely worth acknowledging; however, there is much to be said for a week without Facebook and email.

Time ticks along; our cabins are small and simple, almost monastic. The public areas are pleasant and not over-crenellated, the decks hint of summer jollity in the winter shadows, and the water spills amusingly out of the swimming pool as we bump our way south to Cape Town. It is a strange community, currently of 75 passengers and 59 crew bobbing 4,500 metres above a plethora of googly-eyed sea-creatures and a thousand miles from land, yet dressing for dinner and a cocktail with the captain. It is really rather pleasant.

Passage on the ship is not inexpensive, but more than reasonable when one considers the route. A berth in a small two-berth cabin (with shared facilities) will start at about £475 each way. Larger cabins with en suite facilities will run about £1,000 and the largest cabins about £1,500. Considering that this brings passage to St. Helena, a delightful island of which more will be written later, and six days/five nights on board the RMS with fine food throughout, it is really a very good deal indeed.

It is the end of an era; the ship will be decommissioned after the airport starts operation, and for the island, its visitors and above all its residents, this change is a little frightening. One should travel to the island now, and enjoy the privilege of being one of the last people to travel to a remote country by ship.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The RMS St. Helena and arrival on The Island

Five days ago I boarded the RMS St. Helena at a distant and apparently little-used dock in Cape Town, and today I am sitting in a guesthouse in Jamestown, the Georgian capital of the remote island of St. Helena.

One could tell that the dock was little used by its casual approach to security imposed by a number of cold looking chaps huddled round looking like discarded chess pieces. However, we set sail with no worry, and gradually pulled away from the Cape toward the remote rock in the Atlantic Ocean called St. Helena.


It was journey back in time, and one remembers the delights of deck games, quizzes, tombola, frog races, beef tea, convivial bars and well stocked libraries, all punctuated by regular and rather pleasant meals.

Certainly, the feeling yet again of clambering through a looking glass into a parallel universe was reinforced by our activities. It was curious to imagine the peculiarity of 100 passengers (minus the chap who was travelling in the hospital) and 50 crews dressing up for the Captain’s Cocktail party while floating on the ocean surface some five kilometres above the bottom in a 6,000 ton boat.  The entire journey was redolent of an era when everyone travelled by sea, and indeed there were sufficient government “officials” off to St. Helena to administer, audit and generally keep order to keep this image at front of mind.

It was a marvellous journey; the ship is not a cruise vessel, it is a passenger ship. It is comfortable, cosy, friendly and well able to accommodate travellers seeking a rather different experience. The sea was mild, with only one bouncy evening, the sky endless, the water infinite and the expectations as we drew toward this remote island were palpable.

Best known, if known at all, St. Helena was the destination that the English decided to send Napoleon to die. He had caused the English no end of trouble, and had form as an escapee from exile having managed to squirrel his way from Elba. Believing that his new exile would be in North America, one can only imagine his surprise at disembarking in Jamestown, an island that is reputed to be the most isolated inhabited land on earth.

Jamestown, St. Helena
Approaching the St. Helenian coast

To prevent his further escape, 2,500 soldiers were despatched to guard him, and four warships continuously circled the 50 mile circumference of the island, two in each direction. Guards were posted in a circle around Longwood, his rather dreary house, at 50 metres, but at night they were drawn in to stand at the house itself to prevent an Empirical Departure.

They were successful, Napoleon duly died and was buried in the manner of a Russian doll inside five layered coffins; they were of  mahogany, lead, more mahogany, tin and finally an inner protective wrap of a more mundane wood. Designed carefully to prevent movement, in 1840 by order of the French government, he was exhumed with difficulty and removed to Paris where he has lain in state ever since.

There are other interesting things to do; it is an island that has a rather lovely Georgian façade, and a genuine feel of life decades ago. It is an ecological delight, with rare birds, wildlife, fauna all among some quite extraordinary scenery. It is a place of wonders, least of all why on earth it is still here, and how it will actually adjust to tourism on a greater scale once the airport opens in 2016.

The only way off
Jamestown, St. Helena


The journey to St. Helena has just begun.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On board the RMS St. Helena

It is very odd to be here, on a working ship, miles out into the South Atlantic, with an expensive and intermittent wireless access' of course, having any access at all is pretty unusual, but these are unusual times.

There are 100 passengers on board the RMS St. Helena, including one gentleman who is lying in the hospital bed attached to a drip. We are a curious group, comprising Afrikaans workers heading (presumably) to work in the tuna processing plant, or in construction perhaps, “Saints” heading home after a visit to the mainland, officials dispatched from London to ensure an orderly existence on the islands, a few tourists and us; “us” being a motley group of four heading to St. Helena to seek our fortunes in the travel industry.
That is not entirely accurate.

We, Clive Stacey from Discover the World Travel and Erik Brown from Halcyon Collections, both London-based, and I are the guests of the St. Helena government. We are travelling with the most able and delightful Janet Shankland, the UK representative of the St. Helena tourist board to look at the possibility of developing some more activity in this sector. The question has become more relevant now that an airport is being built and by 2016, there will be air service to this most remote island. Currently only accessible by ship, and this a five-day, 1,400 mile voyage each way from Cape Town, the island’s visitors are a determined bunch.

The ship is rather fun; she was built in Aberdeen, apparently the 1,000th vessel to have passed through the shipyards of A & P Appledore (Aberdeen) Ltd, and launched in October 1989. She carries a crew of 59, including a doctor, and up to 155 passengers in addition to a few hundred tons of freight, snugly plied up on a forward deck.

Unprepossessing, and not unattractive, the RMS St. Helena is a working ship; the cabins are comfortable, the public areas convivial, the food plentiful and the bar well-stocked and inexpensive. The voyage is slow, and our stately progress of 15knots will put us into Jamestown in four-days’ time; we have sailed 280 miles so far, and have 1433 to go.

Time to go en explore yet again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Joys and Sorrows of Wandering (not many sorrows really)

Even by my own rather peripatetic standards, 2014 has started off to be a year of much travel. It is the first of July, and in the first six months of the year I have covered 89,500 miles, and during those wanderings have been as far distant as North Korea, Adak in the Aleutian Islands and now to St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

I travel only partly for personal pleasure; one of the joys of owning a travel company that specialises in travel to the more outlandish parts of the world is the requirement to get out and see for one’s self before marketing programs to our clientele. While this may seem to be a wondrous job, and indeed I get many notes asking if I need assistance with my bags, it is actually work.

The role of a travel company, once its boundaries and mission have been established, is to provide its clientele with travel experiences that will satisfy their interests, style and curiosity. There are many fine travel companies the world over, and it is with the global cooperation of a vast network of businesses and individuals that the travel industry can continuously refresh itself, and offer new destinations to the world’s wanderers. It is through this vast network that we are able to find and meet partners to help us bring ideas to vacations.

Of course, people globally do not travel to the same places at the same time. This gives the opportunity for destinations to grow, to become more sophisticated and to evolve as their market becomes more diversified and grows into a mainstream destination.

Of course, there are many who are not looking for that sophistication, or homogenisation. Increasing numbers of travellers are seeking a more “raw” experience. Not hard-core adventure, but at least the feeling that they have travelled to a foreign country, and not simply another “global brand” location. And so our quest for our clients takes us to new and exciting destinations, and more often now to exciting and unexplored parts of better-known lands.

I am often asked where my favourite destinations are, and where I think are the “new” locations for folks to look at as they plan their vacations, and I am happy to offer a few here, and in a couple of subsequent blogs. They are, of course, highly subjective, but do bear in mind that as I am a “professional” traveller, my living is made by being right, and if I am wrong, I stand to lose a lot of money and time!

Georgia the country and not the state is one of my favourite destinations in the world. It has evolved from the Rip Van Winkle era of Soviet depression fast, and the tourist industry is one economic sector that has seen investment, development and success. Based on the country’s inherent attractions, its landscape, culture and above all its people, Georgia has started to become a popular destination with regional and European tourists, and slowly but surely, it is making its mark with North Americans.

Montevideo, the quirky capital of Uruguay, is another favourite. Less brash than Buenos Aires, it sits on the far side of the River Plate welcoming all who visit (except, perhaps vegetarians; Uruguayans appear to consider a chicken as a sort of vegetable). It is a city in need, some would say, of a coat of paint, but frankly I love the patina that it has. Evocative of a time when South America was embracing immigrants from Europe, live was good, fun was everywhere, the candombe music of the region was and remains infectious and the city’s wonderful location on ocean and river was everything; truly fine place to spend a few days or a few weeks.

Les Isles du Salut in French Guyana are the most extraordinary day trip that I have ever taken; three islands, formerly part of the brutal French penitentiary system, they lie partly fading and partly alive. To feel the isolation, deprivation and sheer helplessness of life here is impossible to describer, but after a day’s visit, or perhaps longer as one island now houses an auberge, one can readily understand the anguish of their former residents.

The Great Barrier Reef, and in particular spending a day out with the catamarans of Passions of Paradise, is an astonishing way to understand this wonder of the world. They head to a quiet reef, the number of passengers is small and the attention is amazing; all too many tours in the world’s most iconic destinations are being ruined by volume. The Barrier Reef is in places, but not from Cairns with Passions!

And there are more favourites yet; The Faroe Islands, Lufthansa, Pyongyang, Kerala, the Languedoc and Newfoundland to name a few …. Let me know your favourites … I love to hear from you! And while we are at it, what are some of your worst destinations, or pet travel peeves?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Adak, at the end of the Aleutian Islands

There are strange places, remote places and surprising places but, in my humble experience, very few strange, remote and surprising places. Adak is most certainly all three and more.

Lying at the far west of the Aleutian Islands, with only the uninhabited islands of Attu and Kiska beyond, Adak is the most westerly inhabited village in the United States. It sits confidently at 178° west, due north of Tonga and only about 700 miles from Russia. In a word it is isolated and in the middle of nowhere.

Great Sitkin Island
It does, however, boast two restaurants, one with a bar attached, a general store, housing for 6,000 people, two swimming pools, a bowling alley, schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12, nuclear and chemical warfare bunkers, extraordinary birdlife, pristine salmon rivers, stunning scenery, a magnificent shore line and some of the friendliest people I have ever met.

This is only partly an exaggeration; the bowling alley and swimming pools are not actually operational, but remnants of the islands rich military history, as are the endless town houses.

There are now only about 140 permanent residents, with this number swelling to about 350 when the fish plant is in full swing and the full complement of “Ecological Workers” are around. These ecological workers are a euphemism for folks whose role in life is to spot and disable unexploded ordnance, an irritation on the island, and a daily reminder of its history.

Adak was the staging post in August 1943 for tens of thousands of soldiers poised to attack Kiska, then occupied by the Japanese; the invasion never occurred, and in fact the Japanese had evacuated Kiska some weeks or months before, but the invasion force precipitated the building of a massive military infrastructure. Adak continued its military role during the Cold War, and housed 6,000 service folks (and families) in the purpose-built city. Today, the military is gone, or almost, the island has an air of intrigue and some rather shiny parabolic antennae, and only the housing and barrack remain.

It is spooky; hundreds of houses clearly delivered in several tranches. Hundreds are complete with a solarium, rarely needed in Adak where the weather is characterised by precipitation, fog and high-winds, but presumably necessary in Midway Island some 2,500 miles to the south where they were originally destined. No matter; houses are houses, and next to the selection of yellow and brown numbers (looking rather like Nanaimo bars), they are very jolly.

Today, only a few are inhabited, and others used for transient workers, and for use as a hotel. We stayed in a delightful town-house (complete with solarium) with three bedrooms and bathrooms, kitchen, dining room and living room.

And so to the trip; I went to Adak for two reasons: firstly, it is remote, and thus cartographically interesting, and secondly, I could get there for only 25,000 airline miles. For an 8,432 mile round trip, this has to be one of the best bargains available. It meant driving four hours south to Fargo, but it was worth every mile.

Flying west from Anchorage is a treat on a clear day; the mountains, perfect volcanic peaks were clearly visible, and in particular the peaks of the Islands of Four Mountains were quite spectacular. The flight, nearly three hours out over the Bering Sea, landed on time, and our first glimpse into this very parallel universe was the airport where we were met by our guide holding out a sign with our names. We were not difficult to spot.

Umnak Island

Islands of the Four Mountains

Off in our 4WD truck to the town house, then to the bar for refreshment, dinner and a chance to meet the locals and a few contract workers in town to work on some house restoration.

Friendly is the word; within an hour we had met a dozen folks and hear about an Italian tourist who had come in 2006 (“or was it 2007?”), the local birds, unexploded ordnance, the uncaring government, unreliable air service, the weather (with several variants) and the school graduation due on the following day. We were given a map with all sorts of interesting places noted: Classic Wizard (?), Nuclear Bunker, Hot Springs and a radio transmitter among others, and retired for the night ready to explore.

The weather, discussed in such detail the previous evening, turned out to be wonderful. Cloudy in the morning, the sun burned through by lunchtime, and then there were another eleven hours of stunning sunshine, not a weather pattern that anyone had forecast. Armed with our list, and the map that turned out to be spectacularly incorrect, we went off to explore, and explore we did.

It must be said that the weather was really rather interesting; the island revealed itself slowly as the cloud lifted, and it was not until the afternoon sunshine that we realised quite what a spectacular place Adak is. The main peak in the island is Mt Moffett, a 3,924’ beauty rising out of the water on one side, and the tundra on the other. Snow clad and striking, the mountain proved more efficient than the map at assisting navigation, and was a constant reminder of the stark dangers of these remote islands. Looking at these mountains, and those on nearby islands, and realising that in all probability no human had ever set foot on them was chilling, and added to the sense of awe that Adak instills.

We headed into and out of the Adak National Forest, watched sea otters playing in Clam Lagoon, poked around inside abandoned buildings, bounced around in the pot holes (although it must be admitted that the roads were pretty good given the circumstances), and returned to town in the evening in time to head to the Mexican restaurant.

It is unusual to find a Mexican restaurant, ably run by Mexicans, in Adak, but Bay 5 was terrific, and the food excellent; pricey by southern standards, but in comparison to Canada’s arctic, very reasonable. Alaska also brews some pretty fine beer.

One would think that two more similar days would get a touch dull, but not at all. A few hours spent unsuccessfully fishing for halibut, more excursions, a trip to Finger Bay and the general wonderment at eh Google Earth moment of realising just where on the world’s surface the pin was aimed kept us busy and occupied until the very last minute. A long journey home via Anchorage and Chicago, four hours in the car and back to Winnipeg wondering whether I had really been all the way to the “End of the Chain”.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Iceland and Georgia

I always found it mildly amusing that in the days that British Midland flew from London to Tbilisi, their early afternoon departure was usually from a gate adjacent to Icelandair’s flight to Reykjavik. The gate, 21 I believe in Terminal 1, was a slightly odd one, as passengers for these flights were corralled into a single room, and frequently had passage from the shopping area disturbed by an inflow of arriving passengers.

Nevertheless, passengers from London bound for either or Europe’s extremities of Iceland and Georgia found themselves mingling on a daily basis. Being an aficionado of both countries, I found myself in this waiting room several times, and occasionally, bound for one, would meet a friend bound for the other.

It was arriving at Keflavik’s rather pleasant airport this morning that made me recall this curiosity, for in the last five or six years, Icelandair has grown enormously while Georgia’s aviation industry still languishes in the dark ages.

This morning, flights from a dozen or so North American cities were lined up to slide down the glide-path into Keflavik ready to mix and match their passengers for the continuing flights to a wide variety of European gateways. Their “hub and spoke” system is brilliant, effective and being Icelandic, pretty efficient. The growth in passenger numbers transiting Keflavik is eye-watering, and by offering one-stop service between such a variety of cities, their aircraft are full.

Which, of course, is just as well; Iceland itself is a wonderful country to visit, of this there is little debate. It is a country that only this year celebrates its 70th birthday of its independence from Denmark. During this period, it has grown from a very basic, subsistence economy to its current position (bankruptcy notwithstanding) of growth in so many areas of high value-added activity. There are advances in energy, genetic mapping, architecture, medical innovations and so many more; the contemporary culture of the country is vibrant, and visible in its arts, audible in its music and most certainly evident in its culinary arts.

And look where it is; the unkind among us might describe Iceland as a windswept rock, perching in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, its inhabitants really being more akin to Polynesian islanders with a veneer of Scandinavian efficiency, and really a place for derision before investment. While there may be a smidgen of truth behind these cruel sentiments (particularly about the Polynesians, try to get an Icelander to answer an email), it belies one of the most satisfying parts of the Icelandic culture, their need to incorporate the past in the future.

Georgia, too, as my regular readers (and thank you for reading, and particularly commenting) will know, I have been mesmerized by Georgian music, art, architecture, food (and wine) and innovations for some time.

It was this neat juxtaposition of attitudes that became the other element of my wry amusement of Heathrow airport’s flight dispatch; it is this passion for the past, passion for the pure integrity of the “soul” of the nation that is common to both Georgia and Iceland, and to a degree that I have rarely found elsewhere.

These are both countries that have had their fair share of troubles, and while similarities between the two will by necessity stretch the imagination, I shall mention only a couple. Firstly the deep understanding of their history, passed on in Iceland through the fabulous Sagas and in Georgia through the dogma of the Orthodox church and its attendant oral history, and secondly through the ability of each country to develop rapidly without abandoning their centuries-old culture, customs and the patina of activity that so vibrantly marks each nation.

British Midland no longer flies from London to Georgia, and the mingling of passengers bound to Europe’s extremities has, perhaps, moved elsewhere. It was, however, always a pleasure for me to see that my two favourite European countries shared a connection that was observed by so few.

I am only here for a couple of days, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my close friend Clive Stacey's business, the London-based Discover the World, and I am sure that the celebrations at the Hotel Ranga, which is where we are now ensconced will last well into tomorrow, and possibly the day after,


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Barcelona / La Tour de Carol: The Train That Doesn't Exist

Let me be the first to reiterate powerfully that I love trains; I would also hasten to add that since a peculiar childhood, influenced by a father who was totally enamoured by public transportation, I have collected, read, studied and loved timetables. It is a curious interest, perhaps, but no reason to move a couple of seats away from me in a waiting room.

There are many fine train rides, often collected in glossy coffee table books, labouring under a title like “The Greatest Train Rides in the World”, or some such other similar title; many are terrific, many are simply there because the author scored a free ticket to travel on the train and include it in their catalogue, some are simply ordinary, but take place in a strange part of the world.

They are all mildly exciting. Few, however, are part of a major European city’s regional suburban system, and are thus not always so easy to find. Having told friends about the run down the mountains into Barcelona, they asked at local stations to astonished disbelief, "There is no such train" they were told, but I knew better. 

The run from  La Tour de Carol, an unusual town lying astride the Spanish and French border at an altitude of about 1,400 metres down to Barcelona is a fine journey, and starts at the evocative and rather marvellous station, large for its current, rather dozy existence, but in days gone by, a busy centre of smuggling between the two countries. Smuggling of people, northbound from Franco’s ghastly regime and southbound from pursuing Nazis, of goods, mostly of an alcoholic nature and the rather pungent Spanish tobacco, was the mainstay of the local economy. And the station, sitting pompously on the border reflected the authorities’ attempts to subdue or at least profit from this trade.

It is also where everybody changes trains; railway tracks in Spain are 5’5 ²¹̷₃₂” wide, while their French counterparts make their railways travel over tracks that are a mere 4’8 ½”. Now the discrepancy of just over 9” makes travel cumbersome, not to mention dangerous if attempted. If you think that this is all a bit unnecessary, know that in Spain alone, four different gauges of railways exist in the country, this one being called the Ancho Iberico, if you were wondering.

We, however, only wanted a scenic railway ride, and fortified with a marvellous lunch at the Auberge Catalane (opens daily at noon for lunch), we were in time for the 1345 train to Barcelona. The train is not a normal one, and is awkward to find details of its running. It is, in fact, part of the Rodalies de Catalunya (route R3), and thus wobbles its suburban way for three hours down through the mountains to the coast.

The journey is terrific; there are 22 stations on the way, and for the first ninety minutes or so, they are picturesque Catalan hill stations, the train populated by market goers and hordes of hikers and bikers back from the mountains. The Pyrenees are truly stunning; unlike the Alps, Rockies and even the Great Caucasus, they have an almost human shape; rising up to 4,000 metres, that assume dizzying heights in a formation that seems to bend with the wind. They are beautiful, and in common with other distant and remote ranges are home to dozens of ancient cultures and languages, some living in adjacent valleys for millennia, yet with mutually incomprehensible lives.

The train journey is more than worth the €12 that one is charged for the privilege, and once in Barcelona, there are a choice of five different stations to alight, suiting all but the most persnickety. Our aim was to enjoy some tapas, wander the unique streets of the city and enjoy dinner at the Catalan restaurant El Glop in the district of Gracia.

Barcelona is an astonishing city; it is one that I believe could be detected if blindfold. Its streets follow a unique pattern of hexagonal corners, and the ambient noise of the city comes from the thousands of scooters that whizz around all day and all night. It is an exciting city for those who wait. Dinner time is, in the Spanish way, from 9.00pm onward, and arriving at midnight, on a Tuesday or Wednesday is not at all uncommon.

Dinner was wonderful, and a rabbit and some ox-tail stew washed down with a very pleasant Tempranillo seemed to sooth the soul.

A walk back through the town looking at its collection of eclectic and gripping architectural masterpieces, the Sagrada Familia, the Bullring, the Arc de Triomf and the superb (at night) Agbar building were all on the way to the hotel, was a fine end to the day.

And so to the hills in the morning; an hours’ walk to the train station to catch the return journey to La Tour de Carol (in Barcelona called La Tor de Querol) proved uneventful; other than the small matter of purchasing the tickets.

Although the train heads to La Tour de Carol, and indeed says so on the front, the ticketing office will only sell a ticket as far as Puicgerdá (pronounced Poo-chair-DA); and should one want to use a credit card, then the ticket office was of no use at all, and a machine had to be brought to attention and made to dispense the tickets. I am not sure why the Rodalies Catalunya pretend that the final station on their route does not exist, perhaps it is because it is in France, but needless to say, after a little confusion, a ticket was bought, the train boarded and the three-hour haul up the mountains commenced.

And let me say that the return journey was spectacular. While the southbound trip was wonderful, heading into the mountains gave one a sense of spectacle; they loomed ever closer, the population on the train thinned out, the stations became more rural and finally, almost poetically, we jumped into the scenery; Secret meadows far below us, cascading waterfalls of spring run-off thundering into the rivers, tiny and ancient houses perched precariously on the hills and the ruins of ancient fortifications punctuating the skyline. Terrific stuff, and when the six-carriage train pulled into La Tour (each carriage could carry up to 203 passengers, 58 seated, for a total potential passenger capacity of 1218), only 12 of us got off.

The lucky ones.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Wine Festival; your correspondent starts licking his lips ...

I realise that I have a lifestyle that borders on the unusual, and for that I am grateful. I am able to wander, see odd and disparate places, meet fascinating people and gather a treasure trove of useless facts with which I can pepper conversation for months.

March 2014, however, has been exceptional.

It has been a month of flying, North Korea, a stamp auction in Hong Kong and a day in Macau, selling a flat in London, a wine conference and speed tasting in Tbilisi and now a few days of rest in the South of France before the annual onslaught of the local Toques et Clochers festival.

Firstly, a word about the festival; imagine if you will, a small village of (perhaps) 450 souls playing host to a crowd of up to 30,000 for a day of celebration, duck sandwiches and wine. Copious amounts of wine, I might add, not just a child’s portion; enough to make some of the hill-folk loose all inhibitions about playing instruments that look suspiciously like Scooped Out Sheep in public.

The celebration is an annual event, and villages throughout the region that supplies the major winery Sieur d'Arques. Villages bid for the right to host the annual festival in a manner not unlike the competitions to host the World Cup or the Olympics, however with significantly smaller budgets. The winner will then have a couple of years to raise funds, establish numerous committees, create special weather prayers and wait for the event.

On the day itself, thousands of visitors, almost all of whom are local, will purchase a glass (€5), some tokens for wine (€2/glass and €10/bottle), and then head off into the madding crowd. Wine stalls selling their wares are everywhere, as are musicians, folks selling duck sandwiches and oysters, jugglers, drummers and thousands of folk. Knee-deep in wine, with laughter rising perceptibly in volume as the afternoon progresses but rarely a smashing glass and never a fight the event continues until the early hours of the morning.


It is impossible to imagine rivers-full of alcohol, glasses and thousands of people in the UK, for example, without conjuring up images of horror, but here in the Languedoc, the festival is charming, well organised, exceptionally amusing and held on the weekend before Easter each year. Make a note in your diaries.

It is, my friend Hubert says, the largest tourist event that isn't a tourist event that he has ever seen. And as a former CEO of a provincial tourist department for decades, he should know.

But then again, if Peter Mayle had written a book called A Year in the Languedoc, the economy of the south of France would be completely different. The region, known but unknown, is delightful. The centre of the Cathar religion in the 10th to 12th centuries, it still harbours mysteries and intrigue among devotees of mystery and intrigue! The Cathars, the Holy Grail, Mary’s escape from the Holy Land, The da Vinci Code, all mixed up with wine, fine food, delightful scenery and not a little story telling.

And so the festival, as far from Pyongyang as I can imagine, starts in four days. It is said in these parts that Don Perignon discovered his wine-making secrets here before moving to Champagne where they figured out how to bottle the stuff without it blowing up. Fanciful, I imagine, and probably as truthful as the DPRK’s Concrete Wall, but there you go, it is a good story. Nostradamus himself was supposed to have dwelt in a nearby village, but a little prodding of the museum’s curator, and a rather wistful comment of “Well, he might have stayed the night in the village once” comes a touch closer to the truth.

Sometimes it can all become overwhelming

However, it is true that the production of wine is no stranger to these parts.

Livy was recorded as trading non-sparkling wines with the Romans, and the first references to “Blanquette”, or “Small White”, came from the Benedictine Monks who made the first sparkling wines here in 1531. The other white grape of some substantial use here is Mauzac, which along with Chardonnay and Pinot are the grapes from which the delicious local Crement de Limoux is made.

All grist to the mill, and worthy of examination.

It is, perhaps, worth relating a little story about wine sales, and one that perhaps illuminates a great fiction of the world of mega-wine.

For several years, the Limoux winery Sieur d’Arques exported tankers-full of Pinot Noir to Gallo in the US, who sold this far and wide under the Red Bicyclette label. So popular was this concoction that new warehouses were built, and for all I know, special docking facilities for the ever-larger tankers racing this popular brew from the south of France to the US of A.

All was well until a sharp-eyed accountant pointed out that they were in fact selling to Gallo alone, approximately 200% of the annual output of Pinot Noir grapes. Now interestingly, during this period, not a single customer, nor a single Gallo executive or wine taster, questioned the adulteration of their potion by the addition of the cheaper Merlot grape. A small fine was levied discreetly, one would not want this sort of scandal to hit the front pages, Red Bicyclette was relabelled and presumably launched to new heights.

Curious things, palates.