A Travellerspoint blog

My Love Triangle

sunny 22 °C

Since leaving our journey story in Scotland a month ago, I have received a large number of emails. They basically fall into 2 groups. There are the 29 people who have ordered Haggis Whistles. Interestingly, the expatriate Scottish buyers all want clockwise Haggis Whistles while the naïve others left it to my discretion. One guy believes the remote parts of New Zealand are inhabited by the wild Haggis and are puzzled why they don’t emerge to the skirl of his bagpipes. I picture him wearing his tartan Tam-o-Shanter, wailing his way through the highlands of Fiordland wondering why even the hikers are hiding.) The reason the canny Scots request the clockwise variety is because the earth rotates to the east. This results in the clockwise Haggis being able to cruise rather than struggle against the rotation of the earth – so they become plumper and sweeter. Ye hear it 'ere foremaist.
The many other emails were along the lines of, “Where are you? We haven’t heard from you for a long time - but we have no interest in contributing to your bail if you happen to be incarcerated somewhere”. In fact, we were still at large and had been very busy doing the stuff we left home for - motor racing, catching up with all our UK friends and being involved with Richie Stanaway. (If you don’t know who Richie Stanaway is just find him on-line.)
If I was to ever remarry, it would likely be to a Satellite Navigation system – which would be in contrast to my present partner. Flypaper has some amazing skills – not the least of which is assisting me to gain weight … but has limitations in the field of navigation. For 15 years our vehicles echoed to the phrase, “Orientate the map”. Failing to do so had resulted in many a left turn being called as right (and visa-versa). Technology saved the relationship then – but may ruin it now. Marrying a GPS is not beyond the realms of possibility these days. Just about anything goes. There is a woman who married the Eiffel Tower recently and changed her name to Erika La Tour Eiffle. Another, named Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer married the Berlin Wall. True love can take many forms. A Korean man fell in love with, and eventually married, a large pillow, albeit with a picture of a woman on it. A certain Mr Smith lives in a serious long term relationship with a Volkswagen Beetle while Emma in England is in love with a hi-fi system which she called Jake. Jake, she says, is "solid, reliable and beautiful". For a compulsive traveller looking for a happy existence, a Sat Nav is a very practical solution. Flypaper is aware that I have been keeping regular company with one named Iris. It’s appropriate because the earliest Iris was a Greek Goddess who travelled with the speed of wind from one end of the world to the other. Sometimes she was called upon to deliver bad news. ‘My’ Iris does this by saying repeatedly … “When possible, please make a U-turn”. On a journey through London we were creeping along when Iris asked, “Do you want to change to pedestrian mode?” She’s smart – Flypaper has never asked that question in over 1,000,000kms of car journeys. However, Flypaper seems relaxed about this relationship and even suggested Iris could take over the laundry duties.
I mention the ‘navigation’ subject because some of my inability to communicate with you has been the rather complex itinerary that we have followed through 8 countries – we visited two of them twice and another five times! When I questioned Flypaper regarding this torturous route it was revealed that it was my fault. In future, I must arrange my motor races in the country order she wishes to travel and at the correct intervals to enable new horizons and a decent shot of culture in between. I reported regarding the success of the race in Holland a couple of blogs ago. The latter part of our journey has been dictated by my 16th visit to the Nurburgring 24 hour race in Germany.
There were 2 incidences at Nurburg that remain in my mind. Indeed, I may be traumatised by them. The first relates to Flypaper, who is one of our team timekeepers, and during my turns driving the car, communicated with me on the 2-way radio. One section of the famous 25km Nurburgring circuit is called Fuchsröhre – translated to English its appropriately named Foxhole. This is a scary, white knuckle dive down a narrow twisty road into a corner that we take at about 225kph (140mph). It demands total concentration and getting it wrong doesn’t bare thinking about. Just as I was about to commit to the turn the radio bust into life with a bright and cheerful, “What’s the weather like on your side of the circuit?” The weather!!! For goodness sake! Imagine the comments at the inquest. Perhaps she is jealous of Iris – “If you’re not all mine she won’t get you either”. I’m not sure which of us requires counselling.
The other incident occurred on the penultimate lap. We were 2nd in Class and almost tasting the Champagne – when the right front wheel fell off. Those with knowledge of motorsport history will be interested to lean that it happened right where Niki Lauda had his horrific accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix. I expect in future people will say, “This is where O’Reilly lost his wheel”. As I stood behind the barrier watching others pass on their last lap I realised that I would not have the chance of making the modest short speech I had composed earlier on the long straight and our names would not be reverently uttered in bars around the world. It spoilt the day. However, every dark cloud has a silver lining - the greeting from Flypaper was, “Thank goodness I don’t have another trophy to polish”.
Another incident occurred back in the UK as we approached Oswestry for a business meeting with the guy who, together with Richard Branson, completed the longest flight in lighter-than-air history when they flew 6761 miles from Japan to Northern Canada. Per Lindstrand is a delightful, funny man who entertained us as we toured his amazing factory and later over lunch. He’s the world authority on things that blow up. Not ‘blow up’ as in explode – ‘blow up’ as in inflate. Lindstrand Tech specialises in developing "lighter than air" technology. Memorable as that was, it was overshadowed by the guy who fell off his bicycle 20 meters in front of us as we cruised down a hill at over 100kph. I’ve previously commented that people in Lycra are a hazard and 3 together, sniffing bottoms while practicing for the Tour de France is a disaster in limbo. Anyone who travels at speed with their backside higher than their brain is demonstrating a need for seriously strong medication and one of those jackets that have the sleeves crossed and sewn to the waist. As the rear rider performed a handlebar handstand followed by an inelegant half twist leading into a starfish summersault, Flypaper made the strangled squeal that always gives me a shot of adrenalin and causes me to swerve. Somehow we missed all 3 cyclists – and the approaching car. The guy behind me managed to stop with his bumper resting against the tangle of bike and body. We think the acrobat lived but didn’t go back to check his pulse. Flypaper was muttering about the potential paper work.
There are more languages spoken in England than in any other country in the world – over 300 at last count. This is entirely believable given its difficult for travellers to actually meet and speak to English people. When traveling, one interfaces with the retail, food, accommodation, entertainment and service industries. These are all staffed by relatively recent immigrants. The majority are from Eastern Europe. Many reminded us of Manuel from the Faulty Towers TV program. I was fascinated by the fact that the Polish people dominate the ‘hand’ car wash industry. We often gave HeeHaw a scrub to maintain a screen of respectability. Typically 4 – 6 new immigrants would attack the car from every angle. On each side we have a large graphic showing the flags of many countries we have visited. The washers National Flag would get very special attention and, understandably, they always wanted to talk to us about the magnificence of their home countries. Also understandably, I wanted to ask them why they left. Fact is, after visiting their countries I know why they left – I would have been on the first bus out. The Brits are astonishingly accommodating. That’s a pity as its ruining a wonderful nation.
Our final week was spent touring the ancient market towns of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire – the group of counties just above London. We stayed in the very modern city of Milton Keyes which was just a few miles from Silverstone where the British Formula 1 Grands Prix was held - at which we were hosted at the British Racing Drivers Club by Richie. The most interesting thing I learned in these quaint historic towns is that, in times past, if you couldn’t afford a Chimney Sweep, you dropped a live Goose down the Chimney. Armed with this knowledge we thought it best to scurry home. We have 4 chimneys at our house and all are overdue for a clean.

Posted by Wheelspin 15:53 Archived in England Tagged england travel adventure germany uk car_travel gps f1 sat gb haggis nav overland_tours nurburgring silverstone Comments (0)

Throw some more mud on the fire mother

rain 12 °C

When Christopher Columbus set off to discover the new world he left from Portugal. This was a very important decision. Had he departed from the Inner or Outer Hebrides we would never have had Fast Food, the Internet or Bottled Laxatives. The reason is simple – the Hebrides are on the edge of the world. You can see it from here. Some easily influenced people think that the world is a sphere. If you visit the Outer Hebrides you soon learn it isn’t. Its like an LP Vinyl Record. From Portugal you scribe a big arc, as would a gramophone needle, until you arrive at the various America’s. From the Hebrides, you sail out through the gloom and straight over the edge – unless the dragons get you first. Don’t scoff – there are witches here too, we stayed with one … although she was really well disguised as a very lovely artist going through a personal crisis (although we may have been contributing to that.) She was a self confessed witch and even had the sticker from the Witches Union on her transport that surprisingly wasn’t a broom. I digress.

When the Vikings came – this is some time ago and you may not find this information on Wikipedia yet – they noticed that either the mountains were the highest in the world or the sky here was the lowest. You can still see this for yourself. After a bit of uphill puffing they discovered the mountains weren’t so large but they still reached right up into the clouds every day. That logically proved that the sky was curving down to meet the earth, right here in the Hebrides. That’s why they called their principal overseas island HQ from where they organised the rape and pillage, Skye.
The island of Skye was unknown until a Scot named Donald starting going down to civilization without any trousers. Again, I digress – sorry.

The inner and outer Hebrides islands in summer are quite different. The outer ones look very much like a slightly moldy date scone. Brown with tinges of green and bits of black showing through here and there. The brown is where the snow sits for 8 months of the year; the green is a sort of grass and the black is rocks. The inner islands differ significantly in that they are really moldy – lots more grass - and chubbier sheep. No-one knows what they look like in winter because the horizontal rain makes it difficult to peer through the mist. However, its not unreasonably cold. The Hebrides have a cool temperate climate that is remarkably mild and consistent for their latitude. The average temperature for the year is 6 °C (44 °F) in winter and 14 °C (57 °F) in summer. This is due to being right in North Atlantic Current which is a continuation of the Gulf Stream northeast. When the days are sunny and warm its truly idyllic.

But it is windy. The Butt of Lewis (that’s its official name) is the windiest place in Great Britain. There are gales here one day in six and often small fish are blown onto the grass on top of the 190 metre (620 ft) high cliffs at Barra Head. According to the writer W. H. Murray, “If a visitor asks an islander for a weather forecast he will not, like a mainlander, answer dry, wet or sunny, but quote you a figure from the Beaufort Scale”. If anyone denies this fact, just point out that the sheep are able to eat while sitting down. It stops them being blown to Europe and entering without the proper EU documentation. The outer islands are very bare. I asked our first landlady on South Uist if there were any trees on the island. She thought a while and replied, “Yes, there’s one at McNaughton’s near Locheynort on the East Coast. Our father took us to see it when we were wee”.
On the car ferry travelling out to these islands I not only asked the Captain if he was certain his navigation was good (I was worried he would overshoot), but observed our fellow passengers. They all looked very glum and determined. I wondered if some of them had been sponsored on this journey by their children as a form of euthanasia and they knew it. The other thought was they had been eating dry Weetbix and sucking lemons. Worryingly, they all wore stout boots. Quite a few were driving Road Lice with Netherland or German registrations. Past experience has taught me this can be challenging on narrow roads. It transpired that most visitors to the Western Isle spend their time staggering up and down hills with the aid of walking sticks and occasionally snapping a picture of a passing bird. Their camera gear would make a pro paparazzi green with envy.

A previous visitor to the islands predicted I would have little write about. He will be surprised. For example, most of the toilets we were exposed to at our Bed and Breakfast accommodations were trendy square shaped. This may have been a packaging issue to fit them in the small bathrooms. However, a square toilet seat is anatomically inappropriate. Its been proved that Darwin was right - evolution is real and inevitable if exposed to a certain factor over time. I imagine the inhabitants of the Hebrides will all need to find a supplier of square trousers when they visit the mainland in the distant future.

B&B is the only way to live when visiting places like this. One meets the local people who inevitably turn out to be very interesting. The fact that they hope for strangers to invade their homes as often as possible is in itself an interesting characteristic. The additional fact that they extract significant sums of money from those invaders adds to their anticipation and pleasure when it happens. Some hosts only welcome and farewell their guests in the belief that the travelers will be tied and hoping for a good nights sleep before challenging their lungs and thighs on yet another steep climb to see a similar sight to that experienced the previous day. Other hosts want to impress with their service and knowledge so that one will scurry home and tell acquaintances that their dream of servants in the house can be realized by visiting certain addresses. Others just want to party and the nights rent is absorbed into ones bloodstream as a result of numerous refills of the local beverages. The remainder, who are in the majority, are very hospitable and happy to chat so long as you wish and it doesn’t impinge on their favorite TV program.

B&B accommodation is comfortable but often a little cramped – particularly in the bathroom. Some thought has to be given to the particular procedure planed before entering. Those taking an XXL shirt or larger, are best advised to pack plenty of deodorant and use the toilets at the gas station. Of interest to me, and my first time exposed to it, was a ‘lawn’ covered in crushed glass. Green, brown and clear bottles had been broken down to peanut size and spread thickly around the homestead. Our host confirmed that it had very low maintenance and her grandchildren preferred to stay inside where she could keep an eye on them. When I asked where to buy some she responded, “You can’t. The local Council stopped crushing their glass when they discovered I was the only customer. Its exclusive”.

Be advised to book accommodation in advance when visiting the Hebrides. There are hundreds of hotels and thousands of B&B … but from June to October they are all booked out. Given the lack of things to see and do, that astonished us and we did occasionally struggle to find a bed for the night. On one occasion the receptionist at a hotel told Flypaper that they only had a room for a ‘Handicapped’ person. “That’s me”, she said. “My handicap is still out in the car”. That’s despicable – and I think it falls under the heading of ‘negotiating under false pretences’.

I took the opportunity to ask all our hosts and anyone silly enough to fall into casual conversation, their opinion regarding the forthcoming poll asking for independence from Britain. It will be a close call.
About half said “Yes – the sooner we get rid of those thieves in Westminster and can spend all our own North Sea oil revenue and our EU subsidies the better”. When I suggested that experts advise the oil is about to run out they respond, “Oh no – there’s much more where that comes from. We’ll hire people to find it”. I suggested that should this indeed be the case, wouldn’t they need the large oil companies to invest, develop and harvest the oil. Normal procedure is for the resource owner to receive a royalty for the result. Their reply, “Oh no – most of our boys have been out on the rigs for years and they know how to do it”.
The agin half said, “The separatists are just a bunch of egotistical maniacs who want to be Kings and high paid Courtiers. They should put more water in their whisky”.
A small subgroup said, “We’d be happy enough with a compromise. The English must stop stealing our best football players”.

In the Hebrides the breakfasts are legendary. In addition to the well known full English which is called a ‘Scottish breakfast’ north of the boarder, there is almost certainly going to be black pudding and haggis. Both of these local delicacies are a worry to those who know what they are and how they are made. However, a traveler with intestinal fortitude and a positive attitude together with the knowledge that a medication called whisky is close at hand, should learn to enjoy these tasty treats. You will realize that given my surname, I am of Irish descent. My father never saw the bogs of Ireland but once a year he exhibited the stereotyped Irish confusion. On ‘Bobby Burns’ birthday he considered his Gaelic ancestry gave him the right to be an honorary Scot and he bought home all the ingredients for mother to prepare a Haggis. These ingredients included a sheep’s stomach in which the dish was cooked. There were also other things in the recipe of which I developed a mental block. Its advisable to leave the building while this is being cooked. On Burn’s big day this Haggis was shared with the nearby McLeod and Gibson families. We children showed great neighborly love by graciously giving our share to others. Today I would tell the neighbours to beggar off and find their own sheep offal.

The other foods we have been sustained by are Venison. Some islands deer populations outnumber humans 30 to 1. (eg. Jura means ‘deer island’) and fish. After eating Halibut for the first 3 nights Flypaper suggested it was time to move down to the 2nd line on the menus. She’s become very authoritative about fish since she ate a ‘Kipper’ for breakfast. These are oily herring that have been especially prepared to look like fresh road kill. Flat and red. I was tempted, until told that Kippers are popular with the working class. We have eaten well, except in the capital town on Lewis – Stornoway. It’s the largest town in the Western Isles with 9,000 inhabitants plus tens of thousands of visitors passing through. There are 3 Chinese, 2 Indian & 1 Thai Restaurant for casual drop-ins together with 1 overpriced hotel dining room and a café that requires a reservation if you want their ‘fish & chips (but closed Sunday & evenings). There’s a big opportunity here for a canny Scot chef who can whip up a dish or two of the local fare. I envisage the pièce de résistance being a full Haggis - piped in on a tray with Neeps & Tatties, sliced at the table with a Highland Dirk – closely followed by a serving wench with a compulsory glass of Scotch. (The crass can have Haggis as a Pizza topping.)

While the average tourist would have sheep offal, Connoisseur’s like myself would be offered the ‘real’ wild haggis.
The Wild Haggis (Haggis scoticus) is a very rare creature native to the Scottish Highlands. It should not be confused with the final preparation, the dish also known as haggis. The Wild Haggis's right and left legs are of different lengths allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides which make up its natural habitat - but only in one direction. Owing to a process of natural selection, there are therefore two varieties of Wild Haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain while the latter can run anticlockwise. The two varieties coexist peacefully but are unable to interbreed in the wild because, in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance before he can mount her.
The Wild Haggis can only be hunted after training with the ‘knowledge’. First, be sure to identify whether the ‘Haggis’ you are stalking is a clockwise or anti-clockwise variety. Dig a hole in which to hide then, as it approaches, leap out and yell, "BOOOO!!" (it will be noted that facing in the wrong direction at this point would be rather ineffectual, hence the importance of pre-determining the rotational preference of the intended prey). Fright will cause the animal to recoil and turn in an attempt to run in the opposite direction, the consequences of which will be immediately apparent. While it is still stunned from rolling downhill, scurry down, whack it over the head with your shillelagh and pop it into your haversack. Your hunt will be more effective if you have a ‘Haggis Whistle’. After practice you can imitate the matting call of the wild Haggis with predictable results. (To purchase a whistle just send me an email)

Everyone in the Western Isles can speak English and quite often they can be understood. Left alone they prefer to speak Scottish Gaelic. This is also the language dominant on all the signposts. Fortunately they provide an English translation in small print which is a great relief. The locals are not happy if you remind them that their language evolved from Ireland – as they did. The early colonization of the Hebrides was north from nearby Ireland. Examples of Gaelic … Good morning is Madainn mhath. Thank you is Tapadh leat. Perhaps when they get independence the Scottish ‘guvmint’ will insist that all communication is in Gaelic.

Nature provides almost every region of the world with a natural and relatively accessible energy source. ie. something to burn that provides heat and enables cooking. The exceptions are the Arctic & Antarctic where it’s a little difficult because you have to get the process started by rendering down a few seals or penguins. Here in the Hebrides they have Peat. People have been living here for 7,000 years. Mind you, ‘living’ is a relative term. It’s been pretty tough until the EU started sending subsidies for uneconomic farming. Peat is formed when dead plants decompose in waterlogged acidic soil. The brackens, heathers, mosses and grasses marinade for a few thousand years until they become a soil that is about 60% organic. The thick gluggy loam is cut out in ‘bricks’, left to dry for a few months then carted home to store until needed to fuel a surprisingly hot and smoke free fire. All over the islands one sees the evidence of generations of families’ efforts harvesting peat from the bogs to heat their homes. Many still do. I imagine the first person to discover peat burns was the one who built a mud hut then rashly discarded his cigarette butt. His house burnt down but he discovered a way for his ‘missus’ to add variety to the menu. In addition to lamb tartare, they now have fried, roasted, grilled and burnt.

Posted by Wheelspin 01:35 Archived in Scotland Tagged me landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches bridges churches art buildings skylines people children parties trees animals birds sky snow night planes boats trains crete england travel adventure germany turkey romania hungary czech uk georgia peloponnese republic bulgaria car_travel crimea moldova brno pilsner eastern_europe hebrides black_sea gb haggis overland_tours caucuses nurburgring plizen Comments (0)

Stick a purple carrot in the dyke

overcast 17 °C

Holland is actually the name of a region and former province in the Netherlands. I never knew that until I recently offended a guy simply by asking him directions. Usually I have to concentrate to offend effectively and wonder if I’m moving into a new phase of communication excellence. The Netherlands used to be a big marshy lagoon behind a row of sand dunes between England and Germany. Not content with this the regions inhabitants connected the dunes with dams they called dykes, pumped out the water and fertilized the old bog to become a huge market garden that exports 2/3’s of all it grows. It’s a great and innovative concept. Imagine if Fiji joined up all their islands with a dyke then pumped out the water and let their hard working Indian population buy the bit in the middle to grow sugarcane. They would be a country about the size of Great Britain. Scary thought – unlikely, given Fiji isn’t renowned for long lasting construction or willing to risk letting the Asians become powerful enough to change the county name to Chapati.
Before I continue, Flypaper, who has Dutch friends, acquaintances and relatives, has insisted I post a warning that they and others claiming Dutch sympathies, should skip the remainder of page 1 and all of page 2.
‘Netherlands’ literally means ‘Low lands’. Much of the country is below sea level- which is why they spread the word about sticking ones finger in the hole if you notice a dyke leaking. Interestingly, the Netherlanders are (on average) the tallest people in the world – handy when 50% of the country is less than a meter above sea level.
The country is protected from westerly tidal waves by Great Britain but if ever Iceland was to seriously erupt – and its been having a good go for some time, the tidal wave will aim straight for the dykes. Netherlands would become a German beach. Until that time this country is just the place to go for a bunch of flowers or a cheese sandwich.
Holland has been responsible for many inventions and initiatives over the year (eg. Gin, the pendulum clock and the CD ROM - to mention a few that cause a lot of trouble) but two caught my attention. The origination and natural environment of the speed-bump is the countryside of the Netherlands. This simple device demonstrates the natural cunning and commercial instinct of the Dutch. The speed-bump has spread worldwide like an infesting noxious weed, spawning an industry of undercar repair and introduced new expletives in numerous languages. The other ingenious invention was the glasshouse. Again, simple, but it provided the basis for a whole new fanaticism or religious persuasion known as vegetarianism. Glasshouses cover a significant area of Holland and undoubtedly it was a greenhouse owner who coined the phrase, “Those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones” I never saw even one stone being thrown during my whole week looking.
The world’s greatest collection of antique bicycles resides in this land of negative elevation. Since the day bicycles were invented it has become a family tradition to hand down ones bike to a favourite child or, failing a favourite, one with strong thighs and a stubborn disposition ... which is pretty much everyone in the country. The other siblings must purchase their own bike which in time become an heirloom of lesser distinction. They inevitably buy a new Omafiets (granny bike) to maintain the staunch image. To arrive at university on Great Grandpas heavy old Fongers guarantees respect, good, marks and body odour.
This countries transport industry is based on the bicycle. (There are about 15 mainstream bicycle manufactures in the Netherlands). There are paths and lanes everywhere - over 19,000kms of them. Occasionally a car is allowed to share a nearby road but must remain subservient to the bicycle. From a very young age the Dutch are taught that, on their bike they have the right of way and will be found blameless in the event of an accident. An early parent child discussion will go something like this, “Henk/Janneke If you clean your clogs, and eat up all your cheese salad, when I die you will get Grootvader’s bicycle. Then you can ride about making rude gestures’ to car drivers and ride across the road in front of them. If you survive the accident you can sue the car driver. If you don’t survive then mummy and I have a plan to produce a second child to get the bicycle”.
Another unique driving experience is stopping at a red light and being astonished when a boat crosses the road in front of you. The first time this happened to me I said to Flypaper, “Oi, there must be a ‘coffee shop’ around here wafting smoke about. I thought I saw a boat on the road”. Perhaps this is the reason the guvmint is changing the rules about coffee shops – they must now sell coffee. The locals giggle at this suggestion and take no notice. Interestingly they all claim a medical condition that requires the administration of mind altering substances – often while riding their bike. The Dutch cycling teams are formidable on the world athletic stage, but I fear they may soon have difficulties convincing the anti-doping commission that their advantage is from natural exposure to their environment.
In 2011 Netherlanders were ranked the happiest country in the world by the UN. That was before the ‘orthoritees’ started tinkering with the Coffee Shop Soft Drug Laws. As a result Denmark took over the top spot for happiness but they have now been knocked off their perch by Norway. I don’t get it. The people in these countries pay the highest tax’s in the world – how can they be happy? All I can think of is they all scoff Pickled Herrings at every opportunity. It seems logical therefore that if you are depressed about paying your tax – gobble a pickled herring. In my experience it certainly takes your mind of your other problems or at least until you stop retching.
We have especially enjoyed 3 good meals in the Netherlands. Two at the same restaurant on sequential evenings in Zansvoort and another at lunch in Edam (where we were supposed to be sampling cheese (of all things). The evening meals were at a superb fish restaurant on the beach – yes, right on the beach with no concern about the Icelandic tidal wave. Our hosts assured Flypaper that they rowed their own little boat out each day and caught Sea Bass. Being gullible she bought that and continually commented regarding its freshness. “It sure is fresh, I just saw it wink at me”, she said on one occasion. My approach was more scientific. I enquired which was their most popular and avoided that on the basis that it would have been bought in bulk and goodness knows who had previously handled it. I avoided the salted herring given I had not pre-lined my complete digestive tract with an impermeable membrane and avoided anything caught in the North Sea given it was certainly radioactive. I’m not partial to eels or anything that has an appearance of having being put through a wringer – I prefer 3 dimensional fish – with a length to depth ratio of less than 4 and the bones removed. That left me with a dish initially caught off the coast of Canada in 2012, instantly frozen on deck and quarantined for an appropriate time in Sweden where it was tested for mercury and considered to be superior quality to that used in fish fingers. When asked how I would like it cooked I said, “With chips”. Superb.
The lunch was an accident. While navigating the narrow canal roads of Edam old city, Flypaper remarked that she was ready for a coffee. Experience has taught me this is code for, “It’s a long time since we had a toilet stop”. By chance we were approaching a small building advertising Profiteroles. Given I am seldom allowed deserts because it may ruin my perfect physique; I saw the current emergency as an opportunity to indulge. When we entered we were met by a delightful young man who responded to my look of astonishment. The interior remained similar to its original décor 150 years ago. The original waffle machine remained (old and black from service) as did an amazing cast brass gas fired profiterole plate in the middle of the room. Taken by the ambiance and our chef/waiters insistence that we were alone in the world’s oldest and best profiterole restaurant, we ordered 2 large dishes from a mouth-watering selection. Our host allowed us to observe his operation of the hotplate. To Flypapers horror and my delight, we each received 32 golf-ball sized Profiteroles, topped with a 40g slab of butter, 3 large scoops of ice-cream, lashings of whipped cream and a large serving of the fruit of our choice (Morello Cherries for Flypaper and rum marinated raisins for myself). Our ever-helpful host placed the huge dishes in front of us and remarked, “I’ve called the hospital and they are expecting you soon. They have an excellent remedy for gluttony”.
The reason for our visit to the Netherlands was to play in the sand. More specifically the sand hills at Zandvoort on the coast just south of Amsterdam. Many years ago someone had the foresight to build a motor race circuit there and I had arranged to drive a car with 2 other mature gentlemen for 12 hours to see if we could take home something that will require our wives to polish each year. I think that its nice the ladies feel wanted. We succeeded and had a fine time doing it. With our trophies we were each presented with a large and lovely bunch of flowers. I would have preferred something more masculine like a cast iron spittoon – but this is Holland. We decided it would be nice to give the flowers to the 3 guys who owned the quaint and creatively decorated little hotel we were staying at. Having done so, our team leader casually mentioned that perhaps we should lock our doors that night. Flypaper thought he was worried someone would steal our trophies.
Zandvoort is a pretty little coastal town on a beach that stretches out of sight up and down the coast. Mostly one loses sight because of the air pollution but I’m told they sometimes have lovely clear days when thousands of people flock to their beach. In anticipation an Australian guy has set up a Surfing School. I suspect this idea came to him in a coffee shop because the biggest surf on a real rough day can be as high as 60cm (2ft). He also has a restaurant providing ‘Genuine Aussie food’ – whatever that is. I think his target market is people who cannot bicycle all the way to experience the real thing. Lots of others come here to fly their kites or stoically row back and forth on paddle boards. With all this activity, many enterprising people have established hotels, bars and restaurants to take advantage of the remaining 23.6 hours of the day. There are hundreds of ‘hospitality’ businesses – and little else. For example, just above the high tide line but still where sand gets in your shoes, there are about 28 large restaurants. Only the Dutch would, with great precision and logic, name them 1, 2. 3, 4 ………. 26, 27 and 28. Our favourite fish place was No 18 and the 12hr race event prize-giving was at No 21. This latter establishment is a large shed with a barbeque outside on the leeward side, some plastic chairs on the windy sea side, and inside, a bar serving rather insipid beer at one end and an overlarge area set aside for an extremely noisy band who failed to consider that the demographic of ‘endurance’ drivers is decidedly in favour of mature people. An age group who need to dance clutching someone tightly to stop both falling over. The race organisers do a splendid job of running their event but the ‘beach party’ at the conclusion certainly lowered the tone – by about 40 years. We love the sound of a roaring engine but the racket caused by a poorly played electric guitar trying to overcome a frenetic drummer in support of a shrieker who is rendering a completely different tune, is more than I can stand. Even the intriguing tattoos on the female squawker failed to encourage us to wait about after we had our dust collectors.
One evening I noticed a strange white vegetable on my plate. It was sort of like a small parsnip – but I can sense a parsnip in the room and knew my antennae weren’t twitching. I consulted Flypaper who said it resembled a bleached carrot. When it comes to bleaching, woman know these things so I was relatively content. Later in the evening I was moved to complement the chef who was duly summonsed. During my speech, in fact just after telling him he was, in my opinion, the worlds foremost expert in preparing French Fries (commonly known by us gourmets’ as ‘Chips’), I asked about the tasteless white vegetable that had cost him the perfect score. In his disappointment he confirmed it was a carrot and he would never serve them again. I, quite reasonably, asked him why, particularly as he was Dutch, he was unaware that the rest of the world had orange carrots. He then told me this amazing fact. Orange carrots were originally propagated in Netherlands during the 16th Century. They were especially bred in honour of the House of Orange who were the big wigs around the Netherlands at that time. Before that, all carrots were white, yellow, black, purple or red. I’m grateful he didn’t serve the black or purple varieties as he would have lost the chance to complete my education and allow me to share this with you.

Posted by Wheelspin 11:14 Archived in Netherlands Tagged me landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches bridges churches art buildings skylines people children parties trees animals birds sky snow night planes boats trains crete england travel adventure germany turkey romania hungary czech uk georgia peloponnese republic bulgaria car_travel crimea moldova brno pilsner eastern_europe black_sea gb overland_tours caucuses nurburgring plizen Comments (0)

Try the stewed bat

sunny 28 °C

I suspect that many more people have died from eating food than from going without. Starvation is much rarer than heart attacks, poisoning, gastric ailments and all the other nasty things that occur from imbibing. This thought occurred to me one evening as we stood in the kitchen of a remote rural Peloponnese restaurant. The proprietor was proudly lifting in succession, the lids off 5 large pots that were simmering on a large greasy metal plate with no visible means of heat. I think he stoked the fire from outside. My second thought was, “The trustees of our wills are not going to be happy about this decision”.

The owner was a jovial rotund businessman who recognized a captive market and was prepared to take advantage of it. We now remember him and his establishment as “The Greasy Greek”. Not original but very apt. As we peered through the steam into each pot he waved a big dripping spoon and identified the contents. Now, Greek is not our strongest suite but I attempted to translate for Flypaper who is a culinary expert but was looking mystified on this occasion. Pot 1 – “Stewed Bat” I suggested. Pot 2 – something with a furry tail – “Looks like cat. Poached in oil”. Pot 3 – same as Pot 2 but with more fur and some potato. “Could be a Squirrel”. With a flourish and a look of great pride he whipped the lid off Pot 4 and said, “Geot”. I know that’s Greek for Goat and this was confirmed as we could see 3 goats’ hooves laying contentedly in bubbling yogurt. Given all the goats we have met had 4 legs, Flypaper announced that this looked promising as someone else had tried it and we hadn’t noticed any distressed or unusually still customers out front. The final pot obviously held tomatoes that were stuffed with rice and again accompanied with potato. All except the hooves were floating in oil that was well above the plimsoll line.

Flypaper chose the goat that happily arrived without the really hard bits. The meat was minced and wrapped in oily cabbage with soggy oil impregnated chips. I had the tomato which was smothered in yogurt and accompanied with 3 slices of oily potato. Together with fresh bread and the obligatory ‘Greek Salad’ it was … um … filling. The litre of local rough white helped.

Greek food is generally very predictable. The restaurants could easily swap menus without their regular patrons noticing. Every meal is started with lots of bread and a large Greek salad. Tomatoes, cucumber, onion and (surprisingly) an occasional olive – all smothered in olive oil and topped with a huge slab of crumbly white cheese of dubious origin. Good creative food may be available in the Peloponnese but we never found it. Our 30 Euro per night budget (3 courses with wine) may have been a factor. It’s not due to a lack of resources but our wish to eat with, and the same as, local people. Our choice of 2 or occasionally 3 star hotels ensures we won’t be tempted by flash tourist western food. In some locations we visit, only the most basic accommodation and eating places are available. Flypaper arranges this to ensure I appreciate her home efforts. We never have gastric problems and often drink local water - which in the Peloponnese is excellent. Many years ago I explained to Flypaper how the really bad pathogens are large, heavy and cannot swim well so they sink to the bottom of the glass. If she just slurps the surface layers she’ll be fine. It seems to have worked. She agrees she’s fortunate having someone to really care for her.

Greeks eat late – seldom before 8am, 3pm and 9.30 in the evening. I believe it’s only the copious olive oil that halts the onset of rigor mortis and stops me falling facefirst into plate of sheep byproduct. The lack of olives being served is puzzling. Perhaps these are being saved for the infirm or disturbed – or exported to a more generously funded market. However, the reason for the lack of fish around the Southern Greek coast is well known. It’s an ecological disaster. Like the Black Sea and the Turkish Mediterranean Coast, overfishing and destruction of spawning habitat has virtually wiped out all the fish. Generally the only fish available in restaurants are small, like sardines. This is tragic. It’s changed the whole commercial basis of southern Greece and left the fishing / boat industries destitute.

For a couple of days our GPS urged us on towards “Calamitus”. It sounded like a Greek destination and many locals we had spoken to had used the word to describe the financial devastation experienced last year. Flypaper wasn’t enthusiastic. She recalled a number of other times we had visited places that could be described as calamitus and suggested we look for a destination called “Beneficial”. We never arrived at either.

The ‘mature’ people we spoke to about their recent financial losses told us with great disgust about the reduction in their pensions. They are now down to about the same level as New Zealand. I didn’t think it would be too difficult to live of that in a half finished house eating oily squirrel sandwiches – but I did accept that it would be impossible to continue to drink 28 cups of ice coffee each day on that budget. The Greeks are continually clutching takeaway containers of disgusting black fluid covered in whipped cream. It may be a cheap anesthetic. Life is certainly tougher here now.

Following disappointing exposure to intense commercialization of the ruins at ancient Olympia, we continued up the eastern and along the northern coast of the Peloponnese. The things that made the biggest impression were …
-the tolls being charged on existing roads to raise funds for future improvements. You can imagine the skeptics who predict the toll income will far exceed the expenditure on their new motorway. Their fears are well founded in other previous ventures.
- the electioneering being undertaken at the toll booths. What a perfect opportunity for the politicians who can give their message to every motorist forced to stop, open the window and wait until the barrier is raised.
- the Corinth Canal. This is worth further study. It’s not comparable with the Suez or the Panama efforts as its only 6.4km long and 23m wide. But it is spectacular. Briefly, The canal was first considered in classical times. Back then when the Romans wanted to attack the Greeks at Athens they had to row right around the Peloponnese. This really annoyed the Galley Slaves who asked their union reps to petition the guvmint to find a shortcut. It never started as the brains trust said the higher water level in the Gulf of Corinth would flood the Saronic Gulf. (Huh? They hadn’t noticed it was neither uphill nor downhill when rowing the long way around.) An effort was made to build it in 67 AD when the megalomaniac Nero turned the first sod with a gold hoe. Serious construction finally commenced in 1881 but the geological and financial problems bankrupted those builders. It was completed after about 2,000 years effort in 1893, but due to the canal's narrowness, navigational problems and regular closures to repair landslides from its vertical walls, it failed to attract the level of traffic anticipated by its operators. It is now used mainly for tourist traffic. It’s also perfect for Bungee Jumping off one of the bridges. Look up some pictures on the net for yourself – quite amazing.

It may sound profane to suggest that we have become rather tired of visiting ruined castles, ruined churches, ruined theaters, ruined …. You get the idea. Especially as they always seemed to be located somewhere along a ruined road and often in a hot dusty place … which means Flypaper must wash her hair far more often than I prefer. There have been times I’ve wanted to get on the road, and also times I’ve wanted to use the bathroom for more urgent activity. I put it to Flypaper to explain the difference between a rock from a castle lying at summit of a sweaty hike, to a rock from a church protruding from a weedy field. After contemplation she replied, “I’d like a G & T on the rocks”. I rest my case. Given mankind has individually placed millions and millions of rocks into patterns over the past 5,000 years – and did so without a big digger or even a building permit – why doesn’t each country collect all their ruins and place then in one place. They could even amalgamate some of the ruins into something more like it was 2,000 years ago. It would be a magnet for tourists who could get the cultural stuff over with and quickly move on to the shopping. Commercially I think this is worthy of consideration and it would also help the ‘baby boomers’ who now make up the majority of travelers. Put the rocks on the coast so they can see them from their cruise ship as they sail up to the duty free area.

On the subject of construction, I am perturbed to observe that the Greeks have the same attitude to maintenance as most other countries between the Equator and the tropics of Capricorn or Cancer. I appreciate that these places are generally hot and work is a tiring activity. However, the future is not good for these locations. ‘Developers’ have rushed about creating ‘environments’ that seem to be badly designed and built of inferior materials so that they can buy a super-yacht and sail to a cooler climate where the rubbish is collected regularly. Those remaining will discover, and indeed, have discovered, that all of these places will soon fall into disrepair. Sadly there is no enthusiasm or expertise to repair anything. A traveler with a multi-tool is quit busy just servicing the needs of his companion without considering city infrastructure. These thoughts evolved because, earlier today, our 2WD car had to navigate 4WD terrain and now our toilet is blocked.

As our time in the Peloponnese nears end I have finally accepted that our Toyota rental car is haunted. The various controls alter without my input. The air-conditioning mysteriously changes, the windows sneak down just a little, the handbrake ratchets up a couple of notches, the radio volume decreases and so on. I asked Flypaper if she noticed these things and she said, “I’ve been asleep”. I can imagine it is haunted – a previous driver probably died of boredom.

Finally, after 3 weeks research I feel qualified to report that more people die on the Greek roads during Sunday than any other day of the week. The reason is Lycra. Particularly the Lycra worn by cyclists. On Sunday everyone who owns or can steal a bicycle is out on the city streets and country roads. It really annoys motorists for whom the roads were created. Men, who would normally be sleeping until midday then going to a bar with their mates to watch a replay of the previous nights football, are somehow influenced to wear this bright stretchy material inevitably covered by ego boosting graffiti. When they have the kit they hit the roads every weekend. The deaths occur for various reasons. Some are appropriately run over by motorists, others ride over cliffs or become forever lost in Olive groves. All predictable. The big tragedy however is the heart attacks suffered by out of condition riders and, (this is where my research is more thorough than others) the heart failures suffered by middle-aged men motoring along behind the female Lycra clad riders. They don’t seem able to pass and are eventually overcome by the stress. Flypaper noticed I was falling into the same trap and cunningly started pointing out all the ruins. Ruins are everywhere in Greece – these are the ladies that are well past their prime.

Posted by Wheelspin 11:11 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Attacked by the Mayor

sunny 30 °C

The Eastern Peloponnese reminds me of the East Coast of New Zealand – gorse, broom and thistles. The Central Peloponnese reminds me of the West Coast – it rained while we were there. These areas in both countries are mountainous and quite spectacular. All are worthy of a visit – but the Peloponnese option will need a GPS to find your way around. This is, not surprisingly, because all the road signs are in Greek and for added confusion the place names change at the whim of the signwriter. Few people that I know who have visited Greece have ventured into the large part south of Athens. This is where Ancient Olympus is located. Lots have sailed around the Peloponnese on their Mediterranean Cruises – they would have seen a lovely rugged coastline and picturesque Greek ports and villages – that is if they weren’t busy in the ships restaurant, beauty spa or casino.

We travel everywhere with a GPS (SatNav) these days. We were probably the original early adopters of this technology after Flypaper, in 1994, failed to orientate her map and we missed 2 countries. Now I have a melodic soothing navigator who never says, “Take me to the nearest bus stop”. You can imagine my surprise when I turned on our GPS at Athens airport expecting to hear dulcet tones – and it spoke to me in rapid Mandarin with a very stern tone. I’m very partial to an occasional Chinese meal but a strident Chinese woman telling me continually to do a U turn is not my idea of an agreeable travel companion. My attempts to reprogram were in vain. The machine is now oriental – and out of warranty.

Plan B was to convince the clerk at the rental car company that Flypaper had ordered a sporty vehicle complete with GPS – neither of which he was indicating on the booking form. The guy smirked as if he had heard these stories before and I suspected I may need to prompt Flypaper to produce tears. We compromised. He hired us a Toyota and charged us a token 10 Euro fee for the gadget that would maintain marital bliss for the next 9 days – after that it would be back to the challenge. You may think we did well – I don’t. Toyota used to make some excellent cars. In recent years they have chosen the easy uncomplaining market – the sedate and stolid who believe everything they read. Think about it. If you happily drive a modern Toyota you will be by nature serene and possibly dignified. If you drive a Toyota and hate it, that’s because someone influential of placid or sedentary nature convinced you it would be a good buy – and reliable. If you hate your Toyota you should convince your influencing handbrake you should buy an Alfa Romeo. A few years ago in Italy I saw 2 groups of Nuns racing each other in Alfa’s. What better roll model than a Nun?

The Toyota we were made to suffer just to get a GPS would be suitable for someone who is anesthetized. Ladies pushing prams passed us going up hills. Coming down again the electronic stability control made a raucous noise and applied the brakes. However … many years ago I started to carry a multitool on our travels. Usually this repairs hotel plumbing, air-conditioning, etc … and is handy for removing stones from horses hooves. On one occasion it mended a woman’s garment that she referred to as her ‘suspension aid’. This tool has multiple features that enabled me to disable the Toyota ESC and the sensor that told it not to rev past 3,000rpm. Now Flypaper is saying the countryside looks blurry.

Our nights at Argos were interesting. This was the first of two weekends voting in the local then national elections. Saturday night was amazing. The whole town was buzzing with families and people of all ages socializing until way after we gave up observing. Sunday night was even more astonishing as there were outside broadcast television interviewers in strategic places to intercept and interview the opinionated. Every restaurant and bar had a large TV set up and everyone was following the results as they flowed in from all over the country. The total population must have been on the streets. The big surprise was that the local mayors and political candidates were picking up the bills at the bars. This encouraged attendance and increased drinking which in turn added to loud opinion. It was also a factor in attracting a large voting percentage – worth trying at home. In spite of the uproar we retired about midnight – but were woken at 1.30am by what sounded like an invasion. My first thought was, “The Russians have come back for their money”. My second thought was, “The multitool is unlikely to help this time”. In spite of the horrendous noise and the building shaking, Flypaper complained that she needed to use the toilet I was hiding in. I reached a deal – if she looked out the window to check we weren’t under direct fire, I would move to the wardrobe. When she checked she discovered that we were being entertained by a huge fireworks display. The launch site was outside our widow and the explosions immediately above. At breakfast we learned that traditionally the winning mayor pays for the show. I’m starting to appreciate how Greece fell from being a leading power to a leader of the bankrupt PIGS fraternity.

At this hotel, our host would have been at least 15 years my senior – but he insisted on carrying Flypapers suitcase up to our second floor room. This suitcase is nicknamed, ‘Widow maker’ as it has bought on numerous heart attacks. Not only did this scrawny weakling achieve his goal, he rushed back and took my bag from the resting place halfway up. He must be an Olympian. At breakfast I chose the Greek Yogurt and added Olives to my scrambled eggs.

That healthy body building choice was fortunate. My selection for lunch in a dockside café on the coast was their Sunday special – the only one that didn’t include a Greek salad. Roast pork – one of my favorites. The serving however was suitable for a family of 5. It was enormous and delicious. To my chagrin, I was unable to finish it – then to completely ruin the day, was compelled to stop the car halfway home for a short nap. The only thing that distracted from my distress was Flypaper spotting a tortoise on the side of the road. (We had seen a few of these). However, when I reversed to take a snap – it turned out to be a rock. My pride was saved by the only thing in Greece that moves slower than a tortoise or a Toyota.

As we tour through remote mountain regions seldom visited by anyone except ancient shepherds with hooked sticks, we see all sorts of things. Energy producing plants are usually in remote high places. Coal fired power stations, wind power generators and increasingly, photovoltaic power generation all seems to occur up in the mountains. When Flypaper asked me why, I was able to tell her that’s because the electricity can run downhill to the towns without using pumps. She thought that was pretty smart – until she shared this knowledge with someone else who suggested she have me jabbed with hot poker.

There cannot be many people drown in Greek rivers during summer. You may suspect that is perhaps because the Greeks have an inflated opinion of their intelligence which could provide added buoyancy or, maybe there’s a law against accidents as in my homeland. I would however, advance the theory that it’s because there is no water in the rivers. With very few exceptions, even in spring, the rivers are totally dry. I think many only flow during the snow melt when swimming is not a preferred activity.

In spring the countryside is a riot of colour. The variegated new shoots and colourful blossom on trees, myriad wildflowers - and graffiti. The towns and cities have riots of another nature and they also have graffiti. This was an Italian concept which has existed in Greece since ancient times. In fact the word comes from the Greek graphi which means ‘to write’. If you see only one design that is graffito (singular) – that is very rare here in Greece where the plural Graffiti is arguably their best art form. I certainly like it better than the marble carving which always seems to be missing critical components like arms and heads. While it is sadly true that many graffito deface attractive things, here in Greece, if you look carefully, they enhance some pretty old worn out surfaces.

We spent two nights in the city that became synonymous with severe austerity - Sparta. The city is no longer Spartan … but our hotel room was. For example, a mattress on top of the timber frame would have been nice. I suggested to our host that it was time to let go, move on, get with the times. However he considered it a completely different concept associated with profitability. Spartacus would by spinning in his tomb. This could have been avoided if we had a better education. I have since learned that admiration for the Spartans even has a name, Laconophilia. The name of our hotel was the ‘Larconia’.

Another Spartan trait that lingers is the quality of the restaurants. Around 650BC a Sybarite, who ate at a public food house in Sparta, once famously remarked: "Now I know why the Spartans do not fear death." It was after our meal was served that I felt the same quote had modern application.

I have mentioned previously about the double white lines on the road being used as another lane. The same Spartan guy who gave me a brief lesson in Greek believed that it was OK to drive in the centre so long as only two wheels went over the lines. Any more than two is liable to generate rude gestures from other drivers and even the attention of the police – but only if you have an accident. This is the sort of advanced thinking that once made Greece the leading power in the world.

Another observation while driving are the young mothers strolling down the narrow borderless roads behind a pushchair. I suspect they are practicing the ancient pagan tradition of child sacrifice. Mothers, think about this next time you push your child onto the pedestrian crossing.

We had a coffee in a seafront Café that smelt and looked like it may have been an afterhour Opium den. Flypaper fell into conversation with a woman who appeared to me was recruiting for the local branch of the Witches Union. She told Flypaper in Greeklish about the ingredients that may have been required to cast a nasty spell. It transpired that it was a lesson on how to make face and body cream using natural local ingredients. Pulp some aloe vera, add honey and olive oil together with some ground lavender and flower petals. I didn’t feel comfortable about asking her where she personally applied this concoction, but from what I could see, she may, if the wind was in the right direction, only be successful in attracting bees.

For many years Flypaper has been hunting down and purchasing Kalamata olives. On arrival in that city she was disappointed to discover that their much lauded and widely exported products were decidedly inferior to many others we had been served. She was inclined to agree with me when I suggested the Kalamata Olives were comparable to marinated goats droppings. I hasten to add, in the interests of international trade relations, that I am referring to a very good breed of goat.

Posted by Wheelspin 08:45 Archived in Greece Tagged peloponnese Comments (0)

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