Bruges in 60 seconds

Bruges in 60 seconds

How come Belgians aren’t fat?

Bruges, Belgium’s medieval jewel, “Venice of the North”, is home to a thousand chocolate shops, too many famous artists to mention and Wally de Backer, better known as the pop star, er, Gotye.  (no, nor have I). Here, when you are tired of chocolate, you eat chips, mayo, waffles, cream, egg nog (Advocaat),  drink copious amounts of Trappist Beer (around 6-14% alcohol) or a bewildering variety of locally made Gins, Vodkas and weirder spirits.

We stayed in The Dukes’ Palace, super-central, flawless 5* Gaff.  Actually, most of the multiple hotels and BnBs are super-central; you can walk from one side of town to the other in about half an hour.

Bruges is small, pretty, ancient, friendly, free of crime, with confusingly planned cobbled streets connecting the many churches and squares all of which are delicately lit at night.bruges shops night.jpg

Art: we stood in awe before Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgement, a kind of Dali-esque depiction of both Heaven and Hell and we admired one of the finest collections of Bruge’s own welshman Frank Brangwyn. God: We genuflected before the Blood of Christ himself in the Basilica.  Food: we ate at Patrick Devos (fabulous and expensive) and Poules Moules (fun and cheap) and drank Brugse Zot beer (6%) with three brothers from Leeds whilst watching Scotland beat Wales at rugby in Delaney’s Irish Bar.

It’s hard to find fault with this lovely little town only 3 hours away by Eurostar (via Brussels).  But like the taxi driver said, watch out for cyclists and above all the horse-drawn carriages who could all use an visit to driving school.

See also Rome in 60 seconds, Barcelona in 60 secondsCyprus in 60 seconds and Mallorca in 60 seconds

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Rome in sixty seconds (or ruined in Rome)

I can’t believe it’s taken me 58 years to discover Rome.  Bursting with history, fashion and restaurants, it’s a magnet for geeks, trend-setters and foodies alike.  Most towns can offer history but nowhere is it so evident as in Rome.  It’s all around you.  I saw chunks of Roman masonry stacked away in an old stone arch (itself probably as old) counting the centuries while patiently awaiting a place in the catalogs of the next generation of tired archaeologists.Rome pano.jpg

The town is big enough to offer huge variety (the backstreets of Trastevere vs. opulence of The Vatican) yet small enough to be largely navigable by foot.  We walked from The Bee Fountain in Piazza Barberini (1625) to the Colosseum (AD 72) via the relatively modern (1925) but no less impressive Altare Della Patria – two millennia in less than an hour.  Warpspeed.

Holy Seagull
A holy seagull at The Vatican

The top-line attractions however are victims of their own popularity and can be mobbed by selfie-stick wielding turisti and a swarm of multi-lingual, self-appointed VIP guides whose ecclesiastical knowledge could be written on a bible marker.  Premium “skip the line” tickets are available which are a good idea, but like Easyjet early-boarding they attract the wrong type of tourists and earn scorn from the 3-hour queue-ers.  No doubt soon there will be skip the skip-the-line tickets and skiptheskiptheskiptheskiptheline tickets too – I could go on.

Italy’s economic position is shaky and it’s future is uncertain but Rome seems healthy enough with plenty of premium retail going on.  We sampled a little of it with a cocktail on the roof terrace of The Sofitel Hotel whose sunset views over The Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese are pretty much unsurpassed.  Then we ate Truffles and lobster at Ad Hoc in Via di Ripetti. I can only hope that the exorbitant cost of these luxuries staves off the Italians’ fiscal collapse for a little longer.

See also Cyprus in sixty seconds and Barcelona in sixty seconds

The Jack Jackson Recording Studios

There are museums that specialise in all sorts of things if you know where to find them – I saw an extraordinary collection of vacuum cleaners at Knebworth House and once I was taken to the Erotic Art Museum in Hamburg.  There’s diversity for you; two types of sucking on two continents.

In deepest Buckinghamshire there is a museum that finds, moves and rebuilds interesting buildings called The Chiltern Open Air Museum.  The work they do is very specialist and preserving heritage buildings is a costly and time-consuming business.

So when they asked me to do a short video of their campaign to restore the Jack Jackson Recording Studios, I jumped at the chance.  This funny little brick cottage, a former cowshed built in around 1745 saw both George 2nd and Lemmy from Motorhead on the throne (slightly different ones) during its extraordinary lifetime.  Elton John, Ian Dury and many others used it and Jack Jackson himself who claimed it for music was crowned “Father of DJs”.

The studio is currently a pile of bricks but with the funds raised by the museum and this campaign, the idea is to restore it completely and fill it with vintage recording equipment. In time, Shure mics will gleem, needle gauges will flicker and valve amps will glow once more as the next generation of popstrels discover what it was like to record in the punk era.

For more info or to donate go to http://www.digventures.com/projects/jackson-studios-revisited/ 

Mexico-a-go-go

There is no doubt about it, holidays are essential.

I’m not talking about a few days off to paint the dining room or put those shelves up I’m talking about an all-out, off-grid, bank-busting, different hemisphere, immersive experience. That’s a holiday.

So I consider myself more than a little lucky to have just enjoyed 10 days in Mexico in The Grand Velas Resort on the Mayan Riviera.

These massive resorts are not everyone’s cup of tea but they are the very definition of luxury.  And due to the sheer scale of the place it’s possible to lose yourself in a spa, a jungle pool, in one of the many bars or anywhere along the vast expanse of impossibly silken silver sands that line the equally impossible azure bath that is the caribbean.

Mayan civilisation is not on the European history syllabus and more’s the pity.  The real Mexicans (Mayans Incas, Aztecs etc) were busy making star charts, writing books and working out the meaning of life while most other civilisations (except perhaps the Egyptians and maybe some Romans) where bashing each other with rough-hewn flints.  They even had their own football league although they couldn’t call it that as you could only strike the ball with your hips.

The civilisation was astonishingly advanced but it fell apart mainly due to their reckless abuse of natural resources and an obsession with human sacrifice which must have been unpopular.

And most unfortunately, their manuscripts which recorded more than three millennia of learnings was burned over the course of five days by the invading Spaniards under Cortez.  These bold invaders later felt a bit bad about this as they mistook the many icons of skulls, snakes and crosses as heretical having failed to work out that the Mayans had never heard of the Christian religion and it’s own crosses symbolised something quite different.

Yes, I took the running shoes although the beach sand was so soft it was like wearing fur-lined Kayanos. I jogged the 2-mile length of the Resort main drive too under the watchful eye of my own personal security guardian on a quad bike.

Tequila is the Mexican drink of choice and Don Julio is the Tequila of choice. This stuff is fierce; it doesn’t so much give you a hangover, it gives you a half-life.

Evidence of the history and architecture of the place is everywhere but most, like Tulum which we visited for a day, are heavily trampled by tourists.  So when you can find them, it’s the natural features of Mexico that made the biggest impact on me.  I dived in the fresh and clear waters of the Grand Cenote (Big Cave) and snorkelled over the Coral Reef off Cancun – the second largest of its kind next to the Great Barrier Reef. I made the above little film from clips off my Go Pro. I hope you like it.

Holidays; the ultimate leveller.

Holiday season is here. Crowded airports, sunburn, overeating, email withdrawal and a brace of dead hanging baskets to greet you upon your return.  There’s no magic formula for the perfect holiday and if there was, it would be pretty crowded and the sunbeds would’ve gone.

Recently back from a very enjoyable week on the island of Crete at The Elounda Village, I got to thinking about how the magic holiday formula would work.  Here are the normal variables: Price, Clientele, Service, Weather, Nightlife, Cleanliness, Duration, Distance, Food.  A quick squizz at Tripadvisor will give you a feel for how your destination ranks against these and will help you decide if it’s a go-er or not.  My choice displayed odds stacked thus:

Excellent: 362 Very good: 190 Average: 48 Poor: 13 Terrible: 7

Having bought into a holiday however (and the choice was actually fine) we were availed of numerous trips, excursions and entertainments of a less easily measurable quality.  Being close as we were to the impressive Venetian fortress of Spinalonga which until 1959 served as a the last surviving Leper Colony, we opted into a day trip with minimal research.  The island visit was inspiring and historically informative but the follow-up “Beach BBQ” was less so.

crete 050If I’d wanted a bunch of navvies to serve me an incinerated pork chop I’d have gone to Club 18-30.  If I’d wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with belligerent, territorial numpties I’d have stayed on the northern line. I’ve seen bigger beaches on The Thames even if the water was less clear (had I the space to dive into it).
My meal was not so much served as stabbed.  Stabbed by a plastic fork which threw a small but brilliantly targeted javelin of olive oil-laden tomato mulch down my “Blanc du Nil” white shirt. The paper plate upon which the meal assembly was prepared was only stable until an orange the size of a Fifa-approved football was hurled upon it as a final offering.
This was not a meal, this was war. Greek style.  And as the earlier history lesson had reminded us, the Greeks are not used to losing…

How graduation can teach you running efficiency

charlie shadowI don’t think many people take their university education that seriously if they’re honest.  The journey is more important than the result.

Although they never said it at the time, my parents would have been justified in feeling pretty miffed at the way I squandered my time through university in the clubs and bars of Swansea. But I got through with a modest Psychology degree, a hang-gliding pilot’s certificate, some excellent friends and despite strenuous efforts to the contrary, a clean bill of health.

This week my eldest son graduated from Notts with a 2:1 in History.  Proud parents attended.  In typically strategic manner, he described his result as “efficient” – this meaning maximum leisure time for the optimum result. Any higher grade would have meant a massive increase in effort but any less drinking-time would’ve been a bore.

It’s a bit like hi-fi; there comes a point when improving the sound by one iota requires a massive uplift in spend. Finding the right level of efficiency is key in many things – running included, but enjoying it along the way is essential.

The Vice-Chancellor dished out 1,000 certificates that morning and another 1,000 that hot afternoon in the sports hall – just one of 6 days of continuous certificate-dishing that Notts Uni alone did last week. And this is happening up and down the country.

Job-market watch out!

Gt. Gramps’ Diary #5 in which he reveals a liking of small birds

March 1848: A new Book keeper is now appointed so I have more time to myself and on Saturday afternoon we 3 generally ride off to the river “Martha Brae”, and spend an hour or more bathing, and having swimming races on, and by the side of our horses in a large deep pool, till a large alligator was seen there, which made us rather cautious tho’ it did not stop our bathing.

dads bird drawing xThe scenery on this river was very beautiful. It runs along a deep rocky valley, with tall bamboos and graceful trees hanging over its banks. The coot, woodpecker, and paroquets, keep up a lively noise, while the minor key is supplied by the melancholy “Whitebelly” and “Mountain Witch”, the latter is a large ground dove, seldom seen, as it lurks in the thick bushes, though often heard. Its deep sad “hoo, hoo hoo!” is so weird that it is impossible to tell from whence or from what distance it comes. The noble “Baldpate” pigeon, and Pea dove, the former eating fruit of the highest trees, and the latter running on the ground or flying about on low trees, comparatively tame, these and many more interesting birds are constantly to be seen. One of the prettiest is the little ground dove”, about as large as a fat sparrow, of a puce lour covered with small purple spots on neck and wings. A most familiar object all over Jamaica.

About the beginning of this month Mr. Blagure came to the Estate, and sent for me to copy a lot of letters and accounts, and finding me apt and useful, gradually took me from estate work altogether, and made me for the time his private secretary very much to my comfort and satisfaction. I now began to indulge my love of birds and finding a pair of young pea doves in an old calabash tree I tied them by one leg each, through the bottom of the nest, with my waistcoat string till they should be fully fledged. I then took them and for nearly 4 years one of them remained a beautiful and sweetly cooing pet.

15th March: Mr. Blagure drove me to Montego Bay. We had a delightful drive, as we went by the mountain road – and think every mountain road in Jamaica gives a panorama of beautiful views. This one, as we approach the town, is perfectly enchanting. The next day I returned by the sea-side road, 30 miles. This runs for some way on the sea shore strewed with conch shells and corals. On my return, I found Mr. Grant had broken one of his great toes, by letting a rum vat fall on it! So for some time I had to do double work, and sometimes to “line out cane holes”, a very tedious employment consisting in sticking up innumerable pegs at 4 feet apart, by the aid of a chain and any old negro who has strength enough to drag one end of it. The ends of the pegs blistered the palms of my hands at first till I made a leather pad. The sun too trying to work in all day, as it is impossible to escape from it in the open field.

7th June: Whilst with the field gang today I found a humming bird’s nest with one young one fully fledged, and as it flew out, I struck it with a stone. It was only stunned and soon recovered, so I took it home and fed it with sugar and water, which it soon learnt to suck out of a quill. On Sundays I indulged it with a bunch of fresh flowers. It seemed to know me and on opening the cage it would fly to my finger at once, or on the flowers which it rifled with evident delight. It was always unwilling to return to its cage but never attempted to fly away. The end of this beautiful pet was sad, for during one of my trips to Montego Bay with Mr. Blagure I had to leave it in the charge of Mrs. Grant, and on returning I found it dead – starved to death!

13th July: Our crop is now finished. We have made 140 hogsheads of very good sugar, which is considered a good crop, but the rum crop of 60 puncheons is a bad one. This evening as a sort of “harvest home” all the negroes assembled before the Busha’s house and danced till, being regaled plentifully with rum punch, most of them got tipsy and went away to fight or sank down to sleep where they were, on the grass. I caught a large “Yellow” snake early in August, and took it home to the great horror of all hands, negroes having a mortal dread of snakes whether poisonous or not, and when I let the thing creep over me and round my neck they really began to look on me as something uncanny. I put the snake in a barrel but, though I heavily weighted the cover, it got out, and was accused of eating every fowl that was missed for a month afterwards.

21st October 1848: I received a letter from Mr. Wortley asking me to leave Mr. Blagure’s service and return to help him on Cumberland and Halfway Tree Pens, as he had just received  direction to take charge of another Estate several miles off, and required help. I wrote to say that I was comfortable and I sure of considerable promotion and that Mr. Blagure wished me to remain with him and promised to give me independent charge of one of his properties as soon as opportunity offered, but I said I would do as Mr. Wortley wished.

After hearing again from Mr. Wortley that he was not well and had urgent need of assistance I resigned my appointment, and after a kind farewell from Messrs. Blagure and Favours, the Busha, I packed up my traps and sent my heavy box and a large wooden cage I had made and filled with every variety of wild pigeon and dove round by sea. On the 8th of November I started on my good pony Adam for the south side of the island, sleeping one night at Lancaster Estate and next morning the manager Mr. D. E. Besham and I had a delightful plunge off his wharf into the sea….