Mykonos in 60 seconds

Lighthouse skyMrs G. and I are just back from Mykonos, part of the Cyclades group of islands that pepper the Southern Aegean Sea about 100 miles south east of Athens.  But enough geography.

Like so  many Mediterranean Greek islands it was invaded by Romans, Venetians and Ottomans all of whom left numerous cultural and archaeological graffiti before heading off to plunder somewhere else. Fully restored to Greek ownership, the streets are now thankfully back to Cerulean blue and white.

More recently, it’s become a tourist honeypot with cruise liners paying £50k for a one-night mooring.  Each day, their numerous overloaded tenders plough over to the quayside looking like Albanian refugee boats bristling with selfie-sticks. They disgorge flocks of currency-laden day-trippers who quickly become prey to the patient yet adept local restaurant hustlers.

Mykonos town is a maze of tiny cobbled streetlets barely two selfie-sticks wide.  Maps exist but are unhelpful due to the irregularity and similarity of every corner.  Invaders, I was told, found the town impossible to attack for this very reason.  Today, between a cacophony of jewelry shops there’s big-brand shopping and super-fine dining at sky-high prices – think Bond Street, shrunk in a hot wash.  With selfie sticks…

But it’s a pretty island; offering more photo-opportunities than a royal wedding. The sunsets are heroic, the beaches are clean and the locals are genuinely very welcoming. Food-wise we found and loved Kounelas a courtyard fish restaurant in central Mykonos town (choose your own fish from the kitchen) and Kiki’s Taverna in the more remote North of the island, no power, no light or broadband, just a fire pit with sizzling chicken and unfeasibly big pork chops plus a salad bar all overseen the big man and owner Vasilis who gives you free booze until a table becomes available.

If you’re on a budget go to Paragas, the fishnchips end of the island with 25 euro sunbeds and a few nervous nudists. Pale and probably from Sheffield, they glower at you until you take your kit off.  If you’re loaded then go to Panormos and after hiring your bed for the day at 90 euros, shop in Principote where I was offered a pair of sunglasses for 600 euros. No thanks.

Visit in May (sea cold) or September (sea warm) to avoid the crowds and enjoy Mikonos for three days max then catch a ferry to nearby Ikaria, Paros or Naxos to become an island hopper and broaden your Cyclades knowledge.

See also Bruges in 60 secondsRome in 60 seconds, Barcelona in 60 secondsCyprus in 60 seconds and Mallorca in 60 seconds


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

A tough time for trees and turkeys.

I’m starting to reach the conclusion that up is in fact not the only way.  For every up there must be a down and vice-versa.  Celestial balance, the circle of life etc.  Up is not a great place to be if the only way is down and being down can be great if the prospect is upwards.  You get the picture.

And so it came to pass that I went out to get my Christmas tree last weekend and as I wandered round the forest of little spruces it crossed my mind that these trees had a pretty miserable existence.  Battery-farmed with a four to eight year life expectancy, each one quietly crossing its little needles that it won’t be chosen.  The reason they don’t move much is they don’t want to be noticed.  But they saw me, making mental notes of the location and relative bushiness of those that I passed and doing my Ant and Dec thing muttering “It might be you…”

My victim was a stout three-year old, shorter than most I’ve bought over the years with a view to it sitting up on an old trunk that had occupied the space which last year saw a fulsome seven-footer.  The felling of a Christmas tree is not a fair fight.  A man with a saw versus an unarmed, immobile object, rooted in mud with limbs outstretched as if in surrender.  It takes a few short seconds to introduce it to the concept of being horizontal amid cries of “shame!” from its neighbours whereupon the enemy is bundled into a truck, trussed in mesh and stowed in the boot of my car.

On the upside, like the arrival of the season of goodwill after a long and arduous year, Christmas trees are eventually transported from a cold muddy field to a short life of ecstasy; central heating, baubles, lights, worship and a fairy on top.

Happy Christmas everybody.

Thorpeness to Aldeburgh run.

Last weekend I was invited to join my wife’s company’s Christmas party celebrations. They rented a house overlooking the shingle beaches of the mock-Jacobean village of Thorpeness in Suffolk and booked a meal at the nearby Crown and Castle in Orford run by none other than The Hotel Inspector herself, Ruth Watson.

It must be said the weekend was principally a festival of fresh air, walks on the beach, copious drinking, late night poker games and lazy mornings.  This for me however was offset by some filming and a couple of most enjoyable runs along the coastline one northwards and one south.

Whether it’s the coastal location or the flat terrain or something unique to November Im not sure but the skies laid on a spectacle for us that I won’t forget in a hurry.  Rising at about 7am on both mornings for my run I was greeted by the purest and deepest of blue heavens.  Not just any blue but a subtle, cavernous eternity of sky graduating from black to azure studded with stars clinging to night and shot with creamy jet trails seeking the morning.

If you ever stay in Thorpeness and want to run go south to Aldeburgh not north to Sizewell.  My excursion north was hampered by a fruitless search for a beach path which ended in a pig field surrounded by an electric fence.  Pigs are friendly inquisitive creatures but the deep and quelching mud would have been enough to suck my shoes off so after only a mile or so I turned back and ran through the village before heading home for a shower.

Southwards however was a different kettle of fish. You reach the village limits where very quickly the terrain becomes runner-friendly.  Between Thorpeness and Aldeburgh lies a broad reach of open ground two miles or more in length between the hissing shingles of the shoreline and the small country road that connects the two villages.  Its a grassy, firm and mainly flat stretch that lets you appreciate the aforesaid skies in all their horizon-to-horizon glory.  And at this time of day and in late November it’s pretty much deserted except for the squabbling seagulls who patrol it.

I went there as a kid and its not changed much in 50 years.  I’ll go there again when Im a hundred.

Some towns seem to contribute more than their fair share to history.  Take York for example where I visited this week.  Evidence of settlements in York can be traced back to 8000BC and the region has been populated by not just Mesolithic English tribes but subsequently invaded by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and more recently not a few Eastern Europeans.  Founded in AD 71 it’s best known for a Big Church (York Minster) and Chocolate (Rowntrees); I may be wrong but I don’t think Milton Keynes (founded in 1967) is best known for churches or much else for that matter.

ImageFortunately for those that like to run, the city of York presents a handy 3-mile long perimeter wall which, like the Brigantes and the Parisii tribes is just asking to be conquered and which I took on when I visited.  The route is something of an urban environment but if you get into the history of the place you can ignore Waitrose, Dunelm Mill and the other more contemporary features along the outside and look inwards to the sturdy, if partly demolished stonework of the old city wall as you make the circuit.

You can’t run along the entire wall like you can in the city of Lucca and other Tuscan fortified towns but you can get onto it in parts and besides, looking up at it from the outside is pretty awesome when you think of how old it is and how well preserved most of it remains.  And if you choose, you can cut across town via one or more of the gates in the wall and lose yourself in the myriad of tiny cobbled streets overlooked by ancient timber-framed houses.  Every once in a while a gap in the brickwork will flash a glimpse of the astonishingly huge York Minster; all Gothic and menacing in the early morning mist.

Somehow, York has retained much of its architectural charm despite the ingress of Macdonalds and Marks & Sparks.  I imagine the planning regulations like those that enforce it have derived their ferocity from the medieval guards from whom they must inevitably be descendants.

I stayed in the very modest yet comfortable Monkgate Guest House which was convenient for the centre of town and serves quite one of the best Full English breakfasts I’m ever likely to encounter but if your budget can stretch to it, stay at The Grange, slightly less central but much more luxurious.

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…

A Roman odyssey in deepest Gloucestershire.

Individually, there are many things that make Barnsley House worth writing home about: the rooms, the spa, the food, the countryside, the service and the general atmosphere to name a few.  Together, these delights conspired to make our 2-night inclusive break in this little 18-room Cotswold charmery one of the best New Year’s Eves I can remember.

Barnsley House, Gloucestershire
Barnsley House, Gloucestershire

But what really made it for me was a 5 mile jog through driving rain taking in a 2-mile section of ancient Roman Road at twilight.  I tried to discover its name (it’s only marked on the map unimaginatively as “Roman Road”) but concluded it’s a cattle droving route better known as “The Welsh Way”.

The village of Barnsley is easily commutable from central London but it’s 100% pure Gloucestershire countryside once you’re there.  Set in a small cluster of butter-coloured stone cottages, the Barnsley House Hotel team under Charmer-in-Chief Michele Mella has got everything right.  They grow their own veges, lay their own eggs and pamper for England – albeit at a price!

I struck out west on the main road from the front gate for a few hundred yards before taking another left and heading south on a small unmarked by-road. Ten minutes later I reached the intersection with the Roman Road.  Here, I took yet another left and stuck to the route for some twenty minutes.  It’s not completely straight like you expect a Roman Road to be and it undulates gently past wide, rain-sodden arable farmland.  In my mind, I pictured Roman cohorts on their way to St Albans and rag-clad cattle herders who must have used the route in years gone by but although I thought I saw some it may have been light and shadows….

No Roman cohorts in sight
No Roman cohorts in sight

At Ready Token Covert I doubled back left again towards my origin.  Markers and signs are non-existent and by now it was almost dark but I had a local map and judged distance by passing farms.  It’s an all-road 5.4 mile loop, not too challenging a run but the Hotel has no gym so it’s a good alternative.  Barnsley House and its famous Rosemary Verey garden is a treat and the countryside is deep England and a joy to behold – strongly recommended.