Postcard from Bulgaria

We got the hot gossip washed down with Bulgarian plonk we were hoping for. But that didn’t mean our entire trip was a non-stop booze-fest. In between top-ups, we did manage to drink in a bit of culture too, with a gander round ancient Nessebar, a pretty little town tumbling over a small Black Sea island joined to the mainland by a causeway. It’s full of old Orthodox churches and sprinkled with bars, cafés and places to browse for tourist tat and local handicrafts. The assault course of rough cobbled streets is charming but ladies and drag queens should leave the heels at home. Even the flat-shoed risk a snapped ankle.

Founded in the second millennium BC and originally a Thracian settlement called Mesembria, the town passed down the line to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Bulgars before eventually falling to the Ottomans in 1453. Our guidebook called this ‘the time of the Turkish enslavement’ – memories run very deep in the Balkans. Finally, Nessebar was incorporated into the new Bulgarian state in 1885.

Nessebar has a small but impressive museum exhibiting artefacts from down the many ages. Fallen Catholic Liam loves a religious icon and started to hyperventilate when we stumbled across a room full of ’em.

Thank you to our lovely landladies for putting us up and putting up with us – you know who you are!

Go West, Young Man

We have old friends in Torquay, a palm tree-lined seaside resort in Devon. We hadn’t seen them in ages because of the pandemic, so a catch-up was well overdue. All roads lead to London, and we didn’t fancy the hassle of crossing the sprawling metropolis only to come out the other side, so we flew from Norwich International airstrip to Exeter International airstrip on a little jet – like Z-listers without the paps.

Old Exeter – Roman Isca Dumnoniorum, Saxon Execeaster – has been around a while, though at first glance you’d never know it. The Luftwaffe did a great job flattening the city in the Second World War, so you have to look closely to find ancient treasures.

Mercifully, the magnificent cathedral, founded in 1050, was spared the hellfire that destroyed pretty much everything else – a little odd considering it sticks out like a bullseye at the heart of the city. Although I’m not religious in the slightest, I do so love a gander round a holy pile.

Most of what the visitor sees is thirteenth century, and what impresses first is the awe-inspiring ceiling that soars towards the heavens. At 96 metres, it’s the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world. It surely convinced the hovel-dwelling, unwashed illiterati of old that it was made with divine intervention – and so helped keep them on their knees.

And then there are all the elaborate tombs – mostly containing the old bones of long-dead bishops.

And the stained glass windows aren’t bad either.

While Norwich hosted T-Rexes and steppe mammoths for the summer, Exeter went for giant cutesy street dogs.

After Exeter, we spent the next couple of days hitting the sherry and chewing the cud with our old muckers at their palatial digs in Torquay. And fantastic it was too. Our hosts are a little camera shy so, instead, here’s an elegant bust of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunnit and the best-selling fiction writer of all time, who was born in the town.

Ahoy, Me Hearties

Last Christmas, our gift from the in-laws was a fancy meal in a top-notch Indian eatery in old London Town – at a time and date of our choosing. We waited ’til spring to combine our lunchtime curry with a nautical-themed long weekend, staying in Greenwich, home to the Prime Meridian – of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) fame.

Our first day was spent following the crowds along the tourist trail around the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, popping in and out of the museums. Unlike my last trip as a young whippersnapper, we didn’t make it up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Liam was crest-fallen that he didn’t get a chance to stand astride the Prime Meridian.

On day two we cruised the riverboat from Greenwich pier to Battersea Power Station, which once lit much of London but has since been redeveloped into well-appointed rabbit hutches with obscene price tags. We were hoping to look around the massive power station itself but it wasn’t to be; it’s still a work in progress. The Cinnamon Kitchen – the chic venue for our meal – more than made up for our disappointment. The nine-course taster menu was probably the best Indian food I’ve ever had. And the mango sour cocktails weren’t bad either.

Our final full day in the Smoke saw us taking in the sights, sounds and exotic smells of Borough (up)Market followed by a quick gander round Shad Thames, the uber-trendy South Bank district, and a troll along the riverside Queen’s Walk. It’s an area I know fairly well and was the venue for my jury service at Southwark Crown Court back in the day. Eventually we docked at the best-guess replica of the Golden Hind, the first English ship to circumnavigate the globe, captained by Francis Drake – hero, buccaneer, pirate, thief (delete according to taste). After all that exertion, who could refuse us a restorative tonic and gin at an old riverside inn?

Ahoy, Me Hearties!

Close Encounters

We were to meet up with the fragrant Roving Jay for one of our regular bloggers’ food-and-drink conventions but our plans were scuppered at the last minute. As we’d already bought the bus ticket, we went into town anyway for a wander around. Tombland, Norwich’s historic heart, is looking splendid after a recent wash and brush up. You might think the name comes from something spooky but it’s actually old English for ‘open ground’ (or such like) and is where the old market was held until those dastardly all-conquering Normans moved it to its present location a little after 1066 and all that.

It was a great day for a stroll so we decided to check out Cathedral Close, the substantial grounds of the grand Norman church. The Close is full of statues – of men mostly, as is the norm. However, one woman, Edith Cavell, has pride of place at the entrance. Ms Cavell was a British nurse in German-occupied Belgium during the Great War. She is remembered for tending to soldiers from both sides of the trenches and for helping about 200 Allied soldiers escape. Arrested by the Germans, she was tried for treason and shot by firing squad. It caused quite an international incident at the time as it wasn’t the done thing to shoot women – only horses. As she was a Norfolk lass, Edith Cavell is buried in the cathedral.

Doubtless, someone will discover something about Ms Cavell’s words, views or deeds that wouldn’t quite be cricket by today’s standards and demand she’s knocked off her plinth. That would be a shame.

Naturally, a chilled bottle was waiting for us at the end of the trail. We settled down at the Red Lion Pub on the river next to the Bishop Bridge, built in 1340 and the city’s oldest, to watch people messing about in canoes. Bottoms up!

The Ship of the Fens

Our next family do since the end of lockdown was to Liam’s lot. A fun family BBQ in rural Hertfordshire, a night or two in Cambridge and a visit to Ely, a teeny-weeny city with a vast cathedral dominating the flatlands. ‘The ship of the Fens’ can be seen for miles around, demonstrating just how important He used to be to the prince, the pauper and everyone in between. There’s been a house of God on this spot since 673.

Ely sits on a small plot of high ground at the heart of the Fens, a once expansive marsh long since tamed by dykes and ditches, and drained for agriculture. The city has a quirky feel to it and, despite being only 14 miles from Cambridge and 80 miles from London, projects an air of splendid isolation and self-sufficiency, perhaps inherited from times past when it was an island, cut off for much of the year.

Obviously, the huge church is the main event. I’m not even remotely religious but its sheer scale forces you to look up to the heavens in utter astonishment.