Postcards from Corfu Town

Postcards from Corfu Town

Knickers in the Wind

Our final night in Corfu (or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it) is a slow meander through Corfu Old Town, a labyrinth of lanes and alleyways stuffed with churches and intriguing doorways, and shadowed by row upon row of crusty Venetian-era tenements – all tatty shutters and knickers flapping in the breeze. Down on the street, tourist tat competes with luxury labels, artisans with artists, tavernas with silver service. There’s a real buzz and we’re lapping it up. It’s the second UNESCO World Heritage Site of our mini grand tour and it’s gorgeous.

A Sticky Wicket

We’re ending the evening watching trendy young things doing what trendy young things do everywhere – chatting, flirting, larking about and having fun. We’re observing the crowd from the back row of a swish bar in the Liston, an elegant Parisian-style arcade built at the turn of the nineteenth century when the French were top dogs. The building overlooks a cricket pitch laid out after the British booted out the French. And surprisingly, the crease still resounds to leather on willow even today.

The Liston Exterior

Waiting for our late lift back to Elleana’s gaff, we chatted with Josie and George from Bradford. They’ve been visiting Corfu on and off for decades and despite being a little long in the tooth, they still gad about the island on a quad bike, Josie wrapped round her man, wind blowing through her purple rinse. While I’m slightly concerned about the serious risk of death or disability at every turn, I rather admire their pluck.

So that was Corfu – seven heavenly days, two countries, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and enough devil’s brew to sink a frigate. We shall return.

 

 

Postcards from Albania

Postcards from Albania

When in Greece go to Albania

It’s only three miles from Corfu at its closest point so it would be rude not to. We sailed the hydrofoil from Corfu Town and here we are sipping a cappuccino at a smart restaurant in Sarandë, a port and resort on the Albanian Riviera – yes, they’ve got a riviera. We’re on a coach trip with a herd of Saga louts – Brits and Germans mainly. We had neither the wit nor the inclination to organise the tour independently. Albanian’s call their country Republika e Shqipërisë. No, I can’t pronounce it either so let’s just stick with Albania.

Sarande

The Trojan Connection

Our first excursion is to the ancient city of Butrint – Roman Buthrotum back in the day and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After years in Turkey, I tend to be a bit blasé about old cities – Turkey’s got ‘em by the quarry-load. But I have to admit the site is pretty impressive with its Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman remains. And the setting on the edge of a lagoon is magical. According to Greek mythology, the city was founded by exiles from Troy. A fanciful tale? Maybe not.

We’ve meandered through a mozzie-infested thicket and over long-buried streets to various ruins in various stages of ruination, including a Byzantine basilica – reputedly the largest in the world after Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople. While imposing, I didn’t think it was that big but what do I know?

Butrint

As we rambled, I Googled ‘Butrint’ and happened across the UK Butrint Foundation. Guess where it’s based? Yep, Norwich. Small world.

Pushy Fraulein

We’re back in Sarandë for lunch. Many of our fellow passengers would push their firstborn under a bus to get to the buffet first. It’s like feeding time at the zoo. I had to neck an Albanian beer to get over the shock of an ancient Teuton with fat ankles, bum bag and curly perm elbowing me out of the way to get her grubby hands on the köfte.

Eye Spy

Our afternoon excursion sped us through the Butrint National Park to the Blue Eye, a spring that bubbles forth from a deep pool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen waters so clear or iridescent. The images here are for real – no filters required.

Ooh, Aah, Kosovar

We have an hour or so to kill before our hydrofoil back to Corfu Town. Liam’s sniffed out a swish harbourside bar, with prices to match. I’m sipping Kosovar wine. I didn’t know they made wine in Kosovo. Sarandë is a handsome town – more modern than I was expecting but then I don’t really know what I was expecting. Actually, I’ve never visited an ex-‘Communist’ state before. I’ve been to yer actual Commie country – when I took the train 1,500 or so miles from London to Moscow during Brezhnev’s reign. And then there was Romania when Ceaușescu was on the throne. Both experiences were broadening but those eras are long gone. Albania is beautiful but it’s developing fast. There are mouths to feed and aspirations to fulfil. I just hope they don’t lose too much in the mad rush to be just like everyone else.

Here Endeth the Lesson

I’m guessing not many people know much about Albania. I certainly didn’t. But I know a little more now, courtesy of our guide, a splendid young man who speaks great English, and great German too by the sound of it. Throughout the day, he’s been giving us a potted history in bite-size episodes. He even mentioned the German occupation during the Second World War, something  I thought he might have skipped to avoid offence. It was done in such a matter-of-fact way, I’m sure no one was offended. Our young guide is looking to the future, not dwelling on the past. I’m rather taken with him (not in that way – get your minds out of the gutter). He ended the lesson by saying simply,

Don’t judge Albania by what you’ve heard. Judge Albania by what you see – good and bad.

He got a round of applause – and a tip.

Coming soon – Postcards from Corfu Town.

Laundry line

 

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

While we’re away in sunny Corfu chomping on the mutton, slapping on the sunscreen, gassing the bugs and gagging on the retsina (despite sage advice to go easy on the hard stuff from Annie at Back to Bodrum), here are a few snaps to remind us of home sweet home. It’s not been a bad summer, all things considered. By the way, Liam cheats at Scrabble.

God’s Own Country

God’s Own Country

On a complete whim, we decided on a mini tour of Yorkshire. As England’s largest traditional county by far, it was a very teeny weeny tour encompassing just Leeds, Knaresborough and Harrogate. We travelled across the flatlands to Grantham, the birthplace of Maggie Thatcher. I’ll leave you to decide whether that should be celebrated. From there, the Virgin Express sped us north to Leeds, the throbbing heart of West Yorkshire. Where once there were dark satanic mills, now there are trendy loft conversions, glass towers and a branch of Harvey Nicks.

Leeds Panorama

The handsome city has seen something of a renaissance of late and now boasts one of the most diversified economies in Britain. I’d like to tell you we were there to see the sights and take in the culture but I can’t. As soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we were off down the rough end beneath the rainbow bridge. Leeds has a small but beautifully-formed gay scene, each venue staggering distance from the next. Happy hour dribbled on all afternoon and we did indeed get to see some sights but nothing you’ll find in the tourist blurb. We eventually made it back to the hotel though I have no memory of how we got there.

Next day, button-bright, we jumped on the slow train to Knaresborough. The Guardian Newspaper describes the town as tatty and batty and the cap really fits. Perched high on the cliffs above the River Nidd and wrapped in a blanket of iridescent green, Knaresborough is famous for the railway viaduct that crosses the water. The views from the tumbledown castle are simply stunning.

The little town is also famous for its independent spirit and independent shops – the butcher, the baker, the cappuccino-maker. This is the place where madcap mattress-wheeling teams sprint around the town for no apparent reason in the annual bed race. It’s completely batty. And we do batty.

Liam and I always have an eye on the future and we wandered around the quirky streets making mental notes of the good points (many) and the bad points (few). We retired to a coffee house to debrief. The verdict? Right now, it’s top of the leader board.

The final destination on our whistle-stop tour was elegant Harrogate, which the Guardian calls hoity-toity. And so it is with its cream teas and posh nosh. I was last there for a wedding in 2004. The bride was a lovely gal from work with a well-deserved reputation for being an all round good egg. As I looked around the church at the time, I could tell who was in and who was out.

The next day it was back to good ol’ Norwich but not before I was interviewed on camera in the pouring rain by someone from the local telly asking me about local ishoos. I did explain that as I didn’t actually live in Yorkshire, my opinion counted for nowt (see, I’m already starting to speak Yorkist). He didn’t seem to mind. Hallelujah to God’s own country.

P.S. I had totally forgotten that the Harrogate bride now actually lives in Knaresborough. We could have met up for a long-overdue natter, how thick am I?

London Pride 2017

London Pride 2017

In Istanbul, tear gas and rubber bullets broke up small groups of brave souls attempting to defy the ban of this year’s pride march. In London, the rainbow flag flies proudly over Tower Bridge, one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Just sayin’.

Happy London Pride today. For those, like us, who won’t be parading down Whitehall, what better way to mark the event than to watch the cast of the Lion King featuring the London Gay Men’s Chorus singing the Circle of Life composed by England’s second biggest queen?

 

Angels, Monks and the Devil’s Brew

Angels, Monks and the Devil’s Brew

Learning to speak English must be difficult enough, but learning to spell it must bring even the most dedicated student out in hives. It’s just the little game we English like to play on Johnny Foreigner. Place names can be particularly bothersome. So for the uninitiated…

Leicester is Lester, Gloucester is Gloster, Chiswick is Chizik, Warwick is Warik (unless you’re Dionne) Harwich is Haridge and Norwich is Noridge (or Naaridge if you’re from round these parts).

But there is a certain consistency to the cesters, the wicks and the wiches. Not so in Norfolk – or I should say Naarfuk. Asking a Naaridge bus driver for a ticket to Costessey or Wymondham will provoke a puzzled response. You see, it’s Caassy and Windum. Confused? You will be.

We’d learned our lesson in correct enunciation by the time we caught our bus to Wymondham, a pretty parish of 15,000 souls southwest of Norwich. June was bustin’ out all over the place along the 10 mile route. We arrived to find the place bathed in sunshine but spookily empty for a hot Saturday afternoon. Perhaps everyone was at Pilates.

The main event was the famous abbey, founded in 1107. Well, it was famous until Henry VIII got his grubby hands on it. Once a thriving Benedictine priory, it only survived complete demolition by becoming the parish church – the monks were pensioned off and the last abbot became the local vicar. Nevertheless, and despite being half the length it once was, the twin-towered abbey church remains an imposing pile, rising majestically above the pine trees. Inside, the largely Norman-period nave has a fine wooden roof studded with carved angels. We sat in the pews awhile watching the roadies setting up for an evening concert. A plot for Midsomer Murders gathered momentarily in my mind in which an angel is pushed from the roof to squash a portly mezzo-soprano as she sings something seductive from Carmen. But whodunnit? If I ever get the commission, you’ll be the first to know but suffice it to say it involves a darts match and a ladies-only night in Cromer. I decided to call the episode ‘Revenge of the Fallen Angels’. As you can tell, I got rather carried away.

Wandering round, we’d never met a friendlier or more passionate bunch of volunteers. They positively gushed with enthusiasm. Without them we wouldn’t have known about the abbey’s more eclectic secrets. I cradled the hand of an angel to pray for world peace – and a lottery win. Liam stuck his finger in the monk’s hole and made a wish. Amen to that.

We were also told about the secret tunnel that allegedly led to the nearby fourteenth century Green Dragon tavern and the ancient exit still to be found in the pub. Apparently, the naughty monks were rather fond of the Devil’s brew. It might explain all that hole filling. Naturally, we had to investigate and partake of the Devil’s brew ourselves –  purely for research purposes.

 

The City of Perspiring Dreams

The City of Perspiring Dreams

Now their kids have flown, Liam’s sister and significant other have sold their north London nest and migrated to a chocolate-box cottage with half an acre or so in rural Hertfordshire. Brother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday BBQ provided the perfect opportunity to survey the estate for the first time. It was gold stars all round from their Norwich kin, and a marvellous afternoon was had by all. I’m sure the birthday boy won’t mind me mentioning he was rather upstaged by the astonishing sight of a herd of wild deer trotting past the garden fence. They stopped and stared for just an instant before bolting off. This city slicker has never been up close and personal to a herd of anything before. Be still my racing heart. Apparently, the stag often makes himself at home on their lawn. I wonder if Bambi poo is any good for the roses?

To make the most of the weekend, we lodged overnight in Cambridge and the next day took a ramble around the famous city streets, following in the footsteps of some of the greatest thinkers of all time – Darwin, Newton, Hawking and our PhD’d niece, to name a just a few. The ‘city of perspiring dreams’ (a nickname coined by the student’s union) is truly impressive and the ancient colleges tightly packed along one side the leafy River Cam are simply stunning. But the flow of weekend tourists was overwhelming, the cyclists annoying and the price of pretty much everything inflated. In my romantic mind’s eye, I had a vision of floppy-haired scholars in straw hats punting down the river like a scene from Brideshead Revisited, but this was rather spoilt by an armada of long-lensed Koreans in baseball caps. In the end, these drinkers abandoned the thinkers and we caught the train home. And we made it to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival’s Party in the Park just before last orders.

Some snaps of the lovely Cambridge as we dodged the cyclists…