Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Part I

We should have been in Spain in June – visiting old friends in pretty Sitges and a few days in gorgeous Girona. The pandemic put paid to that, of course. And, since foreign travel is probably off the agenda this year, I thought I’d raid the archives to find something about a holiday many, many years ago in a land far, far away.


For John Garner (1967-2003)

I was a Turkey virgin. It was 1997, my first time. John and I had booked a holiday with an old mucker and his latest squeeze. We were thirty-something boys-about-town desperate for a little respite from fast living and the daily grind. The glossy brochure promised tranquil simplicity and that’s what we got. Our digs were a modest whitewashed villa nestled on a craggy headland on the north side of the Datça Peninsula. The lushness of our rural idyll was totally unexpected – so much richer than the dry bush of Andalucia and the Greek islands I’d been used to. And the silent sunsets were life-affirming – spiritual, almost.

We were a week in. The hairdryer heat of a blistering August had us limp and reclining. Lazy days were spent lounging round the trickling pool – G&T in one hand, chick-lit in the other, swallows ducking and diving overhead and the deafening chorus of randy cicadas. Sultry nights brought lively conversation to a score of Holst and Madonna, and tumblers of chilled plonk on the empty beach, counting shooting stars as the lights of Bodrum flickered on the horizon. It was sublime.

But John wanted more.

‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said, peering over the top of a Jackie Collins.

‘What?’ I said. ‘In this heat?’

‘You can’t lie on your back with your legs up all the time,’ he said. ‘Mehmet’s getting the wrong idea.’

Mehmet, resident bottle-washer and dogsbody – and a dead ringer for Danny Kaye – showed a persistent interest, clipping bushes around us and throwing that all-too-familiar knowing look as he lit the candles each time the power was cut – a regular event most evenings. The lightless nights switched on the stars.

‘I think Mehmet’s got our number, don’t you?’ I said.

‘Look, the boys need a little privacy, you know, to get better acquainted,’ said John. ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink.’

I laughed. ‘They don’t need any encouragement. They’ve been at it like rabbits since we landed.’ I nodded at the two of them canoodling like horny otters in the pool. ‘Thank God I packed the earplugs.’

‘Oh, come on,’ said John. ‘Let’s go explore.’

Leaving behind our holiday companions to their splashing foreplay, we strolled through the ramshackle hamlet of Taşbükü and down to the sand and shingle beach. I was moist. I lifted my tee-shirt to dab my forehead and dry my specs. In the distance I could see Cleopatra Island, a verdant rock in the Gulf of Gökova. It shimmered, mirage-like.

‘Did you know,’ I said, pointing over with my glasses, ‘legend has it that Cleo snogged Mark Antony on the beach of Cleopatra Island?’

‘Oh,’ said John. ‘How very Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Wonder where he put his helmet?’

‘Where we all do, I imagine. So, where are we going?’

‘Over there, let’s go over there.’ John gestured to a long line of buildings at the far end of the bay.

‘Why?’ I said, unimpressed.

‘Because it’s there, stupid.’

Like intrepid explorers of old, we set about our quest with vigour, flip-flops in hand, splashing through the wash, joking and laughing along the way. It took about an hour to reach our destination – an assortment of identikit cubes toppling down the hill to the beach. We climbed the crazy paving steps through a rusting iron gate.

‘Oh, it’s just another holiday resort,’ John said, all drop-lipped.

‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a gander anyway. Could do with a drink. Spot of lunch, maybe?’

John agreed. ‘Yeah. A cheesy pide and a glass of Efes.’

We wandered along the winding leaf-littered paths, past locked-up houses with empty terraces dripping in twisted bougainvillea. It was desolate, all waterless pools and shuttered cafés.

‘Where is everybody?’ I said.

Where indeed. It was a ghost town – soul-less apart from a street dog nodding off in the shade and a few mangy cats bickering about the bins. There were no over-wrought toddlers splashing about, no tanked-up dads propping up the bar, no mums leathering-up under the sun, no courting couples getting hot under the collar in the sweltering heat. It was eerie and unsettling. Like walking through the abandoned set of Eldorado.

‘We’re being watched,’ John whispered.

‘What do you mean we’re being watched?’

‘Over there. There’s some bloke hiding behind that bush.’

I grinned. ‘Trust you to notice a man hanging round a bush.’ But John was right. A dusky face with a handlebar moustache was poking out between the branches of a pink oleander, mumbling into a walkie-talkie. We could just hear the screechy static.

‘Now what do we do?’ I said.

‘Keep walking?’

Our pace quickened. Moustache man didn’t follow.

But all of a sudden, a hook-nosed apparition in black appeared from the shadows – more screechy static.

‘Okay, that’s it,’ I said. ‘Best get out of here – sharpish. Let’s head back.’

‘We can’t go back,’ said John, starting to panic. ‘The black shirts are waiting for us.’

‘To do what, exactly?’ I said.

‘Haven’t you seen Midnight Express?’

‘Get a grip, John.’

We fast flop-stepped up the hill to the entrance of the development. Hook Nose stalked us all the way, keeping a wary distance. As we neared a boom gate at the top, a pretty boy with messy hair and a grin wider than his waist emerged from a sentry box and waved us through to the open road with his walkie-talkie.

Crisis over, we stood by the side of a dusty track gathering our thoughts.

‘Bloody hell,’ said John. ‘That was close. Thought we were gonna get strip-searched.’

‘Hmm,’ I said, winking. ‘Now there’s a thought.’

‘So, what now?’ said John.

‘Start walking?’

‘Walking?’ he said. ‘Walking where? We’re lost!’


Part II – Next Week!

Bubble-Wrapped Barcelona

Bubble-Wrapped Barcelona

Well not actually Barcelona – Sitges, a smart resort a few miles south which has been a magnet for the A-Gays for donkey’s years, even before that bastard Franco kicked the bucket. And to continue the fine tradition, an old friend and his partner have just exited Brexit and parachuted in. We might join them, who knows? Sitges is a coastal retreat untroubled by the political hurricane currently battering Catalonia. Like expat ghettos everywhere, it’s bubble-wrapped from the tedium of real life.

My flying visit was a business trip with added benefits. My old mucker is opening a gay ‘lifestyle’ store (no sniggering at the back) and I’ve been building his website. The shop should do well given the town’s perennial appeal to likely lads looking for supplies and fancy pants to drop. That was the business bit. Getting to spend time with one of my oldest friends was the benefits bit. Unfortunately, the weather was crap at both ends of the Bay of Biscay. I went from this:

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to this:

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As it was a pac-a-mac break, I didn’t get the chance to rub shoulder pads with surgically enhanced Eurotrash or old queens with painted faces and matching poodles. Still, the food was delicious, the booze free-flowing and the gossip salacious, so it was well worth coming in from the drizzle for. Naturally, the sun came out the day after I left. This is how Sitges normally looks:

shutterstock_541125007 brightened

Every Dog Has Its Day

Every Dog Has Its Day

Playa Del InglesLiam works like a dog and every dog must have its day in the sun. And where better to laze round a sun-kissed pool lapping up a large glass of chilled white than the island named after man’s best friend? So we’ve picked up a last minute bargain to Gran Canaria, flying from our very own little international airport right here in Norwich. Liam and I are well acquainted with the volcanic rock that is Gran Canaria. It’s been a firm favourite with the fairies for decades now.  It was in 2012 that we last rolled out the sun towels there. At the time I wrote:

Now I’m older, wiser and firmly married, I’m content to observe the boozin’ and cruisin’ from the safety of a bar stool and shady sun bed. Notes will be taken and reports will be written. No doubt the odd geriatric German will wave his crumpled old do-da at us on the beach, flopping out from a well-clipped grey bush. My wrinkly old British do-da will remain safely under wraps.

Jack and Liam Go to Gran Canaria

So you can imagine what it’s like. According to Going Local in Gran Canaria by Matthew Hirtes, that nasty old fascist, General Franco, banished gay soldiers to the island which may explain the island’s evergreen appeal to the rainbow brigade. A place of exile is something Gran Canaria has in common with Bodrum, a place which…

…has always provided refuge to the exiled and the unorthodox…

As I mentioned in Turkey Street.

And talking of Bodrum, we’re popping over in October to attend a wedding, so some good news coming out of Turkey for a change. Salud!

Jack and Liam go to Palma

Jack and Liam go to Palma

Old Palma is a place in which to wander and explore. This is just as well. Our hotel, the Costa Azul, hadn’t quite finished constructing the bar by the miniscule pool or supplied enough parasols to avoid third degree burns on the sun terrace. We spent blissful days meandering through narrow cobbled streets, along grand boulevards, over battlements and across elegant piazzas. Palma is a city with art at its heart and the evidence is liberally littered around the streets.

Come nightfall, the Santa Catalina ward – once down at heel but now dressed up to the nines – seduced us with her trendy bars, cool restaurants and laid-back vibe. Upmarket Old Palma is a far cry from downmarket Palma Nova and eating out comes with a West End price tag attached. We stuck with the set menus to keep a check on the check. Still, a palatable glass or two of Rioja was very reasonable priced wherever we watered, and we did quite a lot of watering. Generally, the crowds were good humoured and lively, without being raucous. The one exception was a small bar called The Escape, a roadside inn tucked into the corner of a pretty piazza and frequented by pissed-up Brits from the yachting fraternity. Typical.

Towards the tail end of our stay, we pushed the boat out to visit Ábaco, a cocktail bar in the old town. Occupying a palatial former merchant’s house, part bar, part museum, Ábaco is a bit of an institution with guests being serenaded by light opera in Baroque opulence as they sip lethal cocktails served by snotty waiters in gold lamé cummerbunds. The entire experience was Disney kitsch with a crazy Catalan twist and only slightly marred by the continuous procession of camera-toting tourists wanting to stand, snap and gawp (image courtesy of MallorcaHoliday.com).

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We took the opportunity to venture out of town to the small resort of Ca’n Pastilla to surprise an old friend. Welsh rarebit, Bernard, gave up butlering for bar work a few years back and now owns ‘Thai at the Tavern,’ an unassuming little establishment at the end of the promenade. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Pop in if you’re in town. You’re sure to get a warm welcome, a cold beer and a spicy Siamese from the friendly valley boy. Bernard and I used to step out with the same fella (but not at the same time, obviously). I call Bernard El Presidente of the First Wives Club. When the bar closed, we ended the evening in a backstreet dive well away from the main drag with Bernard, a bunch of jovial locals, a bottle or three of cheap plonk and a strong whiff of weed. The next day we had wine flu.

Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers

Palma Panorama

Following our fright flight, we arrived at the Hotel Costa Azul in Palma at 2am. Our smart room was a little on the bijou side but we were tired and thought little of it. The next morning we awoke to a rotating mechanical clunk and the sound of persistent banging. Liam leapt out of bed and swung open the balcony doors. Decibels came flooding in. He looked about. Our room was at the side of the hotel with a restricted view of the marina. He looked down over the balcony to the ground floor. A cement mixer was going ten to the dozen and a loud gang of labourers was racing about, fetching and carrying, shovelling and hammering. This isn’t what quite what Liam had in mind when he booked a few months back. Miserable tales of unfinished Spanish hotels are the stuff of legend but here we were staying in an unfinished Spanish hotel. My husband must have missed that little detail in the small print of the glossy brochure. Welcome to Palma. We made ourselves decent, marched to reception and politely asked for the room we’d actually paid for (rather than the room they couldn’t give away). After a bit of tutting, wringing of hands and head shaking by the pretty concierge and a lot of stubborn insistence from us, we were moved to a larger room with a view. And what a view it was with not a cement mixer or sweaty worker in sight.