Long Lady Abroad

In a break from normal service, this blog post is not about London, but about two weeks away from it. I can’t say that I missed London much; that’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with it, but I think the mark of a good holiday is that one doesn’t spend it thinking about home.

After five years of gentle persuasion the other half finally got me to agree to try camping. I was hesitant, mainly due to my worry that bugs will crawl inside the tent and get on my face, or lurk in the toilet block at night. However, I did really want to see Croatia, and camping was a good way to economise and allow us to see as much of the country as possible.

I have to say, I’m converted. Once of my favourite bits of going on holiday is packing; I’ve inherited this skill from my mother, who has uncanny spacial awareness. Going camping is all about the packing. By the end of the holiday I was an expert at dissembling the tent and stashing everything away neatly, so anything we need in transit could be easily accessed, and so that once we got to our destination the tent could go up as quickly as possible. I think for this reason I would make an excellent Arctic explorer.

It seems to me there are three types of things which campers love: things which are normally big, but which are rendered in miniature; big things which fold up very small; and things which have more than one function. Our camping trip had all of these, from my very comfortable inflatable sleeping mat, to our lovely sporks. I am a sucker for accessories, and the other half correctly predicted that the way to get me on side with the whole camping business was to use it as an opportunity to buy knick knacks and trinkets.

Of course, being in Croatia helped. I love Eastern Europe; I love how the coffee is always good, I love how even the seediest little cafe is table service, and I love that the beer is so cheap. I particularly love how it is customary to applaud the pilot when the plane touches down (I now do that on all flights, not just ones to Eastern Europe). I’ve never been to Croatia and have heard so many good things about it; I was especially excited to visit Split, which is built into the Palace of Diocletian. As you know, I am partial to the Ancient World, and Diocletian is a very interesting character; he split the empire into four pieces, and was the only emperor to voluntarily retire, and he spend the remainder of his days in his enormous palace.

We started in Split, staying in a large but very well kept campsite just outside town. As soon as the tent was up, we jumped into the sea; this is the moment I had been fantasising about while bored at work in the weeks leading up to the holiday, and it didn’t disappoint. Croatia’s beaches are stony rather than sandy, which can be a bit harder on the feet, but which means the water is crystal clear.

The old town of Split was exactly as I’d hoped it would be; obviously not a lot remains of the original palace, but you really get a sense of the place being unbelievably ancient. We drifted around, stopping often due to the intense heat of the day. I love hot weather; the hotter the better in my opinion. I like that slightly sticky feeling your skin gets just before you start sweating; I also love wearing as little as possible, under a giant sun hat.

From Split we got a boat across to the island of Brac, where we stayed in a cute little town called Bol. Our campsite here was smaller, but I loved it. In case you’re in the area, look out for Camp Meteor. It’s very shaded; although in the Croatian summer this does not translate into a nice cool tent, it does help a little bit. While in Bol we visited Zlatni Rat, which is billed as “Croatia’s sexiest beach”; it’s the image that you usually get in tourist info about Croatia, and although it was quite touristy, it wasn’t too crowded and we managed to have a good swim in the sea which was so warm, still and clear it was like a swimming pool.

Liking island life, we caught the boat across to Hvar; actually, instead of a ferry, we hitched a ride with a tour boat, on which we were served croissants, iced coffee and even a shot of rakija (at nine o’clock in the morning!). Once on Hvar we made our way to Stari Grad, which was simply stunning.

I should pause a moment to talk about the food. Wow. If you like seafood, and I do, very much so, then Croatia is going to be a treat. A lot of shell fish and a lot of tentacled things, which suits me. I think one of the highlights of the holiday was the meal we had in Stari Grad. We found a lovely little Croatian place down an alleyway, very atmospheric; as well as swimming in the sea, the other must for a holiday as far as I’m concerned is al fresco dining, and pretty much everywhere in Eastern Europe is happy to oblige with this.

Anyhow, I wanted to order something typically Croatian, so I went with the octopus stew with polenta and it was AMAZING. As I said, I am a big fan of things with tentacles (but am terrified of spiders; go figure), and the octopus was cooked perfectly. The other half had some enormous and delicious prawns, and we accompanied the meal with a couple of cold Ojzusko beers. Needless to say, there was very little on this holiday that wasn’t accompanied by a couple of cold Ojzusko beers.

From Hvar we caught (by the skin of our teeth) the ferry down the coast to Dubrovnik; this was a pretty marathon journey, but seven hours by boat beats seven hours by bus, and we passed the time playing cards, napping, and laughing about how we nearly missed the ferry.

So, Dubrovnik. Byron’s “Jewel of the Adriatic.” It’s difficult to overstate how wonderful it is to walk through the gates of the old town. The buildings and the streets are made from limestone (Fact: the limestone from the island of Brac was used to build the White House!), so the whole place is gleaming white, and wonderfully ancient.  As opposed to the tourist clogged streets of somewhere like Florence (actually I’ve never been to Florence, partly because I’ve heard how tourist clogged it gets) Dubrovnik, while a popular tourist spot, is not insanely busy. You can meander through the streets, eat an ice cream, drink coffee and feel pretty unhurried.

From Dubrovnik, it’s a short bus ride across the border into Montenegro. It was on this day, however, that the weather, which had been very hot with the occasional thunderstorm, broke into spectacular, apocalyptic rain. When we arrived in Herceg Novi, the rain was so heavy we decided that it would be foolish to camp (particularly as we had already discovered that our tent wasn’t entirely waterproof) so we found ourselves some private accomodation.

This is an idiosyncratic part of holidaying in this part of Europe. A lot of people rent rooms out to tourists, and then tout them at bus stations. Although I think to a Western European this seems a bit dodgy, it’s pretty standard here. We managed to secure a room in a house very close to the town centre; it was a bit weird because the boy who took us there was only about 14,  and the room was clearly actually his bedroom, but it was comfortable, and clean, and a nice change from sleeping in the tent. When we ventured into town we took care to memorise the way, and took plenty of photos to help us find our way back late at night!

Herceg Novi doesn’t really have much to recommend it, aside from stunning views across the Bay of Kotor, and a pleasant enough old town. However, we were keen to try some of the local cuisine, particularly a pancake, stuffed with cheese, breaded and deep fried, then served covered in more cheese and yoghurt. In fact not as disgusting as it sounds; I rather liked it. Following on in the spirit of adventure I chose a squid ink risotto for my dinner. It tasted inky.

From Herceg Novi we got the bus to Kotor. I’d been very excited about this bus ride; I’d read a lot about how spectaular the views are and was very keen to see them. Unfortunately, we managed to get on a bus which instead of following the meandering road around the bay took a ferry directly across it, so we missed out on the views, which was a bit of a bummer. However, on arrival in Kotor, we immediately booked our return bus, and made sure to specify one which took the road and not the boat, so with that to look forward to we set off to explore the town.

Kotor old town is simply splendid, and we easily found a room right in the middle, in the house of a kind lady who had turned several rooms of her home into a guest house. We tried out our pidgin Montenegrin (very similar to our pidgin Croatian, and almost indistinguishable from our slightly less than pidgin but still far from fluent Bulgarian) and she was so impressed, she assumed from that point on that we were fluent, and would chat away to us each time we saw her.

Her house was right in the centre of the old town; Lonely Planet says that to stay in Kotor old town is a bad idea because after dark all the bars and cafes drag their speakers out onto the street and play techno music at ear splitting volumes until the small hours of the morning. We decided that a lack of sleep would be a small price to pay to stay right in the centre of such a beautiful town, and I am happy to report that the Lonely Planet must have visited during some kind of festival, because all we heard was the general chitter chatter of people enjoying the balmy summer’s evening.

In addition to our usual holiday pursuit of sitting in cafes drinking coffee or beer and playing cards, we took a hike up the steps outside the town to the top of the fortress of St Mark which overlooks the town. This involves climbing over 3,500 steps, which is no mean feat at the best of times, let alone in the searing heat of the Montenegrin sun, but it was worth every sweaty minute. The view from the top is utterly spectacular, right across the Bay of Kotor, and down onto the old town, and the day was so clear we could see for miles. A man at the summit makes a good living selling bottles of water for about four times as much as they cost at the bottom of the steps, to tourists who have drunk their water on the way up and are desperate for a drink; however, I suppose he does have to carry them all up every day, so I was happy to be slightly ripped off.

The bus ride back to Dubrovnik the next day offered even more amazing scenery, possibly some of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. The day was clear and sunny, and the waters of the bay still as anything, making the view from the bus windows look like an ever changing painting, almost too perfect to be real. I know for definite that we will return to Montenegro at some point if only to see this view again.

Back in Dubrovnik we checked back into the campsite, swam in the sea for the last time, and then headed back into the old town. The heat was intense, so after wandering around for a while buying some last minute presents for friends (including a Dubrovnik snow globe which tragically shattered on the way home!) we resolved to find somewhere for a beer. When we had walked along the city walls a few days before we had walked over a bar set into the rocks outside the walls by the sea, and we set about trying to find this.

This is often the sort of thing we do, usually with limited success, so it was with some surprise that, after about forty five minutes of rather aimless wandering, we saw a gap in the walls with a sign announcing “Cold Drinks This Way,” and with that we were there. This has to be just about the most amazing place I have ever had a beer; right on the edge of the town with the vast blue sea stretching out before us, and the sun gently sinking into the western horizon, we were so relaxed that we stayed for nearly two hours, just enjoying the peace and the view. A nice touch is that just below the bar there is a section of rocks which is roped off and reserved for residents of the old town, from where they can dive into the sea and sun bathe without being bothered by tourists.

As a final flourish to an incredible day and wonderful holiday, we went for dinner at an outdoor seafood restaurant which is set up next to the fish market down on the quayside and ordered the seafood platter, a huge dish for two with squid, octopus, shrimp, prawns, sardines and mackerel; heaven.

A note should be made here, given my penchant for buskers, for a troupe who were performing just outside the old town as we left to catch our bus, and who were so good they have pipped all the London buskers to the much coveted number one spot on my list of favourites. Accompanied by violinist and flautist, a barefoot guy had set up a selection of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes, all tuned by being filled with varying amounts of water so as to transform them into a glass xylophone. It was amazing to see, almost as much as it was splendid to hear. The bottle player really threw himself into his performance, which must have involved a great deal of control so as to not smash any of the bottles. We stood and watched them for a while, and it seemed a good way to say goodbye for now to Dubrovnik and Croatia.

We returned to London to sunny weather, but to the sad news of the death of Amy Winehouse and the tragedy in Norway, and with that life returns to normal. Being away from this city has been a refreshing break, but as we returned to our neighbourhood I was struck by how much London feels like home, and that, although I’m sad my holiday is over, I’m glad to be back.

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A Night of Contrasts

Last night, which police are saying was the worst night of unrest in London in living memory, the other half and I went to a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m not much of a music buff, but I do like to going to pleasant things in nice buildings, so the whole thing appealed to me immensely. For what it’s worth, the music was Sibelius, Grieg and Nielson, played by the Stokholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Even with no knowledge of the music, to hear a full orchestra play in such an amazing venue is something else. Also, the advantage of promming is that your ticket is only £5 and you have the best position, even though you have to stand.

So we were feeling pretty spectacular as we left the hall, buoyed up by the beautiful music and the breathtaking surroundings of the Albert Hall, which inside and out has got to be one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world.  Imagine our surprise when we switched our phones back on and found them crammed with texts and missed calls.

As we had decided to go to the Proms on a whim, we hadn’t told any of our housemates where we were. While we were in the concert, riots broke out acorss London, including our neighbourhood of Clapham Junction. The station was closed, and my house mate said there were looters running up and down our street. They advised against trying to get a bus, saying that if possible we should try and get a taxi to drop us at our door.

Since living in the capital, this is the second time I’ve come within a whisker of riots. Last night it was difficult not to feel a bit uneasy as we waited for a taxi outside Victoria. Some drivers wouldn’t go to certain areas, and we had to come up with a back up plan in case we were unable to get home; all sorts of horror stories were doing the rounds, and the mood among the other people in the queue was tense.

In the end we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, except for a few more people on the streets than usual for a Monday night. A helicopter was buzzing overhead until the wee small hours, and at one point someone running down our street dropped a bag full cigarettes, but since it’s been a while since I quit, I left them there, and by morning they were gone.

It’s a funny feeling, having been so close to the mayhem, but not actually affected by it. I know that the streets were a dangerous place last night, and we were pretty lucky to get home. Some people were stuck in their offices all night, and obviously some people have lost their homes to fire and vandalism. I don’t feel unsafe at home, although I am a little worried about working a night shift and coming home late on my own.

I guess this is all part of living in the big city. Maybe it’s a trade off; so that I can go and see a world class orchestra perform in a beautiful concert hall for only £5, I have to put up with the occasional riot. If so, I haven’t really been badly enough affected by the riots to not think I’m getting the better side of the bargain. However, looking at the images on the news, and the senseless violence which seems to be spreading like a virus, it does make me wonder if a better sort of bargain ought to be struck.

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Will he do it?……. No

As I have mentioned, I care little for tennis apart from two weeks of the year when I suddenly realise that I actually love it, and resolve to follow it all year round, but then somehow forget all about it until the following year. This year has been no different, apart from the fact that this year for the first time I actually went to Wimbledon.

We went on the very first day and, contrary to expectations, I didn’t have to queue at all. You do still have to go through the motions of walking along where the queue would be, just to make you realise how much longer the whole process could have taken (in fact my friend, who went four days later queued for SIX HOURS, dear God in heaven), but in the end I was just shown straight in.

We managed to get two hours of tennis is on the new Court 3 (apparently only the second all Croatian match they have ever had) before the rain came down. Ever optimistic we hung around for a few hours, drinking coffee and eating fish and chips in the hopes that the weather would clear up, but by seven we were so cold and wet that we decided to give it up and headed for home.

Of course since then Murray has been knocked out AGAIN, which is disappointing, but not unexpected. He just seems to go to pieces and crucial moments. I don’t believe he’ll ever do it, you know. My money’s on Nadal now, he seems such a nice young man.

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Buskers

I am a big fan of a good busker, by which I mean someone who really makes me smile, or brightens my day. I don’t usually care that much for the blokes with guitars singing Oasis covers; even if they’ve got good voices, they’re all very much the same. However, the soprano singing arias on the Northen Line was something else, and I threw her a few pennies. I usually try and give to people playing the clarinet, as I play the clarinet and so I know it’s not an easy thing to play (I don’t play it well, for this very reason). However, here are my current three favourite buskers, in reverse order:

At number three, the polka band who stand on the foot bridge by the Royal Festival Hall, with special mention for the guy who plays the plastic tub. I love a polka band, and these guys really put the hours in. Are they the same polka band who I’ve seen playing outside Waterloo, or by the river at London Bridge? I have no idea. I suspect there are hundreds of these bands playing similar music dotted around the city, and so much the better. They’re great fun.

At number two, and pipped to the top spot simply because I’ve only seen him one time, was the down and out looking guy for his rendition of “Close to You” by the Carpenters via a traffic cone. The police moved him on before I could give him any money, but he was brilliant.

At number one, this guys always makes me smile. The tuba player in Trafalgar Square whse tuba shoots flames every note. Bonus points for playing an oom-pa version of Oops I did it Again by Britney Spears.

On the subject of street theatre; I kind of understand the human statues, who paint themselves all one colour and stand still all day, occasionally posing for photos. But the Darth Vadar outside the National Gallery? Or the guy in the grubby Duck costume? What is the motivation behind these, and, more importantly, why do people want their photos taken with them?  Beyond odd.

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Twickenham

I’m a bit of a fair weather sports fan. For example, during the two weeks that Wimbledon is on, I suddenly discover a passion for tennis, and for at least a week after the tournament ends I resolve to watch more of it. But this soon fizzles out, and even when Murray is doing well around the world I can’t muster too much patriotic pride.

Likewise the rugby. I love watching rugby, and particularly love the Six Nations, especially if it involves going down the pub with some friends for a few beers. I’m very excited about the world cup this winter, but when it comes to just following a team, I can’t generally be bothered.

However, I was delighted when my brother bought me tickets to Twickenham for the premiership final for my birthday present. I’ve never been to a big game like this, and as we took our seats in the stadium, it occurred to me that I have never been in the same place as quite so many people.

The atmosphere was incredible. As my brother’s team, the Wasps, weren’t playing, and I don’t really have a team, we decided to go for the Saracens (based on the fact that there was a gladiator called Saracen, which is as good a reason as any I suppose.)

Apparently, the game wasn’t that exciting until the end, but I can’t comment on that because I found the whole thing amazing. There’s something wonderfully civilised about a rugby crowd. I love how there is such a difference in ages, as well as a pretty decent gender balance. People queued patiently at the bar, and as a result everyone got served quickly. Supporters for each team sit side by side, which creates a brilliant atosphere, even on the walk to and from the stadium.

In short, I utterly loved it. I understand the season is now over (why why why must they play in the winter? It is cold!) but I am definately planning on braving the elements and attending more games, particularly as it is so easy to get to Twickenham from my house, yet another benefit of living in the capital.

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Celeb Spotter

Mick Jagger dined in our restaurant on Saturday night. I wasn’t there to see him, but I know people who were, which oddly enough seems almost as good.

I was however at another very exciting event featuring Heston Blumenthal at the South Bank Centre. There was a sherry tasting first of all, which was all very jolly, if a bit fraught. The people at each table were a bit shell shocked at the surging crowds who overwhelmingly seemed not to give a toss about the finer details of sherry, and were only concerned with necking as much as possible in the allotted time (myself very much included). Then there was a talk by Heston himself, during which we all got snacks made under Heston’s own instructions; all very yummy and lovely.

Actually, this post isn’t really about celebrities, it’s about how brilliant the South Bank Centre is. I should have called it The South Bank Show or something like that, but what are you going to do?

So the South Bank is really brilliant. It’s such a wonderful space. At the moment they are hosting the Festival of Britain, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original such festival in 1951. There is all sorts going on, not least of which is a fake Southend beach, which being from Southend I particularly like (and such a clever thing for Southend to do, because sometimes I think Londoners need reminding that Southend is the nearest beach resort, only an hour on the train, and not nearly as bad as people think).

There’s also a pop-up Indian restaurant, which I also love, as I love Indian food, and I love riverside al fresco dining, and I love things which are cheap, and this has all of these things rolled into one.

We went for a walk along to have a look at everything on Sunday, there was just so much to see. There are the usual street performers (including a guy tango-ing with a manequin, H.I.LARIOUS) and those odd people all painted one colour and standing very still (the point escapes me somewhat, but not as much as the guy dressed as a Roman centurion posing for photos with tourist. Why?!? Do they know they’re not in Rome?) There’s also a row of beach huts, which again makes me think of Southend in a good way (it has to be said, despite my above comments, it is a lot easier to think about Southend in a good way when one is not actually in it) a big fox made of straw symbolising the link between town and country, and a wonderful and deeply moving exhibition of photos from the war in Afganistahn.

The Udderbelly is also there, a giant upside down purple cow which is actually a theatre which travels to Edinburgh for the festival after it leaves London. When we were looking around there we saw the celebrity chef Hardeep Singh, so I guess this post is about celebrity after all.

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Wedding fever

Having worked in hospitality all my life, I’m used to feeling vaguely left out. Christmases, new year’s eves, bank holidays; even weekends have never really meant all that much to me apart from being the busiest days of the week.  So I had a good idea what it would feel like, walking through the centre of London on my way to work this morning, while the rest of the world was preparing for the wedding of the century. Everyone seemed so happy and excited, and as I suspected I was seething with envy.

To be honest, I’m not really that bothered that I’m missing the wedding. (I’ve tried to find a live feed from the computer at work, but they’re pretty creaky machines and won’t play any video: I’m having to follow the guardian live blog, which updates every minute). That said, it does seem a little unfair that the entire country seems to be gearing up for the big occasion, and I’m sat on my own waiting for the phone to ring. I mean, honestly, who is going to call us today? I work the phones taking bookings for a big restaurant, but it’s unlikely we’re going to do much business today. We’re in Soho, but we’re Cuban themed which seems a bit at odds, with the intense Britishness which is on display everywhere else (although surely the very act of putting it all on display is decidedly un-British).

However, I mustn’t grumble. My poor colleague is taking over from me at five, so not only will she have to struggle in past crowds of people drunk on patriotism, royal fever and probably also just plain drunk, she’ll be in the office til eleven tonight, which is the real graveyard shift.

One hour later: Things have picked up a bit. In the absence of any other way of being involved, I’ve been sat glued to my computer, refreshing the screen every minute to get updates of the wedding. Although it’s a poor subsitute to being out there soaking up the atmosphere, I feel strangely involved.

It just occurred to me that the last time the country shut down to such an extent to watch the TV was the funeral of Princess Diana. I watched it from home with my mum; despite the sadness of the occasion, there was a definate feeling that it was nice that the whole country had come together for once. That’s kind of how I feel about today; it’s nice to feel part of something so big.

I have my reservations about what the Royal Family is actually for, but maybe it’s just for this: to give us all a feeling of togetherness, whether in mourning or celebration, every now and then. You really can’t imagine that there’s any other personality who could do the same.

The streets around work are eerily empty; I guess today isn’t the day for people to flock to the peep shows and sex shops of Soho. I’m guessing all the gay bars will fill up this afternoon though; I’ll be keeping a lookout for the best Kate drag queen.

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