Saphar

The latest trip for Mrs A and I has been India. I’m there now actually, hurtling along a Rajasthani motorway in the monsoon. It’s really not for the faint of heart as in addition to the torrential downpours there are cows, dogs, tuk-tuks, cyclists and disinterested pedestrians to contend with, all of whom seem to view the basic principles of dual carriageways as advisory at best.

Did I mention this was a motorway?

Anyway, we’re on our way back to Delhi to catch our flight tomorrow to Dubai, but India has been glorious. We’ve been here for 6 days and as well as visiting Delhi, we’ve been to Agra and Jaipur too. It’s been far too interesting for one post only, so there’ll be a few. You have been warned.
NDC

Lucky Man, Part III

Today marks the passing of another great man that I’ve been lucky enough to call father.

Today my father in law, Jim, died.

Jim lived a life that I am envious of. He was a man of character and humour and grace. He welcomed me with open arms and was a warm, honest man of integrity. He was full of the qualities to which I aspire.

Thank you for the smiles and the happy times Jim, your like is a rare thing.

NDC

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North

The Lake District smiles on me. I love North Wales and the mountain ranges of Snowdonia, but almost without exception when I’m there the Goretex will be on my back before I’ve trudged out of the car park.

The lakes are different. I know they’re officially one of the wettest places in the UK but in recent times the sun has always shone on me, so I feel like the place actually doesn’t mind me being there, like it isn’t giving me a great big cumulonimbus-shaped “sod off” every time I haul my pack onto my back.

So last weekend, riding my luck weather-wise again, I trundled up the M6 with Hiking Buddy Extraordinaire to spend a couple of days in the hills. Heavy downpours on the motorway began to shake my faith a little but as we hit Newby Bridge the sun broke through the clouds and pretty well stayed with us until we left. Some may say the sun shines on the righteous, others say the sun even shines on a dog’s arse some days.

I like to think it’s the former in this case.

The rain started to fall on and off again as we arrived, but cleared within the first few hundred metres of ascent, leaving us with a beautiful day from there on in. We slogged up to the top and sat eating lunch watching the clouds cast their shadows across the valley and Haweswater as they raced across the skies above us.

After lunch we headed back along the arrow-straight path marked along Riggingdale and the beautifully accurately named Rough Crag. Although arrow-straight on the map, it was up and down like a bride’s nightie and quite exciting in places. We met a very elderly couple who offered us tea and advice on peanut butter sandwiches and I found a bog I thought I could clear by jumping. HBX bet me a sausage I couldn’t, and the die was cast. I even had to wait for him to sort out his camera in case I didn’t make it.

Having safely landed on the other side he put his camera away, hugely disappointed. The rest of the hike back to the car passed pretty uneventfully, and we wound our way back through the Lake District serpentine road system to Coniston, our base for the night at a belting little site right on the shores of the lake. Run by The National Trust, it’s pretty basic and all the better for it. I thoroughly recommend it, link to site is here.

So once the tents were up, the barbecue burning with enough ferocity to be seen from space (thanks to some alarmingly liberal application of accelerants by HBX) and a couple of beers to the good we called it a night. Although I’d pushed for wild camping I was pretty happy as the site was fairly low key and gloriously isolated. Also the ground was flat and there were no errant mountain sheep likely to trip over the tent in the gloom. Also, hot showers are always good.

The next morning was clear and cold, a little overcast but looking good. Coffee on the go, bacon and eggs sizzling, we planned our route for the day. Coniston Old Man was just around the corner and seemed a good bet. we broke camp, loaded everything back into the car and headed off to find the trailhead. Parking up in Coniston we hauled on our packs and started towards the hills.

After a brief discussion about routes around 15 minutes in we left the road and started hacking across country. The path rose and rose, consistently climbing without any significant levelling off until the summit, the only break coming in the form of some abandoned mineworkings about halfway up. These kind of places always feel a bit eerie to me, the machinery and buildings still there, gradually deteriorating back into the mountain. It feels strange to put hands on cables and flywheels and beams that once were turning and straining against tonnes of rock, dozens of men working to keep them going day in day out, but have now been still for almost 100 years.

And the views from the top were stunning, over Coniston and Windermere, out to the sea, another beautiful view on a beautiful day. We sat for a while and ate lunch, some of which I was relieved of by another hiker’s dog, and we met another fine character. This guy was South African, easy in his sixties, navigating with a back-of-a-fag-packet map and a highly developed sense of hope. He asked us if we knew the way to the youth hostel where he was staying – we gave him a shot on my full sized map which cheered him up no end. In return we got yet more advice (no peanut butter involved this time). Here it is:

“Sometimes people tell me to grow up. I tell them to fuck off”.

Quite.

So we headed back down towards sea level and the car and then back down the (amazingly clear) M6 home.

Usually I’d have peppered this post with a photo or ten, but this time I’m having a shot at a video (it’s all the rage with the youngsters these days I hear). It’s my first ever video so any tips or hints would be most welcome – comment away. Unless the comment is ‘don’t make videos’. Keep that one to yourself. I might even put up a video of day two….

NDC

High Street May 16 from Andrew C on Vimeo.

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Safar

Over the last few months Mrs A and I have been travelling quite a bit – our most recent trips have tended to be Eastern European, quite cold and a bit more culturally familiar* than we’d expected/I’d hoped, so in order to address these things we thought we’d head to Marrakesh for a couple of days and stay in a riad in the Medina. Unfortunately the weather was unusually cold (Nourredine, the host at the riad told us it had actually snowed the week before), but if I’m honest that bothered me not one jot as Marrakesh delivered in spades on every other front.

The drive from the airport lasted around 15 minutes but probably took 5 years off my life. I’m not a nervous passenger by any stretch of the imagination, I was 17 at the time that 17 year olds got ready access to ‘hot hatches’, so I’ve had my share of lairy rides in cars. I’ve even covered several hundred mi!es on the roads in Sri Lanka without breaking too much of a sweat.

This was different.

Once inside the city walls our taxi (a minivan) was joined by other taxis, cars, donkeys, mopeds, cyclists, buses, petrol pumps on trolleys and pedestrians, all making their way at the same time in myriad directions through streets wide enough to accommodate any two of the above items at the same time. I know that both of the cars I was a passenger in during our stay had steering wheels on the right hand side, but I couldn’t say for certain which side of the road people were supposed to drive on, such was the chaos. At one point I saw a chap in the road on one of the busiest interchanges selling bread from a cart as traffic hurtled past in all directions.

So after the chaos of the drive in and the chaos of walking through the Derbs we arrived at the riad, Dar Nour El Houda. To say it was an oasis of calm in the mayhem is no understatement. we met Noureddine and Asia for the first time and, drinking mint tea on the roof terrace, we were treated to the best in hospitality I have ever experienced. Noureddine explained the finer points of making your way through the Medina, some particularly useful phrases (specifically Salam Alaikum and, almost as importantly, La shukraan) and then insisted on guiding us for the first time to the main square, Jemaa Al Fna for the first time. He provided us with maps and advice and humour throughout our stay and Asia (the cook) supplied fantastic breakfasts and was always hugely cheerful. absolutely nothing was too much trouble. If you are ever thinking of going to Marrakesh I can’t recommend this place highly enough (click here for a link to their website)

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The Medina was a maze and the main square was every bit as bonkers as you would expect. A UNESCO heritage site, there were guys with monkeys in sunglasses and snake charmers and people selling teeth in both false and real varieties. The noise was a total assault on the ears with the sounds of snake charmers pipes competing with the shouts of hawkers, music for dancers and occasional cars, mopeds and horses. As the sun went down the chaos was cranked up a notch with the addition of dancers in business suits, dancers in traditional belly dancer outfits complete with veils that clearly weren’t ladies, free for all boxing rings and ‘dentists’ – identified by a cleaner than usual sheet on the ground, a pair of pliers and a slightly alarming glint in their eye.

We ate that evening at one of the stalls on the edge of the square, all of which have a number. Ours had a particularly catchy strapline that tempted us in:

“Eat at 25 – still alive.”

Over the next few days we were blown away by Marrakesh. It’s a city with so many facets in such a compact area and is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. You truly can be surrounded by absolute chaos and be transported to absolute calm and serenity within a dozen steps. We initially wandered through the souks and Medina, but soon learnt that meandering is not an option. Even a moment’s hesitation at any one of the myriad forks in an alley will mean you spend the next 5 minutes trying to shake off a “helpful” local, wanting to take you somewhere that you have no intention of going. It’s quite fun the first couple of times but gets a little wearing after that. Walking with purpose, even if you have no idea where you are, is the best option. Haggling with the stallholders was not for the faint hearted but incredibly fun.

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As well as the mayhem of the Medina we went to see the Bahia Palace, the Badii palace, Le Jardin Majorelle and even got out to the Atlas mountains for a short wander up to a waterfall across the ricketiest bridges this side of an Indiana Jones movie (and Harrison Ford had the benefit of only having to cross them with the use of green-screen effects…). But by far the star of the show was the Ben Youssef Madrasa. It was breathtaking and peaceful and awe inspiring. Set right in the middle of the maze of alleys, you could have been swept straight past in the flow of people, animals and mopeds, such was the modesty of the entance. Once through the doors a calm descended and it was impossible not to be knocked out by the sheer beauty in detail of the place. We wandered for hours and took around a million photos. It was beautiful.

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The food was generally ace, mostly tagines or couscous which suited me plenty fine thank you. I did manage to get myself a culinary adventure in the shape of a chicken pastis at one restaurant. Think half chicken pie/half apple strudel and you’ll be about right. I also had a cup of something I thought was tea from a wandering vendor in the gardens behind a mosque. It wasn’t tea. If it’s bad, don’t tell me.

And all too soon it was time to come home again.

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So would I recommend Marrakesh to you? Absolutely a million times yes, as long as you are you comfortable with using the phrase La, Shukraan/Non, merci/No, thank you without breaking your stride/looking up from your mint tea around a dozen times an hour and aren’t looking for a lazing in the sun kind of a break. It is a city that changes character within metres, going from calm to chaos, from terrible smell to beautifully perfumed, from perfectly modern to a century ago within a few paces. We loved it and will be back for sure.

NDC

* – Wow, that was quite a pretentious wanker type of phrase, wasn’t it?

Into The Blue Again

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This is my current view.

Yes, Mrs A and I are off again on one of our jaunts. This time there are no winter coats, no thermal underwear and no hiking boots*. This time the destination is not Europe.

This time we are heading to Morocco. My first time in Africa (although Mrs A had been to Tunisia in a previous life) and I am looking forward to the chaos of Marrakesh, and seeing the Atlas mountains.

But for now, I shall content myself with the bright-yellow-plastic-and-emergency-procedures view, listen to a spot more Ezra Furman (recommended), hope that the hen party occupying the row in front of us don’t get much more rowdy (they’re currently discussing the most effective method for descaling washing machines) and wait for touchdown.

NDC

* – there are hiking sandals. See Atlas mountains. I apologise to both fashion and dignity.

Ich aß eine Berliner*

This last adventure was a belter. A couple of firsts were ticked off – the first time in Berlin for either Mrs A or I (I’d travelled pretty extensively one Germany when on the payroll of The Man, but never this far east) and also our first time using AirBnB.

Let me tell you, I can thoroughly recommend both of these things.

Triggered by the recent tale of the student who found it cheaper to travel home from sheffield to Essex via Berlin on planes than to buy a train ticket direct, we ferreted out a couple of cheap flights (£20 each thankyou very much) and then set about finding accommodation. We came up with this:

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Mrs A wondered where the line was between minimalist modernist chic and crack den. I think the artwork pushes it over the line.

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It was on the 14th floor of the highest residential block in the city. Located in Mitte, it was reserved for the party faithful in the days of the DDR and had spectacular views

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We headed out to the Brandenburg Gate to pick up a walking tour of the city’s cultural and historical high points, which was led by an ex history teacher from London. It sometimes felt like we were tagging along with an A level history class, but he knew his stuff and we learnt a lot of interesting stuff outside of the obvious nazi/communist backdrop to the city. The Jewish memorial was moving, the site of Hitler’s bunker bizarre and the remains of the Berlin wall very resonant. We even got to see the balcony that Michael Jackson dangled his baby from. My favourite part was standing in the Gendarmenmarkt, whilst our tour guide explained the background to the square and its architects’ philosophy of equality and openness that made the effects of the nazi regime even more astonishing. We finished our tour in Bebelplatz, where the book burnings took place.

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After hiking around the city for so long we were starving, so we headed off to find food. We ate in a small independent burger joint called Revolver. The decor was industrial, the food was ace, the music was gangsta and the average age dropped by around 20 years when we left.

Exhausted, we grabbed a couple of drinks from a local corner shop and headed back to the apartment to plan the next day’s hike. We pre booked to see the roof terrace of the Reichstag building and collapsed into bed.

The following day we ate a leisurely breakfast in our room before receiving an email at around 10am telling us our visit was confirmed for 10:15. The Reichstag was around a 25 minute walk away, so we bolted down what was left of our leisurely breakfast and made our way across town at a pace that Mo Farrah would have complained about. We got there at around 20 past ten and threw ourselves on the mercy of a very nice chap on the door who found our names on the list and said “OK, we can get you in now, just go through and show your passports to the officers in security”.

Passports? You mean the passports in my bag? Which is in our apartment? 20 minutes (very fast) walk away? Bugger.

He kept calm and told us quite reasonably that unfortunately we wouldn’t be allowed in without valid ID. He then pointed out the booking office over the road where we could book another slot later in the day. We beetled over and booked a slot for half an hour later.

“Can I see your passports to confirm the booking please?” Asked the lady in cheerful tones. Bugger. Again.

After going and picking up the bloody passports we finally got a slot booked for the evening.

So the rest of the day was spent covering around 15 miles on foot around Berlin. We saw more of the Jewish memorial (this part underground), the topography of terror (detailing the rise and fall of the Nazis), the museum of the German resistance (housed in the very building where Von Stauffenberg organised the plot to blow up Hitler), and the Tranenplast (the museum based on the site of the major entrance and exit from East Berlin for civilians during the cold war). We walked through the beautiful Tiergarten park past the carillon and we saw the very moving monument to the Roma & Sinti. We even tried to visit the museum based in the old Stasi building, but someone had moved it and not told us. Typical bloody Stasi.

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After all that we ate a (frankly crap) meal before heading back across the city (with passports in hand) to catch our slot at the Reichstag. To say it was worth the aggravation is an understatement. It was beautiful. Even though we couldn’t get access to the dome, as it was being maintained, the views of the city and the building itself were stunning. After that we headed back to the Brandenburg Gate to see it at night before walking back to the apartment for the final time.

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We finally collapsed into bed again before our early morning flight back to dear old blighty the following day.

Berlin is an incredible city. Fascinating, vibrant and full of so much history and interest. Our two days barely scratched the surface, so without a doubt we will be back soon.

* – yes, I did eat a Berliner. The doughnut, not a citizen. It wasn’t that nice but sometimes you have to be a tourist, right?

Small Town

I love the town I live in, it’s a really nice little market town with a great mix of small independent shops sprinkled with enough supermarkets and the like to make living here very easy. There’s a fast train to London and good connections to pretty well everywhere in the country. We have access to at least
4 airports within an hour and a half’s drive, so our numerous microadventures to other parts of the planet are pretty cheap and easy.

The mix of people here is quite interesting too. Although the connections to London have meant that quite a few commuters live here, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find the rural community. It’s not at all unusual to see a kanckered old pickup with hay bales and a collie parked up in the town centre between the BMWs and there is a tractor showroom on the main road into the town just next to the ford dealership.

Old school and new school occasionally have differing priorities and have been fighting a battle over aesthetics recently as evidenced below:

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This door was, until yesterday, attached to one of the lovely little terraces that happens to be on a route I take when walking into the town. We’ve lived here for a couple of years now and it’s always been shabby (which I am a huge fan of. To quote mrs A: “If it looks old and knackered you’ll like it”), but over the last couple of weeks has become, shall we say, embellished?

I spoke to the guy who owns the house, who explained that he’d been getting anonymous letters put through the door about the shabby paintwork. He started by ignoring them but, as the letters kept coming, he painted the door as above. The thing that made me laugh the most was that he’d actually gone out and bought a notice board just so he’d have more space to write scathing commentary about the actions of his neighbours. He cackled as he was telling me the tale, whilst in the background fitters were installing a new front door in a very tasteful colour.

I couldn’t see any haybales or a collie, perhaps they were in the garden.

You should come and live here, I can thoroughly recommend it.

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Domestic Extremist

Last Wednesday Mrs A and I were out and about again. We headed off from the sleepy shire into the sprawling urban metropolis that is Leicester, to see Mark Thomas’ new show Trespass.

After parking the car and before walking down to The Curve to catch the show we stopped off for a curry at Kayal on Granby street. We’ve eaten there a couple of times in the past and the food is always good (for which they won an award in 2008, as the gently ageing sign tells you). One of the many things I like about Kayal is that there is no chicken korma to be seen on the menu. I ordered something from the menu I’d never heard of before, the waiter looked vaguely alarmed and told me what to expect, which I took to mean it might not be quite what customers generally expect and he was heading off complaints before the food arrived. we pressed on anyway.

Mrs A ordered an aubergine dish and a paratha bread. The food arrived (mine was a chicken curry with rice dumplings in some kind of spicy coconut stew) they were both lovely. You should go, trust me. Just as good now as 2008.

After food and a couple of pints of Kingfisher to the good we made our way down to the theatre. Mark Thomas came on stage and headed off as he meant to continue by haranguing the venue for the exorbitant percentage that they wanted to take a commission on his merchandise. He told us that in order to stick it to The Man he was going to head out into the street at the interval and sell to anyone who wanted a “Domestic Extremist” teatowel they could get one then and the commission that would have gone to the venue would go into a hat for a charity helping refugees in Calais. Perfect.

So the show passed in a blur of right-on, expletive-strewn, thought-provoking laughs based around the awful move towards selling off public spaces to big business and its impact on Joe Public. One of my most favourite bits was the photo of him being wrestled to the ground by bank security guards whilst dressed as Sean The Sheep beamed onto an enormous screen behind him. He looked deadpan at the audience and said “it’s hard to tell who’s lost the most dignity here, isn’t it?”. I laughed like a drain.

Come the interval, and after the show too, he was indeed outside flogging teatowels and generally chatting to people like a regular human being. It was great, although a highly developed sense of social conscience and comedy timing clearly doesn’t translate to supply chain skills as he’d run out after about 5 minutes. We never did get one…

I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw The Mark Thomas Comedy Product back in the mid 90s and he’s just as funny today. Mrs A is now worried however, that she’ll get a call at some point asking her to collect her sheep-outfitted husband from some police station.

North & Deep South

So after the adventure of Riga, a jaunt across the town to take The Boy Wonder swimming and a single night in our own bed (oh, the joy of sleeping in a temperature of less than a kazillion degrees!), we were straight back in the car and driving North to Glasgow for a catch up with the in laws.

Time is recalling its dues on them.

Whilst we were there we stayed in a couple of hotels, one new and one old friend. The new one was a real find, called Goglasgow urban hotel. It was ferreted out by Mrs A for its location and turned out to be a refurbishment of an old hotel that was a bit down at heel. The staff were really nice, the décor was brilliant with an overall industrial/shipyard theme (really appropriate to its location) and the place had just the right kind of bonkers going on, with one of the dancing Tunnocks teacakes outfits from the commonwealth games opening ceremony on the wall in reception. If you don’t remember this quintessentially mental piece of history, here it is:

They even had teacakes on the coffee tray in the room (sadly only normal sized).

Best of all, we found out chatting to the guy on reception that the the hotel is owned by a small Scottish company and they donate a healthy percentage of their profits back into micro-local causes and charities. If you’re there I would recommend them entirely. Here’s a link to their site:

http://www.crerarhotels.com/goglasgow-urban-hotel

After a day visiting with the in laws and taking Eldest son and his girlfriend out for dinner we headed back for our last night in Glasgow at One Devonshire Gardens. We absolutely love this place for its memories and for the fact that it is such a beautiful place. If I had the money I’d just move in (and turn down the heating…..)

The following day we drove back down south, ate our tea and then headed straight back out to Stamford (possibly the only sleepier town than ours in a 50 mile radius) to see Rich Hall. It was the funniest hour and a half of standup I’ve seen in a long time and is definitely one of my favourite gigs. He was sharp and funny and had both Mrs A and I in stitches for the whole show (even the songs were funny). If you get chance to see him, go. And take his advice on online gambling.