Wednesday, 30 June 2010

On the road to Damascus

Not quite on the road, more like on the plane to Damascus, or at least I will be later this year. I have now booked a trip to Syria and Lebanon with Voyages Jules Verne. We have travelled with them before and have been quite satisfied with their service.

A link to details about the holiday is:

JVJ call it Restoration Story. We had a shortlist of two for our December travels. The other was Nepal and India. We eventually opted for Syria and Lebanon. It will be my 5th trip to the Middle East. I did Egypt in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and Jordan in 2008. As you will expect, I'm rather looking forward to this trip.

Sunday, 27 June 2010


I was in London last week on business and went to a new Italian restaurant near my flat in Crystal Palace. Fresco on Westow Hill Road, in the Upper Norwood "Triangle", opened less than a month ago. There's nothing massiely different about the menu but watch out for the size of the starters. They were on the large size, approaching that of a main course. That in itself was an indication of value for money. Generally, service was good, food was good. We opted not to have a dessert. We were too full by then.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Tynemouth Book Fair

Tynemouth Book Fair Jun 10 2

Tynemouth Station hosts a number of different fairs, such as farmers' markets. Once every two months it has a book fair on a Sunday which is worth a visit, especially if you are into local history. It is an Aladdin's cave of books written about the North East, though there are plenty of other types of books as well. I was there on Sunday just gone.

The video above was shot in 2006 - which goes to show how long I have been frequenting the book fair. The station is a grand Victorian suburban commuter station which has seen better days. It's worth a visit in its won right. Some restoration work has been carried out, some still needs to be done.

Il Forno Restaurant, Tynemouth

Il Forno restaurant Jun 10 2

One of my favourite restaurants in the North East is Il Forno in Tynemouth. It is based in the old waiting room of the Victorian Tynemouth Station so not only is the food good, but the location has some historical interest as well. That suits me fine as I am an historian and I meet up regularly with a group of historians to have lunch in Il Forno.

Il Forno restaurant Jun 10 1

The menu is competitively priced, indeed, I would go as far as saying that given the quality of the food, they are undercharging. You can get a good quality 2 course meal for under £10. The wine obviously comes as extra.

Il Forno restaurant Jun 10 3

If you are on Tyneside, pay this restaurant a visit. It is remarkably easy to get to it as Tynemouth Station is on the Metro system.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Roman City of Jerash

I visited the Roman City of Jerash in Jordan in June 2008. Once one of the great cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, much work has now been done to restore it after centuries of earthquake damage. The hippodrome has been partly restored and for our benefit (and the benefit of all the other tourists) a display of chariot racing and gladiatorial fighting was laid on.

We were staying next to the Dead Sea and it was quite a drive for us to get there, though we had hired our tour guide for the day and he drove us there from the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort.

Take a hat and water. You will need them.

Jerash June 08 no 1
The Arch of Hadrian

Jerash June 08 no 19

Above and below - the Oval Forum

Jerash June 08 no 71

Jerash June 08 no 83
Chariot racing

Jerash June 08 no 108
Meet the locals

Jerash June 08 no 110
I'm the one with the sun glasses!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Inside a former secret, Soviet, submarine base

One of the more unusual places to visit is a former Soviet submarine base but in October 2006 I got the chance to do that whilst doing a cruise around the Black Sea. The base was in Balaklava, better known as the supply base for the British effort during the Crimean War (there are plenty of war memorials around but more about them on another day) and for having the famous headgear named after it. Balaklava is on the south of the Crimean peninsula which is part of the Ukraine. I also did a tour of the Crimea in October 2005 but at that time the submarine base had not opened for visitors. On my return visit the following year, I was in for more luck.

Balaklava nuclear submarine base Oct 06 no 4
(The personnel entrance)

The base is unlikely to be like anything you have ever seen before. It was built to be safe against a direct nuclear hit. The only visible parts are the nuclear proof doors at the bottom of the cliffs in the bay. The base is inside the cliff. If you like James Bond and Indiana Jones film sets, you will love this place.

Balaklava nuclear submarine base Oct 06 no 130
(The submarine entrace from the Bay of Balaklava)

The following has been taken from my diary written on my second visit to the Crimea:

Thursday 26th October 2006

I always knew this was going to be one of the highlights of the whole holiday - a visit to the former secret Soviet submarine base in the cliffs overlooking Balaklava. I visited the town last year [ie 2005] but the base was not then open to visitors though it has not been in military service since the 1990s. There was, however, no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see it this time!
The entrance to the base is on the opposite side of the bay to the town and from there all that can be seen is the gateway in the face of the cliff through which the subs sailed plus a personnel entrance. Each has nuclear bomb proof doors.

Balaklava nuclear submarine base Oct 06 no 58
(The access tunnel into the base - note the curving corridor)

The base itself was dug out of the hillside in the late fifties and early sixties to house the subs of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The base itself is under 125 metres of solid marble. To get into it we had to enter via the personnel entrance which took us along a long, curving tunnel (curving to help deflect the blast of a nuclear explosion should the Americans have decided to nuke the place). This was like entering a Hollywood world of Indiana Jones and James Bond combined.

Balaklava nuclear submarine base Oct 06 no 47
(Weapons of mass destruction)

We followed railway tracks to the nuclear bomb assembly area deep inside the base, and then followed more tunnels to the actual submarine bays, huge caverns with the waters of the Black Sea flowing through them, bringing no more submarines now, but only the local jellyfish that seem to exist in vast numbers. All we were missing were 007 fighting the baddies and stopping them from taking over the world! If you get the chance to visit this area (which was closed to the western world and even most Soviet citizens until 1995) this submarine base is a must see.

Balaklava nuclear submarine base Oct 06 no 10
(One of the internal nuclear blast doors)

Balaklava nuclear submarine base Oct 06 no 99
(one of the submarine pens)

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Photos from the tropical island of Mayotte

In December 2007, I visited the island of Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. The island is a dependency of France. Ours was a fleeting visit, just one day on a cruise between Zanzibar and Madagascar. These are some of the photos I took.

Mayotte baobab tree Dec 07 no 6

The biggest baobab tree in Mayotte and it was huge! David demonstrates the size of it. We were told it was about 700 years old.

Mayotte baobab tree Dec 07 no 4


Mayotte saltmaking Dec 07 no 2

Salt was made by collecting the top soil in the lagoon pictured below which is flooded at high tide. The soil is mixed with water and then filtered through sand. The water is then boiled off to leave the salt.

Mayotte Dec 07 no 1

Mayotte saltmaking Dec 07 no 4

Mayotte saltmaking Dec 07 no 5

Snorkelling at the turtle reserve

Definitely a highlight of the visit. The turtles are huge, aver a metre in length, and they feed on the sea vegetation at the shallow sea bed next to this beach which is also a turtle reserve. It is possible to go snorkelling in this area but you are not allowed to swim down and touch the turtles. To prevent this, we were all given life jackets to wear whilst snorkelling. That kept us on the surface!

Mayotte beach Dec 07 no 1
The turtle reserve beach

Mayotte snorkling Dec 07 no 2
Me with my life jacket and snorkelling gear. One thing to watch out for when snorkelling with a life jacket on as I was: your back and neck spend quite a bit of time in the direct sun. You will feel it later in the day.

Mayotte snorkling Dec 07 no 1
The slightly more stripped down version of me!

Mayotte Lemurs Dec 07 no 5
Brown lemurs live wild on the island but some are quite tame and wait at the edge of the beach for food from passing visitors.

Mayotte musicians Dec 07 no 2
Lunch was on another beach and we have music provided by a local group. Face painting like this is common with women on the island.

The tropical island of Mayotte

The Comoro Islands sit in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique on the African mainland and Madagascar. There are four islands in the group. 3 form an independent republic whilst the 4th, Mayotte, opted in the 1970s to stay French. Though currently styled a french "overseas community", the island will become France's 101st department, effectively making it part of France proper, in 2011. I visited the island in December 2007 though, as I was doing a cruise, I was there for only a day. (We were on a small passenger liner, the Royal Star, which carries about 200 passengers.)

This is a genuine tropical island and is not the easiest of places to reach. There is an airport but it cannot take many of the larger aircraft as the runway is not long enough. Instead, people flying to the island have to pick up connections on the African mainland.

The following is taken from my diary written at the end of the visit. I've included video as appropriate. I'll post up some of the photos in a separate article.

Friday 7th December 2007

Mayotte is one of those relics which before this day I had not visited: an overseas dependency, in this instance of France. Whilst the other Comoro Islands had opted for independence in 1975, Mayotte voted to remain French. Technically we were therefore in both France and the EU. The island probably benefits economically from the link. It seems the French taxpayer picks up a large part of the bill for running the island, though with the unintended consequence of making this island one of the most expensive in the Indian Ocean on which to live. Our guide however was part of the colonial establishment, a white French woman with a rather patronizing attitude towards the island’s inhabitants, explaining to us that the local blacks, in her view, do so many things wrongly and have to be told what to do all the time.

Our first call was to a salt producing site. Effectively, this was a mud flat that was only flooded at high tide. The women working on the site scraped the soil into heaps which would then be added to water and then filtered through sand. The resulting liquid was then boiled down leaving only salt crystals. The gift shop on the site sold, well, different size bags of salt.

The next call was the highlight of the day (and one of the highlights of the holiday) – snorkeling at the turtle reserve. On arrival we were greeted by a band of lemurs who were interested in us for any food we could provide. Alas I had none.

The turtles live on a coral reef around the beach and as a protected specie, we had to keep our distance from them and were not allowed to swim down to touch them. We all therefore had to wear lifejackets to keep us on the water surface. I was happy enough with this as I had never been snorkeling in my life before except for the practice run on Wednesday in the pool of the Royal Star.

David was not able to join in as he could not wear his glasses whilst snorkeling. He took photos and videos from the beach instead. It was a pity he missed the experience. Frankly it was incredible. The turtles were enormous, over a metre long. The place was also teeming with fish, sea urchins and coral. The coral reef itself was huge. In the crystal clear waters it was like swimming in an aquarium. My first experience of snorkeling was over after about an hour. My shoulders and back of my legs had also caught the sun though I didn’t notice this til the end of the day.

We headed back to the Royal Star, taking in the island's biggest baobab tree (and I mean, it really is gigantic) and then a Ylang Ylang plantation on the way, and the ship left port in the late afternoon.

(Ylang ylang flowers are harvested from the trees. Oils from the flowers are used to make perfume. The oil is one of the island's most important exports. Most is sent to Paris.)

Friday, 4 June 2010

Whistlestop tour of Paris

Up to now I have visited 56 countries (though one doesn't really count as it is a French overseas department - Mayotte in the Indian Ocean - so theoretically we were part of France when we were there.) All but one of my visits were recorded in my diary so I am now starting to post on this blog extracts to give a flavour of when we did and my thoughts on the place. I am starting with Paris.

My first visit to Paris was in 1997, then again in 2000, 2001, 2002 and in 2009. The diary extracts below are from 2009 and show a sense of disillusionment at the cost of eating out. Much of this was a shock reaction to the huge fall in the value of sterling. When last in Paris in 2002, the pound could buy around 1.6 euros. In 2009, it was buying about 1.1 euros. And I think Parisiens were also hiking their prices to soak the tourists.

As you can see I was impressed by the new international Eurostar terminal at St Pancras. That is work a visit in its own right. If you are going to Paris or Brussels, let the train, rather than the plane, take the strain. It's far easier, much more comfortable, and going city to city, just as quick, if not quicker, now that the high speed link is open through Kent. The only drawback of the train is that on busy days, join the queue in the buffet car as soon as possible.

Sunday 21st June 2009

8.30am: I'm on Eurostar travelling to Paris, having just left St Pancras. I'll be in France only for a one night stay. It's my first Eurostar trip since the international terminal was moved from Waterloo and having now seen St Pancras, it thoroughly deserves all the accolades it has received.

I'm not impressed with the buffet car on the train however. I joined the long queue and after 10 minutes, with the first customer still being served, I abandoned any idea of eating.

9pm. I am at Montmartre, Paris, having dinner. I have to confess I am horrified at the costs here. £10 for a pint for example. Over £10 for an omlette. Paris has gone up so much in price since I was last here in 2002. But at least the Metro is cheaper than the Tube!

We've done Eiffel Tower from a distance, Arch de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Pyramid at the Louvre, Notre Dame and now Montmarte. Having broken the bank, we'll try to find somewhere that does not measure its prices in astronomical units. Not even MPs on £400 a month tax free food allowances could survive here!

Monday 22nd June 2009

We went along to the Eiffel Tower in the morning, hoping the queues would be shorter, so we could go up. They weren't. We didn't go up. We walked down to the Louvre again, had lunch and eventually caught the train.

Diary ends

My advice if you are doing Paris on a budget: buy food and drinks in shops, not restaurants, and enjoy having picnics in the parks. Stick to sight seeing - there's plenty to see. If you want to go up the Eiffel Tower, get there as early as you can or don't do it at all.

Arc de Triomphe Jun 09 no 14
Arc de Triomphe - you have to pay and queue to go up to the top.

Louvre Jun 09 no 1
Pyramid at the Louvre

Paris Eiffel Tower Jun 09 no 41
Eiffel Tower - get there early in the morning if you want to go up to the top.

Notre Dame Jun 09 no 1
Notre Dame

Place de la Concorde Jun 09 no 3
The Egyptian Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde

Montmartre Jun 09 no 1
Sacre Coeur at Montmartre. This is the best place to get a free birds eye view of Paris.

One final point, Montmartre is my favourite place in Paris. Unfortunately it was packed out when we were there in June 2009. The restaurant prices were off the scale (we ended up throwing caution to the wind and had a meal there). Street artists work the patch. We had pictures drawn back in 2002 when we were there. We didn't this time. Quite what their pricing policy is now would be interesting to know.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Llangollen

I visited Llangollen in July 2009 though we went only to visit the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which meant many of the other features of the area were missed (such as the Dee Valley, the Horseshoe Pass and the Llangollen Steam Railway). We had only half a day so we drove down from Penmaenmawr, parked near the canal and then walked over the Aqueduct.

A visit to the Aqueduct is a step back to the age of canals. The Aqueduct is still in use and carries the Llangollen Canal 40 metres above the Dee Valley. Walk it and enjoy with some spectacular views. It is now a World Heritage Site. It was built by the great engineer Thomas Telford and opened for canal traffic in 1805.

Llangollen Jul 09 no 60

Llangollen Jul 09 no 24

Llangollen Jul 09 no 10

Llangollen Jul 09 no 27

Llangollen Jul 09 no 3

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Things to do in North East England: the Northumberland County Fayre

Monday 31st May was May Bank Holiday and therefore by tradition the day of the Northumberland County Show. This is held at Tynedale Rugby Club in Corbridge and is conveniently next to Corbridge railway station on the Tyne Valley line. That means it's easy to get there but.... The train service from Newcastle, which we got at 10am, was packed. Though the train stopped at all the stations on the way (except Blaydon) each station was packed as well and very few people were able to get on board. If youare taking the train, my suggestion is you get there as early as possible.

If you drive there, the neighbouring fields are used as a car park. The first time we went, which was, admittedly, 20 years ago, saw us take nearly an hour to get out of the car park. We have never since taken the car so I have no recent experience to report on.

I didn't take the video camera with me this year so the following video is of last year's show. It still gives a good flavour of what to expect:

The Northumberland Show is, as you would expect, directed at those involved in agriculture. Nevertheless, there's plenty to see and do even if you don't know the back end of a sheep from the front. We had a merry time checking out rotovators (see my allotment and food blog

We left at about 2pm and people were still pouring in at that point. They would have missed by then most of the livestock, horse, sheep-shearing, jam making etc judging by then. Even so, there were attractions for just about every taste, from falconry to wool spinning. And just about every local government, quango and commercial enterprise you could think of with some kind of role in the county was exhibiting. I got a load of informaiton on bee and hen keeping.

Here are some of the photos I took on Monday:

Northumberland County Show May 10 8

Northumberland County Show May 10 7

Northumberland County Show May 10 4

Northumberland County Show May 10 3

Northumberland County Show May 10 2

Northumberland County Show May 10 17

Northumberland County Show May 10 12

Northumberland County Show May 10 11