Morocco, April 2015

Marrakesh: a warm night. Nor stifling, but warm enough to sit out in listening to the sunset call to prayer and cicadas and palm trees creaking in the wind. So just right.

This place and this week: there has been magic in the air all over the place. Marrakesh has something of a reputation for touts and hustlers, but either they’ve gone to bother someone else or the addition of children makes them melt away, and puts something else in its place. A sort of kindness and compassion that puts the kids at ease and leaves them free to concentrate on having their eyes out on stalks.

A man drapes a snake around George’s neck.

A gaggle of ladies in headscarves festoon Winnie with kisses.

Harry instantly negotiates a 100% discount on the price of an ice cream by bursting into tears when his father declines to pay the fee asked.

People have been coming here to have their horizons expanded for centuries and we have been no exception. As ever, back on African soil the urge to keep going is contagious, to climb over the High Atlas, through into the Sahara and on and on, to the green lands beyond, to turn your back on Europe and flee.

Not that anyone else would be much keen on that, though Imogen and I can dream. A little adventure after breakfast suits the boys down to the ground, then back to our villa, cool and quiet, where there’s a tennis court to play rallies and football while Winnie sleeps suits them and understandably so. They’ve been unfazed by the noise of the souks, the constant hum of mopeds and the smoke of sundown in the Djemm al-fna. The great meeting place in the heart of Marrakesh remains incredible, and if it can endure the modern world may well last in something like its current state forever.

The clamour on visiting the square starts instantly, a mighty throng of people with strange music, merchants and general naughty boys everywhere. It is the orient of anyone’s dreams, no matter how many tourists are in there they are diluted by locals out for a bite to eat and the weight of atmosphere. Like the pyramids, old Aleppo (or what’s left of it), the back streets of Pera, the magic here runs very deep.

If the Djemma al Fna has an epicentre, we may have found it. I thought I’d read that no 31 does a mean merguez sausage and as we approached a row of seats came available and we sat down. Sausages, chips, squid and some veggies were ordered and arrived blissfully instantly, seconds after bread and dipping sauce. When you’re travelling with kids and food arrives fast you feel like kissing the waiters, and when they’re wolfing down what’s just landed it can feel like divine intervention.

The boys enjoyed it so much they demanded a return visit this evening, and chomped through the same again with smoke from the grills and old women homaging Winnie (who was awake this time) for company.

Everyone should bring their children to stall 31 in Marrakesh and order some merguez.

Dinner bill both nights? £15 for five.

What else? More food. Fantastic eating! Marrikshi pancakes are half pancake, half roti, best eaten off paper with a little honey while strolling along. Or if you’re feeling flush, in the cafe at the Jardins Majorelle with tagine-baked eggs and loads of mint tea. The sun came out while we were scoffing this lot.

Wonderful rambles round the medina: towards the Badli Palace from the square, and from the ramparts towards the Medressa and Marrakesh Musem, wonderful buildings. George’s best building? The arcade which contained Table Football and Virtua Striker.

A drive into the mountains to a giant man-made lake, snow-capped peaks poking over the top. Tuscan scenery, potholed roads, another planet.

Back to earth soon from outer space. Where next?

In and out of Basel, three ways

Basel is possibly the ultimate middle-European city. From whichever direction you arrive you’re soon staring at a national frontier or natural borderline. Despite this the city has a distinctive air of being somewhere, rather than another example of the type, Trieste ‘in Italy’, which does’t feel much like anywhere in particular. The three main entry and exit points are all distinctive, unusual ports and can be visited in a morning or afternoon, especially if you arrive or depart by air. On the way you can see many of the highlights of Switzerland’s third largest city, which remains true even when you take out the bits of it that are French and German.

  1. Basel Badischer Bahnhof
Basel Badischer's customs post

Basel Badischer’s customs post

Basel ‘German Station’ as the Deutsche Bahn operators refer to it is a dramatic early concrete building with a contemporary glitter ball adding a certain something to the ticket hall. Despite its lessened significance – inter-city services continue on to Basel SBB – it has the striking feature of a customs post in the subway and some retro green trams waiting outside to carry you across the Rhine to Basel (proper). This station represents your last chance to stock up on carb-heavy German railway station concessions if you’re heading into Switzerland or France, despite actually being on Swiss soil.

Glitter Ball Bahnhof

Glitter Ball Bahnhof

On the way between stations – should you intend on doing some actual sightseeing –  don’t miss Basel’s excellent historical museum, complete with a remarkable stained glass window of the city’s guilds and finds from the Celtic, Roman and later periods. Basel’s strategic location on a bluff overlooking the Rhine has made it a kind of Euro-melting pot for millennia. The coffee shop in the Stad-Mitte is lovely, with free wifi and has a roaring fire.

2. Basel SBB/SNCF

Station board geeks will love the clacker-board (or Solari Board, its common name) at Basel SBB, and it is only one of several treats in store at this terminal that richly rewards exploration. Note from the outside of the station, completed in 1907, the huge twin SBB clocks embedded in the towers. Then, on entering the vast, high ticket hall, spin round to see the murals celebrating other delights of Switzerland, including the Jungfrau Railway and Gstaad.

Note clocks: Basel SBB

Note clocks: Basel SBB

The Solari Board clacks away showing over 1000 trains a day, reaching deep into Switzerland, France and Italy. I found myself close to boarding an Interlaken service, then another to Lauterbrunnen, and then a bus to the Alpenhof at the end of the road to fulfill a dream I’ve had since last there of returning on a whim. Another time, and from London too. 

Border in station

Border in station

As Europe’s busiest transborder station there is a sense of pace here perhaps not found elsewhere in the region, or even in Switzerland, and a stroll down to France (accessed via platforms 31-5) is a must-do when you’re here. Before or after that pop into the last remaining restaurant in the station, where for quite a lot of money for most places but not a lot for Switzerland you can try a rosti-based dish. Don’t fret: they won’t try to sneak any greens anywhere near your meal. It’s a wonderful and timeless grand room and a lovely place to sit for an hour.

Rosti, sausage, small beer, superb setting

Rosti, sausage, small beer, superb setting

The bus for the airport also leaves from right outside here every few minutes.

3. Basel/Mulhouse/Freiburg EuroAirport

If the urge to detour to Arsene Wenger’s birthplace in Strasbourg doesn’t lead you astray, then a flight through this airport neatly demonstrates Europe’s complex, interlinked border arrangements. Heading from Basel SBB to the airport you cross the land border into France. At check in everyone mumbles a strange mix of French and German until you remind them that, as a Briton you cannot understand them, and they break into flawless English and you smile a defeated smile.

Once through this, passport control splits you into two lines depending on whether you arrived at the airport from the Swiss or French ‘side’. This seems to be a system that depends on your honesty. Once through here there is another fork in the road for those flying within the Schengen area and anyone else. British-bound passengers take the right fork and enter another no-man’s land. At airports across Europe the non-Schengen areas of airports, carrying fewer flights than other parts have very average facilities and this one is…alright. 

Being on high

A song of Ascents.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?
Psalm 121: 1

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On an autumn Saturday just gone with some of my family I walked from Wasdale Head in the English Lake District up, and up, and up. It wasn’t an unusual walk: we followed the ridge from Brackenclose and Lingmell Gill up the ridge to the peak of the same name, then across and up to Scafell Pike, England’s highest top, then across to Broad Crag and Great End before descending via Esk Hause. Nor was the weather unusual: we ascended into clouds as we climbed Lingmell, and were in and out of it until coming down past Sprinkling Tarn.

All in, we spent maybe three or four hours walking around between the tops of things. Paths, especially the drudgy walk up Scafell Pike, were rocky and the green slopes of the lower fells felt a long way away. But what a feeling it was to be so high up! And not only high up, but at the ceiling of England. There are higher places, even in Britain, but the noises of rock on rock on foot; the cawing and popping of what looked like a raven and the occasional dripping of an infant spring seemed to be amplified by the cloud and almost echoing.

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The sun shone brightly on the way home, and had dipped behind Yewbarrow by the time we reached the Wasdale Head Inn. It was stuffed with people and we sat outside, elated and tired. Later we walked back to Brackenclose and could see the headlamps of late finishers heading down the Tourist Track from Scafell in pitch black, with stars and evening chill for company. Lucky us.

Morrissey: Southpaw Grammar

How did Morrissey follow the incomparable Vauxhall & I? This masterpiece, gentle, lyrical and, with its climactic ending, forming what could have been a full stop in fact turned out to be a series of ellipses, and a pause.

The silence was shattered remarkably quickly. First by Boxers, following on lyrically and musically from Vauxhall. Morrissey fans down the front at his concerts have never struck me as the wallflowers they’re painted as, and never seemed to have too much trouble identifying with laddish anti-heroes found in his songs, and the unfortunate pugilist ‘losing in front of your home crowd’ who wishes ‘the ground will open up and take you down’ fitted right in to the cast of characters we meet in Vauxhall like Spring-Heeled Jim and Billy Budd. It was not a stretch to imagine Morrissey enraptured by a night down the front at York Hall. This Morrissey then let rip with another album to echo down the decades.

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A few months later and Southpaw Grammar arrived. Now on RCA/Victor, the first of Morrissey’s nostalgic record label rejuvenations, here was a new record in every sense of the word. I was never more devoted than in 1995 and can still remember getting the record home and putting the first side on. The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils is quite unlike any song ever recorded, 11 minutes of mildly jarring strings, with Morrissey siding with teachers struggling with classroom anarchy. A long way from his cathartic character assassinations of his own teachers, this felt like an older man looking at what he sees – or thinks he sees – and shuddering. Oddly, it felt in tune with my own feelings of school: the teachers are trying, and they’re alright. It’s your fellow students you’ve got to watch out for. For this song alone this album is unmissable.

Follow that? Two songs that sound like singles, if not terribly strong ones. Reader Meets Author and The Boy Racer. The latter sounds tame on record but live at Ilford and Battersea Power Station (Moz lamented on stage ‘Yes I thought it would be inside the power station too’ as he sung from inside a large tent next door) it rocked very hard indeed. I don’t think The Operation was performed at either of these shows, nor at any Morrissey concert I’ve been too, which is a shame as it shows of Spencer Cobrin’s drumming in a lengthy solo, followed by another fight song, roaring along like something off Your Arsenal.

You fight with your right hand
And caress with your left hand
Everyone I know is sick to the tattoo of you

The ‘you – oo-ooo’ later in the song is a classic vocal growl. Like Black-Eyed Susan, the beautiful and strange song that surfaced as a b-side to Sunny, this song is a pretty bold experimental mix. When I listen to it now I’m struck by how well it works, and can understand Morrissey’s frustration at the lack of credit Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte as songwriters. Then again, everyone else’s loss, like anything to do with Morrissey’s solo career. I do wish he’d play it live though, mainly for the mosh the end section of the song would have engineered. Some of his later solo shows would be considerably livened up by a bash at this rather than another Smiths rehash. The Operation is another long song (6.52) that doesn’t feel long.

Side Two dawns with Dagenham Dave, which though not one of his best singles, has a brilliant video – especially where Dave replaces the names of ladies in his life with ‘Moz’. The video finishes with Dave himself smashing a gold disc, which looks like Vauxhall & I. You could write a book about that video alone, and the man himself looks highly dishy in it.

Do Your Best And Don’t Worry is another rocker, with Alain’s backing vocals keeping things perky. It’s a bit turgid compared to other things on here but works with the album, though Moz sounds a little non-committal.

I don’t really have much interest in the minutiae of Morrissey’s personal life, so The Best Friend on the Payroll’s references are lost on me but, again, the backing vocals are amazing. That it was played in concert a decade later says something about how good it is, and how lost it got in all the other stuff rumbling around Morrissey in the press at this time. In a more sensible era this song, and this album, sounds fantastic.

The closing song, Southpaw goes back to Boxers territory. I’m not sure the whole album is about boxing, but much of it is about violence and laddishness and society’s stereotyping of young, often very sensitive males. Like here:

A sick boy should be treated, so easily defeated
So you ran with your pals in the sun
You turned around, you were alone

While Speedway sounded like the end of a career as well as an album, finishing with Southpaw is something of a tease. Ten minutes of instrumental, after the vocals have warned ‘There is something that you should know, the girl of your dreams is sad and alone…’ ducks back into Strangeways territory, leaving questions hanging in the air.

This album was not followed by more of the same. Or was it? Sunny, then a period of silence, then Maladjusted, with it storming title track and the brilliant Satan Rejected My Soul, but like the anaemic cover of the album there was a lot missing. This left quieter evenings to fill with visits back to the England painted by Southpaw Grammar: tough, exciting, unforgiving, but fragile.

Two swims in Wastwater

Growing up in a family with a serious Lake District obsession means that Wastwater is a near-mythical body of water. England’s deepest body of water was, and is, inevitably reached after a mammoth journey, and like nowhere else signals that you’re in the deepest of Albion’s mountain territory. Beyond here is remote Wasdale Head, and all around are great sentries of green peaks: Great Gable, Lingmell, and the two tops of the Scafell Massif.

The lake itself is no mere decoration. On Friday I did something I’d been thinking about for some time. From the warm comforts of the Brackenclose, the Fell & Rock Climbing Club hut that stands sentry at the foot of the tourist track up Scafell Pike, I strolled down to the lake shore. There are a choice of entries – a grassy slope over towards Wasdale Head Hall Farm, a rocky beach where the Mosedale Beck flows into the lake. I went for somewhere in between after hopping a gate which led to the water.

The sun was, after an afternoon of rain, shining straight down the lake, turning a strip of the surface yellow. Swimming into the sun like this is intense and thrilling. Perhaps buoyed by the excitement, the dark water wasn’t as cold as I’d expected. Still gasp-inducing, still exhilaratingly cold, but soft, deep and lovely to splash about in.

Flipping on to my back the magnificent cathedral of rock that is the Wasdale Valley came into view. I barely had to move my head to take in Yewbarrow, Great Gable, Lingmell and Scafell Pike. Turning again, I swam into the golden sun briefly, then clambered out.

After two days on the hills, climbing some of the tops I’d gazed at from the water and exploring Mosedale Valley in bright sunshine, I walked down the track again on Sunday afternoon. A bright morning had passed, and the sun that had shone on the screes on the southern slopes of Illgill Head had just popped behind the now-glowering cloud. No matter. Time for another dip.

This time I didn’t enter the water with anything approaching grace, more slipping on some rocks and ending up half-crawling until at swimming depth. Strange and different: the water felt much colder, more like a winter swim than the late-summer fun I’d had 48 hours before. This means you can feel yourself getting colder as you swim, and swear a lot. My father-in-law’s suggestion of fifty strokes out and back, whatever the temperature was duly completed, and I walked fast and shivering back to the Brackenclose open fire.

Swimming in the Lake District is shake inducing and breathtaking: pack your trunks and join in the excitement.

Going to a record shop and buying some records

‘The Joy brings you many things
It does not bring you joy’

The opening lines of Morrissey’s ‘Mountjoy’, the penultimate track on mighty ‘World Peace is None of Your Business’ long-player suggest a place, real or imagined, that cannot possibly make the visitor happy. As places offering little joy go, online record shops must be close to the ultimate in neutralised comfort.

Yesterday, cut loose in town, I strolled along to Rough Trade in Brick Lane. I’m not much at home in this part of town, its colonisation by the greased moustache and vest brigade making it far more alienating than in the days when it was a place for a half-decent curry Jack the Ripper walk. But Rough Trade itself retains a good stock of vinyl making it worth braving the trendier-than-thou atmosphere of a Saturday afternoon posing.

Some weeks ago, tempted by being busy and picking up Mozzer’s new one for a few quid off I’d ordered from an Amazon reseller that hadn’t turned up. The speed with which they refunded me suggested they hadn’t ever had a copy to pass on. Two-click purchase, dry and unsatisfying, followed by silence, waiting and eventually nothing.

The alternative was glorious. In the shop I met that curious chap, the teenage me, mildly overexcited to be surrounded by records, flicking through Smiths albums although I’ve had them all for nearly two decades. We both grabbed what we were looking for and then headed to the counter, pausing only to add something improbably esoteric to the pile before exiting, poor in pocket but rich in spirit.

That vinyl is now turning in front of me as I write this, the needle riding the grooves and playing layer upon layer of lovely sound. And then the stylus swings into the centre and turns in silence, and I mustn’t forget to turn it off.

European Rail Timetable: the stuff travel dreams are made of

The digital world may dominate how we plan and book travel, but real things still make for the best inspiration.

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Take the European Rail Timetable, the reborn monthly publication brought back to life by ‘the former compilers of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable’, or the wise old heads of European train travel as we should probably call them.

This wondrous tome is, apart from the Thomas Cook branding, unchanged since my first forays on the continent’s railways in the early 1990s, and probably for decades before that. The cover remains Leyton Orient red, the paper thin, the print on the timetables small. Each table is packed with symbols to make Dan Brown salivate, and with surprising ease and elegance in the presentation of information a lifetime’s potential journeying around Europe slowly unfolds. Should you wish to detain your dinner guests in a newly-decorated toilet I suggest leaving a copy in there, as my father does.

Looking through the August 2014 edition there’s the reassuringly familiar order to the book: news first. Seasonal services, easier links between northern Sweden and Finland, storm damage to tracks in Montenegro. The high-speed service in Turkey has still not fully started. Then the all-important index, city maps and then country-by-country routes. It’s not fully comprehensive, but then how could a 600-page guide cover all of Europe, but there’s everything you need. If you’re heading somewhere without trains like Iceland, once the timetable has gently chided your chosen destination for not having rail services principal bus lines are noted. There’s even some coverage beyond Europe, varying continental focus on a rolling basis and making a subscription well worthwhile.

Here are five highlights of this edition that got my feet itching, how about you?

1. A car-carrying train from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands to Koper, Slovenia. Car plus you and your family sped across Europe in classic vehicle-on-vehicle action, with the added excitement of a sleeper journey thrown in. Your kids would love it.

2.Luleå to Narvik across the roof of Sweden. The train leaves Luleå at 0553, when the Arctic will be alight, but asleep.

3. Nice to Moscow/Moskva. Nice, the heart of the glitzy, sunny south of France to brooding Moscow via Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus. The heart flutters just thinking about it.

4. Then why not cross Moscow from Belorusskaya station to Kiyevskaya and roll to Ukraine and Bucharest, from where one can connect through Bulgaria to Istanbul? Double-headed eagles of Byzantium all round.

5. Ferries: Barcelona to Tanjah (Tangiers, Orlando) and Hirtshals (Denmark) to Torshavn (Faroe Islands) and, if you’re very lucky, Seydisfjördur in Iceland. Zoinks, what a trip.

Europe is best seen slowly, and best from a train. The pages of the European Rail Timetable make for very satisfying series of ‘what ifs’ and no travel library is complete without several copies, preferably used on the road.