Tag Archives: travel

Özil in Sofia

Sofia is the Hellenistic word and concept of wisdom. A beautiful word, it graces the embodiment of the divine on earth, Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople, and names the capital of Bulgaria. I’d never visited before, but this week was in town to watch Arsenal. That means a slightly different trip to a regular exploration: a day trip, with an early start at each end, limited time to explore, and a focus on football as well ferreting out Ottoman and Cold War era things to see and do.

I doubt Mesut Özil concerned himself much with Alexander Levsky Cathedral and Icon Exhibition in the crypt, nor pined for the forest stew cuisine and live beer on offer in a side-street mehane. But that evening in the National Stadium he pulled off something no-one there will ever forget.

A few years ago I was spellbound by Tomas Rosicky’s goal to settle a North London derby. Six seconds of sprinting from the halfway line to beat the advancing keeper. It’s my favourite Arsenal goal of recent years. But Özil eclipsed that in ten seconds of mesmerising skill, grace and magic on this night in Sofia.

The game had been exciting and still low-key in the first half. Ludogorets Razgrad, not exactly one of the great names in European football and shoed 6-0 in the reverse fixture in London had raced into a two-goal lead. Happy drunkards in the away section turned alternately angry and and then placated, yet rapidly getting cold and tired as Arsenal pulled back to 2-2 at half time.

The second half was pretty tepid, the falling temperature and mist rolling off Balkan hillsides not doing much to inspire, and we seemed to be heading for a draw.

In a flash everything changed. Mohammed Elneny’s instant pass sent Özil , not usually the player furthest forward, sprinting in on goal. The keeper came out, Özil stabbed an awkwardly bouncing ball upwards and over him, and as it spun to the ground he dropped his shoulder and nudged the ball to his left. He then feinted, accomplishing all of this in a second or two and sending two defenders to the floor, but flying in different directions. Now in space, after one more touch he swept the ball into the goal.

In the away end, a mixture of astonishment and delirium, and the moment was instantly shared with Özil who ran over to our section of the ground. A flare was set off, somehow, given the three searches carried out before coming in. I found myself yelling ‘you ***** beauty!’, standing on the back of two seats. I’m reading a book about the early history of football at the moment, which talks a lot about how football was not a passing game at first, with great skill in dribbling valued above all else. Those founding fathers, fond as they were of hacking away at each others shins, would surely have looked on in wonder that their basic game had reached the point where such a moment was possible.

Since then that goal and the moments before and after it have lodged themselves in the happy part of my brain, where they will long remain. Remembering it when getting up at 4am to catch the flight home puts as much of a spring in your step as is humanly possibly at 2am UK time.

Football, wisdom, wonder all in one moment. Simply wonderful.

Iceland notes

Grundarfjordur, Saturday, 9pm, light

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Light, light, light. Iceland in June and there is no darkness. When you choose to stop and take a moment here there is no wind, no rain, and no noise either. The tapping of the keyboard and the background noise of another guest making a call is all there is.

This town is a sort of point of nothing further, and the end of the road after a frantic and spectacular 30 hours or so in Iceland. At numerous points on this quick-fire raid on the west of the country I have had cause to note how lucky I am, and how this is quite the most spectacular landscape of any place that I have ever visited.

Tonight, as the cloud wafts over Kirkjufell, standing sentinel over the north of the town, both those thoughts are coming into my head again.

I had meant to hit the ground running in Iceland, and take in Pingvellir on my way to my bed at Borgarnes, north of Rejkyavik . The road leading up to the Ping from Reykjavik, up through the Mosfell valley was an immediate thud to the senses, green hills and ribbons of river poking through the cloud and light, persistent rain.

Pingvellir was interesting and the first place I found a smattering of other tourists completing an afternoon golden circle. Two groups of divers kitted up for a plunge in the Silfra streams that fill in the rifts in the valley floor stood apart, the mooched off towards unseen depths.

It is very lovely. Even so, Magnus Magnusson makes it sound better than it is, playing up the huge historical significance of the site.

I drove straight on, north onto route 550, past a sign warning anyone with a rental car not to drive off the road. the road was gravel, but still a road. I drove on. And after ten rattly miles or so of gritted teeth I found myself in what looked like Tibet, or what I thought Tibet would look like. Land stripped of vegetation, blue rivers cutting over bleached rock, and glacial lakes. At one point I reached a junction and turned left. It felt like the remotest place on earth.

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There had been coaches of people at Pingvellir. I saw no-one for the best part of two hours. After what felt more like a lifetime, with Felt and Cocteau Twins, wild and strange on soundtrack I arrived, a little frazzled and elated, into Borgarnes, sweet in its own way, for a dip in the B&Bs hot-pot, a garage dinner and an attempt to sleep.

I was up early, early enough to have breakfast and sneak out before the Finnish couple I was sharing the B&B got up. As they were Finnish, I reckon they’d have cowered in their room until midday had I continued to clatter round. Either way I was on my way across the flat, Lewis-like scenery that led to Snaefellsnes what felt like early, early, early.

The first few miles slipped by in the excitement of the new day, and looking back at the map there is nothing until a waterfall that I scrambled up a steep track to get as close to as I could.

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That set the tone for the day, driving a little, seeing something interesting, strolling over to it, or up it, eat a jelly baby, repeat.

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Volcanic cones, odd rock outcrops, waves crashing on rocks. And then there was the turning to Ondvandarnes, and the strip of golden sand where the buried Viking was found, and a swim in the Greenland Sea. As I like annoying my father by telling him every time I swim somewhere cold or unusual or indeed any time I swim outdoors as he seems unable to do it I quickly told him I’d done that, too. ‘Most morbid swim’ he suggested on account of the cadaver who spent a few centuries under the sand.

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Given the intensely beautiful scenery all around me, I initially regretted taking a few hours out of it to go whale spotting. I shouldn’t have. Three hours gazing at the water ended up being nearly five in the company of so many orcas and sperm whales the crew were laughing. Top ocean predators. Top everything.

Sunday in brief

I woke up in Grundarfjordur, with Kirkjufell glowering behind cloud and hurried to use the shared bathroom before anyone slowed me down, then similarly gobbled breakfast, made up the last of my rolls and fled.

On the road by half past seven and at the Stikkisholmur turn-off at just after eight. I decided against heading here, Iceland’s towns not holding much allure. The ferry to the Westfjords would have to wait for another time.

After an hour of more incredible views I had driven back to Borgarnes, where I summoned the nerve to go for a swim in the local pool. First you must follow signs telling you which parts of your body to wash before getting in. Bollocks, armpits, ears. It makes sense really. Other people’s filth should not be a bathing companion.

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The pool was warm enough to feel welcoming, and after 20 lengths I headed for the hot pots where aged locals were swapping gossip. Never one to wallow for too long I was soon off again, resolving to see Reykjavik with the remainder of what remained. The only people up in the capital on Sunday mornings, however, were other tourists, and I was only really keen on seeing the Íslendingabók, the chronicle of the settlement of Iceland, and the spot where Ingólfur Arnarson had thrown his high seat pillars , deciding where to settle on being the first person to arrive in Iceland. The book was hugely understated, and the museum it was in underwhelming, while the statue was very fine, if a most unlikely place for some rods to have washed up on the shore, being as it is on top of a hill.

And that was all there was to the capital, I think. Possibly a bit harsh but I wouldn’t bother next time apart from to try a few of the swimming pools.

In fact i decided to spend my last hour looking round Reykjanes peninsula, which was flatter and more like Lewis (lots of Iceland looks like Lewis) than other bits, but interesting nonetheless. At one point I happened upon a family rushing to watch the local football team kick off and I wished I had longer, maybe forever, to be in Iceland.

Back in the real world and somehow still outside of it I flew on to Washington for the usual undignified schlepp through US immigration to catch my onward flight. I put having tried to leave my passport at immigration down to being mentally still on a road in rural Iceland. After what seemed like a dozen more hurdles I arrived in Franklin, Tennessee. I can’t think of a great contrast involving travel in the western hemisphere.

When I read these words back I have done a disservice to the excitement and wonder of those few hours in Iceland. Take these words and pump them up with breathtaking Icelandic air and views.

Innsbruck – The world’s most scenic airport?

Innsbruck from the Nordkette rope railway

Innsbruck is a fine town: the capital of the Austrian region of Tyrol and a magnet for winter sports enthusiasts, some of whom are not incredibly tedious about their love for sliding down a snowy mountain.

Unusual: Innsbruck taxi driver watches Turkish soaps streamed via mobile phone. While driving me into town.

It is unusual then that it’s airport is one of the best things about it. There are plenty of places in the world where the route out is the most attractive thing about the town, but Innsbruck’s aviation hub offers a  few attractions others cannot match. in fact, I’m going to stick my neck out and say it is the world’s mist beautifully-situated airport.

Scenic rubbish-storage area at INN

Simon Calder recently wrote that INN (Innsbruck Kranebitten) is a category C airport, one requiring great diligence and feats of piloting than softy hubs elsewhere. This means landing is a treat, and the brief seconds of wind-blown Alpine air before passengers are herded onto a shuttle bus to shuttle 30 metres is a joy. It is, however, taking a flight out of here that is a real treat.

I woke this morning on a fine, cold winter’s day in the City with the river Inn and the Nordkette mountain range looking lovely after fresh snow overnight. After one of those odd middle-European breakfast buffets (‘Can I offer you some cold meat, cheese, herring and black bread for your morning repast? This way sir. Your neighbours will all glare and you and silently smoke as you enjoy your meal.’) I took the cab ride to the airport, a ten minute hop from the Old Town.

The Terminal is small and nothing special, but on all sides is fringed by towering mountains. twenty miles or so to the east is the Brenner Pass, and this is some of the highest terrain in the Alps. Once through security the glass wall that forms the barrier between waiting area and runway offers an unbroken panorama of breathtaking mountains.

View from the Departures area

That’s it, really. A beautifully situated small airport with huge windows. This is one airport worth getting to early and buying a cup of the very good coffee served here. ‘Eine Macchiato’ is the phrase you’re after.

Anyone know of an airport with a lovelier setting?

Eritrea’s amazing cableway

If you haven’t been to Eritrea then you’re not alone – but you are missing out.

The tiny Horn of Africa state hasn’t been a country for very long. It gained independence from Ethiopia, after a protracted insurgency, in 1991, cutting its former landlord off from the Red Sea in the process.

Where is Eritrea?

The few visitors who have ventured to this remote corner of Africa are tempted by tales of Asmara, the country’s enigmatic capital. The Italian occupation of Eritrea from 1890 to 1941 left behind a rich and astonishingly complete legacy of Modernist architecture. If you can’t get there Edward Denison’s Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City is a wonderful compendium of the wonders that await. It’ll probably make you go, by the way. That’s no bad thing.

There’s more to Eritrea than this, including excellent diving and vague archaeological sites you can have all to yourself, but Asmara was what drew me here. After a day or so of strolling around laid-back streets, sipping macchiatos in old-school cafes on Harnet Avenue and joining Asmarinos on their nightly passegiata peregrination around the city I was ready to explore further. There was another reason:  I fell over in Cinema Impero while trying to make my way in pitch blackness to a seat. Two vintage Modernist seats gave way. It was time to leave town before I broke anything else.

I offered to pay for the breakages but they wouldn't let me

There are two options for getting to the coast at Massawa, a bombed-out Zanzibar with a similarly timeless atmosphere. One is to club together with a load of railway enthusiasts and charter a train. The more usual one is to hop on a minibus which gets loaded with people, shopping and the odd goat for the seventy mile, 2000m descent to the coast.

It wasn’t always like this though. One other legacy of colonial rule was one of the most unusual forms of transport: the cable-car system known as the Teleferica Massaua-Asmara. This strange and very long system of cables, way-stations and goods carts was the fastest way to shift goods from the port to capital, and as you can see from this photo the odd passenger snuck on board.

The system was dismantled by British administrators of the area when the Italians w ere overwhelmed in 1941 but some traces do remain.

On the journey from Asmara to Massawa the road plunges through hairpin after hairpin, and if you can take your eyes off the road which is much easier going up than down you start to notice huge concrete blocks dotted along the route, These are the bases for the pylons that carried the cable way. Have a look at the Trainweb link at your leaisure. It is another rich source of information, reproducing a brochure produced at the time lauding the cableway, and gives you a good idea of how different the landscape would have looked with this audacious creation in operation.

This picture’s caption notes that it was taken, by John Brantley, while stationed in Eritrea at the Kagnew station in the 1940s. It’s a Wikimedia Commons image and I am indebted to him for posting it.

There have been, astonishingly, other cableways of similar long lengths. The COMILOG cableway ran between Gabon and the Republic of Congo for nearly fifty miles between 1959 and 1986. There’s fun to be had around the web finding out more.

You should visit Eritrea but you may not wish to rush. Power cuts and shortages marked my visit and those who have been more recently suggest that travel permits are widely required. It is a beautiful and friendly country but not without troubles. I didn’t do it for you by Michala Wrong is a vivid and readable history.

Cableways are cool and Eritrea is a unique place.

An Oxfordshire village

Warborough, just down the road from Dorchester in Oxfordshire, is not really on the way to anywhere. It’s not in the Cotswolds, nor is it located by the steadily-widening Thames which rolls by at Standlake. It’s not even on one of the sweet tributaries to Old Father Thames, like the Evenlode Or the Windrush, which meander through the county offering wild swimmers the promise of a dip in idyllic – if possibly not deep enough – fresh river water.

Maybe that’s why it’s managed to escape anyone’s attention this long. For this is a perfect English village, dating back millennia, A small slice of Eden hiding in the bullrushes away from the modern world.

To describe the place is to make bricks and mortar Ray Davies’ Vision of England immortalised and satirized in the 1969 classic The Village Green Preservation Society, and to offer a case study for WG Hoskins’ History of the English Landscape. I’m no local historian, by the way, so apologies if my observations are inaccurate in any way. I was distracted, you see.

Let’s start with the village green, Warborough’s open heart and gateway to fields and, beyond, the Thames valley and Vale of the White Horse. on the way here you might pass the picture postcard pub and what looks like a tithe barn. Replace goalposts and swings with strip-mined fields and pasture and you could have stepped back centuries. there’s nought more modern in the churchyard, where a Norman/early Gothic tower looms over a typically higgle-piggle house of worship. the Parish church has seen off the Wesleyan Chapel nearby, a reminder of a great revolution in faith from the nineteenth century that seems scarcely conceivable now.

Pub, fields, barn, green. Add ancient houses and no tourists whatsoever and you have a well-kept secret that makes for a lovely detour if you’re south of Oxford with time to tarry.

The back door to the Lakes

 

Distant Wasdale

The best way to reach the lakes? the snaking, traffic-trodden M6? Crammed up against a beer-bellied chap with a large bag on a west coast mainline train to Oxenholme or Penrith, then begging a lift? How about none of the above?

Lost in the world of modern railways is the Cumbria Coast Line, a two-coach throwback to another era, complete with request stops, signal-box attendants who double as gate-keepers for level crossings and an abundance of wonderful scenery. You’re probably not surprised by the looming, brooding fells – though Cumbrians are a no-nonsense bunch and you won’t see poets scribbling lines in awe of the hills on board – but the delicate wetlands, estuaries and tidal flats of the coast are less celebrated. Yet this is a journey to savour.

In fact, the Cumbria Coast line may save you time too. The south-western fells around Wasdale are notoriously time-consuming to get to from the motorway. If Langdale and Borrowdale are an hour from the big roads, Wasdale can be close to double that. Ravenglass, Drigg and Seascale are all ten miles or so from the western tip of Wasdale, and can be reached from London, with kind connections, in four and a half hours.

The lakes unfold slowly and deliberately. Just north of Lancaster station, where you’ll leave the main line unless bound to do so at Preston by a service running fewer options, you’ll get your first view if the mountains glowering at Morecambe Bay. Though this is the best known of the tidal flats n the Lancashire and Cumbria coasts it is by no means the only one. Carnforth, famous as the setting for Brief Encounter, is next, with rusting boilers from steam engines sitting alongside mighty diesels at Steamtown, an open-air museum dedicated to locos from the past. At Barrow-in-Furness, where the Royal Navy’s submarines are built you change from the zippy sprinters services to the Cumbria  Coast line proper.

There’s more for rail-buffs of all ages at Ravenglass, close to my one journeys end. Here L’al Ratty, a narrow-gauge railway, climbs up to eskdale on a very scenic journey. Muncaster Castle next door offers tamer appeal, with gardens alive with colour year round.

Request a stop at Drigg and have the station to yourself

The route crosses some of England’s most isolated spots, hiding amidst the folds of assorted Lakeland river estuaries, the North Sea and the cloud-covered Fells. The sun is intermittently blinding with the kind of fresh, sharp light that rain and breeze puts into sharpest focus.  Who needs to travel this beautiful stretch of the Cumbrian coast on a Thursday afternoon, bound for Ravenglass, Seascale and Carlisle? No-one except me it seems. So I have the train to myself until I get off at Drigg, a request stop. Requesting it seemed to surprise the Guard, whose tone of replying ‘really?’ to my request lends me to think that either no-one ever does or that it’s really not my kind if town. To my right, the bracken is a bright orangey-brown on steep, hummocky hills.

Burnmoor Tarn, reached via the Old Corpse Road from Wasdale

The highlights of this journey are many. On the first leg to Barrow in Furness, the crossings of the Kent and Leven viaducts are astonishing, ever-changing vistas. Water and mountains are everywhere yet the train appears suspended, almost floating above it all. It looks more like the north-west of Scotland than the Lakes. A golf course with links on rocky promontories looms into view, then quickly passes. Wading birds find safe havens in the oxbows and inlets, the seagrass and sands out the window.

 

Oliver's Gill: good scrambling

As I get off at Drigg, I wait while the train pulls away bound for distant Sellafield, Whitehaven and Carlisle. There’s much more to explore on the coast, but I’m headed inland via a wonderful road where the mountains reveal themselves through folds of foothills. And then there it is: Wastwater. Not the biggest, not the  sot spectacular of the lakes but for me, the one that takes the prize as the biggest classic. As I slowly cycle its length to journeys end, the calm of England’s greatest landscape is already working its magic. If I were to stay forever would anyone mind?

Wasdale sunset

Greetings to the new government

And here are five travel-related pearlers to get your gnashers into:

Volcanic ash
The new government may have come into existence with UK airspace open but today some UK travellers are suffering from disrupted journeys. The major disruption of last month was only fixed when it got everyone’s attention after a slow start with attention elsewhere: let’s hope concentration and precedent is enough to ensure everyone’s getting it as right as possible.

British Airways
Britain’s flag carrier remains beset by the threat of industrial action. BA are a great airline and all this is doing them no favours. There may be a conciliatory role to be played by a new Business Secretary.

Air Passenger Duty
The travel industry would love a reduction – or outright removal – of APD, the ‘environmental tax’ designed to curb our enthusiasm for hopping on planes everywhere. They might just get their way as one early policy suggests a per-plane tax should replace a per-passenger one. It’s not clear what this means yet, but it is similarly unlikely to result in a reduction in the number of people flying, or the number of planes in the sky. Might it result in airlines packing in more passengers? Some airlines might. others are less likely.

Heathrow Expansion
The third runway will not go ahead. Therefore, alternatives must be considered. Is the solution to the south-east’s congested skies to be found in the Thames Estuary, Madrid or in serious attempts to wean us off flying? Or do we just muddle along making do while Schiphol and Frankfurt grab passengers with better facilities, more comfort and fewer delays?

High-speed rail
Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis was a champion of high-speed rail and his enthusiasm for steel wheels will be much-missed under a new regime. The fate of High Speed 2 – a fast rail link from London to Birmingham and beyond – is unclear. Is the journey between first and second city so sluggish that a few extra minutes shaved off makes all the difference? Or would the money be better invested, as some commentators have suggested in track, train and station upgrades nationwide?