Tag Archives: travel

Book review – Tragic Shores – “A Memoir of Dark Travels”

One of the nice things about working with Tina & Tony at TripFiction is their access to publishers, and books I might not normally read.

Tina passed me a copy of Tragic Shores – A Memoir of Dark Travel – for review. Written by Thomas H Cook, this haunting collection of episodic travel stories is published by Quercus, and is the first work of non-fiction from this prolific crime writer.

Publisher’s “blurb”:

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness – from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of travelling to some of earth’s most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Cook’s writing is profound in its content, and almost poetic in style. His use of tone and language force you to think deeply about these dark places he has visited over the years. It is no surprise to learn that he studied philosophy at Columbia University, before teaching English and History.

The way he links some of the Tragic Shores with others in the book, or with parallel events in life, is never contrived but clearly contemplated with gravitas and empathy.

Excerpt from The Forest and The Bridge:

But there are also public areas that attract private suicides, and two of these, the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, have been officially designated as the second and first most “popular” suicide sites on earth.

True, many suicides are rash reactions to some moment of grief and anguish or disappointment, one that might well have passed, and its passing, opened to a fuller, or at least more endurable life, and these we must do everything we can to prevent. But others are the product of a protracted ordeal, and it is these, if we cannot prevent them, that we must judge more tenderly, as I found myself doing that morning.

For it seemed to me that here, on this bridge, a final evaluation had been made, and a final judgement rendered, one that utterly rejected my long, trivial list of why a given human being should fine reason to live. For what is food when one no longer cares to taste? What is music when one no longer cares to hear? What is work when one no longer sees its purpose? What is the value of your life if it has grown so torturous that neither the fear of pain nor the fear of death can hinder you from taking it?

But from the writer’s experiences and thoughts on his own travels to dark places through history comes light, and hope. And he weaves his deeply personal – and touching – narrative thread from the same loom as others sowed fear, hatred, war and torture.

On literary location in Sardinia….

I read The Little Theatre by the Sea recently, written by Rosanna Ley and chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and the Silver Travel Advisor Book Club.

Thanks to Silver Travel Advisor, their partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I shall soon be following in the literary footsteps of Faye, Rosanna’s lead character in the novel, to explore the blurred world of fiction and reality on the unspoiled west coast of Sardinia.

In anticipation, Rosanna kindly answered some questions I posed about the places she had used in the book, the characters, food, wine, culture and history of this intriguing island that had influenced her research…..

Rosanna

Your latest novel, The Little Theatre by the Seawas published by Quercus in March 2017 (hardback) and on 1st June (paperback). 

The intriguing romantic mystery – can I call it that? – takes place mainly in Sardinia. As you know, Little Theatre was chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and for the Silver Travel Book Club.

And thanks to Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I will be travelling to Sardinia in June to follow in the footsteps of your principal character, Faye.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about The Little Theatre by the Sea, Rosanna, and about your writing approach.

I’m delighted. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to hear how you get on – and yes ‘intriguing romantic mystery’ sounds good to me.

Q. Your previous novels have been based in Cuba, Marrakech, Burma, the Canary Islands, Sicily, and now Sardinia. How do you decide where to base your stories, and how important a role does location play in the novels?

A. It’s different for each book. With Return to Mandalay, for example, my husband’s family had a fascinating story and a wealth of sources concerning the country and my late father-in-law’s life there. While the book is in no way a biography, it did inspire me to visit and use much of the material in my story.

For ‘The Saffron Trail’ the original seeds for me were saffron and the ‘hippie trail’ – I formed a story around these and Morocco was the obvious choice of setting. ‘Bay of Secrets’ came from the plot (based on a true story) and Last Dance in Havana I chose because I wanted to write about dance and because the history and politics of Cuba fascinated me. With ‘The Villa’ however I visited Sicily for a holiday and was simply inspired to use it as a setting. When it came to Sardinia for ‘Little Theatre by the Sea’ I wanted to write about transformation and I immediately imagined my crumbling theatre to be in Italy. It seemed the perfect setting for the story.

Location is a big part of a book for me – they have been called ‘destination novels’!

Q. Once you’ve decided on a location for a novel, how do you approach your research on “place”? And do you then write while you’re in the location, or can that creative process take place back at home in Dorset?

A. I read about the place both in fiction and non-fiction – anything I can get hold of really, and research it thoroughly using the Internet and libraries. I may also watch films or documentaries. I go there to get the flavour and travel around with my husband taking photographs and me making notes. I find the places I imagine the characters to live, work and play and the journeys that they might travel in various scenes. I generally write a few scenes while I am away but much of the work will be done when I am back at home using my notes and the photos to remind me.

Q. Your Little Theatre lead character Faye, a newly qualified interior designer, is invited by old friends to restore a crumbling old theatre in the Sardinian village of Deriu. Can you please describe where the inspiration for that fictional village came from?

A. I chose Bosa before I went there, just through research really. I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! When I got there I realised that Bosa was perfect for the needs of the story. I re-named it Deriu because it is easier then to ‘make it your own’ and hopefully none of the locals will then be offended by anything I write about places and people which they might construe as being taken from real life! The truth is that all the people I wrote about were fictional but a few of the real places crept in, sometimes disguised…

QBosa sounds like a charming, traditional Sardinian town on the north-west coast, in the province of Oristano. What should I do and look out for there, to feel that I really am following in the footsteps of Faye and her creator? And how much do you think history has shaped the town today?

A. History has definitely shaped the town into what it is today. I think you can find the converted houses on the river bank (where Faye stays in Charlotte and Fabio’s house) including the museum. You can cross the bridge where Alessandro and Faye have a few ‘moments’ and admire the colourful houses on the other side. You can visit the Castle by walking up the steps through the olive grove as Faye did when talking to her mother on the phone about relationships and the mistakes we make and see the stunning frescoes in the chapel at the top and also the view of the town Faye reflects on. Casa Deriu is also worth visiting because although it does not feature in the book, I took the name for the town and you will see why when you visit this charming museum. At the marina you can see where Alessandro’s boatyard might have been and walk round the bay as they did. Best of all, just wander the old mediaeval quarter of Bosa to explore the area, the pretty piazzas, the artisan markets, the narrow cobblestone alleys that make up the old town. With a bit of luck you will find a building in a piazza which is actually an old chapel but has a rose window and could very well have been used as the basis for the Little Theatre itself.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the old theatre come from, if not from Bosa

A. Partly the old chapel (see above) but I also used the theatre at Sassari and other old Italian theatres that I found images of online. But basically, it was a madeup building, a fusion of all these parts.

Q. Food and wine play an important role in Little Theatre, as they do in Sarda cultureWhat local cuisine can you and Faye recommend…and what is your favourite wine from that part of Sardinia? 

A. Oh yes, lovely food! Some of my favourites were: burrida (a spicy fish soup), spaghetti con bottarga (with mullet roe) and malloreddus (a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron in tomato sauce). I also loved fregola – an unusual pasta similar to cous-cous, often served with clams. The seafood pasta was always good. And as for the lobster… Take me back there – now!

A lovely wine to try is the golden dry Vernacia di Oristano DOC.

Q. Whilst in Sardinia, most of the plot develops in Deriu. But Faye also discovers other parts of this intoxicating island, with theatre owner Alessandro and also with her father. Where should I go beyond beautiful Bosa, to see and feel what Faye experienced? Have you explored many other parts of Sardinia…and how would you say that this western coastal area differs from the rest of the island?

A. We travelled around the island in our motorhome to explore and research and spent three weeks drinking it all in. We didn’t get the whole way round, but focused mainly on the west of the island and the South, rather than the more touristy but stunning Costa Smeralda in the east. I would say that the west is more rugged and dramatic and is much less touristy and developed, which suited my purposes for the story.

We began by driving through the cork forests of the interior to the West coast from Olbia. We started at the National Park of Asinara in the north and basically drove down the coast. Some other high points were: Capo Falcone, the white beaches at Stintino, the ‘ghost’ mining town of Argentiera, Alghero (see below) the stunning coves on the magnificent Costa del Sud from Teulada to Chia which were also inspirations for the beach scenes, Nora (see below) and Cagliari.

In particular, Cala Domestica leads to the secret beach where Alessandro takes Faye. In the novel, this is near Deriu but it is actually a lot further down the west coast from Bosa and near the old mining town of Buggerru.

Nora is the site of the ancient village Faye visits with Ade. It is south of the island near Cagliari and is where she sees the ancient amphitheatre. This is a very interesting historical site.

Alghero is in north west Sardinia and Faye visits with Ade. It is a fascinating Catalan city which is a fusion of Italian and Catalan in food, history and architecture. It is also home to Teatro Civico.

The capital of Cagliari doesn’t feature in the book but is well worth a visit if you get the chance!

Q. There are some other lovely characters living in Deriu in Little Theatre. Are any of them based on real people you met while researching the story? Who should I try to meet while I’m in Bosa?

A. No, sadly none of the characters are based on real people! However, you will see women sitting outside their houses lace-making and men playing dominoes outside or in cafés. Down at the Marina you will also hopefully see fishermen – perhaps even mending their nets as we did!

Q. Do you know yet where your next novel will be based, and when we can expect to read another romantic mystery in an exotic location from you? I may have to follow you and our characters there too….

A. The next novel is entitled ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ and is set in Belle-Ile-en Mer, a small island just off the southern coast of Brittany.

Grazie mille, Rosanna, for giving us some insight into your latest novel The Little Theatre by the Sea and into the location that inspired your characters and plot. Good luck with promoting Little Theatre and see you at the location of your next novel!

An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, Andrew and I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sardinia.

Borgo Tranquillo in Italy’s le Marche region with One Off Places

My feature on Borgo Tranquillo, a remarkable One Off Places property in Italy’s le Marche region – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

One Off Places

Fancy staying in a shepherd’s cottage in Spain? A South American jungle lodge? Or perhaps a cave house in Andalucia?

Well, you could.

One Off Places specialises in individual, quality holiday accommodation around the world, and is a response to bland mass market tourism and properties.

Tabitha Symonds established One Off Places in 2007, after many years searching for her own perfect holiday property. Today, castles, gatehouses, windmills, lighthouses and train stations are among the quirky – but classy – places to rest your inquisitive traveller’s head.

So, Silver Travellers, if you’re not excited at the thought of yet another glitzy cruise, or a week in a large impersonal hotel on the Costa del Tourist, why not look instead at staying in a One Off Place?

Borgo Tranquillo

I was very lucky to spend a few days recently at the remarkable Borgo Tranquillo estate. Perched on its own spectacular hilltop, high in Italy’s le Marche region and in the foothills of the mighty Appennines, Borgo Tranquillo sits in 15 Marchigian acres and is a world away from its brash Tuscan neighbour, on the western side of the mountain range that divides Italy.

View from private balcony of Borgo TranquilloA couple of the years in the planning, and taking more than 3 years to build, Borgo Tranquillo is the epitome of a One Off Place. Designed by Frank and Ariane Andrew and completed almost 10 years ago, it is an antidote to their previous lives, Frank as an international designer and Ariane as a senior manager for Bloomberg.

An innate sense of space, calm and understated luxury pervades the whole estate. Stay in one of the four self-catering 88m2 1-bedroom loft-style apartments, or the 150m2 2-bedroom villa, and feel any stress you might have arrived with evaporate in minutes. Or as long as takes to drink the bubbling Prosecco you’ll be offered as soon as you arrive.

Borgo Tranquillo apartmentWe stayed in one of the apartments. Interiors are starkly contemporary, white minimalism interrupted judiciously with injections of vibrant colour and whimsical design features. The furniture and equipment in the beamed high-ceilinged open-plan lounge and kitchen, and bedroom, are of the highest quality and yet calming and comfortable.

Externally though, the buildings are more traditionally constructed, blending perfectly with the verdant, hilly landscape.

The separate Clubhouse and Spa building is the beating heart of the Borgo Tranquillo estate. Upstairs is a spectacular space for reading, relaxing, drinking from the generously provisioned free bar, and planning your day as you gaze out of the vast windows across the foothills of the Appennines.

Downstairs – via the unique locally crafted curving staircase – is the high quality spa. Warm up in the sauna and hammam before stepping outside to laze on one of the sun loungers, or chill out in the black infinity pool.

Hammock time on the Borgo Tranquillo estateNear the Clubhouse is a large boules – bocce in Italian – pitch and a small football area. Or why not beat the bounds of Borgo Tranquillo, walk around the undulating perimeter of the entire estate, listening to birdsong, watching for wildlife and just absorbing the beauty and calm of this special environment.

But if that’s all too energetic, just find the hammocks strung up under the shade of some canopy-providing trees, or take your cocktails to the sunset bench, along the thoughtfully mown path, perched peacefully on a prominent western hillock.

Le Marche

If you can ever drag yourself away from the luxurious serenity of Borgo Tranquillo, there are plenty of other attractions to explore in le Marche, which is often described as Italy’s best-kept secret.

Ariane and Frank thoughtfully provide an encyclopaedic guide of nearby restaurants, wineries, sightseeing, shopping, walking and much more.

The charming hilltop village of Arcevia is only a 5 minute drive away, and has artisan butchers, bakers and grocers, a couple of friendly local bars, a few restaurants and some beautiful ancient palazzos, churches and houses in its enchanting centro storico.

Beating the bounds at Borgo TranquilloAnd within the wider municipality of Arcevia, you can explore many other interesting, timeless towns and hamlets, each with their own character. On a sunny May Day holiday we stumbled across Avacelli, a small village just a short drive from Arcevia, and holding its annual Asparagus Festival. There wasn’t much of the vegetable on display, but it was a great excuse for local people to eat, drink, listen to traditional music and dance in the rough gravelled street.

The larger towns of Ancona and Urbino are also within easy reach. Art lovers will know that Urbino is the pinnacle of Renaissance art and architecture, and is the birthplace of Raffaello Sanzio, better known to us as Raphael, equal of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and whose masterpiece The School of Athens is one of the Vatican’s main frescoes.

For more athletic activities, the walking and cycling around Borgo Tranquillo are magnificent. Or swim in the Adriatic in the unspoiled seaside town of Senigallia, just 40 km from Arcevia and also offering some outstanding seafood restaurants.

One Off Silver Travellers

So why not explore the very individual properties on offer at One Off Places. And if Silver Travellers love Italy, the mountains, comfortable luxury, relaxation and activity, you really should think about staying in the Borgo Tranquillo. If you can avoid the peak summer months, the spring and autumn would be perfect times to stay at this special place, and to explore the beautiful region of le Marche.

Watch a video about Borgo Tranquillo Clubhouse

 

Review of Neruda – a cinematic trip to Chile

Here is my published review of the film Neruda, on TripFiction:

Neruda (a cinematic trip to Chile), in cinemas 7 April 2017 #nerudafilm

If truth be told, I don’t get quite as excited by poetry as I do by a good novel, or by a film. Or by travel, for that matter.

But Pablo Neruda somehow transcends poetry, and a special screening by the BFI of a film by celebrated Chilean director Pablo Larrain about an intriguing episode in Naruda’s life was too good an opportunity to miss. And I have always been interested by Chile since watching Missing, a 1982 film about the coup of 1973, launched almost on the exact same day that Neruda died.

a cinematic trip to chile

Why special? An introduction by Adam Feinstein, author of the first English language biography of Neruda, provided perfect context for when and where the film slotted into the complex life of the Nobel prize-winning poet. And animated recitals of several of Neruda’s poems by actors – in Spanish by Jorge de Juan, with English translations performed by Nickolas Grace – offered a glimpse into the prodigious creative output of the poet.

The film covers a 13-month period from 1948-49. At the outset, Neruda is a Communist party senator in the country’s riven government, speaking out loudly against the right-wing President’s increasing oppression of workers and unions. Neruda and his Argentinian wife Delia enjoy a somewhat elitist and sybaritic lifestyle, but that all changes when the poet is forced underground to avoid arrest and potential assassination.

Moving from house to house, thanks to support from Communist party supporters, Neruda’s reputation as The People’s Poet is cemented through his increasingly radical social poems, mocking the government and rallying workers.

But this is far from being a biopic. In fact the director himself calls Neruda an anti-biopic. Larrain intentionally blurs fact with fiction, creating a cat-and-mouse story between the poet and his police pursuer, Oscar Pelucchonneau. Pablo somehow always manages to stay just one verse ahead of Oscar, leaving poems for the hapless policeman to ponder.

C8g-QFoW0AU87aY.jpg-large

But what is real and what is imagined?

Beautifully filmed, Neruda is an intoxicatingly original concoction of genres….film noir, road movie, thriller, love story, parable. Take your pick.

In a cinematically epic finale, the policeman finally closes in on the poet in the snowy landscape of the Lilpela Pass, high in the Andes, as Neruda has been forced to flee from his home country to Argentina. But who is really the hero?

Luis Gnecco perfectly captures the flawed Neruda. A poetic genius? Definitely. Hero of the people? Probably. Arrogant, debauched and selfish? Maybe.

Gael Garcia Bernal almost steals the film as the nuanced Pelucchonneau, in many ways purer of spirit than his quarry, fedora tilted over his lean, noirish face. If only he were real…..

But there is one certainty: this luscious and thought-provoking film has cemented my desire to travel to Chile. And to read more poetry.

Andrew for the TripFiction Team

Image result for map of chile

Winter adventure in Romania

My article on a fascinating Winter Adventure in Romania with ExploreThe Adventure Travel Experts – published on Silver Travel Advisor:

So what do you know about Romania?

That it’s somewhere in Eastern Europe? The home of Dracula? Ruled with an iron fist by the Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s and 1980s? Gypsies? Orphanages? Nadia Comaneci?

I’m ashamed to say that I knew little of this fascinating – and endlessly surprising – country until experiencing Explore’s Winter Adventure in Romania tour early in March.

This revealing trip provides the perfect introduction to the country – its rich history; diverse wildlife; spectacular landscapes; fun activities – and will almost certainly whet the appetite to discover more.

Bucharest

The packed itinerary is book-ended by stays in the capital city of Bucharest. Far from being a utilitarian metropolis with a Communist hangover, the city earned the nickname of Little Paris in the early 1900s, thanks to its tree-lined boulevards, imposing Belle Epoque buildings and a reputation for good living. Today, it still has its own Arcul de Triumf – in honour of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I – and Gare du Nord.

The Bucharest balcony where Ceausescu made his last speech in December 1989The crazed vanity of Ceausescu meant parts of the city were destroyed to make way for his mad projects, including the obscene Palace of Parliament. Started in 1984 – and still unfinished – it is the second largest administrative building in the world (after Washington DC’s Pentagon), has 12 storeys (including 4 underground), more than 3,000 rooms, 4,500 chandeliers and covers a scarcely believable 330,000 square metres.

Visit Revolution Square and see the balcony where the dictator made his final speech in December 1989, before people power forced him to escape by helicopter from the roof. He was found shortly afterwards and, after a brief show trial, executed by firing squad.

Lipscani Street, Bucharest by Carpathianland via Commons WikimediaThe atmospheric old town Centru Vechi, also known as Lipscani after its main artery, survived both World War II bombings and Ceausescu’s bulldozers. Wander its labyrinthine streets to discover monasteries, small churches, old inns for travelling traders and a vibrant modern collection of bars, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops pulsing from its otherwise jaded buildings.

An insightful walking tour with your knowledgeable guide will also pass The Old Court, built in the 15th century as the residence of mediaeval princes, including infamous Vlad the Impaler. Vlad is a national hero, battling to defend the city from the powerful Ottomans as they advanced from the east. His methods to deter traitors were perhaps a little extreme though: a successful impaling would take 5 days to kill the victim, the hot instrument of torture entering the, erm, backside before finding its exit point somewhere near the collar bone, if the impalee were not to die prematurely. Ouch.

Geography

Modern Romania is dominated by the three separate principalities of Wallachia (in the south, including Bucharest and bordered by Bulgaria and Serbia), Transylvania (in the heart of the country, with Hungary and Ukraine across the border) and Moldova (east, bordered by the independent state of Moldova).

The country and these provinces are delineated by the mighty Carpathian mountains, swooping south-east all the way from Poland and Slovakia, before jagging west in central Romania, near beautiful Brasov.

Activities

Bear tracks in the foothills of the Carpathian mountainsLeaving Bucharest, the tour soon introduces you to the first natural wonders of this ever surprising country. Join a wildlife expert for a walk in the snowy, forested foothills of the mountains to track deer, wolves, lynx and bears, which all thrive in the Carpathians. We saw fresh deer and bear tracks, and the guide explained the tactics adopted by herbivores and carnivores respectively, to survive or to kill. There are an estimated 6,000 bears in the country. The best time to see them is either in autumn, when they’re stocking up for the winter, or in spring, when they hunt for food after the long, hard winter. We came within 200 metres of a known bears’ den, but if you want to ensure you see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild, take a look at this separate tour with Explore.

Another highlight of this winter adventure is time spent frolicking in the snow. Take a cable car up to Balea Lac, a glacial lake 2,034 metres high in the Fagaras mountains of Transylvania, strap on some snow-shoes and trek out into the deep powder, like Bond hunting down his nemesis in a wintry lair. Don’t worry, it’s easy, just remember not to try and walk backwards, Mister Bond. Later, jump into a rubber ring, after taking off the snow-shoes and be pulled up a gentle slope for a spot of ice-tubing. Really.

Towns and villages

During the tour you will visit some beautiful towns and villages, which help to tell the story of the country’s rich history and cultural heritage.

Council Square in BrasovBrasov lies in Transylvania and is surrounded by the southern Carpathians. The town was our first introduction to the Saxon influences in this area, German colonists having first arrived in the middle of the 12th century – at the behest of Hungarian kings – to develop Transylvania’s towns, build mines and cultivate the land at this strategically important point, on the trading route linking Western Europe and the Ottomans in the east. Brasov is still also know by its Saxon name, Kronstadt. Visit the town’s old city walls and its famous and imposing Black Church, built in 1477 and one of the largest Gothic churches in south-east Europe. Then enjoy lunch in the charming Council Square – Piata Sfatului – where the town’s young population eat pizza and drink beer, surrounded by red-roofed history

Bran is a short drive from Brasov and is famous for its eponymous castle. The small town epitomises the constant struggle for power in this part of Europe, across the centuries: Hungary’s King Sigismund ordered a stone castle to be constructed in 1377, while the settlement developed nearby, and on a steep hilltop from where it could levy taxes on wealthy traders travelling between Transylvania and Wallachia; in 1498 Bran fell under the jurisdiction of Brasov; in the 16th century Bran became part of Transylvania, following defeat of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire; the Austrian Habsburg Empire had their time in control before the town became part of the Austrian Empire in 1804, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866. Only after WWI did Bran join the Kingdom of Romania. See, I told you it was a complex history!

Bran Castle - the inspiration for Bram Stoker's DraculaBran Castle is one of the country’s most visited sites today. It might resemble the home of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s entirely fictional novel – and was once besieged by our old friend Vlad the Impaler, who also provided inspiration to the author – but calling it Dracula’s Castle was a cynical marketing ploy conjured up by the Communist regime in the 1950s, to increase visitor numbers. The castle is open to the public and well worth a visit, if only to see how Queen Marie restored it after the castle was bequeathed to her in the 1920s

Biertan is a quiet village in Transylvania, near Sibiu, and is renowned for its impressive fortified church, one of the best examples of Saxon heritage in this part of Romania, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. The Saxon population thrived here in the middle ages, but many people decamped to Germany as a result of WWII and the collapse of Communism in 1990. However, it remains historically important for the annual reunion of Transylvanian Saxons, many returning from Germany to their roots. I will remember Biertan fondly for another less prosaic reason though – drinking a generous glass of rum schnapps with locals at 11 o’clock one sunny morning, on the street outside a bar. It cost the distinctly historic sum of 2 Lei, approximately £0.40

Sighisoara, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has even older origins, from the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. Now, it is one of the best preserved and most attractive mediaeval towns in Europe. Admire the 14th century clock tower, nine separate towers of the citadel, cobbled streets, burgher houses and ornate churches, including the striking Church on the Hill. And the house where our old friend Vlad the Impaler was born, around 1428

But the small, remote village of Viscri captured my heart more than anywhere else. Bump along an uneven 8 km track off the main road between Sighisoara and Brasov, and you will find life here much as it was 100 years ago. Viscri is another traditional Saxon village in Transylvania, but it has cherished its ancient traditions more than any other. The busy main street in teh Saxon village of ViscriTake a horse and cart ride along its main dirt-tracked street, towards the restored walled citadel. Inside, you’ll find a 12th century Lutheran church at which the remaining Saxon community of just 17 souls still worship, and a charming small museum depicting Saxon customs. Visit the local baker, making huge rye and spelt loaves by hand every day, blackened in the oven before tapping off the charcoal layer. We watched the animated Gypsy brothers Istvan and Matei Gabor fire up the blacksmiths’ furnace with the ancient bellows, and make horseshoes and nails on the anvil exactly as their grandfather had done many years ago. And just cherish the way large wooden gates of each house open up in the morning and evening, to allow their small herds of cattle to wander across the main street and guzzle from the long water troughs, hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Watch a video of gypsy blacksmiths in Viscri courtesy of Sam Laurie.

Food and wine

Another admission – I was expecting Romanian food to be typically eastern European, heavy and a little unimaginative. Another surprise. We enjoyed some excellent meals, including a pork dish with pickled cucumbers in Bucharest; a delicate herby potato and tarragon soup at Casa Zada in Moieciu, near Bran; and a stellar duck dish, with prune sauce and star anise, pickled gherkins and potato puree at the imaginatively restored Viscri 125 Guest House.

And did you know anything about Romanian wines? Its viticulture dates back more than 6,000 years, the country’s climate, geology and soil providing an attractive canvas for winegrowers. After a phylloxera crisis in the late 20th century and the Communist regime’s destructive presence until 1990, the industry is fighting back. Supported by foreign expertise and investment, its vineyards are flourishing again, growing enough to make it the 6th largest producer in Europe and 13th largest in the world.

The Rosu de Ceptura red is the perfect soul-mate for duck, and we tried quite a few decent white wines too.

Accommodation

Explore include accommodation that fits perfectly with the tour’s location and activities. A comfortable tourist hotel in Bucharest allows you to wander the city’s safe streets and easily explore its history and vibrant nightlife.

Moieciu - by fusion-of-horizon via Commons WikimediaNorth of the Carpathians you’ll stay in a friendly Alpine-style chalet guest house in Moieciu, with lovely home-cooked food after drinking home-brewed apple brandy poured from a teapot, as you stand in the garden and get warm by a blazing log fire; the faithfully restored Viscri 125, with traditionally furnished bedrooms and a spectacular converted barn where you eat, drink and play table football; and the Ice Hotel at Balea Lac, constructed every December with a different theme – this year’s is the movies: stay in the Harry Potter suite, or Star Wars, or Gladiator. You get the drift, and with polar sleeping bags the experience is not as cold as you’d imagine and the mulled wine before laying down on the ice bed certainly helps.

All in all, this trip to Romania was a revelation. Historically interesting, charming towns and villages, beautiful natural landscapes, friendly people, great food and wine – and not an impaler or vampire in sight.

Books – why do you read them?

Why do you read novels?

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To escape? Emotionally? Physically? Do you enjoy being transported to another destination, to a magical locale, whether real or imagined?

Or is a devious, head-scratching plot more important for you? Or perhaps you’re driven more by a story’s characters, who need to be more layered than a one-dimensional thug, or an untarnished saint?

I wrote a while ago about TripFiction, an intriguing and inspiring website recognising that books set in a location offer great holiday reading. They help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

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(image courtesy of TripFiction)

I am honoured and excited to be helping the lovely people at TripFiction with their new #TFBookClub. The first selection has been The Little Theatre by the Sea. Written by Rosanna Ley, it transports the reader from Dorset to Sardinia.

The Little Theatre by the Sea by [Ley, Rosanna]

Rosanna has clearly carried out a huge amount of research into Sardinia, and I loved the evocative descriptions of local sights, smells and tastes, with Italian words picked out and italicised for added authenticity.  Buonissimo! It certainly brought back happy memories of our own trip there a few years ago, and I was close to booking a flight to Olbia before turning the final page.

But – and I hope Rosanna forgives me for this personal observation – I found the locations of the story more inspiring than either the plot, or the characters populating this otherwise enjoyably escapist novel.

But that’s fine. I was entertained for many hours and given a vicarious holiday, all for the price of a book. And I will really enjoy hearing the thoughts of other TF readers, and finding out what their priorities are in any book they read.

Why do you read a novel? How perfect does it have to be, to give you enjoyment on some level…..?

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Write, write, write

At a recent travel exhibition, I went to an inspiring session on how to pitch your writing ideas to editors.

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Lynne Hughes (founder and publisher of Wanderlust travel magazine), Phoebe Smith (Wanderlust’s editor) and Debbie Chapman (commissioning travel editor for Summersdale Publishers) shared some invaluable thoughts on best practice for pitching article and book ideas….and some cautionary tales on how definitely not to pitch.

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You may be the best writer out there, but unless you can get your ideas and writing noticed by those with The Publishing Power, you’ll never see your work in print. Well, not in respected print and digital publications anyway.

Regardless of what you’re trying to create and pitch yourself, they all said: just write, write, write. The more you practise, the better your writing will become. Hopefully. And read, read, read. Absorb as much as you can from published writers. Fingers crossed some of that purple prose will rub off….

I haven’t published much on this humble blog recently. But neither have I been totally unproductive. I’ve been busy creating content for a collaboration with photographer and film-maker friend Mark Melling: welcome to Great Escapations.

Our first project is to tell the story of the intriguing area and charming people of Zagori, high in the Pindos mountains of north-west Greece, almost hugging the Albanian border. We hope our films, images and words will give you a strong sense of life in this historical community of 46 stone-built and slate-roofed villages.

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We’re almost ready to unleash Great Escapations on the outside world. Let the pitching begin…..

 

Book review – In the Café of Lost Youth

This is my first post for the blog at TripFiction (many thanks for the invitation, Tina, and for the book!).

What a great website this is, combining twin JustRetiring passions of books and travel.

Books set in a location help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, novel set in Paris

You know those enigmatic, slightly pretentious French language films, with lots of silences and meaningful looks between the protagonists, played out in a smoky café on the Rive Gauche?
This book reminded me a little of one of those.
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The central human character is the young, lost soul of Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed “Louki” by the cast of regulars at the tacky Café  Condé she wanders into one day. The louche bunch of actors, writers and poets take her under their artistic wing, without ever really knowing her past or helping her figure out her future.
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But through flashbacks and other characters – and in one of the four chapters, from Louki herself – we gradually come to understand her troubled and impoverished upbringing. She becomes known to the police, wandering the streets of Montmartre alone and too young, while her mother works at Le Moulin Rouge. Gradually she explores further afield, bumping into the drug world through a chance meeting with Jeanette Gaul, known ominously as “Death’s Head“. Louki fails in her ambition to study, when she is rejected by the esteemed Jules-Ferry lycée. She drifts into a brief, doomed marriage with Jean-Pierre Choureau, director of a real estate agency.
 
But through Roland, a lover she lives with after she walks out on Jean-Pierre one day, we sense she might finally find a little happiness.
 
Roland binds the narrative together, through his obsession with the real star of the story – Paris. He talks about the Neutral Zones: “intermediary zones existed in Paris, no-man’s-lands where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended. You enjoyed a degree of immunity there. I could have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more exact.” 
 
Louki lived with Jean-Pierre in the affluent, sterile suburb of Neuilly, where there is an inevitability that the marriage will fail. She and Roland find a temporary peace wandering the grimy streets of the neutral zones late at night, but a tragic ending to this sad, short novella comes as no surprise. 
 
You may not fully engage with the human characters of In the Café of Lost Youth, but TripFiction fans will love the book’s insight into Paris. Stroll along the sleazy side streets of la Ville Lumière, drink with the regulars at the Café Condé and share Louki and Roland’s aimless meandering through the dark underbelly of the city.
“We were wa;king without any precise aim, we had the entire night ahead of us. There were still glimmers of sunlight beneath the arcades of of rue de Rivoli. It was early summer and we were going to go away soon. Where? We didn’t yet know. Possibly to Majorca or Mexico. Perhaps to London or to Rome. The places were of no importance, they all merged together. The only purpose of our journey was to go to the heart of the summer, to where time stops and the hands of the clock are set forever at noon.”

Inspired by a book

Many 15 year-old boys are disillusioned. But not many leave home, telling their parents: “I’m bored with my life. Please don’t try to find me. I’ll be back within a year.”

Arthur Heeler-Frood disappeared on Tuesday, 6th September after leaving home to go to school.

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He has recently been found,  two months later and 10 miles from his rural Devon home, although apparently en route back to his parents.

The pieces of his adventurous jigsaw are being pieced together, but it sounds as though George Orwell was Master Heeler Frood’s inspiration. He had been reading Down and Out in Paris and London, and – like Orwell – had also been washing up in a restaurant kitchen.

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In the iconic book, Orwell’s largely autobiographical novel tells of the underbelly of society in both capital cities.

The author’s 15 year-old disciple apparently spent time walking around England’s three largest cities – London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Other details will no doubt emerge over time, and perhaps Arthur’s adventures will also form the basis of his own novel in later years. But – forgetting the obvious distress for his parents, family and friends – how refreshing that a 21st century boy has been so inspired by a book from the 1930s, rather than by a rap video downloaded from YouTube.

Costa Rica – part 2

My published article for Silver Travel Advisor on a pretty amazing recent press trip to Costa Rica, thanks to Explore – the Adventure Travel Experts:

Part 2

Activities

Costa Rica is undoubtedly heaven for anyone interested in the natural world, but there are plenty of opportunities to combine a man-made adrenaline rush with your sloth.

Whitewater rafting on the Balsa riverThe white-water rafting on the Balsa river was a blast. With Class 2-3 rapids, it’s fun and safe but still gets the pulse racing.  The guides were as entertaining as they were competent, and I can still taste the fresh pineapple, laid out on one of the upturned rafts with watermelon and yellow oranges, as we caught our breath on the riverbank, half way down the 10 km route.

And for a thrillingly different perspective of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, dare to experience the Sky Trek Ultimate Zip Lines. Whisked by gondola up to an altitude of 1,600 metres; 8 zip lines; longest cable 750 metres; highest cable 100 metres above the forest canopy; total zipped journey of almost 4 km; and a surprise at the end, called Vertigo, go and find out for yourself what that might be.

Zip-lining high above the Monteverde cloud forestStrapped to the zip line like a spit-roasting hog, we screamed along the first couple of cable slides into thick cloud – a leap into the dark, way above the lush green forest. And then the sun emerged, and the clouds cleared – like the parting of the Red Sea – to reveal a rare, perfect view of the distant Arenal volcano.

Too energetic? Relax in the many natural hot springs near Arenal, the volcano’s geothermal activity creating bubbling bathing water as warm as 105F.

Coffee

If you like coffee, that’s just one more reason to visit Costa Rica. An important part of their history, culture and economy, they are the world’s 13th largest producer, again punching way above their geographical weight.

90% of the production, from 70,000 farmers, is exported around the world. Coffee represents 11% of the country’s total export revenues, and a significant proportion of its GDP.

And it’s good coffee. Very, very good. A Presidential decree in the late 19th century ensured that only Arabicacoffee is grown in Costa Rica. How prescient was that!

Picker coffee beans at the Doka Coffee EstateWe had a fascinating tour of the Doka Estate, on the fertile slopes of the Poas Volcano. We learned about the complete growing and production cycle; how each worker is paid $2 for filling a cajuela, a basket containing 1.5 kg of perfect coffee beans and how a very good picker can fill 20 cajuelas a day. During the harvest – 6 months from October – most of the Estate’s workers are from neighbouring Nicaragua, and their deal includes a house, water and electricity.

Naturally, we had to try some mature, finished product, which takes a full 4 years from end to end. It’s worth the wait. The Estate’s Espresso Italiano is strong enough to make you want to wrestle crocodiles; try their French Roast, Breakfast Blend or House Blend for something a little less punchy; or – for something completely different – sample the Peaberry, a sweeter brew produced from a bean which represents only 5% of the total harvest and which produces one round seed, rather than two flatter pods.

People

In 1948 the President of Costa Rica, Jose Figueres, took a sledgehammer and smashed a hole in the wall of the country’s military headquarters. This symbolised the remarkably forward thinking decision to disband the army, and to redirect any military budget towards spending on education, healthcare and environmental protection.

Arenal volcano from the Monteverde cloud forest zip-line adventureAll the ‘Ticos’ – as Costa Ricans call themselves – we met in 2016 seemed educated, polite, friendly, happy, proud, kind and deeply aware of their environment and sustainability issues.

I wonder what would happen if we made a similar decision about Trident, and the rest of our own defence budget.

Throughout our trip, meeting local people was a joy and an integral part of the travel experience. And they may have originally plagiarised a Mexican comedian, but the phrase ‘Pura Vida’ very much sums up the Costa Rican psyche and culture today. The literal translation is ‘Pure Life’, but to Ticos it means much more. It is used to say hello and goodbye, how are you, have a good day, enjoy life but on a deeper level, it represents how Ticos live their life every day, how grateful they are for what they have and a recognition that others are less fortunate.

So start saying “Pura Vida” now and embrace life like a Tico as soon as you reach beautiful Costa Rica. It really is an enriching place to visit.