THE BETRAYAL OF BRITAIN’S ARMED FORCES; NOTHING NEW HERE….

The armed forces of the UK are in a state of prolonged, enforced contraction, and at a time when we are still embroiled in the pointless horror that is Afghanistan. And, as another general was kind enough to point out, we might ‘have to get involved’ in Syria, as well.

Meanwhile, the blinkered idiots that run this country want to spend the eye boggling, totally incomprehensible sum of forty-five billion pounds to upgrade Trident; a completely pointless weapons system that can neither be condoned, justified or afforded. But that won’t stop them trying.

Trident owes it’s existence to the Cold War, and the old NATO- Warsaw pact confrontation in those years that followed the Second World War. But the collapse of the Communist system pulled the rug out from under the Emperor’s feet; and he was truly seen to be wearing no clothes.

So who are all these shiny, supremely superfluous missiles aimed to protect us against? China? A supposedly resurgent Russia? Iran? Don’t make me laugh.

They keep calling Trident ‘a deterrent’. Just like they once called hanging a deterrent, even when it plainly was not. Does anyone honestly think our handful of missiles would deter someone as calculating and callous as Vladimir Putin, if he really decided to go for broke?

Do you really think that the Mad Meerkat of Moscow would give a figs’ leaf if we nuked two or three of his cities? He’d probably consider it as collateral damage, nothing more. Putin is a black hole of morality; much like our own, dear, political elite.

So why the mania to cling to something that is as obscene as Trident, both in terms of cost and concept? Simple. It’s all about us keeping up with the big boys; maintaining our place on the world stage.

Most of all, it’s about maintaining our place at the United Nations Security Council. The grand poo-bah of all talking shops; the holy of holies in terms of empty, posturing rhetoric.

The core of the UNSC is comprised of the five victorious powers from the Second World War, America, Britain, China, France, and Russia. It was founded in 1946, and has been the very core of the entire United Nations ever since, right up to this day.

Now, all the four other members of the big boy’s club; they have nukes. So, therefore, to stay at that top table- to maintain prestige, influence and our global reach- we have to have nukes. Once it was battleships; but that’s all very 1930’s now. We don’t talk about that any more.

It sounds mad; it is mad. Every bit as mad as the arms race that provoked the Great War and, by default, World War Two. Yet our leaders appear to have learned nothing. And, as it is always the ordinary people who pay the human price for the folly and failures of those entrusted with our governance and safety, we are perfectly entitled to ask: why?

You have to consider the peculiar psyche of generations of politicians and generals  in this country; the people who really do believe that ‘Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’.

One lot after another of them grew up in a system of public schools such as Eton, which conditioned them for a lifetime of duty- plus a surfeit of privilege- in running and administering an Empire on which the sun would never set. Only it did.

But the mindset of these people- the belief that they were born to rule- remains intact. It explains why we have turned out generation after generation of unscrupulous, self indulgent politicians and blithe, bone- headed military men who believe that they can shape the world according to their blueprint. And it largely explains why our scarred, sacrificial history keeps repeating itself. For these people, the aphrodisiac of power remains the one constant goal. They think they know better; therefore they deserve to dictate the course of the country as a whole. It’s a fatal cocktail, and it has had hideous consequences for centuries.

If the Empire has gone- hey, we’ve still got the bomb. Mess with us at your peril, Johnny Foreigner….

The ordered, unavoidable contraction of the post war Empire must have seemed like a waking nightmare to these nostalgic heirs of Rhodes, Disraeli and General Gordon. The loss of power and influence must have felt like a personal slap. So you can bet your last penny that they are not going to let another ounce of power slip from their cold, dead hands if they can possibly help it. Trident is one of their last emotional crutches; a snip at a mere forty five billion pounds. Doctor Strangelove really is still doing the rounds.

Meanwhile, the poor sodding squaddies are still being expected to fight and die in the unwinnable, entirely pointless quagmire of Afghanistan. Like the ghastly Blair before him, Cameron likes to strut like  a toy soldier on the world stage; a buffoonish posture that has more in common with Captain Mainwaring than Bernard Law Montgomery.

This should not be such a surprise.  Blair,after all, is Cameron’s idol; the man he refers to as ‘the master’.

Our continued presence in Afghanistan serves nothing other than to send home more troops in body bags. Our forces know they are fighting an unwinnable war and, more to the point, so do the Taliban. Time is on their side, and so is history. Another prime example of our leaders learning nothing from our Imperial past.

You don’t have to be a genius to realise what all of this must do for the troops that are still out there, fighting and dying in that fearful, fly blown hell hole. And, also knowing that even as they fight and die for the failure of our politicians, those self same politicians are now attacking their own families at home, via a string of savage, punitive cuts without equal in British history. And, being professionals, confined within the strict and unyielding straitjacket of military discipline, they cannot speak out.

And, of course, the politicians know this, The sullen silence is filled by the sounds of Iain Duncan Smith driving tanks across the lawn of any unarmed opposition he can sniff out.

Let’s be clear; government after government- of all complexions- have all failed, abused and squandered the courage, commitment and sense of duty instilled in our armed forces. Every November 11th, Cameron, Milliband and Clegg walk soberly to the Cenotaph, lay wreaths, and bow their heads.

As well they should. They should bow in shame.

Shame for their cowardly inability to end the pointless war; shame for using our blood to prop up a brutal, corrupt, self serving, misogynist government that will likely collapse like a house of cards the moment we are gone.  Yet they maintain the fallacy that the blood and the sacrifice of our young is both precious and ‘necessary’.

For whom, exactly? Karzai? Cameron? Both?

Then you get the glib, verbal platitudes that our soldiers die for ‘Queen and Country’. And it largely goes unchallenged.

Firstly, the Queen never, ever asks soldiers to go to war in her name. Indeed, she has NO CONSTITUTIONAL POWER to do so.  As a mother and grandmother herself- one who has lived through more wars than many of us- I’m pretty sure the idea of asking young men and women to die in her name would fill her with the deepest horror imaginable.

No. Our governments send our young off to war.  Just as they always have. ‘Queen and Country’ is like a comfort blanket. Or, as I like to call it, a smoke screen.

I mean, how else are we supposed to showcase our armaments industry to the world, for God’s sake? The sums involved in arming and supplying every nasty little dictator that buys our death dealing expertise contribute massively to the UK economy.

Truth be told, neither civil or military authorities have ever shown scant care or respect for our armed forces, or their welfare. One word; Deepcut. Five suspicious military deaths. Still no inquiry. Still no plausible explanations. Still five grieving families.

More? Look at the cases of the 301- yes, 301- soldiers shot as deserters during the Great War. Most suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, They were shot after farcical trials; their names not added to memorials to the fallen.  The MOD had to be dragged to the pulpit to offer a posthumous pardon to these men- shot ‘as examples to the others’- almost a century later. It resisted all the way, kicking and screaming to the very end. Well, it wouldn’t do to have the facts laying bare the callous, brutal stupidity of their predecessors from Sandhurst, would it?

And, by way of a salient point; those nasty, evil Germans- the people we were fighting- shot 48 men for desertion during the same conflict. The German army was far bigger than ours. And that figure of 48 accounts for both the soldiers fighting in the west, as well as against the Russian Tsarist forces.

I hope some of this gives you pause for thought. God knows it should. As for our ‘leaders’- they are God’s right hand.

I just hope God eventually smacks them across the face with the left one. Over and out.

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TITANIC; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Launching of the Titanic

Launching of the Titanic

Titanic. The most infamous name in maritime history. Said by some to be the third most recognisable name in the entire English language; beaten only by Jesus Christ and Coca-Cola. Quite a tag team, that one.

But where did the name come from in the first place? Who came up with it, and did it really smack of the hubristic overtones grafted onto it by an armada of latter day ‘experts’? As so often with these things, we will probably never know the whole truth.

David Banks was a former American consul at the court of Siam, the country we now know as Thailand, towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was he that suggested to the White Star Line a pair of names for future steamers it might build. Those names were Olympic and Titanic.

At about that time, the world had just staged the first Olympic Games of the modern era; those held in Athens in 1896. They were a worldwide sensation, offering the biggest and best of everything, and on an unparalleled scale. So it’s not really so difficult to see where Banks came up with the idea for Olympic as a name.

It was current, it had international appeal and, aptly for White Star, it contained the ‘ic’ suffix that had marked out every White Star liner since the first Oceanic of 1871. So no great mysteries there.

But what of Titanic? What was the line of thinking there? Here again, there is a link to ancient Greece.

In Greek mythology, the Titans were a breed of all powerful deities. They were a dozen strong in all, and they were said to be the children of Earth and Sky.  These Titans were held to be immortal (shades of unsinkable) and to possess tremendous stamina and strength. In the pantheon of ancient Greek gods, the Titans were platinum chip royalty.

None of which was enough to stop the second generation of Titans from being overthrown and destroyed by a new, younger set of ‘new gods on the block’- the Olympians….

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Titanic's 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Titanic’s 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

So the transformation of ‘Titan’ into Titanic as a name was, in fact, simple and obvious, as well as symmetrical. With it’s Greek origins and obvious parallels with the Olympic, it made perfect sense for White Star to adopt those two names; Olympic and Titanic.

In the event, the company chose to hang onto both names for a very special occasion.

When White Star introduced the second, revolutionary Oceanic in 1899, it was originally intended to build a twin sister ship for her. In the event, this second ship was never built. Legend has it that this mythical second ship was to have been called the Olympic.

And, when White Star built it’s ‘Big Four’ at the turn of the 20th century, none of the quartet- the world’s largest at the time- were graced with the two names. Instead, they were called Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic. 

It was only in 1907, a full decade after David Banks made his suggestion to White Star, that the Greek themed names were finally brought into play for the two new, world beating sisters that would be laid down in Belfast over the following eighteen months. Respectively, they would be newbuild (yard) 400- Olympic-and yard 401. Titanic.

Unlike many modern liners, their names were never secrets from the start. In fact, they were etched into the hull of each ship, in three foot high golden letters. They were also proudly displayed on massive hoardings that stood beneath the bows of each of the twin monsters as they took shape. Because of this, their names were public knowledge a full three years before either took to the seas.

No one can say with one hundred per cent certainty who signed off on the use of the decade old names at that time; but it was almost certainly Joseph Bruce Ismay, the autocratic managing director of White Star at the time. No detail escaped his notice. A decision like that would be unthinkable without his go- ahead.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

What is certain is that there was no formal naming ceremony; no champagne shattered over the bow of yard number 401 when she lumbered into the steel grey River Lagan just after noon on May 31st, 1911. No dignified lady in a wide brimmed hat ever uttered the immortal phrase: “I name this ship Titanic. May God bless her, and all who sail in her….”

The White Star Line liked it’s launchings to be understated, business like affairs. It never went in for the pomp and ceremony so beloved of it’s great rival, Cunard.

But this should not be misconstrued as false modesty. White Star simply believed that the Olympic and Titanic were so fabulous that no amount of frippery and celebration could truly do them justice. And, up to a point, they were right.

After the sinking of the Titanic, a whole flotilla of pulpit based experts railed against the White Star Line, arguing that naming such a vast and swaggering ship as the Titanic was just asking to bring down God’s wrath. After all, had not the brave and boastful Titans been brought down in the prime of their vanity by a stronger, more vengeful God?

Few people actually bought this clerical claptrap, but the idea haunted the White Star Line all the same. Soon after the disaster, the name of the third ship in the class- originally intended to be the Gigantic- was quietly changed to Britannic instead. It just did not seem wise to provoke the fates a second time.

Fat lot of good it did her; on November 21st, 1916, while on the outward leg of her sixth round trip as a requisitioned hospital ship, the Britannic struck a mine laid by a German U-Boat. She sank within an hour, but with mercifully few casualties. Twenty-one people lost their lives in the sinking of the Britannic.

She foundered in calm waters. Just eight miles from the Greek island of Kea….

Who knows? Maybe the ancient gods of Greece just had a malign sense of humour at the end of the day.

 

FOUR THINGS ABOUT CRUISING THAT STILL MAKE ME GO ‘WOW’…

Exhibit One, your honour...

Exhibit One, your honour…

These days, big cruise ships have become so amenity laden that they resemble something of a cross between a shopping mall and a Las Vegas resort. We’re almost swamped by a tidal wave of cutting edge, new attractions that seem to expand with each new ship.

Of course, it’s all done to give those fantastic floating resorts some new kind of ‘wow’ factor, and that’s okay. People do love them. But after more than thirty years at sea, some of the most amazing- and lasting ‘wow’ factors for me have little or nothing to do with this new, neon gimmickry.

So, without further ado, here’s just a few of the things that still really float my boat; pun wholly intentional…

1) looking back out over the wake at the stern. Nothing is so stress beating as this; just leaning on the railings with a breeze kissing your hair, an early morning cup of coffee to hand, and just watching that vast, roiling white wake, cutting a perfect straight line back across the sparkling azure carpet of the briny, all the way back to the razor fine line of the horizon. Almost miraculous.

2) Watching the gangway come down at the start of the voyage. We no longer have streamers to throw, so I always make a point of going to watch the gangways retract back ashore. It’s a hugely symbolic moment; I equate it with severing the last links to reality. And, even though the ship is still briefly tethered to the land by her mooring ropes, I can feel secure in knowing that the ship- my little fantasy island for the duration of the journey- has been hermetically sealed; made safe and fast against all the banal, screaming mediocre stuff on shore that rains  on my parade. Adios, Jedward. It’s been emotional.

3) I love watching how some people open up and blossom as the voyage takes hold. Strangers on day one become smiling acquaintances; people become less buttoned up, less uptight.

And you do see it, too; it’s almost as if some dead weight has been lifted from them. People who may not always be especially pleasant ashore seem to raise their game as they lose their defensive armour and posture.

I once saw two little old ladies from an English ship; probably pillars of their local WI, in their pearls and twin sets. They were probably fierce competitors in their local home made jam competitions. They made it ashore in Willemstad, Curacao one Sunday morning. And there they sat, at a sun splashed waterfront cafe, in their twin sets, complete with baseball caps and a bottle of Budweiser each. The old dears were drinking straight from the bottles, and giggling to themselves as they did so. They had gone native in the Caribbean, and it was wonderful to see. Heartwarming, even. For them, it must have been so liberating; probably a moment never to be repeated.

Exhibit Two. The Defence rests. And quite comfortably, too...

Exhibit Two. The Defence rests. And quite comfortably, too…

4) The sunsets. The oldest cliche at sea, but I never, ever tire of them. Out on the ocean, away from any land based pollution, they take on a magical, almost mystical allure that defies conventional wisdom. People who would never look twice at a sunset at home are lured out to them, as helplessly as lost moths that flitter skittishly around a flame.  They seem to take forever; both time and reality appear to have been put on pause.  And, if there’s a little soft piano music drifting around in the ether, then it sharpens the mood- and the moment- to almost brilliant perfection.

OK.  There’s just a few of the things that still hook me about cruising, and sailing in general. What is it about the cruise experience that keeps bringing you back? What makes you smile??

FOUR THINGS ABOUT CRUISING THAT MAKE ME GO ‘WTF’….

Please, Mommie Dearest; if it says 'Adults Only' pool, that's exactly what it means

Please, Mommie Dearest; if it says ‘Adults Only’ pool, that’s exactly what it means

On average, I’d argue that most cruises and sea voyages are 99 per cent fun, one per cent minor annoyances. I know  a lot of that comes down to individual preferences and/or tolerance levels; we’re not all wired to the same standard. We react in different ways and styles to what we perceive as anything that rains on our parade.

And so, just to throw this out there, here’s a handful of things that leave me wondering the proverbial ‘wtf’….

1) Untrained staff

One night before dinner on a cruise, I asked my stewardess- a lovely, sweet girl- if she would open the champagne in my room and put it out on the balcony for later.

I return to find that she has, indeed, done just that. Silver ice bucket, white cloth, gleaming glasses…. and a corkscrew bottle opener, placed by the bucket on the table outside.

I had to smile; the poor girl had not been shown how to open champagne. Incredible. She had done what she thought to be the next best thing.

Not a huge deal, and funny in it’s own way. Certainly not her fault that she hadn’t been trained to do something so simple. But it is the fault of the hotel manager.

Memo to hotel managers; please ensure that your staff are trained to perform the simplest and most basic tasks. It makes life better for everyone.

2) Kids in adult only pools/hot tubs

Gah! The bane of my existence. There I am, wonderfully par boiled in a gorgeously bubbling hot tub somewhere warm when… bam!  Junior and his/her little friends decide now is a great time to come and cannon ball into the adults only Jacuzzi.  Yep, the one sporting the big sign- written in English- that says ADULTS ONLY.

Worst of all, mummy is sitting on a sun lounger a few feet away, completely ignoring the signs. Every so often, she might mumble a weak-as-water ‘calm down, Stephanie’ to her charming child. Sorry. My mojo has already been spoiled, because you think rules only exist for little people. Not your little people, naturally.

And cruise staff who just ignore this make my blood boil. Why have rules if you’re not going to enforce them? It’s chocolate fireguard syndrome.

Please, mother dear. Show some consideration. Don’t make me bring my electric cattle prod. I hate the singe of charred flesh in the morning.

3)  Constant tannoy sales pitches

A bit of cool, mellow, late night jazz needs no extra sound track, thanks

A bit of cool, mellow, late night jazz needs no extra sound track, thanks

Dear Cruise Director; these really do put the ‘annoy’ in ‘Tannoy’. It is truly thoughtful of you to interrupt my sleep at three in the morning to remind me that there will be naked dwarf throwing at sunrise on the lido. But allow me to let you in on a little secret; I’ve already read about it in the programme, thank you.

Most adults on cruises- and I stress ‘most’- are capable of reading and deciding what they want to do during their time on board. Constant tannoy reminders seem to presuppose that we are all either illiterate, or in the deathly grip of advanced Alzheimer’s. Well, after a week of being bombarded with this verbal dross fest, dementia begins to look more and more appealing. I know you have sales targets to meet, but please- tone it down at little? Thank you.

4) Passengers shouting in music venues

Dear loud fellow passenger: this one is for you.

When I go to a music venue late at night, it’s usually with the hope of hearing some cool, classy jazz over an artfully crafted martini or two. I don’t go there to hear your tequila fuelled, boom box level of inane verbosity, kindly sharing your wonderful experiences ashore in Hooters that day. In short, have some consideration for those around you.

Else, next morning,  when you emerge from the boggy lair that constitutes your cabin and you shamble up to the buffet feeling like death warmed up, I may be obliged to take it upon myself to start reading out the full daily programme, line by line, in a very loud voice. Before the tannoy gets there first. Point made?

These are just a few of the things that raise my blood pressure like a Saturn Five cleared for take off. Misunderstandings are a fact of life; they happen. But simple, common courtesy? It’s not rocket science now, is it?

THINGS FROM MY BUCKET LIST….

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Most people who know me would say that I’m well travelled. My general response to that is that I travel well. And, for sure, I do.

But looked at in either context, a simple fact remains the same; the more we experience of the world, the more we become painfully aware of how little we actually have seen. Travel is like peeling an onion; just when you think you’ve got down to the heart of it, you find another hundred layers, lying in wait to be unravelled.

And that is exactly as it should be, too.

To truly travel, the mind should always be constantly exploring new horizons and, at the very least, contemplating new stuff. Many of us have what we call a ‘bucket list’; a set of trophy things we want to do, sights we yet want to see,

Trust me, I’m no different in that regard. So, without further ado, here’s some of the adventures I still want to experience at least once in my lifetime. Hang on- this could get messy….

TRAVEL BY RAIL ACROSS THE USA

From sea to shining sea. West to East. Starting in Los Angeles with a stay on the dear old Queen Mary, and then making my way on those fabulous Amtrak double decker trains, all the way to New York.

I’d make a two night stop in certain cities along the way; New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia come first to mind. There would be a final couple of nights in New York and then- as a truly grand finale- I’d sail back across the Atlantic to England on the Queen Mary 2. 

That’s living, all right.

THREE WEEKS IN THE GREEK ISLANDS

This would be the complete opposite to my normal, organised routine. Just an open return flight ticket to Athens, as little luggage as possible, and then just island hopping for three weeks, using the local ferries like buses.

Where to? Wherever the mood and the music takes me. A day here. Three days there. Two days anywhere. Repeat as necessary until you become so chilled out that you’re almost liquid.

So many choices, and all dependant on a mood, a whim, People watching and drinking wine in the sun. Repeat as necessary. Jacket and tie? I don’t think so. Not for this one, Colonel.

Rio bound??

Rio bound??

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Anyone with even a hint of romance in their soul has a sacred duty to sail down to Rio; the most sultry and sensuous city south of the Equator. Why sail? Because tourists fly. And you are not a tourist; you’re a child that has to follow the sun. We don’t ‘do’ mundane, chico. That’s not what we’re about, is it? That’s not how we roll.

And, if you are going to arrive in Rio, you want to make that spectacular, dramatic entry from the sea. Sailing in past Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. And do it in style; arrive on the biggest, most swaggering and spectacular ship you can find. You owe it to Rio. And you owe it to yourself. Don’t let me down.

PADDLE WHEELER ON THE MISSISSIPPI

In the immortal words of Churchill, D; Oh, yes…

I want to sit on a rocking chair on some huge, hulking great wedding cake of  a paddle steamer, and pretend I’m Huckleberry Finn while I sip on a mint julep. I want to swagger down one of those impossibly over fussed, Gone With The Wind style grand staircases. To roll on out of New Orleans, with the paddle wheel thrashing up the river behind us, and a dixieland jazz soundtrack ringing in my ears. I still want to be able to hear that music until my dying day. Yes sir, I’ll take some of that Mississippi mud pie, with a big slice of old style steamboating.

Is there more? Oh Lord, yes. Lots. But these are the brightest stars I’ll be aiming to reach for. Bucket list? The only thing that I’m sure of with any real certainty is that I’m going to be needing a bigger bucket.

How about you?

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN SOUTHERN EUROPE

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The whole thing with southern Europe is that it is one vast, cake rich, cultural glut of incredible things to see. Castles, cathedrals, museums. Turrets, campaniles and spires. They all vie- nay, sometimes demand- your undivided attention on any given day of your European vacation.

Simple truth? You can’t do them all. So don’t even try. More truth? Not all of the truly great, awe inspiring sights are of human construction.

That point made, here’s five of my favourite places in the Mediterranean. With time, tide and fair breezes, they might just become some of yours, too.

Church of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Antonio Gaudi was a creative genius on a par with Warhol or Hans Christian Andersen, and the still incomplete Sagrada Familia church is without doubt his most stunning masterpiece. With it’s clutch of gingerbread spires clawing at a perfect Catalan sky, it has become the symbol of one of the greatest, most swaggering and stylish cities in the world.

In places, it has the appearance of a slowly melting cake, inlaid just above ground level with some of the most amazing and intricate carvings you will ever see.  There is literally no other church like it in the world. During the day, this honey coloured colossus enjoys a matchless stance by a small park, but try to catch it at night. Indirect lighting, built all around it makes Sagrada Familia truly unforgettable and awe inspiring. You don’t have to be of any religious persuasion to be awed by this stunning testament to human devotion and ingenuity,  Highly recommended.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

Bay of Villefranche, Villefranche-Sur-Mer, France

A sensuous, semi circular sweep of high, rolling hills studded with million euro villas, Villefranche is the most stunning single coastal location anywhere in southern Europe; one so perfectly formed that it was used as the backdrop for a James Bond film in the 1980’s.  At the edge of the quay, a row of Italianate shops, bars and restaurants in shades of blue, ochre and terracotta curves seductively around the lower edge of the bay. Umbrella shaded bars and pavement cafes spill out onto the quay that overlooks an azure harbour, studded with literally dozens of idly bobbing yachts and fishing boats. It’s a place to kick back and people watch over a sumptuous, two hour lunch, You’ll see people wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of a third world country, and old ladies walking impossibly small dogs among the jasmine wreathed cobbled streets that lead up into the old town.

Once seen, never forgotten; Villefranche will stay with you long after you leave it behind.

Greco-Roman Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

This almost perfectly preserved, Eighth Century amphitheatre is as compelling for its location as it is for it’s ageless, elegant sweep and still flawless acoustics. Nestling in the shade of towering pine trees at the top of Taormina, it looks down and out over the sparkling blue carpet of the Mediterranean. From it’s terraces, you can clearly see the brooding, still smouldering mass of Mount Etna, grey against a cobalt blue sky.

It has an exalted, almost Olympian feel to it; row upon row of stepped, circular stone seating cascades down to a central ‘stage’ which is still used for outdoor concerts to this day.

Worth going to simply for the view alone; an outdoor concert at dusk would be a truly amazing experience as well.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

One of the scenic exclamation marks in a city almost awash with them, Piazza Navona has been a Roman stand out for centuries.

The centre piece is formed by a series of amazing, medieval fountains by Bernini, almost awash with a riot of intricate, over the top, Romanesque statuary from the middle ages. Off to one side is the cool, ordered elegance of the circular Pantheon, with its shady interior, incredible frescoes and marvellous acoustics.

These fountains and surrounding buildings form the focal point of this famous, frantic, bustling square that hums with life at all hours of the day and night. The whole area is framed by a host of sun splashed cafes and restaurants, while mime artists and strolling musicians mingle with dog walking locals taking time out for an ice cream.

It’s a quintessential Italian slice of the good life; la dolce vita served up with age old Roman style in a swaggering, feel good setting. Deliciously over the top, and typically addictive.

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Chora, Mykonos, Greek Islands

No other single sight is as evocative of the history and hedonism of the Greek Islands as those five famous windmills that sit on top of the hill above the harbour of Mykonos, immortalised in the movie, Shirley Valentine. They can be seen from any part of the island, and the views of the sunsets from here draws out the crowds each and every night in the peak summer season. It’s an almost pagan ritual, as compelling as anything you’ll see at Stonehenge. The vibe at evening time has more than a little in common with Key West.

Individually, each of the five windmills has a uniform stance. Circular and whitewashed, surrounded by low stone walls and fronted by petrified, long silent sails, each is topped with it’s own thatched ‘mop top’ roof.  It is their collective poise and presence that makes them so memorable; they loom above the Aegean’s most compelling and indulgent island like a quintet of benevolent deities.

So; there you go. Five of my faves from the magnificent Med. You may agree. You may disagree. But I think we’d all agree that the real fun lies in getting out there, and finding and defining your own favourites, Happy exploring!

FLASHBACK: MIDNIGHT SAILING FROM MONTE CARLO

Getting in the sailing mood...

Getting in the sailing mood…

It was one of those nights you never forget; a sensuous, sultry late spring evening in the south of France. I had just arrived after a testy, two hour flight, and yet I already felt as if I were a million miles from reality.

After the chaos and angst of leaving Nice Airport, it was a short, pain free train journey along the coast to Monaco.The setting sun glimmered on the bays and yacht havens of the Cote D’Azur as we trundled past.  As always in Monte Carlo, catching a taxi from the station was an art form; one I had yet to master. But it wasn’t so far to walk; not with wheeled luggage, anyway. And the knowledge that an old friend was waiting down in the harbour made me grin like an idiot.

All that already seems like a distant dream, something from another place and time, as I stand on the upper decks of the Silver Wind and gaze out at the backlit mass of Monte Carlo. Boarding the ship again was like walking into an oasis of calm, cool gentility. Balm for the soul. Hand luggage taken, champagne offered. Gratefully accepted. Better already.

There was time for a quick dinner in the suite, with the balcony door left open, and the warm evening air carrying over the smell of hibiscus and jasmine from somewhere not far away.  In the background, Michael Buble’s rich, wonderful voice fills the ether like a subtle, slowly gathering storm. Shower. Change of clothes. The whole world takes on a different, kinder stance.

Midnight lights of Monte Carlo

Midnight lights of Monte Carlo

Now it’s close to midnight, and all the passengers are up on the decks around the main pool in anticipation of our leave taking. Stewards circulate with deft, unobtrusive grace, delivering champagne, cocktails and canapes to passengers who last ate all of an hour ago.

There’s a subtle, wonderful buzz as people meet for the first time. And there’s more than the odd happy reunion, too. One of the great things about cruising on something as highly styled as Silversea is the small number of people that the ship carries. It becomes like a little, private club; one where members might go two or three years without seeing each other. Yet, when they do, the friendships just take up again exactly where they last left off. I never cease to wonder at it.

And oh, my word, we are off…..

Subtly, unobtrusively, the Silver Wind steals effortlessly out, into the ink black bay of Monaco, threading her way through a flock of tethered, brilliantly lit yachts with a sure, easy grace. From a small balcony just above the pool, a solitary saxophone player floods the air with deep, rich soul. On one of the yachts, I can see a couple in bathrobes, tapping their fingers to the sound.

And the champagne comes around again. It would be rude to say no; because if ever there truly was a moment worthy of the good stuff, then this is it.

And we're off.....

And we’re off…..

I muse idly that our ship must look beautiful from the shore at this moment; as proud and perfectly graceful as a swan, wrapped in the brilliant plumage of her own lights and music. A small fantasy island, heading out into the darkened Mediterranean, trailing soft, sultry music behind her like a fabulous perfume.

It’s spring in the south of France, the living is easy, and another amazing Silversea adventure is under way. Let’s see what’s out there…..

RIDING THE RAILS: TORONTO TO NEW YORK BY TRAIN

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun...

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun…

Sixteen coaches of gleaming gunmetal shimmering in the summer Toronto sun, the Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered into life, and began to slowly roll out of the city’s Union Station. Sprawled out in a huge, business class seat, I watched idly as downtown Toronto’s glittering, glass and steel skyline rolled slowly past my window. It was 8.30 in the morning, and some hot coffee went part of the way to reviving me after what had been a late night out.

Having always been a fan of long distance train travel, I leapt at the chance to do this thirteen hour rail journey; a sampler that will, hopefully anticipate a much bigger, coast to coast adventure in a year or so. I was curious to try and get a handle on the pros and cons of travelling on the much maligned Amtrak network. And the price- even for a huge, spacious business class seat with a spectacular amount of legroom- beat out the cost of flying by a good way. So, not being in a hurry, this seemed as good a chance as any to try the Amtrak experience.

I made a couple of basic, elementary mistakes. Firstly, the Maple Leaf Explorer is a single decker train, unlike much of the coast to coast rolling stock. There would be no dinner in the diner, or anything remotely finer for that matter. In retrospect, I should have stocked up with edible goodies while in Toronto. Ah well, too late now. You’re off…

Once we arrived at Niagara, everybody had to dismount the train for customs and immigration formalities at the U.S. border. This was less tedious than a One Direction megamix playing on a loop, but not by enough to make you want to keep on living, It took a full three quarters of an hour. Back in my seat, I was ridiculously relieved to feel the Maple Leaf Explorer resume it’s rhythmic progress towards New York.

By now, my finely honed, Clouseau-like sense of intuition had perceived that there would be no at seat food and drink service; something unthinkable on any long distance train in Europe. So, like any intrepid explorer with a hunger for more than just adventure, I set forth in search of food.

Comfort with a capital 'C'

Comfort with a capital ‘C’

The buffet car was not hard to find. My first clue was a conga line of waiting people that was slightly longer than a Bosnian refugee column. It seemed to stretch back to infinity, and it moved forward with all the speed and enthusiasm of the condemned line at the foot of an overworked guillotine.

My impatience turned to pity when I eventually got my turn. There was one poor guy behind the counter- one- serving up micro waved food, plus hot and cold drinks, for the literally hundreds of people on this run.  He moved behind that counter like a whirling dervish; serving up slices of anorexic, piping hot, cardboard pizza and things that looked like they might once have been sausage rolls. Choices were thin on the ground, and even thinner when they emerged from being microwaved. I managed to grab some cold snacks, and the last two small miniatures of Sutter Creek Zinfandel on the train. Major sustenance would have to await my arrival in New York, several hours hence.

Fortunately, a feast of a far more satisfying kind was being served up, just outside my window.  The Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered, rattled and moaned its way through the heartlands of upstate New York,  speeding through a lush, green spread of slow, gently rolling hills and meadows, where small villages peeped almost shyly into sight, before disappearing in a smeary blur behind us.

The train rolled past small trailer parks, where children played on swings and in makeshift paddling pools. We thundered past one horse towns so quiet that even the horse was taking the day off.  Rivers came and went like drum rolls; some of them tinted an amazing rust brown by the slowly setting sun up above.

There were short, abrupt stops. Familiar names came and went. Albany. Buffalo. Names familiar from American folklore. Then on, into the clamouring embrace of the rolling emerald carpet that framed the views from my window.

The views en route were real, old world Americana

The views en route were real, old world Americana

There were old, abandoned industrial buildings, with brickwork still bearing the ghostly outlines of their trade in the form of weathered paintwork, scarred by decades of neglect and apathy. Sadness and pride seemed to be etched into every brick.

The Zinfandel had combined with the splendid, surreal scenery to lull me into a kind of languid, mellow stupor. And that train seat was wickedly comfortable; easily the most commodious and accommodating I had ever sat in. It really did put most airline business class seats to shame. The hours rolled by steadily, easily. And suddenly….

Out of the window, a jagged series of unmistakable buildings clawed abruptly at a flaring, purple twilight, their lights like the glow of a swarm of fireflies. Manhattan. Proud, beautiful, and never more alluring than at that special, magical hour of dusk. The Maple Leaf Explorer slowed to a crawl, grinding almost painfully forward, before it finally slid almost reluctantly into the floodlit, artificially lit embrace of Penn Station, and shuddered to a final halt.

Off the train, and the exhilaration of being in New York blew away the cobwebs and ennui as completely as if they had never existed. Within an hour, I had checked in to my hotel, found a nearby diner, and initiated a full frontal assault on a steak about the size of Saipan. Nothing- and I mean nothing- ever tasted so good. New York. Summer in the city. Now a new phase in the adventure could unravel.

Hey, Manhattan....

Hey, Manhattan….

It was a while before I could reflect objectively on that rail journey. I’m glad I did it, and it was a definite appetiser for the coast to coast trip I mentioned at the start. The trains making that run are huge, double decker juggernauts, with couchettes, sleeping cabins, scenic cars, and a full bar and diner service.  It’s the taste of another adventure; one yet to be savoured, from sea to shining sea.

A DONKEY’S DIARY- DEAR TOURISTS….

"Up the mountains we must go...."

“Up the mountains we must go….”

“Dear Tourists,

I guess the idea of a talking, literate donkey might come as a shock to some of you. A bit left field, maybe?

That always makes me laugh, especially when I look at the Houses of Parliament, or the House of Representatives. But enough chit chat; I haven’t got all damned day, so let’s get down to business here.

You wonder why I am so often bad tempered, plain mean at times? Well, allow me to take you through my daily routine.

Every day, I wake up and look out over the sea, and the first thing I see approaching is some giant cruise ship, carrying over three thousand people. People just like you. Damned things always look like a Death Star coming into sight from the surface of Endor. Often wish I could send ’em ‘Return to Endor’. Sorry, just a little donkey humour kicking in there.

It’s already damned hot, hotter than Satan’s breath, and the mountain side is a proper maze of steep, narrow lanes that get harder to navigate the older I get. The guys in charge of me? Hah. Some of them could give cruelty lessons to the bloody Gestapo. Money dances in front of their eyes like some Turkish hussy in a harem; better believe that they are blind to everything else.

Then, of course, you lot pitch up. In your thousands. A tidal wave of sun burnt, polyester clad, flabby jowled,  Indiana Jones wannabes. When you see me, you stop and stare. Your eyes narrow in a way that your fat, podgy. zeppelin hangar of an ass can only dream of. You back off a little. Then you gradually come forward, Wave after wave of you…

You look at me in disgust. Sure, my coat has seen better days. And yes, I’m being buzzed by squadrons of flies the size of stealth bombers. Which, by the way, does nothing at all to raise my joy factor. But you’re still staring at me with barely concealed disgust.

Really?

You. In your green and gold stretch kaftan, and your moth eaten flying saucer of a sun hat? You look like a badly wrapped easter egg that some UFO has crash landed on by accident. And you’re judging me? Lord. At least your husband managed to shave. Which is obviously more than you did, cupcake.

When you climb on to me, and your fat, overly fed twenty-three stone frame spreads across me like a jello tsunami, it literally feels like I’m carrying the weight of the world. You have all the artistic grace and agility of a blind gorilla in a tu-tu. I can hear my saddle whimpering from here.

And so,  off we go. If you’ve ever seen the stations of the cross, that’s what it feels like, carrying you and your mates up those long, winding lanes, one after another. Thirsty? You bet I am. With you on my back, I’m under more pressure than the late Luciano Pavarotti’s bathroom scales.

How did I get up there? Slowly. very slowly....

How did I get up there? Slowly. Very slowly….

But eventually, we get there. The summit. You get off, and the mid day heat sears me like a laser beam. Because the sole advantage of having your lardy carcass on top of mine was that it shielded me from the sun on both sides. Sure, we’re at the top of the hill, but don’t expect me to burst into song. I mean, do I look like Julie frickin’ Andrews to you?

And then I am taken back down. Down to where more of you await. So many more. And, as I try and swat yet another Frankenstein’s monster of a fly with my eyelashes, I see yet another cruise ship, looming up over the horizon. Has the damned Galactic Empire declared a public holiday today, or something?

So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t go all gushy and sad when I see you go. Watching you sail off over the horizon is the highlight of my day. The only one. I often wonder why God chose to populate the Med with idiots, and not icebergs. No level playing field, that’s for sure.

Wanna brighten my day? Sweet. Give me a carrot. Get a diet. We’ll be fine.

Ah well. In the immortal words of Vivien Leigh, tomorrow, after all, is another day.

Yours,

A Donkey.”

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN NORTHERN EUROPE

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

This short piece is mainly for the benefit of my American friends who might be thinking about coming to visit northern Europe in the near or distant future. Whether you’re on a cruise, or just working through some self devised itinerary, these are five of the great buildings and attractions of the continent that I would argue deserve your attention. They are not listed in any particular order of preference; the impact of each upon the individual is too damned subjective for such a superfluous kind of batting order. But each is uniquely compelling in it’s own way…

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli is the jewel in the crown of Scandinavia’s most boisterous and exuberant city; a shimmering, ethereal, twenty three acre wonderland of a theme park that dates back to the 1800’s. Here, a Chinese pagoda towers above a lake where a giant pirate ship provides the perfect grandstand for the twice nightly midnight fireworks each week in summer.

A wondrous maze of fountains, fairy tale lights and fun fair rides, Tivoli was beloved of the immortal Hans Christian Andersen. It’s also the place where one Walter Disney got the idea for his own, subsequent string of theme parks. He visited Tivoli in the 1930’s, and fell in love with the place. Chances are, you will too.

Geiranger Fjord, Norway

God blessed the twelve thousand miles of Norwegian coastline with an almost obscene level of beauty, and most people agree that Geiranger Fjord is pure, platinum chip scenic porn.

Sailing between the silent, towering, pine carpeted walls of rock is an incredible adrenaline surge. The silence is almost deafening You’ll see meadows in forty shades of electric green. Butterflies and jagged, snow capped mountains. Cows grazing by water so still that the scenery is reflected to mirror like perfection. There are vibrant, splashing streams that tumble down the mountain sides, and gaunt wooden stave churches, some of them hundreds of years old, scattered about a landscape that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Petrodeverts Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

A monumental, swaggering statement in gold, gilt and marble, Petrodeverts was the summer palace of the Tsars of Russia. Built to exceed even Versailles in terms of beauty, scale and grandeur, it’s epic Italianate facade is the prelude to a stupendous spread of public rooms, each one almost awash in gilded opulence. Vast, impossible chandeliers hold sway above galleries lined with floor to ceiling mirrors.  Lacquered Chinese cabinets frame rooms filled with a glut of silver banqueting ware set on tables the size of the Titanic. The staircases are sweeping, magnificent, marble accented ascents.

In the gardens, a series of stunning, stepped fountains sweep right down to the edge of the Baltic itself, each terrace flanked by pairs of gilded, golden cherubs. When you see this vast former Royal playground, you get a sense of what truly triggered the revolutions that ultimately culminated in the Communist take over of October, 1917.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

The most commanding building in this amazing city. And quite literally in many ways, since this is the seat of the German parliament. The vast, sprawling neo classical facade is impressive enough, with elements of ancient Greek architecture on display as well. The new, magnificent glass cupola, added by British architect Sir Norman Foster, offers almost Olympian-like views out over the most vibrant city in Germany.

It was famously burnt down in a coup orchestrated by the Nazis, in order to frame the opposition and consolidate Hitler’s total grip on power after his election in 1933. Today, children sit eating ice cream on the same steps that hordes of Russian infantrymen stormed in 1945 in the face of a desperate, fanatical resistance. Nazism died on those steps in many ways.

The Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Even on the brightest days, the Tower manages to look at once menacing, sinister and forbidding. Hardly surprising when you consider it’s almost thousand year history. A site of great pageantry and a place of unimaginable pain and cruelty, every one of it’s gaunt, bleached stones seems to have centuries of agonised history seared into it.

You can see the amazing. glittering glut of the crown jewels, and some of the fetid, one time rat infested cells where scores of doomed men and women eked out their last pitiful days. You can even walk the silent, immaculately manicured lawns, and see the spot where no less than three Queens of England- Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey- met their grisly fates. All are interred in the adjacent, small church of Saint Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest place in all of England’.

This is just a snap shot of some of the great sites that litter the shores and cities of Europe like so many random exclamation marks. They all have amazing stories to tell. Many are poignant, all are powerful, each one is a  pointer to the past glories-and follies- of this proud, often prolifically violent continent.