Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Kidzania, the kid's theme park, for grown ups.

For reasons lost to time I recently went to an adults-only night at Kidzania, a new educational theme park for kids housed in a very high up part of Westfield Shepherd's Bust that not even Westfield knew existed until recently.

To start with - I'm writing this from the perspective of a 32-year old visiting a kid's attraction where the point is to pretend to be a grown-up. 7-year old me would have given this at least five stars. As an actual grown-up, it's a fun albeit slightly sinister experience, although the novelty of wandering the plastic cobbles of a miniaturised city does wear off rather sharply.

The idea of Kidzania is that the younguns can try out various 'jobs' and tasks to earn cash (Kidzos, of which I now have a bag-load) which they can either bank for future visits (so sensible) or spend on other activities or merchandise like face-painting or pencil sharpeners (importantly at adults' night, not wine). You wander the brightly-coloured streets of Kidzania popping in to various shops and facilities to try your hand at whatever career tickles your fancy, from dentistry to journalism. At sporadic intervals the staff jump out of their designated areas for a coordinated dance routine, like some kind of bizarre mind control drug has kicked in.

On Grown Ups' Night quite a few of the activities were closed (I wanted to make a burger!) and it wasn't possible to swap the currency for gifts, so we essentially became Kidzania millionaires, making it rain with handfuls of Kidzos. Confusingly, the fun jobs (fire brigade, chocolate making etc) charge you to take part while the rest pay you for your time. Slightly jarring lesson there, kids. Nobody was interested in attending the Kidzana University to increase our salaries, probably because there was nothing to buy, so that corner remained steadfastly empty throughout the evening.

Throughout, there is the slight sense of being perpetually brainwashed, as each job is sponsored by a corporation. Come and try on the H&M clothes! Come and be a Capital FM presenter! Come and fly a BA plane! Come and hack into the Talk Talk website!

Highlights for me included being a journalist (permission to hassle the people with proper jobs), being a courier (permission to barge in to the other attractions to pick up parcels) and being a tour guide (making up historical facts). It was also great to have the run of the place and not queue for anything - workers told horrified tales of hour-long queues to make a fake Mini Milk lolly.

Unhighlights included being told off for squeezing too many of us into the fire engine because 'it's supposed to be for kids' (no! really? You let us in!) and a few fairly grumpy staff members who had clearly been forced to work late to supervise the wine-fuelled behaviour of a load of hipsters keen for an 'ironic' and 'immersive' experience. I can imagine the fist-pumping summer-camp trained crew in the American Kidzania branches really bringing this to life - in West London the enthusiasm is not quite yet at full par.

Mysteriously absent on 'grown up' night were the opportunities to waste your life in a banal office job for decades, the chance to experience the sweaty delights of a two-hour round-trip commute, and the thrill of handing over all your cash to the Bank of Kidzania at the end of every month. Perhaps the intricate set should be altered for the next adult edition to include a newly-opened cereal cafe (with the opportunity to hurl bricks through the windows at terrified customers), Haribo dealers lurking in the doorways, abandoned vermin-infested sofas by the side of the road or a derelict pub full of squatters.

Oh! I'm being mean! Take your kids, they'll bloody love it. You get to give someone a filling, for god's sake!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

White Hart in New Cross Gate set to reopen

I was excited to find out that the White Hart hotel and pub in New Cross Gate (previously the subject of my photo history post) is set to reopen under new management in the coming weeks.

The pub (which always seemed to only have a couple of people inside, propping up the bar) closed last month, and refurbishment work has been taking place since. The pub was once at the centre of a heated debate when the previous owner announced that he wanted to reopen the place as a strip club, which wasn't exactly well received by the local community.

A new Twitter account (@thewhitehartse) is promising 'top quality beer, beautiful food and all round entertainment. Late License, Craft Beer & Roof Terrace' - hopefully a nice addition to the neighbourhood.

Personally, I'm pleased that the pub won't be lying empty (unlike the former Barclays across the road) or - for now - being turned into another block of luxury apartments or a Tesco Metro.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Unexpected London futuristic sightings of the day

The rather good film 'Children of Men' was filmed in 2006, but is set in London in 2027 as civilisation sits on the brink of collapse.

And because it's the future, you can see The Shard (built 2011):


and the main character wears a worn-out London 2012 sweatshirt:


Clever.


Friday, 21 August 2015

On the street where I live

I love looking at old photos of where I live and thinking about how my street came to be what it now is.

I live in South East London near the junction of two major roads - Queens Road, which runs through Peckham and Camberwell and eventually gets you to the West End, and New Cross Road, which quickly becomes Old Kent Road and will whisk you to glamorous Elephant & Castle and the City. Old Kent Road is on the lines of one of the old Roman roads out of town.

They are pretty busy routes and are, for many coach visitors from Europe who drive along this route, the first glimpse of 'proper' London. All life is here!

The 'gate' in New Cross Gate comes from the toll gate which established in 1819 to take the fees for those travelling into Central London at this junction. The area was previously known as Hatcham until two rail companies opened identically-named stations - New Cross - nearby, one of which eventually became New Cross Gate, a name which was adopted by the wider area.

So here's the junction in 1840 - I live roughly where those trees are:


Keep your eyes on that white building to the right.

By 1850, the White Hart Inn had opened:


A photo from 1865, five years later:


My house was built in the early 1890s (it's on this map from 1894) and the toll gate was removed sometime in the early 1900s.

By 1900, the area looks much more populated - buildings have popped up in both directions and tram lines have been added, but the toll gate is still visible between the trams. The ad on the side of the bus is for the New Cross Empire, a grand theatre further up New Cross Road which is now gone.


1910:


The tram stop island in 1911 - behind it is the other side of New Cross Road, roughly where Londi's is now:


1912:


1923, looking round the corner towards Old Kent Road. There's now a tram shelter in the middle of the junction:


1950 ish - the shelter seems to be gone:


A couple of views of The White Hart pub in 1973:





2010:

After 2010 the road layout was changed slightly, and the 'island' in the road removed. The gas lamp that appeared sometime in the 20s was moved and preserved just outside the pub.

Here's the same view today - slightly less grand-looking and a lot busier. but the White Hart and surrounding buildings are still going strong.


Recognise the white building from the 1840 photo? It's the longest-surviving building in the area that I know about, and now houses a solicitor's firm. It's in most of the photos above.

So that's the street where I live!

I'd love to see more photos and maps of the area if any other local history geeks have them.


PS - I was sent a link to this post from 2010 about the changes to the road layout, the history of the gas lamp and some other photos. Thanks

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Elf the Musical - cancel Christmas.

Twitter (well my Twitter, and I work in arts marketing) is all a'flutter with rants about Elf: The Musical and its distinctly Scrooge-like pricing structure - top prices are a rather unfestive £240 including a £15 booking fee - enough to make anyone choke on their turkey.

So, in theory, a family of four is paying nigh-on a grand to see Kimberly 'her out of Girls Aloud I think' Walsh warble her way through some festive tunes based on the 'hit' movie.

These are, admittedly, the so-called 'premium' seats and those sold as part of experience packages, but even the cheapest of the cheap seats don't come in much better at £52.

There's a simple way to avoid paying these prices - don't. The producers will learn soon enough that nobody's buying their ridiculous tickets, and discounts will magically appear. This is what always happens - I think the only big musicals that I haven't seen discounting in the last year are Beautiful and Gypsy: high-quality shows with excellent notices in small-ish theatres (not Elf's home, the Dominion, which seats over 2000).

I predict the following timeline:

October offer: free 'glass of fizz' with top price tickets.
November offer: kids go free.
December offer: best available for £25 tops.
On the day: Turn up with £15 and you're in.

Mark my words. Now hand me the cranberry sauce.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The mystery of the Corner House...

My grandfather, John Kitchener Adams, served in the RAF between August 1940 and May 1946, including an overseas stint from 1944 in Belgium, France and Germany. Here's the chap himself:



I have a stack of small, unlabelled photos of a coastal town from his belongings. One particularly intriguing photo caught my eye - a corner house, curtains tattered and blowing in the wind, with a man on a first floor balcony. A large piece of fabric - a flag, maybe - looks like it's being thrown down to the street.


There are some markings on the building. The scrolled text below the window reads 't Hoekje', which means 'The Corner' or 'The Little Corner' - a popular name for homes (as well as bars, restaurants - anything on a corner) at the time.

There is also a banner across the railings in front of the building which reads 'Houses and Grounds/Land For Sale' in Dutch and French (a standard linguistic convention in Belgium).

I always found this photo intriguing. Something has happened to the building - it's in a bad way and whatever its fate was, it clearly interesting enough to be snapped by my grandfather or one of his companions.

I decided to ask the internet for help, specifically that depository of wisdom, knowledge and animated puppy gifs, Reddit.

Redditors quickly confirmed that this was indeed taken in Belgium, and soon the location was confirmed as the town of Blankenberge, a small seaside town just north of Bruges. Sure enough, pretty quickly, a Reddit user had trawled the main coastal area of the town using Google Street View and discovered that not only did the building still exist, it still had that original wrought iron 't Hoekje' sign!


Amazing! The sign, the tiles, the balcony - all still there. Here's a Google Maps link.

And here's an aerial shot, with the corner house circled in red, showing how close it is to the seaside.


I was awestruck how quickly this little mystery was solved and how far people went to find out extra bits of interesting info - someone who actually lives opposite the house joined the discussion, telling me that the residence was taken over after the War by a family who have used it as a holiday home ever since.

I decided to email the local archivist in Blankenberge. He confirmed that the photo shows retaliation by locals against the wartime inhabitants of the house, who were committed members of the Flemish Nationalist Alliance (VNV), the right-wing Flemish nationalist movement during the War. Their aim was to separate the Flanders region from Belgium, and they collaborated with the Nazi parties and the persecution of Jews in Belgium.

By August 1945 the house had new owners - which suggests the photo was taken between liberation of Blankenberge on 9 September 1944 and the time the new owners moved in.

I'm trying to find out how common this kind of collaboration was in Belgium at the time - were the owners of this house unusual in their support of the party? Were many more people implicated - and so was the whole town ransacked like 'the corner' house? In the 1939 election, they garnered 15% of the Flemish vote and quickly worked alongside the Nazis after the invasion in 1940. The former fishing port is close to larger centres such as Bruges and Ostend, and not far from the French border - a key battle zone in the latter part of the War.

So how did my Grandad end up in Belgium, possibly even taking a photo of this house being emptied?

The (very helpful) town archivist sent me a scan of a town record book with correspondence between the town Officials and a Wing Commander Stewart Mackenzie of the RAF. I'd love to work out if my Grandad served under him.

In the correspondence, the Council profusely thank the Wing Commander and his team for their assistance in restoring the seaside town to its former glory:

'When on October 5th 1944 you came for the first time to Blankenberge we little knew or thought what a blessing this visit would mean for our town.
We had just passed through the glorious days of the liberation and were enjoying fully our beloved freedom for which we had been longing for many years.
Yet there was a shadow to this happy picture. What was our future to be? Our beach promenade, streets and buildings were blocked with mines, and bristling with booby traps, obstructions, barbed wire and so on - even the sea was perilous for fishing and bathing.
Would it be possible to remove all these dangers, repair the ruins, make the town safe and give us hopes of a summer season in 1945?
And if it were possible, who was the Magician to do it?
Those were the questions we were asking ourselves before your arrival. Then YOU came, and that was the answer.'

This shot from 1944 shows the state of the seafront - looking substantially more bombed out - presumably just after the liberation. By 1945, it looked like this - the prominence of the NAAFI building suggests the high density of troops stationed in the town. Here's a sign saying that, though the beach has been swept for mines, there's still a possibility of some being around. It seems clear that by the summer of 1945, the town was well on the way to recovery after German occupation, with a great deal of help from the Allied airmen.

It seems the RAF did sterling work in helping the town restore itself in time for the summer season of 1945:
'One of your first decisions was to provide us with the necessary transport to carry provisions and coal for the population, a gesture which won you the sympathy of us all. Then you began the demining of the promenade, squares and streets, harbour and beach, and whole blocks of houses, which enabled the evacuees to return to their homes.'
Not to mention cheering up the town after a hellish few years under Occupation:
'Not only have you taken care of our material interests, but you haveshown the deep kindness you feel for the little ones in organising for them numerous festivities, Christmas trees, children's paties and so on, which filled their little hearts with delight and gratitude for their 'English father'.'
The Wing Commander was awarded the Freedom of the City. In his reply to the Councillors, it's clear how close the airmen had grown to their temporary home (perhaps a little too close!)...
'Little did I realise on October 5th 1944, when I first arrived in your town that so much should have been accomplished. War was being fought at your doorstep and conditions in the town were bad..
From that day a friendship between the Town Officials and the Members of my Unit has been on a solid foundation. Your townspeople have been more than kind to Members of the Royal Air Force - even to the extent that you have in some instances allowed some of your fair ladies to be taken from you in matrimony.
I have another regret and that is we cannot stay with you for always. The day when we must leave Blankenberge is not far away and when that does come, we shall all be sorry. You may, however; rest assured that when we do leave, we shall carry away in our hearts, warm regard for all your great kindnesses.
Memories will be long and cherished and promises to return and see you again will be honourably fulfilled.'
It seems like this little Flemish town made quite an impression on the British men who went there to help restore it after a very difficult time - if my Grandad's work was appreciated quite as much as that of Wing Commander Mackenzie clearly was, I'm very proud. And it's incredible that, 70 years later, I can still find clues about my own family's history with a bit of online digging.


I have quite a few other photos from my Grandad's collection, including the one below, which the archivist confirmed wasn't Blankenberge. It's possible my Grandad traveled around a bit so this could be a different town, which, by now, probably looks very different. Maybe somebody out there can recognise it...



Thursday, 13 August 2015

'Fortune Smiles' - short stories by Adam Johnson

I hadn't read any of Adam Johnson's previous work, but his Pulitzer-winning The Orphan Master's Son, set in North Korea, has long been on my list. I was given a copy of Fortune Smiles, his new short story collection, and devoured it across a couple of long train journeys.

It's brilliant and unsettling - each of the six stories plunges the reader so artfully into a new and intricately-structured world that it feels sad when we abruptly leave them, having become so quickly and briefly invested in the characters and their impossible plights.

My favourite was George Orwell Was A Friend of Mine, in which a former Stasi prison guard is forced to reconsider his role in the regime when a series of his own missing belongings start turning up on his doorstep. Either seriously in denial or seriously misled about his duties in the jail, he is suddenly thrust back inside the 'house of horrors' he meticulously ran for years.

With echoes of novel by David Mitchell, the stories don't quite overlap but present the unnerving feeling that they are somehow linked or set in the same world -  I kept waiting for someone from a previous story to turn up three stories later. Saying that, two of the stories are linked in a clever and satisfying way, and the mind-bending opening tale - Nirvana - could easily take place five years into any of our futures.

I loved this book. I've downloaded The Orphan Master's Son and hope Johnson has more short stories up his sleeve.

Fortune Smiles is out on 18th August.



Friday, 17 July 2015

'Slade House', David Mitchell's new novel

The author David Mitchell has slowly been creating a new universe.

Cloud Atlas has long been my favourite novel - it's an ingeniously-constructed, sweeping tale set across continents and centuries with such intricately planned character development and story-telling that I was convinced the author must be a genius. Since then, David Mitchell's stories have all told very different stories but introduced the pegs of what (I hope) will become some kind of future meganovel - characters cross over in minor and major ways, familiar locations are mentioned then tossed away, and an unusually specific sense of a different, familiar world is developing.

There's a thrill in reading these stories and triggering a memory of a previously met character or location - and a sense of reward when you start to tie up loose ends from other stories and join everything up in your mind. There's also a joy in these stories, which casually span dimensions and time, being firmly grounded in extremely familiar territory - his most recent novel The Bone Clocks kicks off in England in the early 80s; similarly the territory in his new book Slade House will be instantly familiar to Brits.



I managed to get my grubby hands on a proof copy of Slade House, which is based on the Twitter story that Mitchell published last year and builds on the same universe created in Cloud Atlas and fully fleshed out in The Bone Clocks (with cameos, of course, from characters in The Thousand of Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and probably others).

It's a slim story - almost like an extended Bone Clocks epilogue - but grabs you and pulls you in, and before you know it, it's over - but it's a great ride.

In the right conditions, every nine years, a tiny metal gate appears on Slade Alley (just round the corner from The Fox and Hounds pub) which can only be opened by a select few - the Right Sort, as the tweeted version of this story was called. What - and who - lurks behind the gate will be pleasingly recognisable by those who have devoured the much-longer The Bone Clocks, but will be equally fascinating to those who haven't dipped their toes into Mitchell's world. And that's the joy of his stories - you don't have to be in the know to like them and be gripped by them, but the true reward comes from delving in and fully exploring this wildly twisting universe he's creating - a universe that's grounded so firmly in our own and yet which takes us so far away from our normal lives.

When's the next one out?



Slade House is released in October.




Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A snowy trip to New York City and Boston

Our trip to New York and Boston earlier this year came at a pretty chaotic time - flights were being cancelled and rescheduled all over the place due to major snowstorms all along the east coast, and ours was one of the few to leave relatively on-time.



I've stayed at Pod 51 a couple of times - it's basic and getting a bit frayed round the edges, but for somewhere central and cheap to stay, it's ideal. The rooms are basic and some have shared bathroom facilities, but if you really only need somewhere to crash after a busy day, it's fine. We'd previously stayed at the Edison and the Wellington which were around the same price range but poky and dated - next time I'd investigate staying outside of Manhattan, but if you're new to NYC or want to be near the obvious attractions, the Pod is great.

Another benefit is the amount of great bars and eateries in the area. Just a moment round the corner is The Smith, which is a great place for breakfast, and Blockheads Burritos who serve the best Mexican food (and frozen margaritas) I've had in years.

This was my fourth time in New York City so I was fairly familiar with the neighbourhoods fit together, but previously I've taken various great walking and bike tours which give you a great sense of where you are and how each area of town slots together. My favourite was the Brooklyn Bike Tour by Get Up and Ride, which zips you all over Brooklyn with plenty of stops for photos, snacks and trivia from a local guide. It's a really different way to spend a morning and a unique way to see this great part of the city. Another highlight was a free walking tour of Harlem, an area I'd never considered visiting but turned out to be fascinating, particularly as a social history nerd. It's free - just tip the guide at the end.



Back to Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Flea has found a new location at 1000 Dean Street. I love this place. Not quite as visually impressive as the former Williamsburg Bank where it was sited the last time I paid a visit, but the new location provides a vast amount of space for hundreds of stalls of handmade items, antiques, furniture and food and drink. There are plenty of unique souvenirs to be had - I met a favourite illustrator, Claudia Pearson, and came away with one of her great Brooklyn Brownstone prints, You could easily spend most of a day here.

Take some time, while you're in the area, to wander the streets of Park Slope and up to Williamsburg. There are so many great little shops and bars - and the atmosphere is so much calmer than Manhattan - that it's worth dedicating at least a day to exploring. For food, check out Sea Thai and the appropriately named Best Pizza, both in Williamsburg.

Back to Manhattan, and no trip to NYC would be complete without a trip to Marie's Crisis Cafe, which I'm slightly reluctant to tell you about lest it become suddenly too busy to take away its charm. Be warned - if crowds of people singing show-tunes en masse isn't your thing, stay away. If you like an unpredictable night with the booze flowing, you'll enjoy. Nearby is The Little Owl, a great, tiny restaurant (make a reservation and try the sliders) and the famous Stonewall Inn, the site of the riots which kicked off a sea-change in LBGT rights.



This was a brief trip to New York, but my list of favourite places to visit in the city has expanded again. Other places I'd recommend include:
- Five Napkin Burger and Dinosaur BBQ - some of the biggest, juiciest, meatiest burgers you'll ever have.
- The High Line (above) is a great, atmospheric walk along a disused railway line which is now a high-level park, winding around the Manhattan skyscrapers.
- 230 Fifth serves great cocktails on the roof of a skyscraper looking downtown over the Empire State Building. Grab a blanket and enjoy the views as the sun sets.



So off we went to Boston. Narrowly avoiding a long list of cancelled trains courtesy of the snow, we luckily boarded the Amtrak at Penn Station and set off on the beautifully scenic route to Back Bay station in Boston. The journey really is stunning, and takes you right along the coastline through a series of beautiful seaside towns. Sit on the right-hand side of the train for the best views. American trains are great - they're less fussy than their British counterparts and zoom along to their destination with no messing about.



We arrived in Boston in the midst of a blizzard, accepting it wouldn't be the most action-packed holiday (as everything was pretty much closed) but also quite happy that we basically had the snowy streets of the city to ourselves. We checked in at Hotel 140, which is perfectly located for the station and watched the slightly eerie sight of the town being silently snowed in.

Wrapped in several layers, we explored nearby Boston Common (again, beautiful in the snow) and prepared for an event that generally passes most Brits by - the Super Bowl! The local team New England Patriots were playing - the promised crowds in bars were pretty thin as everyone was watching at home in the warm, but there was a fun atmosphere nonetheless and it was exciting when the Patriots won. No idea what was going on, but Go Patriots!



Next day, more snow, and a great walking tour with a brilliant local chap called Alan who had braved the slush to meet us (and only us) for a wander along the famous Freedom Trail, taking in all of the historical landmarks concentrated in the city centre - and there are many. The most interesting part for me was the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill - tightly packed rows of houses which had rocketed in value over the years, made all the more picturesque by the weather. We essentially skated our way around!

A couple of hours and a pair of replacement boots later and we headed over to Harvard. Harvard is set in Cambridge, just north of the city, and really feels like a mini version of its British namesake. The college gates are open and you're free to wander the beautiful campus and wonder how it must feel to actually study there. The students had also created a gigantic snow mound for an impromptu sledging session.

Next, we headed south to the Samuel Adams brewery. The tour is free and really interesting, although it essentially takes place on a set as very little beer is actually brewed here. The guides are enthusiastic and really like their beer, and there are plenty of samples to be had. You even get to keep the souvenir glass. Worth taking the short subway trip to visit.

We finished the day with a great meal at the Atlantic Fish Company, close to the Boston Marathon finish line.

Next day, we woke up to discover even more snow had fallen. Icicles draped along the top of our window and the ground floor windows of the hotel were almost totally covered. Faces smothered under several scarves, we set out on to the deserted roads to find breakfast. Very few people were out on the roads, other than a few brave workers with snow shovels trying to clear routes. The snow drifts were so high that we had to walk through high-walled valleys that had been carved through them - definitely the most snow we'd ever seen. We eventually found great, cheap breakfast at Thorntons, who served up the biggest plate of eggs known to man as giant clumps of snow slowly slid off the roof.

We decided to take an impromptu trip to Salem, around 20 minutes away by train. A slightly risky plan, given the weather and the fact trains were being cancelled left, right and centre, but we were both keen to go and take a look at the infamous town. Reminded several times that everything would be deserted and everything closed, we threw caution to the wind and headed off. The town was indeed deserted and everything was indeed closed, but it was great. We had the entire place to ourselves and, despite the snow whipping our faces, Salem was a very picturesque spot. We didn't miss much along the main street - mainly witchy gift shops - and we eventually found somewhere open! Trampling ice into the beautiful Hawthorne Hotel, we warmed up with soup and wine in their restaurant, the Tavern on the Green, by a very welcoming roaring fire.



Luckily we managed to catch a train back to Boston before the lines were closed down and we settled into a neighbourhood bar with a giant glass of Samuel Adams before our late flight which, despite the apocalyptic weather conditions, departed on time.

Overall, a fantastic and fun trip to Boston and a great return to New York. I'd definitely love to revisit Boston and the surrounding area in nicer weather with more to do, but the snow really did provide a beautiful backdrop to explore a city packed with interesting history.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

My probably-too-honest first timers' review of Glastonbury 2015

There's a point where you're standing in a puddle - staring at an overflowing trough of piss and abandoned cider cups whilst wondering what that missed call from your mortgage advisor was about - when you start to wonder if you might be a bit old for this sort of thing.

This was my first Glastonbury, and I'll happily admit I'd been nervous. I like a nice comfy bed, a warm shower and a building with walls to go inside when a biblical-level weather event occurs. I'd been to festivals before. Well, a festival. Latitude. Which was basically Hampstead transposed entirely to a field in Norfolk. They may as well open a Little Waitrose there. So yes, I was anxious about attending the Ultimate Festival.

I thought I was well prepared for Glasto. I'd read all the 'what to take lists'. I'd contemplated all the articles about how to stay stylish in the inevitable mudbath, Kate Moss-esque. I'd ordered nine personal urinal devices and a neon bumbag from Amazon. I had scoured the programme and worked out who I wanted to go and see. I had huge plans to find the cinema showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at 2.55am one morning. I had a mattress thing that inflated by itself. I had assembled wellies and big rucksacks and sleeping bags from a variety of outdoorsy friends. But I was not prepared.

Glastonbury is overwhelming - the size, the scale, the noise, the crowds. It's incredible, it's emotional, it's awe-inspiring and, honestly, it can be pretty tough at times. You'll walk miles and you'll get soaked to the skin and you'll wake up hot and hungover every morning, sometimes even in your own tent.

You first glimpse this temporary city over farmhouse roofs and betwixt garden hedges as you wind along rural roads, wondering what on earth people who live round here must think of it all as the millionth National Express coach troops past their humble abode. You start to understand as you stand in a giant queue while a potentially-stoned man carefully matches your face to the one on your ticket.

But you can't fully comprehend the scale until you get inside and up high - standing by the Strummerville area up on the hill and looking across the entire site as the sun sets is genuinely awe-inspiring. There are more people in this valley for the weekend than live in the city I was born in. There's enough food and drink to cater for a small country. There are a hundred stages, hospitals, universities, people making things, people getting married, a bloody newspaper press, people getting drunk and people having the time of their lives, everywhere you look.

We'd opted for the posh package and paid extra for a pre-erected tent ('You're glamping?', asked incredulous Glasto regulars before departing - not quite: we weren't even in a yurt, darling) in Worthy View, the campsite just outside the main festival arena which had a slightly calmer ambience for those who aren't so keen to pitch up next to the Pyramid Stage (which is kind of possible - unlike most festivals, you camp basically anywhere). Although our tent was still full of rain when we arrived, because after all it was, you know, outdoors.


Worthy View is up a hill (the ominously-named Hill of Hell) which isn't too bad to descend but a bit of a killer to contemplate climbing at 3am. But - what a view. It was from the Hill O' Hell, tramping down excitedly to the Park Stage to meet our friend (dressed as a king and celebrating his 30th, obviously) that we first took in the whole thing.



The good bits?

The atmosphere is electric. It can't not be, with over a hundred thousand people leaping around having the time of their lives. There's a sense of community, a shared desire to abandon our usual office-based lives and absorb ourselves in this new world for a long weekend.

Booze - you can take your own. We did. You know those boxes of white wine? Take the cardboard off, stick it in the freezer - next day you have three bottles' worth of the deliciously chilled nectar to carry about with you. Top tip for you there. Pour a bottle of Smirniff into a litre Coke bottle. Take what you like! Take plastic cups though. If you don't, there's a bar under every tree and in every corner.

Food - there is anything you could ever want. You want crumpets at 4am? Fine. Lemon meringue pie in the rain? Sure. Get in the queue*.

The entertainment. Where to begin? Where else can you see that much stuff? Abandon the map - we tried to find something specific for about an hour but instead ended up spending a not-inconsiderable-session dancing by an ice-cream van to a Yiddish jazz quartet.

Plan to see one or two things a day and then let the Festival sweep you away. My favourite experience was choosing a stage and staying put for several hours - moving only to fetch more cider or partake in the fabled Glastonbury Toilet Experience - and taking in everything that appeared on stage and all around you. Or stumbling into a marquee and listening to a newly discovered singer, or dashing to a nightclub and donning a sticky moustache donated by a drag queen because you just heard a rumour that Bananarama were playing a secret gig inside (lies!). Boy George with Mark Ronson? Amazing. Mary J Blige doing angry squats in stiletto heels to 'No More Drama' in the pissing rain? Unforgettable!


The hard bits?

You are at the mercy of the weather. We had two days of glorious sunshine (hello my friend Factor 50) punctuated with a few hours of rain - but that brief storm combined with thousands of plodding feet churns up the ground, so prolonged rain leads to instant mud [I've been rightly admonished by a survivor of 2007 that this year's storm can't be described as creating anything close to a mudbath].
So, take wellies. I felt my spirits plummet as the rain dribbled under the hood of my flimsy binliner-chic poncho and down my back whilst my halloumi wrap slowly disintegrated in my wrinkled hand. But, of course, like a vision, the clouds moved on and the sun came out again and on we danced.

*Queues. There are more people here than in bloody Oxford, and unlike the good people of Oxford, Glasto citizens all want to do the same thing at the same time, so you'll just have to wait. When an act ends on a main stage, all of those people want to get to the next stage. You'll probably queue to get in the place to start with. You'll certainly queue to get out. You'll queue in your car, or your bus, or at the train station, you'll queue for breakfast, and you'll queue for the loo. Get used to queues. Make friends.

Tiredness. You'll get tired. Even when you finally want to sleep, someone will be having an impromptu rave about a metre from your head with only a sheet of canvas for protection.

The bloody ticket buying admin. Short of hiring a factory of helpers to do this step for you in the style of Veruca Salt trying to find Wonka's golden ticket, all you can do is prepare to battle with the TicketDemons through several rounds of online chaos to buy tickets in the first round. Then your inevitably jealous ticketless mates will need your help in the impromptu resales every month thereafter.

Anyway, I'm so glad I went to Glastonbury. I came home exhausted and filthy and desperately craving broccoli but I had an amazing time with friends that I won't forget in a hurry. I'm not convinced it changed my life or made me a lifelong Glasto junkie, but it was definitely one of those things that everybody should do at least once.

Will I go back? Ask me next year. If I don't? I'll be watching the highlights on telly. In a warm bed. Near a toilet. With no queues. Possibly wearing a poncho, for atmosphere.



Finally, here are my GLASTO TOP TIPS!

  • Take booze in the lightest form you can. Distill it into plastic containers. Frozen white wine stays cold for ages! Take empty bottles so you can carry it round a bit at a time. 
  • Even if next June looks set to be hotter than the Sahara, take all the waterproof gear you can get hold of, because one downpour turns the ground to liquid which gets churned up for the rest of the weekend. Wellies and a raincoat with a hood are a minimum. 
  • Wet wipes and hand sanitiser. Just take them. Honestly.
  • Buy a £14 Nokia phone off Amazon. Mine lasted the whole five days. You probably won't be arsed to faff about with chargers, the internet signal is crap anyway, and you'll probably drop it into some mud or worse.
  • Don't take more stuff than you need. You don't need six complete outfit changes. You will soon start to smell anyway, as will everyone else. Wet wipes, my friend.
  • Eye mask, ear plugs, mini torch, bin bags to sit on. Those little personal packets of tissues.
  • Don't plan a full itinerary for the whole festival. Pick one or two things you want to see each day, with at least an hour between them, and see what happens.
  • If you're going on a bus, take snacks. You could be on it for some time. And leave early on your last day, because everyone else is going in the same direction. The shuttle buses between Worthy View and the coach park are basically an urban legend so just walk.
  • Don't buy stuff unless you'll use it again - there were so many abandoned tents and sleeping bags - the rumour they all get collected for charity isn't true and it's a massive waste. Borrow stuff or stay in Worthy View.
  • Seriously though, Worthy View is a good option if you want to have somewhere a little bit removed from the madness - it's a bit less chaotic, there are toilets that get cleaned regularly, and there's even a bar, cafe and shop. We didn't drive but it does have its own car park which is handy if you bring lots of heavy stuff in the car (i.e. alcohol),
  • Invest in a bumbag. Seriously. I'm considering wearing one in my day-to-day life.


Thursday, 2 July 2015

Some thoughts on Tunisia

In November we spent a week at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Port el Kantaoui, Tunisia - it's an unashamedly tourist-aimed hotel catering to the all-inclusive market, and we were after a cheap holiday to have a break from work. The hotel is great, and the staff some of the friendliest you could meet (looking at you, Latifah the friendly waitress who always brought us two cocktails each rather than one).


Last week the hotel became well-known for the wrong reasons when an ISIS gunman shot and killed upwards of 30 on the hotel's beach and around the gardens - mostly British tourists enjoying a precious, trouble-free break just like we did. This was not the far-away, hostile place you imagine this kind of unprovoked attack taking place. It was a safe, fun, relaxing resort. Being able to clearly visualise the path taken by that gunman is really haunting. Imagining tourists like us - and families like my own - in his path is devastating.

We usually cram as much as we can into holidays, dashing around crowded cities and manically flicking through guide books to get as much done as possible. Tunisia was different - we deliberately picked a hotel where we had to do as little as possible and do whatever we wanted, at our own pace.

The town of Port el Kantaoui is essentially built to serve the needs of the tourists who go there - restaurants, bars, souvenir shops. But the locals rely on this trade to live their lives. And not much further afield there are beautiful ancient sites - El Djem Colosseum is one of the most incredible places I've visited, for example. The tour guides who took us there, and the locals we met in towns, farms and museums along the way, spoke passionately about the region - in the run up to the election, they were keen to explain why they were excited to vote for the chance to start making their country one of the best in the world.





This was a pointless and tragic attack. Attention now is rightly on the families of those who died. But I hope for the sake of the many friendly, welcoming people we met in that hotel and the surrounding area that people continue to visit and experience the incredible, picturesque sights of a beautiful, historic and embracing country.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

I recently found my first theatre ticket

I recently found my first theatre ticket.



It was the first time I'd been to London, the first time I'd stepped in a West End theatre (in fact, any theatre, other than for my annual birthday trip to the panto). And it blew me away. So much so, I became a little bit obsessed, and have been hundreds of times since.

I'd seen the cast of Oliver! performing on Blue Peter and told my parents I'd love to see it 'in real life'. Living 300 miles away, there seemed little chance. A year or so later. we went on a weekend trip to glittering London. Walking past the impossibly glamorous Palladium, I recall my parents pointing it out and saying 'Let's just take a look inside' and dragging me into the marble foyer under the pretense of being ignorant tourists from up north. Clearly a stickler for the sanctity of front-of-house rules from an early age, I pulled back, aghast, but I was led further and further into the inner sanctuary of the theatre by my grinning parents until I found myself sitting on the front row of the stalls as the overture piped up, programme in hand.

That production of Oliver! was a great one, directed by future megastar Sam Mendes (whose work I have ever-since admired - his Cabaret is probably still my favourite theatre experience) and starring Robert Lyndsay as a particularly gurning Fagin, who won an Olivier for the role. A young Eddie Redmayne was in the chorus of workshop kids.

Oliver! on Blue Peter

It obviously set something off in me -  an over-keen involvement in school plays, then dipping my toe into directing at uni and then managing the university theatre, I've worked in the industry ever since, and it was a major factor in my decision to base myself in London. Rarely a week goes by without one or two theatre trips. That production of Oliver! was revived a few years ago at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane; when someone offered me a ticket my face lit up, and I grinned from beginning to end.

Restricted view seat A2 in the Stalls at the Palladium is now around the £60 mark (and sadly, once you'd acquired it, you'd have to watch Cats).

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Curse of Lebara and Lycamobile

I get irrationally enraged about stupid things. Today's target: LEBARA MOBILE. And its evil, grinning brother, LYCAMOBILE.

These two pale blue plasticky upstarts seemingly arrived on our shores at some point over the last few years and - like those swarms of insects that destroy entire valleys of crops in a fatal, single sweep - have decided to take over our great nation via an unusual route: SHOP SIGNS.

Generic Lebara shop

I don't own a corner shop, but if I did I'd assume I would have been approached by one of the above with an suitcase full o'cash to completely PLASTER the front of it with SWATHES of blue plastic mobile phone signs. My local purveyor of Pringles and Diet Coke, the illustrious DJ'z on Queen's Road, has fallen foul of a particularly unattractive festoon of the evil blue signs and the nice chap who runs it even sellotapes rogue Lycamobile posters all along the walls AROUND the shop, too. Does he get cash for every SIM card he shifts? As for the ever-glam Old Kent Road, it's now basically a mile long Lebara/Lycamobile billboard.

Generic LycaShop

How does this even happen? Do competing reps from each company sniff out likely targets before surreptitiously replacing all the signage overnight? Do they target shops with particularly shit signs who can't fail to be impressed by those provided by their new shiny blue overlords?

I mean! Look at the official Lycamobile mascot:

Arghh!


ABSOLUTELY HORRIFYING! HORRENDOUS! It's a man with a GLOBE for a HEAD. This earth-headed phone-beast is coming in the night to replace your beautiful Victorian shopfront with eye-bleeding turquoise fascias.

GlobeFace maps out his world domination route on his own face

He sees you when you're sleeping! He knows when you're awake!

The Phone Demon even exists in REAL LIFE! Here he is attending some kind of event alongside three terrified human beings - they're afraid to say anything in case their homes are mysteriously papered with mobile network adverts in the night. He actually has a gun pressed into that lady's back:

Please don't kill me.

And here's a rare shot of Dark Lord GlobeHead trying to STEAL and possibly CONSUME A CHILD:


Bloody awful.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The ultimate Eurovision drinking game™

Dissatisfied with other generic Eurovision drinking games online, and after many years of market-testing my own rules, I am satisfied that I have created the ultimate version and am delighted to pass on the rules to you, my fellow drunken Europop aficionados.

You will need:
- A TV, broadcasting the Eurovision Song Contest
- Booze, of your choice
- Optional national dress
- Scorecards, with a line for each country and a space to award marks out of ten for performance quality, catchiness, lyrical genius, costume/props and Eurovision spirit.





Have a drink when any of the following take place. I have helpfully divided the occurrences up into likely categories.


Performances
  • Pyrotechnics
  • Key change
  • Use of national dress
  • Actual words replaced with ‘doo doo’, ‘la la’ etc.
  • Performer drops to knees as part of routine
  • Performer includes a fist of pure emotion
  • Performer makes peace sign
  • Performers wear all-white costumes
  • Complicated love metaphor lost in translation in song lyrics
  • Animals *
  • Doves released *
  • Excessive dry ice
  • Twins
  • Wind machine
  • Eurohunk dancers
  • Interpretative solo or group dance
  • A-capella bridge accompanied by clapping
  • Wink to camera
  • Language changes mid-performance
  • Item of clothing ripped off during performance (intentional or otherwise)
  • Low-quality burlesque
  • Rapping
  • Yodelling
  • A gong
  • Convoluted message about world peace
  • Religious/historical iconography 
  • Overly technical projections
  • Lead singer's vocals either performed or supplemented by semi-hidden backing singer
  • Camera operator clearly trips/falls over
Hosts & Commentators
  • ‘Knowing’ remark about a nation not really being part of Europe
  • Flirtatious banter between hosts
  • Hosts sing
  • Female hostess changes costume
Results
  • Nil points for the UK
  • A country gives 12 points to a neighbour
  • Technical problem or sound delay during voting
  • Quick cut to low-scoring act in green room; performer shrugs at camera
  • National judge congratulates the hosts on an excellent show
  • National judge makes awkward joke reciprocated with little to no laughter from hosts
  • Hosts attempt to get national judge to speed up
  • Dry/sarcastic exchange between female host and national judge implying previous dispute
  • Surprise minor celebrity delivering a national result
  • Blatant use of CGI background displaying national heritage site (double drinks if the background fails to appear)
  • Previous contestant returns to deliver a nation's scores
  • The news is delayed due to the show massively over-running
At any stage
  • Politically-charged booing
  • 'Lost in translation' moment
  • Mild racism from any stakeholder



From your scorecard...
Add up your scores to pick your winner before the results are announced. If they win the actual contest, you win a bottle of booze. Or something.


*A wise Eurofriend has advised me that animals (including doves) are not permitted on stage. So there you go.



Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A week in Croatia - Split & Dubrovnik

In April we spent a week in beautiful Croatia, driving from Dubrovnik Airport to Split and back to Dubrovnik, staying a few days in each and stopping at a few places along the stunning coastal route.

I thought it would be worth writing down our itinerary for anybody else planning the same trip. It's highly recommended.

Day 1 - Dubrovnik Airport to Split

We'd decided to fly into Dubrovnik and pick up a car before driving along the coastal road to Split (the D8).

The route is ridiculously picturesque. You trail the coastline for almost the whole journey (although we took an accidental diversion through some mountains and paid a small toll to use a stretch of the new motorway, which may be a faster option if you've seen it all before). Winding your way along the mountain edges and turning the corner to see Dubrovnik's Old Town for the first time will be something I always remember. There are plenty of official and unofficial stopping points along the way, and I have thousands of photos of the sparkling turquoise sea and rolling hills to show lucky friends and family members for months.

I stitched a few clips together to give you a sense of the incredible coastline scenery:


We were lucky to be in Croatia at a great time - the final week of April, which ended in a public holiday on May 1, apparently marking the start of the peak tourist season. So the roads were pretty quiet and we zoomed along in our little hatchback.





Views from the road

The drive includes an unusual but brief crossing through Bosnia & Herzegovina - the result of a curious and historical border dispute whereby Bosnia retains a 15 mile-odd stretch of access to the coastline slap-bang in the middle of the Croatian countryside containing the small seaside resort of Neum. Stern-looking border police checked our passports entering and exiting the territory, which looked no different to the rest of the drive, but is stubbornly guarded by Bosnia all the same.

Before leaving, we'd found it hard to find a definitive answer to what would be needed to cross the border - but it turned out that only our passports were checked. The car hire company had supplied a 'green card' which extends our insurance cover for the passage, but we'd probably have had to pay further cross-border fees if we'd ventured off the Neum stretch (or into Montenegro the other way, which is close to Dubrovnik) or if we hadn't been in a locally registered car. It took only a few seconds to check our passports, but I'm told the whole process can take a lot longer during the summer season when rows of coach passengers all have to be individually checked.

We stopped briefly for lunch in the small town of Omis (more on that on the way back) before arriving in the early evening in Split. 

Split is beautiful, and far less 'touristy' than Dubrovnik. It's very compact and most of the Old Town is encased within the towering walls of Diocletian's Palace, named after the Roman emperor who settled here. The central Peristil Square is tiny compared with other European centres, and bordered with beautiful buildings from almost every century of the last 800 years (including a slightly less beautiful one from 1980) including the Cathedral of St Dominus. Drinking a glass of wine in the square in the evening, with quiet acoustic music playing and the cathedral lit by the moon, was one of my favourite moments of the week. It was easy to picture the thousands of people who must have done the same thing since the Romans turned up. Tiny streets and alleys snake off the central square, some barely wide enough for two people, each containing some brilliant quirky bars and shops.




In the evening we had a great meal at Dvor, outside the Old Town - the food was incredible, the view even more so. It's on a hill above the beach with great views of the sea if you sit outside. Two great three-course meals and a bottle of nice Croatian wine came to less than £60, and I'd love to eat there again one day: it was a great introduction to Croatia.

The beach at Split

Day 2: Split

I always think a guided tour of a new city is a good way to get a feel for the place. We chose one by Split Walking Tours which essentially turned into a private tour - we were the only two people on it, although the numbers rapidly go up as the peak season kicks in. It covered the entire Old Town in 90 minutes and gives a comprehensive history of the city. Our relentlessly chirpy guide gave us some great tips and drummed into us the differences between a Gothic and Renaissance window. The tour explained lots of the interesting quirks of a city built in stages by various civilisations, taking in both the above-ground buildings and the unusual substructures. Despite being a world heritage site, the Old Town is very much a living and working city and residents are responsible for the upkeep of their ancient apartments. I've never seen Game of Thrones, but our guide pointed out the various obscure corners and courtyards where filming had taken place for the upcoming series. It seems the show has been invaluable for Croatia, and Thrones tours and merchandise shops were springing up all over the place.


 


We bought a good value combined ticket that offers entry into the small cathedral, the treasury and the unusual Temple of Jupiter, which are all worth a look. The ticket also lets you climb the Bell Tower of the cathedral for great views. But be warned - it's windy up there, and it involves a climb up some terrifyingly shaky stairs.

Imagine my horrified delight when we stumbled on the frankly bizarre Froggyland - 507 stuffed frogs delicately placed in various everyday poses a century ago by a man with presumably nothing else to do. Anyone who knows me will know I can't resist throwing my money at niche tourist experiences, so I hurriedly paid the price of admission and spent a good 15 minutes admiring the fact that this place actually existed and wondering what the lady on the ticket desk put on her CV. I resisted the urge to buy a mug.

Bloody frogs
There's a small but fun flea market outside the Golden Gate (each of the four city gates is named after a metal) which is worth a look, and we also had a couple of drinks in Paradox, which serves great local wine and cheese combinations.

We were a bit disappointed by an evening meal in the overpriced Paradigma - the weather had cooled down so we missed out on the chance to sit on their much-talked-about roof terrace, so ended up in the main restaurant which had all the ambience of a 90s leisure centre cafe, but sadly not the prices to match. The food was decent enough, albeit of the 'stamp-sized portion with a few colourful blobs of sauce' school of fine dining, but the food wasn't a patch on Dvor from the previous night.

We rounded off a the evening with a few drinks at Figa, which is part of a small strip of bars in the Old Town, before a storm decided it was time for bed.

Day 3: Klis, Trogir and Split


Klis was probably the highlight of my trip. It's an extraordinary medieval mountain-top fortress just north of Split which sits above a tiny village of the same name. Over its two thousand years history overlooking a stunning mountain pass it has been lost and won, occupied by kings and queens and found itself under siege plenty of times.

We wandered around the fortress for an hour and didn't see another person until we left, when a surprised looking man appeared from a door in the side of a stone office. There are labyrinths of stone corridors, towering walls to clambour all over, and acres of flowery grassland. Most surprising of all, we opened a door to find a tiny chapel at the peak. In the summer, this place is apparently much busier and there is a small museum of armour and weapons, but there was no sign of life in April, which made the experience all the more interesting. The views across the mountains to the sea are fantastic, and you're basically left to your own devices to explore. Game of Thrones was filming here recently, so expect it to become part of the tourist trail very soon. 





Klis
Next we drove to the small walled town of Trogir, which is like a miniature version of Split, with a beautiful harbour and lots of small, quaint shops and restaurants. We had a great lunch at Konoba Trs, which is set in the tiny courtyard of a 13th century house and sheltered by vine leaves. We both had the signature dish of lamb stuffed with prosciutto and swiss chard, which was delicious.

 

Trogir

Armed with an ice cream we headed for the harbour and had (another) glass of wine watching the tour-boat hawkers set up their stalls ready for the impending tourist rush later in the week.

Back to Split, and in the evening we ate at a local neighbourhood restaurant, the unpronouncable Ostarija u Vidakovi. They served giant portions of traditional Croatian food (a starter salad was about twice the size of one you'd expect as a main course) and there seemed to be plenty of locals there, so I presume it's pretty authentic.

We headed back into the Old Town and rounded off our time in Split with drinks in hand, listening to a guitarist called Dale playing music in Peristil Square. One of the restaurants puts out cushions and tray tables and serves drinks all around the small square, which is a perfect way to end a few days in the town.

Drinks in Peristil Square
Day 4: Omis, Makarska, Dubrovnik

Leaving Split, we headed back to Omis on the recommendation of our tour guide to seek out the statue of the Croatian folk heroine Mila Gojsalić. Omis itself is a lovely little town with a scenic harbour and a tiny, winding Old Town area, but it's surrounded by leafy hills. We asked directions from a handy information centre (just off the harbour) and headed off into the mountains with a scribbled road map in search of the famous statue, which we'd been promised looked over a staggering view. And indeed it was - probably the best view of the trip (and, let's face it, everywhere we looked there was another incredible view).


Mila and her view

The statue is by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, who also created the giant wizard-looking statue outside the Golden Gate in Split. To find it, drive out of Omis following signs to Gata. After 10-15 minutes you'll drive through a low man-made tunnel - the statue is a couple of minutes past this, beneath a small viewing platform. If you get to Gata, you've gone too far.


Makarska

After taking a few hundred photos of the views, we continued our drive towards Dubrovnik. We stopped for lunch in Makarska, which is the closest Croatia gets to a package holiday resort - there are lots of  hotels and touristy shops but also a lovely beach and harbour lined with small restaurants. We grabbed a pizza in Timun restaurant and wandered round for an hour.

We approached Dubrovnik as the sun was setting, and reached our apartment on the side of the hill looking over the Old Town (incorporating a slightly terrifying incident courtesy of our sat-nav attempting to lead us into the winding streets of Dubrovnik via a steep cliff, observed with glee by a grinning crowd of Croatian pensioners). After settling our nerves with a stiff drink and admiring the impressive view from our balcony, we wandered down to the Old Town.

Our great view of Dubrovnik's Old Town and harbour

Entering through the Ploce Gate, Dubrovnik's Old Town centre is another one of those 'wow' moments encountered everywhere in Croatia. It's really like stepping foot on to a film set, with the greeny-white limestone streets and churches framed against the pitch-black sky. Heavily bombed in the early 90s, the skyline is dominated by new terracotta roofs peppered with the older, browny-grey tiles of the few buildings that weren't punctured by shells. The signs of the conflict and its impeccable clean-up are everywhere - churches and shops and pecked with bullet scars but the streets and walkways are made of smooth, straight limestone blocks.

The terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik

We'd been tipped to eat at Lokanda Peskarija by the harbour, a great and well-priced seafood restaurant frequented by locals with a great view of Lokrum Island and the mountainside. Next stop, just back inside the walls, was a nice drink at Nonenina in the heart of the Old Town, before a sleep-inducing hike up the 200+ steps to our apartment. That sort of view comes at a price!

View from the table at Lokanda Pescarija

Day 5: Dubrovnik

The cable car offers stunning views of the city and a quick journey to the top of Mount Srđ, the rocky hill which looms over the town. We found ourselves literally in the clouds.

View from the cable car
Next door is the Homeland War Museum, a dense but interesting run-down of the Siege set inside a Napoleonic fort, used as a base for the city defenders during the aggression. The exhibition does demand some advanced knowledge of the events and is quite a lot to take in, but is accompanied by staggering photography of the beautiful city being hammered by shells and the heartbreaking aftermath. 

We grabbed a sandwich at Yummmi's (by the cable car station and good for cheap/quick bites) and headed off to walk the city walls. It's a great way to see the entire town from just above and took about 90 minutes to complete the circuit - you buy a ticket for around 100kn. Homes and businesses are pressed right up against the walls, so you also get a glimpse of the unusual life of the Old Town residents.




Views from the walls

Not content with walking the entire city boundary, we headed off on another guided tour. This time organised by this company, our guide was a tad less chirpy than his colleague in Split and covered far less ground, but nonetheless gave us a decent overview of the city's ancient and modern history.

We ate at Konoba Amoret, tucked away in a beautiful corner by the Cathedral with a guitarist accompanying our meal from the steps. The restaurant serves up tourist favourites, but the food was fresh and affordable. Another quick wander of the Old Town by night was rounded off with drinks at Nonenina, opposite the Rector's Palace (the old Rector, apparently, had to stay in the Palace for a month solidly before being relieved of his duties by a replacement). Dubrovnik really comes into its own after dark, when the hundreds of cruise ship visitors leave and the streets become quiet and empty.

Day 6: Dubrovnik and Lokrun

We learned that our city walls tickets were also valid at Fort Lovrijenac.





This fortress sits on a rocky outcrop close to the Ploce gates, providing guards with an unblocked view over the sea. There's not a great deal to see in the Fort itself, but it's the best place to see how the Old Town and the walls are built right into the rocks. The Fort is also home to theatrical performances in the summer, and I can see exactly how well it must double for Elsinore in its annual performance of Hamlet in the summer festival.

We grabbed lunch at the packed and unashamedly tourist restaurant Poklisar by the harbour before catching the small ferry to the island of Lokrum - the boat leaves around every half hour and takes only 15 minutes. The island is beautiful - a shady and quiet paradise to escape the crowds. There are plenty of residents though - peacocks, unashamedly and camply strutting their stuff at every turn in an attempt to impress the ladies. There are some great photo opportunities as the birds have no qualms in swaggering right up to their human admirers and posing for pictures.

Showing off on Lokrum
The island has a ruined monastery in the centre, which is great to clambour around, as well as open parkland for families and a rocky beach with ladders down into the clear ocean. There is a busy restaurant and a calmer bar near the ferry station - it would be easy to spend a whole day on Lokrum, as many local families apparently do.

A quick ferry back, and we decided to venture out of the confines of the Old Town to the newer part of the city to a recommended restaurant, Otto's Tavern. Otto's is a tiny place set in the arch of a bridge with fresh, well-priced food from a modern menu and great wine. The service here was great, with the waiter explaining the origin of the wine and recommending each course. There wasn't much else in the nearby area, but if you fancy a change of scenery this place is well worth trying - but book a table.

Day 7 - Home

Dubrovnik Airport is only 20 minutes drive from the town, but departure queues were long, so get there early. We were really sad to leave, but pleased to have crammed so much in.

Croatia hadn't really been at the front of my mind when planning a holiday, but I'm so pleased we went and experienced even a small part of it. The drive between Split and Dubrovnik (and vice versa) really is one of the most stunning you can take, and there are so many extraordinary places to stop along the way. The towns themselves are beautiful - a combination of the winding alleyways of Venice with the grandeur of the palaces of Rome or Florence. It's also great value, particularly just out of season when we visited, when the walled streets are still quiet, the roads free of coach convoys, and prices for accommodation and flights relatively low.




If any of these tips were useful, or you have any questions, please post below!

Recommended...
  • The latest edition of the Lonely Planet Croatia Travel Guide was a great companion. It covers the whole country with lengthy sections on Dubrovnik, Split and nearby towns, as well as a general overview of the history and culture of Croatia. It's only just been reissued, and seemed pretty well up to date.
  • Our apartments were from AirBnB and fantastic value, particularly in Split where we stayed ten minutes away from everything we needed for £25 a night. Our apartment in Split had an incredible view and felt more like a hotel room, but was still under £50 a night. Leave a comment if you'd like the details.
  • We reserved a car from Sixt in advance and collected from Dubrovnik Airport. It was great value - less than £150 for six days' hire plus fuel, and we covered over 500km. Make sure your hire company gives you all the documents needed to cross through the Bosnia stretch, which should come as standard.
  • Take a Satnav - the coastal road is pretty simple to follow but the residential streets in the cities are winding and plentiful, and the street signs don't always match printed maps... but be careful it doesn't try to drive you off the edge of a steep mountainside.