Friday, 16 December 2011

600 Dizzying Steps

Paris really cannot be ‘done’ in an hour. To assume so would be an ignorant ‘faux pas’; a snooty nose-up to hundreds of years of rich history, culture and stunning architecture. What can be done within an hour to touch the surface of this diverse city, besides fingering a glossy tourist brochure?

Apart from hurriedly gulping down escargot, to get a touch and go flavour of Paris there’s really only one iconic stereotypical pilgrimage to make. I spiral up the steps of the Eiffel Tower to take in as much as I can in a whirlwind visit.

An ever looming motif, from the first glimpse on the train to its presence whilst dodging insane Parisian traffic to cross the road, the Eiffel Tower constantly screams and reconfirms, ‘yes – you are in Paris!’. Solidified and imagined forever in film, magazines and media, it’s impossible to imagine the city without it.

With over 200,000,000 visitors to date, and earning itself the reputation of being the ‘establishing shot’ of France, such a global symbol is hard to ignore.

While strolling towards it, it’s obvious to distinguish the Parisians, going about their daily business, ladies clunking their high heels, hastily; almost boastfully – from the awestruck tourists, heads craned, occasionally stopping to take a picture. Although even to look down, the Eiffel Tower is reproduced endlessly in miniature, on pavement-side mats, where they are sold by street vendors.

Arriving at the base of the tower, I am confronted with something that is never anticipated, in a state of glossy brochure ignorance – a huge, one hour queue. The queue works its way toward one of the monstrous tower legs.

From directly underneath, looking up through the tower is almost as rewarding, perhaps better from an architecturally appreciative point of view, than the view from the top. This reveals the beautiful extravagance and lattice patterned perfection of the towers construction.

Despite being put off by the gigantic queue, the tower looks particularly enticing with the ensuing sunset. I overhear a travel-savvy American couple state that there is an option to walk, yes walk, to ascend the tower rather than the much used lift system. Tickets for the lifts must be purchased for each section, whereas purchasing a ticket to walk (read climb) entitles you to stomp your way up to the second floor, and for less than the cost of a café au lait.

This seems like the best idea, as I make it my mission to get to the second floor to steal a couple of pictures in the ever perfect winter sunset. Rather like an airport, a series of scanners and bag checkpoints must be passed, before being presented with the first wrought-iron step. I’m ready for take-off…

By step fifty-something, I’m starting to wonder if this was the best method of navigating the tower. However, having used the lift years before, climbing the stairs certainly seems more rewarding and evokes a more integral feeling of the tower, quite literally. Being surrounded by the huge bolts and beams that keep it standing beats the insula nature of peering at it as it zooms by in a retro-fitted air-conditioned lift.

Trivia is presented on display boards during the climb, one showing the relative heights of other towers and structures. The Eiffel Tower is actually one of the smallest on the chart; certainly doesn’t feel that way now!

The spiralling motion of trekking up seemingly endless staircases begins to take its toll, until the respite of the first floor is in sight. Here there is a restaurant, a small museum and information area, and some already remarkable views. View-wise I’ve always thought that there comes a certain point where a view becomes just a ‘generic’ city view, but no sign of that here.  Sweeping gardens point the eye to the Palais De Chaillot, and the École Militaire, their symmetry and perfectly angled line-up with the tower making it seem slightly ‘lego-like’ from here.

In the centre of the tower on the second floor is an overlooking, vertigo inducing balcony which I could only bring myself to look over briefly, but long enough to scoff at the growing queue of would-be lift users below. Ha!

Time to continue the dizzying ascent to the second floor. It really hits me this time with the repetitive motion of spiralling up, but also a sense of relief that there are no more staircases to climb.

I contemplate the history of the tower;  who else has climbed these stairs since it opened in 1889, and also the sheer scale of it, considering it was intended as just a gateway to the World’s Fair of the same year. We rarely see such vast, potentially ‘temporary’ structures built today – with a few exceptions like the Millennium Dome, but that’s another story.

Stumbling somewhat as I cling on to the hand rail, I tread the last step on to the second floor. As a keen runner I consider how the stairs have managed to face me with near breathless defeat.

I’m just in time to hobble around, catching my breath and weaving around well-appointed tour groups who clearly used the lift, to snap a few pictures of the last few minutes of sunset. Certainly a just reward – the Seine glistens and snakes into the distance.

Grabbing a much needed bottle of water, I head down to embark on the equally never ending descent. One could question whether we go the Eiffel Tower to view Paris, or to view the tower. I would say the motive should be a resounding combination of both. It’s certainly not a complete embodiment of Paris, and certainly not of France, not by any stretch. A thirty minute cruise down the Seine might be just as revealing, and your feet need never leave the ground to appreciate Paris. But such an enticing and ubiquitous architectural personification of Paris is quite a challenge to ignore.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Europa Park – Europe’s little known theme park

Undoubtedly the general consensus when we ask what is Europe’s most prestigious, or quality theme park, would be Disneyland Paris Resort. Certainly the UK has never got it quite right - with Alton Towers or Chessington perhaps nothing more than glorified funfairs; as such attracting the appropriate calibre of visitors. I look at Germany, and a hidden gem nestled near the Black Forest.

Situated in South-Western Germany, practically on the border of France is Europa Park. Although surprisingly the theme park is relatively unheard of in the UK, and perhaps other parts of Europe, it boasts being the second most popular theme park in Europe; over four million visitors a year to be exact.

Perhaps travelling to this theme park reveals why the park is rather unheard of in Britain – getting to Europa Park was somewhat of a mission. A budget flight to Karlsruhe Baden-Baden airport, from London Stanstead and one could be fooled into thinking this was the hard part over. I over-zealously board a bus that ultimately takes me to Strasbourg, France, then a train to a tiny village in the middle of the German countryside. Following this a local bus service that stopped about a mile from the bed and breakfast I stayed in; incidentally the only B&B in the neighbouring village. Consequently I would strongly urge that unless you are attempting to hire a car, consider paying for one of the parks on-site hotels if your budget allows.

There may have been more sensible ways to travel to my hotel, but my ill-researched journey revealed beautiful unspoilt German countryside, and sunflower fields in the absolutely scorching July sun.

The B&B was quite literally the only place to eat, or do just about anything in the village – with the exception of a miniscule shop nearby that never actually seemed to be open. A home-style German sausage pasta dish it is for a warm al-fresco dinner.

First thing in the morning we opt for a less random mode of transport in order to make an early start at Europa Park. A taxi takes us through the German countryside and typical German houses to the gates of the park.

Those familiar with Epcot at Walt Disney World in Florida may be more inclined to understand the layout or grand design of this park. Here, rather than incorporating global countries each ‘land’ is actually a European Country.

The quality, attention to detail and also the established status of the park is immediately evident as I walk in. There are immaculately up-kept gardens, and rather like the entrance to Disneyland, a main ‘street’ which acts as a portal to the park and serves as ‘Germany’, the first land to discover.

A plethora of bars, restaurants and beautiful gardens before even a glimpse of a rollercoaster immediately communicates that this park is aiming for so much more than a playground for thrill seeking, sugar-hyped adolescents.

Further exploration reveals the other stunningly crafted lands, including France, which features a large fountain courtyard surrounded by bars and eateries; clearly the spot for slouching out in the sun with a chilled German beer. One might also notice further evidence of inspiration from Disney’s Epcot here, with a large and striking geodesic structure – though here housing a thrilling rollercoaster ride.

Europa Park was opened in 1975 to showcase some of the ride designs of the Mack family, and of course as well as sedating guests with stunning gardens, thrilling them on wild rollercoasters is something the park does rather well. Blue Fire is the parks latest, featuring a 100km/h launch and stomach turning rolls.

Also here are many family rides, most notably their own bizarre take on a haunted mansion attraction, and a generous helping of water rides to keep cool in the very intense German summers.

After experiencing overnight what was most certainly the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life, I enjoy my second day in the park. This time with all the rides done, more time to simply relax and enjoy the surroundings.

As I leave the park I notice a piece of the Berlin wall on display – Europa Park incorporates German history and culture throughout; something that UK theme parks rarely attempt. It also showcases artifacts and exhibitions from around Europe, including a Russian space capsule walkthrough.

Overall, particularly for theme park enthusiasts, Europa Park cannot be overlooked. It may not be as accessible to the UK as other theme parks, but those seeking quality and such a wide range of attractions will not let down by what this park has to offer.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Los Angeles to Las Vegas

Almost completely unrecognisable from distant Spanish history, and even as former parts of Mexico, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have evolved to become bottlenecks of American popular culture, eccentricity, glamour and vice. I take an insightful journey from one ‘glitzy’ mecca to the other.

Route through the Mojave Desert

Hunting down a minicab in the welcomingly warm Californian may climes - after the dry, cold and hostile air of a twelve hour flight from London - I spy a well assorted mix of people huddled outside the LAX arrivals wing. Pilgrims flock to LA for a plethora of reasons; fun seeking tourists, aspiring actors perhaps – all seeking to bathe in the promised Hollywood gloss of would-be perfectionism.

And promised Hollywood gloss is slowly diluted on the commute to the hotel, revealing a medley of miniscule homes in disarray, and the odd glimpse of gated luxury.

My first stop is Anaheim, lodging at a somewhat basic motel. A little put off by the gang-style graffiti adorning parts of the bathroom wall; putting it down to character, I have a quick scout around in the evening to find my bearings.

Despite its sprawling size, and inevitable crime, inhabitants of Los Angeles are lucky to have the respite of some beautiful beaches. Who isn’t familiar with the clichéd slow motion images of Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, jogging and jiggling in a state of unconvincing concern, down golden sands lapped by the bluest waves? Venice beach is the most popular; the crux of urban beach society. Frequented by oiled up roller-bladers, posing muscle-ripped bodybuilders using beachfront gyms, and anonymous movie stars masquerading behind extremely large sunglasses – Venice beach is more about simply being seen than anything else.

I make Huntington Beach’s lesser known, but just as sun-drenched sands my first stop early next morning. All beaches in L.A have an obvious infusion of urban life; evident with strong but often surprisingly creative graffiti, a presence of many homeless people, and ‘ghetto-blaster’ carrying youths forever reminiscent of the eighties.

Huntington Beach offers Californian respite

This beach is no exception; but certainly not the degree of Venice beach. Wandering down towards Huntington pier, there are some inviting looking bars and restaurants, and mostly surf orientated shops. I continue down the pier to witness fishermen taking advantage of the early morning quiet, and meander around the rather unappealing looking fish hauled on to the promenade – some still fighting. For tolerating the strong fish odours, I am rewarded with a spectacular view of L.A’s coastline.

Early morning fishing on the pier

The rest of the day is spent catching some rays, and casually people-watching on the beach – observing how almost every fellow sun worshipper in L.A is adorned with tattoos, some more impressive than others. After grabbing a beachfront hot-dog, the journey back the hotel starts with an envious walk past some very luxurious looking hotels; a far cry from my humble accommodation.

Large white letters, suspended in the hills, begin to emerge from the L.A smog - ‘Hollywood’. With the epitome of L.A being the silver screen production capital of the world, a visit to Universal Studios Hollywood seems essential. As the bus turns the corner into Hollywood Boulevard, a quiet sense of curiosity fills the air; perhaps even slight disappointment. One might even conclude Hollywood to be no more than a ‘trashy’, eclectic by-product of movie star obsession, absent of actual stars - rather handprints and ghostly traces along the Hollywood walk of ‘fame’. Costumed unknowns mimicking icons wait at every corner to pose for your camera – and ask for money for the liberty.

Still, it has to be done - if just to observe the sheer lunacy of it all.

The Hollywood dream may be as distant as the sign seems

I board another bus to whisk me away to Universal Studios – a working studio slash theme-park spin on the Hollywood franchise.

First stop is the world renowned studio tour – a 45 minute guided trolley ride around the functioning back-lot and production areas, with some theme-park twists thrown in of course.

Set used in 'Desperate Housewives'

The tram is tossed about in a simulated earthquake, splashed by staged floods and an attacking ‘Jaws’ – all very exciting. More interestingly I get to see the ‘Colonial street’ production area – more commonly known as Wisteria Lane in the television series Desperate Housewives, and even a devastated ‘plane crash’ movie set.

Dramatic plane crash movie-set

Still vibrating from mock earthquakes, I enjoy the many attractions, rides and shows the park has to offer, and leave with at least a polished idea of L.A’s function as a movie maker’s realm.

Universal Studios’ facades of Hollywood legend are all very entertaining, but where is the reality of this, and where are the real winners of L.A?

A small open top tour proposes to take me around the Hollywood hills area to gawp enviously at the spectacular homes of movie stars – and any other members of the L.A elite.

Pristine streets of American dream fantasy define the area of Beverly Hills – the divide is obvious as the tour bus cruises down one street, with manicured, immaculate gardens and finely paved sidewalk on one side, whilst the other side defined by cracked paving with encroaching weeds, and bust-up buildings. This is social divide on a macrocosmic level.

A few excited gasps are heard from the bus as it passes homes owned by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Victoria Beckham and the late Michael Jackson, amongst others. I wonder as we careen up to the Hollywood sign, just how many unknowns live in seclusion here – to live like a movie star is an aspiration that doesn’t necessarily involve being one.

Los Angeles could quite simply be summed up as that; a city of aspiration or a promise of something better, set by the examples of those who have ‘made it’. Perhaps not necessarily through the hard work and perspiration we associate which such high-end glamorous success. The showcased pinnacle of luxurious popular American lifestyle attracts those to the city that really do keep it running, through sheer dream and persistence.

Before the sun has barely risen again, I travel from Anaheim to central L.A on the Pacific Surfliner. Serving the coast of California, right from San Diego all the way to San Luis Obispo, it offers a very convenient way to travel, and often with some California dreamy scenery to digest on the way.

I step off at the station and conclude that the lavishly impressive art deco halls of Union Station are worth a visit in their own right. Built in 1939, the historical building draws on the ubiquitous Mission Revival style, Dutch influence from one of its supporting architects, and most prominently Streamline Moderne Art Deco inside and out. I felt transported back to a 1930’s golden Hollywood era, when travelling by train probably attracted a lot more kudos. Even the stunning marble floored waiting hall is a marvel to behold.

Union Station

Greyhound runs a coach route between L.A and Las Vegas – which I opted for as the more scenic mode of transport. A word of caution: do check baggage size before queuing to board the coach. It may arise that a bag is too large to carry on and must be stowed, for which a special tag must be obtained from yet another queue. They won’t wait, and as witnessed may be quite brash and vocal about this…

The journey itself is quite something. Sprawling tower blocks and manicured city slowly gives way to more open land, as seemingly ever-distant mountain ranges begin to loom in the distance. Leaving L.A, heading deep into the mountains, has an exciting and escapist feel. I watch traffic gradually diminish; slowly replaced with those huge American trucks I always associate with the deserts of the west.

Endless desert

The Mojave Desert is awe-inspiring; dramatic alien-esque landscapes stretching endlessly into the distance. A real sense of transition is gained as L.A seems further and further away. Indeed many locations here have been used in Hollywood movies – like the eerie looking Vasquez rocks, frequently used in Star Trek and other sci-fi movies for its other-worldly qualities.

Progressively things get more and more remote until we make a brief stop at a service station, and I decide to wander out for some ‘air’. I am completely astounded and left breathless by the change in temperature, from just a few hours travelling. The scorching desert heat is unbearable for some – personally I find it inviting and life-giving. All around is flat endless desert, bordered by heat-hazed mountains on the horizon.

The coach continues on up into the mountains at a steep incline – the driver announces that the air-conditioning will have to be temporarily switched off at this point to avoid overloading it as the coach struggles to reach the summit, at a crawling pace. This seems to go on forever, until the coach stops at the small town of Barstow for lunch – a much needed sandwich – and then on into the desert. Next stop - Las Vegas.

Las Vegas seems quite literally to spring up from the middle of nowhere – one minute facing vast open desert, and the next spotting the infamous ‘welcome to Las Vegas’ sign.

An oasis of life to the ultimate degree, the grandeur of Las Vegas cannot be summed up, canned or conveyed in pictures. The word ‘Vegas’ itself came from the lush green areas derived from wells of fresh water in the area - a natural oasis that soon evolved into a profiteer’s paradise and retreat without remorse or moral. The size and scope of the hotels, and playfulness of the architecture, communicates nothing but pleasure.

Fabricated grandeur

I share a taxi offered up outside the Greyhound terminal with some fellow travellers, and check into my hotel – Circus Circus. Quite difficult to interpret as a stand-alone hotel, Circus Circus is Las Vegas eccentricity and sometimes cringe-worthy over the top kitsch in a nutshell – although quite a grand alternative to my previous ghetto-like lodgings in L.A. It even has a full size lopping rollercoaster racing through it, which I sample – and regret.

Indoor theme park inside the Circus Circus hotel

A stroll down the strip after sun-down reveals the clichéd obvious – that Las Vegas truly buzzes and screams at you at night; with its twinkling neon signs, exuberant gambling noises and flashing lights, almost as if swallowed up by some giant gambling machine. The warm evening air of the desert hardly serves as an incentive to hide away in a hotel room – the city quite literally never sleeps.

Las Vegas buzzes at night

The strip by day is a little tamer; offering alternatives to gambling such as luxury shopping, or even sunbathing and swimming if the heat can be endured. I purchase a day ticket for the Las Vegas Deuce Bus – a service that runs up and down the strip 24 hours a day, to take in some of the most opulent and extravagant hotels I have ever seen. Of course Las Vegas has no real architecturally splendid history; The Bellagio, Venetian, Caesars Palace and others are all fabrications of a classical ideal, just as the whole of Las Vegas is a modern fabrication far removed from its roots as a small stopover railroad town.

Mock classical architecture adorns the hotels

I thoroughly enjoy the Bellagio’s famous water fountain show under the shade of a tree, which I believe occurs every half an hour or so. Then it’s time for me to travel to ‘ancient Egypt’ as I pass a giant concrete sphinx at the entrance to The Luxor – an iconic hotel with its sleek glass pyramid design. Inside, the lobby atrium is vast and impressive – although I can’t help but subconsciously crown it the king of tack in the hotel world. The architecture of the hotel I can commend - but to draw and capitalise on something as un-duplicable as ancient Egypt - for me it suffers an inevitable outcome of being nothing more than a glorified theme park. However to expect historical culture in Las Vegas would be naïve – it’s not what I’m here for. It’s time to head to Paris...

Spectacular fountain show at the Bellagio

Paris, Las Vegas is another opulent hotel which needs little explaining. Complete with a carbon copy ‘Eiffel Tower’, bursting from the roof, as with most Las Vegas hotels the ground floor is one huge gambling arena. Seeking refuge from the intense afternoon heat, I conservatively dabble in a few slot machines, and a few drinks, which apart from a longing wander around luxury shopping malls, is a recurring theme for the rest of the day.

Vegas' own take on the Eiffel Tower

Another early morning and back to the Greyhound terminal for my return trip through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, this time to slow down the pace at a hotel - and thankfully a much more luxurious one - near Manhattan Beach. The Springhill Suites were an ideal choice for me, with easy access to the airport for my return home.

Springhill Suites near LAX

Upmarket and functional would be the best way to describe Manhattan Beach – with joggers, surfers, pampered dog walkers, and a generous helping of luxury beachfront homes. It certainly has a much less ‘touristy’ ring to it than the likes of Venice Beach. A fresh Californian tuna salad and a cold beer is my next stop at Beaches, a friendly restaurant at the bottom of Manhatten Beach Boulevard, overlooking the pier. I then jump in a cab back to my suite to prepare for my final evening in L.A.

A cat laps up the laid back Manhattan Beach atmosphere

I had a few friends to guide me by phone to Santa Monica via L.A’s bus routes. Despite this turning out to be rather futile with my complete lack of navigation, as easily found just about anywhere in California, fellow passengers are quick to offer friendly assistance and chat. A theatrically eccentric looking lady, who moved to L.A to become a would-be actress, picks up on my evidently obvious disorientation. She shares her story with me as the bus passes boulevards that look identical in the dark of night, and thankfully advises me when to step off. This is one thing I missed to a degree in Las Vegas – the openness of Californians – and something that definitely sets the cities apart.

‘Hooters’, an American restaurant chain infamous for its busty waitresses, wasn’t exactly up there on my ‘to do list’ in L.A, but I meet my friend here, a resident of Santa Monica. I learn I little bit about the area while soaking up the exuberant atmosphere, then head by bus to West Hollywood.

My final indulgent night in Los Angeles involves a whirlwind tour of the many bars around the West Hollywood area. I sip a cocktail amongst beautiful people in the fabulously stylish bar, ‘The Abbey’, which I am told attracts celebrities and the L.A ‘it crowd’. It seems to evoke a neo-gothic, perhaps Italian style that seems to be popular among the rich. Although I have no luck spotting anyone of note, I have a great evening – so great that I miss the last bus back and instead grab another cab back to my suite; just in time for a quick nap before a long flight back to London the next morning.

As I nurse my hangover at LAX, donning those huge sunglasses I previously slated, in an effort to limit my self-induced suffering, I look back at both cities and consider what makes them such dramatic centres of American popular culture. Are they both traps; Vegas with its alluring promise of making it big through gambling hard-earned cash, or L.A with its mostly false assurance of fame and vanity? 

Surrounding Vegas, the lifeless, endless deserts seem only to enhance Vegas’ glittering charm and draw us to such isolated pleasure. L.A seems to many like an infinitely superior alternative; an unknowingly hollow dream worth the pilgrimage from anywhere across America, or the world. Both places are so inspiring, tempting and exciting - once they have that grip or carrot beckoning us deeper in, we are motivated to do whatever it takes to stay.

Ultimately, the superficial beating hearts of both cities is kept alive by the thousands of people flocking to their streets. From all angles, Los Angeles and Las Vegas simply have to be experienced for their self-proclaimed allure.

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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Sampling Roscoff

As one of the first ports of call across the English Channel, just how much does Roscoff speak for the aesthetic richness of France? I take a seasickness-enduring daytrip to find out.

Roscoff: a gateway to France

Run down abandoned buildings, mainly industrial facilities at first glance, and, not much really to speak of. This is what I would probably surmise about the immediate area surrounding Plymouth ferry port - with a pinch of bias I might admit - if I were to answer the same question about my departure point.  I may have acquired that all too ready, eye-rolling sense of ‘home turf’ sarcasm from seven years of association with Plymouth.

In actual fact, Plymouth cannot be completely condemned by any stretch; it was heavily damaged during World War II, including the harbour area; but how it serves as a first-glance reveal of Plymouth - the South West, or even Britain itself - might be open to debate.

I dash un-preparedly from the ferry terminal late at night, through a torrential downpour - a recurring theme of my travels. What’s left of my ticket is hurriedly scanned at the base of the ramp leading up to the MV Amorique; my destination – Roscoff, France.

Operated by Brittany Ferries, the M.V Amorique serves the Plymouth to Roscoff route up to twice a day, along with its much grander sister ship, the Pont Aven. Taking advantage of a late online offer, I booked one of the premium ‘club plus’ cabins the night before.  Boarding the ferry, it seems adequately equipped as I collect the cabin key – with various bars, restaurants and seating areas – although with my acutely nauseating affliction of sea-sickness, I’m not really here to judge the amenities.

However, the cabin is pleasant and spacious, with complimentary chocolates and drinks, and a large outside window - which I at least hoped would alleviate some of the sickness – and a coffin-esque but a well-appointed bathroom.

'Club Plus' cabin

Clasping the railings in a perhaps mostly unfounded fear of being violently blown overboard by the still persistent showers, heavy winds and subsequent needle-like bombardment, I make my way to the top deck as the Amorique disembarks. Plymouth slowly vanishes into a generic and unrecognisable canvass of streetlights against the howling night sky.

A quick and welcome pint of beer, and with a realisation that wherever I go aboard this ship I’m not going to sprout sea legs of any sort, I return to the plush cabin to get some sleep; 6:00am tomorrow – Roscoff.
After a claustrophobically perilous shower and miniscule breakfast, I peer outside to see the first sign of Roscoff in the emerging light of day, before making my way downstairs to disembark.

Early morning disembarkation

Although Roscoff might seem a little absent of noteworthy, or altogether too exciting history, there are some points of interest that make it far more than a meagre ‘wine-run’ destination -  sadly for such blind ‘connoisseurs’ of cheap booze this trend fizzled out years ago. In terms of export however, it has remained a primary port for the distribution of uniquely pink onions, particularly the ‘Roscoff onion’, back to Britain. In fact the globally stereotypical image of the stripy topped, bike riding ‘Onion Johnny’ - donning a beret - originated from Roscoff!

Even more astonishing is that my plush cabin back on board the Amorique originated from the Onion Johnnys – Brittany Ferries was dreamed up and established by a group of them in the 1970s, as a modern continuation of the trade.

Of course we don’t see them anymore; at least not distributing by bike on our doorstep that’s for sure - but their legacy has resulted in the presence of an Onion Johnny museum in Roscoff, as well as a two day summer 'Fete de l'Oignon', in honour of the onion. 

A little ravenous after the less than filling breakfast, a pleasant walk prior to anywhere opening reveals the harbour. The original harbour was destroyed in 1375 by the Earl of Arundel , during the Hundred Years’ War, and was subsequently rebuilt where it stands today.

Opposite, the architecture serves to establish that I’m in a harbour town – indeed a typically French harbour town. With its dated buildings of mixed periods: some clearly baroque and beyond, some perhaps even medieval, the town is lucky to have preserved an essence of France as a first impression to visitors.

Beside Roscoff's harbour

Well worth battling ensuing winds for is Roscoff’s very long pier, with some opportunities for great photos at the end. After a few quick snaps, I give in to the wind in search of something to eat. Beyond the harbour, it’s difficult to miss the ‘Notre Dame de Kroaz-batz’ – a beautiful renaissance era church, built over a long period between 1522 and 1545. Just beyond this - another fantastic building, the ‘Station Biologique de Roscoff’ built in 1872; an important marine research facility, and inherently French in its appearance.

Roscoff pier

Navigating narrow and inviting cobble streets, I am lured by scent alone into ‘Pause Café’. I challenge anybody to walk by such a French bakery without being drawn in. The first bite of the croissant I order reminds me of a thought I always have, post supermarket shop - why can a perfect French croissant never be found, or replicated, anywhere else.  Divine.

Although out of courtesy I did make use of my limited French vocabulary, language barriers here, as with most of France, didn’t appear to be a problem with Roscovites – particularly evident here because of the intrinsic ties to Britain.

Roscoff has a mix of architecture

Pottering around the cobble streets further, I encounter a scattering of shops: contemporary art, gift shops; some more ‘touristy’ than others, and maritime paraphernalia.

A handful of inevitable tourist ventures

Trying not to anticipate my nauseating trip home, just before my departure it’s time to indulge in a spot of lunch. ‘Marie Stuart Pizzeria Restaurant’ served up a fantastic, French style pizza in a very small but homely setting.

I make my way along the residential road leading back to the ferry, before disembarking later in the afternoon. Again haunted by dreadful sea sickness, I reflect on my daytrip to Roscoff – how much of a ‘serving’ of France did I get?

Roscoff has its fair share of tourist ventures – perhaps mainly anchored with the quickly dissipating days of the ‘wine-run’; but whilst retaining its dignity and soul, both architecturally and through its people.

All one has to do is picture the ‘Onion Johnnies’ – the quintessential embodiment of French people the world over – to realise that Roscoff couldn’t be more French if it tried.

Looking out from the pier

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Flights of Fantasy

Are super-cheap flights now simply a myth? I reveal five tips for finding those elusive low fares.

February, 2003. I arrive in Bilbao, Spain, drenched in relentless pouring rain. I enjoy some fantastic photography exhibitions, and refuge from the downpour at the Guggenheim Museum, then ponder, over a strong Spanish Coffee, my return flight – tomorrow morning.

Surprisingly however, my swift heartbeat of a trip didn’t make me cringe in financial (though not carbon foot print free) guilt. This return flight with Easyjet, as far as I remember, was priced at an unbelievable £3.99. This of course may have allowed for some incidental taxes; but still such a low promotional price is seemingly hard to come by today. A quick search around and this is obvious.

Ryanair advertise cheap flights from Bristol, one of my closest airports, to Venice Marco Polo from £15.99 one way. It doesn’t take an idiot to work out that there will still be taxes and miscellaneous charges added to this price, but wow, how exciting. However a few clicks around the website, inputting various dates that are allegedly included in the departure window for this offer, I simply cannot find any return trips for less than £75. Doh!

In fairness to Ryanair though, I did manage to find flights both to and from Dublin, departing Bristol at the advertised £9.99 each way, with no added taxes. I couldn’t say if there were any hidden costs as I didn’t go as far as booking a trip to Dublin (not yet, anyway), but this was impressive.

Most airlines also adopt a variety of ‘stealth taxes’ for passengers to chew on, after they think they’ve bagged a bargain. I encountered such costs with Thomas Cook’s airline on booking a return flight to Sanford, Florida - £270. A steal, but then factor in taxes, £60 for luggage (as much as I like to think of myself as a light traveller, two weeks in Florida with a shoulder bag…nah), and criminally, £40 to reserve a seat on the flight. The latter is optional, but by the time the booking process was complete, I was wondering just where ‘cheap’ comes into it.

Prices also vary extortionately for the long haul flights to the same destination, on the same day. When tentatively researching flights to Hong Kong, I found the same economy flights, on the same airline listed on two separate websites. The difference being, one showed the cost to be £500, and the other, a stratospherically sky-high £3200!

Despite all my grumbles, there are still ways, with a little bit of investigation, to secure yourself the cheapest possible airline fares. Here are some tips:

  1. Be flexible. Work, kids, and other commitments might make being flexible difficult, but most airline websites have a ‘+/-‘ option to search up to 7 days either side. You’d be surprised how much fares will differ.
  2. Book early. Very early will guarantee you, in most cases, the lowest advance fare the airline offers.
  3. Book late. Last minute booking might bag you a better bargain, but can be riskier. Not the best option for a ‘trip of a lifetime’, but one for the opportunist traveller.
  4. Subscribe to travel newsletters. Travel newsletters such as Travelzoo, a superb example, will update you not just on the best holiday offers, but the best flights. This includes local departures. Also a good one if you are booking in the short term.
  5. Use online flight tools. Skyscanner is the best website I have seen. This will enable you to review a whole month of flights, organise by price, and even select ‘anywhere’ as your destination if you are brave.

Monday, 20 June 2011

'Big Macs' in Tokyo

Can culture permeate established global corporate identity? (Or - is McDonalds always a McDonalds?) 
Futuristic Shibuya

We are all mostly avoidant of the cultural ‘faux pas’ - the frowned upon act of resorting to the familiarity of corporate brands, be it food, clothing, or any other globally identifiable product, like a nurturing womb of 'home' comfort whilst we are abroad.

But should we always feel so guilty; perhaps it wasn't just the quick-fix remedy for some kind of full blown 'xenophobic' panic attack?

I look to a trip to Tokyo to see just how a Big Mac will 'taste'...

"Moshi moshi". I step off the plane and clear the refreshingly friendly Japanese immigration control, amongst Japanese donning clinical face masks, and sharply attired businessmen spilling into the Starbucks equipped arrivals hall of Narita airport. I watch them answer their unfamiliar brands of mobile phone with "moshi moshi"; it's evident that Tokyo is going to be different, but yet familiar.

The unmistakably welcoming hospitality of Japan is perhaps the main principle of this country that feeds my adoration for Tokyo. I have yet to purchase so much as a chocolate bar that wasn't delivered with a bow, and a very sincere looking smile. This is true of pretty much every transaction, even when I ask where to find the toilet in the labyrinthine Tokyo metro. This custom doesn't seem to be particularly bonded to either the older or younger generation. It sticks throughout.

After a lengthy but very comfortable transfer from Narita to central Tokyo with 'Limousine Bus', filled largely with western business types, I arrive at my hotel, The Grand Prince Akasaka. The hotel towers above the city with thirty plus floors, with its impressive and uniquely angular architecture designed by Kenzo Tange. Situated close to the National Diet building, and other Japanese governmental abodes, the hotel appeared mostly occupied by politicians and business men. The Grand Prince is now doomed for demolition, for reasons completely beyond me - with its humbly appointed rooms, space age toilets that require a degree to operate, iconic appearance and stunning lobby, although it's currently being used as a shelter for displaced earthquake victims.

The Grand Prince Akasaka offered incredible views

Although this hotel will soon be no more, I wouldn't condemn the other Akasaka area hotels, with relatively cheaper prices due to distance from tourist areas, but yet with great accessibility to Nagatacho metro station, an easy starting point for the metro.

Toilet function buttons... some were best left alone!

A quick stroll down the nearest street at Akasakamitsuke reveals a combination of 'cultural' paraphernalia; a flurry of stereotypical Tokyo arcades, and more mysterious 'Japanese Only' establishments, and also familiar brands - Subway, and a McDonalds.

Out of hunger, desperation and disorientating but expected jet-lag, I am ashamedly driven into McDonalds. Plastic seats, universally identical uniforms, and equally universal (and admittedly appealing) fast food smells. At first glance this is exactly the same as any other McDonalds. Why did I even entertain the thought?

Shuffling forward with crowds of lunch-hungry 'salary-men', or Japanese businessmen, I have a gander at the overhead menu - it begins to transcend the McDonalds norm. 'Teriyaki Mac Burger', 'Juicy Chicken Akatougarashi', 'Ebi Filet-O', 'Koroke Burger' and 'Mac Pork'.

Of course the 'Big Mac' is still on offer, but it's not just the extra sandwich options which set the Japanese counterpart, apart. I am curious to know what a 'McSmile' is, listed on the menu as costing a questionable '¥0'. In my much less than perfect attempt at the Japanese language I point to this on the pristine counter-top menu and ask. “O kudasai?” The immaculately appointed staff member simply nods at me in acknowledgement, and smiles. What I have asked for is a smile. Something so connected to the Japanese people as outstanding service has permeated into such a large corporation as McDonalds, and resulted in this unique little gem being added to the menu!

As I make my order I am treated with the same courteousness and service I have come to expect, perhaps taken for granted somewhat in my eager consumption. A tray with delicately placed fast food is politely handed to me, and the staff member exuberates, “Arigatou gozaimasu” - thank you, and proceeds to bow in picture perfect Japanese tradition. As I finish my meal in the eerily silent yet packed restaurant, another staff member whisks my tray away from me, empties the remnants of my jet-lag recovery food into the bin, smiles, bows in a backward motion, and finally ending with her holding the door open for me. I thought this was McDonalds.

In actual fact the globalisation of McDonalds has meant such modifications not just in Tokyo, or Japan, but around the world - the 'Maharaja Mac' for one.

And yes, the Big Mac tasted the same.

To get around the city of Tokyo itself, one would be completely and utterly insane to drive. I had no choice but to use the metro, but I think this is pretty much the default option for any savvy traveller. The metro runs like no other I have ever been on. Obsessively clean stations, trains and platforms, and a metro schedule so accurate and prompt, you could easily set your watch to it.

Immaculate Tokyo Metro

Etiquette on board the trains seems to adhere to the universal subway concept of 'don't look, don't talk', but almost certainly not as dreary as the tube, and with obvious differences. Despite being the most used subway system in the world, and subsequently the most sardine-esque, the Japanese are overtly courteous with other passengers. Travellers sometimes, and humorously, seem to adopt a 'fake sleep' whilst travelling, which they magically wake up from when arriving at their required stop. Curious; but this also fits in with the inherently shy, but in no sense rude, Japanese attitude. Besides, having that many people crammed into the train, sometimes in positions reminiscent of a game of Twister, makes conversation a little awkward at best.

I repent my anti-cultural sins a few days after visiting 'that restaurant', by taking a trip to a Japanese shrine, the Meiji Shrine. Well, if Hillary Clinton visited this shrine to show 'respect toward history and the culture of Japan', so can I…

The other-worldly Meiji Shrine offers a haven

Easily accessible by metro, as with most of Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine was finished in 1921, although rebuilt in 1958 after being heavily damaged during World War II. Located near the Harajuku area, it was built to commemorate Emperor Meiji and Empress Shokun, and is constructed almost entirely of Japanese Cypress tree and copper. The site seems to command an other-worldly tranquility and peace - definitely a must do, even if just to soothe delicate heads from the overdone sake, and relentless karaoke the night before (also a must do).

Stepping off at Harajuku station to reach this temple, I also inevitably walk through Harajuku itself, a piece of modern Japanese legacy. A vibrant amass of colour and intrigue, crammed full of small shops selling eclectically niche fashions, and just about anything covered under the word 'miscellaneous'. I am offered flyers from westerners attempting to sell me night club admission, or simply 'a good time'. Avoiding these I weave in and out of the shops, trying to make sense of some of the bizarre clothing. You will also find your big name brands; Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada - complete with big name prices on Omotesandō Street. Stick to Takeshita Street if you are after the one-of-a-kind bargains. A trip to Harjuku is essential.

Eclectic vibes of Harajuku

Mickey Mouse perhaps wasn't the next thing you expected to read, but in exploring the cultural permeation of Japan into global corporations, and to satisfy my long-lived Disney park appreciation – Tokyo Disney Resort simply had to be on my itinerary.

The iconic castle, ‘It’s a Small World’, the spinning teacups; yes they are all there, but again this global corporation differs in both its product, and delivery. I swiftly notice upon purchasing my tickets outside that the ‘cast members’, a Disney term coined for staff, haven’t adopted English as a necessity in the Japanese world of Disney, and why should they. It soon becomes clear however, after just a short time in Tokyo Disney Resort that this version is just as magical; perhaps even the best of them all.

A global landmark in the world of Disney - the castle

Why, exactly, this is, I would put down to the permeation of the Japanese psyche, service and quality into this otherwise global identity. The parks are spotlessly clean, with quality and sophistication injected into every corner, and cast members willing to bend over backwards to help guests. As I wait in the queue for a water based ride, I witness two female cast members haul a lone disabled guest straight out of a wheelchair without further assistance, clearly struggling yet also clearly determined to enable this guest to experience the attraction. The cast members bow at guests, in each boat dispatched – another wonderful, magical, Japanese touch.

Snaking around a long pathway, in another beautifully themed ‘land’, I come across an almost silent, hour long queue of patient Japanese visitors. This must be the queue for the fabled Gyoza Sausage Bun – something I had read about before my visit. Unique to Tokyo Disney Resort, eager Japanese are willing to wait what most of us might consider a ridiculously long time for this much anticipated snack. Both the delivery of this product; the willingness of the Japanese to wait, and of course the product itself, show the wonderful infusion of culture and well-established corporate brand. I wait until the queue dies down a little. The verdict – this must be an acquired taste!

I’m willing to bet that Disney as a global entity never anticipated this level of global expansion, or dreamt up such cultural assimilation from its initial all-American roots, even popularity for a mere snack. But the Disney park, or brand itself has evolved differently in its Asian backdrop. In fact the park is owned and operated by The Oriental Land Company, and has primary control over the finances and development of the resort.

This sort of franchising, as with McDonalds or any other global identity, is what gives these corporations a unique accent – a subtly alternative take on a firmly grounded concept, without complete distortion, and retaining the most important profiteering aspects of its core.

Shibuya by night transcends time

My last day in Tokyo is spent in the electrically mesmerising and hypnotically spectacular Shibuya, home to the largest pedestrian crossing in the world. I’m reminded of an old playground game, and mildly perturbed as the lights turn green, and an onslaught of trendily dressed citizens march towards me with mock stubbornness (of course everyone passes with polite awareness). I imagine that this could be a Times Square of the future; also a perfect example and conclusion to my exploration – a marvel of Japanese innovation, micro-packed with cultural stereotypes and nuances, and infused with international familiarities on a monstrous yet inviting scale. Gazing out at the vast television screens, skyscrapers, Japanese neon signs and frantically scurrying people, I sip a coffee in the largest Starbucks in the world.

Next time you find yourself immersed in a unique and engaging culture, yet plagued with an insatiable hunger, or home comfort that must be immediately remedied, don’t beat yourself up as you submissively scoff a tray of familiarly branded fast food.  

Culture is just outside the door; or perhaps even closer.