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.