Travels with Clare, Part 4 – Impressions of Cyprus


Our Cyprus holiday was only travel in so much as it involved taking a plane to a foreign destination. Like most people visiting Cyprus, we were going for a little winter sun and relaxation. The primary aim was to read and write, which we did to great satisfaction around the pool. I’d taken three novels. One a safe bet I’d read before, ‘Tortilla Flat’ by John Steinbeck, definitely a warm weather read. Secondly, ‘In Evil Hour’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; I’ve read and enjoyed other Marquez works but never got round to this one, the hot weather suited this as well and it became unputdownable. Thirdly, a recommendation from a friend, ‘The Boy Made of Blocks’ by Keith Stuart. I prefer to avoid saying, “that’s not my genre,” as it excludes you from picking up so many great works. Often the greatest satisfaction comes from where you least expect it. This was certainly the case in this instance. Why remain in a narrow corridor of possibility when there is so much out in the wide world, if I just step out of my comfort zone? Anyway, enough of the books, I’ll review them elsewhere, this is supposed to be about our experiences on the charming island of Cyprus.
We stayed at ‘The Great Constantinos.’ It was a grand hotel, by the sea with pool and palm trees strategically placed to exploit the sun. February actually falls in the middle of Cyprus’ close season. Our hotel seemed to be the only one open and besides a supermarket and a coffee shop, everywhere else was boarded up, wrapped in plastic and covered in cement dust, a by-product of the ubiquitous building works. To give you an idea how quiet it was, even McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Costa declined to open. This suited us fine, especially as the signs for Karaoke Bars, English pubs and all-night clubs, told us we’d avoided the crowds and noise. We would have struggled to cope had we come during the peak months.
The place is very popular-culture anglicised. The Flintstones, Only Fools and Horses and Stonehenge all have bars here where you can watch the football over a pint and a full English breakfast. Elvis and Don Corleone also get a look in.

Whilst the main intention was to soak up some sun, we did have a short list of other goals. A constant priority is to sample the local cuisine. This was harder to achieve than might be expected with everything closed down. Eventually we found a restaurant in Ayian Napa to serve us Mezze. Friends in England had informed us about this meal. It’s a stream of dishes that just seem to keep coming, “But don’t worry, they are only small,” was the constant reassurance spouted by our friends. The waiter warned us to take it slow, there’s over 20 dishes and then dessert. Well, small is a relative measurement. I soon remembered it was all my fat mates, who had given the assessment. Bulging at the seams, approaching belt-loosening territory, we began to wonder fearfully, how many dishes were still to go. Clare was hoping the dips counted towards the total. They did not. In the end, we had to leave an inordinate amount. Whilst it was a thing to do, a bit of Greek tradition, the final feeling was that it was pointlessly over indulgent. The food was Ok but the promise of what was lurking in the vine leaves was better than the reality, which turned out to be bland nothing much. The various meats, as I have found wherever I’ve eaten in Turkey and Greece, were overcooked and too dry for my taste.

Part of the joy of travelling is the people you meet and the different nationalities you’re able to converse with. Unfortunately, whilst the hotel was truly cosmopolitan everyone seemed determined to live up to their stereotypes. Tony and Amanda were fun but hailing from Essex they appeared intent on confirming as true, the perceptions the rest of us have derived from jokes and television. I know it’s a reputation a large percentage of Essex fight to deny and they were letting the side down.
It was pleasant listening to the vodka raddled Russians on the balcony next to ours crooning along to their balalaika infused folk music in the evening; it was different, an experience you’re not going to find too readily on the streets of Northamptonshire. However, the degeneration to loud arguments, door slamming and even what sounded like fighting, as the drunken night progressed was not what we felt we’d paid to endure. Fortunately, they were gone the next morning before we were able to voice our distaste and commence the new cold war, which in my fatigue, I was bursting to declare. They were replaced by more Russians, equally vodka soaked but respectfully quieter.
The French family were lovely although I couldn’t resist a smile at their opening gambit, a complaint about the poor hotel fare. As an Englishman, I felt unable to criticise, after all, the first discussion with Tony and Amanda was fine, hot weather related and how lucky we were to have avoided Storm Doris raging through Britain at the time. Besides which, I had to agree with the assessment of the food. It was massively samey every night, the cheese was dismal, the meat overcooked with simply a different vague sauce applied each night. The desserts were pretty colours but mostly different arrangements of whipped plastic cream and taste-devoid sponge cake. Although it was a cliché-ridden conversation, they were right, after a couple of days the menu palls. We began to wish more local restaurants were open to supply variety.

On day five of our stay the sun declined to shine as brightly and this offered the ideal moment to take a walk along the Cape Greco as we’d promised ourselves, in search of the endemic fauna of the island. We had a checklist of lizards and birds we were hunting. Unfortunately, it being a bank holiday, for some reason the road to the cape was closed, the bus could only take us so far. It didn’t matter, a clamber back along the craggy sea cliffs would suffice, the views were fantastic and there was just as high a likelihood of finding the creatures we sought. That is until we encountered the charming German couple who insisted on teaming up with us for the walk. Whilst lovely, polite, and anxious to display the extent of their knowledge of the island, they too seemed determined to present themselves as the archetypal Germans, you don’t want to meet on a holiday hike. Lothar particularly wouldn’t stop talking with a decibel level normally associated with those telling stories in a crowded bar. He insisted on telling us how beautiful the views were as though we were struggling to appreciate the landscape for ourselves. The irony was, whilst rambling on about the beauty he missed most of what was before him. We quickly dismissed any chance of identifying any of the birds, they disappeared before we got within a hundred yards, due to Lothar’s professions on Brexit, Trump and Angela Merkel. I told him three times we were there to spot birds but the message seemed to evade him, and he stuck to his assumption I’d come to a cliff top in Cyprus to debate world politics.
He wanted my opinion on whether Germany should also leave the EU. Why? What possible significance could my opinion be, if I had one? He didn’t consider for one moment that I could possibly not have one either. The birds were lost to us due to the inane political chatter but the lizards were still a possibility. Suddenly, I saw a large Agama basking on the rock face. The Germans had walked straight past it, as usual declaring how beautiful everything is, then not noticing it, when it’s right before them. This suited me fine, I fumbled for my phone to grab a photo but Lothar had sensed we were no longer behind him and turned to crunch back along the path spouting details of Angela Merkle’ immigration policy. He was oblivious to my raised hand, which I understood to be the universally recognised sign for ‘Stop!’ Perhaps I should have accompanied it with ‘Halt!’ As the shushes and hushes were clearly lost in translation. The Agama understood though and scuttled into a crevice, not to return. Photo opportunity gone, so the one accompanying this article has been gleaned from the internet. My blood was beginning to boil and not as a result of the glaring sun. I was beginning to understand why we’ve had regular wars with the Germans.
We did manage to register a Sardinian Warbler before they scared it away but the Hoopoe and Bee Eater, so common and easy to spot according to the hopeless app we downloaded (which listed 21 birds only, one of which was a feral pigeon and another the house sparrow,) were nowhere to be seen.
In their ongoing quest to appreciate the nature around them the Germans walked past a writhing mass of caterpillars, as pictured, the only photo I got! I don’t know which butterfly or moth they will metamorphose into, but so many in one place was a wonder to me that far exceeded the machinations of Trump or any other world leader.

As the great peel began on my forehead and the bulb of my nose, we came to the end of our stay in Cyprus. Having a few hours to kill before our transfer to the airport we retired to the Greenery Pub, which advertises itself rudely throughout the region as somewhere that’s always open. Adorned with clover leaves and promising all sorts of food and beer, this pub has every angle covered. It’s English, it’s Irish, it’s Greek. It’s whatever you want it to be. Moreover, it hasn’t seen a makeover since the 1970’s. The floors are vinyl, the ceiling wooden slats and there’s the tattered remains of the decorations of many years of celebrations hanging from pins on every surface. The place has seen action and could probably tell of some good tales. The locals which, included many expats, lounged round a wood burner, smoking, drinking and playing cards as if it was still 1975 and we were in a workingmen’s club. The atmosphere was pleasantly soporific in a grimy, nostalgic sort of way.

Final Assessment

I enjoyed Cyprus immensely, we went for sun and relaxation. Next time though, I’d choose to stay in a villa or small hotel removed from the main tourist areas. Hopefully, we’d find more characters and fewer caricatures.

Travels with Clare. Impressions of Central Europe Part 3 – Budapest

Budapest – Impressions and Reactions

Initial impressions of Budapest are of a larger, more sprawling city than Prague. Svetlana had warned us, whereas in Prague it is feasible to walk from a point of interest to the next quite comfortably, Budapest’s sights are spread too far apart and if you intend filling your time as profitably as possible, you have to resort to the public transport system. Fortunately, it’s excellent. A decent tram network and the Metro system offer comprehensive coverage. They are regular and efficient with day passes and other inexpensive options, even if some of the trains are interesting for their incredible age and last century build.


Hotel and Metro
Our hotel was on a main road, three lanes in each direction with tramlines in the middle. Our room being at the back this didn’t disturb us but, the traffic seemed absolutely manic, haring at full tilt from one red light to brake sharply for the next. The driving certainly seems more “enthusiastic” here.
The metro station like the run down area it served, was bleak and full of rough sleepers. Svetlana had prepared us for the crumbling buildings when she mentioned we weren’t staying in the best part of Budapest but, our experience found that whilst having many fine, strong, potentially impressive and attractive edifices, excepting the magnificent parliament buildings and several others on the banks of the Danube,img_0669 the buildings everywhere were in need of restoration. Too many have boarded up windows and graffiti is  a problem. Nothing more creative than basic tagging, there is no argument to defend against its being simply ugly vandalism. It contributed to the streets’ air of sadness and poverty which in turn was compounded by the proliferation of rough sleepers in every metro station.

The Museum of Terror
Our first port of call was the House of Terror Museum. This tells the story of both the Nazi and Communist occupations of Hungary. Situated in the building used by the secret police of both these regimes, it is not for the faint-hearted. The outside walls are lined with photographs of some of the thousands tortured and executed in the cells preserved in the basement. It is a very sombre and fitting tribute to the lives of so many, often very young people who should never be forgotten. The cells are small, cold and claustrophobic, the gallows and torture rooms, absolutely terrifying. img_0643 img_0644
Svetlana had recommended we pay for an English commentary but as you proceed, each room has handouts in several languages and there are videos playing with English subtitles. It is hard to concentrate on the commentary in your ear whilst trying to follow the videos and I would recommend simply taking the hand outs for reading later. The interviews and accounts by those that lived through the barbarity are truly upsetting and when you remember, the last Soviet soldier only left in 1991, this is recent history. You get the impression the country is still trying to emerge from the fear and depression of those times, and the crumbling state of the buildings becomes more understandable. museum-of-terror-torture-room





We left the museum with a sense of disgust and sadness at the inhumanity but grateful to have been enlightened. We felt nothing but admiration for those brave souls who fought and resisted. Reading the ages of many of them whilst queuing round the building awaiting entry is horrifying; so many, so young. Everyone should visit this museum to understand and hopefully dispel any complacency that could exist. In this case history must not be allowed to happen again.

The Ruin Pubs img_0663

It was getting on for lunchtime, which conveniently decided our next port of call. “You must visit the Ruin Pubs,” everyone had said. We chose the Szimpla Kert. The ruin pubs seem to be a positive solution and reaction to a lack of money. The buildings are ramshackle but if you haven’t the funds to restore them, celebrate what is there. The consequence is a crazily colourful amalgamation of make do. Use whatever you have, old furniture be it from office or home, flowerpots for lampshades, graffiti for decoration, oil drums to rest your drink on. We would call it shabby chic but it goes way beyond our interpretation of the concept. It’s fun and quirky and in these surroundings the graffiti makes a positive contribution and has its own beauty, even if there is the odd crude message from Bob of Wigan. img_0655img_0653img_0659


The Invisible Exhibition
Determined to cram as much as possible into our time, we headed for the Invisible Exhibition. This intrigued us as it involves taking part in activities including eating a meal in total darkness. The intention is to experience what it is like to be blind and to appreciate the problems blind people live with. A warning if you are considering trying it yourself, the venue is extremely hard to find even with address, postcode and GPS. The locals do not appear to be aware of it enough to help, either. Having pounded the same streets for an hour, “it must be here somewhere,” we finally found it, only to be told they didn’t have any English speaking guides on duty that day and it was too dangerous to partake without one. Disappointed, we had to turn back, so if you’re going, phone ahead first to enquire what day a guide speaking your language will be available.

Ecseri Flea Market.
The tourist guides list this market as a significant attraction. We highlighted it as just the thing for us. Finding it was as difficult as the other places had proven to be, maybe worse because it was off the tourist map, heading out of town. We rode the metro to the end of the line then got a taxi.
As an antique market it sufficed and if you were a collector of former communist party badges or medals you would have had your choice of hundreds but, as something exceptional or worthy of inclusion in the list of the top attractions of Budapest, it fell  way short. The stock was ordinary bric-a-brac and the market itself was not even particularly extensive.
The experience helped enforce what was becoming our overall impression of Budapest; like everything else, it was what it was but nothing special. Other than the Museum of Terror nothing seemed to satisfy expectations. Perhaps it was our fault for imagining something more than could be delivered, perhaps we were guilty of comparing it to Prague when we shouldn’t have. It just seems there is potential to make the Budapest experience much better and hopefully, there will be an upturn in the economy, the shadow of the soviet times will be cast off completely and the investment will come with a little imagination to improve and develop a city that sits on one of the most beautiful rivers of the world and holds so much potential.

Food and Drink
As a final comment on this trip, the food and drink of the region is as robust and solid as the architecture. Chunks of pork knuckle, thick goulash in bowls of hollowed out bread loaves and the tripe stew is superb. Most importantly, there are plenty of restaurants serving local dishes. When I travel, I look to experience differences, learn about the culture, the language and the cuisine. Thankfully, both cities still cater for that, the Czech and Hungarian way of life is still visible in their capital cities. We were able to enjoy most of our meals at the restaurant pavement tables, despite it being the beginning of Autumn it was still warm enough, and most establishments supply outdoor heaters and blankets to wrap yourself in, or place across your legs.
Special mention to U Pinkasu, a restaurant recommended by a Czech friend. It is famous and in the middle of Prague, and everything about it was impressive the food, the service, the surroundings and atmosphere. This was our meal of the holiday; we didn’t hold back, had a starter each, main course and drinks. We expected to pay handsomely but when it came to it, the waitress didn’t understand why we proffered a card rather than cash. We in turn, didn’t really understand her confusion but outside calculating the bill, it seemed ridiculously inexpensive. We put it down to our feeble attempts at getting to grips with the currency and converting it to sterling and thought no more of it until, I received my statement a week after our return. The whole meal had cost just £21. Absolutely incredible value for money.
The street food prize has to go to Budapest. Just along the road from Szimpla Kert there are several food stalls including one which sold a hollowed cone of crusty bread filled with various flavours of sausage and garnished with your choice from, amongst other things, roasted onions, pickled cabbage, cheese sauce (very messy option). img_0664img_0665img_0666img_0555img_0557



Food and drink options, from the bizarre John Lemon range of soft drinks to the magnificent Kozel Dark, sausages galore to pork knuckle and pickled cabbage.

Overall, a trip I would recommend as thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening.

Travels with Clare. Impressions of Central Europe Part 2 – The Train, Prague to Budapest

img_0638 Our Train at Budapest Station

After a couple of days in Prague, it was time to catch the train to Budapest, a seven-hour journey through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. We were excited at the potential for seeing the countryside and views offered from a train carriage that would offer the unspoilt rather than the signs, barriers and verges of a motorway or the blue and white nothing out the window of a plane. We downloaded lists of birds and animals peculiar to the region to help identify what we might come across.
The train itself didn’t disappoint. It was a large, imposing diesel and our seat was in an old fashioned six-person compartment similar to those featured in “Stranger on the Train.” Our fellow travellers were welcoming and chatty. One lady, Svetlana, was returning with her partner to her home in Budapest and was eager to tell us where to visit and what to be wary of. My first question concerned the type of countryside we were to travel through. I had visions of mountains and barren spaces, wild vistas and sweeping flatland.
“Industry likes railways, so mainly you’ll see the backs of industrial estates, scrap yards and such like and a lot of farmland.”
This was not promising but I consoled myself with the notion that having travelled that way often and being a local, she had probably become blasé about the world around her and what would be new and fascinating to us, was too familiar to rouse any depth of feeling in her.
The journey started promisingly enough. We travelled through a dense and extensive forest. The sun streaming through the trees which when combined with the onward rush of the train caused a flashing effect as of a strobe light so intense, I feared for any epileptics that may be on board. We strained our eyes into the forest trying to catch a glimpse of bears, boars, wolves. The chances were remote and we saw nothing. It was more likely we could have spotted some birds but, whether because of the speed we were travelling, the time of day or just through sheer bad luck, we didn’t glimpse so much as a pigeon.

Once out of the forest, the scenery disappointed.  The stations we stopped at along the way were drab, dingy, uninspiring places but their names such as Brno and Bratislava intrigued us as to what the cities and towns behind them may be like?
As Svetlana had warned, the rest of the journey was barren fields and the backs of industrial estates but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. The buffet car offered a fine bar and more than passable food.

The waiter was a gift from heaven to an author ever on the search for characters. Our stay in Prague had inspired me to attempt a Kafkaesque short story. The waiter’s polite attitude only partially concealing an assured superiority coupled with his job of travelling up and down the same line for seven hours every day, offered the perfect material and the story is now complete, awaiting revisions.

Svetlana continued to wax enthusiastically about her home city. Top of her list were the spas but we hadn’t come equipped for bathing and subsequently gave them a miss. The Hungarians are very proud of them so this was probably a mistake on our part. If you are considering visiting Budapest this is a generally recommended attraction.
Finally, just short of Budapest, Svetlana asked us how we intended getting to our hotel. When we showed her the address, she remarked on it not being a very salubrious area. We expected this to a degree, as a necessary risk of taking up a special promotion. When she learnt we intended taking a taxi she launched into a very serious warning about which taxis to take.
“They are all yellow so it is hard to distinguish the crooks from the genuine taxis. Only take one with a logo on the side. These are quite small and hard to see, especially when moving and you are trying to flag them down.” She then went on to list the companies that could be trusted, all the others will overcharge.
Finding a taxi proved more difficult than you would expect outside a mainline station but that was probably just us not looking in the right places. We had a drink and then set our mind to searching one out. We were finally successful about half a mile from the station.
I asked the driver for a price before we set off, as Svetlana had told us the maximum we should pay. His price seemed reasonable, despite being a little more than Svetlana’s advice, but we were ready to check in and this was convenient. Outside the hotel, we paid him and only as he drove away and we stood there with a handful of change, did we realise that after all the precautions, we had still been had.
Kudos to his skill and daring and a reminder to us to try to understand the currency a little better.

Outside Budapest Station

Travels with Clare. Impressions of Central Europe Part 1

Stansted Airport, James Martin and Proper British Food. proper-brtish-food
It’s holiday time! We decided to get to Stansted early because that’s the type of people we are but, also because I love to indulge myself on significant occasions, with a full English breakfast. Unfortunately, we hadn’t allowed for the tighter security measures these days, so by the time we’d queued, taken belts and shoes off, waited for the trays the other side of the x-ray machines, had our shower gel confiscated and put belts and shoes back on, time was eking away.
We rushed in the direction of the gates, through the maze of endless stalls populated by driven people trying to swipe your wrists with the latest offerings from Chanel, Lancôme and Paco Rabanne and others insisting you sample their whisky at 7.00 in the bloody morning. I use the word stalls because these tiled airport halls resemble nothing more than a posh scented market place.

Finally, the restaurant section and the first in line looked just the ticket. James Martin’s café with Proper British Food brandished in huge letters across the wall. He knows what he’s doing and appreciates the value of using the finest ingredients, he’s said it often enough on the tele. So let’s see, croissants, pain au chocolat. Must be the French section, over here, oh…giant pretzel. Hardly proper British, where’s the proper British? We had a choice, sausage or bacon bap. Now, I know Yorkshire men like their bacon streaky but, this stuff could have taught Erica Roe something about streaking. I had the sausage, a cup of Italian coffee and huge disappointment at missing out on my full English, including black pudding and mushrooms.
Thanks James, I will have to check out some of your other restaurants.

Impressions of Prague

img_0549 Statues
On arriving in Prague we headed for Wenceslas Square. A little confusing in that it is not square but a long wide thoroughfare. As you emerge from the metro station, the first thing that greets you is an impressive statue of King Wenceslas himself on a giant horse, atop a huge plinth. My immediate reaction was to start singing, Good king Wenceslas looked out on the feast of… Oh, not what I’d hoped, he looks out on a feast of McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and Burger King. The proliferation of these companies is insidious but, business is business and the way the homogenised world is nowadays. (At least when KFC says southern fried chicken that is what you get, James Martin.)






Prague is full of beautiful buildings, like the food big and hearty, which I can appreciate, but my particular preference is for a good statue and the Czechs are brilliant at them. They are everywhere. A friend had warned us that Prague is a city best toured looking up and it’s true, some of the best architecture is up there, adorned by incredible statues, carvings and mouldings.

img_0579Prague was Kafka’s home, an author I haven’t read since my student days but, the statue to his memory saw me reaching for Metamorphosis once more.

Somehow, Prague is the ideal setting for his surreal work complemented as it is by my favourite statue anecdote heard whilst there. Four of the best statues are of composers who adorn the roof of the Concert Hall. One of them is of Wagner, who the Nazis revered another is of Mendelssohn. During the Nazi occupation, Heydrich ordered the removal of the statue of Mendelssohn, a Jew by birth. The soldiers he sent up on the roof had no idea which one was Mendelssohn. They fell back on their anti-Semite lessons and the only thing they thought they knew about Jews; they have big noses. So they removed the statue with the largest nose, Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer.


Prague seems to have a museum dedicated to everything some of them strange and macabre, like the several to different forms of torture and one to sex machines. We didn’t go in any of these, although from the vestibule it appeared the sex machines of Prague’s past were large mechanical, Heath Robinson affairs, driven by cogs and chains. The one that piqued my interest was the KGB museum. I was interested in hearing about the cold war schemes and practices and specific instances. Whilst there were plenty of gadgets on display, miniature cameras, recording devices and some of the weirdest weapons, our guide, a Russian who obviously lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union, gave more than a little cause for concern.

img_0603 img_0608img_0612img_0615






He practically stood to attention whilst watching a Red Square parade, whispering to himself “Beautiful, beautiful.” The more he related the story of the Second World War in particular, the more he revealed himself as a warmonger. Suspicions were confirmed when, holding up a knife, he explained it had been used to kill several Nazis and there were still traces of blood where the blade met the hilt. Raising it to his nose, he took a long and exaggerated sniff whilst uttering with closed eyes, “Aah, Nazi blood.” We left with raised eyebrows and disappointment that we hadn’t heard about the cleverness and subtle intrigue of Cold War spying and the comfort that we hadn’t been lone with the guy.

Quirky Prague.
As most old cities, Prague has its fine buildings, cafes and an area for the tourist, the Charles Bridge where musicians play, you can buy watercolour landscapes, enamel and leather trinkets or have your caricature drawn. It has a fabulous river for cruising on, enjoying a drink or dinner and a castle, but there is also a very quirky side which I would recommend hunting out if you’re there.


There is the John Lennon pub and just up from it, the John Lennon Wall where over the years people have written messages inspired by their love of the Beatles and in particular, John Lennon. It is graffiti on graffiti; continually being added to so the wall evolves and is different to the last time you visited.






Prague seems to have a museum for everything and round every corner, besides those already mentioned, there are the serious, Jewish, Communism and the fun, Beer, Toy, Railway, Lego and Gingerbread. As well s these, every famous son of Prague seems to have a museum, Kafka included.

Finally, for some unaccountable reason, the Czech passion for Russian dolls has resulted in at least two shops, stacked to the ceiling with dolls representing football teams. Every English premier and championship team was there, as well as others from the lower divisions, I would imagine. img_0630

I can’t imagine myself buying one but, there must be a market for them, I suppose. And now we take the 11.54 train to Budapest, passing through Slovakia on the way.