An Englishman abroad…..

For all kinds of reasons, it’s been a long (if not particularly severe) winter for me.  Much of my discomfiture has stemmed from what used to pass for ‘normality’ round here being derailed by events surrounding the death of my Dad and the ongoing issues with his house.  However, I have blogged enough about that – and not enough about the other aspects of my life – something that has irritated me and continues to do so.  However, it seems to me that there is no real point in sitting down and trying to bash out 1500 words about Blodwyn Pig when my main concern is with disposing of furniture and organising the decorators to repaint Dad’s bungalow.  After all, this isn’t a daily newspaper and I have always felt that if the spirit isn’t moving me, it’s probably best not to post at all.

I keep hoping that one day I will sit here and be moved to churn out a piece about anything other than the parish pump affairs that are my principal concern right now.  God knows, there’s enough there to write about; my beloved United are limping towards a 20th League title,  I have, since last November,  been absorbed by George R R Martin’s ‘Song of Ice & Fire’ novels and there has been the usual steady flow of new music coming into the house.  And that’s without really having to stop and think hard about a topic deserving of  the gift of my gilded prose….

Some time in February, my mate Steve put it to me that once the major junk-clearing at Dad’s place was over, what I really needed to do was to get away. Over the years, in numerous beery pub discussions, Steve and I had made a vague plan to visit Amsterdam – a plan that might well have been confined to the bar at the Old Moseley Arms had it not been for so many of my internal map references getting scrambled by the inexorable onward march of time.  In the end, I suppose I thought ‘Why not?’, which is how come Steve & I boarded an obscenely early  flight to Amsterdam one Wednesday morning in mid-March and found ourselves in Dam Square before many of the shops were open.

Although I have changed planes at Schiphol on more than one occasion in recent years, this was the first time I had visited the city properly for over 20 years.  In those days, we used to stay just out of the centre with some friends who moored their huge barge at Ertshaven. just off the Nordsee Canal.  We would venture out into the city for some Indonesian food or to visit a particular bar, but were largely based at the boat.

In old Amsterdam…….

By contrast, Steve, who although he works in the legal trade is even more of an old hippy than I am, had visited on numerous occasions, staying in hotels and making full use of the city’s numerous watering holes.  Thanks to him, we booked ourselves into the Hotel Armada on the corner of Utrechtsestraat, not far from Rembrandtsplein.  We got the train in from Schiphol and just over 3 days later made the return journey, but inbetween, we walked absolutely everywhere – no buses, no taxis, no trams, no boats.  Considering that – at times – any kind of walking represented a severe challenge,  I think that this was quite impressive. 

We were lucky with the weather, too.  Our second full day in town coincided with the first ‘proper’ day of  Spring – a gorgeous day of north European sunlight and brilliant blue skies; just walking around and sitting in the sun ensured that my face picked up a genuine tan.  Steve wanted to explore Jordaan, an erstwhile working district just to the west of the City Centre.  However, before that, he wanted to introduce me to Amsterdam’s coffee houses and their wares.  For a strictly occasional smoker like myself, this was a severe challenge.  Not far from our hotel was a branch of Barney’s – there are several in the city – and we bought some Jamaican flower heads still slightly sticky with resin.  The standard indoor tobacco smoking ban is enforced in Holland, but in the coffee houses of Amsterdam, it has developed a bizarre twist.  You can smoke weed in these places, but thanks to the twisted logic of the modern West, police can enter the premises and challenge you about the contents of your spliff.  Smoking pure weed is OK, but you are not allowed to mix it with anything other than proprietary ‘herbal’ tobacco.  Considering the impact this stuff had on me, I fail to see how anyone could smoke it in an unsullied state and remain upright.  We spent a lost afternoon gawking vacantly at Barney’s widescreen TV which was showing a lot of ski-ing from Austria and Sweden – “Wow, look at that super slo-mo….”.    The walk back to the hotel for a much-needed siesta was mercifully short but still a real challenge.

The places I wanted to show Steve were more connected with drinking.  When people mention Amsterdam to me, I have always expressed the view that Cafe Schiller on Rembrandtsplein is one of my favourite watering-holes in the entire world.  However, it had been over 20 years since my last visit and I know only too well how breweries and interior design consultants in this country have destroyed the character and charm of many of the pubs and bars I used to love.  Thus it was that I entered Cafe Schiller with some trepidation, only to find – hallelujah! – that it was very much as I remembered it; an art-deco gem in an increasingly seedy square, with great beer, friendly staff and an atmosphere and decor all of its own. 

Cafe Schiller…..still a delight

On our walking tour of Jordaan, we found another gem, quite by chance – Cafe t’Smalle on Eglantiersgracht.   This place was originally a ‘tasting room’ for a nearby genever distillery, but because the distilling process was a bit random, people could go there to try the latest batch before committing themselves.  Over the years it has transformed itself into a small and cosy bar of great charm, though to be honest, when we visited, the weather was so glorious that we sat across the road at one of their outdoor tables – they even have a floating ‘pontoon’ on the gracht which further extends their outdoor seating.

Inside Cafe t’Smalle on Eglantiersgracht

From t’Smalle, we headed way across town to the north-eastern margins and the Brouwerij t’ Ij - a thriving micro-brewery sited in an old bathhouse adjacent to one of the city’s few (maybe only) surviving windmills.   They make cracking beer though most of it is on a scale somewhere between lunatic and bastard strengths – none of your Coor’s Light here.  They also have an extensive outdoor seating area that was extremely well-populated for a Thursday afternoon.  Steve and I sat squinting in the bright sun and the world came and went as we hoovered up the excellent local produce.

The De Gooyer windmill with Brouwerij ‘t Ij right next door

You can follow our erratic progress via the links below:

http://barneys.biz/

 http://www.cafeschiller.nl/

http://www.t-smalle.nl/?section=drinken

http://www.brouwerijhetij.nl/index_en.htm

Back from Amsterdam, much of the discussion in the house revolved around the feasibility of an Easter break.  The Princess has just started a 3-month internship down in London;  as a result, she disqualified herself pretty quickly, so it was just the Partner and I this time.  A quick survey of the web revealed that a lot of places were still in their winter slumbers and wouldn’t be opening up until May, so we were quite restricted.  Of the few available options, Turkey seemed like the best bet, so I booked us into a self-catering apartment in Gümbet, a fishing village turned resort just outside Bodrum. 

Here again was another trip down Memory Lane; the Partner & I visited Turkey three times between 1988 and 1994 for three wildly different holidays.  The first was a backpacking adventure.  We flew to Izmir, had a few days in Kusadasi, then got the overnight ferry up to Istanbul.  A few days there and we were off again on a 20-hour train journey beyond Ankara to Kayseri in the centre of the country.  We spent several days wandering round Cappadocia before boarding an overnight bus from Nevsehir to Pamukkale, then after a couple of days there, travelled southwards over the mountains to Fethiye on the Lycian coast.  This was a big adventure and  we really fell in love with the place, the people, the food…the whole kebab, really.

Things had changed somewhat by the time of our next visit.  The Partner was (what felt like) about 3 years pregnant with the Princess, so we just flew to Dalaman and transferred to a modern marble palace of a hotel in Fethiye.  We didn’t venture far – I recall one day-trip to Kas – but most of our local journeys were in and out of Fethiye market to buy clothes and supplies as Airtours had contrived to send our luggage to Malta.  It made its way to us via Athens and Istanbul, arriving in Dalaman just in time for us to pick it up on our way home.

I recall that one of the main challenges of that trip was finding a swimsuit suitable for a heavily pregnant woman.  The Turks don’t seem to be big sea-bathers even in the hottest months, so this was a tough proposition.  In the end, the Partner found a market stall who were selling something of vaguely the right dimensions in plain black material, the like of which you would normally associate with Army greatcoats.  Think that one got left behind.

Our third trip in 1994 was en famille with another couple and their son – born on the same day as the Princess.  This holiday was unusual inasmuch as it was one with which I had little or no involvement in terms of the selection of the hotel or the resort.  Our friend Lynda booked it all, which is perhaps why we ended up in a Kusadasi hotel that was akin to Hotel Bastardo in the Comic Strip’s ‘A Fistful of Traveller’s Cheques’.   The reception seemed permanently inhabited by a revolving posse of swarthy 40-ish local blokes whose main activities seemed to be smoking and watching football matches on TV.  Our room was pretty tatty, though clean-ish and in need of a substantial refurb.  We had a balcony overlooking a work-in-progress building site where no-one ever seemed to do any work.  The Princess was fascinated by the colony of feral cats that were occupying this site, camping out under piles of discarded timber and prowling the rubble.  The amusingly named ‘pool’ was like a large septic tank about 3 metres long  full of greenish water,  of a uniform 2 metre depth and one set of steps to get out – not great for non-swimming youngsters.

It sounds awful and probably was, but in true Blitz spirit we made the best of it and just spent most of our days out at the beach or visiting ancient Graeco-Roman sites like Didyma and Ephesus, which are like fleas on a dog in that part of Turkey.  These sites were routinely dismissed by the Princess as ‘Old Rocks’ – so much for the history and culture of the ancient world.

Through it all, we found the local people to be both friendly and hospitable, the food very attractive to our tastes, the weather hot without being unbearable and the transport options excellent.  Thus it was that I booked us into the Green House Apartment Hotel in Gümbet - after all, it could hardly be worse than Hotel Bastardo.

And so it proved…we arrived at an ungodly hour, slept a bit, then ventured out into Gümbet.  Local people we spoke to suggested that we must be noticing some major changes in Turkey since our last visit, but having not visited the Bodrum area before I couldn’t really offer them any insights.  What is for certain is that hell will have frozen over before you find me in Gümbet during high season.  The most obvious point of comparison for me would be Fuengirola, part of that strip of resorts stretching southwards along the coast from Malaga.  Far too many ‘English pubs’ advertising full English breakfasts, every bar advertising  Sky Sports coverage of the Premiership, ‘Indian’ restaurants and Fish and Chips emporia plus multiple shops  with shelves piled high with fake Adidas and Nike hoodies in eye-watering fluorescent shades.   Gümbet apparently used to be a fishing village but that has all been swept away in a tide of concrete and neon.

So much for the downside.  The upside was that the locals are still getting ready for the mass influx of Brits that will begin next month.  Many places were closed or only open for a few hours a day, most of the tacky-looking nightclubs were shuttered and much work was being done to tart up the pavements and street furniture.  There were also not that many people about - I would say that the Green House was running at about 25% occupancy.

Also, once you ventured a bit further afield, the ‘old’ Turkey could still be found.  We spent very little time in Gümbet itself, just hopping aboard a dolmus and heading into Bodrum or elsewhere.  We found a ‘strip’ of more obviously Turkish shops and restaurants once we got away from the new ‘centre’ of the resort.  Here we found a great restaurant serving excellent kebabs, flatbreads (puffed up by the steam inside them) and salads at a very attractive price.  Bodrum itself was also OK in parts once you got off the beaten track.  In the backstreets and the narrow lanes down towards the harbour we found some great cafes and shops.  The twice-weekly market was also excellent and we were able to stock up with pistachios, figs and spices as well as the inevitable quota of cheap, fake Lacoste and Polo clothing. 

A back lane in Bodrum…….

The apartment was fine; part of a complex built around a pool, bar and cafe.  The weather was still a bit too cold for swimming and we had a couple of days of serious rainstorms, but if you could find a spot out of a chilly and persistent north wind, there was real power in the sun.  The staff – mainly Kurdish – were great, too, so we were happy enough once we were in situ.   The Partner found a Hamam across the road from the Green House and paid a couple of visits to have herself depilated and pummelled whilst I watched United stroll past QPR and get well-beaten by Wigan in the poolside bar – basically it was just myself and the staff; no having to rub shoulders with Scousers or City fans, thankfully.

Faces at Bodrum Market……

We also ventured out by dolmus to a couple of places further out on the peninsula.  Turgutreis was quite a big place, but with an attractive seafront and enough shops to keep the lira flowing out of our pockets.  We also had a good, though relatively expensive meal at a posh-looking fish restaurant on the seafront.  Two days later we went out to Gümüslük, a far smaller village with a quaint cove-like harbour and local fishing boats that somehow evoked memories of Cornwall.

Sunset at Turgutreis

All in all, it was a good trip, though I doubt that I shall ever return to that area.  Being out on a peninsula makes any excursion from Bodrum necessarily longer than other resorts further north or east.  Now, I’m back and ready to push on with the last leg of clearing/renting my Dad’s place.  Also, happily, I have been able to sit down and post here for the first time in a long time without brooding over all the other issues I’m having to deal with.  It seems that a change is as good as a rest – and if you can manage both, so much the better.

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