Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Kim Wall memorial

I’ve decided to drop everything this Friday to attend Swedish journalist Kim Wall’s memorial service at the Swedish Church here in London.
Why would I choose to do that, given that I certainly didn’t know Kim personally?

I remember sitting in remote Swedish Lapland when the story broke that a female Swedish journalist was missing in Denmark. How I hoped that story would have a happy ending… It did not, and the man Kim was interviewing for an investigative piece of journalism, Peter Madsen, now stands accused of her brutal and shocking murder.

The question that has come up, and that irks the hell out of me, in the aftermath of this horrible crime, is “why did Kim put herself in that situation?”, as though we as journalists, and in particular female journalists, should be “more responsible” in our approach to our work. We should somehow be aware, beforehand, what kind of tendencies the person we’re interviewing might have. This is not possible. Kim could not possibly have known what kind of situation she was getting into, when she was interviewing Madsen, who might have seemed eccentric, but was well-known as an inventor, not a homicidal maniac.

Now, I don’t do investigative journalism, I don’t write about politics or world affairs, I don’t cover war zones, but that said, I can think of countless occasions, as a travel writer, when I have had to rely on complete strangers in remote locations, without recourse to the usual safety nets. I’ve simply had to trust that “this person is all right”, even though I’d never met them before, just to get the work done in the smoothest and best possible way open to me at that time. Had I been Kim, investigating that piece, would I have taken the same risk as her? Undoubtedly.

If there were people in Madsen’s life, people who’d known him over the years, who did not suspect him of being capable of murder, then why on earth would a journalist on assignment realise it? I don’t think it’s (female) journalists taking unnecessary risks, but rather to do our job we have to make a judgement call on when to trust people. The better we’ve become over the years at choosing wisely, the more we assume that we are “safe with strangers.” And let’s face it, most of the time we are. One of the reasons this case is so shocking, is because it’s so unusual. Even though journalists the world over have seen their professional life become more dangerous in recent years, we manage to interview people every day in all sorts of settings and make it home at the end of the day. Just like Kim should have been able to – she could not foresee this mission would be her last.  

Kim Wall’s death is a sad loss, but to lose our desire and ability to explore and investigate would be a sadder loss still. To creep back under our safety nets for fear of the repercussions would be a tragedy, because in this day and age, staying silent is the real danger. Kim Wall’s legacy is all-important.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

What passing my driving test at 47 taught me about writing and perseverance.

It's 2010 and I've just turned 40. Although born and raised in rural Sweden, I've lived all my adult life abroad, mostly in London, UK.  We might frequently moan about the British capital’s public transport, but truth be told, there’s hardly any need for a car in London. Consequently, I rarely, if ever, missed having a driving licence. 

Then, out of the blue and in the nick of time as my elderly mother's health started deteriorating, I decided to move back to Sweden for a few months in the late autumn of 2010 and for the first time ever I not only wished I'd been able to drive, I cursed and swore at the fact that I did not, on a regular basis. My temporary accommodation was in a tiny village far from everything, including of course shops, with only twice daily buses to the nearest town. My nearest (and only) shop was a good 20-30 mins walk away. Good exercise for sure, but some 4 weeks into my stay the snows started arriving and stayed put for the entire remainder of my time in Sweden. Several times a week I could be seen, a bundle of winter clothes (ridiculously brightly coloured, as I'd been warned about the local elk hunt taking place in autumn), trundling to said shop - the only shop for miles - cursing and muttering to myself about the cold and the distance and I usually like snow! That was it, my mind was made up - I was going to get a driving licence.

Fast-forward to late spring 2011 and I was finally back in London after a stint doing guidebook research in Colombia and ready to commence battle. Only I didn't know at the time what a battle it would turn into. Up until then I had had a few lessons with my dad at 18, which nearly led to some quality patricide in more ways than one when a) I nearly went into a ditch, mixing up accelerator and brake pedals and b) desperately wanted to throttle him as I found him far too impatient (and nervous). There was also a scarily memorable lesson in London in my mid-20s, when my instructor, who insisted on doing the whole lesson in Spanish after I confessed I spoke his native tongue, took me around London's Hyde Park in rush hour on my first lesson, leaving me traumatised for years to come.
This time around though, I was older and braver and much more determined. What could possibly go wrong? 

My first instructor in London was, upon reflection, quite frankly in the wrong job. He used to run a restaurant before and was clearly used to a completely different job and environment. Although described to me as a very patient instructor, within one lesson I could easily imagine him having words with chefs and restaurant staff. He instilled in me such a fear of not changing gears fast enough, that I'd be forever slipping gears and nearly losing control of the car at roundabouts and junctions, worrying he'd give me a hard time about my slow gear changing, when it would have been far better if I’d paid attention to the road and what was going on around me.

It didn't take me long to realise that learning in London wasn’t just a battle, but a losing battle - there was too much traffic, too many people, too many white vans breaking the law at every turn. My instructor, though, was adamant that I had to pass "as soon as possible" and in part I felt he was right, I did want that licence after all. Passing my theory test with flying colours - one mistake, I think - I was sadly nowhere near ready to pass my practical yet. Time was ticking on and by now it was early 2012. My driving was not improving and in order to stand a better chance of passing, I booked an intensive course in Abergavenny, Wales. If possible, I got on even less well with my instructor there and to top things off, my mother went into hospital in Sweden that same week, adding to the stresses in a different way. As it was, I didn't even attempt to take the practical test at the end of my week, I was so sure I didn't stand a chance. (Instead I went to the wonderful Angel Hotel in Abergavenny for Welsh tea, but that's an aside to the current theme).

It was late spring, about a year after I first started learning, that I finally attempted the practical test, this time in Dorchester, Dorset, and even though I didn't pass, my failure bizarrely filled me with confidence. I only made a total of four mistakes, unfortunately including two serious, which is an automatic fail, although you are allowed 14 minor faults in total.
Next time, I thought to myself, optimistically. As it was, another 5 1/2 years were to pass before I would finally get there! I had to redo my theory test, not twice, but four times - not just because the results are only valid two years, but I also had the misfortune to fail the hazard perception element of the test once, having not done any actual driving for months.

Don't get me wrong, it's not as though I was driving every week and was an exceptionally slow learner (although it has to be said I was hardly very fast). Instead there'd be months on end when life and/or work would take over and I'd need to be away over longer periods, either on guidebook writing assignments, or helping elderly parents in Sweden (and a driving licence would obviously have been useful for both). Each long absence, although not bringing me back to square one, certainly felt like it allowed me to wave to square one from only a short distance away. 

Over the years I tried all sorts - I drove a friend's car, I had lessons in London and elsewhere, I did intensive courses in Wales and Dorset, I read theory till I was blue in the face and feel fairly certain I still remember most of the highway code. I changed instructors several times and soon learned that they weren't all in the right job, I changed test centres and types of cars, but nothing seemed to break my spell of bad luck - regardless of how good a driver you are, you still need things to come together on the actual test day.  I failed on the manoeuvres, I failed on roundabouts, I failed on stalling and failing to move off safely and finally I failed on speeding - something I'd never even done in a lesson before! But finally, finally it was my day! 

Since the summer I had been determined to pass, and to pass in London, despite having to take most of last year off to spend it in Sweden to help elderly parents. Having failed in June, July and October, the morning of the 6th of December, my test date, dawned with a terrible sense of doom. New test rules had come in two days before and I had only had two lessons to practise the new stuff. I'm not usually nervous, but the night before I only managed to squeeze in some 3-4 hours sleep. So convinced was I that I'd fail, that nothing could shake my bad mood. I just wanted it over and done with and was already planning my post-test lessons. (Yep, it's amazing anyone can pass with that attitude, but after so many failed tests, I simply could not believe I'd finally pass.) Nervous as all hell, I drove more calmly than usual and passed with 2 minor errors. I could hardly believe it! It’s taken time to understand that by NOT passing straight away, you do become a much better driver (although passing a bit quicker would have been nice). Essentially, I have already been driving for over six years and sure, there are plenty of things I still need to practise, but I have already done big city driving (and plenty of it), rural, narrow country lanes and everything in-between, at all different times of day and pretty much in all weathers. I've known for some time that I can drive, but I've repeatedly failed to get the proof.

So, what's all this got to do with writing? First of all, if you truly want something, don't give up. If it's worth your time, money and effort, then it's worth fighting for and there's no point giving up until you've reached your goal. Perseverance is key when it comes to many endeavours and this is perhaps especially true in the writing professions. 
There is another lesson hidden in there too. I realised, I could change instructors, cars, test centres, the works, but ultimately, I had to keep honing my skills before I could pass that final hurdle and get my licence. The same goes for writing - you can change agents, publishers, editors, writing environments and everything else, but sometimes what you really need to do is keep learning, keep writing and perfecting that manuscript. Until it's ready.

When it comes to learning something new, maybe something that doesn't come naturally to you and you have to work a bit harder at it, it's good to have support around you. Kate in Wales had the patience of an angel, booking all my intensive courses, putting up with constant date changes to accommodate my various familial crises over the years and I had three fantastic instructors - Jim in Dorchester, Norman in Bangor and Maria in London, to whom I'm extremely grateful for their patience and encouragement (especially Maria who finally got me there, so to speak). I also had plenty of good support from friends, even if it did include quite a few stories of how they passed on their first attempt, which I could handle with reasonably good cheer the first few years. Some stopped asking about my driving for fear of embarrassing me, but that was actually a better approach than those who kept saying "are you still doing that?" or worse "you're not still doing that, are you?"
It's been a long road, but getting my licence is the best Christmas present ever!

Road trip, road trip, road trip!!!!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Solo at 16 – My First Travel Adventure

I’m fifteen years old, stuck in middle-of-nowhere Sweden and dying to get the hell out of dodge. Of course at that tender, wonderful age most of us believe we’re very mature and adult. I was no exception and somehow I managed to persuade my parents to believe it as well. Yes!

So it was that a few days before my sixteenth birthday I set off, all by my ownsome, to visit a pen-pal in North Wales, a journey that involved me travelling by ferry, train and coach for some 30 hours. What had I let myself in for? Being brave was definitely a lot easier without actually leaving the house – now I had to conquer the North Sea for 24 hours from Gothenburg to Harwich, get a train to London’s Liverpool Street, then from there get myself to Victoria Coach Station and find the bus to Bangor, and all of the above in English as well.

My jolly opinion was as per usual “how hard can it be?” and at least initially it didn’t prove particularly hard at all. My parents dropped me off at the ferry in Gothenburg and with a tremendous sense of independence and achievement I settled into my cabin. The voyage was peaceful and it wasn’t until the following day I found out we were running two hours late. I had given myself two hours to get from Liverpool Street to Victoria, having never been to London before. Now suddenly the two hours were gone and as far as I could tell I would miss my bus to Bangor, the last one of the day. Gulp! Panic set in…

To calm my jittery nerves I went to the onboard cinema and concentrated so hard I can still remember the entire plot and some of the lines of “White Nights” with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Isabella Rosselini, some 30 years later. We arrived in Harwich slightly earlier than anticipated and I made a mad dash for the London-bound train, failing to realise it would simply wait and leave when everyone had disembarked.

Still, I got to Liverpool Street half an hour before my bus was leaving from Victoria and decided I had nothing to lose. I grabbed a cab and learnt the valuable lesson that a desperate woman can make a London cabbie step on it and break every possible traffic rule, even if she’s 15 and it’s the first time she’s trying out her English in England. We made it with ten minutes to spare, but my problems weren’t over yet. To my abject horror, Victoria Coach Station was huge and there were buses everywhere. By now I was sweating like a pig, dragging my sorry suitcase along behind me, legs shaking, asking everyone for the bus to Bangor.

“Bangor? Yes, right there, love.” Phew there was hope at last.
Getting on the bus in question, of course I asked again to make extra sure and got the answer that “no, this is the bus for Dublin.” Little did I know, back then, that the bus to Dublin stopped in Bangor on the way, so I clambered off the bus again and continued my search, increasingly close to tears.

One minute to six, just as the bus was leaving, the driver, who’d directed me to the right bus in the first place, spotted me and put me out of my misery. I got the last bloody seat on the National Express to Dublin (and Bangor!) and like a wet rag I sank into it, thinking I probably didn’t have the nerves for travel after all… One trip does not a seasoned traveller make, but it was good practice.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Letters from the past

If in this day and age you end a relationship or friendship, it's the easiest thing in the world (on the surface at least) to erase all traces of it - press delete and all emails from the person in question disappear. Go back in time to the era before the internet, however, and you're faced with a different scenario.

My mother's recent death is proving an excellent time for "healing through sorting". As I needed to return to my own life in London after her funeral in Sweden, I had no choice but to go through all her belongings first; what to keep, what to give away, what to bin - that is the "business" and aftermath of death.

Upon my return to London I suddenly felt compelled to do the same in my own home - a spring clean of sorts, during the height of autumn. My mother and I kept up a keen correspondence over the years, until she became too ill to write and we have over 20 years of letters and cards exchanged between us. Suddenly I had, not only her letters to me, but my letters to her, in my possession.

The idea was to try and put them into some kind of date order and read the whole correspondence, like a "book of our relationship". But I got sidetracked...  Since my early teens, I think it's safe to say I have gathered my fair share of letters and cards over the decades. This autumn I began to go through, not my mother's letters, but all the other letters sent to me over the years. I have regularly gone through and got rid of letters from time to time - a keen writer as a teenager in rural Sweden, at one point I had well over a hundred so-called pen-pals, from all corners of the world (and some of them I'm in touch with to this day, although email and skype have taken over from the hand-written letters). When my saved letters needed many large boxes and mostly languished in a cupboard under the stairs, or in suitcases atop wardrobes, I realised I needed to start seriously "culling them".

The culling has got easier over time, but this autumn I found that I still had two large drawers filled to the brim with "the most special letters" - love letters, Valentine's cards, deeply personal letters from past friends and lovers. In other words, the written words I found it the hardest to part with.

I found the letters, and I went through them, one by one. I may not have read every single one, but I read the vast majority. I let myself remember, I allowed feelings to flow - gratitude, love, compassion, anger, annoyance, disbelief, sorrow - and then I let them go. I was for quite some time stunned by the contents in some of these letters. How much one forgets, how raw some emotions seemed, how heartfelt, how tragic even. If I'd ever doubted that I've been loved, appreciated and important to people, there was ample written proof right there, hiding in my own bedroom drawers. The temptation was of course to keep these letters, to keep reminding myself of past feelings, past regrets, friendships and relationships long since dead and gone. Right up until this point in time I have given into that temptation again and again, unable to part with these souvenirs, holding on to the memories attached to them in some tiny way, even if I hardly ever think of the persons, male and female, who wrote them.

But why hold on? Many years have passed, most of the people who touched my life and whose lives I touched, are no longer relevant to the present moment.
I feel quite physically and emotionally worn out after going through these written accounts and the accompanying feelings, but I also feel far lighter having let them go, having drawn that line, having shed that weight. I can appreciate what has been, without missing it or wanting it back. It's time to build something new. I trust recycling might turn these letters and cards into something different, a new shape, a new form.

As for my mother's and my letters, they are waiting to be read at a different time and in a different frame of mind. When I'm ready for those chapters.

Friday, 28 October 2016

What doesn’t kill you…

…makes you miserable. That was the saying, right?
This year has offered such numerous and varied misfortunes that I’ve almost been wondering if some ex or other hasn’t used an ancient curse on me.
Several deaths in the family, illnesses, lack of work, disappointments and hardships of various kinds – and it’s only October! A true year of physical, mental and emotional challenges of the kind that I’ve never faced before, not in this way and not to this extent.

What doesn’t kill you doesn’t just make you miserable, but it can also make you shut down and close yourself off. For awhile. Sometimes this is the healthiest option. Take time out, reflect and lick your wounds in whatever way works best for you – a journey, finding solace in nature, losing yourself in music, meditating, physical activity etc. But what if we forget to open up again?    
Trouble starts when you stay shut down, when nothing and no one seem able to “unlock you”. Staying shut down and closed off can become a habit, especially when you’ve had to stay in that position for too long, protecting yourself from hurt.

Throughout this year, one of my mantras has been to “stay open”, even through the hard and painful times. Protecting yourself from hurt by closing yourself off from other people, experiences, or your own feelings, in the end turns into a monumental task, and one that is doomed to fail. Life can never be deemed safe, there will never be any guarantees that you won’t have to face loss, grief, sorrow, heartache, disappointment and all kinds of pain, physical, as well as emotional. It is not possible to only take chances when it’s safe. It is never safe.

When we’re in our darkest moments, we often fear – just as when suffering from depression – that the present is the future, that what we’re feeling in this moment is how we’ll always be feeling, but that too is not possible. Everything in this Universe changes all of the time. How you feel this minute is not how you’ll feel tomorrow. You may feel worse, but you may also feel a little better. Whatever you’re going through, whatever experiences you’ve endured, it may have made you miserable, it may have made you stronger, but the choice to open up or to shut down is always yours. Do both, if you need to, but the choice to recommence, to start afresh when you feel your grieving is completed, is also yours. It will take work and no one else can carry out the work for you. Ultimately you have a choice between moving on or staying stuck. You know what happens to old wounds – they fester – and living in them can’t be much fun.

Even the most trying of years have countless blessings if we look for them. I now have a wonderful, supportive partner, without whom I could not have got through this year. Friends and relatives, near and far, have rallied and shown their support in many ways. It’s truly been a year to demonstrate who are the fair-weather friends and who are the all-weather ones. Unsurprisingly quite a few have disappeared altogether, while others, unexpectedly have made guest appearances that I hadn’t anticipated. I’m grateful for everyone who’s been helping me through this tough time. As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for my mother’s funeral next Friday. Rest in Peace, mum.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Celebrating life?

My mother’s been in hospital in a serious condition for nearly a week, but she’s slowly improving. So why am I not celebrating? Why am I not rejoicing at this positive development? Would I want my mother to pass away?

Over the last decade I've watched as my mother has, little by little, lost her mental faculties and the ability to do most of the things she enjoyed in life. Walks in woods, swims in lakes, baking, cooking, sewing, knitting, writing, reading, dancing, chatting to friends – all of the above are becoming more and more distant memories for her. By now, at the age of 89 going on 90, there are only really two things she loves that she’s still able to do: going for short walks and singing. If these two joys disappear also, then what is left of her quality of life?

The last five days I’ve been sitting at her bedside, watching her sleep, trying to make out the words she’s uttering when wakeful. While friends and family wish for a speedy recovery, I realise there’s a part of me that strongly wishes the opposite. Chances are my mother will never recover enough enjoy the last two of all her joys – she can barely speak and can’t get out of bed at this stage – so why would I wish for her to live on, just so that I get to have her alive.

If there’s anything “positive” about long, slow diseases, it is that they give you a chance to prepare for the inevitable. Call me hard-hearted, but my mother’s been near death these last few days and I have not shed a single tear. Not because I don’t care. Instead, it’s testament to the floods of tears I’ve shed during her slow descent into full-blown dementia over the years. The woman who was my mother, the person I knew and loved, has long since left the building. Her personality, her temperament, even her looks, have changed beyond recognition, although there are sometimes tiny sparks of her old self.

Arriving at the hospital, straight off the plane from London, had I not known the room number, I would have taken one quick look at the figure in the bed, determined that it was not my mother and continued to look for her, so drastically different did she seem.

All I wish for my mother now, is for her to feel safe and warm, loved and cared for, without pain and without fear. After years of grieving for the slow loss of her, I feel I’m far more prepared for her to die, than to live. It’s the simple truth: I cannot celebrate life alone, without some semblance of quality. If the choices are a long, slow, painful demise, or a swift passing, the latter seems blissfully preferable.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Why bother learning Welsh if you speak English? Thoughts on linguistic arrogance.

When I tell people I was learning Welsh for two years and would love to continue learning, whether the person I’m speaking to is English or not, I’m usually met with the same reaction. “You were learning Welsh? What for? Why bother if you already speak English?

To me, this is a bit like saying, “why would you bother getting to know someone, unless they have lots of friends already? How could they possibly be interesting and have great stories to tell?” 
The idea that only languages that are widely spoken are worth learning, is very common, but I find this to be quite simply a form of arrogance, or perhaps ignorance (and it’s a fine line between those two “pals” at times). The common assumption appears to be that a language spoken by fewer people couldn't possibly contain any mystery, magic, culture, history or ancient knowledge. Indeed, the opposite also prevails; a language spoken by many can somehow contain all knowledge, expressions, history and culture just because it's spoken and understood by the many, not the few.
Smaller languages are fascinating and every bit as worthwhile to learn as those spoken by the multitudes. Out of the eight languages I have actively tried to learn to date, three are spoken by fewer than ten million people. I had an advantage with Norwegian and Danish, but they are still different enough from Swedish to require an effort. 
One of the very best bonuses of speaking a smaller language, is people’s attitude towards you when you meet native speakers. The fact that you, as a foreigner, are making the effort to learn their language is so much more appreciated than you breezing in expecting everyone to speak English. And that is just one of many advantages and hidden gems that come from trying your tongue at a language not widely spoken. Each language holds so many keys and clues to a whole culture, it makes understanding a place and its people far easier. There’s also that smug feeling you get when you know something not that many others know, of course…

I admit I have a list of languages I want to pick up and several of those are also “smaller” in terms of native speakers. But is size really that important? How often do you actually want to talk to 10 of millions anyway? Conversation is often on a one-to-one basis, that’s where the magic of getting to know someone takes place. The same goes for reading – the words are between you and your book. Yes, English is extremely useful and that also goes for several of the other “mega-languages” out there, such as Spanish, but to me at least, speaking several “big languages”, doesn’t take away my desire to learn some smaller ones too. Luckily when it comes to language learning, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. I’d go as far as to say that any language is worth learning and each will have its own magic worth mastering.  So why did I bother studying Welsh? Well, why the hell not!? It's great and the word for beer sounds like a cat purring. And they have all those frisky, new vowels. If I hadn’t tried, I’d have been missing out on a whole world of fascinating sounds, words and excellent quirkiness. It's OK to do both big and small in the language equation in my book.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Letter from Mexico - Travel writing retrospective part X (final part)

Letter from Mexico

I was sitting down to “la comida”, the 2 o’clock main meal of the day, all members of my adopted Mexican family around me, when suddenly the table began to shake and wobble ever so slightly. A steady clatter of china and crockery started filling the air, my soup-laden spoon spilling its contents on the tablecloth. Simultaneously everyone put their spoons down, closed their eyes and clasped their hands together as they softly began reciting an Ave María. Tremors like this one, although certainly not a daily occurrence, were by no means rare in Mexico.

I had arrived in the central city of Toluca, capital of the State of México, with some 1.5 million inhabitants, a couple of months before. Incurably optimistic, very young and rather green I’d decided to set aside a couple of years to work as a volunteer in a Mexican orphanage, while having a stab at teaching English into the bargain – quite ironic as I happen to be Swedish originally, but nobody seemed to mind – Toluca was having a constant shortage of teachers who actually spoke the language themselves and this “career option” was somewhat forcefully thrust upon me once word got around that I had spent a full six months in England.

Finding work was easy, blending in a totally different matter. Toluca is hardly well-known for its sights and if visitors were few and far between, foreigners who stayed on were almost unheard of. We stood out like a sore thumb and I could soon count on my ten fingers the people who made up the “expat community”. Making friends with the city’s only black man, Letoy from Haiti, the orphanage doctor and fellow English teacher – anyone who could teach it, did – quite possibly made us the most conspicuous people in town when out together. Getting noticed and meeting people was never hard – to start off with they were almost literally queuing up to find out where I was from and above all, why I was here, alone. Overcoming the confusions as to the location of Sweden was easy enough with a map, but how to explain being a woman on her own, so far away from friends and family?

This was Mexico in the early 1990s and twenty years as a fiercely independent only child had in no way prepared me for the time-honoured traditions of the Mexican family. Quite possibly nothing could. “Wanting to be alone” was clearly an alien concept that I failed to explain any better than my vain attempts at putting my incorrigible wanderlust and persistent sense of adventure into words. Not having a husband, or even worse, not wanting one, was another tricky topic the señoras and abuelitas tut-tutted over in the kitchen and el living, as they always called the lounge.

The first six months were hard; never understanding a joke as my Spanish was useless – I thought I’d finally got the hang of it, but in fact whenever I thought I’d politely said “aren’t you going to introduce me?”, I’d actually been saying “aren’t you going to penetrate me?” – singing merrily in the Catholic choir and then accidentally letting my Protestant background slip, leading to widespread displeasure amongst all my newfound friends, accidentally blocking my family’s loo after they innocently fed me giant chillies disguised as peppers, bringing a copy of Cosmopolitan to English class, not realising it contained a feature on lesbianism, thus horrifying all my students and fellow teachers and undoubtedly countless other taboo-related boo-boos that fortunately no one had the heart to tell me. I survived that mini-earthquake, a week-long hospitalisation, large shots of tequila and too many strange come-ons from short men than I care to remember.

Still, I stuck it out, spending almost two years in Mexico in the early and mid-90s – years that at the time often felt almost too tiring and different and difficult, but that in the end proved endlessly rewarding. To learn a new language there’s no better way and fluent Spanish has stood me in good stead ever since, not to mention gaining a love for and insight into Mexican food, music, history and culture – I can even make that once loathed chilly dish, chiles rellenos, at home in London now.

Mexico in the 1990s was in a flux, a state of great change, and it was a momentous time to spend there. Mexico City was still in parts reeling from the large earthquake of 1985; the currency suffered devaluation and social unrest followed; it was the time of the NAFTA free trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada; the Zapatista movement launched in Chiapas and, perhaps most importantly, the era of PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the party that had ruled Mexico for over 70 years in various guises, was coming to an end. Mexico had its problems, but it was starting to come of age, the role of women was changing, a larger and stronger middle class emerging, political awareness increasing and living there then was to be a part of all the happenings, witnessing the changes firsthand.

Fast-forward some fifteen years to 2008 and I’m finding myself back in the country again, a full seven years since my last, rather short visit. If the changes before had seemed gradual, nothing makes transformations as obvious as a long absence. It’s hard to pinpoint the main physical differences, instead what’s taken place strikes me as a shift in consciousness, as though a new liberal, more tolerant mindset has taken over. This positive side, however, also has a tougher, murkier counterpart. Back home in London, the tube isn’t my favourite place, but in Mexico City it’s a different story. Mexico City’s metro, opened in 1969, has always been the easiest way to get through a city often clogged with traffic, people and pollution. Not only is it fast and efficient, but I also remember it as a real piece of Mexican street-life transferred underground, full of interesting characters; the vendors. “Spare some change” is not really a Mexican phenomenon and most Mexicans are busy making a living – by any means possible. Some of these means may be both annoying and illegal, but somehow they seem more honest. Stepping onto the metro train from the platform, I was looking forward to my re-acquaintance with this slice of Mexico on my way to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in the southern suburb of Coyoacán.

When boarding I can’t help noticing two men in uniform getting off, both sporting that scarily bad, short army haircut, triggering a vague notion of military presence. Then, looking up a few stations later, there they are again – just getting off briefly, then getting on again at every stop. And does it seem just a little bit quiet in the carriage? Where are the calls for “chiclet 1 peso” and the likes? On closer inspection the uniforms boldly state “public security” and the guards have that fierce, unforgiving look about them. Curiosity always gets me, so I simply do what I’d never do on the tube normally and turn to the guy next to me, asking him “who are these guys?”. “They’re here to grab us,” he explains and he isn’t kidding. Hidden between his legs is a large bag with his stash of goods for sale, awaiting the right opportunity. Luckily there are far more trains than there are guards and as soon as the two of them leave the carriage, the vendors come out full force. They’ve devised an excellent warning system, signalling to fellow vendors on opposite platforms the number of guards they’ve seen and what stations they’re on. On the surface these guards are here to fight crime, but what they’re trying to kill off in the process is the sheer spirit of those in Mexico who have very little. At least it looks like they are very far from succeeding – an atmosphere of creative resistance still prevails here and I instantly feel transported back to the Mexico I know and love, the minute the guards are gone.

Later on I take a casual stroll in La Zona Rosa, the Pink Zone, one of my old favourite haunts. The English name might cause you to suspect this to be the gay area, but only seven years ago there was nothing of the kind – just posh shops and eateries. Now suddenly the place is living up to the name and a whole gay village has sprung up. Further south, in Mérida, I happen upon an animal rights’ demonstration, something you wouldn’t have seen much of in the past – people wouldn’t have had the time and if they did, they often had other more pressing issues to deal with. This is not to say that sectors of Mexico’s population don’t face economic hardships and difficulties still – this is a very large country with well over 100 million people, some of whom live far below the poverty line. There are environmental and racial issues, drug cartels and corruption – sadly Mexico has recently become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for investigative journalists to work in – the conflict in Chiapas has been joined by more unrest in neighbouring states Oaxaca and Guerrero and it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to atrocities such as the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in the northern city of Ciudad Juárez. Still, upon returning I feel quietly optimistic, struck by the fact that Mexico is taking leaps towards a more tolerant and open frame of mind, one that allows for its own citizens and its many visitors to experience and explore the diversity of this wonderful nation to the full and become truly enriched by it.

By Anna Maria Espsäter
First British Rights

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Magic Sofas and Elk Steaks – Travel writing retrospective part IX, Norway

Magic Sofas and Elk Steaks

“There’s something so quiet and cosy about a snow-covered town, like it’s been nicely tucked up and put to sleep”, I was thinking to myself stepping off the ski train from Oslo, the none-too-large capital of Norway. The small snow-covered town where I found myself on this dark evening in March, shivering a bit in the below zero temperatures, was called Geilo and although significantly smaller than the Norwegian capital, with only some 2000 souls to its name, it still manages to be one of the country’s key ski centres with no less than 39 slopes, 20 ski-lifts and 220 km’s worth of cross-country tracks. It might have looked sleepy under its fluffy blanket of white stuff upon my arrival, but as it turned out there was plenty of life in this 100-year resort, nestled amidst stunning mountain scenery alongside the Ustedalsfjord, some 4 hours north of Oslo.

Ski tourism has formed an integral part of Geilo ever since the late 19th century, with the first slalom race held in 1935 and the first ski-lift opened in 1954. When the railway arrived in 1909 this also heralded a new era for tourism and to coincide with its opening, one of Geilo’s most impressive hotels, Dr Holm’s, also opened up its doors. On the surface, Geilo just looks like a tiny village huddled below formidable mountains, but there is something here that not just takes people in, but also keeps bringing them back. It’s no coincidence that this has been one of Norway’s most lasting tourism success stories. Geilo has a lot to offer.

The ski season often starts as early as the end of November and then carries on right through to mid- or late April. Although the winters are pretty long, not to mention pretty cold, this really lends itself to perfect ski conditions. During my stay in March temperatures hovered between 0 and -5, with glorious sunshine from a bright blue sky, followed by the odd “snowpour” and some wickedly howling winds. There’s definitely less need for artificial snow in this area and the landscape all around me was covered in some 2 metres of powder, the nearby fjord frozen solid in most places.

As a resort, Geilo is particularly good for both children and the beginner to intermediate skier, something I was very grateful for, having had quite a lapse since I last stood on skis. This doesn’t make for a boring stay though, as there’s plenty of variety whatever your abilities with good options for the more advanced and adventurous skier, and best of all, there are hardly ever any queues. Despite the resort’s popularity there’s a blissful sense of space, nobody jostling to get on the lifts, nobody cutting you up or ruining your time on the slopes.

Many of the lifts have the latest in high-tech equipment with, for example, heated seats. Be warned though, some of the safety mechanisms can be a bit hard to manipulate, something I discovered when I had the whole seat to myself, only to find that I didn’t quite have the muscle power to bring down the safety bar around me. Soon I found myself flying above the tree tops without anything keeping me in place – rather like flying on a magic sofa! This is not to say that they’re not safety-conscious at Geilo. Normally they’re very good at strapping you in, but as a one-off adventure it was quite nice, given that I couldn’t really have fallen out of my seat any more than you’re likely to fall out of your own sofa at home.

Geilo is a good place to break yourself in gently if you’re a bit rusty and soon you’ll find yourself back in the swing of things. Alternatively if you’re getting the hang of skiing for the first time, this is also the place to do it. All the ski instructors teach new skiers in their native language, whether it’s English, German, French or any of the Scandinavian languages. In fact language in Geilo is never really an issue, English is so widely spoken and that makes life very easy. It also means that being sociable isn’t such a struggle and you can mix and mingle with visitors and locals alike. As a town, Geilo is used to tourism and very much at ease with its role as a resort. People are friendly and helpful and there’s a large seasonal population, from many parts of Scandinavia and the rest of the world, who live here during the ski season.

Downhill skiing, although undoubtedly the most popular activity, is just one of the many things on offer and as most people stay here a week, there’s plenty of time to try out the others. Easier on your knees and thighs, with far fewer broken limbs on average, cross-country skiing is still good exercise, if in a more gentle, less exhilarating fashion. Gliding along the well made-up tracks can take you all around the Ustedalsfjord and beyond – in fact with so many tracks to choose from you could easily spend the whole week exploring, drinking in the scenery at a more leisurely pace. Many Norwegians prefer cross-country to downhill and often take enormous picnics for, as they put it, “going on tour”.

Snowboarders are also in for a treat as Geilo has one of Norway’s biggest terrain parks and Northern Europe’s largest half pipe – the Super Pipe at Fugleleiken. There are three snowboard areas to choose from and this has recently been the focus of big investments in Geilo. Myself, not feeling that brave, opted for a snowy, leisurely walk around the Ustedalsfjord – yes, it’s a fjord, but you can go around it – crossing the frozen, icy waters to the other side. As I was crossing curiosity got the better of me and I strayed from the marked path to see if the snow would carry me. Do this at your own peril! Two seconds later I’d sunk down to my waist in the fresh powder and had to crawl and scamper my way back up on my hands and knees, panting in a most unseemly fashion.   

After such exhausting adventures there was nothing for it, I was simply forced to spend some time recovering in one of the resort’s best bars, inside Vestlia hotel, right on the slopes. Après-ski in Norway can come across as a bit subdued, at least in Geilo, but that’s not to say it’s boring. In fact, given that most people speak English, this makes it quite easy to socialize and before I knew it I was discussing the best places to eat in Belgium with my fellow tablemate, an ethical banker from Ghent, who was specializing in those of us who are self-employed. Heartening financial advice for a freelancer like myself was coming my way absolutely free of charge and just as well – if there is one thing that does break the bank in Norway it is the booze. This really shouldn’t put you off as most things are otherwise reasonably priced including food and accommodation. The fact that you’re drinking in style also softens the blow a bit.

Bars in Geilo are plentiful and quite a few of them are up the actual slopes, although these aren’t allowed to serve alcohol until after 3pm, presumably to avoid nasty accidents among fellow skiers. In my humble opinion though, the very best, the ultimate bar, is to be found, not on the slopes, but in the gorgeous, towering white manor house hovering over town, perched just in the right place to give you the best views of the mountainous surroundings – Dr Holm’s Hotel. This hotel has had a speckled history to say the least, in the 100+ years gone by since it first threw open its doors to the public. During WWII for example, the Germans took over the whole building, using one part as an administrative centre and the other as a French-style bordello where their submarine personnel could come and “relax” when they were off duty.

Although no longer a bordello – far from it – there’s something exceedingly decadent about Dr Holm’s, rather like a plush mansion or country estate and the first floor hunting lodge-style bar does induce you to sit back, relax and simply soak up the atmosphere. The place has the feel of days gone by, it’s oldie-worldy and charming, but posh rather than quaint. Although the bar is a great place to chill out after a day’s hard work on the piste, Dr Holm’s renowned spa is perhaps even better. One of the largest and best equipped spas in Norway, it boasts 2 pools, Jacuzzi, sauna and a Turkish steam bath with a whole host of treatments on offer.

Despite its size, or rather lack of it, you’re spoilt for choice in Geilo. Activities, accommodation, bars and of course, lots and lots of snow. Restaurants on the other hand, are somewhat more thin on the ground, but the ones there are make up for in quality what they lack in options. Yes, there are the ubiquitous pizza places (Peppe’s Pizza being the most difficult of all to avoid) and you can get your burgers, Dr Holm’s has even got a Bowl ‘n Dine, but Geilo is also a good place for the more adventurous eater who’d like to try out some Norwegian specialities. As I didn’t want to be a culinary chicken I’d made a vow to only have Norwegian food during my stay and this led to some exciting discoveries. E.g. reindeer meat can be good in a tortilla wrap and potato pancakes needn’t be stodgy. The highlight was a Norwegian restaurant called Hallingstuene that just looked impossibly snug, both from the outside and once indoors. The menu was definitely meat heavy, but elk steak in a chanterelle mushroom sauce with mashed potatoes and lingonberry (similar to cranberry) took some beating. Outside the wind was howling, whipping up a tremendous blizzard while I was inside by a crackling fire devouring my elk. Bliss...

Not all animals are munched and chewed though. Geilo offers husky safaris, as well as reindeer and horse-sleigh rides. There’s also a chance to sign up for a beginner’s kite-skiing or snow-kiting course, something that’s become increasingly popular in the area. For such a small place there is great variety in Geilo and all things ski and snow are right at the top of the yearly agenda. As Einar Øyo, general manager at one of the ski centres, Geilo Taubane, puts it: “In Geilo we have great winters, one month of really bad skiing and then summer.” Summer is not a bad time either, as the place is taken over by mountain bike enthusiasts, but that’s a different story. For now, suffice to say that it’s winter that reigns supreme here and that’s what keeps people coming back year after year for their annual fix of piste and powder, but also for peace and pristine nature, miles from pollution and everyday hassles. Geilo has that winter wonderland feel long after the snows of the Alps have melted – it is special.   

Further information about skiing in Geilo: www.geilo.no.

Further information on visiting Norway from Innovation Norway (the Norwegian Tourist Board): www.visitnorway.com

First published with First Tracks ski magazine 2007

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Travel writing retrospective part VIII - Canada road trip

Driving New Brunswick – a road trip through Atlantic Canada, part II

Anna Maria Espsäter explores the little-known Maritime province of New Brunswick in eastern Canada, in this two-part mini road trip feature.

Dusk was slowly descending over the Saint John River and I was seriously considering settling down for an evening with Ben and Gerrie. And I don’t mean a misspelt tub of ice cream, but Benjamin and Geraldine, the gorgeous and very fluffy resident cats of Tannaghtyn B&B, a country house set near the banks of the river on the outskirts of Florenceville-Bristol, in the central western part of New Brunswick. On the surface, this scenic, largely rural province seems positively made for quiet nights in with cats, in-front-of an open fire, but scratch said surface and you’ll find that this place has a knack for making tiny locations more interesting.

Florenceville-Bristol, formerly two separate towns merged in 2008, making it New Brunswick’s newest town – somewhat ironic, since the history of both goes back several hundred years. Florenceville, incidentally, was named after Florence Nightingale and one can only assume Bristol to be named after its UK namesake. Quaint and quirky historical facts abound throughout the province and the people of New Brunswick are quite an enterprising lot – in the smallest of settlements you often find the most unusual of initiatives. Florenceville-Bristol, much to my surprise, offered one of the trip’s best fine dining experiences, in a converted Canadian-Pacific railway carriage (www.freshfinedining.com), enough of a temptation for me to spurn the cats and head out for dinner.   

The following morning it was time for my driver and me to hop back in the car and continue our journey south, through a mixture of agricultural land and forest, all the way down to the coast and the pleasant seaside resort of St. Andrews by-the-Sea, spitting distance from Maine in the U.S., just across Passamaquoddy Bay (www.standrewsbythesea.ca). Throughout the journey place names and signposts continually stirred the imagination – surely New Brunswick is one of the best provinces for road trip entertainment value and good distractions? First there was Nackawic, proudly proclaiming to be “home of the world’s largest axe”. Then along came Pokiok and Mactaquac, followed by a church near the hamlet of Harvey advertising “drama and dessert” and there were plenty of lovely old ramshackle farms to admire along the way.

Feeling vaguely envious of a local population that was delivered dramatic desserts instead of sermons, we reached the seaside and Water Street, the main street of St. Andrews. It was definitely living up to its name – the water was literally chucking it down from the heavens. Luckily the open heavens had put a lid on it by the following morning and the sun was out again, allowing us time to explore without getting soggy. The resort town, home to less than 2,000 permanent residents, manages to pack in an awful lot for such a small place. There are varied shops and boutiques, a well-established artists’ community, a gallery, good whale-watching in the bay and several of the province’s best hotels and restaurants can be found here. St. Andrews dates back to 1783 and original, old-world architecture adds further to the seaside charm, along with several grand murals, near the waterfront.

One night wasn’t nearly enough here, but there was plenty more of New Brunswick to see and I only had one day left in which to see it. Following the coastline of the Bay of Fundy, famed for the highest tides in the world, we drove past Saint John, the largest city in the province, towards somewhere altogether smaller. In fact, our first stop after leaving St. Andrews was a barn. The Barn in Bloomfield (www.thebarninbloomfield.com) is, as the name suggests, a huge barn, built in 1901, with a shop and gallery at the front and a workshop at the back, where owner/manager Brent Rourke makes shaker boxes and furniture. It’s all open to the public, so people can watch Brent at work. The barn sits in a beautiful and peaceful location and every year they host several themed events, including live music and springtime sheep shearing.

After a nice stop admiring the beautiful pieces in the barn’s gallery, but sadly failing to do any quality sheep shearing, we continued southeast towards one of the two national parks in the province, Fundy national park (www.pc.gc.ca), passing Moosehorn Creek, home to a smaller version of the covered bridges New Brunswick is known for, and the oddly named Mechanic Settlement (a new home for the world’s displaced mechanics, perhaps?). Along Bay of Fundy the difference between high and low tide can be as much as 12 metres and it’s possible to amble across the bottom of the bay – at low tide obviously. Throughout the forested areas of the park there are excellent hiking trails, while the waterfront is home to unusual rock formations and pristine beaches. The tide was coming in as we followed the hiking trails along the coastline, so we opted against venturing down to the rather muddy-looking ocean floor and instead enjoyed the views from the loftier heights of the viewing platforms. Our shoes were ever grateful.

Our journey, which began in the very far north-western corner of New Brunswick, was almost at end as we were reaching the far south easternmost corner, continuing into neighbouring Nova Scotia. Before crossing the province border, though, New Brunswick had a few more choice place names in store for us, including a Salem or two, and a Crooked Creek. We near enough stopped in Curryville, it sounded so promising and were even more sorely tempted by the Swamp Donkey pub in Hopewell Hill. This had been a road trip to remember.

Further information:

Getting there:
There are direct flights from the UK to nearby provinces Nova Scotia and Québec with connecting flights to one of New Brunswick’s four regional airports. It’s also possible to arrive by coach or rail from either neighbouring province.

Where to stay:

Tannaghtyn, 4169 Route 103, Florenceville-Bristol, T: 506-392-6966, http://www.bbcanada.com/new_brunswick/river_valley/florenceville. 4-star b&b complete with fluffy cats – beautiful, welcoming and excellent service.

Algonquin Resort, 184 Adolphus St, Saint-Andrews-by-the-Sea, T: 506-529-8823, www.algonquinresort.com. One of the finest hotels in Canada, recently restored. Elegant rooms, fine dining, pools, spa, and excellent cocktails.

Rossmount Inn, 4599 Route 127, Chamcook nr Saint Andrews, T: 506-529-3351, www.rossmountinn.com. Countryside inn with a focus on gastronomy. Seasonal, organic food, very comfy rooms.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Exploring the Maritime province of New Brunswick, Canada - travel writing retrospective part VII

Driving New Brunswick – a road trip through Atlantic Canada, part I

Anna Maria Espsäter explores the little-known Maritime province of New Brunswick in eastern Canada, in this two-part mini road trip feature.

Taking a road trip across one of Canada’s smallest provinces arguably doesn’t qualify as an epic journey, but luckily there’s no need to cover huge distances to get closer to nature and enjoy the scenery here. New Brunswick, one of Canada’s three Maritime Provinces, tucked away in-between Nova Scotia, Québec and Maine, in the U.S., was to prove a positive revelation in terms of options for scenic drives, with plenty of out of the ordinary sights.  

Clambering off the night train from neighbouring Québec, in the small town of Campbellton, me and my driver went in search of our hire car and got ready to set off. Campbellton is in the far north of the province, right on Chaleur Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of St Lawrence and the early morning had provided some splendid waterfront views from the train. Finding our car, we realised much to our surprise, that it had Québecois number plates. This turned out to be very useful indeed, as we could pretty much drive in any way we liked and everyone just assumed it to be normal Québec-style driving.

Apart from aiming to check out as much of New Brunswick as possible during our 4-day journey, I was on a separate mission to research Atlantic Canadian handicrafts, focusing on woodcraft – a mission that was to take us on some interesting, if scenic, detours and backroads. But before the backroads it was time to hit the highway and soon we were cruising at a leisurely speed heading south. The landscape alternated between picturesque fields and quiet countryside, followed by vast, hilly forested areas. Communities were few and far between, but suddenly I did a double-take – the house we just drove past was no. 29809! Admittedly this was a very long highway, but clearly there were more houses here than met the eye.

The vistas offered plenty of pretty distractions, but more surprisingly, throughout New Brunswick there was excellent entertainment to be found in the simple signs along the roads. How about the supermarket sign advertising “24 hours – bananas only”? Poor you, if you came to buy milk. The place names as well, had me chuckling and making up stories as we drove – went right past Glenlivet without a sniff of a whisky and didn’t even dare imagine how one place got the name Adams Gulch.

New Brunswick is the only province in Canada to be constitutionally bilingual, English and French (the remaining provinces have one or the other as main language) and in the northwest French rules the day, but everyone is happy to switch between the two languages. After a good few hours we came out of the forests and found the next sizeable place after Campbellton, the town of Edmundston, in Madawaska County.  French-speaking Edmundston is waving distance from Québec and Maine, situated on the Saint John River and the Trans-Canada Highway – both of which we would be following the next day.

After a hearty breakfast we set off, again in lovely sunshine, towards the first stop of the day, the not particularly modestly, but entirely accurately, named Grand Falls on the Saint John River (www.grandfallsnb.com). It was springtime and the very best time to see masses of water drop down falls, whether steep or gentle, and we had a good amble round to look (and listen) to them. Then of course we had to find a loo. I call it "the waterfall effect"…

Suitably relieved we continued south, all the while following the border with Maine, marked by Saint John River (it took me awhile to finally grasp what all those signs to “ME” were referring to), through “potato country”. Nearby Florenceville – Bristol, known as French Fry Capital of the World, is the headquarters of McCain’s potato chips and other potato products – they even have a Potato World Museum, for those interested in finding out more about spuds (www.potatoworld.ca). The more I saw of New Brunswick, the higher up on the quirkiness scale it went…

The province has a number of unusual sights, not just of the potato kind – it’s also well-known for having the world’s longest covered bridge and an abundance of such bridges in general. There are a number of “exotic explanations” for why exactly these were covered – one of my favourites being that it gave people some privacy to smooch. Our next stop was Hartland (www.town.hartland.nb.ca), home to said long bridge and apparently suffering from something of a loitering problem – there was a nice-looking picnic area overlooking the bridge, bizarrely with a large sign proclaiming “No loitering” (best to sit down to that picnic straight away, or you will be in trouble), and the same sign could be found outside the public library. We did our utmost not to loiter while checking out the 1,282-foot bridge, dating back to 1901 and covered since 1922, before hopping in the car and driving across it. There was only one lane and no traffic lights, but luckily drivers here are infinitely more polite (and rather fewer and further between) than in London.

Next up on the agenda was some handicraft sight-seeing in the villages of Jacksonville and Grafton. Signposting often leaves something to be desired, but the locals are very helpful. The elderly gentleman we approached told us that “Jacksonville was 8 clicks away and then turn left”. Hmmm… We must eventually have gone “8 clicks”, since we found Jacksonville and father and son enterprise Hayward Creations, selling fabulous wooden furniture, sadly much too large to take home, but I did get a look at what purports to be the largest wooden burl in New Brunswick. Pleased to say the local maple syrup was much easier to pack (https://woodstocknbtourism.com/art/hayward-creations/).

Sight-seeing and woodcraft investigating can be thirsty work, but luckily one place combines arts and crafts with refreshments. O’Toole Gallery and Celtic Fox café, in Grafton, run and built by Mr O’Toole himself, is a lovely place to stop for a coffee or lunch and check out the varied items on display in the café, on the lawn and of course in the gallery (www.otoolegallery.com). Kerry O’Toole creates beautiful furniture, sculptures and carvings in his studio on the premises and he also works with a variety of other artisans whose creations are for sale in the gallery. Winding down at the end of the day, I concluded that this road trip was unlike any other – wild scenery, grand waterfalls, even a place paying homage to the humble potato. Surely this was an epic journey after all?

To be continued in part II…

Further information:

Getting there:
There are direct flights from the UK to nearby provinces Nova Scotia and Québec with connecting flights to one of New Brunswick’s four regional airports. It’s also possible to arrive by coach or rail from either neighbouring province.

Where to stay:

Covered Bridge Bed and Breakfast, 2651 Route 103, Somerville nr Hartland, T: 506-324-0939, www.coveredbridgebandb.ca. 100-year old home overlooking the world’s longest covered bridge and the Saint John River.

Coté’s Bed and Breakfast/Inn, 575 Broadway Blvd., West Grand Falls, T: 506-473-415, www.cotebb-inn.com. Comfy inn near the Grand Falls waterfalls. Activity breaks and packages available.

Auberge Les Jardins Inn, 60 Principale Street, Edmundston, T : 506-739-5514, www.lesjardinsinn.com. 4,5-star country inn with gourmet French cuisine.

By Anna Maria Espsäter
First UK Rights

Monday, 13 June 2016

Oporto Unplanned - travel writing retrospective part VI

Oporto Unplanned

Anna Maria Espsäter heads off to historic Oporto, Portugal’s second city, famed for its fortified wines, for a day of serendipitous sight-seeing and sampling.

After years of well-planned travel and painstakingly researched trips, for business as well as pleasure, I recently became aware of how long it had been since I indulged in a bit surreptitious spontaneity. Why not visit a new place, somewhere I only knew very little about, for a change? Said and done, I decided I’d venture forth with only a minimum of pre-trip planning, no guidebook, maybe not even a map

I didn’t quite close my eyes and place a finger on the atlas (that romantic explorer notion is rather harder to satisfy with Google maps anyway), but after some deliberation I settled on Oporto, well-known as the home of that fine beverage, port wine, something that might well have influenced my choice of destination, I confess. Arriving by car without a good map was perhaps taking the adventure a bit far, but never let it be said that I do things by halves.

Oporto certainly isn’t small, nor is it all that easy to navigate, but most sights can be found in a fairly compact area along the Douro River, floating serenely through town towards the Atlantic. The historic centre is one of the oldest in Europe and was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996, adding to the city’s many draws. The Celts were early “visitors” as were the Romans, the Moors and of course the English, who fuelled the lucrative port wine trade in the first place (no harm in doing some research after one’s trip, is there?).      

Depositing above-mentioned car in a local car park, I wussed out completely of going map-free and a kind hotel receptionist bestowed upon me a rather daunting city map, helping me get my bearings a bit. Turned out I was close to one of the city’s non-historic sights, Casa da Música, a large concert hall opened in 2005. If you’re into modern architecture, this oddly shaped, cube-like structure is a must-see and if you’re not, it makes for an interesting pit stop all the same. There are guided tours and a top floor restaurant, as well as a varied programme of concerts and performances.

So much for new and modern Oporto – after a quick refreshment I was ready for the Oporto of old. A short amble down the road towards the historic centre – the streets are mostly downhill going towards the river, just remember you’ll probably need to traipse uphill again later – and I found myself in Crystal Palace Gardens, how very “south London”. This set of beautiful tiered gardens are known as Jardins do Palacio de Cristal and offer excellent views over the Douro and the south side of Oporto, home to all the port houses. Peacocks roam freely and dazzle visitors with their plumages among multi-coloured roses and water features – a quietly lovely place. But with only one day to see the city, it was onwards and downwards for me. Despite being tantalisingly close to the river, however, there appeared to be no way down to it. Clearly this was when some more homework would have come in handy – no matter how I tried to leave the garden and head down to the river, I kept finding locked gates and in the end had to return to the same spot where I’d initially entered.

I finally reached the river, feeling ever so hot and sweaty, mildly cursing after venturing down many a foul-smelling and tiny an alley. Next stop the Port Wine Museum. Housed in an 18th century warehouse on the riverfront, this museum at least looks very promising, but whether it fully delivers on its promises is more debateable. Although there is plenty of history in the one large, open-planned room that is the museum, it’s more a history of trade and finances, than of port wine itself. Sorely disappointed by the lack of port, I decided it was soon high time to experience that which, after all, this city is famed for. Perhaps best to line one’s stomach first…

There were some intriguing-sounding menus to choose from. How about “selfish crème” and “bettered crème” in one restaurant? One can perhaps assume the second dish was the “selfish crème” after having seen the error of its ways. By now I had arrived in the old town proper, replete with fine churches, picturesque squares and fancy mansions from the height of the port wine trade. Grand 18th and 19th century buildings lined the narrow streets and riverfront promenade, but where to munch? Maybe the old market, Mercado Ferreira Borges, might be a good place? Alas, no stalls in sight, instead it appeared to have been converted into a dodgy-looking nightclub and a heavy metal dungeon.

Food was eventually procured and then it was finally port time. Down by the river, especially near one of Oporto’s iconic bridges, Ponte de Dom Luis I, the bars and shops lining the riverfront pretty much all do port tastings. Scenic setting, al fresco glugging and fine views – suddenly this seemed far more my kind of place than only a few hours before. Beware though – Oporto’s weather in summer can be sweltering and there’s little point in doing a ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’. After some quality sampling (these guys really know their stuff), a quick look at the temperature gage confirmed that heading indoors was by far the best option – it was 41°C.

A perfect place to cool down are the port wine caves themselves, all located on the south side of the Douro, crossing aforementioned bridge, while admiring more fine views of the historic centre and the often colourful buildings clinging to the hillsides on both riverbanks. It helps if you know at least a teensy bit about this potent fortified wine. Vila Nova de Gaia, as the south side is called, is positively teeming with port houses and you’ll be hard pushed to choose if you don’t know your port – hence me doing some tastings beforehand. After some deliberation, the Burmester port house was my first and last port of call on my day in Oporto. From what I remember their ports were excellent, as was the look around the historic port cellars, or caves, and it was also blissfully cool compared to the scorching heat outside. Rest assured I travelled onwards from there by taxi.

All in all the unplanned trip worked well – getting somewhat lost and frustrated (even with a map) was made up for by just happening upon interesting and lovely-looking places. That said, I still find some pre-trip research to be a good idea, especially if staying somewhere a very short time. The “spontaneity kick” was enjoyable, but this writer will probably be back to her usual wicked ways for ease of travelling and maximum enjoyment in the future.

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