Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Paul Merton's Secret Stations

I don't know why I have this pull towards programmes about trains. My railway obsessed brother would argue that it's genetic.

But this isn't Michael Portillo's Grand Tour style Continental journeys, staying in sumptuous imperialistic hotels, riding high-speed express trains wearing ridiculous fluorescent jackets. Instead here is Paul Merton in a flat cap and tweeds, visiting youth hostels and stations in such remote corners of the country that you have to stick your thumb out to stop the train. Once aboard you have to tell the guard where you plan to get off, otherwise the train will trundle straight through. For these are station request stops. There are apparently 152 of them in the UK.

Merton travels from Devon to Wales to Cumbria and Scotland on amusingly named lines (Looe Valley, Kyle) to amusingly named places (Luxulyan, Pontarddulais, Drigg, St Keyne Wishing Well Halt). A lot of the trains are no bigger than buses, but the last is the night sleeper to Fort William from London Euston, which deposits Merton in the middle of a vast isolated moor on the Scottish estate of Corrour.

Merton visits nuclear waste facilities, supermarket depots, espionage schools, wedding dress shops and china clay mines. He cheats at a spot of fell running. He walks through doors that lead nowhere. He overpays for a churn of Devon Ambrosia cream. He joins a male voice choir. He visits a station (Reddish South) which has only one train a week, running in only one direction. The service keeps going because it would be more expensive to petition Parliament to abolish it, but it has three loyal passengers, and three loyal trainspotters who wait to see them get off at Denton and get the bus home.

Paul Merton is always Paul Merton - jovial, witty, surreal, prepared to wear a funny outfit and point out the ridiculousness of life without being rude. It was a peaceful, enjoyable watch for a Sunday night, even if I was watching it about 30 years before my time.


West Highland Line going over the Glenfinnan Viaduct

We once spent a week in Scotland overlooking the West Highland Line to Mallaig. We stopped briefly at Arisaig, where Paul Merton tells us that the Special Operations Executive trained spies in the Second World War. I've also spent a beautiful week in Pembrokeshire, where Merton learns to operated a signalbox and meets the man (Dixe Wills) whose book Tiny Stations inspired the series. I've visited Devon and Cornwall many times. I've also spent a day exploring the bleak West Cumbrian coast, dominated by Sellafield and nuclear risk.

Aberfelin, Pembrokeshire

But I don't think I have ever had the pleasure of visiting a request stop station. Something to save for my retirement perhaps, assuming any of them are still open by then. Reddish South possibly.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Child Friendly Holiday Review: Eurocamp at Bella Italia, Peschiera del Garda, Italy

Lake Garda from Peschiera
I am normally cynical about the adoption of American traditions over here. What's wrong with a turnip and a bit of apple bobbing at Halloween, for example? Who wants a truckload of Coca Cola for Christmas? Oh, sorry, I mean the Holidays? So the same applies to Black Friday. Thanksgiving isn't a thing over here, for obvious reasons, so why should we indulge in the retail frenzy that follows it? Apart from maybe getting some Christmas presents ahead of the game, it just seems an excuse for a fight over a flat screen TV in Tesco's.

Since we aren't actually on holiday, unlike our cousins in the US, Black Friday makes us feel a little resentful. And start thinking about holidays. And booking them. Cos it's November, and cold, and wet and you've finished the parkin from Bonfire Night and you don't want to eat a mince pie before December. Which I is how I ended up becoming a Black Friday victim last year. The Guardian travel webpage told me that Eurocamp were selling all their Easter to May holidays off at half price for the duration of the Black Friday weekend.

As we are now tied to going away in school holidays for the next 12 years or so, that was a bargain impossible to resist. After also scoring some miraculously affordable Easyjet flights from Gatwick, I booked us six nights at the Bella Italia campsite in Peschiera del Garda for a very reasonable £210. It was only after I had hit the "Book Now" button that I realised that the middle weekend of the school holidays (when I had booked for) wasn't actually Easter in 2016. Easter weekend was the day after schools finished at the end of March. So there was some grovelling to my husband, who had to book two extra days' leave from work immediately after a long weekend away from the office. But thankfully nobody objected and he was granted the time off.

We then had to get ourselves from York to Gatwick Airport without breaking the bank, but I managed to get train tickets the day they went on sale three months in advance, and with our Family Railcard discount, we got all three of us to Gatwick for 80 pounds return, which is less than petrol and parking would have been, and much less hassle. We would have had to stay the night at the airport either way - even though our flights weren't at anti-social times, getting to and from York in the same day would not have been possible without a very very early start and a very very late night home, things which are just not that easy to deal with when travelling with a five year old. So the fabulous Premier Inn at the North Terminal did its job - £39 for a clean and comfortable room, £50 for dinner and breakfast for three, and one little girl entertained for hours sitting on a windowsill watching planes take off and the Skytrain monorail trundling between the Terminals.

Premier Inn delights - plane spotting

Car park and Skytrain views

I also hadn't known that a general strike was planned in France for the day of our outbound travel, which meant French air traffic control workers were off too. We were really lucky because our flight was relatively unaffected - the pilot was routed over Germany and Switzerland, and we were only about 15 minutes late taking off. Unfortunately we spent those 15 minutes standing on a cramped gangway between the departure lounge and the plane because the Easyjet crew (not to be confused with Rastamouse) decided to start boarding before the aircraft was ready. The delay was actually due to the stewards being tardy for their shift. They also had to give the aircraft an extra clean as there was a passenger with a severe nut allergy on the flight. But Gatwick was a stressful place to be that morning, as numerous flights to France and Spain were cancelled or severely delayed.

We chose Bella Italia as we had been to Peschiera del Garda before, staying at Camping Butterfly, a small site the other side of town. Bella Italia is the only site open so early in the season, but like Butterfly it is in walking distance of the town centre, which then gives access to trains, boats and buses and relieves you from the necessity (and expense) of hiring a car. We booked a taxi transfer online through Peschiera Transfer, which did what it said on the tin - picked us up at Verona airport, provided a booster seat for our daughter, and delivered us to the campsite (and back again) for 108 Euros return. We were at Bella Italia in time for tea, and the sun was shining. Coming from a city that had spent most of winter under water, it was a welcome sight.

First views of the lake
Because we had paid half-price, we had splashed out on the superior model of caravan for our stay. The Eurocamp Avants were only a year old, and still had that "new car" smell about them. They were much larger than any mobile home we have previously stayed in with Eurocamp, and really were very nice and comfortable, with a king size bed and a leather settee. They even had a dishwasher. Although we were asked not to use the dishwasher at the same time as the air conditioning, as this would trip the power supply, which hadn't been upgraded in line with the caravan. The weather was so pleasant that we really were only inside the caravan to sleep, so all this luxury was a little wasted on us. There was a big deck outside to lounge about on, even if the couriers had been lax about cleaning off the bird poo splattered on the furniture. The big deck also meant that there is now much less space for parking cars next to the Avants - indeed on some pitches it would be impossible. Not an issue for us, as we were pedestrians, but it's something to bear in mind.

The Avant
Free cat with every caravan
The couriers were the typical bunch of jobbing students that you get on most Eurocamp sites. We had been exceptionally lucky with our courier in Holland the past two years. He was doing it for a career rather than a season, and made a huge effort to provide excellent customer service and a lot of information to his guests. The couriers in Italy had only just arrived and were only really there to service the units - I wouldn't have trusted some of them to fix anything that broke or to recommend much about the area. As we had been before (and I have a friend who lives locally) we didn't need any tips - in fact, the couriers were asking us for advice. But they were always polite, if a bit clueless.

The campsite is huge - by the far the biggest we have thus far stayed on. I imagine in the height of summer it could get unbearable - with heat, dust, crowds, noise and mosquitoes. But in early April, it was ideal, as all the facilities (apart from some of the pools) were open for business, but there was no pressure on space. There were always sunloungers free by the pools, and tables in the restaurants. There was a decent supermarket on site, which was more expensive but not exorbitant, and because we hadn't paid to hire a car, we accepted its premium without complaint. 

Turning blue

The pools were freezing, but this didn't stop our daughter from wanting to swim every day. I had to hoik her out when her skin turned the same colour as the water, but she seemed to suffer no ill effects from these mild doses of hypothermia. There were a few play areas dotted around the campsite, some of which charged a small entrance fee - eg for trampolines, water dodgems or inflatables. Some were only open late afternoon/ early evening.

There are at least three restaurants on the campsite, plus bars and a gelateria. We ate several times at the restaurant overlooking the lake. It was fairly reasonable for a plate of pizza or pasta, and the waiters got to know us during the week so were always friendly. There was always a table on the terrace available - in the summer, you would no doubt have to book in advance. The restaurant also allowed us a spot of terrible parenting as it had a kiddies corner with TV, which meant that our daughter could happily watch Frozen or Brave or How To Train Your Dragon while we sat and drank wine and had a conversation while we waited for our food. This was a real and rare treat - date nights are few and far between for us in York.
Quality time, quality wine
The kids club (free of charge, run by the campsite) also gave us a couple of hours to ourselves most days. Our daughter was really keen to go so she could meet other kids (the issue of having an only child) and show some independence. Ofsted may have had a field day with the sessions, given that they took no child's info or any contact details for parents, but the animatori were very sweet and we knew we could trust our daughter to stick around until we went to collect her. The same couldn't be said for some of the younger boys, who tended to bolt off without anyone noticing. The kids did face painting and craft activities, played games, and one day made costumes and practised for a fashion show, which we then had to stay up late after the evening mini disco to watch. The mini disco was hilarious after a few glasses of Lugana - I still have the songs spinning round my head. "Il cielo e azzuro e l'energia di un estate da ricordare...Tanz mit mir, dance with meBe-e-e-e-e-ella Italia, Bella, bella, Italia..." Click on the link and you won't thank me. Europop at its finest.

Catwalk Binbag Chic

Princess Fairy Crafting
We were deliberately lazy on this visit, having been to Peschiera before, at a time when our daughter was still in a pushchair so could be strapped in and made to go places without an argument. This time it was harder to persuade her of the merits of Bardolino (the place, not the wine) over a campsite bouncy castle. But go to Bardolino we did. (By bribing her with the promise of the campsite bouncy castle when we got back.) Otherwise we just pottered about on the campsite (counting lizards) or on the beach by the lake (counting fish), and went into Peschiera a couple of times.


Peschiera Walls

However, if you have time and children with inclination, below are the local must-sees:
Easier with a threenager?

1) Any of the lakeside towns. Peschiera is pleasant, but it's worth taking a boat trip to at least one other - we have been to Desenzano, Lazise, Sirmione and Bardolino. They are all a bit samey, but equally charming. There is always a promenade to stroll along, then a cafe by the promenade from where you can watch people strolling along. The lake is often really hazy, so you can't see very far across the water. Each town usually has a small castle, a harbour, a pebbly beach and a decent play park. Bardolino and Peschiera have landtrains to give you a quick child-friendly tour. Without a car it's harder to get to the towns further afield like Limone and Malcesine - the boat trips to get to them are long, and the (quicker) coach services only run from June. Annoyingly, on the return leg of our day trip to Bardolino, the ticket inspector on the boat claimed we had an invalid ticket. Despite having a ticket from Bardolino to Peschiera and being on a boat from Bardolino to Peschiera, he claimed we had not paid enough money as the boat was going via Sirmione, which is a longer route. We had no intention of getting off at Sirmione and there wasn't a direct service from Bardolino to Peschiera for ages and our daughter had started moaning, but this apparently shouldn't have been a problem. The ensuing argument with the ticket inspector was good for my Italian, but not my pocket, as we had to pay a penalty fare. 

Bardolino land train tour

2) Verona. It's about 20km away, a very quick train journey, although the trains permitting the cheapest fares are few and far between and it's quite a trek from Verona station into the city centre. There are buses, but we didn't manage to find any - the station area was surrounded by roadworks when we visited in 2013. We didn't find that much in Verona that was child friendly for that three year old in a pushchair other than ice cream and another land train tour, but an older kid that might have heard of the Romans and Shakespeare will probably appreciate the magnificent Arena, and seeing Juliet's balcony at the (alleged) House of the Capulets. Verona is a lovely, lovely city, however, and a must if you have never been.
Juliet's Balcony
Piazza Bra


3) Venice. Not a day trip we could face with a young child, but it's only 70-90 minutes to get there by train, which isn't necessarily so near yet so far in the right frame of mind. Venice station is right on the Grand Canal, from where you can take the Number 1 vaporetto (waterbus) service through the Rialto and on to St Mark's Square.

4) Gardaland/Aqualand/Movieland. Not for us either (and thankfully closed for most of our most recent visit), but if you don't suffer from terminal vertigo and motion sickness and are into the whole theme park thing then it's probably worth spending a lot of money to hurtle round on rollercoasters for a day with your teenage children.

5) Valeggio and Borghetto. Valeggio is a short bus journey from Peschiera. It's a pretty town lined with tortellini shops and also has the botanical gardens of the Parco Sigurta, which are beautiful. Down the hill and across the river is the medieval village of Borghetto, which has bridges, waterwheels and excellent restaurants serving the aforementioned tortellini and much more besides.


Borghetto Restaurants

View of Borghetto from the Parco Sigurta

Parco Sigurta

Valeggio tortellini
Our time in Peschiera did us the power of good. It felt like the first proper holiday we have had since our daughter was born, as we had some time to relax by ourselves too. We were helped by lovely weather throughout our stay, and just that laid-back Italian lifestyle.

Needless to say, I will be abandoning my principles and checking Eurocamp's website on Black Friday this year. Just in case.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Rick Stein's Long Weekend

Zoo Station, where Rick Stein's long weekend began

Two programmes recently featured Berlin - Rick Stein's Long Weekend, and Travel Man's 48 Hours. Both featured quirky hotels, cold weather, art communes and a Trabant tour. The latter was the intended comedy element - there was much bleeping of profanities during these pre-watershed broadcasts. The cars, being made of Bakelite, are hardly robust and weren't easy to drive in their heyday, let alone after ageing the 25 years since the fall of the Wall and now having to manoeuvre through the 2016 Berlin traffic.

Both Rick Stein and Travel Man also featured the same restaurant - Billy Wagner's Nobelhart & Schmutzig, which is on Friedrichsstrasse just south of Checkpoint Charlie. It's the only time I've seen Richard Ayoade impressed by food. He normally has a nibble, sneers, and leaves. But this time he cleaned his plate and gave a thumbs up, speechless. So it must be good. Rick Stein was more effusely enthusiastic, as Billy Wagner did clever things with fennel seed, pork neck, leeks, kale puree, toasted pine needles and Rick's personal favourite - smoked eel. Billy Wagner is - well, if not a bit scary, then certainly intense. He cooks in front of you, hiding behind a Viking beard and a fierce stare. His food is locally sourced to the exclusion of anything else. Not even a lemon will grace his kitchen, because citrus fruits don't grow in Berlin.

Berlin is the home of Currywurst, which I didn't know, although I have eaten it there, from a snack kiosk in Park Sanssouci in Potsdam, because it's all I could afford. As you can tell, the two times I went to Berlin, I had limited gastronomic knowledge and not much money.

Beautiful Potsdam - and I ate Currywurst

Nonetheless, certain things I ate on those trips have stayed in my mind. Berlin is the city where I tried falafel for the first time. Falafel, now readily available in Waitrose, were entirely unknown to me in 1993. I have eaten them since in more authentic cities like Amman or Cairo, but it was Berlin where I had my first taste. I thought them a little strange, but didn't dislike them. Nowadays I love them and even make my own, they have become such a staple in my diet. I ate them last night, for example, as a return to cultured sanity in Leeds after taking my daughter to see Disney On Ice.


Unfortunately translated accompaniments to falafel in Jordan

I also remember eating a chicken and cashew nut salad in a small bistro just round the corner from Barbarossastrasse in Schoeneberg, the sort of place that had checked tablecloths, candles burning in Chianti bottles, and devoted regulars. It was the salad dressing that was such a revelation to me. Germans are well known for dousing their salads in vinegar, but this was a raspberry vinegar, not too sharp, not too sweet, just enough to make the dish amazing, and unforgettable. Sadly, the bistro seemed to have vanished when I returned to Berlin six years later, but as a friend had taken me there and my geography was hazy, it might have been I was just looking in the wrong place. I hope so.

Rick Stein showed how funky the Berlin food scene has become since I was last there, a ridiculous 17 years ago. And yet he was still very much able to find the traditional grub - the gigantic pork knuckles, cheese spaetzli, meatballs, sauerkraut, all washed down with litres of wonderful beer in bars full of oom-pah music and dirndl skirts. But in many establishments, the dishes have been made more delicate and refined, which has to be no bad thing. In fact someone just won Masterchef by doing just this - taking traditional British food and - in her words - elevating it to a new level.

Traditional German grub at the Leeds Christmas Market