I hate heights.

When I say I hate heights, I mean I truly have a pathological fear of being more than a couple of feet from the ground.

This may sound strange for someone who used to go to work by leaping out of functioning aeroplanes, or one who travels extensively by plane (although these days I land in them too) but it’s true, I truly hate heights.

What possessed me then to go on a hideous cable car ride to the highest point of Tirana I’m not quite sure.

DSC_0137The Dajti express is apparently the longest ride in the Balkans at just over 3 miles long, and it goes veeeeeery high, up to the Dajti national park. I hated it. I hated every second of the more than 15 minutes of the ride up. And of the ride down now I come to think of it.

DSC_0139From the city centre we took a taxi, (asked for the Dajti cable car in English, it worked) which cost no more than a few euros, but if you take the bus on the Porcelani line right to the end, there is a free minibus to take you to the start of the torture.

After looking for ages for someone to sell us a ticket we hopped on board. It started calmly enough, no real understanding of the horrors that awaited me. I hate heights. I honestly saw very little of the journey, I just couldnt’ bring myself to lift my eyes from the floor. I’m sure I missed some wonderful views of the countryside just outside of Tirana but I just couldn’t.  The one time I did look up, I saw this coming towards me and immediately looked down again, just in case. In case of what … I’m not sure.

DSC_0147To be fair, once we’d arrived to the top, it had been time well spent, a beautiful area with a bar and a restauarant, as well as a couple of hotels that clearly haven’t worked financially but with the opening of Albania’s doors there is no reason in my mind why they couldnt work again in the future.

DSC_0150It was the getting there that was the problem.

There actually isn’t a huge amount to do in Tirana, so this is well worth the trip, although if you’re as scared of heights as I am, I would suggest taking a bus right to the top, which I only found out existed after I’d been petrified for over half an hour of my life on the round trip.

DSC_0159I’m just glad it wasn’t a windy day, I would probably have cried.

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The most beautiful place on earth.

Not even a question. Its a statement!!

Of course, its subjective, of course it’s much more than the beauty of the place that makes it so, but for me, Plymbridge, on the outskirts of Plymouth in Devon holds the title.

14030613_953801108100089_1626799589_nThe gate to my personal paradise.

Without getting maudlin I think “a less than idyllic childhood” will suffice. As soon as I was old enough to get a paper round though and buy a bike, I used to ride the six or so miles from home to here and walk for hours.

14080971_953800501433483_197952116_nI cant remember the last time I came here, many years ago, but I dont remember this tree being here. And yet it seems to have been here forever and it just ‘goes’ with the rest of the place.

14010039_953800568100143_2077414742_nI dont know how big the area is, how long you can walk for but I know that every time I come here, I fall in love with the place all over again.

14030995_953800174766849_1299009786_nAn old slate quarry has left its trace, the no longer existing railway is a good place to see the nesting Peregrine Falcon when they appear

14010079_953800958100104_332580071_nbut more than anything, its just the most stunningly beautiful place to come and walk.

14055530_953800911433442_1997897164_nI have been very lucky in my life, travelled to well over 100 c0untries and seen some incredibly beautiful things, but here, the place where I sought refuge as a child for hours and hours on end, is simply the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

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To the land that pays homage to Norman Wisdom

To my shame I have to admit to knowing very little about Albania, and what I did know didn’t paint a glowing picture. So as I was just next door in Greece I thought I would pay a visit.

What did I know? I knew that Enva Hoxha had kept the country very tightly closed until his death in the mid 80’s,  there are a lot of Mafia type problems both in the country and amongst their diaspora and the country had a strange affinity to long since past British comedian.

Having visited many ex communist countries I was expecting many high rise buildings, grim facades and a general downbeat feeling.

DSC_0072First impressions, it must be said, were slightly different.

DSC_0075The casino opposite our AirBnB flat and the best fish restaurant in Tirana reinforced what I’d seen on leaving the less than austere airport, Tirana wasn’t as poor as I had been led to believe. A fixed tarif of €18 from airport to the centre of the city, with yet another taxi driver who thought he’d been reincarnated as Ayrton Senna, he raced us through fields and fields of wheat and corn before suddenly, the first building appeared on the right, a Porsche garage. As soon as the buildings arrived, so did the traffic, the scourge of all modern cities.

DSC_0077The great big park opposite our flat held this curiosity, a memorial to someone but I wasn’t able to work out who. It was also, in the evenings, THE place for the dog walkers of Tirana to congregate.

DSC_0084There are some sights to see in downtown Tirana, the minaret, DSC_0094The history museum,

DSC_0088The old clock, and:

DSC_0111The pyramid.

A strange thing, now used by the Albanian TV company but originally used as a museum and in the war in Kosovo in 1999 it was used by NATO forces as a base, there has been talk of it being knocked down and the land used for something else but it just doesn’t seem right.

DSC_0159The city as viewed from a cable car, of which more later. That isnt a layer of pollution, its just filthy windows, scratched and graffitied beyond recognition.

What I did see in Tirana changed my opinion of the place, a young, thriving, fairly cosmopolitan place with a huge interest in having a much more open, freer market and trading system, leaving the communist shackles well behind them.

What I didn’t see was a single memorial to Norman Wisdom. More investigation required.

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Worse timing?

Last week I received a little note from WordPress telling me my subscription was due. I hummed and hawwed over whether to renew or just to let the blog fade away, as I’d not written in it for a while and i never seemed to find the time, inclination or both to write another post.

Finally I decided to keep it (as the more astute amongst you will have noticed) and thought about what I could write about.

Cue the lightbulb moment. Living in France as I do, although once again resident on the African continent, I thought I would write a post explaining how the French National day, the 14 July, doesn’t actually commemorate the storming of the Bastille, as most people (the French included) think it does.

I wrestled with it for a while before finally having it ready.

Only, on that same day, tragedy befell Nice, in a horrific and inimaginable way.

My adopted country has been beaten, badly, over the last 18 months or so, no one event is worse than another, they are all horrific, but there is something very very wrong seeing little babies with their lives extinguished, no matter where in the world they are from.

I then disappeared from almost all internet access for a few days so only now can I put my words down.

I have prepared the post, I will probably save it for next year.

In the mean time, in a few days I will again start to post on the blog.

I’m Nice, I’m Charlie, I’m Bataclan, I’m Istanbul, I’m Brussels, but most of all, I’m tired of this shit.

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The oldest zoo in the world?

A grandiose claim I’m sure you’ll agree, but in the grounds of the Schonbrunn palace in Vienna, an establishment makes this very boast. A quick bit of research tells me that in fact its the oldest “existing” zoo in the world. Slightly less impressive, but still, a fact not without kudos. Further research tells me its a very well reputed zoo, well thought of amongst conservationists.

I dont like zoos, my last trip to a zoo was absolutely vile (see Beijing zoo) but as I was in the grounds of said Royal building it would have been remiss of me to at least not pay a passing visit.

The day was a cold one, with a pretty chilly wind but we braved the long rope ladder that takes you the short way from the bottom to the top of the zoo. It gave you great views over the zoo,

DSC_0041and great views over the palace just visited

DSC_0039but I didnt see so much as a gnat whilst climbing, let alone species of exotic beasts unseen previously. A reminder as I entered the place as to how ideas vary amongst countries. The first creature I saw was a ragondin, and large crowds of Austrians oohed and aaahed as it popped its head out of the water. At home in rural France the farmers shoot them as soon as they see them, as they’re considered as vermin.

12499001_862236693923198_1982355306_nThe aquarium, it must be said, was excellent. Its an aquatic archway that you walk through, with the fish swimming around on both sides of you, as well as over your head. I’m not sure what type this one was, but I know thats a lot of fillets.

12722133_862236727256528_675697017_nThe reptile house was well appointed, with all creatures appearing to have good food and water supplies, as well as space to move and things to do.

12884456_862237233923144_2097921295_nThe big beasts were also there, again with space to move and things of interest, although you can never give an elephant enough space to roam outside of its native habitat.

12884483_862238847256316_401375522_nPrior to seeing these bats the size of foxes, you walk through an area that is totally dark. You stop to allow your eyes to adjust, and very quickly see hundreds of smaller bats flying around. They fly so close you can feel the air leaving their wings, I spent ages in there, fascinated by them.

12910130_862236763923191_239716898_nThere is even a panda, although s/he refused to cooperate with my pleas to turn round. You have to be a fairly well run zoo to be given a panda, and as with all the animals here, whilst they dont have the space they would have in their natural environs, el panda certainly seemed to be happier than the miserable looking specimens I saw in Beijing.

I repeat, I dont like zoos, I accept that we have to have them to protect the species and conservation and breeding programmes can be done more easily when the threat of poaching is minimal, but I still dont like them. I am though cynical enough to accept that my great grandchildren will probably only ever get to see these and other beasts in situations such as this, poaching and over population will mean the world’s fauna will be reduced to being placed in cages and gawped at by humans.

An apocolyptic view perhaps, and one I truly hope is wrong, but one I truly fear.

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Schönbrunn Palace

One of the largest buildings in Vienna, with a fantastic history, what’s not to love?

Schönbrunn Palace is a World Cultural Heritage site and Austria’s most-visited attraction. The baroque total work of art consisting of palace and gardens:

DSC_0029was for centuries the property of the Habsburgs and is today largely in its original condition.

A staggering building, the tour took a couple of hours, and visitors can only visit one floor!!

Photo’s aren’t allowed inside, as always there were plenty of people taking them but I’m just not a naughty boy so I didnt do it, outside though there is obviously no problem.

DSC_0031It was a pretty chilly day when we left the centre of Vienna for the tube journey to the palace. That, combined with slightly fat heads after the prior evenings festivities, meant a relatively quiet trip, notwithstanding my shame of leading the laydee of the house down into a carpark right outside the Opera House that I mistook for a tube station, but we finally got there.

A 20 minute trip on a very efficient and cheap train and we arrived to a well signposted tourist attraction.

DSC_0024You wouldn’t think you could miss this, but honestly if the signs weren’t there you could easily walk past the gates and not see it, but we went in, negotiated the fairly simple ticket buying machine and headed for entrance A.

We didn’t see all of the 1,441 rooms of the former imperial summer palace, but what we did see was worth the trip. More than 300 years of Hapsburg history is downloaded gently into the ears from the vocal guide book, with each room being described as you follow the tour.

Franz Joseph the longest-reigning emperor of Austria, was born at Schönbrunn and spent a great deal of his life there. He died there, at the age of 86, on 21 November 1916. He rose at 0500 every day, seven days a week, and spent the majority of his time at his desk, writing letters and papers as well as reading voraciously on the current affairs of the world. Following the downfall of the Habsburg monarchy in November 1918, the palace became the property of newly founded Austrian Republic and was preserved as a museum.

There has been a recent overhaul of the palace, and with the addition of the audio guides it made for a very interesting and enjoyable couple of hours.

Within the grounds there is also a childrens museum, which I didnt visit and the worlds oldest surviving zoo. More on the bats the size of foxes to follow.

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A fleeting memory

Its funny how you forget things, especially when you get to my advancing years, but a single photo can unleash a torrent of memories.

I have a week of tourism planned in April, with the destination as yet undecided. A rummage through the world wide winifred led me to a popular website where holidays are available just before you want to leave.

On the top of the page was this photo:

spanish-steps-homeThe Spanish Steps. in my favourite city, but also one of my favourite memories. A surprise meeting (for my girlfriend) with my daughter, drinking a few cold ones, walking through the back streets of Rome, a great meal then moving to sit on the aformentioned stairway, before being moved to the side by a brass band, in uniform, playing an excellent rendition of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma.

A few hours I’ll never ever forget.


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Where do I go for a week?

Right then laydeez and gentlemen,

I live in northern France, I will have a week off towards the end of April. I want to go and visit somewhere. Where can I go?

I want to go to a country i’ve never visited. There are a few.

Criteria is simply time. I cant go to Australia or New Zealand as its just too far for a week.

I couldnt ever do sitting on my arse on a beach.

So please, where?

Many thanks for all comments in advance.

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I have seen genius.

Comparisons are odious, ’tis often said and is of course true. How can someone from today say that Diego Maradona was a better player than Ferank Puskas or George Best?
So much changes, diet, the pitches, the ball, the boots, even the training of the players is so much more scientific today then even 20 years ago.

One thing is certain for me though, Lionel Messi has been the finest player to lace up a pair of boots since i’ve been alive and watching football.

For the privilege of watching him score two goals against my team in the Champions League last Tuesday night, I paid the sum of £1. Well, actually it was £1 per minute, which just shows how “the people’s game” truly no longer is.

20160304_113935How can the average working man afford to pay £90 for a European match as well as the sums needed for the run of the mill league games. Whilst Messi will earn more in 10 matches than I will in my entire life in total, the market appears willing to pay him and his ilk more and more cash, almost all of it coming from football sponsorship money. Ahh that nice Mr Blatter.

A couple of quiet ones chatting to fellow fans about the absolute pasting we were about to receive

20160223_202611before heading to the match. I arrived early for a tour around the outside of the stadium. I loved Highbury, crammed in between terraced houses, a nightmare for the residents I’m sure but I loved it. The Emirates is a wonderful stadium both inside and out, the exterior walls are adorned with pictures and words from and about players old and new,

20160223_194223the pitch is stunning,

20160223_204605even the crowd were great against Barcelona, which is a rarity really, Arsenal fans not being known for their noise and singing, but I still prefer Highbury. I understand Arsenal have a stadium that is the envy of the Premier League, and that it was done in a way that allowed the finances to continue in the black, again the envy of the Premier League, but I still prefer Highbury.

And so, for the first time in my life, I was to see the little Argentinian maestro with my own eyes. I am a passionate Arsenal fan, have supported them since I was old enough to understand football, I see them as often as I can, no mean feat when I live in France and work in Africa but I get to see several games a season. This time though, my eyes were focused solely on the small figure wearing the number 10 shirt in the famous Barcelona colours.

Its the hope that kills. After a nervy opening 10 minutes Arsenal grew into the match, matching their illustrious oppenents both physically and mentally. They grew stronger into the game as it went on. At half time I said to my friend “If they keep this up I will stay at home a week longer and go to Barcelona to watch the second leg.” Then, in the space of just a few minutes, the dream was smashed.

For the duration of the 90 minutes I watched only Messi. I noticed other players and could see a couple of Arsenal players having good matches, but for me, to have seen the greatest player of his  generation (and in my opinion the greatest player ever) live, in the flesh, was worth every penny. He actually had a quiet game, only scored both goals and had a couple of fantastic passes, but just to watch him was a footballing lesson.

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I don’t “do” art but …

But the painting known as Guernica is something to be seen.

I had a few hours to kill before yet more beer in Madrid so I popped across to the Queen Sofia National Museum

20160220_103457and headed for the Picasso exhibition. The museum itself is huge and I eventually found myself up on the second floor, where I needed to be.

The painting appears on a wall on the left hand side, through a huge open doorway. Photography isn’t allowed around the painting itself so a stock picture appears below. It truly doesnt do it justice.

guernica-1024x384As a big fan of history, I was reasonably aware of the story of both the event itself and the painting, but to see it in the flesh, to actually visualise the suffering as painted by a twisted genius was momentarily overwhelming.

Painted as a response to the bombing of a Basque village in northern Spain by German and Italian warplanes at the request of Spanish nationalists, the painting bought worldwide attention to the act itself and the Spanish civil war as a whole.

On the wall opposite the painting is a series of four small sketches, which was the progression of the final image. He was commissioned to paint it by the Spanish Republican government in January 1937 and finally finished it in early June, after having read an account of the bombing. Widely recognised as being one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever, it was difficult for me to see the relevance of this painting to a single event but as an anti-war painting, it certainly works.

As an aside, if you happen to be in Madrid and you like art, the Dali room was just next door to the Picasso room. To a non arty type like myself, it would seem that the magic mushrooms back in the day were fairly potent.

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