Hotel Oslo

A BAR OF SOAP reminded me of our first visit to Portugal. I am looking at a small, round piece of soap sealed in a transparent package labelled “Hotel Oslo”, which we would never have acquired had I not been a victim of pick pocketers on a tram in Lisbon. We had only been in Portugal for about four hours when we took a ride on a picturesque old-fashioned tram (route 28) in the Portuguese capital. I was on the point of taking a picture of a sign that told passengers to beware of pick pocket thieves when I became one of their victims. Amongst the valuables that were stolen from me was my driving licence.

Losing the licence was a disaster as we were planning to hire a car to visit several country places in Portugal. Without the licence, the car hire company was unwilling and unable to lend me a vehicle, but it was good about refunding the money we had paid. We decided that we would attempt to carry out our plans using public transport.   

The first place on our itinerary was to have been a farmhouse in small rural place, whose name I do not remember, east of Coimbra. We travelled by train from Lisbon to Coimbra, which has two railway stations in the centre of the city. We discovered that there was a railway line from Coimbra to a spot near our planned destination. When I say “near”, it was really about half an hour’s taxi drive from where we were to stay. After lugging our baggage through the rain about 1000 yards from the station, where the Lisbon train arrived, to the other station from which we were about to depart, we ‘phoned the accommodation to which we were heading. They told us that they did not provide food, not even breakfast, and that the nearest restaurant was about half an hour’s drive from them. As we had no car and were planning to spend three days there, we began to worry how we would survive so far away from any supply of food.

Our next train was not due to depart for another two hours. I decided to walk back to the centre of Coimbra to see whether there was a hotel where we could stay instead of heading out into the ‘wild’. I rushed through the rain and found the Hotel Oslo, which had space for us and did not seem unreasonably priced. After reserving a room, I dashed back through the rain to the rest of the family, who were waiting on the platform. These were the days before we had more than one mobile ‘phone in the family, so I had to reach them to tell them about the Oslo instead of phoning them. Using our one ‘phone, we rang the rural accommodation and explained our plight. They were helpful in that they cancelled our booking gracefully and without cost.

Although not a de-luxe hotel, the Hotel Oslo was solidly built and extremely comfortable. It was located close to most of the sights in Coimbra, a place that had not been on our original itinerary. We spent four pleasant days in this delightful university city, and we were fortunate that, by chance, we were in the city at the time when the university students were starting a new academic year. By day and by night, we encountered groups of boisterous, happy students wandering about the city dressed in traditional  capes.

Had my driving licence not been stolen, I know that we would never have stayed in Coimbra and that we would have missed seeing one of the loveliest places that we have so far visited in Portugal.  As people say, every cloud has a silver lining. Although I was deprived of a lot of cash, I gained the pleasure of spending time in a wonderful place and witnessing some age-old traditions that added to our fondness of a country that we have grown to love.

The Hotel Oslo was, when we visited it, an old-fashioned style of hotel even though the 20th century building that housed it did not look archaic. Some years after staying there, we spent a couple of nights in the Hotel Mandovi in Panjim, Goa (India). This hotel had been built in 1952 by the Portuguese while they ruled Goa as a colony. It was built to coincide with the Pope’s visit to the Tenth Exposition of the relics of St Francis Xavier, which are kept in Goa. They are ceremoniously displayed once every ten years, subject to the discretion of the authorities who keep them in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. Although the Mandovi looks much older than the Oslo, they both have high standards of service and comfort that are old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. I am not sure whether we have kept any soap from the Mandovi as a souvenir, but you never know, one day we might find we have one lurking about somewhere in our home.

A hotbed of demoralisation and crime in north London

A WINDING LANE leads from Hampstead’s East Heath Road into the picturesque Vale of Health. I wrote about this isolated, small settlement surrounded by Hampstead Heath in the summer of 2017 (https://hampsteadadam.travellerspoint.com/2/) and have not revisited the place until today, the 2nd of January 2021. Little appears to have changed since then, but I have learnt a little more about the place.

As for its name, the place was not always as healthy as its name suggests. I wrote:

The land on which the Vale is situated is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086 AD). It was then owned by the Abbots and monks of Westminster. By the 18th century this swampland in the middle of the part of the Heath, then known as part of ‘Gangmoor’, was inhabited by impoverished people and was malarial. In the 1770s, the area was known as ‘Hatches’ or ‘Hatchett’s’ Bottom, because Samuel Hatch, a harness-maker, had owned a cottage there before 1770. This unsavoury hollow was described in about 1817 as a “stagnate bottom, a pit in the heath” by the sculptor Joseph Nolleken’s wife (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73). It was a vale, but not a healthy one.”

However, by 1801 when the land had been drained and property developers began building houses in the area, it gained the salubrious-sounding name by which it is known today.

Apart from the famous Indian artistic genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who stayed in the Vale in 1912, the settlement was home to many other well-known people including the author Compton Mackenzie; the barrister Alfred Harmsworth; DH Lawrence; the philosopher Cyril Joad; and Stella Gibbons. Earlier notable residents included the law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818); the poet and essayist James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who entertained leading literary figures such as Hazlitt, Keats, Lord Byron and Shelley in his house in the Vale; the publisher Charles Knight (1791-1873); and, also, a Prince Eszterhazy.

During the 19th century, not only were the literati and wealthy attracted to the Vale but also it was a popular place for hoards of trippers, whose names never made it into the annals of history. The author of “The Northern Heights of London” published in 1869, William Howitt (1792-1879), describes these pleasure-seekers and what they did in some detail. He wrote that:

“This Vale of Health used, till of late years, to present a sight at once picturesque and pleasant. In front of a row of cottages, and under the shade of willows, were set out long tables for tea, where many hundreds, at a trifling cost, partook of a homely and exhilarating refreshment. There families could take their own tea and bread and butter, and have water boiled for them, and table accommodation found for them, for a few pence…”

And then, everything changed for the worse according to the puritanical-sounding Howitt:

“Recent times have seen Sunday dissipation reasserting itself, by the erection of a monster public house with a lofty tower and flag, to attract the attention of Sunday strollers on the Heath. Of all places, this raised its Tower of Babel in that formerly quiet and favourite spot, the Vale of Health … that taps and gin palaces on a Titan scale should be licensed, where people resort ostensibly for fresh air, relaxation, and exercise, is the certain mode of turning all such advantages into popular curses and converting the very bosom of nature into a hotbed of demoralisation and crime…”

This demoniacal-sounding establishment is marked as ‘Suburban & Hampstead Heath Hotel’ on a map surveyed a year before Howitt’s book was published. On a map surveyed in 1912, it is marked simply as ‘Hotel’. Just a few houses away southwest of it, another building is marked ‘Hall’, to which I will refer shortly. According to both maps, the hotel stood where today there is a twentieth century block of flats called Spencer House. Opposite this edifice, there is a caravan park, which has been in the possession of the Abbotts family for over 160 years. Since the late 19th century, this patch of land has been fairground land. About ten members of the family live on the site in caravans, and other travelling fair workers can camp there free of charge. In exchange, members of the Abbott family, who operate travelling fairs, are allowed camp for nothing on other fairground owners’ sites when they travel around the country.

Returning to the building that upset Howitt, “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73) notes:

“… the Suburban hotel (also called the Vale of Health tavern) with towers and battlements and accommodation for 2,000 was built in 1863 …”

This source also notes another establishment, which was being built whilst Howitt was writing or just about to publish. This was the ‘Hampstead Heath Hotel’, which was built in 1868. This stood between two groups of ‘villas’, that is between 1-6 Heath Villas and 7-12 Heath Villas. It was the building marked as ‘Hall’ on the 1912 map. It is now occupied by a mid-twentieth century block of flats, smaller than Spencer House, named ‘Athenaeum’.

The Hampstead Heath Hotel closed in 1877, when it passed into the ownership of Henry Braun. His great grandson, Frances Francis wrote (www.francisfrith.com/uk/hampstead/vale-of-health-hotel_memory-7431):

“My great grandfather Henry Braun owned the Vale of Health Hotel … overlooking the lake, from 1877 until the early 1900’s. The hotel was used as an Anglo German club called the Athenaeum and by 1908 had 1200 members – 500 English, 700 German, including many political radicals. The hotel became a factory during World War I and then remained derelict for some years. The hotel was eventually pulled down in 1958, when I was 15 and I remember with sadness watching ‘luxury’ flats being erected in its place.”

The club closed in 1914 and then became used as a factory until it was demolished and replaced by the present building in 1958.

According to the County History to which I have already referred, The Athenaeum club’s larger neighbour, the hostelry that Howitt detested was:

“The large Vale of Health tavern, originally intended as a hotel and sanatorium, was sold in 1876, became associated with the fair, was let as flats, and c. 1900 became a hotel again on a smaller scale, with the upper rooms let as studios … Spencer House (flats) replaced the Vale of Health hotel in 1964.”

Howitt would have been even more dismayed to have learnt that there was a third hotel built in the Vale of Health in the 1880s. It stood next to the Athenaeum on the site now occupied by Byron Villas. It was at number 1 Byron Villas that the writer DH Lawrence lived in 1915.

Today, Howitt would most probably be happier with the Vale of Health than he was in 1869. The hotels have gone, and there is not even the tiniest of stalls where refreshments may be obtained. He might disapprove of the parked cars and the caravan site opposite Spencer House, but there would be hardly anything that he could find to decry.  By the edge of its large pond, one of the sources of the River Fleet, the Vale of Health remains a quiet oasis in the heart of north London.

Melting moments

IN THE EARLY 1990s, I was invited to a wedding in central Italy. Although I could have flown or driven to Italy, I decided to travel by train and ferry (the Channel Tunnel had not yet been opened for use). In my bachelor days, I was not a careful packer. I used to stuff my clothes and other belongings into a rucksack in a disorderly way. I was puzzled about what to do with my smart suit that I planned to wear at the marriage ceremony. I was concerned that it would become badly creased whilst stuffed in my rucksack. I consulted one of my female colleagues at the dental practice in Kent, where I was working at the time. She gave me some useful advice that did not include asking the hotel to iron it for me.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On my way to Italy I stopped for a few days to visit some good friends who lived in Basel in Switzerland. They lived near to the terminus of a tram line that ran from the French Border, close to my friends’ flat, across the Swiss city to the German border. Although they no longer live in Basel, we now have other friends who live at the end of the same tram line, but close to the German border. Getting back to the early 1990s, I spent an enjoyable time in Basel. Before leaving, I bought an immoderate number of large bars of Swiss chocolate. My rather unhealthy plan was to take this chocolate to Italy and then after the wedding festivities were over, I would spend many happy hours eating obscene amounts of Swiss chocolate on the train while travelling back to the French coast. It seemed like a splendid plan at the time.

I arrived at the hotel in the Italian city where the wedding was to take place. As I was not yet trained to hang my clothes in wardrobes, I left my full rucksack on the floor for the duration of my stay.  Following my colleague’s advice, I extracted my creased jacket and trousers from my ruck sack, put them on hangers, and hung them in the room’s attached bathroom. Following the instructions I had been given in Kent, I turned on the hot water and closed the bathroom door so that the bathroom filled with steam from the hot water, and then I went out for some hours. On my return, the suit looked respectable enough to wear after its steaming.

The wedding festivities stretched enjoyably over three days. On each day, I attended meals in restaurants and the marriage ceremony in a municipal office. We all ate well and drunk fine Italian wines. As the saying goes, ‘a good time was had by all’.

At the end of my stay, I crammed everything into the rucksack lying on the floor of the hotel room, and then made my way to the city’s station. I boarded a train heading north through Italy towards Switzerland and then Paris, where I had to travel between the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, from where trains to Calais departed.

As my train headed across the plain of the River Po south of Milan, I began to feel the urge to make inroads into my stash of Swiss chocolate bars, which at that moment I treasured as if they were bars of gold. I opened my rucksack in which they had been stored while I was staying in the hotel in Italy, my heart sunk, and I was filled with gloom. No, they had not been stolen. Far worse, they were still there but completely and utterly inedible. Each bar of chocolate had melted and then re-solidified. However, when they had been in a molten state, they had been distorted in such a way that the silver foil in which they had been wrapped by the manufacturers had become intimately intermingled with the chocolate. After it had cooled down and solidified, all of my chocolates were welded to the silver foil in such a way that it was impossible to separate what was potentially edible from the inedible distorted strata of foil running through the chocolate. What had happened, you might well wonder. Well, there had not been a heatwave during my stay in the Italian city. What I had not realised when I was staying in the hotel was that my hotel room had under floor heating and it was this that had been warming my rucksack filled with chocolate that had been lying on the warm floor for several days.

Looking back on this after so many years, it was probably a good thing that I had not been able to consume a huge amount of chocolate all in one binge, but this is not what went through my mind at the time.

Victoria slept here once

LOVINGTON BAKERY AND CAFÉ in Wincanton (Somerset) provides a superb range of breakfast items, all prepared beautifully. No effort was spared to ensure that we had a most enjoyable breakfast. The café, which is housed on the Market Place close to the Town Hall, is almost opposite a former coaching inn, once called ‘The Greyhound’.

The elegant three-storey building that used to be the Greyhound has a centrally located archway that has a cobbled driveway passing beneath it. There is a bas-relief depicting a royal coat of arms above the archway. A cast-iron inn sign showing a greyhound with its broad neck collar remains suspended over the pavement above the archway. An oval panel above the archway but at the level of the roof has a faded painting of a greyhound.

The Greyhound was built in the 18th century, probably by the local builder Nathaniel Ireson (1685-1769), whose impressive funerary monument, which includes a handsome statue and carvings of builder’s tools, can be seen in the graveyard that surrounds the town’s large church of St Peter and St Paul.  The building was first mentioned in parish records in 1743 and advertised as being “new” in 1760 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1238740). The greyhound is the armorial symbol of the Churchey Family of Tout Hill.

In 1825, when the future Queen Victoria was a child aged about six years, she visited Wincanton and stayed for one night at The Greyhound. This visit is recorded on a plaque attached to the building. Where she was going, I have not yet been able to ascertain, but she was not the only royal visitor to be associated with Wincanton. In 1688, William of Orange (reigned 1698-1702) not only visited the town but also his Dutch troops fought and won a battle against troops loyal to the deposed King James II in the town. After his victory, he spent a night in Wincanton A plaque attached to a picturesque old building not far from the former Greyhound inn commemorates the Battle of Wincanton (20th of November 1688).

The Greyhound is one of many pubs (former and still working) that line the main road through Wincanton. In the olden days before motor transport superseded horse-drawn transport, these inns served as staging posts for travellers, places for being fed and for resting overnight. The Greyhound no longer serves the traveller but houses a gallery and has also become part of a housing unit. We spent the night in a modern hotel not far from the modern highway (the A303), which takes traffic past Wincanton rather than through its winding hilly streets. From our bedroom window, we can see a concrete factory and a tall sign advertising a KFC food outlet. Had Victoria been staying here, I am certain that she might have said or thought “We are not amused”.

Russian in Russell Square

RUSSELL SQUARE IN London’s Bloomsbury was laid out in 1804 following the demolition of Bedford House. Russell was the surname of the Dukes and Earls of Bedford. Its garden is a pleasant place to relax and contains fountains as well as a lovely café where Italian food is available. The garden was redesigned in 200-2001 by Camden Council, but retains features of the layout of the original garden created by Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) in about 1801.  Visitors to the square cannot but help noticing a huge, flamboyant hotel facing its eastern side. This is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel, which was known as the ‘Russell Hotel’ until 2018.

The hotel faced with terracotta coloured stone, which bears the date 1898 on its exuberant façade, was opened in 1900. It was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll (1850-1929), who designed the dining room on the ill-fated liner, ‘The Titanic’. His design for the building was inspired by the Château de Madrid near Paris (France). The hotel is a remarkably eye-catching building covered with decorative features. A terrace framed by arches and slender pillars runs around the first floor of the edifice. This terrace is decorated by a series of roundish three-dimensional bas-relief coats-of-arms that are best seen with either binoculars or through the zoom lens of a camera. These have caught my eye on many occasions as some of them contain crests that include the mythical/heraldic double-headed eagle, a ‘creature’ that interests me greatly.

The coats-of-arms are of countries that existed in 1898. The double-headed eagle crests contain images of St George slaying a dragon. This suggests to me that these crests represent Imperial Russia rather than Austria-Hungary.  I was able to identify some of the other crests, such as those of the Kingdom of Italy, Portugal, USA, and France. Some of the others represent countries that I am not able to identify.

In 1994, the hotel hosted a meeting that led to the formation of the Russell Group of research universities. More recently, in late 2011, I attended a reunion dinner of alumni of the now defunct University College Hospital Dental School. It was the thirtieth anniversary of my class’s graduation. My memories of the hotel’s interior were of somewhat gloomy but impressive public rooms with much dark marble or similar stonework. The food served at the costly (overpriced) reunion dinner was unremarkable. What struck me was how much some of my fellow students, who were younger than me, had aged. What did not stroke me until some years after that evening was that the exterior of the building which I had entered was studded with double-headed eagles.

Unlike flags that can be easily removed or changed according to what happens to countries, the bas-relief crests on the hotel cannot be changed so easily without damaging the buildings structure. So the Kimpton Fitzroy, once the Russell, bears a curious history of nations some of which have changed considerably since 1898. What amuses me is that the Russian double-headed eagle, which gave way to the hammer and sickle in 1917, survived the Russian Revolution and is now Russia’s symbol once more. It is lucky that the hotel’s management did not attempt to remove it.

The Angel Hotel

BLOG BURY

SOME CLOSE FAMILY FRIENDS used to live in Cambridge. My father had known Cyril S, a ‘don’ at one of the older colleges, since they were both students at the University of Cape Town. Every now and then in the 1960s, we used to be invited to eat Sunday lunch with the S’s in their lovely Victorian house in Cranmer Road. The S family always kept Siamese cats. Their litter tray filled with a greyish coloured gravel occupied part of the black and white tiled floor of the spacious ground floor toilet close to the house’s main entrance. Whenever I used that toilet, I was always afraid that I might step into the litter tray that was usually studded with feline waste deposits. I do not think that I ever did intrude on that part of the cat’s territory.

On one occasion, Cyril invited us to see his rooms in the college. When we were leaving, he said that we could walk across the grassy quadrangle, instead of around it as most ‘ordinary mortals’ must. He told us proudly:
“This is one of the privileges of being a don. I am allowed walk across the grass and I can take my guests with me.”

We could have driven easily straight to Cambridge from our home in northwest London, but we did not. Instead, we used to spend the Saturday night before our Sunday rendezvous in the Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds, a small city in Suffolk.

In those far off days, the ivy-covered Angel Hotel opposite the Abbey Gardens was an old-fashioned provincial hotel. The rooms had a curious ‘safety’ feature. The reason I put the word safety in inverted commas will become obvious when I tell you about the feature. Each room had a harness next to its window. The harness was attached to a strong cord, which was connected to a winding mechanism. Had there been a fire, each occupant of a room would in turn fasten the harness around his or her waist, and then climb out of the window. The mechanism was designed to lover the person slowly to the ground outside. The lowered harness could be cranked back up into the room for the next person to escape. Long before we did, the author Charles Dickens stayed at the Angel.

As a child, I could not understand why it was necessary to spend a night in Bury St Edmunds, when the following day we could drive back to London without a stop-over. many years later, it dawned on me that we were not actually breaking a long journey, but it was a way that my parents enjoyed having a night away from home.

Yesterday, the 28th June 2020, we made a day trip to Bury St Edmunds. After eating exceptionally well-prepared fish and chips bought at the amusingly named ‘The Cod Father’ fish and chips shop, run by Bulgarians, we strolled into the centre of the city. The ivy-clad Angel Hotel stands opposite the impressive mid-14th century Abbey Gate. Passing through the Gate tower, one enters the Abbey Gardens. This attractive park is filled with strange looking fragments of what was once a huge abbey complex. Most of them look like oddly shaped piles of stones. They are the rubble cores of what had once been covered with carved masonry. The masonry that adorns the exteriors of mediaeval churches and abbeys is simply a covering for structural cores consisting of rubble and cement of some kind. On some of the fragments in the Abbey Gardens, it is possible to discern the slots into which the carved masonry was placed. However, most of the rubbly remains have disintegrated to become forms that give little clue as to their original shapes.

There is more to the city than the Angel Hotel and the gardens containing the ruins of the abbey. Near the Abbey, there is a cathedral, St Edmundsbury, surrounded by pleasant grounds. At one side of the grounds there is a well-preserved Norman gateway with splendid Romanesque architectural features and a pair of gargoyles that depict serpents with their forked tongues. In the centre of the lawns in the cathedral grounds, there is a fine statue of St Edmund clutching a cross close to his chest. This was sculpted in 1976 by Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who was born in Thurlow, which is near to Bury St Edmunds. Frink was a close friend of my late mother. I remember meeting ‘Liz’ at our home, where she was a regular dinner guest.

Seeing the Frink sculpture (for the first time) and the Angel Hotel yet again reinforced my long-held affection for Bury St Edmunds and revived happy memories of the place and our visits to the family of Cyril S, who died suddenly in 1974. His death deprived the world of a lovely man with a great sense of wit and humour.

Some years later, I was staying with Cyril’s widow in Cranmer Road, when she made me a Bloody Mary cocktail. It was the first time I had tried this delicious concoction, and hers was one of the best I have ever tasted.

To Vienna and beyond

V Melk Abbey BLOG

 

IN 1971, I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT. That year, I made my first unaccompanied trip abroad. I was travelling by ferry and rail to Vienna and beyond. My late mother, who was very worried about how I would fare, wanted me to stay in a decent hotel for my first night on the Continent. That was to be in Cologne (Köln) in what was then West Germany. Back in 1971, there was no Internet to look up hotels in Cologne or anywhere else for that matter. The only guidebook to Germany in my possession was a pre-1914 Baedeker guide to The Rhine. Amongst the few hotels listed in the book in the entry for Cologne was a Dom Hotel. I rang the international telephone directory operator and asked if the place still existed. It did, and still does, and she supplied the number. I rang the Dom and booked a room for one night. My mother was happy about this, and said that as soon as I arrived, I was to ring her from the hotel.

I set off from London with my luggage in a metal framed canvas rucksack, kindly lent to me by my uncle Sven. I arrived in Cologne in the early evening and soon arrived at the very grand Dom Hotel, the ‘poshest’ in Cologne, in the late afternoon. It was a short distance from the Hauptbahnhof. I was greeted at the bottom of the steps leading up to its main entrance by a liveried doorman. He asked me for my luggage. So, I handed him my well-used rucksack. He held it gingerly as if it were a rat that had been dead for several days. At great expense, I telephoned my mother to assure her that I had survived the journey so far. From then on, she seemed to lose interest in my well-being during my adventure. I was not required to send progress reports back home.

After Cologne, I spent every night in a youth hostel or similar. From Cologne, I travelled by train to Würzburg, where I was planning to see the brilliant paintings by the Venetian painter Tiepolo inside the city’s Würzburger Residenz. Between Frankfurt and Würzburg, there was a middle-aged lady in my compartment. She wore what looked to me like very old-fashioned traditional German clothes including a hat with a feather stuck in its hat band. As the afternoon light began to fail, we began travelling through hilly country. I had just enough German to understand that the barely visible hills we were passing were the Spessart Hills. She told me that they were very beautiful. I have no idea why I remember her telling me about those hills. The next day, having spent a night in a comfortable youth hostel, I fulfilled my desire to view the Tiepolo wall and ceiling paintings.

At each of the German youth hostels in which I stayed, there was a different method employed to wake the guests in the morning. At Würzburg, A young man playing a flute wandered from dormitory to dormitory. At Munich, where I stayed one night, the morning call was someone shouting “Raus, Raus!”, which immediately conjured up thoughts about POW camps in Germany during WW2.

I decided to attend an opera performance on my first night in Munich. I bought the cheapest ticket for Berg’s “Wozzeck”. I note from the Internet that the opera was performed in Munich on March the 23rd 1971, which helps to date my trip. The ticket I bought allowed me to see the opera from the highest tier of the auditorium. When I arrived in my casual travelling clothes, I was the only man in the audience not dressed in formal evening wear. I enjoyed the opera from my eyrie near the ceiling of the theatre.

The following morning just after I had eaten a very modest breakfast, I met my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, at the famous Hofbrauhaus. We had arranged this sometime earlier when we were both in London. Each of us ordered a large stein of lager, probably a litre each. We chatted and drank in one of the establishment’s large noisy halls. Then, we went our own ways. I walked to the railway station with my rucksack on my back. It seemed to me that the hitherto flat pavements had become wavy. The alcohol had gone to my head.

My uncle Felix had recommended that I should make a stop at Linz in Austria in order to visit an interesting monastery nearby. I enjoyed the trip from Linz to Sankt Florian in what looked like an antique tram. The composer Anton Bruckner was associated musically with Sankt Florian.

From Linz, I travelled eastwards to another town with an important monastery. The monastery at Melk is perched on a hill overlooking the Rhine. I spent a night in the town’s youth hostel before continuing eastwards.

Deliberately, I overshot Vienna and continued from there by bus to the small town of Rust on Lake Neusiedl. The water of this shallow lake is shared between Austria and neighbouring Hungary. I was told that if the wind blows hard, the lake shifts position: more of it moves into Hungary or into Austria depending on the wind direction.  From Rust, little could be seen of the lake apart from endless beds of reeds. I was the only guest at the youth hostel because it was so early in the year. At night, I was left alone in the hostel. As I lay waiting to be overcome by sleep, I could hear an incessant croaking of a multitude of frogs coming from the direction of the lake. This strange sound did not help me fall asleep.

The next day, I took a bus to Mörbisch am See, a village on the lake, close to Austria’s border with the then communist Hungary. I asked a village shopkeeper if I could leave my heavy rucksack in his shop so that I could take a stroll. My aim, which was fulfilled, was to see for myself the notorious ‘Iron Curtain’. I walked south of the village and soon spotted the tall watch towers overlooking the no man’s land between the two countries. I only crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time about ten years later. Then, I hurried back to the village because I knew that there was a bus about to leave for Vienna at noon. The bus was waiting. I asked the driver to delay departure while I collected my rucksack. Unfortunately, the shop had closed for its lunch break. The forbearing bus driver helped me find someone to unlock the shop. We set off for Vienna.

My father had an American secretary called Nancy Berg. She and her husband had very kindly torn out and given me the pages about Vienna from their copy of “Europe on Five Dollars a Day”. From this useful source of information, I discovered that there was an extremely cheap, centrally located hostel near Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. This was no ordinary hostel. It was subterranean. It had been a bomb-proof underground shelter built by the Nazi Germans. The rooms were somewhat spartan, but each was served by an air-conditioning system that had been installed by the Nazis. The hostel required guest to leave the premises between 8 am and 4 pm. This was not a problem because there was so much for me to explore in and around Vienna.  The hostel was good value as was almost everything else in the city. In 1971, £1 Sterling was worth 80 Austrian Schilling. About ten years later, when I next passed through Austria, £1 only bought 20 Austrian Schilling.

I ate most meals at the popular Rathauskeller under the City Hall, which served good food at very reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed ‘Gulaschsuppe’. One memorably enjoyable meal was at Grinzing at one of its Heurige, or wine taverns. I was not alone there. My friend Michael Jacobs had arrived in Vienna, where he was about to study German for a few months. He joined me and some other people, friends of my Uncle Felix. They were a couple in Vienna, whom my uncle had met. He was very keen that I should meet them. They invited me to afternoon at their residence in the city. It was a fine day and we sat on their terrace. I remember being given a cup of tea and a warm soft-boiled egg in its shell at the same moment. I had never been given this combination before. I hoped that it was not the local habit to break the egg into the tea. Had it been, I am sure that I would have not been able to even sip the strange mixture that would have resulted. Fortunately for me, the egg was designed to be consumed separately. I introduced Michael to this pleasant couple, and they became good friends.

By the time I travelled to Vienna, I had become a fan of the Dreigroschen Oper (Threepenny Opera) by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht. I had a gramophone record of the main songs in this work, which I never tired of hearing. Most people will be familiar with one of its opening songs, “Mack the Knife”. Many years later, I discovered a recording one of Ella Fitzgerald’s renderings of this song to a ‘live’ audience, during which she forgets the words following the first half of it. As luck would have it, there was a performance of the opera while I was in Vienna. I sat spellbound, listening to it at the city’s Volksoper.   

Amongst Vienna’s many attractions, there were several that I particularly enjoyed. One of these was the magnificent fairground at the Prater. This was on a scale I had never seen before. The Soviet War Memorial also sticks in my mind. I loved walking amongst the stalls in a street market that ran along the banks of a canal. Many of the stalls sold food from a part of Europe that I had not yet visited but wanted to: the Balkans and Communist Eastern Europe. Seeing road signs in Vienna pointing to places such as Bratislava and Budapest, both behind the Iron Curtain, thrilled me. I was also delighted by my visits to the Albertina art museum, Schönbrunn Palace on the edge of the city, and the Belvedere within the city.

It is curious that many details of my first ‘solo’ trip to mainland Europe remain in my mind but the return to London by train has left me no memories at all. I can only suppose that I travelled back without making any intermediate stops before reaching the English Channel. One thing that I regret is that I have mislaid the photographs, which I know that I took on this trip. I have an idea that they might be in a remote storage place that we rent on the outskirts of London. This is not accessible at present and even if it were, it might take hours or days sifting through what is being stored there to find them.

 

Photo: Melk Abbey from Wikimedia Commons

 

Foot and mouth

Wales 1 SMALL

Before she died in 2012, we used to make annual visits to a dear friend, whom I had known since my childhood, in South Wales. She used to live in London, but when she retired, she moved to a village in the Brecon Beacons, near the River Usk. We stayed in her cottage but were encouraged to leave her in peace from after breakfast until about four in the afternoon. We did not mind this because there is plenty to explore in the area and often the weather was good at the times of the year that we visited her.

In 2001, disaster hit Wales in the form of a vicious outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In order to prevent its spread, all footpaths and many open spaces were closed to visitors. This and the appalling rain that fell relentlessly during our visit, restricted what we could do while we were allowing our guest a few hours relief from her guests. We drove around the countryside not particularly having much fun.

One day, we arrived at a small town with a name I am unable to pronounce correctly:  Llanwrtyd Wells. It was lunch time. We parked outside a hotel near the town centre. The floor of the lobby was covered with a grubby, well-worn carpet. We were shown into an unattractive dining room. Our hopes for having a decent meal fell as we surveyed the room’s dingy uninviting décor. The sight of incessant rain falling outside did little to enhance the dreary mood that this unappealing room was inducing.

The hotel’s owner brought us menus. We asked what he recommended. He said “steaks” and showed us the large range of meats listed in the menu. We asked his advice about which steak to choose. Then, he did something that transformed the dingy place for us.

He gave us a ‘tutorial’ about the relative merits of different kinds of beefsteak and their tastes. The least tasty, in his opinion, was the costliest cut, fillet steak. Sirloin steak was, he advised us, tastier and cheaper than fillet. However, he considered that the tastiest cut was rib-eye. He explained that the latter was marbled with fine streaks of fat, and it was this that gives it its superior taste. We ordered it and discovered he was right. He regretted that he was unable to serve the local, and in his view far superior, Black Mountain beef. This was because of the problems connected with the foot and mouth outbreak.

Whenever I buy steak, I look for rib-eye first, and if this is not available, I go for sirloin. Whenever I think of beefsteak, I always remember that dreary eatery in Llanwrtyd Wells and its helpful landlord. For a long time, I could not remember in which town in Wales, we were given our tutorial about steaks. Recently, I discovered some photographs I had taken there almost twenty years ago. In one of them, there was a pub sign that read “Neuadd Arms Hotel”. Seeing this helped me discover where we had been.

Hotel Tirupati

The Hotel Tirupati in New Jalpaiguri (NJP) is a few minutes walk from an important railway junction in West Bengal. Its rooms are comfortable but the hotel has several curious features.

The bedrooms we occupied on two separate occasions contain more lights, each with their own switch, than I have seen anywhere in similarly sized rooms. The lighting included unshaded blue and red light bulbs and a recessed ceiling lamp which bathed the room in a subdued eery blue light.

The rooms in the hotel are arranged around galleries overlooking a covered central light well. The ground floor of the light well, a central courtyard, contains a large effigy of the Hindu deity, the elephant-headed Ganesh (see image above). It forms part of the hotel’s large Hindu shrine. At least twice a day, bells are rung and a pooja is performed. I have not come across this before in my over 25 years of visiting India and its hotels.

The most curious feature of this hotel in NJP is the presence of CCTV cameras not only in the bedrooms but also in their ensuite bathrooms. I never dared to find out their purpose and whether these were in use!

A HIMALAYAN HOTEL AND WHO WILL BE THE NEXT MR SIKKIM?

The hotel where we stayed in Gangtok (Sikkim, India) had a spacious, clean, comfortable bedrooms. However, it was staffed and managed (rather, mismanaged) by amazingly incompetent people. To avoid embarrassing them, I will not name the hotel, which was, surprisingly, highly rated on a well known travel website.

On our first night, we ordered dinner to be served at 830 pm. The manager said that would be alright and that he would call us in our room when the food was served. At 840, we had not heard anything. So, I rang reception and was told that the food would be ready soon. It was after 9 pm that we were served an unappealing meal.

Some days later, we met the owner. He told me that we complained because as we were “Britishers” and we believed that “the sun never sets over the British Empire”, we expected dinner to be served on time. I pointed out that my wife, although British by naturalisation, is an Indian and I am only first generation British because my parents were born outside the former British Empire. So, our complaint about the meal had nothing to do with nostalgic ideas about imperialism, but much more to do with the poor management of the hotel. I have described this in detail not because it was the only or worst example of the establishment’s failings. It was just one of very many.

Because our hotel’s carering was so unsatisfactory, we dined in another hotel nearby. On our last evening, the dining room of this hotel filled with young Sikkimese men, all with carefully styled hair. We discovered that the hotel was hosting the finalists for the “Mr Sikkim 2019” competition that was soon to be judged. All of the finalists looked pleasant enough, but none of them appeared to be particularly outstanding. I thought that the judges would have a tough time choosing the winner.

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel to settle the bill for our accommodation. We had been assured several times that payment by card would be acceptable, but when we arrived with our card, the manager (hotel owner, possibly) told us that because of poor internet signal, card payment would not, after all, be possible. In that case, we replied, we would not be able to pay. Expecting to pay by card, we had not drawn out nearly enough cash. The manager called one of his assistants, a room boy, who appeared to be savvy with mobile phones. He managed to get the card machine to work, but charged our card one percent of what we owed. Being honest people, we pointed out his error. The young man who was not challenged by IT, was weak in arithmetic skills. Much palaver ensued whilst we waited for him to set up the payment system once more. Throughout all of this, the manager, rather than assisting his numerically challenged employee, stood by, watching helplessly. Meanwhile, I had to stifle my laughter. This cumbrous settling of our bill was yet another example of what John Cleese would have considered fine material for episodes in the comedy series “Fawlty Towers”.