Hello one and all and welcome back to my humble scribblings here on my blog, good of you to drop in and again a quick mention of my new readers in various parts of the world. According to my WordPress site, where I compose all this nonsense prior to posting on my site, I have now had visits from 45 countries although I only count it as 44 as I am not sure when the European Union became a sovereign nation, much as they might love to be regarded as such.
Regular readers will know that my last offering was a day-trip to Belfast, the city of my birth and I have any amount of similar days out to share with you but I thought I’d mix it up a bit so if you want to know where we are going this time then please read on although I suppose the title is a bit of a spoiler!
Day 1 – 01/12/2015.
Well, for those of you accessing this entry form my home page congratulations as, to quote Kipling, “you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din” (the technology baffles me) and here comes the first aside of the day before I have even told you where we are going today.
I have spoke often before about my contributions to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and the Imperial War Museum War Memorial archive. I have also mentioned that, under my enforced confinement to my home, which is getting stricter rather than more relaxed, I have been gorging myself on BBC documentaries. When I saw a new one online three or four days ago (I have lost all track of time) about the history of war graves worldwide presented by the noted architect Dan Cruickshank, it was imperative that I watched it. I did and was completely amazed at how much I learned about a subject I thought I already knew about.
Amongst the nuggets of golden knowledge I acquired was that Kipling was one of the original group who originated what was then known as the Imperial War Graves Commission (Britain still had an empire in those days) and again I was in error as I had believed the Commission to have been founded only after the Great War when in fact it began in 1917. The main movers of the project were the famous architect / designer Sir Charles Lutyens, later responsible for the Cenotaph in Whitehall which forms the focus of national remembrance, the horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll and Kipling, already a Nobel Laureate as of 1907.
The entire project was initially the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware, and he is worth a quick look. Wouldn’t you just know it, I have not even told you where we are off to and I am on a ramble already. That is just the way I write and I promise we’ll get onto today’s outing soon.
At the outbreak of war Sir Fabian was deemed too old to serve but he was a rich and well-connected businessman and he used those connections to secure “command” of a Red Cross ambulance unit on the Western Front. When they were not ferrying the dead and dying back to clearing stations and field hospitals, Ware and his crew took it upon themselves to note, as best they could, graves of Commonwealth soldiers lest they be lost again in the constant shelling amongst the slight moves of the “front line”. This was to prove invaluable when trying to locate the dead on the cessation of hostilities and thus lay the origins of the IWGC / CWGC.
Kipling had a very personal interest in this project. Even older than Ware and likewise debarred from service by his age, his only son John had gone to the war, only to be pronounced “missing in action, presumed lost” at the Battle of Loos in 1915 where he was an officer in the Irish Guards at the tender age of 18. He had actully been commissioned at age 16, despite chronic short-sightedness but his Father had connections and wangled his Commission. I wonder if he subsequently regrettd that action. Kipling Snr. was therefore in the position of so many parents having presumably lost a son and yet with no grave to mourn at as a focal point for their grief.
Long, long after Lt. John Kipling’s grave was finally identified in 1992, 56 years too late for his grieving Father to ever know of it. Such is one of the relatively minor and yet still so hugely personal tragedies amongst the millions of that senseless carnage.
If you look at as many CWGC resting places as I have, you will have seen the phrase “known unto God” on the uniform headstones. I have included an example above from St. Peter’s graveyard in Kent of a sailor presumably washed ashore or recovered from the Channel in the First World War.
I don’t wish to put you off your next meal here but this is a reference to the many tens of thousands in that awful war whose remains had been pounded by shell, choked and blinded by gas and and decimated by Maxim machine gun fire to the point that they were unidentifiable. Hideous I know but such was the cost of a new type of warfare that had, due to technology and the utter failure of hidebound military commanders to adapt, been reduced from combat to wholesale industrialised slaughter.
For the unidentified it was felt that there should be some sort of annotation on the bottom of the gravestones instead of the 66 character remembrance quotation allowed to the families by the Commission when bodies could be identified. Kipling suggested the phrase “Known unto God” as he had previously used the phrase “lest we forget” in other writings and which I use often in my own writing, not that I would ever equate myself to Kipling.
I watched this excellent programme about the IWGC and I know it will be taken down again soon but it may appear on some other video sites and I do recommend it highly, do please see if you can find it.
There you go, that was a pretty large diversion even by my ridiculous standards so I suppose I had better tell you where we are going travelling in this little outing and I have to tell you that up until five minutes ago I had no idea as I was digging aobut in my little box of SD cards, deciding what might make an entry of interest for you. I only wrote the title after deciding, obviously.
Our destination this time is a small island stuck in not quite the middle of the Atlantic Ocean but near enough and, unsurprisingly for me, it features most of the elements of my travel style and, again, I use the word style very loosely. This trip came out of nowhere, was planned in two hours and executed about three days later, perhaps it is a throwback to my days in the Forces where we just “winged” everything “on the hoof” and, yes, I do use “” far too often, I am trying to wean myself off them!
How did I “wing” this trip (there they are again)? I’ll tell you and once more we are back to talking about the wonderful Virtual Tourist website which I have spoken of many times before here and which still stands for me as the epitome of what an online travel website should be. Tragically, it was destroyed by what is now easily the largest travel website online, despite it having been criminally prosecuted in at least four jurisdictions for lying but apparently that does not matter. It is like I have always said, in legal matters, he with the biggest chequebook wins and so, in just about any internet search you undertake, the pages of that lying, criminally prosecuted site will come out at the top of the list. Sad.
Virtual Tourist was a decent, honest site that reflected the views of tens of thousands of genuine reviewers, myself included, who wanted nothing more than to assist fellow travellers but sadly that noble and probably naive concept was soon washed away by one of the most evil men in the world and yes, I shall name him, Stephen Kaufer. Sue me if you dare.
Anyway, when the wonderful VT was still extant I made a lot of dear friends there, many of whom remain to this day and one of those was the amazing Claus Andersen. Claus and I have a big history. We had communicated on VT for a long while and the first time I met him was in Cambodia. Yes, Cambodia. Claus is, by trade, a tour guide and a bloody good one. I tagged onto one of his trips in Cambodia and it was great. He researches everything to the nth degree and can speak with great authority about any place he is guiding to.
Claus works the high end of the market, mostly hosting tours for elderly, rich Danes and, having blagged my way onto one of his tours in Asia and done a sneaky little piece of “vox pop” journalism, his clientele seem to think he is very good at it. His “flock”, when I spoke to some of them at a most wonderful fado night in Madeira (coming soon), were equally fulsome in their praise of him. Claus is an excellent tour guide, at least tri-lingual and has travelled to more than 120 countries which is something I might have aspired to but now seems unlikely.
Let me tell you a little more about Claus as it will make this, and the next couple of entries, far more interesting than my normal drivel might be.
Claus does not drive, he cycles and styles himself as “the biking Viking”, a soubriquet he certainly lives up to. He has cycled across the USA (I can’t remember if it was West to East or vice versa), he has cycled from Alaska to Mexico, he spends months cycling round Brazil, making him completely fluent in Portuguese which was to prove useful on this trip to Portuguese speaking Madeira.
Perhaps my favourite Claus biking story is when he got on his bike and pedalled from his home city of Copenhagen all the way to Tirana, the capital of Albania, just to watch a football (soccer) match. That is the kind of amiable madman he is. He ended up on Albanian TV for that stunt and still appears regularly whenever he returns. That is Mr. Andersen for you.
After our meeting in Cambodia, the next place I met him was in Macedonia, now named North Macedonia at the demand of the Greeks and backed by the Federal States of E aka the European Union. This was another VT meet organised by the force of Nature that is my dear friend Valentina.
After that we met up in Aachen at another Euromeet which was a brilliant trip where I drank far too much good beer, visited three different countries in three days and managed to lose my kilt! Yes, these kinds of things happen when you hang out with Claus. After that, it was this trip in Madeira and a subsequent brilliant VT Euromeet in Portugal which he had organised and which will hopefully form the basis of a series of entries here in due course.
Back to the narrative now. Claus had posted a message on VT saying that he was in Madeira and would anyone care to join him. I am quite sure that with hindsight, which is always 20 / 20 vision, this was meant as a comment with his tongue very firmly embedded in his cheek but I took him for real and sent him a reply along the lines of “OK mate, see you next week”. What happened next fairly well exemplifies my travel ethos, if one can even be said to have such a thing.
Within two hours, I had booked a flight to Funchal, scored myself an apartment and I was on my way to see my mate Claus. I sent him a note to that effect and asked him how I got from the airport into town. He replied by giving me details of exactly where to get the airport bus and told me it would dump me in the centre of Funchal which it was eventually to do but, sadly, the centre of Funchal was not exactly where I wanted to be but we shall come to that in a moment. Poor old Claus was used to cycling, taxi or being ferried around in luxury coaches because, as I told you, he works the high end of the market (or did until this virus was unleashed upon the world, changing it forever). Poor old Claus is stuck in Copenhagen now.
What I have just told you says much about my way of travelling somewhere, I just arrange transport there and am normally on an aeroplane within about three or four days. I simply do not understand people who book a “holiday” a year in advance and spnd a week packing for it. To me that just takes all the fun out of travel and makes it a chore rather than the joy it should be.
I arrived at the airport in good time on a journey that was hassle-free and expensive, the latter of which was completely expected due to the disgusting levels of profit made for the mainly foreign companies supposedly running our national transport system and the former a pleasant surprise given their overpaid incompetence.
Gatwick, as you can see, was festively bedecked for the pagan Winter Solstice which I am currently celebrating with a few bottles of the cheapest, nastiest red wine I can find in my local supermarket. I cannot tell a Chardonnay from a chamberpot nor a Merlot from a mermaid, so it does the job. Actually it does not taste like battery acid so I am happy enough.
The pagan Winter Solstice? Yes. With apologies to regular readers (you knew there had to be an apology in here somewhere) the Judeo-Christian festival of Chritmas is a myth. The Jewish rabbi / teacher Jesus Christ, who undoubtedly existed, was not born in December. Simple as that academics and theologians have no real idea of a month although most are agreed it was in the years 4 – 6 BC which sounds slightly oxymoronic to me.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Judeo-Christian adoption of this festival, I am writing this on 21st December as I mentioned so happy Solstice to one and all.
I checked in quickly and painlessly with Norwegian Airlines and, wouldn’t you just know it, there are a couple more digressions coming here. The first is to do with Norwegian Airlines itself. They were a “cheapo” airline, based understandably in Norway and they were OK. No frills, pay extra if you want to carry more baggage than a handbag (ladies purse for those of you using American English rather than UK English), all the usual restrictions. With a flight time of just under four hours, this is no great hardship
Sadly, because of this pandemic Norwegian are currently suffering badly, as are all in the travel industry and, having failed to secure emergency funding from the Norwegian Government, are a “dead man walking”. Their share price fell over 17% a couple of days ago (20/12/2020) and it begs the question of where international travel will stand several years from now if this damned virus is ever contained to allow it.
I find smug bragging distasteful and yet I find myself in the unenviable position of having nothing else to do here. When everyone else was saying, “It’s no problem, it is just like SARS, we’ll have a vaccine soon and everything will be fine by the summer”, I was of the view that the virus would mutate faster than a vaccine could be rolled out with indecent haste and proper scrutiny. In normal circumstances a vaccine takes ten years from drawing board to implementation and they are going to try to administer it in just over ONE year. I will not be having it. Does anyone here remember Thalidomide? A wonder drug guaranteed to solve all ills? Look where that led and it had been supposedly tested over years.
I said in many posts on this blog that things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better and, believe me, it gives me no pleasure at all to say, “I told you so” but…………….
Enough of this depressing chat and in the meantime let’s return to 2015 in the days when I could just jump on a ‘plane and go wherever I wanted. Do you remember those days? If you can, hang onto those lovely memories, they will not come again. As always, come back to me in a year or two and tell me I was wrong. It won’t happen.
There I was in LGW to give it it’s official designation or Gatwick if you wish to speak non-jargon English. There I was, all ready to go and a bit hungry, not to mention thirsty. Only one thing for it, find the bar.
The bar I found was the Wetherspoons outlet and I have to state again that I am a fan of the chain although I know they divide opinion along Marmite lines (you either love them or hate them) amongst British drinkers. Yes, they tend to be huge barns of places with little in the way of snugs and roaring fires etc., traditional they are not but what they are is a consistently dependable outlet for inexpensive and decent, if not haute cuisine, food. Their drink selection is extensive and, again not expensive with a great emphasis on smaller craft brewers, distillers and the like which is a policy I approve of.
The one slightly confusing thing about ‘Spoons, as they tend to be called, is the pricing policy which I presume must be geared to the area and consequent overheads. I had left in plenty of time that particular day an so had popped into my local for a quick pint just to start the day off on the right foot. I cannot remember now what I paid for my pint of Strongbow but I have a feeling it was about £2:39 or £2:49 back then.
I got the Tube to Victoria Station where I decided to repeat the process whilst waiting for my train and it was about 20 or 30 pence more expensive and by the time I had got to Gatwick they had added another 30 or 40p. I can only guess it is to do with the punitive rent and business rates charged by BAA (the private company responsible for ripping off air passengers in the UK).
As well as being a travelogue of sorts, I do like to impart the odd bit of travel knowledge so here is one. If you are travelling to Gatwick from London Victoria, never use the Gatwick Express as it is a complete rip-off. You can get a very marginally slower train which may only stop at one or two stations and it will be considerably cheaper.
On a happier note, I was delighted to find on the menu something I have never seen in any other Wetherspoons and, believe me, I have eaten in plenty – bagels which I love and one of the three options offered was salt beef, my absolute favourite. I suspect my love of this particular delicacy is to do with where I live in the East End of London which was traditionally a very Jewish area and very much home to bagels of all types.
Most of the Jewish community have moved out to Golders Green, Stamford Hill and Finchley to be replaced with the new wave of Bangladeshi, Somali and Eastern European immigrants but there are still a couple of bagel shops clinging on in Brick Lane. Well, I say that, I have no idea what is happening with this virus nonsense as I am not sure a bagel shop is deemed to be “essential”.
Here is another insider’s tip for you regarding bagels in Brick Lane. The Beigel Bake (note the variant spelling), which has been at #159 is an insitution and it is fine as evidenced by the queues of merry revellers that snake down the street at ridiculous hours of the night, especilly at the weekend. However, go a few yards South to number 155, yes, two doors down and you have the Beigel Shop or Evering’s as I still call it which is where I always go.
When I moved to the East End in 1988 I had never even heard of salt beef, it was not exactly a staple in Northern Ireland but after an evening’s carousing my mate Bob Judd, a born and bred Bethnal Green boy, took me to the shop at 155 and told me this was where the cognoscenti went. There are huge debates locally and amongst the cab drivers who frequent both establishments a lot as to which is the better of the two but I have always found the “white one” to have better beigels, tastier salt beef and smaller queues. As the clincher, this may be of interest to you and I admit that I had not even heard of this until I was researching this piece.
As you can see from the image above the presentation of the Wetherspoon’s beigel left a little to be desired but it was tasty enough and an unexpected treat to start my trip off. Security wasn’t too bad and the flight was not particularly full so I managed to unwind my 6’5″ frame over a couple of seats which was useful as Norwegian don’t provide a lot of legroom.
The flight was pretty uneventful except when I almost had a heart attack when told the price of the two mini cans of Stella, an awful lager known as “wife-beater” in my area for reasons I would really rather not think about. It was all they had.
If you are in the slightest bit interested I have posted a video of us landing in Funchal in the dark which actually was a blessing although I did not know it at the time. It is right beside the sea and looks a bit of a tricky landing so it was probably best I could not see it. It is not quite as bad as Gibraltar which can be terrifying with a crosswind but still “interesting”.
The story of the runway here is fascinating. Because of the topography of Madeira there is very little in the way of flat ground. Some ye ars ago it became obvious the runway would need to be extended to accommodate larger ‘planes and the only viable solution was to build a runway on 180 pillars like a huge bridge. This in itself is odd enough but under the runway there are tennis courts, boatyards, markets, a funfair and a circus! All this underneath the runway of an international airport – crazy.
Airport formalities were quick and painless and I was soon at the bus stop Claus had directed me to and after a short wait I was on my way. So far so good.
We got into the middle of Funchal somewhere and the everyone got off the ‘bus, this was apparently the end of the line. I asked him if he knew my hotel and he didn’t. I had looked at the pictures on the website and read the blurb boasting how close it was to the sea so I reckoned that finding the ocean and scanning about might be the done thing. There was no huge rush as Claus was having dinner with his charges and wasn’t going to get there until later.
My plan eventually worked but it did take a little longer than I had expected for several reasons. Firstly, I had neither map, directions nor smartphone and secondly, my entire Portuguese vocabulary consisted of “Bom dia” and “obrigada”, respectively, “Good day” and “thank you” which, while civil were not going to be a great help. Finding the sea was easy enough, it is just a matter of going downhill and stopping before you get wet. Eventually I found the little cafe I was looking for.
Claus had picked this particular cafe of the literally hundreds in Funchal as it was in the same building as the hotel which administered my apartment so that was handy. With a great effort of will I had not gone into any of the various hostelries I passed on the way, that would have been fatal. I know myself far too well and so, on arrival at Cafe Pao De Lo, I performed a strange ritual which usually gets some odd looks but can also serve as an icebreaker.
I take a picture of the first drink I have in any country I visit and the result you can see above, a Coral Beer which seems very popular on the island as it is brewed locally. You can get Sagres and Superbock which are popular in Portugal but have to be imported. Coral was fine by me. Interestingly the Madeira Brewery also produces a beer called Zarco and that was also the name of my apartment but that is not surprising as João Gonçalves Zarco was a sea captain in the service of the Portuguese king who initially settled Madeira so he is a bit of a big name there.
One beer inevitably led to another and even a toastie to keep the wolf from the door whilst waiting for Claus to turn up. I don’t know how they make the bread in Medeira but it is gorgeous and, with toasties being a great favourite of mine anyway this was to become something of a staple of my diet although I did try various other local delicacies as you shall see.
I suppose the sensible thing to do would have been to have dumped my kit in the apartment but sensible rarely enters my travelling agenda so I sat there enjoying my beers until Claus turned up, large as life and twice as cheerful. He really is an amazing character and I know he reads this so I am not trying to embarrass you here, mate. A beer or two more and a bit of a catch up and it really was time for me to dump my gear in case the hotel reception closed at night.
I popped next door, got the key and directions to the apartment which was about five minutes walk away across a charming pedestrianised square and also up a lot of stairs as I was on the top floor. A look out the window made the slog up the stairs all worthwhile as I was treated to a beautiful view of the Se Catedral do Funchal, a magnificent 15th century Gothic structure. The views were to get even better in daylight as you will see.
I rattled off a few quick images of the apartment and I must pronounce myself well satisfied with it. I had got very good deal on it as a last minute booking and thought it was very good value. Memory fails now but I think it was only bout £25 a night. Suitably unencumbered by kit I headed back to Claus and a nightcap or three. He had a busy day with his charges the next day so he took off early, well early by our lunatic standards anyway and I decided to have a quick look round the local area, nothing major.
My gentle amble produced some of the most awful non-flash night images I have ever taken of which the one above, far from decent, is the only one I would even offend you with. What my little wander showd me that there was a lot of history and beauty in the narrow little streets of Funchal and I couldn’t wait for the next day to go and have a look at it.
If you want to see what I get up to then stay tuned and spread the word.