Explore Sicily/Corsica

With the beautiful people

Sicily seems less an island and more of a continent that has shrunk in the wash. If it were flattened out it would be a whole lot bigger than 26,000 square kilometres. Its rugged hills are packed with enough interesting old towns, remarkable ruins and panoramic vistas to animate a much larger place.

Taormina, on the northeast corner of the island, is the dolce vida capital of Sicily (Palermo is the political capital). Taormina has attracted sophisticated travellers such as actors Judi Dench, Michael Douglas, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Before the Second World War it was a popular Mediterranean playground for English eccentrics. DH Lawrence, who lived for two years in a villa just outside Taormina, had his expatriate neighbour in mind when he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The town is built on a narrow plateau between the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna and it’s all view: look up and there’s Europe’s most active volcano; look down and there’s the voluptuous curve of the bay. Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy, is a blue smudge in the distance.There’s a flowery fragrance on the breeze, sunsets and sunrises of outstanding beauty, the melancholy ruins of Roman and Greek civilisations, the still imposing palaces of the Spanish and French occupiers and the black tracks of lava from Etna’s sporadic eruptions.

Perhaps it’s this muttering volcano that gives the town a frisson – the atmosphere of a place on the edge; a place to eat, drink and be merry. While Sicily’s other problems include the mafia, summer’s brutal heat, barren highlands and poverty, these don’t normally intrude on holidaymakers, unless they are so unwise as to come in July or August.

Skipping the parched heat of summer, out-of-season tourists will have missed only the crowds. In late November my hotel was serving breakfast on the terrace, the grapes had just been harvested, the olives were being shaken into ground cloths and oranges hung like Christmas ornaments on the trees.Though a few restaurants were closed for annual holidays, the catch of the day was still being cooked to order in small family-run trattorias.

Small shops line Taormina’s one main shopping street, Corso Umberto I. It’s a cobbled pedestrian way that begins at Porta Messina and ends at Porta Catania, both circumstantial gates. Narrow staircases to the right and left of the Corso lead to alleys running uphill or downhill to hidden neighbourhoods. Corso Umberto is enlivened with picturesque squares, including the Piazza IX Aprile with its panoramic vista.

The best view of all, though, is from within the ancient amphitheatre of Taormina. A partial ruin, its brick arches frame views of the mountain and coast that look like 19th century engravings.The amphitheatre, built by the Greeks and rebuilt by the Romans for gladiatorial combats, is still used in summer for dramatic performances.

After looking at the volcano from a distance for a few days, you want to get closer. I arranged through the hotel for a car with a chauffeur guide. On the twisty drive up towards the cone we passed olive groves, then forests of pine and chestnut trees and from each curve there were new perspectives of the snow-topped mountain. As we drove higher, Etna seemed to get lower, to crouch on the horizon like a cheetah pretending to be a house cat. We stopped in the car park that serves both a chair lift (skiing is a popular winter sport on Mount Etna) and the cable car. The sloping ground around here was mostly ash with fist-sized lumps of lava here and there, and isolated patches of snow. Some of these were lightly dusted with soot. “Fresh soot – Etna was active last night,” the guide observed indulgently, as if referring to a restless, elderly relative. He asked if I’d like to take the cable car higher up Etna’s flank. From there a jeep would take me to the crater’s edge “if conditions permit”. I said no. Standing in the cold wind he pointed out various rivers of lava, like coal slides, giving dates for each as if they were battles in a history book.The one in 2001 had carried away the observatory, the refuge and the ski lift. A new refuge and ski lift had just opened, though not an observatory. Etna is monitored by satellite now.

Our way back down the mountain toward Taormina took us through the home of Etna Appellation Cotrolée wine, an ‘island on an island’ that collars Etna’s neck.

 Here the grapes grow sweet in the lava-enriched soil. Near the town of Linguaglossa, we stopped at the Raciti-Gambino family’s vineyard. On the broad terrace overlooking their 18 hectares they offered a complimentary tasting of red and white wines along with bread, local cheeses and charcuterie to go with it. If you know wine, they’ll enthusiastically talk you through the technicalities. If, like me, you just want to choose a few bottles to remind you of Sicily, you’ll be in the right place, too.

Explore Sicily/Corsica

Music in the Stones

For a week in September, the Corsican city of Calvi is soaked in music. It’s the Rencontres de Chants Polyphoniques. Locals and guests unleash the soulful, traditional Corsican chants in every nook and cranny of the historic town including in its most beautiful edifices……the cathedral St Jean-Baptiste and the Saint-Antoine oratory.

The festival was created in 1989 to share Corsica’s musical heritage with the world; today the Rencontres are one of the major events on the island. Polyphonic ensembles from all over the globe (Mongol, Inuit, Tibetan, South African, Cuban, Sardinian, etc.) come to Calvi to add their voices and heritage to the five-day festival.

It would be hard to imagine a more evocative setting for the Rencontres than the thirteenth century Citadel, Calvi’s ‘upper town’. When I visited one September, music seemed to seep from the stones as local and invited a capella groups rehearsed each day and performed each afternoon and evening in the Cathedral, in the oratory, on the roofs and balconies of tall stone houses.

Polyphonic singers

Corsican polyphonic singing employs human voices to produce something like the sounds of an organ, independent drawn-out lines sung simultaneously in dense, horizontal harmony. Very little of it,either sacred or popular, is written.The singers, a minimum of three, traditionally stand in a huddled circle, cupping an ear with one hand.

The final night of the Rencontres, a thousand spectators stood leaning against the walls or sat, quiet as the stones themselves, on the steps of the cobbled street leading to the Place d’Armes. The Citadel was in darkness, the moonlight flickering on and off, turning the distant sea from black to silver as the clouds swept by. At 9:30, the first riveting notes of a Paghjella, the traditional polyphonic song of Corsica, rose like an ancient cry from six quite ordinary looking men spot lit on an improvised stage. This moment alone was worth the journey.

Explore USA

Houston Calling

SHORT of moving to Houston, Texas (and an average of 200 people a day do just that) it’s hard to imagine how you could begin to see it all. It’s not just that it’s such a big city  – although it is the fourth largest in the USA -or such a sprawling city with 10 major business districts, it’s that it’s such a diverse, quirky, upbeat city which seems to have spawned an awesome number of unmissable attractions, many of which you’ll nevertheless have to miss in the length of an ordinary holiday.So it’s a question of priorities.

Because I was there at the same time as the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, that was top of my list. Run by thousands of volunteers, it’s the biggest rodeo in the world, attracting a million or more spectators and raising multimillions for scholarships and educational programs. In Houston’s vast Astrodome, the world’s top broncobusters, ropers, bare back riders and steer wrestlers compete for the rodeo circuit’s biggest purses. (Even the losers win. In each event, the competitor with the worst luck, as chosen by audience applause, limps off with the consolation of free air travel from Continental Airlines! ) Afterwards, the sawdust is swept up and the best country music entertainers take over the arena. it could be anyone from Destiny’s Child to Garth Brooks.

A parade through downtown Houston kicks off the event with marching bands, mounted officials, chuck wagons, horse drawn carriages plus hundreds of the 6,000 or so trail riders who converge on Houston for the rodeo from up to 400 miles away. Add tens of thousands of spectators, balloons, clowns, flags, the occasional skittering horse and dumped rider, and there’s wild excitement in the air. It’s a time when Texans, and particularly Houstonions, celebrate their cowboy roots. 

For them, part of the fun is sporting their best Western gear. For this visitor, part of the fun was gaping at the outfits. One perk of being a Texan, male or female, is the right, and the nerve, to wear fancy boots and a big brimmed hat, jeans and a fringed leather jacket on a city street, in a restaurant, in a nightclub any time you like, but always during rodeo.

If you should be tempted to join in, there are plenty of Western clothing stores where you can transform yourself, but watch the price tags. I saw crocodile boots for $6,500, (customdesigned ones can cost a very great deal more ), a Stetson cowboy hat for $3,200 and an 18-carat-gold and ruby studded hatband to dress it up with at $2,600.

But who’s counting? After all, thanks largely to oil, Houston is a rich city .

It didn’t start out rich, though. It wasn’t until 1901 that oil gushed up at Spindletop. Three-quarters of a century earlier, Houston had begun as a hard-sell development scheme marketed by two speculators, the Allen brothers. Having acquired over 6,000 acres of swampy bayou headlands they managed to convince land-starved people from elsewhere in the States and from Europe to come there to settle. You can still see for yourself the kind of land that was on offer by visiting the Armand Bayou Nature Reserve.

Miraculously untouched, between an industrial park and the Space Centre, lie these 2,500 primitive acres of Texas, an extraordinary ecological time capsule.

The reserve is criss-crossed with walking trails, one of which leads to a turnof-the-last-century farmhouse. You can wander in forests of oak, elm and ash to the bayou where blue herons nest and alligators drift, their eyes just above the green water. They share the habitat with hundreds of species of bird, fish, insects, mammals and reptiles, including some impressive snakes. The centre also preserves one of the country’s last remaining prairies, 900 acres of grass and wildflowers where, after 200 years, bison can again be seen. The reserve was recently presented with two young steers, rare pure-blooded descendants of the vast Great Southern Herd of American Bison that roamed the area thousands of years ago.

From time capsule to space capsule is just a matter of a half-mile in Houston. That’s all the distance there is between the haunting, lost world of Armand Bayou and the glitzy, Disneydesigned visitor centre of Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre. It’s Houston’s number one attraction and you’ll need to budget at least a full day to see it. In fact, nearby hotels offer a discount for overnights and, particularly if you have children with you, that’s an idea worth considering. A 90-minute guided tram tour leaves the centre at regular intervals during the day, wending its way through the facilities of Nasa. In addition to actual space craft like the Gemini and Apollo capsules, you’ll see Mission Control and the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory where astronauts may be in training for an upcoming mission.

Back at the visitor’s centre, you can touch a real moon rock, explore a fullscale mock-up of a shuttle cockpit, watch a demonstration of daily life in space, check out the space suits worn on previous missions or blast off at a space journey film in the largest IMAX theatre in Texas. Telephone for the schedule and you could time your visit to meet some astronauts in person at a briefing session.

Clever interactive exhibits in the Kids Space Place let them experience the sensations of jumping on the moon, flying the shuttle or launching a rocket.

And you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it, either.

Explore USA

A Christmas in Brooklyn Heights

…..One Christmas Truman Capote decked my halls with boughs of holly. It was sometime before he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) but after he wrote the Grass Harp (1951). In those days Capote was just one of the famous people I very nearly knew.

I was living in Brooklyn Heights, a small neighbourhood across the East River from Manhattan. It’s an area where 18th and 19th-century houses line quiet streets with old-fashioned names such as Cranberry and Pineapple. Not surprisingly, considering how close the Heights is to New York City, a number of celebrities lived there.  More surprisingly, I lived there too, and that’s how I happened to nearly know a few of them.

To be precise about the hall decking, they were not boughs of holly but boughs of pine made into a long, thick garland lashed with red ribbon and ornamented with silver balls. Even more precisely, I did the decking, not Truman. But it was definitely his garland. I had found it the day before Christmas, abandoned outside his basement flat around the corner from mine. He lived downstairs in an elegant Federal style building belonging to Oliver Messel, who designed the sets for the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. You could see straight down into Truman’s bedroom. His coverlet was printed with violets.

I salvaged the garland, toting it like an awkwardly bristling hosepipe up to my apartment. Sadly, I had to leave Capote’s Christmas tree behind. It lay on its side, the baubles hanging sideways as if drawn to the earth by magnetic force. The star on the top pointed towards the East River like a crossed eye. I suppose there had been a pre-Christmas party and Truman was by now heading for the Mediterranean and someone’s yacht.

I stretched the garland over the cornices of the window of my sitting room from which you could see the Statue of Liberty to the left and the Brooklyn Bridge to the right. The garland seemed to embrace lower Manhattan with the compliments of the season. It didn’t even begin to drop its needles until well into the New Year.

Famous as he was, Truman wasn’t the most newsworthy of the famous people I nearly knew at that time. Norman Mailer ranked higher. He had become a big name in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead. By the time we were next-door neighbours he had written Barbary Coast and The Deer Park. They say it was because these got such hostile criticism and bad reviews that he became increasingly belligerent.

The more aggressive he became the more coverage the tabloids gave him and the more famous he became. Every fight in every restaurant or bar was good copy. So were his parties. I could hear them so well, even through the thick, brick walls of our adjoining houses, that it was like being there, only safer.

Eventually he stabbed his third wife, Adele, after a night of drinking. More than 30 years later she wrote about it in a book called The Last Party.

I very nearly knew Arthur Miller and his pale wife, Mary, too. I passed their house every morning on my way to work. Sometimes I saw him walking their little white dog. Arthur Miller looked like Abraham Lincoln would have looked if Abraham Lincoln had smoked a pipe and worn horn-rimmed glasses. Miller was already famous as the author of Death of a  Salesman.  Soon he became much more famous as the lover and for while the husband of Marilyn Monroe.

While their affair was going on, before Arthur divorced Mary Miller and Marilyn divorced Joe Di Maggio, they were sometimes spotted together in our neighbourhood. One evening I saw them myself, rounding a corner in the glimmer of a streetlight. She was wearing sunglasses and a scarf tied under her chin, so at first they didn’t look like a famous playwright and a famous film star but like Abraham Lincoln and Heidi, if Heidi had worn sunglasses.

One Christmas it was rumoured that she was going to attend a publisher’s party with Arthur Miller. A friend of mine worked for the company and put my name on the invitation list. I spend ages figuring out what to wear… as if, in the same room with Marilyn Monroe it was going to matter.  On the night, however, it turned out that Arthur Miller didn’t show and neither did Marilyn.

That was the bad news. The good news is that I looked really great, the Christmas party was perfect and Marilyn Monroe will always remain, like an angel on a Christmas tree, at the very top of my list of famous people I very nearly knew.

Europe Explore Worldwide

The desert at the door

Fifty years ago, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was just a cluster of huts sheltering the fishermen and pearl divers who pulled a living from the Creek. Aside from this small settlement, the rest was sand – 6,000 square kilometres of it.When oil was discovered in 1966, the Emirate began to blossom like the desert after rain. Money flooded in and construction started;  at one time it was estimated that a quarter of all the building cranes in the world were at work in Dubai. But beyond the encroaching city, the desert remains and it’s worth seeing.

Draw of the desert

 A drive of less than an hour leaves the city of Dubai behind and brings you to the edge of the Arabian Desert. Almost 4,000 sq km of this vast expanse – second in size only to the Sahara – belongs to the Emirate of Dubai. At first glance, red dunes under a hot sun look like an environment that can take care of itself. But in fact, the desert was no match for the aftershock of Dubai’s prosperity. If the ever-expanding city centre was one problem, the effects of the four-wheel drive vehicle were worse.The tracks of these vehicles squeezed the life out of fragile plants that had survived, until then, for millennia and by 1964, mechanised hunters had all but wiped out the desert’s most beautiful creature, the white Arabian oryx. The breed was saved from extinction by the then ruler of Dubai, Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the architect of modern Dubai. He sent a small herd of oryx to a sanctuary in Arizona, in the United Staes where they bred in safety. Thirty-five years later, 90 oryx, the descendants of the original herd, were brought back to Dubai’s desert and released in a newly established national park where they now number 250.

 When five per cent of the desert was designated a Desert Conservation area in 2002, the problem of ‘dune bashing’ was addressed. Previously, some 19 tour operators had been offering these desert joy rides; that number was reduced to four and wild as the rides may seem, they follow an agreed route. Although ecotourism is in Dubai’s future plans, for the present the experience of sharing this awesome space with the oryx, the desert fox and the Arabian gazelle comes at a price.You can stay in one of the 40 or so villas of a luxurious desert resort, Al Maha, built to look like a Bedouin encampment in an oasis. Costs range from $600 to $1500 a night for the smaller villas but they are the epitome of Arabian luxury. Staff members outnumber guests three to one and each villa enjoys its own, chilled private pool –where oryx now sometimes come to drink.There are falcon displays and the chance to ride into the desert on a horse or camel.

For a much less expensive foray into the desert, book a dune drive and desert dinner with Arabian Adventures.The evening begins with a hair-raising fourwheel drive over the rolling dunes (consider taking a Dramamine) then a stop where you struggle up a dune on your own two feet to photograph the setting sun. At dusk, you get your first glimpse of the Bedouin tent set out for the evening’s feast; the sight is pure romance.

 During the evening there’s a chance to have your hands painted with henna, try a puff on a Hubble-bubble pipe, watch some belly dancing and to experience a short ride on a camel. I can report it feels as if you’d straddled a large padded footstool that suddenly morphed to a great height and began to stride around the room. At the end of the evening, before guests climb back into the long convoy of fourwheel drive vehicles for the return to the hotels, the lights are switched off for several minutes.The scene is dimly lit by the moon and stars, the dunes like dry ocean waves rolling into the darkness. Hundreds of people sit in absolute silence for several minutes.When the lights come on again, there’s a momentary pause – and then applause. It could be for the feast, or for the entertainment, but I think it’s probably for the desert.


Over Africa


I‘m not normally a nervous flyer. I eat the meal, drink the wine, watch the film. On long flights, I even sleep. It’s much like being on the ground. But is that because I don’t realize I’m flying? Through the air? Take away the tranquil decor, take away the meals and the film — take away the roof especially — and that’s flying, and then I’m nervous.

 So I was nervous, sweltering in equatorial heat on a sun baked airstrip in northern Kenya, flapping at the flies, as a tall, good-looking English-American pilot put the finishing touches — not to mention the cowling — on his shiny red biplane number 5YCAG. Andrew Garratt is the owner and main man of the Classic Aerial Safari Company, whose aim is to offer the genuine “Out of Africa” experience to tourists in Kenya. For passengers in his reproduction 1935 open-cockpit plane, he orchestrates the complete works, fitting them out with a brown leather flight jacket, white silk scarf, leather helmet with goggles and earflaps with radio receivers through which they listen to Mozart.

But Andrew had flown to this airstrip in Navaisha to have his Waco biplane serviced, not expecting to pick up a passenger on her way to the Mount Kenya Safari Club. A friend had lent me a black leather jacket to keep me warm at 11,000 feet and my sunglasses would double as goggles, but I had nothing to protect my ears. “Not even cotton wool?” Andrew worried, fearing I might wind up deaf after the 50-minute flight over the Aberdare Mountains.

That particular concern wasn’t even on my list.

Two hours after we’d arrived at the field, the newly serviced plane had been checked and double-checked and was ready for takeoff. It had been pushed out onto the airstrip, and the Jacobs motor (nickname: “shakin’ Jake”) was sending tremors from the Waco’s nose to its tail. Ostriches, who probably don’t realize what strange-looking birds they are themselves, patrolled the other side of a chain-link fence, eyeing the quivering 5YCAG suspiciously.

Time to climb aboard. Andrew, who had been a very relaxed conversationalist so far — chatting about his boyhood in Pennsylvania where he’d cut grass and answered the phone at a local airfield to earn flying lessons, and about quitting the U.S. Air Force after eight years to bicycle from Europe to Africa — suddenly morphed into a pilot, with a pilot’s preoccupations. I was not to step on the (fabric-covered) wings but only on the black plywood tread. I was to step on the leather seat of the front cockpit and then ease myself down into it, like an egg into a crate, keeping my feet off the puckered pouch on the floor, right in the center, which housed something or other important. The controls in the front cockpit were disconnected, he said (good!), and I was to give the thumbs up from time to time to let him know “everything was all right.”

“What do you mean ‘everything’?” I asked, suddenly fearing responsibility.

“Just that you’re comfortable,” he said. “We’ll be taking off northeast, flying through a saddle in the Aberdares to Mount Kenya. Should arrive by one.” So there I was in the Meryl Streep seat, my oversize leather jacket bunched tightly by the lap and shoulder harness. The seat had straps for two either very slim or very friendly passengers. The needles in the dashboard dials began to flutter, and a stick labeled “throttle” described a mysterious arc all by itself on the left-hand side of the cockpit. The little plane hurtled frantically forward and I realized I could not see where it was going, my view totally blocked by the high curve of the dashboard. Out the sides, there was a view, threaded over by rigging that held the top wing to the bottom and served as a kind of harp for the wind to play on.

We were aloft, and the noise, as Andrew had warned, was horrendous. It was as if the plane was screaming — and who could blame it with the abuse it seemed to be taking. I concentrated on the low-pitched heartbeat of the motor, a steady pulsing that was never interrupted, though I constantly expected it to be, by that cough I remember hearing in war films. Time for a thumbs up. The wind flattened my arm each time I raised it, so after three tries I seemed to have been pantomiming thumbing a ride in the air, which was not inappropriate. Not long after takeoff, the screaming turned to something like singing, and this is no doubt where Mozart kicks in for the Safari
passengers. Below were little settlements in the Great Rift Valley, tiny shelters giving scale to the steep valley wall, the Escarpment, over which we were flying. The flat valley landscape stretched out of sight behind us, pale green and glistening except where the clouds threw shadows over it like purple blankets.

Then we were up over the Aberdare Mountains, thick green billows of bamboo and montane forest, a dark, secret place, home to monkeys and leopards, lions and elephants and once to the Mau Mau. Clouds began to roll in under us on the right. On the left, the sun was still shining. In the thermals, the tiny plane slipped and slid, its forward movement momentarily suspended as if it were dangling on a string. Another thumbs up, in case Andrew was worried for me. He must have been encouraged, because he executed a half-turn and stood the plane on one wingtip. As if pointing with it, Andrew was showing me a slender silver waterfall, tumbling in three leaps down black wooded slopes into a shining thread of river. Much later, a similar maneuver signaled a herd of elephants at a muddy water hole. The biplane soldiered on over lumpy forest that looked like an agitated sea. It was almost three; we would be nearing Mount Kenya. Except in the early morning, this majestic snow-clad mountain on the equator is shrouded in clouds. I’d heard that one pilot had three times flown a plane into it. The Safari Club is carved into the mountain’s wooded lap, and even when we circled over the clubhouse, pool, villas and golf course, Mount Kenya itself was invisible. Andrew made a tight little landing at Mawingu, the bush airstrip, and his second pilot, Jim Dale, came out of the gum pole office of Classic Aerial Safaris to help me out of the plane. Turn around, step on the seat, stand on the black tread, jump to the ground. The flight hadn’t bothered my ears, but my knees wobbled.

I had a question for Andrew. “If I couldn’t see forward from my cockpit, how can you see where you’re going from yours?”
“A good question,” he answered. “I can’t.” In the office I glanced through the guest book: “My heart and soul sing with emotions, Jan”; “I cried tears of joy, James”; and from Wilhelmina: “O that my life could have ended at the moment of climax when I touched the hand of God and He smiled upon my soul.” In “Out of Africa,” Karen Blixen had written: “Every time that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realised that I was free
 of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great and new discovery.
‘I see,’ I have thought. ‘This was the idea and now I understand everything.’ ”

I didn’t stop to write in Andrew’s book. I wanted only to get to a telephone and call home.

Africa Explore

Stone town, spice island


In my mind, Zanzibar had always been located somewhere between Timbuktu and Xanadu, or to put it another way, midway between fact and fiction. But the Air Kenya flight from Nairobi touched down on a real island, 25 km off the coast of Africa, six degrees below the equator where a real rain was falling and real palm trees blowing in the softly scented air.The Serena Inn, where I would be staying, had sent their minibus to meet me.

For ten minutes or so we bumped through a muddy suburb of makeshift shelters, shops, and garden patches. Briefly, we skirted the waterfront where, offshore, the stiff sail of a small dhow sped through the bright water like a white bird in a blue sky. The hotel stood with its back to the Indian Ocean. A doorman in turban and long white robe stood by the massive brass-studded teak door. In the foyer, a fountain played into a tile basin, sharing the space with a curving carved staircase, sculpted mouldings, rich wall hangings, antique grain chests. One flight up, off an open verandah,my room and its balcony looked out over the turquoise sea.

 Fore-warned by ‘Zanzibar – an essential guide’, I changed into flip flops.Then I went down to meet my guide for a tour of Stone Town in the rain. Guide Muhara rolled his trousers to the knee and we began our walk, down streets so narrow we had to flatten against a wall for the occasional bicycle to splash by. There are 1500 buildings in Stone Town, in varying stages of dilapidation.A number of these coral rag structures, for the most part built by wealthy Zanzibari merchants in the 19th century, still have their carved doors and elaborate wooden balconies.

The United Nations has named Stone Town a World Heritage Site and efforts are being made to save the historic Muslim city from crumbling into dust.The restored Apothecary House is an outstanding example of what can be done. This eye-popping structure of green and white fretwork now houses a French restaurant and an antique shop. For the most part, though, Stone Town remains in suspended animation, waiting for the touch of a magic wand.

Through the streams of ankle-deep brown water which sluiced off the roofs and into the street, we sloshed to the fish market. Here I was told, and promptly forgot, the names of a wide variety of glinting gray and pink fish. I remember squid, octopus and a pewter-coloured marlin which lay beached on the wet cement floor . But I had come to Zanzibar for fantasy, not fish, and one of the ex-Sultan’s palaces was our next destination. In 1840, Sultan Sayid Said had moved his court to Zanzibar from Muscat, the better to oversee the enormous wealth generated by the ancient trade in slaves and spices. The palace which housed his wives and children and subsequently those of his descendants, became a museum when the last Sultan was overthrown in 1964. It was not a palace in the Thousand and One Nights tradition, however.

In the Sultana’s drawing room the sumptuous black ebony and red velvet furniture clustered around a black formica coffee table printed with yellow and red boomerangs.The Sultan’s massive bed, surmounted by a verdigris crown, was set off by a suite of imitation blonde wood formica furniture with apple green plastic legs.

The Sultan’s riches, it appeared, were the bodies of the African men, women and children who were landed in Zanzibar in their thousands every year either to be put to work on Zanzibar spice plantations or auctioned to other slave owning countries. My guide seemed anxious to introduce me to slave history, running into some resistance from me from time to time as the stories became more horrific. I did not, for example, peer down into the pit (the Anglican church now stands above it) where slaves were stored before sale but could not avoid hearing that where the altar now stands slaves were once flogged to test their endurance.

More slave stories concerned nearby Prison Island, which we reached in a dugout with an outboard motor. Recalcitrant slaves were disciplined here and the cells can still be visited, though not by me. Instead I fed leaves to the vaguely threatening giant tortoises which, in their vast enclosure, are the island’s current prisoners. And I collected shells on an already tiny beach which shrank markedly as the tide came in. On a slave-break, we travelled by car to Jozani forest, the home of the red Colubus monkey, an endangered species unique to Zanzibar. Big-eyed monkeys large and small hung from leafy branches, the babies sometimes crashing through the foliage to drop like ripe fruit to the ground.

 Nearby, a Spice Garden Tour has been developed which proved to be less a garden, more a jungle. I followed my all-knowing guide down a muddy path laced with spider webs and crossed by columns of biting ants, keeping a wary eye out for snakes. At the same time, I sniffed and nibbled berries,roots and leaves pepper and turmeric, nutmeg, vanilla and cloves.which were picked or dug up by Mr. Muhara. He even snipped off a bit of an iodine plant so I could apply the thick white sap to a cut on my foot. Somewhat to my surprise, I still have the foot.

The last day we drove to Mangapawni, the Serena Inn’s resort on the Northwest coast. It’s a short stretch of sand backed into a forested cliff, with 16 or so rustic beds in the shade of reed-roofed tables. An attentive staff shuttled back and forth with cold drinks while the hotel chef, at his massive stone grill, prepared lunch of lobster, prawns, kingfish, steak and chicken. The shaded dining terrace overlooked the inlet and the stretch of beach where fishermen were mending their boats in the sun.

I could have trekked through the forest after lunch to visit the underground bunker where slaves were hidden after the trade was officially outlawed, but instead accepted the offer of three fishermen to go for a sail in a belem, a small dhow. In fifteen minutes they had rigged and raised the lateen sail and we headed out into the jewel-blue Indian Ocean in perfect silence. There was no creaking, no flapping, no water lapping, just the sensation of being drawn onward by the wind as if on the end of a string.Then it was back to the Serena where, while I was at dinner, the shutters of my room would be closed over the view of a moonlit sea, the netting drawn around the four poster bed, and the coverlet strewn with jasmine blossoms.

Rather like a night in Xanadu.

Explore Hungary/Poland

Secret Budapest

Invaded by Turks, annexed by Austria, ruled by Fascists, occupied by the Soviets, Budapest has developed a personality all its own. It’s a combination of pride, stubbornness and accommodation, tempered by history and tradition.

Unique Budapest is still visible in the buildings – ravaged  or restored – the little parks with monuments to dead heroes, its churches, the shop signs in Magyar – with its sprinkling of “zeds” and accent marks– and even in the old-fashioned good manners of the people you meet.

But perhaps the most incredible souvenir of a time gone by is the “Hospital in the Rock,” in the caves under the Buda hill; this installation must be seen to be believed. And even then, you may have trouble coming to terms with its extraordinary history. Its very existence was a secret until 2002, referred to in official papers only by the code name LOSK 0101/01.

When the top-secret installation was declassified in 2002, it was renovated as an exhibition of hospital life during the three month siege in the winter of 1945. Its still-functioning control and engine rooms are displayed along with a collection of period medical equipment (some of which was used in the film Evita.) An underground hospital for 200, it was fitted out in 1944 as the battle for Budapest raged on the hill above. A daily average of more than 700 casualties – soldiers and civilians – was cared for. At certain times, a shortage of water for sterilisation meant that bandages were taken from the dead and used directly on the living.

Inevitably, infection added to the numbers of deceased who were removed nightly for burial in bomb craters. The hospital served again during the failed Hungarian uprising in 1956 and was then officially closed. Only a handful of people would have known that it had since been updated to serve as a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. When warned of an attack, 50 designated doctors, nurses and technicians from St Janos hospital were to have taken shelter in the hospital which is, on average, 11 metres under ground; their mission was to treat the civilians who survived exposure to the bombing.

A janitor couple, Mr and Mrs Mohacsi, lived in an underground apartment whose only natural light came from a small window at street level near the present entrance on Lovas Street. They kept the hospital operational during its secret period from 1970-2004. The husband was in charge of ensuring that the ventilation, sanitation, power generators and medical equipment was in working order, his wife cleaned the rooms and changed the bed sheets every two weeks. The authorities closely monitored the couple’s secret work, with note taken of anyone with whom they had contact. Today, the wards, operating rooms, communications centre, military headquarters and nuclear de-contamination areas are animated with lifelike wax figures. The museum claims to be the largest waxworks exhibition in Central Europe. It is surely one of the most unsettling and unforgettable museums anywhere.

Explore Netherlands

Dutch safari


The Dutch have a way with water, and it’s a good thing too, as they have over 100 square miles of it within their borders. No wonder they’ve learned to sail on it, live on it, play on it, work with it and above all – tame it.

Since they began rolling back the sea and reclaiming the rich earth of the ocean floor the Dutch have enlarged  the land mass of their tiny country by 15% but they’re by no means finished. It’s a work in progress. ‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland’, so the saying goes, and just north of Amsterdam you’ve the chance to see them making it. Not long ago, this area was beneath the North Sea, eventually it will be productive acreage, but for the moment it is simply ‘the wetlands’. A guide from the “Wetland Safari Company’ will take you canoeing through the reeds which flourish there now, introduce you to the quaking bogs, spread a picnic for you in a bonsai-sized forest and tell you all about the wildlife as you go.

 My guide was named Majel and she met me on the steps of the Amsterdam bus terminal. She was young, cheerful, spoke English and carried a picnic basket over her arm. We hopped on an ordinary suburban bus and after a short ride Majel and I got off at the side of the wide highway at a stop called ‘Watergang’, where I felt momentarily like a hitchhiker waiting for an onward lift, so unlikely did it seem that this could be ‘it’. But it was. From a culvert under the highway, next to a roadside cafe, ran a little rivulet. This was the narrow entrance to the wide wetland world. Majel added ‘energetic’ and ‘strong’ to her other virtues as she tipped a canoe out from the shed behind the cafe and dropped it in the water. She spun open the lid of an aluminium keg and stowed my camera and her mobile phone in it and set it in the canoe. The keg was originally intended to hold fermenting sauerkraut. ‘But it’s waterproof and it floats’, she explained.

With Majel paddling in front and me behind we set off between narrow banks, under the philosophical gaze of two goats and a duck. Frogs jumped into the canoe and out again. Ahead was a very low bridge. ‘Well done,’ Majel congratulated me as we emerged on the other side, my head still on my shoulders. “Young men find that hardest to do, bend over like that. You’d be surprised how stiff they are.”

The water widened and became the main thoroughfare of a 17th century village. The brick houses, rebuilt over the years on their original foundations, all faced the canal, their flower gardens tumbling down to the water’s edge. Flat- bottomed boats were moored before them, used to transport their cooperative cattle from one handkerchief-sized field to another. We paddled on past a red brick schoolhouse and heard the children counting in chorus in their classroom. On the opposite shore, was a tiny island cemetery. One more bridge and we entered the wetlands which once had been the Zuyderzee.

 A silent, watery landscape, broad and low under a pewter grey sky, it was a Dutch painting come to life. Miniature black windmills turned silently, pumping water into the drainage ditch which ran behind the low dykes. Watery pathways, some wide as tiny lakes, others pressing closely in on the canoe, meandered in every direction. “Not many people explore the wetlands,” Majel remarked, “to many people, one stretch of reeds looks like another and it’s easy for them to get lost.” Without Majel, I certainly would have been one of those people. At that point the reeds on the left bank were marginally taller and greener than the reeds on the right bank, but the difference was a far cry from a road sign.

The quaking bog was our destination. As she paddled, Majel pointed out the water bird nests and the wildflowers at the water’s edge. She explained the process which was turning the polders from water to earth. Build a dyke, pump out the water, dig drainage canals into which the remaining water is pumped. In time, vegetation will take over and become pastureland. Houses can be built then, these days on pilings, though in mediaeval times dwellings would have been supported by animal skins stretched over the marsh. Majel pushed the canoe onto a bank and we stepped off onto some of the first-phase, mossy vegetation. Tiny red flowers grew in sparse clusters, minuscule carnivorous plants. Majel knelt to show me a half-devoured ant, head down in a blossom. Then she ran ahead, bounding in front of me like a child, setting the bog in motion. At each step, the ground sluiced from side to side sending ripples out into the reeds, like a trampoline crossed with a waterbed.

Along the path, two or three round holes, a foot or so wide, had been cut. They’d been made by naturalists, Majel explained, to provide deep water in which the frogs could spawn. She dipped her canoe paddle in and circled it around, showing me there was nothing under the earth we stood on but water. We were being supported by interlocking roots on a web only a few inches thick. “It will build into meadow,” Majel assured me. We went back to the canoe, heading now for our picnic spot. We paddled past a few cows and Scottish sheep, oversized on their toy pastures.

Our destination was a hummock of land which rose in the distance from the flat water. A grove of birch trees crowned it. A great place for picnic, Majel clearly thought, but no way to build Holland. “This is what happens when nothing is done to protect the pasturage”, she said. But as we unpacked the picnic basket and watched the birds wheel in to settle in the trees this late afternoon, I doubted it was neglect at all. Some nature-loving Dutchman, I suspect, wanted his bit of Holland just this way.

Explore Netherlands

Houseboat heaven

Houseboats moored along the canals are one of the iconic sights of Amsterdam. . There are about 750 houseboats of different types and sizes moored within the 17th century canal system – and some offer short term rentals, as an offbeat alternative to booking in to a hotel.

A friend and I booked three nights aboard a houseboat moored in the Jordaan district, an area within walking distance of the central station but as full of neighbourhood charm as you could wish. Lots of small restaurants and coffee shops, boutiques and ice cream shops. There was a well-stocked supermarket within easy walking distance of the boat.

Ducks and swan swam alongside everyday looking for handouts, and people passing in motorboats always gave a friendly wave as we sat out on the deck with glasses of wine in the evening.. The ripples their boats set up rocked the houseboat very gently.

Our boat was perfect for two, but conveniently slept four as my friend’s two teenagers joined us. The kitchen unit had a sink, electric cooker and a fridge.. though we didn’t bother cooking given all the great restaurants a short walk away. We brewed coffee in the morning to go with donuts from the local bakery. The weather was great so we had breakfast on deck and also had wine and snacks on deck in the evening.

Mosquitos, we were told, could be a problem so we bought repellant but didn’t need it.

The bathroom had a sink,toilet and shower stall and was connected to city water and electricity. There was a flat screen TV and WiFi, plus a dvd and a collection of films.

It was a fun alternative to a hotel and I’d happily do it again. Next time I’d have a bag of bread for the ducks. The donuts were so good they were hard to share

Contact websites for renting a houseboat: