Explore USA

Another face of the USA

The USA has been called a ‘melting pot’ probably because ‘stewing pot’ sounds rather rude. But after all these years of simmering, there’s not been that much melting and many of the main ingredients retain a good deal of their original flavour. Outstanding example: the Plain People of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Descended from persecuted Swiss Anabaptists who found religious freedom in Pennsylvania in the 1680s, the Plain People still speak a form of German and refer to outsiders as ‘the English’. On family farms, which are outstanding by any standards, they live and work without benefit of electricity. Their ploughs are mule-powered their buggies horse-drawn.

While the Amish are the most famous of the Plain People, the Mennonites and the Brethren are Plain People too. The more conservative of the sects, the Old Order Amish, practice ‘visible non-conformity’ to American culture in order to preserve their traditional values. So in the country which gave us the Barbie doll, women of the plain people still pin their traditional aprons to their traditional sober-coloured dresses, fearing apron strings might lead them into vain displays of bow tying.

Some plain people are less plain than others, and allow paying tourists to visit their farms and others will ride in your car, giving you a guided tour. Through the Mennonite Center in Lancaster Pennsylvania I arranged for a guide to ride with me and tell me something of the Amish way of life. My guide’s name was Fay and in common with 50% of the less strict Mennonite sect, she wore ordinary clothing, in her case a tweed jacket and skirt.

We embarked on a tour of the narrow back roads that intersect lush, rolling Amish farms. Frequently, one of the horse drawn buggies was ahead of us setting a very slow pace indeed so there was plenty of time for Fay to fill me in on the Amish. Some of the things she told me:  Many Amish believe a photograph is one of the ‘graven images’ forbidden by the bible. So be careful where you point your camera. You can identify an Amish farm by the absence of electric lines leading to it and often by green window shades. Some Amish keep telephones in sheds in the field for emergency use. . Boys and girls attend one-room schoolhouses for eight years, all the formal education considered necessary for life on the farm.

The average number of children in an Amish family is seven. Drugs and drinks are causing a problem even in this community. In old age, the Amish are taken care of at home. They neither accept nor contribute to old age pensions. The Amish don’t worship in churches but take turns holding services in each other’s house. They help others unstintingly. When the barn belonging to Fay and her husband burned down, their Amish neighbours promptly built them a new one.

We reached Fay’s uncle’s flourmill and clambered through the stone buildings where a creaking water wheel still grinds the grain in the old way. We went on to a ‘supermarket’, a low, dark structure where Amish ladies, their white bonnets glowing in the light of the overhead gas lamps, pushed their shopping carts. Long rows of shelves held household cleaning supplies, baking ingredients and health foods. The Amish shopkeeper spoke to them in their own dialect of Low German but spoke to me in the English she learned in school.

Our last visit was to a craft shop where a silent Amish woman patiently unrolled quilt after quilt for the inspection of two tourists who were about to pay fancy money for an example of Plain People workmanship. An Amish girl worked out the sales tax on a pocket calculator by the light of the gas lamp, and then filled in the American Express card docket.

Waiting my turn I scanned a few brochures. ‘Take a ride in an Amish buggy owned and operated by Plain People’,’B and B Dinner with Amish Family Arranged”, ‘Enjoy shoofly pie in an Amish kitchen’. The Amish are quaint but they are not backward.

Explore USA

Foraging in Central Park

Twenty of us, including five Japanese, a Frenchman and a mother with a child named Isis, gathered just inside the 103rd Street entrance to New York’s Central Park on a sunny Saturday. We were waiting for  Wildman Steve Brill; each prepared to invest four hours and $20 ($10 for Isis) searching with him for edible roots and berries in the heart of the great metropolis.

 On the dot of 2:30, the Wildman arrived, glinting glasses and grizzled beard, pith helmet and backpack, looking like an illustration in a children’s adventure book. A brief greeting, a pause while we signed waivers absolving the Wildman of responsibility for our wellbeing, and we were off to explore the flora.

WSB set a brisk pace but then we had a lot of ground to cover. Central Park is 50 blocks long and three blocks wide, its 843 acres stretching from Fifth Avenue to Harlem. A complex Victorian landscape of man-made lakes and fields, lawns and woodlands, it’s normally avoided on foot because of some highly publicised crimes, but much admired from afar. Buildings with a view of the park command some of the city’s highest rents.

The first strike came almost immediately. “Lambs quarter!” WSB plucked a leaf from a dusty bush growing beside the path and nibbled it thoughtfully. “Use this in a salad,” he advised. Leaves were passed around. Considering all the things that I feared it might taste of, growing as close to the path as it was,  I was relieved my sample tasted like spinach.

The next discovery, conveniently adjacent, was ‘poor man’s pepper seeds’. The Wildman stripped a handful of the tiny pellets from a stalk. They tested like pepper-flavoured ball bearings. He intoned a recipe for ‘poor man’s pepper seed mayonnaise’ and a woman who explained she ran a restaurant jotted it down. Epizote (‘a hot and spicy Mexican herb’) was another find for her notebook as were the foxtail seeds (‘add to pastry’) that were spotted near the park’s baseball pitch.

In the course of a sunny afternoon, with Manhattan’s skyscrapers glittering in the distance against a pale blue sky, we glimpsed the pristine ‘great lawn’, trudged under and around many of the upper park’s 26.000 trees and skirted the 106-acre reservoir. We sampled enough edible seeds and berries to have kept Little Red Riding Hood alive for a week in the woods. At the foot of a flagpole, there was mallow (tastes like cheese) and a few steps further on chickweed (tastes like maize which is why chickens like it). Also Hawthorn fruit, ripe and red on the ground near the reservoir, which tasted like mango.

We picked small dark cherries from the trees and cracked black walnuts with a rock. The Wildman enthused over the taste of a shark’s tooth fungus snapped from an oak tree, but there wasn’t enough to go around. My personal favourites were hackberries. You spit out the centres, but what’s left tastes like M&Ms.

The high point of the afternoon came in the shape of a tall, forlorn looking weed found growing just off the bridle path. Burdock. “The Irish made a poultice of the leaves to cure ringworm, ” the Wildman announced with a glance in my direction, “but the root can be boiled and tastes like potato.” He produced a short-handled spade from his backpack and with considerable difficulty pried up a knobbly six-inch long root, like an anaemic carrot. “Ah so! Gobo!” the Japanese chorused, awe struck as children who have just seen a rabbit pulled from a magician’s hat.

“Gobo is worth its weight in gold in Japan,” the Wildman explained, handing it over to them.

On this high note the safari came to an end. Anyway, Isis had picked some poison ivy (a skin irritant) mistaking it for ground ivy (use as tea) and wanted to go home. The Frenchman and the restaurant lady were discussing having a coffee together. The group dispersed in ones and twos, most carrying little plastic bags filled with leaves and seeds.

Before heading off with my cache of nature’s M&Ms, I asked the Wildman if it wasn’t a bit iffy to be digging up roots and picking berries, in effect, removing park property. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted,” I was arrested once on that charge by two undercover men posing as tourists. “They made their move when I ate a dandelion. All the papers ran pictures of me in handcuffs. It made the city a laughing stock and they backed down. Since then I’ve been written up in the National Geographic. I wouldn’t advise you to go harvesting on your own, but they turn a blind eye to my groups now”.

To book your own outing with the Wildman, visit Bill’s website:

Europe Explore Worldwide

Time off in Istanbul

In between visits to Istanbul’s awe inspiring sights, it sometimes feels good to come up for air. Here are four suggestions for Istanbul experiences on the lighter side .

Cruise like a Sultan on a Sultanboat

A cross between a royal barge and a massive Venetian gondola these splendid open vessels hold 30 passengers and make regular excursions throughout the year. When the Sultan travelled on his gilded and bejewelled vessel loyal subjects bowed to him from the shore. As your boat passes under the Galata bridge, pedestrians and fishermen greet you almost as enthusiastically. Prepare to wave! Cruises on the Golden Horn depart from the dock outside the Halic Kultur Merkezi in Sutluce daily at 10.00 and 20:00. For a shorter outing take the Sultanboat shuttle from the Dolmabahce Palace on the European shore across the busy Bosphorus to the Beylerbeyi Palace and the Kucuksu Summer Palace on the Asian shore (daily except Monday and Thursday). Or book a Sultanboat for a private cruise any day between 10:00 and 20:00.

Visit for further information

Treat yourself to a view to remember

In the 19th century, the mystique of Constantinople was at its romantic height. Julian Viaud, a French naval officer who wrote under the pen name of Pierre Loti, was just one of those enchanted by the city. Loti used to climb the hill behind Eyup’s tomb to write in a humble coffee shop with a remarkable view of the Golden Horn. This 19th century coffee shop, now called the Loti Café, is still there.

And the view, too, is still worth the journey. Take a taxi, or better still, use the funicular signposted from the Eyup Mosque. (Eyup was a friend of the Prophet Mohammed and his was the first mosque built after the Turks took Constantinople.) The funicular glides up and over the ancient Ottoman cemetery that extends uphill from Eyup’s tomb – like a landslide in reverse – to bring you to the coffee shop terrace. From here, you can survey the Golden Horn in all its sinuous beauty. The view is best at twilight, when the sun’s rays gild the water of this natural harbour. Pierre Loti Café is open daily from 8.00 to 24:00. It serves non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. No credit cards. The funicular costs 1.30 Turkish lira. There’s a token dispenser at the station.

Commune with Agatha Christie at the Pera Palace

The mystery writer Agatha Christie began her love affair with Istanbul in 1923. She visited many times in the next few years and always stayed in room 411 at the Pera Palace Hotel, where she was inspired to write Murder on the Orient Express. Guests can still stay in room 411 where the key to her diary was found hidden under the floorboards three years after her death. Agatha Christie’s books form part of the décor. But you don’t have to book in to the hotel to enjoy the atmosphere. Take afternoon tea under the magnificent domes of the Kubbeli Salon, have a meal in the Agatha Restaurant, or muse over a drink in the Orient Bar, a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s. The father of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk, stayed at the Pera Palace too, and his preferred room – 101 – is now a museum open to visitors. Just ask a bellman to show it to you. Pera Palace Hotel, Meşrutiyet Caddesi No. 52 Tepebaşı Beyoğlu 34430 Telephone: +90 212 222 80 90.

For details, see

Explore the Koc Industrial Museum

This is the private world of a world-class collector, Rahmi M Koc. Thousands upon thousands of items are housed in an elegantly restored 18th century anchor house and in 14 adjacent waterside buildings that were once a ruined dockyard on the Golden Horn. It’s impossible to describe the inventory adequately; it includes gleaming ranks of vintage cars, an olive oil factory, the Sultan’s railway car, a submarine (book in advance to visit) an airplane, a 1917 X-ray ambulance – just about everything that has wheels that go round or a motor. There’s also miniature doll’s house furniture, sailboats, a horse-pulled tram, and a street of reconstructed shops; I can only recommend that you see it for yourself. The museum is located at Haskoy Avenue No. 5. Open 10:00 to 17:00 Monday-Friday and until 19:00 Saturday and Sunday.

For details, visit

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Postcards in my head


In time, you forget cancelled flights, mixed up hotel bookings and lost luggage and remember only the good bits. Here are ten of my favourite travel memories.

1 Chicago: Watching the skyscrapers roll by

 There are so many skyscrapers in Chicago it’s as if some child of the gods had set them down on a carpet to play with. These landmark showpieces make Chicago one of the world’s most architecturally sophisticated cities. The story began in 1871 after a two-day fire, famously started in Mrs O’Leary’s cowshed, left 90,000 homeless and reduced the city to a smouldering bog. In the flurry of rebuilding, one Major William Le Baron Jenney devised a load-carrying structural frame, the so-called ‘Chicago skeleton’.

The technique made skyscrapers possible and Chicago never looked back. I glimpsed 83 of them from the sky deck of the 110-storey Sears Tower, but better still was the 90minute Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River cruise; 53 magnificent structures rolled past as I relaxed on the open deck.

2. Rome: Finding St Peter

 Under the crypt of St Peter’s basilica there’s a Roman cemetery. A guide takes you down, through labyrinths of stairs and corridors. Discovered under the high altar in 1939, it was found to contain, along with magnificent sepulchers, a simple grave with the bones of an old man lying near it. While absolute certainty is impossible, Pope Pius XI announced in 1950 that as the grave had clearly been venerated for centuries, it seemed the tomb of the Prince of Apostles had been found. Of all the wonders of the Vatican, this fragment of a tomb, spied through a wrought-iron gate, is what I remember best.

 3. Zanzibar: Indian Ocean dhow sailing

 The Arabs who settled Zanzibar grew rich transporting slaves and spices. They sailed in dhows, driven along on the trade winds.Dhows are still used for fishing and ferrying around these islands and one morning I got a ride in one, a small belem, made of smoothly curved teak planks about 10 metres long. The fishermen lashed the canvas sail to the rough mast and the wind pulled us out into the Indian Ocean. The dhow bucked and bobbed in the cross current, but it was carried steadily forward.No creaking, no flapping, no water lapping: just the sensation of speed

4. Texas: Giving in to the inner cowgirl

 So I said to myself, ‘G’wan, you know you want to.’ And that’s why I was in Bandera, Texas, “the cowboy capital of the world”.After checking into the Running R Ranch, I saddled up and rode out behind the wrangler. He led his little posse of dudes at a walking pace, all of us on the alert for feral hogs, wild turkey and antelope. We spotted an armadillo scampering into the undergrowth. And the landscape was great.Then we mossied into Bandera, a onestreet town where Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar is the main attraction. Cowboys and cowgirls in their best boots, buckles and big hats stomped the night away to Arkey Blue’s greatest hits, like: ‘My Son Calls Another Man Daddy’ and ‘The Worst of You Just Got the Best of Me’. Yeehaw!

5. Corsica: Riding the narrow-gauge railway

 It takes the narrow-gauge, single-track railway four hours to cover the 155km between Corsica’s two main cities. Ajaccio and Bastia. It’s called ‘the Trembler’ because it wheezes like an asthmatic as it travels through a spine of granite mountain ranges. The tracks are so narrow they disappear under the train when you cross a bridge, as if the train were airborne. One side of the train hugs the mountainside so closely you could pick wild flowers through the windows. From the other there is nothing at all between you and views like romantic engravings, jagged black peaks, dark green valleys, glacial lakes and foaming streams. The mountain slopes are a tangle of trees and blossoming undergrowth. The fragrance drifts through the open train windows.

6. Maasai Mara: Caught in the lion’s eye

 Kenya’s Maasai Mara, like an ocean or a mountain range, is an awesome presence. At first you see only the vast grassy plain, widely scattered bushes, a copse of trees. As you focus, the vista comes to life like a developing film.One morning a sheaf of grass, an arm’s length away from our open safari vehicle, developed into the tawny mane of a lion.Lifting his great head he gazed at me steadily. I gazed back into his amber eyes. I suspected that, as with hijackers, it was wise to avoid eye contact, but fright and wonder balanced and I couldn’t look away.The driver reversed inch by inch and in seconds there was nothing to see but grass.

7. Lapland: Earning my antlers

 In the Arctic summer, the sun shines bright in Rovaniemi, Santa’s Lapland home. My friend and I said a quick hello to the man himself (no queues in the summer) then took an excursion on the Kemijoki River in a canoe with an outboard motor. Evergreens lined the shore in some places; the river turned into bog in others. We crossed the Arctic Circle and reached a landing platform where a Lapp reindeer farmer welcomed us. Up close, reindeers look like furry coffee tables with moose heads attached. The farmer led us into his kota, a dark smoky teepee of reindeer skins. Sitting on benches padded with reindeer pelts, we sipped hot berry juice. Then came the ‘crossing the arctic circle’ ritual: he pretended to make a knife slash at the base of our skulls. We pretended to believe he had. Our temples were stamped with soot to show where antlers will grow in the next life. Watch this space.

www. laplandsafaris. com

8. Kyoto: Living a Japanese print

 Japanese prints look the way they do because that’s how Japan really looks. I learned one April in Kyoto that the cherry blossoms, the lanterns and banners, the pagoda roofs, and the kimono-clad women, look just as impossibly artistic in real life. The ancient city was in party mode for cherry blossom season. Schools and businesses were on holiday; throngs strolled in the parks, groups set up picnics under the trees. Some offices had sent staff out early to secure viewing places. The blossoms were admired in the afternoon light, against the setting sun and in the moonlight. Kyoto’s most revered cherry tree was spotlit and its thick branches and gnarled trunk were painted white like a geisha’s face. Supporting its heavy mantle of white blossoms against the dark night sky, it was unforgettable. No painting could do it justice.

9. Santiago de Compostela:Feeling the vibes

 The world’s first guidebook was written in 1130 to describe the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James. It starts in Paris and ends on the western coast of Spain in Santiago de Compostela at the cathedral housing the relics of St James. For over a thousand years pilgrims have walked the route, or part of it; Irish pilgrims began their journey by ship from St James’s Gate. I flew to Santiago to see the Old Quarter. Unesco declared it a World Heritage Site in 1983, calling it “one of the world’s most beautiful urban areas”. The 12th century cathedral, the square in front of it and the medieval arcades of the town are indeed beautiful. But what is unforgettable is the pervading atmosphere of peace, as if millions of pilgrims, trudging silently towards the cathedral, have left traces of their reverence in the stones.

10. Auvers-sur-Oise: In Van Gogh’s footsteps

 Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise by train from Paris on 21 May, 1890. He immediately wrote to his brother Theo: “Auvers is strikingly beautiful”. Auvers is still beautiful and the scenes of Auvers that Van Gogh immortalized in the last few months of his life are almost unchanged.Vincent is buried in the hilltop cemetery across from the field he painted 15 days before he died. He saw crows descending on ripe corn under a doom-laden sky. Along the picturesque pathways of Auvers, reproductions of 19 impressionist canvasses are displayed. Twelve are by Van Gogh. I stood where he once stood, saw what he saw and how he made a painting of it. I could imagine Van Gogh urging: “Look at that field, see that church.”

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