Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Viva Espana!

Years ago, there used to be an ad on television for Heinz Baked Beans.   It featured a kid gazing at a plate of beans on toast, and then tucking in with a voiceover, in a wonderful Yorkshire kid’s accent, that went:
We’ve just been on our ‘olidays/This year we went to Spain/ They didn’t ‘ave no ‘Einz Baked Beans/ We won’t go there again.
How times change, and how dated that ad now appears, despite being a classic of its type.  The Brit invasion of all the Mediterranean’s prime locations since then has ensured that Heinz’s Finest, not to mention Bird’s Custard powder, pork pies and God’s Biscuit (Jacob’s Custard Creams) are available in all manner of retail outlets – provided, of course, you know where to look.  So our grubby little Tyke need have no worries now about getting his favourite tucker any more, and can safely go to Spain (or anywhere else) for ‘is ‘olidays quite ‘appily.  Globalization, for all the complaints and whinges of the Great Unwashed (a.k.a. the Occupy Movement and other similar groups) definitely has its advantages.  It is a Good Thing.
The reason I’ve rambled on about this piece of sepia-toned tv history is because I’ve just returned from a rather excellent couple of weeks in southern Spain.    I’ve been to the place a few times in the past, and for all its current bankruptcy issues I love it.  Mainland Spain has a rugged beauty (of which more in a minute) that I haven’t seen elsewhere, even in its island, for I’ve been to a couple of them too.  And I’ve never eaten ‘Einz Baked Beans there, not felt any compulsion to do so – the local food is so much more wholesome and tasty.
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My first visit was way back in the early 70s, when the package holiday industry was first gaining some traction.  I and three mates went to Majorca for a fortnight and stayed at the beautifully named Hotel Condessa de la Bahia, which nestled right on this lovely golden-sanded bay in Alcudia in the north  of the island.  We paid something ridiculous like fifty quid each for full-board and including fares from Gatwick, and had an absolute blast.  We spent the time, I remember, trying to get laid (none of us did, although my mate Andy received a blow job from a girl from Stoke-on-Trent who then spat it all out over his brand new cheesecloth shirt – he was not amused), and getting horribly sunburned.  I bought Ambre Solaire Oil before leaving home that had a factor of probably 1 and then proceeded to fry myself – I spent half the holiday sitting in the shade groaning with the pain of perhaps third degree burns over most of my body while my wiser buddies, with their Boots Factor 50 creams, went brown instead of shocking pink and pissed themselves laughing at my expense.   I also had my first (of two) horseback experiences – we went riding (with these birds from Stoke) at a nearby stable, and at first all went well – we plodded along at walking pace for half a mile, then accelerated to a trot.  Except for my horse, an old nag that was clearly reaching the end of its working life, and refused to do more than stroll along, pausing every few paces for another mouthful of scrubby grass from the side of the road.  I was digging my heels into its flanks and yelling “Giddy-app” or something when this old guy (who looked about 80) cycled by, said something in Spanish and slapped the horse’s arse.   That was it: the horse bolted, galloping down the road with me screaming in terror.  It went straight towards a grove of trees, one of which had a branch just about at head-height…..I put my arms up for protection, the branch caught up under my armpits and dragged me back off the horse, one foot still hooked in the stirrup.  I was dragged along for another ten yards or so before I slipped free, and the nag immediately stopped.  My bloody mates found that hilarious too.  As did the old bloke on the bike.    Once, some years later, I decided I should become a writer, and amongst several novels I started writing (but never finished) was one based on that holiday.  I called it “One Peseta, Two Peseta…”, but never got beyond Chapter One.  Ah, well…..maybe one day I’ll got back and have another go at it.    It was still a good holiday though.
Then about 5 years later, I returned to Majorca, this time with my (then) new wife, her sister and her boyfriend.  We stayed at some apartments in Palma Nova, that for the entire two weeks had a non-stop procession of ants walking through the door (or under it if closed), round the kitchen and back out again.  They were tiny little buggers, and no matter what spray or remedy we tried, nothing worked – we poured boiling water on them, and the survivors just made a detour round the puddle while the water cooled and evaporated then carried on as if nothing had happened.    I also learned to swim, finally, that holiday, at the grand old age of 25, by playing Frisbee in the shallow waters of the bay.  The others always threw the thing past me, too far away to catch, forcing me to swim after it before the current shipped it off to Ibiza or somewhere.   Ever since then, over 30 years now, I’ve enjoyed blundering around in the shallows without ever having the courage, after three childhood near-drownings, to stray out of my depth, and it’s only over the last couple of summers that the situation has improved…..I still don’t like being unable to touch bottom but at least I don’t start panicking or screaming if I do find myself a bit far out.
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After that, Spain and I were estranged, until maybe 5 years ago, when we went to Tenerife for a couple of weeks at Playa de los Americas.    The apartment was great, no bugs of any kind (that I can remember anyway), and we used a car to explore a lot of the island, including a long drive up the east coast to a dolphin park that had a great display also featuring a couple of orcas, returning down the west coast in semi-darkness, so that effectively we circumnavigated the island in one day.   It was a good holiday, the October weather was kind, balmy and sunny, but we found the beaches, of hot black volcanic sand, disappointing.  Apparently there are golden sand beaches fairly close to where we were staying, made by shipping several hundred thousand tons of sand from the Sahara desert (which has more than enough to go round), and simply dumping it on top of the black local stuff, but we never found them.
At this point, mainland Spain had still not been visited – apart from one brief business trip to Madrid (quite literally a couple of hours in town, so I don’t really count that) and a weekend’s conference in Barcelona where all I saw was the airport, the hotel and the road between them.   Then a couple of years ago (2009 to be precise) I went back to England for a few days to a family funeral, and met a second cousin I hadn’t seen for several years.   Chatting over a beer afterwards, it came out that his wife’s twin sister, who had passed away the previous year, had owned a two-bedroom apartment in Roquetas de Mar, in Almeria province, right down in the south of mainland Spain, that she had left to his wife in her will.   They offered it to us for a couple of weeks at the end of the season, and of course we accepted. 
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We flew out at the end of September, and used BA Airmiles for the flights so our route was quite a roundabout and time consuming one – Warsaw – Heathrow, Heathrow – Madrid, Madrid- Almeria.  It took a whole day, and by the time we reached the apartment (Roquetas is some 30 kilometers west of Almeria) it was after midnight.  When we awoke next day and looked around we were delighted.  It’s in a small development in the Urbanizacion (basically the newly developed tourist end of the old fishing town of Roquetas) that has a nice little garden with a swimming pool shared with the other residents – a mix of ex-pat early retirees and renters like us – and is about 10 minutes’ walk from the beach.   There is a good selection of restaurants and bars catering for every taste, many of them run by more ex-pats, so there is plenty of English fare on offer: steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, fish and chips and a traditional Sunday roast with Yorkshire pud are very popular, and there is John Smith’s Yorkshire Bitter, London Pride and Guinness on tap alongside the local Spanish brews like San Miguel.  There are also many local restaurants serving the inevitable paella and other Spanish cuisine, mostly seafood, and even a couple of Chinese restaurants.  Surprisingly, I didn’t spot any curry houses, although I suspect there is one somewhere, in one of the side streets.   There are a few supermarkets for self -caterers, and the produce and prices are very good – the fresh seafood section of the biggest “supermercardo” is particularly good, with three or four varieties of fresh prawns, lobsters and several different kinds of squid and octopus (they make my stomach heave just looking at them!), plus sardines, sole and several other fish that I didn’t recognize.   There are also literally dozens of souvenir shops scattered around.  Most of them sell the same goods – china, jewelry, beach towels and swimwear, tee-shirts, baseball caps and straw hats, replica football kits (typically Spain, Barcelona or Real Madrid of course….) and toys – and the prices are similar too. 
Roquetas beach is shingle, and stretches for several kilometers either side of the port and Urbanizacion.  When we were there the first time, back in 2009, they were quite empty as we were at season’s end, but on our return this year, in August, they were more crowded: July and particularly August are the peak months when not only foreigners but also Spaniards themselves flock to the beaches for their vacations.  That said, there is still plenty of space there.  The sea is clean and warm (at least, more so than the Baltic or English Channel) so we were all in and out of it every day.  Some days it was flat and calm like a millpond, on others rougher, and on our last day this year, Saturday, there was some really big waves coming – great fun.
So all in all Roquetas is great.
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On both visits we hired cars. 
The first time, as we flew to Almeria, a EUR20 cab fare away, we settled for our usual cheap and cheerful budget rental – in this case it was a Fiat Punto – that we arranged for a few days from a local company after we arrived.   It was fine, and we made a number of excursions to different local beaches and one day trip to Granada to visit the Alhambra castle and museum.  The drive was lovely, passing along the coast road for about 60km, then turning inland and passing through the Sierra Nevada mountain range for another 80km or so to Granada.  As a big tourist attraction, the traffic was heavy but the views from the road worth the effort.  It was only on arrival that the trouble started.  The Alhambra is a UNESCO Heritage site, and as such visitor numbers are very strictly controlled.  We had to buy our admission tickets a couple of days in advance, and they specified our admission time.  We arrived there with about half an hour to spare, but because of the crowds had to park nearly a kilometer from the entrance, and an uphill walk in 30C temperatures appealed to none of us.  A small bus pulled up at the stop adjacent to the car park entrance and the driver confirmed he was going to Alhambra so we all piled in with Ally in her pushchair, paid our EUR3 fares (kids going free)  and settled down for the short journey.  Before we pulled away, some more people got on too, so we found ourselves standing cramped half way down the aisle.  We stopped again, some people got off and others got on, and off we went again.  What we hadn’t realized, due to the lack of signs or any other English speaking fellow passengers, was that this stop was the entrance to the monument.    We had gone another couple of kilometers without stopping again before we became aware there was a problem, by which time we were in the narrow winding streets leading into Granada’s beautiful Old Town area and snarled up in traffic that was inching along at not much more than walking pace – and of course completely lost.  We had to stay on the bus until it completed its circuit of the town and returned to Alhambra, a journey of a good two hours.   We eventually arrived at the castle entrance and were immediately turned away because we had missed our scheduled tour time, and no amount of pleading, bluster or tears would change their minds.  We could have a stroll around the grounds outside but on no account would we be allowed inside.  There was equally no question of a refund of our EUR100 admissions – it was not their fault we had missed the tour after all……  After a bit of a row (Travellin Bob playing the role of The Angry Englishman Abroad to perfection) they finally gave us a form to fill in and submit to the Spanish Tourism Board Head Office in Madrid, but could not promise we would ever get a refund.  In the end we settled for a stroll around the grounds – that were very beautiful it must be said – but decided not to bother attempting a refund: it just didn’t seem (then or now) to be worth the effort.  So…..a Travellin Bob Top Travel Tip – if you are visiting Spain and decide to visit the Alhambra in Granada, MAKE SURE YOU DON’T MISS  YOUR SCHEDULED ADMISSION TIME because the authorities there don’t give a monkey’s and are not at all helpful or sympathetic.
This year, we traded up a bit, as we had to fly to Malaga instead of Almeria.  Malaga is over 200km further west along the coast, and a taxi fare came out at in excess of EUR400 in total – not much less than renting.  So I used the favoured method these days, trawled Google for “Cheap Car Hire Malaga Airport” and booked a Focus (now re-branded as C-Max, but it’s the same thing really) for EUR450, including two insured drivers and booster seats for the kids, covering the entire 3 week holiday.  Quite good value I thought.  The trouble was when we got there, it was clear a C-Max would be too small for us all – my mother-in-law came too, so while we could just about squeeze all the passengers in the baggage was just a complete no-no.   So we were forced to upgrade to something bigger, despite an additional EUR200 cost, and ended up with a Nissan Qashqai +2 – a seven seat SUV.  She was a big old bus, with a slightly underpowered 1.6 litre diesel engine, and took a hell of a lot manouevring in some of the less well-designed car parks, but I loved her despite the ridiculous name.   
The drive from Malaga to Almeria (and actually way beyond, all the way to Barcelona) is along the E-15 Autovia de Mediterraneo.  Basically, it’s a motorway (mostly 2 lanes rather than the British 3) that runs alongside the coast, so the views out of the passenger side window as you head east and then north can be spectacular.  The section we drove had the added attraction on the left (driver’s) side of the Sierra Nevada mountains that form a natural barrier here and gives this part of the Spanish coast its own micro climate that more or less guarantees year-round sunshine and hot weather.  So the terrain means the road is a constant succession of hills and twists and turns, through tunnels bored through mountain spurs that drop sheer into the sea, and over viaducts towering two or three hundred meters over river valleys.  The drive is never less than spectacular – there are no long boring, straight sections along its entire length.  At one point, for about 40km you leave the autovia and revert to an A-class (single track) road that winds its way through a succession of small and pretty towns and villages, the road hugging the coast often with only a low brick wall separating you from the beach – or sometimes 100meter cliffs.  But the traffic flow, at least when we travelled, was quite light apart from in the immediate vicinity of Malaga, with no contra flows, traffic jams or other impediments to maintaining a steady 100+kph.   The speed limit here is 120, but most drivers tend to exceed that by a considerable amount.  It’s a lovely drive, and one of my favourites anywhere – the only two I can think of that match it for a mix of scenery and interest and sheer driving pleasure are both on Crete: the north coast road between Chania and Iraklion (that also hugs the sea shore along its entire length) and from Chania winding across the western mountain spine of the island to the beautiful lagoon at Elafonnisi.
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The SUV had good use during our stay, and we used it every day to get our money’s worth.  Although there is a perfectly good beach within walking distance of the apartment, and supermarkets too, we tended to get up late, drive to the big supermarket and pick up fresh bread and rolls to make sandwiches, then at around 1 or 2 (during the traditional daily siesta, when everything closes down and the traffic is lighter until maybe 4) in the afternoon load the car and head off to the beaches at Cabo de Gata.  This area is a national park just east of Almeria that in places looks like the Sahara desert, and in others has a range of high and rugged hills just back from the sea.  It’s dotted with little white stone villages, fruit farms and remote holiday cottages, and along the coast is a wide selection of beaches that in some cases are light sand and shingle (for instance, Playa Salinas that stretches about 6km from and beyond Cabo de Gata village itself), small unnamed and almost inaccessible rocky coves, and huge sweeps of beautiful golden sand and limestone rocks monuments like Playa Monsul, and Playa de los Genoveses.   The latter was used in the Indiana Jones film where Sean Connery, as Indy’s dad, uses his umbrella to frighten a flock of seagulls into the air, causing an attacking Messerschmitt plane to crash into one of the monuments, thus saving his and Indy’s lives – needless to say it’s now a very popular tourist destination.
We tended to go to Playa Salinas, since it’s closest to the motorway, and it’s a nice beach.  We parked on the side of the road, then strolled down one of the many access paths onto the beach – these are every 100m or so along the whole stretch of beach – and settled ourselves down on towels sheltered by our two matching FC Barcelona beach umbrellas.  The beach in some places is perhaps 100m deep (from low wooden fence to sea) and at others no more than 20m, and as with most beaches the closer to town you settle the more crowded it is.  We tried several places along its length, and invariably had a good time.  The sea was warm and clear, on some days quite rough and on most others flat and calm and great for swimming and snorkeling.  One day bathing was a little risky as there was a large number of little jellyfish drifting in on the surf, and they packed a vicious sting for such small creatures.  One caught Kuba on the ankle and it was very painful for the kid – fortunately a Spanish family next to us at the beach was armed with some anti-histamine cream that took the worst out of the sting, but he still had a small red mark.   But by and large we – and especially the kids – had a great time there.
We also visited a small resort there called San Jose.  It’s a lovely little town and has a string of small golden sandy beaches stretched across the enclosing bay that at both extremities has high and sheer  cliffs.  We visited it back in 2009 and in early October it was pretty much deserted.  This year, in the peak season, the beaches were all packed solid, and it was difficult to find a patch of sand big enough to settle.   Personally, I hated it: I find it impossible to relax on a crowded beach, where it’s easy to lose sight of your kids, every conversation and fart of your neighbour’s is clear (as are yours to them), their music choice (that invariably is not to your taste) assails your ears, and their cigarette smoke assails your nose.   Give me an empty beach where I can stretch out and read my book in peace without having people step over me and accidentally kick sand over me any day of the week!  The one great advantage to San Jose, however, is that the crystal clear water in the bay is very shallow, so you can walk out a good 100m on a soft sandy bottom before it reaches your chest, and it’s usually very calm so it is absolutely wonderful for swimming – we couldn’t keep the kids out of it the two days we visited.  Both said it was their favourite beach.  On our last visit, we had another jellyfish encounter.  This time Ania was stung on the hand, so badly it was practically paralyzed for a couple of hours.  This time there was no cream to soothe the pain, and it took a couple of hours for it to subside, and a couple of days before she could move her hand properly again.  She was left with a livid red mark across the back of her hand, around the bases of her little and ring fingers.  Very nasty indeed!

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So all in all, we had a really good holiday, all three weeks of it.  The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky most days, and a temperature in the mid-30s all the time (and high 20s at night – thank God for the ceiling fans in the apartment!).  We had a lot of laughs, ate well and sampled the local brews.  And relaxed – the perfect build up for the new school term next week, when Kuba goes into Class 2 and Ally finally starts a proper Pre-School. 
I can honestly say that Spain, in all its territories, mainland and island, is becoming one of my favourite places.   Right now, it’s in a difficult place financially, as indeed are all the EU nations, and is close to bankruptcy (indeed, not much better off than Greece) and the evidence of this is clear to see.  Roquetas looked shabbier this visit, with more graffiti on the walls and more unfinished or ill-maintained buildings than I remember from three years ago.  In the centre of town, right next door to the Tourist Information office, is the derelict shell of a new hotel.  I seem to remember it was a new site before, enclosed by a fence as foundations were dug.  Now the building itself is up, 5 floors, a balcony for every room, but is unfinished – the walls are plain unplastered and unpainted concrete, there is no glass in any windows, the doors gape open to reveal the interior breeze block walls that are also unfinished.  There are “For Sale” signs on the wall, but who knows when a buyer will be found?  The building is clearly a victim of Spain’s property market crash that is at the root of all its financial woes.  Elsewhere, on the roads linking Roquetas to the autovia, there are unfinished roadworks in places, and during the whole trip I saw no evidence of any work going on at any of these sites – presumably the state’s infrastructure budget has also run out.  It is a shame, because Spain is a lovely country, with a great climate, a tasty cuisine, and friendly people.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

London 2012

So after spending most of this year bench-warming (apart from my little flits to Orlando and Cairo documented on here) I got another trip – this time a return to my roots.  England.  Well, London.  Just before the start of the Olympics.
Although I’ve been back a couple of times over the past couple of years those trips were family visits, so I just passed through or around London on my way to smaller and better places.  I’ve not worked in London for three years or so, and even then it was only for a few days, so spending three weeks there has been a bit of an eye-opener.
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I caught the earlybird flight from Warsaw, and arrived at Heathrow about 9:30.   That was my first deja-vu in a trip full of them – the wonderful British summer weather.  I had left home at 5:30, to a sunny morning with Warsaw already basking in 25C.  I landed in London to an overcast and damp morning where the temperature was just about struggling up to the mid-teens.    I wasn’t too surprised, as the tv and newspapers and blogs had been full of the British weather (in time honoured fashion) for weeks.  Wimbledon and the Test Matches had suffered their annual rain delays, and even some of football’s pre-season friendly matches had been in doubt due to waterlogged pitches.  The summer, like most that I can remember, was “officially the wettest since records began”…….   So immediately I felt quite at home.
My baggage came through remarkably quickly, and I was very surprised at an empty Arrivals Hall after seeing stories about 2 hour queues to enter the country here, and didn’t even have to stand in line to show my passport.  I was buying my Heathrow Express ticket before most of the other passengers had come up from the flight, I should think.  Remarkable.
The train into Paddington was more crowded than I remember it, but of course there are record numbers of visitors expected for the Games.  Likewise the Tube, never particularly enjoyable, was hell, especially to a home-coming ex-pat lugging a heavy suitcase and laptop bag up and down stairs.  Not a lift in sight of course – the London Underground must be the most user and family unfriendly network in Europe: baggage and pushchairs serve only to get filthy looks from other passengers, and unfriendly unhelpful and unsympathetic staff make matters worse.  For all the Mayor of London’s much trumpeted improvements to Transport for London (as it’s now re-branded), there is still a lot of work to be done.

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My hotel was terrible.  A small and uncomfortable bedroom more like a prison cell, with an almost unusable (because so small) toilet and shower stall was bad enough, the lack of a bar or room service only added to it, and the final straw was the lift.  Again small, and interminably slow, and with a recorded voice telling you the floor and whether you’re going up or down, in the most irritating sub-Sloane Ranger accent I’ve ever heard.  By the end of day 3 I felt like ripping the speaker out of the wall – only I couldn’t find the damned thing.    There was some profiteering of Olympic proportions going on as well – my cell was setting the client back GBP137 per night, but I would be reluctant to pay half that out of my own pocket.    About the only saving grace was the English Breakfast that was included in my rate – very nice it was, but again I question its value.  If ordered separately (if you’re booked on a room only tariff) the charge was GBP15 – there were at least three locations within a couple of minutes’ walk offering the same meal for half that price.  So a Travellin Bob Top Tip – do NOT stay at the Shaftesbury Notting Hill Hotel.  It’s not even in Notting Hill really, barely on the edge – the nearest Tube station is Bayswater – and its 4 Star AA Rating is exceedingly generous.

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Work was in Savile Row, off Regent Street.  It must be twenty years since I last strolled along it, and apart from the addition of an Ozwald Boateng establishment it hadn’t changed a bit.  Bentleys and high-end Mercs and Range Rover Vogues, most of them with personalized number plates and chauffeurs, lined the street.   Tailors still sat in windows at basement level, carefully cutting and stitching suits that cost the earth, and valets man the shop doors to welcome you, complete with tailcoats and bow-ties.  I’ve never bought anything there and undoubtedly never will…..way out of my league! 
On my first lunch-break I had a stroll around the area, as back in the late 80s I had spent 4 years working in Air Street, just off Piccadilly Circus and next to the Café Royal.   The building is still there, but empty of tenants and undergoing some serious looking renovation work.  The Deep Pan Pizza Parlour opposite is no longer there, replaced by an expensive looking sushi bar, but our local pub, the Glass Blower, was at least outwardly unchanged.   Regent Street was draped from end-to-end with the flags of all nations, huge banners stretched across the width of the street every 10 or 15 yards, three to a mast, but apart from a new (and massive) Apple iStore in place of (from my dim memory) a Habitat furniture store the place was reassuringly familiar – even down to the hordes of tourists ambling along.  Piccadilly Circus was as clogged with traffic as ever, and this was exacerbated by some building work going on in the first building on the south side of Piccadilly that was blocking off one lane.
There were plenty of restaurants, a couple of Starbucks (of course….) and a couple of branches of a new sandwich retailer – EAT! – I had never seen before, so lunch times were good if a little more expensive than I had expected.  Starbucks were doing some very tasty hot meatball and cheese ciabatta that I enjoyed, and EAT! had some really good tuna and cucumber and Thai chicken baguettes that went down a treat.  In the evenings, there were pubs close to the hotel, three of them within a hundred and fifty yards in the same road – all served identical menus and identical beers at identical prices.  I longed for a little originality!

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My first weekend, I did some exploring.  It was a wet Saturday, not at all sightseeing weather, but in the absence of anything remotely welcoming at the hotel I had little choice.  I bought a one day travel card and headed off.  I started in Regents Street, as I wanted to get some pictures of the decorations there, and trudged through the rain, sans parasol, trying to get a decent shot not spoiled by some gurning and braying idiot American or group of Japanese tourists bedecked in identical beige baseball caps and see-through umbrellas.  I got a couple, then cut through Air Street into Piccadilly and emerged next to a Starbucks.  The rain was coming on harder so I ducked in for a latte and a warm up.  Opposite I spotted Waterstone’s, my favourite bookstore in all the world, so after my coffee I wandered across and spent a lovely hour or so strolling through four floors of books.  The fifth, top, floor is wonderfully taken up by a café-cum-bar, where you could quite happily spend all day snugly drinking coffee, eating pastries and reading your purchases.  All big stores should be like this….    I added to my library three books, and then headed off again.
                                                                    Regent Street in the rain
Trafalgar Square was full of people going through a rehearsal for some Olympic ceremony or entertainment in the rain, and by the way the choreographer (or whatever he was) was yelling frantically into his bullhorn it wasn’t going too well.  I watched for a few minutes, took a couple of pictures, but as I could not make sense of what was going on, headed off to Charing Cross and Embankment Tube, to get the Circle line to the City. 
                                                                        A dodgy rehearsal
By the time I got to Cannon Street, the rain had stopped, so my first views of The Shard were not spoiled by drizzle.  I had read of this new building and seen pictures, of course, and had an open mind about it.  There seem to be two schools of thought – the first, that it is a masterpiece, the second that it’s a piece of shit.  I fall between the two, I suppose.  Architecturally and in terms of pure engineering, it is a masterpiece, but does not fit in at all well with its surroundings on the south bank of the Thames, straddling as it does a London Bridge station and Cottons Centre that was itself re-developed in the 80s.  The buildings around there are old, early 20th century blocks and, across the street, the old Victorian Borough Market.  Apart from Cottons Centre, that was developed reasonably sympathetically with the rest of the neighbourhood, the most modern building is the tower of Guy’s Hospital, but that is dwarfed by The Shard across the street.  For all the skill in its glass sided, open topped, tapering 1000 foot tower, it looks completely out of place in this part of town.  It’s more suited to the Canary Wharf development downstream.
                                                         The Shard - masterpiece or piece of shite?

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Which was my next destination.  Again, it was a trip down memory lane – I had spent a mostly unpleasant three years or so working there in the early 90s, when apart from the 1 Canada Square building (the original tower with a pointy top, once the tallest building in Europe – a title now boasted by The Shard) there wasn’t a lot there apart from building sites, Thatcher’s dreams, and a lot of resentment from poorly-paid or unemployed locals.   So I wandered along the Embankment through Cottons, stopped for a beer in a pub there (I would have eaten too, but it wasn’t serving food – odd for a Saturday lunch time), then past the new and ugly City Hall, across Tower Bridge (photo opportunities abound there, with its arches and, now, decorative Olympic Rings), past the grand old Tower of London and onto the Docklands Light Railway to Canary Wharf. 
When the DLR opened, back in 1990-ish with Canary Wharf, it was the first driverless train system in Britain.  It kept breaking down, so the guards all had to learn to drive the trains too, just in case.  Delays were regular (about every third train broke down, ran late and caused bottlenecks across the entire system) and made it a lottery whether you arrived late or on time for work.  There was only one line – from either Bank Tube station or a new Tower Gateway station (adjacent to Fenchurch Street mainline), through Canary Wharf to Island Gardens, at the loop at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs where you could walk through an old and piss-smelly tunnel to Greenwich.    In the intervening years it has expanded a lot – north to Stratford and the new Olympic Park, east through Beckton and the London City Airport, and under the river to Lewisham in the south.  It’s even stopped breaking down now, apparently. 
                                        Canary Wharf - the essence of greed and evil, apparently
Canary Wharf too had changed immensely.  In my day, the Tower had about 4 tenants occupying perhaps a dozen floors out of 55.  Building work was still going on in the Tower, and the fire alarms would go off at least three times a day – we got so fed up with it that one of our traders went around our floor one evening and wedged an empty fag packet in each one to stop them ringing.   We had a fire drill once – our evacuation from the 25th floor (via the second level basement) was a complete shambles as half of the people couldn’t be arsed to walk down all those stairs.
Over the three years or so I worked there, a few more buildings were completed and occupied by leading US banks (casinos, they would be called now) – Credit Suisse First Boston had one, Morgan Stanley another, and the late and unlamented Lehman Brothers a third – but none of them were more than eight floors.  Today, those banks are still there (except for Lehman’s of course) and in the same buildings but expansion means they’ve taken additional premises on the site.  The Tower itself is full (but my old company is gone, taken over years ago by a competitor who has also been swallowed up), and there are many more buildings towering into the London skyline.  Citibank has its European headquarters there, as does State Street Bank, another US outfit.  HSBC and Barclays are also headquartered in the development in neighbouring towers of 50 or more floors each.  Barclays Investment Bank, our infamous LIBOR manipulators, are in a separate tower block, with delicious irony right next door to the offices of the Financial Services Authority that was supposed to be monitoring its compliance with the law and market regulations.  I can only assume the DLR station that separates the two buildings must have obscured the view….
                                                         Now - what was that rate again?
The DLR station itself has changed too.  When I worked there, the level below the platforms had a half a dozen shops, including a newsagents and a sandwich bar.  The newsagents has gone, and there is now a twin level underground shopping mall stretching the length of Canada Square, filled with expensive shops, sushi bars, coffee shops and so on.  My son recently visited the place, meeting a client, and posted on Facebook that he was surrounded by “the essence of pure greed and evil”……a slight exaggeration perhaps – he’s not seen Wall Street in New York yet – but I can see where he’s coming from.

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Back into the City, this time via Bank and the Central line, to St. Paul’s Cathedral, scene of last year’s Occupy protest and always worth a look in any case.  I came out of the tube station and was lost……the office block that used to be across the street is now a bloody great hole in the ground, presumably the footings of yet another tower block that will change the London skyline again.   I wandered around for a couple of minutes, circling the station entrance, then spotted the Cathedral through some trees.  Paternoster Square, next to it, has been redeveloped since my last visit, and is now very pleasant, with some good looking bistros and wine bars.  The Cathedral is unchanged and as magnificent as ever, towering above the surrounding offices, and untouched by the events of last summer – as I have always said the Occupy Movement is unlikely to make any impression on the grand scheme of things.  It’s certainly made no impression on St. Paul’s.
                                                   The unchanging face of London

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Over the couple of weeks in London I made other little excursions to meet old friends.  I went to a bar in High Holborn, in a block next to the old Prudential Insurance building, a grand old pile with Gothic towers that dwarfs all its neighbours.  The bar we used was probably there in the old days (I’m talking about 1979 or thereabouts, when I worked about 50 yards away) but I have no recollection of it.   The street market is still there (deserted that evening), and the Italian restaurant we ate at later was good .
Another evening I went back to London Bridge to meet up with some old cronies from that same late 70s – early 80s period, in a pub called The Barrowboy and Banker in an homage to Borough Market and the City of London, facing each other across the river here.  I don’t remember the pub at all, but the beer was good.  The three amigos that turned up were all older than me (it made a really pleasant change to be the youngest person in a group!!) and one of them I would not have recognized in a month of Sundays.  But we had a great time, sank a few beers and for once the conversation was not reminiscing about The Old Days (as it usually is when we meet up) but more about Advancing Age (two of my mates are grandparents now…..) and All That is Wrong In the World Today.   We were as fine a group of Grumpy Old Men as you’re likely to find anywhere.  But it was great to see them, and a highlight of my visit.

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So the City has indeed changed, and I will not pass judgment on whether for the better or not.  It was interesting to see the effect of passing time on old haunts, and good to see a lot of them are still there.   The traffic was definitely worse, despite the introduction of the Congestion Charge Zone designed to reduce the numbers of vehicles using the roads.    An already dire situation has been made worse by the introduction of 30-odd miles of special “Olympics Only” lanes, designed to ensure that athletes and officials can get to venues on time – even if it means no-one else can get anywhere on time.  The restrictions came into full effect just after I arrived, and the effect was noticeable immediately, even in the backwoods of Bayswater.  My laundry, due back at 7 p.m., finally arrived at after 11, the excuse given by both the hotel and the (off-site) laundry service being that the delay had been caused by the “new Olympic traffic regulations.”   What a load of old bollocks!  In the first place, the Notting Hill and Baywater areas, in common with most of West London (the exception being Wimbledon where the tennis is being held), are nowhere near any of the competition venues, and hence not directly affected by road closures.   I saw no evidence in the three weeks I was there that traffic volumes increased as a result…..if anything, there seemed less traffic on the roads immediately around the hotel.  In the second place, London was awarded the Games seven years ago, and the proposed travel restrictions have been in place for some time (even if not used until now) so I would have thought that a four star hotel and its suppliers would have had ample time to find  alternative routings to avoid this type of delay.
But the people remain the same, only there are many more.  I make allowances for the additional influx of tourists in this unique Olympic year, but the overcrowding in the Underground cannot all be put down to the tourist trade, nor can the clear evidence of a multi-cultural Britain – there were far more non Caucasian faces and dress than I can ever remember seeing previously.   In the rush hours, people are still frantically dashing up and down congested escalators, desperately trying to get to work on time or home without delay, and they are as rude and arrogant as ever.  One morning, changing trains at Notting Hill Gate I arrived just in time for the Central Line westbound to be closed and access to the eastbound platform restricted because of an incident two stations along, at Lancaster Gate.   We were told some poor sod had ended up under a westbound train (so I assume he was probably dead).   A harassed young lady was trying to explain to increasingly agitated passengers the best alternative routes if they were not prepared to wait the five or ten minutes for the eastbound (that’s towards the City) services to resume.  One guy, who could have been no more than about 26 or 27, clad in pinstripe suit, white shirt, leather laptop case slung over his shoulders, was getting more and more irate, demanding an immediate resumption of services (as if the poor girl could do anything!) as he had “an important meeting at 9”.  The girl tried to explain again, and he interrupted her.
 “Well, really,” he barked angrily, “This is most inconvenient!” 
I’d had enough.
“Look,” I said, trying to stay polite, “It’s probably most inconvenient for the poor fucker under the train too……get over it.”
The guy gave me a filthy look, and stormed off to find an alternative route, gesturing angrily and muttering curses.  A minute later, we were allowed down onto the platform and boarded the resumed services.  I hope the son-of-a-bitch got a cab and ended up caught in the ever-worsening London traffic, and missed his precious meeting.   Some things are more important than business meetings, life being one of them.