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Cruising In the Wake of the Vikings

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Interest in the exploits of the Vikings has surged since the History Channel’s TV series attracted an average 4.3 million viewers.

The saga of these raiders turned traders had its genesis on Norway’s west coast where Bergen was the cradle of Viking culture.

This preposterously pretty city rests in the bosom of seven hills like a forested amphitheatre festooned with vividly painted houses.

There’s a harbourside seafood market brimming with flapping fresh fish, whale meat, caviar, salt-dried cod (a Viking staple) and other piscatorial exotica and there’s Bryggen, an ancient harbour with rows of UNESCO listed Hanseatic warehouses that are now restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and arts and crafts studios.

Bergen is also the homeport of cruise ship, Viking Star, now tethered at Bryggen where it’s loading fuel, regional food, Nordic beer, me and other mostly ancient mariners, bleary-eyed after hours in the air, for a voyage across the North Atlantic and up the St Lawrence River in Canada to visit Saguenay and Quebec City before disembarking in Montreal.

Even in my catatonic state, first impressions count and the quiet, soothing elegance of the Viking Lounge, a three-deck atrium with a bar in one corner, a Steinway grand piano at the foot of a broad staircase and a homely expanse of cosy lounge settings makes aircraft squeeze-seats and soulless airports seem a distant distraction.

There are no casinos, no blaring music, no boozathons, no kids. I sink into a yawning armchair framed by a thoughtfully chosen library and, sipping a Warsteiner Premium Pilsener, I get that this is a ship designed for grownups.

Christened in Bergen in April, 2015, Viking Cruises’ first ocean vessel accommodates 930 guests in 465 staterooms, each with a private veranda, king sized bed, 24-hour room service, the Nordic Spa, quality toiletries, 42-inch flat-screen LCD-3D interactive TV system with movies on demand, minibar, safe, hairdryer, direct-dial satellite phone and free but often snail-paced Wi-Fi.

And then there’s the food, the buffet-style World Cafe, The Restaurant, Manfredi’s (possibly the best Italian restaurant afloat) and Chef’s Table where the emphasis is inspired set menus paired with equally inspiring wines. Meals and most drinks at these eateries are included.

Viking Star’s culture curriculum includes lectures, performances and shore excursions concentrating on local music, arts, cooking, dance and history.

Tonight we sail west in the wake of the Vikings, retracing the heroic voyages they undertook more than twelve centuries ago plunging into the unknown in open longboats, a diaspora that created enduring Norse settlements on islands scattered across the North Atlantic where they ultimately swapped plunder for ploughshares.

The first leg of the ‘In the Wake of the Vikings’ cruise is a 368km journey to Scotland’s Shetland Islands where Viking trailblazers arrived about 850AD.

From the forward Explorers Lounge we watch the dawn unfold around the main town, Lerwick, a small city of brooding, heavy-stone architecture mixed with practical modern buildings rising above a harbour already busy with fishing boats and ferries.

After bussing south across Shetland, past its craggy coastline, peat bogs, scattered communities and lots of sheep and short ponies we come to Jarlshof on the island’s southern tip, one of the most complex archaeological sites ever excavated in Britain.

In one place we see the remains of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Viking settlements, including the remnants of a Viking longhouse and it’s difficult to grasp that before our eyes is 4,000 years of human history.

Leaving Lerwick, Viking Star heads north. Resident musicians entertain throughout the ship, the Viking Classical Trio in the atrium, young Russian pianist Olga in the Explorer’s Lounge and guitarist Laszlo in the Wintergarden, soft musical interludes that segue between the dash of daytime and the nurture of the night.

Dinner in The Restaurant highlights a Shetland regional tasting menu with cullen skink (creamy Scottish smoked haddock with wheat bread), slow-roasted pork belly and fudge cheesecake flavoured with Scotch whisky.

In the morning a slit of sunlight peeks over the horizon only to fade behind worsening weather after we arrive at the Faroe Islands, as the Vikings did 12 centuries before us. A tugboat from tiny Torshavn city escorts the ship toward harbour before turning us back at the breakwater.

The wind has whipped into a frenzy making docking too dangerous and as our day in Torshavn disappears into a sodden North Atlantic gale, we set course for Iceland through conditions that are forecast to deteriorate.

In the Explorers Lounge I pick through a selection of pickled herring from nearby Mamsen’s deli-cafe and watch the bow plough into 4m waves. It’s about 8°C outside and an occasional pelagic seabird, a fulmar here, a petrel there, flies sorties across the lifting whitecaps.

There’s a line of storms between Iceland and us and from the comfort of the gently rolling ship I marvel at how the Vikings must have dealt with this kind of swell in open longboats carrying people, food, livestock, water and everything else they needed to survive in the great unknown ahead of them.

Ahead of us, morning sunshine envelops Reykjavík where Viking boss, Erik the Red, once called the shots and where shore excursions today include whale watching, the steamy, sulphurous Blue Lagoon and the historic first Viking parliament site at Þingvellir. Having been to Iceland before, I spend the day rediscovering Reykjavík.

Along the shopping streets, Bankastræti and Laugavegur, are multi-coloured Scandi-chic boutiques, galleries, cafes and pubs leading up to Skólavörðuholtið Hill where the spectacular concrete ‘space shuttle’ Lutheran cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja, lords it over the city.

On Aðalstraeti, archaeologists have uncovered Reykjavík’s oldest relics of human habitation dating back to 871AD including a 10th century Viking longhouse, all now part of the fascinating Settlement Exhibition about life here in the Viking era.

I stop by the Public House-Gastropub for a Viking Lager, a chèz hip restaurant doing epicurean mini-meals with a Japanese touch.

Think cured puffin breast with liquorice, cherries and blue cheese sauce; beef tataki and quail egg nigiri with truffle ponzu and garlic crisps or smoked duck thigh served in a pancake with ginger hollandaise and avocado.

Erik the Red was particularly dangerous, even for a Viking, who fled to Iceland after a killing spree in Norway. He later fled Iceland after another killing, headed west and discovered Greenland.

In Erik’s wake, we wile away a day at sea. I settle into the Wintergarden for high tea served alongside three-tiered cake trays decked with cucumber sandwiches and freshly-made pâtisserie.

At dawn we enter Prins Christianssund (Prince Christian Sound) and cruise through the magnificent fjord sandwiched between ice-streaked mountains where the cold smooth water is littered with beautiful little icebergs.

We emerge in the Labrador Sea and anchor off Nanortalik, the southernmost village in Greenland, where 10th century Vikings had scrabbled out a living.

Sunday in Nanortalik (pop: 1,000) is a quiet affair, there’s a church service underway, an open-air museum, a dodgy pub and houses resembling colourful licorice allsorts lollies. Here the Inuit people cling to traditions of fishing, crabbing and hunting musk ox and hooded seals.

Further west, Qaqortoq (pop: 3,000) is a more modern town with a supermarket, cafes and a fish market where I taste raw minke whale and tough seal blubber with skin attached. It eventually softens into tasty, salty mush and it’s surprisingly moreish.

Around 999AD, Erik the Red’s son, Leifur Eriksson (Leifur the Lucky), sailed south from Greenland and landed at what is now L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada, beating Columbus to the Americas by almost 500 years.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains were discovered in 1960, a place where gritty settlers erected buildings with sod walls and sod and timber roofs, eight of which have been accurately reconstructed and costumed actors added to enhance the authenticity.

I’m in a cavernous longhouse breathing the fragrances of damp earth, straw and old timber. Shields decorate the walls and there’s not a weapon in sight. A ‘farmer’ with a fluffy beard strums a replica ancient lute as his ‘wife’ tends a flickering pit fire.

“Here, try some seed bread,” she says, offering bits of bland bread daubed with tart wild partridgeberry jam. “It’s a Viking snack.” Other ‘Vikings’ fiddle with fabrics, furs and weaving looms, spinning Norse tales as if the centuries haven’t passed.

For me, for a moment, the Viking past feels eerily present.

(vikingcruises.com)

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Sahara Safari

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It wasn’t just Bawadi, the secret service lad in purple pants twirling a 9mm automatic with his feet planted on the windscreen that inspired a general sense of adventure.

It was also the huge purple, green and blue bus he was supposed to be protecting from terrorists as it lurched across the Sahara at 130kph overtaking a dawdling police escort van to get six freeloaders to remote Siwa Oasis in time to catch a pretty sunset.

The police van, bristling with Kalashnikovs and seven Egyptian wallopers, faded to the rear as bus driver, Sami, wound up his new 60-seater across a crumbly paved road already 200km into the world’s biggest desert.

The flat, almost lifeless terrain was stony and speckled with stunted saltbush, a few stoic shrubs and an occasional gang of camels. A goatherd and his flock foraged among the sparse offerings before the shrubbery dwindled away altogether.

So did the police escort and Bawadi grew visibly nervous. Sami had outrun them so he pulled up at the only roadhouse on the highway to wait, a long wait as it turned out; the coppers had run out of gas.

I always imagined an oasis was a sort of palm-fringed puddle lurking like a mirage among vast sand dunes so an hour from the Libyan border, Siwa loomed as a riveting surprise.

This was no little green speck in the desert. In a land depression that dipped some 60m below sea level, more than 1,000 underground springs bubbled to the surface into 200 lakes and connected waterholes 85km across surrounded by more than 300,000 date palms, 70,000 olive trees, countless orchards and 20,000 people, mostly Berbers.

Accessible until recently only by lengthy camel caravans, Siwans have maintained this exceptional little community continuously for thousands of years. The same Berber language they use today was spoken here before the dawn of history

Siwa’s star-studded history is recorded back to the Saite Period around 600 BC when a honeycomb of underground tombs known as the Mountain of the Dead was carved out of a nearby hill.

Since then, despite its isolation, Siwa has received some distinguished visitors. Back in the winter of 331BC, 25-year-old Alexander the Great arrived on his way to change the course of world history although his presence made little impact on the course of Siwa’s.

Life went on as steadily as usual until the Romans came in 30BC.  They stayed for 367 years, built lots of hot and cold baths and left. Then Greek historian Herodotus and an entourage turned up in 5BC in a vain attempt to find traces of a Persian Army that had apparently disappeared there.

More distinguished visitors arrived 2015 years later in the golden glow of late afternoon as Sami gunned the big Merc straight at Fatnas Island near Siwa town to just beat the sunset deadline. Fantasy Island, as it is also known, is a lush green haven that “floats’ on the largest reservoir of fresh spring water in Egypt’s Western Desert.

Munching sweet, freshly plucked dates we sat and watched an orange sun drop under the horizon leaving a seamless tapestry of blue, purple and red as a gentle breeze danced across the water stirring the fish beneath and the chanting crickets in the feather duster palms above.

Just on dusk the purple, green and blue bus roared into Siwa sending clouds of dust swirling around the low-set mud-brick buildings, a huge mud-brick fortress and the comfortable Cleopatra Hotel squatting in the shadows of a date palm plantation.

There were no cars in town, only a couple of clapped-out trucks, a few rickety bicycles and lots of carusas (donkey carts). Goats and dogs patrolled the dimly-lit streets. Men sat outside mud-brick shops, smoked apple and honey flavoured tobacco in shishas (water pipes) and sipped mint tea or karkadi, a Ribena-tasting drink made from hibiscus flowers.

Few women were visible. In this ancient, supposedly alcohol-free and staunchly religious culture most women stayed home after dark. Even in daylight, many remained completely covered as men in traditional jelabbiyas and skullcaps chauffeured them on donkey carts to shop.

There was plenty for them to buy. Woollen carpets, silver Siwan jewellery made from old melted down coins, embroidered clothing, hand-pressed olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables and possibly the best dried dates in the country.

Abu Bakr ran the East West Restaurant just off the town square with its swept dirt floor, laminex tables and excellent Egyptian food including his specialty meshui, lamb roasted with aromatic herbs and fresh vine leaves.

Abu invited the freeloaders to his date palm plantation outside town where he had spread blankets on the sand, built a campfire, ferried prepared food from the restaurant and hired his mates, the Siwa Band, who performed at local weddings, parties, anything really, and occasionally for visitors.

Suleiman was blowing up a storm on a nasal-sounding flute called a naai while Mahmoud sang traditional Siwan songs to the drumbeats of Ibrahim and another Mahmoud.

Grilled chicken, salads, flat bread, tahini dips, eggplant dips, shak-shouka, an egg-based thing and salq, a pleasant green vegetable dip were all I can remember because it was about then that Suleiman passed around a bottle of arrack he had home-distilled from Abu’s dates.

As the moon rose high above the date palms, another band member lit up the biggest joint I’d ever seen and passed it around, first to other band members, then to the freeloaders who, one by one, began to ease ourselves closer to the sand.

It was midnight at the oasis and the sensuous rhythm of drums, the arrack, the dynamite dope and the sparkling Sahara stars had even Bawadi gyrating low under a limbo stick with his 9mm still stuck in his purple pants. The Siwan Band jammed early into the morning before disappearing into the suddenly dark and eerie Saharan silence.

“EL SLAH KHURAN MIN EL NAWM!!!”

With the help of scratchy loudspeakers, muezzins began Siwa’s religious reveille around 5 o’clock next morning setting off a cacophony of crowing roosters, braying donkeys, screaming camels and brawling dogs waking the town to draw the faithful to worship. The words translated roughly as “praying is better than sleeping”.

I stumbled into town to witness daybreak in a desert oasis. After morning prayers, an old bloke in blue overalls wobbled a rickety bicycle around the streets switching off streetlights one by one. Shops opened slowly and their owners sipped sweetened mint tea and squinted at the morning sun.

I joined a queue at a food cart. In a metre-wide tub, a serious man who said his name was Baghi had 32 felafels swirling in the boiling oil. They quickly sold out. He flipped in a second lot at about two per second.

Men escorted their wives into town scuttling along the dusty streets on rattling carusas while other women walked alone or with others, many anonymously covered from crown to foot.

Younger women, probably influenced by the advent of television in Siwa, opted for a less customary look, although jeans and western style dresses were still almost unheard of.

As the morning sun struck Shali it turned the old mud-brick fortress a rich burnt gold. A wizened old zaggalah (farm worker) with a hand-made rake across one shoulder, joined the multitude heading for the date plantations clutching the simple lunch his ancestors did – two rounds of flat bread and a container of fuul (bean soup).

I sat on a rock in the town square and ate freshly fried felafel before I joined a four-wheel-drive tour deep into the desert. All this, our driver-guide Ali explained, was once under the ocean. Hot and cold springs gushed out of the desert in a surreal landscape while great calciferous outcrops and mesas full of fossilised fishbones thrust high out of the sand.

In the shimmering haze distant saltbush resembled grazing animals. There was nothing but sand and sky and an occasional desert fox attacking an occasional lizard and an occasional vulture zooming in to claim the scraps. I once saw a crow.

Ali was keen to impress the freeloaders with his driving skills. He piloted the vehicle over the dunes like a rally driver, gunning up to a wind-carved crest and letting the truck slither unassisted down the other side triggering avalanches that kept threatening to bury us.

It all came unstuck when he roared up a monster, lost steering in the soft sand and tipped the truck on its side, teetering on a steep downward slope. The crisis took half an hour to resolve. Ali dug out one side and eased the vehicle around until it faced downhill again, slipped it into gear and stabbed the accelerator.

On more level ground we visited Cleopatra’s Bath, a stone pool fed by a natural hot spring where the Egyptian queen herself is said to have swum on her visit to Siwa to consult the resident Oracle at the Temple of Amun, a dubious claim at best. Oddly ice-cold by day and warm at night the spring was still a favourite swimming hole with locals and tourists.

We roared up a dusty road above the local military camp just north of Siwa town to Gabal El-Mawta, the Mountain of the Dead, a hill riddled with hundreds of catacombs and small tombs from the 26th Dynasty.

Most of them had been robbed repeatedly over the centuries. Many had been re-used by the Romans to bury their dead and later, Italian soldiers hid in them from the Allies during World War 2.

It was midday at the Oasis. In the Sahara’s scorching sun, women out and about for a little retail therapy cast experienced eyes and fingers over the baskets, carpets and textiles on offer as women had done here for thousands of years.

They bought Siwan baskets with carry straps and conical lids, colourfully embroidered clothes, black wedding gowns decorated with shiny buttons, silver beads and seashells, original Siwan jewellery made from melted down silver coins and striped woollen carpets of red, blue and gold.

Unlike their ancestors, they paused to buy freshly made ice cream from a young vendor with a broad, toothy grin pushing a brightly painted cart that would have seemed quite at home at Coney Island.

Locally bottled spring water shared stalls and shops with produce laid out fresh every day including dates, olives, figs, pomegranates, oranges, bananas, okra and grapes.

It was sunset at the oasis and from the heights of the ancient Shali mud-brick fortress, the vista of Siwa Oasis spread out like a 360-degree postcard.

It occurred to me that the vast date plantations, olive farms, fruit groves and the calciferous outcrops standing over the distant desert for millions of years were the same scenes Alexander the Great would have witnessed almost two and a half millennia ago.

I saw the sunlight intensify into solid gold and wash across the great pillows of sand splitting its hues from canary yellow through to blood red. I saw vultures wheeling above unseen meals as muezzins repeated their calls to prayer and I saw Bawadi down in a street cafe sucking a shisha, his feet planted firmly on the table, his 9mm sticking out of his purple pants.

What I didn’t see were terrorists. Perhaps they were simply repelled by those appalling purple pants.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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Cabbage Days Are Here Again

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Cabbages have been cultivated and consumed in what is now Germany since the 1st century AD but what is it that generated the Germans’ enduring love affair with a mundane, wind-generating vegetable?

OK, their health-promoting properties were discovered by the Romans, our great grandmothers knew a half-cut cabbage was the most sensible way to clean carpets and opera singers insisted cabbage cleansed their throats to improve purity of voice.

But over the centuries, the truly infatuated Germans have elevated cabbages to almost celebrity status, honouring them with festivals and sparking the curious phenomenon of cabbage tourism.

Known as Kraut or Kohl, cabbage is the cornerstone of the national cuisine – red cabbage, white cabbage, green cabbage and the famous fermented sauerkraut, together with spuds and dumplings, are staples on every creditable German dinner table.

An indication of the significance of the humble cabbage at all levels of German life is the traditional and apparently effective threat hurled at mischievous kids, “you shall have water in your cabbage and go barefoot to bed”.

At the other end of the social spectrum, former chancellor Helmut Kohl set a post-war record staying in the job for 16 years. Where else would voters consistently re-elect a leader called Helmut Cabbage?

So where in Germany are cabbages at the pinnacle of their celebrity status? Dithmarschen, that’s where.

Dithmarschen is a region of lush, flat agricultural land in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein facing the North Sea between Hamburg and the Danish border where rural life still rules.

This is said to be the largest exclusively cabbage-growing region in Europe producing 80 million of them every year in fields that spread across 2,800 hectares.

In summer when the cabbages are coming to a head, Dithmarschen becomes a popular tourist destination for farmstay holidays, horse riding, golf, cycling, walking on the green seaside dykes and mudflats and for sampling the fresh seafood from the North Sea available at its two pretty fishing villages, Buesum and Friedrichskoog.

There’s a Stone Age archaeological park, thalassotherapy spas and every second year in the first week of July, the town of Heide celebrates the Heider Marktfrieden (Festival of Market Freedom), a re-creation of Dithmarschen in the Middle Ages that attracts 100,000 visitors.

The festival, which has its roots in the 13th century when local farmers booted out the nobility and proclaimed the “Free Farmers’ Republic of Dithmarschen”, is held in the town’s historic 4.7-hectare marketplace.

This is one of Germany’s largest market squares where Heide’s Saturday market has been a big event for more than 500 years. During the festival the market fills with kiosks, stalls, jugglers, cabbages, musicians and lots of people drinking lots of Beugelbuddelbier, one of the very pleasant local beers.

But the biggest event on Germany’s cabbage calendar is the beginning of the Dithmarschen cabbage harvest next month (September) when the region hosts the great Kohltage (Cabbage Days) festival, the largest fun event on the North Sea Coast, when thousands turn up to pay homage to old king Kohl.

The revelry begins after the official cutting of the first harvested head of cabbage, a ceremony usually followed by an open day at the lucky farm together with a cabbage feast, music and folk dancing.

Farmers’ markets around Dithmarschen, where many vendors cover their heads with big green cabbage leaves, are dominated by mountains of cabbages and, for the festival’s six days, cabbages assume pride of place on almost every menu.

Artists decorate them for display in shop windows and local restaurants are kept busy churning out regional specialties such as cabbage hotpot and Heiermann – red and white cabbage heads gently boiled with goose fat, grapes, apples and a little mild vinegar.

There are endless supplies of cabbage liquor, cabbage bread and five-course gourmet cabbage dinners as chefs engage in fierce competition to invent ever more audacious cabbage dishes.

To help visitors into the bucolic spirit of the occasion, tour operators lay on excursions to the Dithmarschen cabbage fields, tours of cabbage farmers’ storehouses and visits to the sauerkraut factory in nearby Wesselbrunnen.

The highlight comes as a giant pyramid of cabbages is erected in the town square, so large it requires a crane to complete it and, when it’s done and if it doesn’t collapse, young women dance around its base in traditional costumes before they square up for the big prize.

Unlike other festivals which crown “queens” and “princesses”, Dithmarschen’s republicans have inherited the non-sexist tradition of appointing two “cabbage sovereigns”, worthy local girls whose primary qualification must be a proficient knowledge of cabbages and whose primary task is to steer visitors through the Kohltage fun.

When it all gets too much, cabbaged-out revellers can more or less escape to Heide’s nightlife district, Shoemaker’s Place, named for its earlier role as a craftsman’s street where 158 cobblers once plied their trade alongside a bunch of smelly tanneries.

Now on the ground floors of these cute little houses that line the street and its adjoining alleys there are cocktail bars, music cafes, restaurants and cosy bars where the beer flows freely and the autumn pub grub is, well, essentially cabbage.

©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited).
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Clueless in Seoul

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It was Friday evening. There was a stiff whiff of garlic in the air and an awful syrupy voice crooning “O Sole Mio” on the taxi’s radio as it scorched down a freeway topping 110kph.

The only signs I could see not written in Korean warned 60, meaning kilometres per hour. Whoever dubbed Korea the Land of the Morning Calm had evidently never been to Seoul.  This is a city in a hell of a hurry.

I was on a two-night stopover armed with two Korean words and an expectation gleaned primarily from television news of unfriendly prosaic people, blisteringly hot food, stony-faced capitalists and rioting students who threw stones at police – a nation, in short, devoid of the touchy-feely stuff.

The Novotel Ambassador Doksan Hotel wasn’t far from Gimpo Airport but half an hour from the action in central Seoul.  I registered and took a walk to ward off deep vein thrombosis and test some preconceptions.

There was a line of gut-rumbling aromas curling out of a back alley that led to a phalanx of takeaway joints frying chicken and steaming unidentifiable morsels in baskets, augmenting the overwhelming fragrance of garlic already thick in the air. I learnt something new – Koreans munch raw garlic much as Americans chew bubble gum.

Between the cafes were enticing little beer bars with frosted glass windows and sliding doors. There were no tourists but there was a Korean bloke in a ruffled suit with a stubby of beer in one hand, the other holding a building. I felt strangely at home. “Hullo, hullo,” he cried, spying a foreigner. “Hullo,” I replied pleasantly.  He leant closer: “Ah,” he said. “You speak.”

The only other Korean I had ever met was a restaurateur in Brisbane twenty-five years ago. His name was Kim and he was a wealthy, almost ascetic sort of fellow most of the time, but his austere manner masked a roaring sense of humour and he did like to share a drink.

Next morning, on a cool sunny autumn Saturday, I set out to discover Seoul and whether the hometown mob was as enigmatic as Mr Kim.

Maple trees had discarded their crimson leaves joining the golden gingko ones on the footpaths as fast as they were all meticulously swept up while gun-toting guards patrolled in pairs.

I found Seoul to be an impeccably clean city of tranquil green parks full of wedding couples, combative traffic, centuries-old palaces set in stubborn defiance of the encroaching skyscrapers and open-air markets full of quality fake designer clothes nestling between mammoth department stores full of the real thing.

In Tapgol Park, elderly folk gathered to play traditional Korean chess and sit aloof in the thinning sunlight.  I caught the eye of an old man with a stringy grey beard dressed in balloon trousers and a flying jacket several sizes too big.  There was a tentative smile before he proffered a gloved hand.

“Hujo,” (Australian) I tried clumsily. “Ah, Hujo,” he grinned. “Hujo.”  He seemed delighted either that I could utter a Korean word or that I happened to be Australian, probably the former. Apparently not many Hujo turned up in Tapgol Park.

I felt a tender touch on my arm and turned to see a smiling youth with four top teeth missing and food scraps stuck to the corners of his mouth.  “Kiss, kiss?” he lisped.  “Anyo!” (no) I snarled, exhausting my vocabulary.  He tried a couple more times and eventually took the hint, sashaying back to a clutch of down-market queens wiggling their bums at a bunch of students who had volunteered to clean the lawns.

Outside the park, food sellers prepared for lunch. An elderly lady tossed little dark things crackling in a wok. She giggled when I studied them closely and offered me a scoop of deep-fried crickets, sans wings.

They were crunchy with a not unpleasant nutty flavour. I followed up with half a dozen stuffed chillis. “Aaahh?” she called after me shaking her head in synch with her forefinger. “Kamsa hamnida,” she chided me gently. “Say thank you,” she repeated in English, smiling sweetly.  I felt like a barbarian dork but now I knew four words.

A colleague who knows about these things suggested I have a cool drink at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club. I think it was up on the 23rd floor and at reception a beautiful twenty-something called Kim (25% of the population is called Kim) looked up from a rock magazine as I explained that I was not a member but a bona fide travelling journo from Australia and in urgent need of refreshment.

She looked at me quizzically and shrugged. I took that as a “yes” but it didn’t matter. Miss Kim was back in the rock magazine.

There were two men inside who turned out to be a sensitive American and a Korean movie director who apparently owned a property in Montana where a relative was a Christian missionary.  It was impossible not to eavesdrop.

“My son-in-law was driving last week and saw a whole family of elk right by the car door,” the KMD began. “He grabbed the rifle, drew a bead and – oh shit, it was still a week till elk season and you could reach out and touch them,” he marvelled.

“Why shoot them?” the American seemed horrified.

“Sausages,” said the KMD.

I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was an important looking Korean with a stony expression.  “Are you a member?” he asked.  “Well, no but…….”

“Sorry sir,” he beamed, “this is members only club.”

I was trying to avoid It’aewon but one drink is never enough. Seoul’s bar district is not everyone’s cup of tea; its proximity to the large US Eighth Army base at Yongsan is one reason but the street markets, hectares of kitsch and cheap junk teeming with tourists, is another.

Elvis was bleating “Don’t be Cruel” from somewhere as I passed a clothing shop with a commotion inside. A pigeon had flown in, crapped all over the ski jackets and slightly injured its wing. The owner was comforting the bird, trying to protect it from further damage when an American backpacker with attitude intervened.

“Let it go,” she shrieked, misreading his motives. Startled by the command he did and it flopped onto a rack of pullovers barely able to fly, outraging the backpacker even more. “He’ll probably eat it,” she growled storming off.  He didn’t, he set it free.

By dusk the streets were bristling with Korean suits. It was a short hop from boardroom to bar. The Country House promised “fun ladies” but I picked the Stardust Bar run by a grim Miss Kim who was chatting with a large American across the bar.

“Hi buddy,” he greeted me affably. “I’m Magic Mike.” Magic was a Vietnam veteran whose leg shattered in eight places when a booby trap exploded. “Ah went home and got stoned awhile, studied up engineerin’ and now, Ah just goes round the world afixin’ things,” he drawled.

“Why Magic,” I asked. “Ah had this sixth sense about situations,” he confided. “Even saw that goddam tripwire just as mah buddy tripped it.  He got his whole leg blowed off.”

As we shared a couple of Budweisers and reminisced about the war, I asked Miss Kim why the parks were full of brides and kissing couples. “Autumn and spring are the marrying seasons,” she smiled. “We’re very romantic, you know.” I didn’t.

In the Cowboy Bar down the road it was early and I was the only customer. Behind the bar, dressed in a T-shirt and tight leotards, was a very attractive Korean bartender named Sonia who was practising stretch exercises to a Jimmy Buffet CD.

After she delivered my fourth Alabama Slammer (Amaretto, Southern Comfort and sloe gin) I noticed a magazine on the bar in English with an advertisement on page seven.

“Feeling travel stressed?” it read. “Blow off your stress with live bullets. Ten rounds of .38 calibre bullets for only 30,000 won at the Taerung International Shooting Range.” I drained my glass with a parting glance at Sonia, now almost in a clove hitch. “Onya Sonia,” I called.  She didn’t notice.

By ten o’clock, It’aewon was buzzing. I almost collected a motorcycle guided one-handed by a delivery girl, the other hand was steadying a pile of pizzas on her head.  Song Ki Soo yanked me out of her path, a middle-aged architect who had learnt some English at school and still carried his original phrase book.

I offered to buy him a drink in appreciation, as one does, and he steered me up some dark stairs into a dark sort of club bar. He ordered five large bottles of beer and some hard dried squid.  Ki Soo poured my drink into a warm glass inviting me to pour his. “Custom,” he said. “Ah, sank you so very much,” referring to his phrasebook. “Beer,” he said, practising pronunciation. “Beach,” he added.

“Beach?” I queried. He indicated a video screen behind me with topless girls bouncing on a beach and grabbed his chest. “What you call?”

“Tits?” I replied. “Ah, tits.” He jotted this into his phrasebook and showed me. There was an important phrase he had heavily underlined.  It read: “Can you give me a discount?”

The bill was 15,000 won for the beer and another 15,000 for the repulsive squid. I paid up and hailed a cab. An hour later I was barely a kilometre away stuck in First Namsan Tunnel with a cabbie who kept falling asleep. It was probably carbon monoxide poisoning; the windows were closed against diesel fumes. Without air-conditioning, it was so stifling I slowed my breathing. It was starting to feel like a suicide pact except there was a meter ticking.

I couldn’t talk comprehensibly to the driver but I’d shown him one of those “Getting Home Safely” maps the hotels provide so you don’t become a missing person. After two hours he pulled up in the driveway, grabbed the 18,000 won and disappeared.

I looked for the familiar revolving door. There wasn’t one. He’d dropped me at the Novotel Ambassador Kangnam. There were at least three hotels in Seoul with similar names that in Korean can be easily distinguished. For anyone unable to communicate it was a gridlock lottery. The concierge was sympathetic and phoned another cab. He’d obviously done this before. “Sofitel Ambassador,” I heard him say to the driver. “No, no, Doksan,” I howled.

Back in the traffic and thoroughly disoriented I gave up fretting. Prosaic people? Soppy romantics? Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms? A head down-arse up, take no prisoners work ethic? Probably, but anywhere else that would be at odds with a conspicuous soft spot for tradition, religion and getting smashed. Not here. Somewhere between a bus terminal and the Han River the notion of benign schizophrenia sneaked into focus.  Inside every Korean, I decided, there lurked another poised to pounce on a preconceived notion and shred it to bits.

Outside the crawling cab it was almost freezing and I had only a cotton shirt. I could see myself spending all night in that cab. Recalling those homeless guys in New York living in subway cars I almost began to envy them. They only needed a lousy token to ride all night and my meter was already on 16,000 won. “Doksan? Doksan?” I begged him feebly.

“OK,” he grinned, eyes fixed ahead. Then I saw it. High above the windscreen, dead ahead, was a jet in landing mode. Airport? Doksan. He did know, God bless his garlic breath.

Story and images Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited).

Basking in the Bewitching Pays Basque

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Harassed by hunger and a menu at Txalupa Restaurant littered with mysteries like ttoro, txipirones, txangurro and txirlas I fell back on research.

A pocket Euskara phrasebook solved nothing but I did find “Excuse me, waiter”.

“Aizu tabernari,” I mumbled at a passing garcon.

“Yep?” he said, and translated the menu into passable English, a language that visitors to Saint-Jean-de-Luz apparently seldom use.

Saint-Jean-de-Luz nests in southwest France on the Nivelle River near the Spanish border where the Basque country meets the Bay of Biscay.

It’s one of a string of maritime towns peppering a rugged coastline lashed by surging breakers and decorated with grassy headlands, little sheltered coves and splendid beaches warmed by the Gulf Stream.

This is dominated by ritzy Biarritz, one of the world’s first seaside resorts and a favourite of 19th century European royals and aristocrats.

By contrast, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a piracy, fishing and whaling centre since the 11th century, is prettier, more affordable and, despite the predominance of French signage, much more Basque.

The town lies at the foothills of the Pyrenees, boasts one of the finest beaches in France and is garnished with the traditional red and white buildings found right across the Pays Basque.

Basques have inhabited the region straddling northeast Spain and southwest France since the Romans were bad and for centuries have been stubbornly protective of their culture, cuisine and unique language.

Pirates and whalers are pretty much history here now but Saint-Jean-de-Luz is still a working fishing port where the fleet delivers a daily flapping fresh catch of mainly sardines, anchovies and tuna.

Which brings us back to Txalupa’s unfathomable consonants. Hidden amid the Xs and double Ts were, among other delights, spider crabs, tuna, sea bass and baby white clams.

Ttoro turned out to be a rapturous fish soup made with scampi, hake and eel in a broth of tomatoes, white wine and Espelette chilli, a fiery red Basque chilli from Espelette which bears its own Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC).

The txipirones was equally yummy, calamari simmered in its own ink with caramelized onions, green peppers and more Espelette chillis.

From the terrace at Txalupa Restaurant I stared at a postcard scene of the town hub, place Louis XIV, a pretty square filled with people and surrounded by plane trees, red and white half-timbered buildings, bars and alfresco cafes.

There’s something special about Saint-Jean-de-Luz, maybe the palette of primary and pastel colours, the gentle play of light on ochre sands and whitewashed buildings and the verdant Pyrenees looming in the background that seems to nurture creativity here.

Composer Maurice Ravel, born in Ciboure just across the Nivelle River, completed his famous “Bolero” in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in 1928. Ernest Hemingway based his short story The Sea Change (1931) on people he’d encountered in Le Bar Basque on Boulevard Thiers.

Artists bring their easels and palettes to Place Louis XIV, there are regular musical recitals in the bandstand and every Sunday morning in summer the old square resonates with the strains of a Basque choir.

Beyond place Louis XIV, I discovered some wonderful narrow winding lanes with whitewashed houses and tiny shops selling glaces and famous Basque specialties like cherry marmalade, fromage de brebis (Pyrenean ewe’s milk cheese), gateaux Basques (flan pastry filled with creme patissiere and black cherries and the macarons that were invented here.

Basques are famous for their espadrilles and quality linen and on rue de la Republique I stumbled on Iban, a shop selling Basque crafts including antique lace, embroidered linen and cotton clothing, some 70-80 years old.

On rue Gambetta, handmade espadrilles filled the windows of stores like Sandales Bayona and Nicole Paries and at la Maison Jean-Vier I bought an exquisite pastel-striped linge Basque tablecloth for a mere $52.

Behind la Grand Plage, more than 1km long, I strolled along Promenade Jacques Thibaud passing magnificent old white and red Basque-style mansions facing the sea, many apparently derived from the proceeds of piracy, a pink thalasso spa and a pleasant botanical garden at the end.

The pink and white Belle Époque-style Grand Hotel Loreamar Thalasso Spa looming over the sandy beach is reputedly one of France’s finest thalassotherapy centres.

Another Basque word in the phrasebook that caught my eye was “txikiteo” which roughly translated as “pub crawl”.

Txikiteo, I discovered, involved a vigorous evening migration from bar to bar consuming impressive quantities of txakolin (Basque cider), the very likable Basque wine, Irouleguy, and filling the gaps with pintxos, the local version of tapas.

It’s that sort of lifestyle statement, the wondrous seafood and the quiet, unassuming elegance of the place that makes Saint-Jean-de-Luz the sort of offbeat seaside escape that should never be allowed to go out of style.

About 15km to the northeast, Biarritz was historically a modest little seaside town, home to bands of corsairs and a robust Basque community which had fished the Atlantic Ocean since it invented whaling in the 12th century.

The quiet life came under challenge in the 17th century when doctors announced that the sea off Biarritz possessed miraculous therapeutic and curative properties and sent patients there in droves.

The resilient Basques weathered that one but when Emperor Napoleon the Third arrived in the 1850s and built a sumptuous palace overlooking the sea for his Empress Eugenie, Biarritz was never the same again.

All summer the crowned heads of Europe, aristocrats and glitterati from across the civilised world descended on Villa Eugenie.

As visitor numbers swelled grand new hotels and a casino appeared and, in 1883, after Napoleon III and his Second Empire collapsed, Eugenie’s pink and white stucco palace went public as the very fashionable Hotel du Palais.

European royalty, politicians and movie stars continued the annual invasion until the Second World War brought the grand dream to an end and Biarritz, once again, was France’s neglected paradise.

But in the 1960s strange things were happening in Biarritz. Above the sound of waves crashing on the almost deserted Grand Plage, the tortured harmonies of the Beach Boys began to echo around the majestic hotels and snooty shops as nomadic young Americans armed with greenbacks, crew cuts and surfboards discovered some of the biggest surf breaks in Europe.

Biarritz was back on the map as surfing, tourism and thalassotherapy (spa treatments with sea water and algae) resurrected the “queen of resorts and resort of kings”.

Backpacking surfers, families and chic Parisian yuppies now mingle comfortably under the palm trees, the striped awnings of chic café-bars, on the beautiful beaches and in the town’s buzzing nightclubs.

Overlooking the Grand Plage, the Art Deco casino where Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway chanced their luck has been restored to its 1930s elegance. Within a block or two, were surf shops Rip Curl, the new Rip Curl Girl, Quiksilver and Billabong.

Good old French égalité is rife in Biarritz, even in the ritzy boutiques where you can pick up a cheap T-shirt or splurge on a Gucci bag and affordable B&Bs and cafes have appeared to cater to more modest budgets.

Miremont Salon de The, on place Clemenceau, wasn’t one of them. This is where the unreconstructed Prada and poodle push gather to discuss real estate values over cakes and lemon tea in very elegant and proper surroundings.

Down the road, the less well-heeled were stoking up on grills and pommes frites at le Surfing, a lively brasserie just behind the beach full of surfing memorabilia. But it’s not difficult to eat well in Biarritz; in fact, some people come just for the food.

The unique Basque cuisine makes imaginative use of the rich regional produce, the milk-fed lamb of the Pyrenees, the blond cows of the Aquitaine, the black-and-white Basque pigs that produce the sweet, delicate flavours of Bayonne ham that’s mildly smoked and cured in wine.

Brebis, ewes’ milk cheese traditionally eaten with black cherry jam from Itxassou, is another taste sensation. Piperade is an omelette with pimento and tomatoes; Poulet Basquaise, chicken tomatoes, sweet peppers, ham and mushrooms; Loukinkos, small garlic sausages; Grasse-Double, tripe cooked in tomatoes and red peppers.

There’s a good mix of brasseries, bistros and up-market restaurants in Biarritz specialising in Basque food in and just out of town where seafood is often a specialty. The busy Bar Jean, opposite the covered markets, has authentic Basque tapas.

Just outside town, Arosta is a restaurant in a XVII century typically Basque farmhouse set in the grounds of Château du Claire de Lune with great views of the Pyrenees and fine country cooking like duck shepherd’s pie, beef ribs, torut steak and sucking pig.

Also just a boule’s throw from Biarritz, Bayonne is the capital of the Pays Basque region with a quiet charm, an unhurried pace and a friendly disposition but the city’s primary attraction is its dark side.

Bayonne is where Sephardic Jews fled from the Spanish Inquisition in the early 17th century and introduced the French to the dark secrets of chocolate making, a legacy which has made Bayonne the “Chocolate Capital of France”.

Boutiques and cafes lined rue Argenterie with facades of timber-framed apartments and wooden shutters painted every colour of the spectrum.

In the old town, medieval cobbled streets and lanes cut a network around the Gothic Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne, begun in the 12th century and completed 700 years later, with its audacious steeples soaring above a 17th century citadel.

The cathedral was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1998 as part of the French Pilgrim Routes of Santiago de Compostela. The adjoining cloister dates back to 1240. At the Musee Basque you can discover everything about the Pays Basque, the people and its history and traditions.

It’s a feast for history buffs, and for gourmands. Strolling through the old cobbled streets laced around the Gothic cathedral, I found shops displaying rows of bright red hams.

Jambon de Bayonne is regarded as one of the world’s finest air-dried, salted hams, differentiated from others by a coating of red Espelette chilli paste rubbed around the exposed bits giving it a redness and a unique tang.

On rue d’Espagne I found Blush Noisette, a busy red wine coloured boutique festooned with the works of top designers like Berenice, Manoush, Iro, Sessun and Virginie Castaway.

Through Place Pasteur, once site of the town gallows, I stopped at the 1920s Cafes Ramuntcho on rue du Pilori for coffee and a mini gateau Basque, little cakes filled with jam, blueberries, figs or cherries and cream. There were 380 different teas and 20 coffees to choose from.

On rue Bernadou I confronted a wicked array of multi-coloured macarons, poached apple tarts and chocolate eclairs at Patisserie Lionel Raux. Inside were tables and seating and other savoury stuff like salmon tarts served on wooden platters.

But rue Port-Neuf was the epicentre of Bayonne’s chocolate tourism, a cluster of chocolate boutiques Paries, Daranatz, Cazenave and L’Atelier du Chocolat with tantalising displays and beautiful 19th century decor.

Each was different, all were superb and some still served chocolat a l’ancienne the 17th century Sephardic way – hot, bitter, spiced and frothy.

Around 5pm, the aromas of roasting cacao began filling the streets and chocolate tragics trudged around rue Port-Neuf to their favourite chocolatier for an afternoon fix.

Cazenave, with Limoges porcelain speckled with tiny pink roses set on cute lace tablecloths, was founded in 1854. Its specialty, chocolat mousseux, was divine hot chocolate with cinnamon, vanilla and a wonderful dome of chocolate foam.

In l’Atelier du Chocolat there were arrangements of chocolate bouquets and a dazzling array of dark morsels by master chocolatier Serge Andrieu that included such exotic titles as Feuillant d’Or, Framboise and Afriq.

Daranatz (1890) had a lovely old-fashioned tearoom, white chocolates, dark chocolates and chocolate bonbons with more than 50 different flavours.

A special at Paries was kanouga, a hazelnut, coffee and vanilla chocolate caramel, the same recipe created there in 1905 for visiting Russian royalty while, at Chocolaterie-Musee Puyodebat, around the corner, I sampled chocolates spiced with same Espelette pepper rubbed on Bayonne hams.

There are times when Bayonne’s unhurried pace is suspended and party time rules. Every Easter the city celebrates a Basque festival dating back to 1462 “la Foire au Jambon” the annual Ham Fair that includes a ham market and a regional competition to find the best producer of traditional Bayonne Ham.

Basques are a spiritedly self-sufficient people stubbornly wedded to their culture.

Away from the city and the glitzy, celebrity-studded coast, the Basque heartland is a postcard Pyrenean landscape of sinuous hills and valleys where rivers run fast and passions run deep.

Driving through the rural interior I found beech forests and small farms speckled with shaggy white sheep separating a scattering of little villages, each with its traditional trilogy – a town hall, church and pelote court.

Pelote is similar to squash except the ball is flung at the wall and accelerated with the aid of a curved basket. It’s a sport Basques take even more seriously than their beloved rugby.

The villages with their red-shuttered, whitewashed houses seemed similar but there were subtle differences.

Itxassou has cherry orchards and a lovely rustic church while Hasparren snoozes at the foot of the Pyrenees only stirring during the annual Pamplona-style running of the cows.

In Louhossoa, a grim stone church towers over a graveyard of crosses and disc-shaped Basque headstones and pretty red and white buildings on the tree-lined streets beyond.

Through these villages, all roads lead to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the most beautiful of the Basque towns, founded in the 13th century by the last Basque king, Sancho the Strong.

Since the Middle Ages, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port has been the main staging post for pilgrims trekking to the Tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela across the Spanish border. They still do.

In the late afternoon the sun played on the massive citadel that dominates the town and the River Nive. Stirring Basque music played quietly from speakers in the “Centre Ville” and senior citizens sipped beer in outdoor cafes playing mus, a traditional Basque card game.

From the citadel, rue de la Citadelle descended steeply to the river, a cobbled street lined with ancient rose-tinted granite houses dating back to 1510. At the bottom, at the end of a stone bridge, was the neo-Gothic and sensibly named Church of Our Lady at the End of the Bridge, still used by passing pilgrims.

At Bar Brasserie du Trinquet a sturdy waitress brought me a bottle of Irouleguy, a Basque red wine for the spiced chicken Basquaise, casseroled with capsicum, garlic, tomatoes and Espelette chillis. That and the Iraty fromage de brebis (sheep’s cheese) with a dollop of blackberry jam were simply superb.

It was Saturday afternoon and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was drenched in a deluge. I followed the locals retreating to the Ttipia Bar to sing and dance to accordions and drums and to quaff Akerbelz beer, pittara, a sharp-tasting cider and a potent herb liqueur called izzara.

It all seemed a bit like home. Patrons placed bets with the PMU (French TAB) but most of the beret-topped men were there to watch the Saturday rugby on wide-screen TV and on another, the pelote match of the day which, I discovered, was a critical confrontation between the muscled men of Larramendi and Eguzkiza.

Blokes in the bar muttered encouragement or disapproval as pelote players punished the court walls while girls with fashionable curly hair and flashing dark eyes screeched adoringly at their heroes.

Pelote players have been paid professionals since the 16th century and this was serious business charged with emotion and high drama.

Then, suddenly, it was over. Grinning Eguzkiza players told the story and the passionate young fans returned to what the Basques do best – the music and dance that shook Ttipia Bar to its old oak rafters late into Saturday night.

More:

saintjeandeluz.co.uk/en

tourisme.biarritz.fr/en

bayonne-tourisme.com/en

france.fr/en.html

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2015.

Gristle Meatballs, Horsemeat Sashimi and Ogre Killer – Treading Tentatively in Toyako

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Gazing across placid Lake Toya, brilliant blue in the summer sunshine, it was hard to imagine the volcanic violence that created it.

In the far southwest of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Lake Toya is an almost circular caldera lake 10km across and rising out of the middle of its clear waters are three densely forested lava domes, all part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

Toyako Onsen village lies on the western shore of the lake, one of Japan’s remotest and most popular hot springs resorts with a row of hotels along the shoreline and the Japanese style room on level six of the Toya Kohan Tei Hotel was my home for one night.

Outside in the village there were souvenir shops, a small supermarket, a hot spring footbath in the main street and a few restaurants, all closed. I noticed a large building up a side street with the interesting sign Club Je t’Aime (Club I Love You), oddly French, but possibly with a bar. It was closed.

In another side street I found two little open restaurants and opted for Yakitori no Ippei. I was the only customer and at the counter table I browsed the menu, fortunately with English translations, as some of the offerings seemed challenging.

Grilled skewers included beef diaphragm, intestines, chicken, pork and gristle meatball with cheese. I went for the chicken and the intestines. The chicken was meltingly tender with skin still on and served with hot mustard. The intestines? Different.

Next up were two sashimis, raw slices of liver and horsemeat. Not bad, but nowhere near as tasty as the grilled sea snail and giblet hotpot that followed. I ordered a bottle of sake, the Kunimare Hokkai Onigoroshi, North Sea Ogre Killer.

By then I was best friends with the chef who gave me a plate of superbly fresh grilled fish for nothing and, together, we polished off the Ogre Killer. Bloated, I staggered back to the hotel and collapsed on the futon.

There was a knock on the door. A bloke thrusted a tray full of food into my hands, bowed and retreated. I’d forgotten that the tourism people had arranged a meal for me that night.

In gratitude, I somehow found room for the superb local seafood and collapsed on the futon. There was a knock on the door. A different bloke thrusted another tray full of food into my hands, bowed and retreated.

“No more,” I pleaded, “arigato, no more.” I almost finished free dinner mark two and collapsed on the futon. I was drifting into a sated stupor when a barrage of explosions went off outside the window.

Lake Toya is apparently notorious for its cacophonous nightly floating fireworks displays between April and October and this one was no exception. Sleep was impossible so I decided to check out the free onsen public bath on the ninth floor where there was one each for men and women.

I stripped, donned the traditional robe and sash provided, grabbed a towel and slipped into the Japanese slippers that were about five sizes too small for my western feet.

I hobbled into a lift full of elderly women dressed in similar garb who looked at my feet, looked at each other and cracked up laughing. I felt like a dork and said something like, “it’s alright ladies, I’ll be gone in the morning.” They bowed pleasantly, still chortling.

Stark naked in the steamy onsen I became a subject of polite curiosity and mimicked the rituals the Japanese blokes were observing, sitting on plastic stools, washing bodies thoroughly with soap and rinsing off with plastic buckets of warm spring water before entering 46°C (115°F) baths.

Easing into the hot water surrounded by steam and staring out through the plate glass windows at the pyrotechnics erupting on Lake Toya was a truly surreal experience.

Next day I boarded a large passenger boat and headed out across Lake Toya for a half hour cruise in what had developed into a pea soup foggy morning. Also aboard were battalions of school kids, elderly couples and Japanese tourists and I realised I hadn’t seen another western face since I’d been in Toyako Onsen.

A gaggle of schoolgirls called out “good morning” in faltering English then fell about in a fit of giggles before they all disembarked on Nakajima Island in the centre of the lake, part of the national park. In better weather this would have been a beautiful place spend a few hours.

Instead I returned to the cruise terminal and took a taxi to the Usuzan Ropeway (cableway) and soared up to the rim of Mount Usu crater which last erupted in 2000 opening up more than 60 new craters. Today you can see them from several walking trails.

It was a bit of a climb but worth it just to stare into the steaming, smoking lungs of an angry volcano, one of several in the area responsible for the birth of Lake Toya and the hot springs that make Toyako Onsen such a pleasant place.

The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (jnto.go.jp).

More:

jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/hokkaido/touyako.html/

japan-guide.com/e/e6725.html/

Story and Images (unless otherwise noted) ©Copyright David May 2015.

A Star is Born

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I always find travel in large ocean cruise ships to be akin to being trapped with hundreds of other inmates in a floating velvet prison. But the christening of Viking Star in Bergen, Norway, in May 2015 introduces the concept that less is more for travellers looking for high quality destination-focused ocean cruising. “In the race to build bigger ships, many cruise lines have lost sight of the destinations to which they sail,” the chairman of Viking Cruises, Torstein Hagen, said at the christening, held amid lively local celebrations of Norway’s annual Constitution Day festivities in the old Hanseatic town which will be Viking Star’s home port. “With our new ocean cruises, we are applying the principles behind our award-winning river cruises; privileged-access excursions and onboard experiences to make destinations the true focus.” Viking’s ocean cruises will target experienced travellers, 55 and over, with an interest in geography, culture and history and feature onboard cultural enrichment and shore excursions that provide deep immersion in local music, art, cooking, dance, history and cinema. With more time ashore than their closest competitors, Viking has kept prices reasonable and onboard expenses negligible without sacrificing comfort, food quality or space for 928 passengers. On a brief, two-night leg to Bergen, I’m winding down in the Viking Living Room, a dramatic three-deck atrium, utterly mesmerised by the mellifluous melodies of the Viking Classical Trio and by art set in the walls, which is digitised so “paintings” change every minute or two. Around me in various intimate lounge settings, library shelves are filled with books catering to many interests, from classical art to architecture, contemporary fiction and non-fiction and old and new accounts of great explorers and sea journeys. Operated by Viking Ocean Cruises, this is the first foray into ocean cruising for the company which already operates a fleet of 60 longboats on the rivers of Europe, Russia, Egypt, China and Southeast Asia. Built by Fincantieri at the Marghera shipyard near Venice for its Florida-based American owners, she first touched saltwater in June 2014 and passed her sea trials in December under Norwegian skipper, Captain Gulleik Svalastog. Viking Star took on her first guests in Istanbul in April 2015 on her first ocean voyage to London before crossing the North Sea to Bergen to be christened on May 17, Norway’s Constitution Day, by her godmother and popular Bergen Mayor, Trude Drevland. Thousands of Bergeners braved an icy night for a 90-minute concert before Mayor Drevland pushed the button to break the champagne. “I am so privileged to be godmother to the new Viking Star,” she said. “She will be the soul of Scandinavia, but with some touches of Bergen.” The smallish, 227m ship has nine decks accommodating 928 guests in 465 staterooms sailing on itineraries to Scandinavia, the Baltic, Western and Eastern Mediterranean and the British Isles. Two more ocean ships, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, are also on order. Accommodation ranges from Veranda Staterooms of 25sqm up to Explorer Suites of more than 70sqm. Every stateroom has a private veranda, king sized bed, 24-hour room service, free laundry, quality toiletries, 42-inch flat screen LCD 3D interactive TV system with movies on demand, mini bar, safe, hair dryer, direct dial satellite phone and free, but slow, WiFi. While too much culture may never be enough for some, I wrench myself away from the Atrium’s trilling trio to explore the rest of the ship and discover there are no signs of rock bands, no shrieking children (minimum age 18) and no casinos. The sense of peacefulness is further enhanced by the remarkable silence of the ship’s four energy-efficient diesel/turbo hybrid engines. Beyond the comfortable, stylish Viking Living Room I pass shops glittering with gemstones and silver things way beyond my humble resources and a gymnasium way beyond my physical capabilities. And then there’s the spa. Designed with Scandinavia in mind, it has multiple treatment rooms, a sauna and a bubbling cauldron of a pool with a smaller spa pool attached, just a short stroll away from a Scandi-style jolt in the startlingly blue, ice-covered freezer room, a “snow grotto” where snowflakes gently descend from the ceiling through the chilly air. Near Torshavn nightclub and cabaret there are two cinemas and the Star Theatre where live performances touch on opera, art songs and Gilbert and Sullivan. Star Theatre is also where onboard experts lecture on topics as varied as the Northern Lights, British shipping in the 20th century, the heritage, culture and history of the old Hanseatic port of Bergen and famous art thefts. Up on Deck Seven, guests are bobbing in the infinity pool at the stern, taking high tea in the Wintergarden, swimming in the main pool which has a retractable glass roof or just reading and snoring on soft daybeds. Explorers Lounge has wrap around picture windows, another thoughtfully selected library, a bar and Mamsen’s, a deli offering traditional Norwegian cakes and open sandwiches based on the recipes of Torstein Hagen’s late mother, Ragenhilde, including Fyrstekake (prince’s cake), crusty, creamy almond cake and blotkake, a creamy, strawberry sponge. Bars stocked with quality wines, spirits and international beers pop up on most decks and dining spaces include The Restaurant, World Cafe, The Chef’s Table, Manfredi’s Italian and The Kitchen Table, all overseen by French Director of Culinary, Anthony Maubuoussin, the gastronomic genius responsible for creating every menu across Viking’s entire fleet. In The Restaurant, the flavour of the roasted French free-range Bresse chicken is incomparable. The rosemary crusted lamb in Manfredi’s with sweet onion white bean puree and taggiasche olive sauce is another masterpiece as is the orange juice marinated veal tenderloin with pumpkin and red onion marmalade at The Chef’s Table. Back in the quietude of the Viking Living Room, I sip from a bottle of German Warsteiner Pilsener. My gaze climbs the staircase to the enormous electronic mural above of a moving snowmelt mountain stream and, while resident pianist, Laura, massages the ivories on the Steinway grand piano, my thoughts hark back to the words Torstein Hagen had offered earlier. “Viking Star,” he mused, “is the thinking person’s cruise, not the drinking person’s cruise.” “Bottoms up, Torstein.”

The writer was a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises.

Viking Star offers four base itineraries of 10 – 15 days and four combination itineraries of 22 – 50 days to Scandinavia, the Baltic, Western and Eastern Mediterranean and the British Isles including the 8-day Romantic Mediterranean Cruise from Barcelona to Rome visiting Spain, France, Italy and Corsica from $3,049. The 15-day Viking Homelands Cruise from Stockholm to Bergen includes overnights in St Petersburg, Stockholm and Bergen plus calls in Helsinki, Tallinn, Gdansk, Berlin (Warnemünde), Copenhagen, Aalborg, Stavanger and Flam from $6,999. The full 50-day Viking Empire Cruise form Istanbul to Stockholm visits 19 countries priced from $86,449. Contact travel agents, in Australia call 1800 131 744 or visit vikingcruises.com and vikingcruises.com.au

Story and Images (unless otherwise noted) ©Copyright David May 2015.

Preserving the Pillars of Paradise

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They arrived in motorised canoes, walked from villages across mountains, others flew in from distant islands, diverse groups converging on a little town called Gizo with the single, paramount purpose of preserving their culture and traditions.

Gizo, on Ghizo Island, is the capital of the Solomon Islands’ far-flung Western Province, a paradise of coral cays, atolls, lagoons and volcanic islands east of Papua New Guinea where, on a rainy day in late July, crowds flocked to the local netball court for the opening of the inaugural Akuila Talasasa Arts Festival.

Named after the late Akuila Talasasa who had actively promoted the preservation of local customs and traditions as the pillars that held Western Province communities together, the festival embraced dance, music, demonstrations of weaving and the stone and wood carving for which the region is famous.

VIPs, townsfolk, a few tourists and two cheerful stray dogs witnessed the festival opening after groups in palm-frond skirts and semi-naked warriors armed with spears and grimaces had paraded along the waterfront.

Hampered by intermittent tropical downpours, groups of painted men in loincloths with fierce faces and stamping feet took turns showing their dance skills, splashing puddles and working the audience with comical extra-curricular antics.

Island dancers from Ranongga opened the entertainment, followed by more from Simbo and then the shield and spear toting warriors from Vella Lavella. Then came the gentler Gilbertese.

In the 1950s, hundreds of Micronesians migrated to the Solomons fleeing famine in the Gilbert Islands, now Kiribati. Many resettled on Ghizo Island in Newmanda and Titiana villages from where their young descendants had now come together at the festival.

They sashayed in palm leaf skirts and swivelled their hips in the fluid, sensuous motion of Micronesia’s take on Tahiti’s tamure led by Julie Joe whose day job was restaurant supervisor at the Gizo Hotel.

I had visited these distinctively Gilbertese villages a couple of days earlier with driver Peter Pepu in a sturdy 4WD and seen thatch and timber dwellings alongside more modern houses, most with neat vegetable and flower gardens and kids speaking English and Micronesian as they played simple games skipping ropes and sculpting shapes with just sand and water without a flickering screen in sight.

We continued across the island and around the west coast on a rough road strewn with rocks, stones, gullies, washouts and potholes, past modest roadside coconut plantations where copra supply was a cottage industry and along beautiful palm-lined sandy beaches with groomed picnic areas and surf crashing on the outer reefs where fishermen shunned rods for spears.

At Sagheragi Beach, landowner William Giroi showed me his guesthouse, Urilolo Lodge, raised high above the tides. Hammocks swung gently under shady trees and canoes faced the lagoon, a comfortable, truly secluded alternative to Gizo.

Western Province is popular with divers, surfers, fishers and World War II buffs and Dive Gizo, run by Danny and Kerrie Kennedy, offers boat tours to move them around. I joined American tourist Joe Petrulionis on an island tour in one of Kennedy’s motorised canoes to beautiful Vona Vona Lagoon.

At Tahitu on Kohinggo Island, Manu Hardson led us up a track through his coral island jungle to a clearing and the bizarre sight of an American Stuart light tank, a war machine the Japanese had immobilised in its tracks.

On Enogae Island betel nut fan, Thomas Kelika, slashed a path through more jungle to expose one of four large Japanese artillery pieces still aimed at the lagoon. This must have been one hell of a place to fight a war.

We sped past pretty coral cays bristling with coconut palms. At Lola Island, we paused for sandwiches of freshly cooked crayfish at the Entrikin family’s idyllic Zipolo Habu Resort with white sands, a gentle lagoon, an open-sided bar-restaurant and bungalows built with traditional sago palm leaf and betel tree timber.

Across Roviana Lagoon tiny, spooky Skull Island is one of the most sacred places in Western Province, a burial ground containing skull shrines decorated with customary shell money housing the skulls of past chiefs from the dark old days of headhunting.

We snorkelled among vividly coloured fish and anemones on the reefs around Kennedy Island where former US president and Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy was marooned after his vessel PT109 was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer in 1943. It was difficult to imagine war in such a peaceful pretty place.

Back in Gizo, I strolled through the market, a cornucopia of tropical fruits and vegetables, glistening fish, chilled coconut juice, ginger, peanuts, baby clams cooked on skewers, cooked fish to go and a very filling traditional cake made of mashed mangrove shoots cooked with coconut milk.

But the betel nut stalls were busiest, catering to a long-established distraction which involves mixing the stimulant kernel of the areca nut with coral lime powder, wrapping it in leaves of the piper betel plant and chewing the wad until the mouth, tongue, teeth and lips turn an alarming bright red.

Apart from some touches of modernisation, the welcoming Gizo Hotel hadn’t lost any of its Pacific island charm since I stayed there 20 years ago. In the same Nguzu Nguzu Restaurant and bar upstairs in a large open-air “leaf haus” overlooking Gizo Harbour, a new wood-fired pizza oven now crackled and a blackboard menu announced the day’s catch, kingfish, tuna, calamari and crayfish.

It was dance night and about 20 Gilbertese, mostly hotel staff, alternated their nightly chores with gigs on the dance floor, finely chiselled boys and girls blurring, whirling and gently gyrating as they executed dance routines with energy and contagious enthusiasm.

In the dance, in the market, in the music and on the islands I visited it seemed that regional cultures, arts and languages were alive and well. The hope is that the legacy of Akuila Talasasa’s new and eponymous arts festival will help perpetuate these Western Province traditions for generations to come.

The writer was a guest of the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau and flew Solomon Airlines from Australia (flysolomons.com).

Gizo Hotel has 51 air-conditioned rooms, swim pool, Wi-Fi, seafood restaurant and bar (gizohotel.com).

Zipolo Habu Resort (zipolohabu.com.sb

Urilolo Lodge, Sagheragi Beach, Call William Giroi on 8647684 or book through Dive Gizo (divegizo.com).

More:

visitsolomons.com.sb/western

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2015.