A Travellerspoint blog

Looking beyond the beaches

A week on an island that's famous for the wrong reasons

semi-overcast 23 °C

As I stand at the back of what appears to be a queue of two hundred people at the easyJet check-in at Gatwick, I ponder just what I know about my intended destination - Sardinia. It's an island (the second largest in the Med) that's an autonomous region of Italy, and has given its name to a fish - though these fish are no longer present in the numbers that earned them their name in the first place. Part of its coastline is the Costa Smeralda, a playground for the rich and famous. Sardinia is also where England's football team was placed for its group matches in the 1990 World Cup Finals, in order that any trouble caused by the hooligan element of the supporters would be easy to contain. These meagre facts are hardly a platform on which to base a week's holiday.

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Fortunately knowledge of the island will be the least of my concerns, as someone else - namely, my sister C - will be worrying about that for me. She has been working in a hotel in the sleepy coastal town of Golfo Aranci for the summer season and this experience, coupled with previous stints on the island as an English teacher and a tour guide, means she has enough local knowledge for us both. My hire car will mean we can even visit some places she has never been to.

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I somehow negotiate easyJet's chaotic check-in system in time to board the plane, and arrive into the sunny but windy climes of Olbia airport a couple of hours later. The short drive to Golfo Aranci gives me time to reacquaint myself with the quirks of Italian roads - the erratic signposting (often right next to an exit so you have only a split second to decide whether you need to turn off), the speed limits that seem to function as minimums rather than maximums, the racing line that locals like to follow, etc. But when I allow my eyes to drift to the scenery, there's a mountainous interior to the island that looks impressive.

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Golfo Aranci has a population of barely a couple of thousand, most of whom seem to have disappeared off for an afternoon kip, so I'm able to drive slowly along the main street without any traffic harassment. I find the turn-off for the hotel, park, and wander into the reception. C is on duty, sporting a sun tan that speaks of a summer on the beach. It's great to see her, and she immediately wangles a short break so that we can have a coffee together on the terrace. Unfortunately the mistral is blowing a gale and we soon retreat to a more sheltered area.

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The main news from her is that the hotel wants her to work for an extra week, meaning that she won't have as much time off with me as she'd originally intended. (This actually turns out to be a good thing for me, as the reduced sightseeing that we do still leaves me knackered, though not so good for her, as her morning shifts start at 7AM). Apart from that, she's looking forward to showing me around the north of the island and introducing me to some of the characters who've been part of her seven months here. I speak no Italian, so can predict much nodding and smiling in my near future, but you never know where you might find a cat-loving female chocolate addict with a liking for Italo disco.

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The majority of the accommodation that I've stayed in over the last few years has been either hostels or guesthouses, so the facilities offered in a 4 star hotel room comfortably exceed my requirements. The stack of towels and shelf of complimentary toiletries seem as grotesquely luxurious as the balcony with a view over a bay of turquoise water. There's no kettle, apparently because the hotel's wiring can't cope with the demands of large groups of English pensioners all fancying a cuppa at the same time - and large groups of English pensioners constitute a good chunk of the current guests. As a relative of a member of staff, the rate I'm getting for this room is very good value indeed, especially as breakfast and dinner are thrown in. It's not how I normally travel, but I can force myself to suck up a week of it.

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C is working mornings for the next couple of days, making it difficult for us to do much as she doesn't finish each day until 3PM. I take the opportunity to amble around Golfo Aranci, which I find to be pleasantly low-key. The town sits under the rocky headland of Capo Figari, with the rounded hump of Figarolo island just offshore. Beyond that lies the limestone massif of Tavolara island. In the late afternoon, the sun brings a flush of pink to the grey faces of all the rocks.

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I supplement my knowledge of the island by reading a guidebook. Sardinia's history has been characterised by repeated invasions, explaining why even now the "real" Sardinia can only be found in the mountainous interior - a region the Romans called Barbaria (now Barbagia) as a backhanded compliment because they were never able to subdue it. Barbagia is the cultural heart of Sardinia and even now is something of a law unto itself (up until the 1960s it was famed for its bandits and kidnappings). With the mountains being the dwelling place of choice for the locals, wild boar, pigs and sheep became the mainstays of Sardinian cuisine, meaning that - strangely for an island - fishing has never been a major source of food here.

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The original settlers of Sardinia lived in tribes, with interspersed periods of cooperation and squabbling. From about 1000BC, though, outsiders began to visit the island on a regular basis - sometimes for trade, sometimes for settlement, but increasingly to conquer. Over the next three millenia, the island was partly governed by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Pisans, Genoans, Aragonese, Austrians, the House of Savoy, and the Piedmontese, before finally becoming part of a united Italy in the mid-19th century. There are plenty of reminders of these disparate occupiers in Sardinia today, from Phoenician ruins to the use of Catalan in Alghero. It's interesting that Sardinia's flag depicts the heads of four Moors, the Moors having merely raided the island rather than tried to subdue it.

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When C has a run of days off, we begin our explorations in earnest. Though Sardinia is by no means enormous, the winding roads and regular delays by chugging lorries mean that distances take longer to travel than you might expect, so the furthest point south that we reach is only a third of the way to the southern coast. A few more quirks of Italian driving appear. The law here requires you to drive with your lights on all the time, though empirical evidence suggests this is obeyed by only about half of drivers. In towns, there seems to be a crosswalk every twenty metres or so, but it's a foolhardy pedestrian who thinks the traffic will actually stop to let them cross. On the plus side - and possibly as a result of it being the shoulder season - we find free parking everywhere we go, often in large carparks. I also discover that size 11 hiking boots are too big for the space above the clutch pedal in a Renault Twingo, leading to several situations where we can't move off because I can't let the clutch out fully.

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Our first foray is into the Barbagia region, its rugged countryside and traditional outdoor lifestyle perfect for creating the kind of people able to stand up to the Roman Empire. Just outside of the town of Orgosolo, a road sign has been peppered with shotgun bullets - a reminder that this is an area over which the carabinieri have only a tenuous hold. Regardless, the landscape is a picture of rolling green and brown, punctuated by sharp rocky ridges under a blue sky smeared with wispy clouds.

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Apart from its bandit history, Orgosolo is most famous for its collection of murals, dozens of which can be found around the town. First appearing back in the 1970s, the murals depict political events, initially from Italy but later expanding to cover stories from the entire globe. The variety of styles and colours is accompanied by a disapproving tone that gives the town an anti-establishment air entirely in keeping with its bandit past. Comments about American nuclear waste on the island, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Bosnian conflict, world poverty, 9/11, and the Iraq War have all found their expression here in paint. An excerpt from Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the Cat" warns us against trying to overreach ourselves.

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We lunch at an atmospheric restaurant a couple of kilometres outside of Orgosolo. Given the warmth of the day, it's surprisingly cold inside, with even the waitress wearing a tracksuit top. The dining room is centred on a stone fireplace whose chimney is hung with hams, though sadly the fire remains unlit. The room's walls are one framed painting after another.

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There's no menu, simply a fixed-price set of courses taken from traditional Sardinian cuisine, including brain (tempura-style, but I've no idea what animal the brain was from), wild boar, suckling pig, pane frattau (an odd mix of thin bread, cheese, tomato sauce, and egg), and seada (a cheese-stuffed fritter covered in honey). Vegetables are few and far between. By the end, we're both grateful that the waitress had suggested we get one between two, as we're stuffed. (Later in the trip, I'll also try the ravioli-esque culurgiones and gnocchi-like malloreddus.)

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Not far from Orgosolo is another small town, Mamoiada. Mamoiada is home to the Museum of Mediterranean Masks, a small but highly intriguing introduction to the masks and costumes to be found in Sardinia and further afield in the Mediterranean, associated with carnival or pagan festivals from the distant past. The stars of the town's own carnival are the mamuthones, men wearing sheepskins and ugly black wooden masks, and carrying 30kg of bronze bells with bone clappers on their backs. They are guarded by the lasso-wielding issohadores dressed in red and white, who capture any nearby young women who take their fancy. Theories of the origin of these figures include them representing the Sardinians (issohadores) victorious over the Moors (mamuthones) and, more popularly, the triumph of spring (issohadores) over winter (mamuthones). Whatever you choose to believe, the masks and costumes native to Mamoiada and other European countries are fantastic in both senses of the word, and not a little eerie.

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Our longest day of travel takes in a loop hitting the west coast in two places. The first stop of the trip is at the Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia, the high point of Romanesque architecture on the island. It's built of black basalt and white limestone and all the more striking for being situated on a plain. The name "Saccargia" comes from the Sardinian for "spotted cow", with legend saying that this cow used to kneel down whenever it was prayer time - the cow is remembered in four carvings on one of the columns in the porch. Apart from the stunning exterior, inside can be found some well-preserved mediaeval frescos.

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The church was originally built in the 12th century and has been substantially modified since then, but we go back even further in time when we visit the nuraghe of Santu Antine. A nuraghe is a beehive-shaped stone building, of which there are thousands around the island. They date from a Bronze Age civilisation that was eventually wiped out by the Romans. The nuraghe at Santu Antine is the tallest on Sardinia, and its consignment to history can be keenly felt due to the presence of a wind farm on a nearby ridge - the crumbling nuraghe built with nothing more than stone, versus the hi-tech sleekness of the slowly whirring giant turbines.

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We hit the coast at the pretty town of Bosa, whose pastel buildings sit behind a riverside array of palm trees redolent of the French Riviera. Leading away from the river is a maze of cobbled backstreets, affording occasional glimpses of old women making lace in a doorway. Black markings on various houses are a reminder of the massive campaign waged against malaria shortly after the end of World War II. The island's mosquito population was the victim of the largest DDT-based assault ever seen, the outcome of which may have been the elimination of malaria (though not of mosquitos, as my ankles have already told me after a couple of evenings dining al fresco) but with currently unquantifiable environmental effects - to either nature or humans.

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The town is overlooked by a castle that we don't have time to visit, but we do pop in to the rather OTT cathedral and are overwhelmed (not necessarily in a good way) by its late Baroque Piedmontese decor.

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We take the coast road north out of Bosa, stopping several times to admire the scenic coastline's rock formations. C also spots some griffon vultures, of which there are few in Sardinia (though the species is not in danger on a global scale). We reach Alghero late afternoon, a pleasant town whose shops conjure up a surprisingly touristy vibe. The street signs are in both Catalan and Italian, and a minority of the inhabitants speak a variety of Catalan - a legacy of Alghero's long period of Aragonese occupation. We potter along the city walls, buy some ice-cream, and watch a reddening sunset over the jutting promontory of Capo Caccia. It's a long drive home, and back in Golfo Aranci we can barely down a bottle of prosecco before we're both too tired to stay awake.

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C's work schedule is the afternoon shift for the next couple of days, so we only have until lunchtime to play with. The first day, we trundle through the Costa Smeralda, perhaps the most famous part of Sardinia. Before the 1960s, this stretch of coast was wild and uninhabited bar shepherds, but then the Aga Khan assembled a consortium to turn it into a luxurious tourist destination. It's now a string of soulless beachside towns all constructed to specific architectural styles and standards. In season, it's swarming with the kind of money that can afford to blow thousands of dollars per night on a hotel room, and the marinas are veritable showrooms of the best that the luxury yacht industry can provide. However now, out of season, the Cartier stores are shut and none of the remaining yachts look as though they'd be big enough for Roman Abramovich. We pass the Cala di Volpe hotel, off which Diana and Dodi's yacht was moored the day before their life-ending accident in Paris, and the Hotel Romazzino - I can't say that either of them look particularly stunning from the outside. However I'm sure that the rationale behind these places isn't that they are the absolute best of the best, more that they're simply so expensive that the gawpers and rubberneckers are kept out.

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Having said that, the heart of Costa Smeralda - Porto Cervo - has some great examples of the Mediterranean style of architecture. In particular the Church of the Star of the Sea is simple but impressive, its whitewashed exterior shown off by red roof tiles and, in particular, the one blue-tiled cupola. Fittingly for a church in such an opulent area, it houses an El Greco painting - he usually sells for at least six figures at auction.

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Before we head back, C wants one last stop at Baja Sardinia due to the limpid blue of the bay's waters, but unfortunately we reach it at about lunchtime, and the angle of the sun does us no favours.

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The following day sees us heading to Porto Rotondo, another haunt of the rich. Along the way, we make a detour to a small church on a ridge overlooking the road. An old man sits outside making charms - the first person I've seen doing this, yet in the most out-of-the-way church I've yet been to. Inside are depictions of the Madonna and child, including some with African and Japanese features.

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Porto Rotondo is even emptier than Porto Cervo had been, and the owner of one of the few open cafes says that the season is only three months long. Nearby is a beach named after Shirley Bassey, who supposedly was one of its first sunbathers - we find the stretch of sand matching the map, but there's no sign to indicate any association with a Welsh female singer.

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Back in Golfo Aranci, C suggests that we lunch at La Cortice, a restaurant run by a government body (Ittiturismo) that aims to help fishermen with diversifying their income. She knows the staff there (who bizarrely all seem to have karate black belts) as well as the fishermen whose catch is served up on the menu. I have a massive dish of squid linguini, in which the squid actually looks like squid rather than the weird rings that tend to be served in the UK. It tastes excellent, only spoiled by the thought running through my mind that the (very) low carb diet I follow at home is being torn asunder.

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In fact, overall on this holiday I do a reasonable job of enjoying Sardinian food without completely stuffing myself. Similarly, the drunken benders that I normally associate with family meet-ups are absent - there's only one night of what I would call substantial drinking, but even that totals barely a bottle of prosecco each and finishes at only 2:30AM. There's the added bonus that we see a family of wild boar rummaging in the garbage as we're walking home through the deserted streets.

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Our last full day of sightseeing takes place in the best weather we've had all week. The Maddalena archipelago is our destination, just off the northeast tip of Sardinia. We take a car ferry from Palau, and C points out a rock formation called The Bear on a hill above the town as we leave harbour.

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We disembark at La Maddalena town on La Maddalena island in the Maddalena archipelago - no scope for confusion there. We immediately leave via a causeway to the island of Caprera, to visit the Garibaldi museum. The museum is in the house that Garibaldi retired to after he had played his part in unifying Italy. I must confess to knowing little about the man before this trip, apart from his famous army of Redshirts and the biscuit that inherited his name, and the tour that the museum obliges you to take is only available in Italian. Fortunately C translates for me and throws in some facts of her own. Besides his role in the unification of Italy, he had also previously dabbled in various conflicts in South America. He left one of his wives before they'd even exited their wedding chapel, when she confessed that she was pregnant with another man's child - quite a harsh judgement from someone who was something of a philanderer himself. And apparently the source for his army's red shirts was Aysgarth woollen mill in Wensleydale.

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We return to La Maddalena island and complete a circuit of its many bays and viewpoints. Rock formations keep watch over a sea that, if not quite up to tropical paradise standard (at least not at this time of day/year), is invitingly clear, its blues and greens pulsating gently in the rippling water. The beaches are all most appealing, even to a non-beachy person like myself, though I suspect some of that is because there just aren't that many people around to spoil the landscape. From the northern end of the island, it's easy to see the white cliffs of Bonifacio in Corsica, maybe a dozen kilometres away in a different country. We watch sailing boats slapping by, the afternoon sun giving them a sea of sparkles on which to float.

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Sadly that's the last piece of sightseeing we have time for, as the day is drawing to a close and my flight to London leaves the next morning. Sardinia has been a big surprise to me, offering considerably more than the top-end beach holidays that it's famous for. I found most enjoyment in the island's traditional culture, in particular the murals and scary costumes of the Barbagia region, but was also taken by the black and white Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia. I could imagine many more lazy days succumbing to the colourful charms of Bosa. Frankly, the Costa Smeralda is an anomaly in Sardinia.

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With the majority of the island unvisited on this trip, I can see myself coming back for more.

Posted by mohn 09:26 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Notes from a no-hoper at the Times Crossword Championship

Crossword-solving is, on the hipness scale, closer to train-spotting than to snow-boarding. It's not a hobby you're likely to admit to in circles where you value your street cred. However, every week, there are tens of millions of people on the planet who spend at least some of their time carefully entering letters into a grid, and experiencing the exultation or despair that comes with a right or wrong solution. You can't say the same about Morris dancing.

Cryptic crosswords are the most intellectually stimulating variety of crossword, and the gold standard of cryptics - at least in the UK - is that contained in the Times newspaper. Though by no means the hardest cryptic around, nor even necessarily the best compiled (a highly subjective discussion), the Times crossword has the reputation of being the "best" - especially among those members of the population who don't do crosswords. At any rate, it is the only one for which a championship is regularly held, and it was in pursuit of the title of Times Crossword National Champion 2010 that about 160 people descended, pencils sharpened, on Cheltenham College Junior School on an autumnal Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago. I was one of them.

My background in crosswords came about in the same way as it no doubt has for many other puzzlers. We took the Telegraph as our daily paper when I was a child, and after my father had completed the cryptic crossword, I was allowed to attempt the non-cryptic puzzle beneath it. Even when my vocabulary was still sufficiently small to make the non-cryptic a challenge, I would glance at the grid above and marvel at the answers my father had written in. Occasionally I would ask him to explain a particularly mindboggling one and, in so doing, I slowly picked up the techniques needed to parse and solve a cryptic clue.

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However it was only when I went to university, and had free access to all the daily papers in the common room, that my crossword education went into overdrive. First I practised until I could regularly complete the Telegraph, before moving on to the Times, with infrequent forays into the Guardian and Independent. Once graduated, time and funds forced me to limit myself to just the Times. I was usually able to complete the puzzle correctly each day, and my average solving time dropped to around half an hour. Feeling that I was now competent enough that I wouldn't severely embarrass myself, in 1998 I decided to chance my arm in the Times Crossword Championship.

At that time, there were sufficient funds in the Times' coffers to produce a much grander competition than exists nowadays. Initial qualification was via a harder-than-average puzzle published in the paper. Competitors had several days in which to attempt the puzzle and could use any reference sources they saw fit. Qualifiers from this stage would then be invited to one of a series of regional finals around the UK, which in turn produced a select few for a grand final in London. The regional finals and grand final all followed the same procedure. Competitors would have 4 30-clue puzzles to complete, separately, with a maximum of 30 minutes allocated for each. On completing a puzzle, the competitor would hold their answer sheet up in the air, whereupon a volunteer would collect the sheet and record the time taken to complete the puzzle. The score for an individual puzzle was determined by awarding a point for each correct answer and, if all 30 answers were correct, a time bonus equal to the unused minutes. If any answers were wrong, no time bonus would be added. So completing a puzzle correctly in 22 minutes would result in a score of 38 (30 for the 30 correct answers, and 8 for the unused minutes), but completing a puzzle with one mistake in 8 minutes would only produce a score of 29 (29 for the 29 correct answers and no time bonus) - meaning that correctness took priority over quickness. A competitor's total was arrived at by summing their scores for each of the four puzzles.

I only have vague recollections of the 1998 championships. The majority of competitors were at least two decades older than me, with a male/female ratio that reminded me of Maths lectures at university. Though I do recall completing one puzzle in six minutes, and the attendant thrill of being one of the first in the hall to hold up my answer sheet, I only finished one other puzzle correctly (in fifteen minutes), making one mistake in the third, and two in the fourth. With qualification for the grand final requiring not just 100% completeness, but a decent time bonus to boot, I was well off the pace for retaining any competitive interest, coming in 52nd (out of 161) in my regional final. Note that there were as many competitors in just this one regional final in 1998 as there were in both semi-finals combined in 2010.

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Sadly, work and personal movements then took me out of the UK for the next dozen years, during which time I rarely attempted a Times crossword. The championship lost its sponsor, and in fact was shelved for five years at the beginning of the noughties. When it was restarted - still without sponsorship - it was much smaller in scale. The first round of qualifying was still via a puzzle in the paper but, to weed out the weaker entrants, potential competitors had to state how quickly they had solved the qualifier. Successful competitors would then take part in one of two semi-finals, with the top twelve people from each semi-final progressing to a grand final - the semi-finals and grand final were all held on the same day. The format for the semi-finals and grand final would consist of three puzzles, with a combined maximum of one hour to solve all three. A competitor's score was calculated by summing the correct answers for each of the puzzles and, in the event of having everything correct, adding on a time bonus equivalent to the unused minutes. The major difference between this and the format when I had last entered was that any time bonus would be wiped out by a mistake in any one of the three puzzles, hence there was even more of a premium on correctness.

Having returned to the UK on a (for now) permanent basis in December 2009, it was by chance that I happened to buy a copy of the Times in May in which one of the qualifying puzzles was printed. My time was fast enough to take me through to the semi-final stage. Though I had barely touched a Times crossword for over a decade, I practised for the semi-final by buying two 80-puzzle compilations from recent years and working my way through them. Statistical analysis of my times showed that I would be most unlikely to complete three puzzles correctly in one hour, so it was with the philosophy of "It's the taking part that counts" that I boarded a train to Cheltenham. My experiences there will be related in journal form.

I wander into the leafy environs of Cheltenham College Junior School for 10AM precisely and register for my semi-final. As further contestants roll in, I'm surprised that I can recognise a number of faces. Despite the intervening years, my experiences at the 1998 regional final clearly imprinted a few people on my brain in a way I didn't realise at the time. The demographic is roughly similar to before, just shifted on by twelve years. As once again one of the younger entrants, and not having any of the relationships that seem to exist between many of the other competitors, I loiter on the periphery until it's show time and we enter the hall.

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Taking the desk corresponding to my parents' house number, I mull over what I can reasonably expect from myself in the competition. Anything less than one correct puzzle will be disappointing, but my previous form suggests that two correct ones will be a stretch. Three will require divine intervention. Knowing that the best puzzlers rarely take more than ten minutes over a puzzle of any level of difficulty, I conclude that something beyond divine intervention will be needed to post a decent time bonus as well. But what is there beyond divine intervention?

My thoughts are interrupted by the opening address delivered by David Levy, the championship organiser. Apart from a welcome and recapitulation of the rules, he states that anyone criticising the competition online may be barred in the future. I assume that this is in response to an actual abusive incident but, not being a regular on any online crossword forums, I have no idea what precisely is being referred to. Even so, this rather heavy-handed statement jars with the civility and genteelness that one would normally associate with the world of crosswords. Richard Browne, the Times crossword editor, then says a few words of a more amiable nature. Levy then comes back on the mike and the clock starts.

Opening up the crossword booklet, I feel a small rush of excitement. Competition nerves are likely to make my solving times even slower than usual, so I'm thrilled to enter a few answers immediately in puzzle 1. In fact, I'm on a roll for the entirety of that puzzle, and it's complete in about seven minutes. There are only two answers I've never heard of before. One is the musical HALF A SIXPENCE however it's clued as an anagram so I'm fairly confident I've got it right, given the checking letters. The other is RUMMER, apparently a kind of drinking glass, however it fits the cryptic part of the clue so I'm also pretty happy with it. I move on to puzzle 2, emboldened.

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Puzzle 2 starts off in a similar vein, but I become bogged down about half way through. Twenty minutes go by and I still have four answers left to fill in. I ink in CANNAE with some misgivings, a word I've never heard of in the context of being a battle, however it fits the other two parts of what appears to be a (highly uncommon) triple definition clue. I move on to puzzle 3, intending to return to number 2 with (hopefully) a fresh look.

Puzzle 3 proceeds at a snail's pace all the way through, one of those dispiriting situations where the compiler and oneself are on completely different wavelengths. Further pressure comes early on in the form of papers going up around the hall as the fastest finishers start to hand in their answer booklets. I use up about 25 minutes of my remaining time and still have two clues unanswered.

Levy then announces that there's five minutes to go before the end of the hour, adding the intriguing comment that - at that point - twelve completely correct solutions have not yet been handed in, i.e. there's at least one place in the Grand Final still up for grabs, giving hope to those slowcoaches among us. (This turns out to be slightly misleading, as he forgets to add the caveat "and marked" at the end of his announcement - subsequent analysis suggests that twelve completely correct solutions in fact HAD already been handed in, but one (or more) of them hadn't yet been marked.)

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Puzzle 3 is stumping me with "Go down with disease when in trouble" (6), for which I have A_S_I_, and "From entrance turned left regularly for church gallery" (4,4), for which I have _O_D_O_T. With time running out, I put in a panicky ASSAIL for the first, which doesn't fit the clue at all and of course turns out to be wrong (should have been ABSEIL), and take a stab at ROOD PORT for the second, which partly fits the clue but is also wrong (the correct answer being ROOD LOFT, which was eminently gettable from the wordplay, even though I'd never heard of the phrase itself).

With just seconds left, I return to puzzle 2, quickly solve one of the recalcitrant clues, and ponder "Employed to keep books, wife started probably illegally" (3-5), for which I have _O_-W_R__, and "My bill goes down a bit, but debt collector gets nothing back", which is an unhelpful __N_I_ starting with the final letter in my first unsolved clue. I have no idea about the former, due to being fixated on the first half of the clue being the definition - I keep thinking it must be BOX something (it's actually HOT-WIRED). The second, I'm assuming from the first half of the clue is a bird, however the "gets nothing back" part seems to indicate it will end with LIN - I don't know any birds that are __NLIN, to add to the frustration of not knowing any debt collectors (the answer is DUNLIN).

Levy announces the hour is up, and the noise in the hall rises from silence to a hubbub as the competitors start to dissect with each other difficult clues or pitfalls that they had encountered. The correct answers are immediately available and, after a minute of scanning them, I think that I've only dropped points on the four answers I was already aware were wrong/missing. That's one more wrong than I got in FOUR puzzles in 1998, which seems to represent a regression, but I remind myself that the allocated per-puzzle time has been cut by 33% since 1998, plus I've only been getting back into the Times crossword for a couple of months after many years away. Whatever, a place in the Grand Final won't be mine, which is confirmed moments later when Levy reads out the twelve qualifiers from my semi-final.

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I can't see much point in hanging around for the second semi-final, though I intend returning in the afternoon to watch the Grand Final, so I amble back into the centre of Cheltenham to grab some lunch and engage in some self-reflection about the morning's events. My assessment is that I made stupid mistakes for ABSEIL and HOT-WIRED, and should really have bagged ROOD LOFT, but I'm a little annoyed about DUNLIN. One of the boons of a cryptic clue is that even if you don't know the word that's the solution, the wordplay of the clue should enable you to figure it out, however you're screwed if the wordplay itself contains an obscure word - in this case, I'd never heard of either DUNLIN or DUN. However one consolation is that I was actually quite fast with filling in the grids, and probably spent a good fifteen minutes or so purely on these four clues. There would appear to be some hope for next year.

Cheltenham is clearly home to some very wealthy people, judging by the many expensive cars that I see on its streets. It's also awash with what I can only describe as posh totty. The town centre is an anonymous crush of stores but, once away from the weekend hordes of shoppers, there's some pleasing Regency architecture to catch the eye. My Antarctica radar starts pinging, due to Cheltenham being the birthplace of Edward Wilson, a member of Scott's ill-fated polar expedition, but I don't have the time to fully investigate just what the town has made of one of its most famous sons. However I think life in York has spoiled me for pedestrian-friendly places, as Cheltenham seems to have an excess of traffic and I constantly find myself having to wait impatiently to cross a road, as the BMWs and Benzs stream by.

The Cheltenham Literature Festival, another Times-sponsored event, is just starting but I'm disappointed to bump into none of the many famous names who will be speaking/reading during the festival's weeklong duration. It seems like most of the guests in my B&B are in town for the festival. One man has brought various books with him, the authors of which he is hoping to waylay and force to sign. My own crossword hobby seems normal by comparison.

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I return to the Junior School mid-afternoon and see that the morning's results have been pinned up. I am right about my predicted score, which puts me 49th in my semi. Interestingly, the fastest person got three answers wrong, and in fact only fifteen people in that semi got all three puzzles correct. This was no doubt due to there being two clues that were of a type I don't recall ever seeing back in the 90s, where the wordplay indicates a word in which you have to change a letter in order to arrive at the answer. If you're not paying attention, it's easy to enter the initial word arrived at from the wordplay rather than that word with a letter changed, and I'll bet that's what happened in my semi. At the other end of the spectrum, there are entrants with such low scores that I can only assume they must have lied when they submitted their times for the qualifying puzzle back in May.

For the Grand Final, spectators have been allowed on the balcony overlooking the hall. The 24-strong field contains at least six previous winners, and at least five competitors who were in the Grand Final back in 1998. I'm humbled (make that depressed) to see at least three people who are much younger than me. The final begins, and all the spectators are issued with puzzle booklets so that we can "compete" with the finalists - it also helps to pass the time since nothing interesting is likely to happen for at least fifteen minutes anyway.

Puzzle 1 looks absolutely horrendous, and after making no headway on any of the clues, I retreat to puzzle 2 to lick my wounds. This comes out fairly quickly, and puzzle 3 is also not a real stinger. However I haven't yet finished it when the first hand goes up in the final - it's Mark Goodliffe, winner in 1999/2008/2009, and he has averaged less than nine minutes per puzzle. I haven't even finished two puzzles in that time, let alone three. However he will stand or fall by the correctness of his answers, not his speed, so he now faces an uncomfortable wait of over half an hour until he - and we - will learn if he is the winner.

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I finish puzzle 3 bar one clue, then gain some traction on puzzle 1. All the while, more hands are going up in the Grand Final. Puzzle 1 yields exceedingly grudgingly, and I'm still nine answers short of a complete solution when the hour is up - further evidence, if any were needed, of why I'm not in the Grand Final.

With most of the finalists having finished well in advance of the hour, there's a minimal wait before the results are announced. Goodliffe is the winner and in some style - in a tough final in which only six of the competitors completed all the puzzles correctly, his time average was five minutes faster than the second fastest solver. This is an absolutely staggering margin and no-one can possibly begrudge him the £1,000 winner's cheque and Championship cup. Given he is only in his mid-40s, and probably has at least another ten years of top-level puzzling in him, it will be interesting to see if anyone can challenge him any time soon.

As I make my way home from Cheltenham, I'm already thinking about how I can prepare for next year. At my age, and with my performances so far, I'm never going to win the competition outright, but I think the goal of simply appearing in a Grand Final is an achievable one with the right element of challenge to it. Most of the top puzzlers are heavily immersed in crosswords on a regular basis - not just the Times but also other dailies as well as hard weekly puzzles such as the Listener - so they are constantly honing their solving skills as well as increasing their vocabularies. Several of this year's finalists were also compilers. It suggests that, to move to the next level, I need to allocate more time in my life to crosswords.

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Which, of course, means becoming that little bit less hip than I am even now. Still, I hear that York railway station is one of the most popular in the country for trainspotting …

[Note: it's debatable whether this entry should be on a travel blogging site, but my blog here relates to any and all trips that I take away from home for whatever reason. As such, it qualifies. My apologies if you were hoping to read something useful about Cheltenham.]

Posted by mohn 13:35 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged times championship cheltenham crossword Comments (0)

A small slice of perfection

Going to Andorra to visit a friend first met on my RTW trip

sunny 27 °C

The minibus from Toulouse to Andorra might not be the most comfortable in the world, and certainly isn't good value for money, but I'll ignore these flaws if it can deliver me from the heat and humidity of Toulouse. Which it does, as the driver flings his vehicle through the many bends of the winding road that gradually increases our altitude. A cute cat in a carrying cage draws my attention, but the poor thing becomes most unhappy at our progress, and eventually decides to chunder noisily.

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We enter Andorra near sunset, with no border formalities whatsoever. We pass through several small towns, each sharing similar characteristics - neat, tidy, and packed with shops, hotels, and restaurants, all signs of the tourist industry that constitutes the majority of the GDP. The buildings are predominantly constructed of stone with wooden doors and windowframes, topped by pointed roofs. Flowers decorate the streets, in window-boxes and in baskets hanging from street lamps. Mountains loom as a backdrop, thick with forests. I'm intrigued by how it will look in the daylight.

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The country covers an area of less than 500 square kilometres, so it's not long before we're in Andorra la Vella, the capital "city" and home to more than a quarter of the nation's ~85,000 population. The air is refreshingly crisp and cool. A taxi completes our journey to La Massana, the town (village?) in which my friend AD lives. He has a pleasantly compact flat that is a paragon of minimalism - I feel a pang of envy when I compare it with the borderline (self-inflicted) chaos of my own residence.

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We immediately set out in search of dinner. The shops we walk by are clearly aimed at the tourist trade. Duty-free perfume and jewellery stores are common, as well as those selling outdoor equipment - currently mountain-biking and hiking gear for the summer season, to be replaced by skiing and snowboarding kit when the snow starts to fall.

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I'm astounded by the respect for the environment that is apparent here - the first electric vehicle recharging point I've ever seen in my life, pretty much no litter, as well as numerous machines for dog-walkers to obtain and then dispose of plastic bags for their pets' doings. Later, when the town's rubbishmen come through, we see that the street-level bins are atop much larger subterranean receptacles, which can be elevated to a convenient height for emptying.

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We eat in a buzzing pizza place that is only spoiled by the loud, smoking group of US/UK pensioners sitting nearby. AD explains to me that true Andorrans represent less than 25% of the population. They are outnumbered by Spaniards, with Portuguese and French being the next largest foreign contingents. These foreigners are the mainstay of the tourist industry, which couldn't survive if it relied on Andorran workers (both in terms of numbers and interest in doing such jobs). The country is also popular amongst retirees, due to the invigorating mountain climate, the general lack of crime, the picture-perfect views, and no income tax. This high standard of living has given Andorrans the second highest life expectancy in the world, but - like with any tax haven - it's perhaps best not to dwell on where the finances for this state of affairs come from.

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The following morning is the beginning, AD tells me, of a typical Andorran summer day - warm and sunny with blue skies and no humidity. Even in the winter, the sun is rarely absent for long, and its intensity at this altitude means my Anglo-Saxon skin needs to be covered with either clothing or sun screen. The first thing I see when we leave the flat is a truck from which a guy is watering the hanging baskets that adorn all the lampposts.

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The landscape is deep shades of green, hillsides covered in forests and grassland. The highest mountains - which at less than 3,000m appear amiably benign - still bear a few traces of snow on their rocky flanks, but their inanimate white and grey are dominated by the lushness of the living plants and trees. In the daylight, the buildings look even smarter than they did on our arrival in the semi-gloom of evening, and it's hard to find any part of the scenery that isn't pleasing on the eye. With all this sunshine, even the skin of the local people glows a seductive brown.

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We catch a minibus into Andorra la Vella, and wander around to deal with various admin tasks. There are plenty of tourists, and shops to satisfy every requirement. Though the country has a glut of landscapes from which to produce attractive postcards, the ones I see generally have gratuitous pictures of kittens or puppies around the border, just to ratchet up the cuteness factor.

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AD has met a wide variety of people working here, including Argentinians, Bolivians, Peruvians, and Cubans. Though the national language is Catalan, most people can speak Spanish and a fair number also French, explaining the attraction of the country to Latin Americans. We immediately set the tone for my stay by idly lounging in a cafe. AD is extremely interested in theoretical physics, and I find myself talking about quantum mechanics and general relativity for the first time since my undergraduate days.

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One excellent side-effect of a Latin American community is the presence of empanadas, of which I've had withdrawal symptoms for a year and a half. Conveniently, there's a shop close to AD's flat, run by an Argentinian woman and her Portuguese husband. Though their standard pollo empanada doesn't grab me with its dryness and surfeit of peppers, their other flavours more than make up for it. I swear I'd live on these things if they weren't so unhealthy.

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Late afternoon is siesta time, which we follow on several occasions by taking a leisurely stroll further up the valley to the town of Ordino. On the way we pass fields of tobacco, one of Andorra's most famous exports. Ordino is truly gorgeous, with great views along the valley and a selection of cafes in its cobbled streets. Our first visit is slightly spoiled by some Afro-Brazilian band playing through a sound system at earsplitting volume, a really jarring noise in the mountain quiet, but subsequently we encounter nothing but calm and serenity. One evening we chat with an American couple who are on a 1.5 year RTW trip with their two teenage daughters. Recalling some of the tribulations of my own RTW, I don't envy them doing any travelling with kids - but keep my mouth shut on that score.

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The Andorran public bus system doesn't extend to the entire country, so we decide to hire a car to take in some of the more inaccessible places. Unfortunately this is at rather too short notice for the season, and the only sensibly priced offer we can find will see us picking up the car at lunchtime one day and returning it the next just before I'm due to catch my bus back to Toulouse. We book this but then receive further bad news - when I reconfirm my return bus journey, I'm told that it has actually been cancelled because part of the route will be closed for the Tour de France. With my flight out of Toulouse unmovable, I'm forced to amend my ticket to take an earlier bus. None of the repercussions of this are good - we'll need to fit our car sightseeing into just half a day, I'll have to be up at 4AM in order to catch the early bus, and I'll then have to spend an entire day in Toulouse before my ~11PM flight leaves. Bummer.

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The car that we are issued with is an eyesore. There's nothing too objectionable about its bright red colour, but it's emblazoned with advertising for the rental company. AD has never seen such a car in all his time in Andorra, and people stare at this thing because it's so unsubtle. Plus its 1000cc engine wasn't designed for mountains.

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Still, it gets us from A to B. Our first stop is at a ski resort beyond the town of Arinsal. Everything is closed at this time of year, but there are a couple of benches from which we can admire the views while munching on croissants and chocolate-filled napolitanes. A distant waterfall cascades soundlessly down the hillside. Arinsal itself sits like a toy town in the valley below. It's peaceful and perfect.

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Next we head to Arcalis, the most remote resort in the country but with a lodge that is not just open but surprisingly busy. A large deck at the front provides an enormous temptation to relax in the sun. A DJ is playing chill-out music which complements the views we have, of the mountains and the long stretches of grass that in winter become ski runs. Not wishing to risk falling asleep here, we take an undemanding trail up the hillside behind the lodge. As we crest the ridge, we see several lakes before us. The scrubby landscape is littered with pink-flowered bushes, and we sit down on the grass to contemplate the scene. A few hardened patches of snow confirm that we're at about 2000m.

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From Arcalis, we return to Ordino then take a road over the mountains to Canillo, where AD lived when he first came to Andorra. We stop at a store that has a vast range of hams, cheeses, wines, and umpteen other delicacies. It also provides free samples for many of them, so we chomp and slurp our way around the aisles.

Next up is Pas de la Casa, the last town before the border with France. It's known for its microclimate and we witness a superb demonstration of this as we move from a bright sunny day one moment into thick mist/cloud the next. We can barely see 10m along the road, let alone anything of the town itself, so decide to turn back.

Passing through Andorra la Vella on the way back to La Massana, the ludicrous appearance of our car is presumably one reason why the police decide to pull us over to be breathalysed - not knowing that AD is probably one of the few people in the country that doesn't drink. At the precise moment that the policeman is handing across the breathalyser, one of AD's students walks by and recognises him. In such a sparsely populated country, it's not far-fetched to say that everyone knows everyone else, and with AD's background being non-typical of the average Andorra resident (the beard doesn't help either), he stands out even more. No doubt tongues will be wagging well before term time starts.

Sadly my stay comes to an end much too soon. Getting up at 4AM to catch the bus back to Toulouse is a struggle, but my final memory of Andorra is the cloud-filled valley that we see as we approach the border, the rising sun illuminating an eerie swirling vision that's not quite real. It's a strange country, a mix of perfection and sterility, and I want to return. I mentally put a reminder in my calendar for the winter.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. The minibus between Toulouse and Andorra is run by Novatel. In Toulouse, it picks up from the Gare Routiere (next to the train station) as well as the airport. In Andorra, it stops in Andorra la Vella (but I don't know the address). I think you can also pay extra to be picked up at some specific place. One-way is €31, return €56 - not cheap for a <4 hour journey.
ii. The cost of a public bus in Andorra depends on the type of vehicle and the distance travelled. For example, it's either €1.20 or €1.40 between La Massana and Andorra la Vella, depending on if you take a smaller or larger bus respectively. Press the Stop button or shout "Parada" when you want to get off.
iii. Renting a car from Ifrent for a day costs about €45 for a small diesel car with unlimited mileage. It may be cheaper to rent in Spain.
iv. A cafe with character in La Massana is Mon Bohemi.
v. I recommend the caprese and ham/cheese empanadas at Massa Massa in La Massana (€15 for a dozen).
vi. A nice cafe in Ordino is Vertical Limit Cafe but the waitresses run the gamut of friendliness.
vii. Postcard stamps cost €0.75 to Europe, €0.88 to South Africa.

Posted by mohn 22:46 Archived in Andorra Comments (0)

Hot in the city

A couple of days in Toulouse bracketing a visit to Andorra

sunny 33 °C

This is to be my first journey outside of the UK since I finished my RTW trip in December and, even though it will only constitute a week in Western Europe, I'm feeling that tingling that accompanies any impending departure. I haven't taken a budget airline flight for approximately a decade, and there's a mounting sense of disbelief as I navigate my way through the online booking system, realising how the airline is making it next to impossible for a passenger to pay only the tantalisingly low price in the adverts. Hold baggage, selecting a seat, and checking in at the airport will all add to the cost. I'm starting to feel proud of myself for avoiding all these additional extras, but then I reach the payment stage and find that every possible payment option will incur an administration fee. Still, I shouldn't complain at a return fare that comes in at under £100.

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My intended destination is Andorra, that small mountain principality nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. I will be visiting a friend, AD, who I first met in Ushuaia in the very south of Argentina in 2008. He is Israeli but spent half of his childhood in Argentina. His background is in physics, in particular nanomanufacturing. Those facts do not explain why he is now teaching science in a secondary school in Andorra. Our friendship formed due to both having been part of, and then rejecting, the rat race. In our different ways, we're now both searching for a more satisfying alternative.

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There is no airport in Andorra so I have to choose between Toulouse and Barcelona as my jumping-off point. I opt for Toulouse, having never been there. AD has also only briefly visited the city so we agree to meet up there and spend a couple of days before heading for Andorra for the bulk of my time.

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I leave York on a mild afternoon, boarding a trans-Pennine train service that trundles its way to Manchester Airport with a selection of suitcase-wielding passengers. The rituals of the security check, buying food at inflated prices, and sitting around waiting are all carried out, reminders that the overland style of travel I favoured during my RTW trip is preferable in most ways.

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A scant two hours on the plane sees us descending to Toulouse and the pilot gives the unwanted tidings that the outside temperature is 31C. This is at 10PM. Exiting the aircraft informs me that it's extremely muggy too. Not being a fan of either heat or humidity, this isn't a good first impression.

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I catch a bus into the city centre, driven by a young woman in a most un-bus-driver-like short skirt. I know little about the geography of Toulouse, other than the name of the stop where I need to get off and the directions from there to the hostel, so I ask the driver to let me know when we reach the stop. She assures me this will be no problem. Fifteen minutes later, as I start seeing signs for the train station, I suspect we've gone too far and get off. As I disembark, I catch the driver's eye in the rear view mirror, but it would appear she forgot my request seconds after I made it.

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I only need to retrace a few hundred metres back along the route, but it's sweaty work. Finding the hostel is straightforward, though the dorm lights are off - not because everyone is sleeping, but in order to reduce the heat. The lack of both aircon and a fan, and the reluctance of the sultry air to sweep a breeze through the open windows, means the atmosphere is sauna-like. Four chatty young girls confirm that an Israeli guy is also here but has wandered off somewhere. Seconds later, AD appears, sporting an even thicker beard than the one he had when I last saw him in Edinburgh just a couple of months ago. It's great to see him, and we immediately leave in search of a bar to catch up on recent events.

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AD has only just started learning French, and mine is poor despite many years at school, but it's still annoying when the waiter swats our attempts aside and insists on pursuing the conversation in English. With a large, cold beer gradually working its way through my system, the heat of the night seems to abate slightly. Though AD is from the Middle-East, his time in Andorra has made him a fan of mountain climates - sunny, warm days, cool nights, and low humidity are his preferences, so the Toulouse weather is as unpopular with him as it is with me. We decide to only stay for one full day.

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As we sit outside the bar, I remember that the World Cup final must have finished in the last hour or so. It doesn't take long to determine who won, as the streets fill with beeping cars trailing Spanish flags behind them. Vuvuzelas are blown, "Viva Espana" shouted, and red football shirt-clad Spaniards raise their arms in triumph. This will continue through the night.

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Noise isn't the only thing that keeps me awake. The thick air of the dorm combines with my excitement at being in a new place to ensure I have little sleep. There are also plenty of mosquitos and it would appear that the great love of my blood exhibited by the Asian, African, and South American mosquitos I met on my previous travels is matched by that of their French brethren. BBC Weather had forewarned me about the temperature and humidity here but the mosquito menace is unexpected and unwanted.

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The following day is fresher though still hot, and AD and I venture out for some sightseeing. Toulouse is the home of Airbus Industries, but it's the older elements of the city that prove most appealing. The wooden shutters and ornate iron balcony railings reek of southern Europe, the many cafes one of the things I love about France. We take every opportunity to have a break, stopping for coffee and chit-chat in shaded plazas. The parks in the city are stocked with trees, flowers, and fountains that give some relief from the weather. The heat couples with the nation's chic fashion sense to ensure an interesting parade of Frenchwomen.

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My last experience of France was Paris last December, which was my first ever visit to the capital and left me totally in love with the place. Toulouse seems to have significantly more social problems. There are many homeless, drunks, and beggars. The area near the station is awash with hookers, even during the daytime. We see several crazies, one of whom approaches a nearby cafe table and begins singing loudly just inches away from the face of a customer. A drunk guy slumped in a shop doorway is cuffed by the police then taken away in their car. Even the wall-mounted condom machines, found on streets rather than in bars, seem more sleazy than practical.

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AD and I are both fans of eat-as-much-as-you-like buffets, and the helpful girl at Tourist Information points us in the direction of one, in a restaurant called Flunch. I would strongly advise that you don't go there. It's a half-hearted effort at best - you only have one helping of meat, and the unlimited vegetable dishes are predominantly carbs. On our visit, fellow diners included a chap with an affected sneezing style which he aired at regular intervals, a fat woman stuffing herself with chips while her child roamed the tables screaming and hitting other customers with a balloon, and a homeless man who grabbed leftover plates before the wait staff came to take it away. One group of diners accosted the homeless guy - I assumed they were asking him to leave, but in fact they were pointing him towards a microwave oven that he could use to reheat the half-eaten food. This was comfortably the most disappointing eating experience I've had anywhere in France.

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We head to the Place St-Pierre for the evening. Though it's out of term time, the area is alive with student-age kids. A couple of them at a neighbouring table decide to bawl out "Danny Boy", though I'm unclear if that's because they heard us talking in English or just felt a sudden urge to sing it. It's a lively atmosphere that dimly recalls my own student days of twenty years (twenty years!!) ago.

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We spend the next few days in Andorra (blogged separately) but circumstances dictate that I have to spend another full day in Toulouse while waiting for my flight back home. It's a Sunday, meaning little is open and I nurse several Diet Cokes for an age in one of the expensive, buzzing cafes looking onto the Place du Capitole. I conduct some pottering based around the loose premise of finding a couple of empanada shops - sadly, they're both closed and there is no indication on their doors as to what days and hours they are open.

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Summer does not seem to me an appealing time to visit Toulouse, and I wonder if its charms are more readily accessible in a cooler season. There's a good chance I'll be back again the next time I'm in transit to Andorra, so should have the opportunity to test that hypothesis out. This time, though, I board a bus to the airport, and look forward to the colder air of North Yorkshire.

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Dull but possibly useful info
i. I live in York, so the best combinations of cheapness/convenience to Toulouse are BMI Baby from Manchester, or Jet2 from Leeds-Bradford. BMI Baby flies on Wednesday (6:55AM), Friday and Sunday (both 7PM), returning on Wednesday (10:35AM), Friday and Sunday (10:40PM). Jet2 flies only on Saturday (10:40AM), returning on Saturday (7:55PM). For the days I wanted to fly, BMI Baby was much cheaper.
ii. There are many trains each day between York and Manchester Airport. The last train to York departs at 12:48AM, so even if you have to catch the late BMI Baby flight back from Toulouse, you'll still have enough time to get the last train home.
iii. The train station at Manchester Airport is only about 15 minutes' walk from the furthest terminal.
iv. There are regular buses from Toulouse Airport into the centre of town, costing €5. Just follow the signs in the airport.
v. In Toulouse, I stayed at a hostel called La Petite Auberge de Compostelle, paying €18 for a bunk in a 6-bed mixed dorm. I wasn't very impressed, mainly because there was no aircon or fan to help alleviate the heat/humidity, and leaving the windows open left us prey to mosquitos. In addition, you have to pay an extra €4 for sheets if you don't bring your own sleeping bag/sleep sheet - in almost every hostel I've stayed in anywhere in the world, you're requested to NOT use your own sleeping stuff because of the risk of bringing in bed bugs or other nasties, so I'm not sure why the reverse is true here. The dorm also contains a kitchenette, meaning everyone else has to smell any food that you might be cooking, plus if you arrive late at night then consideration for other guests means that you can't use the facilities. There's also no common area, so the only people you're likely to meet are those in your dorm. On the plus side, the hostel's in a good location and it was the only one listed on Hostelworld.
vi. If you're a fellow empanada-lover, try Empanadas Argentinas at 3 Rue des Gestes, or Casa Empanada at 45 Rue des Tourneurs. Both are south of, and close to, the Place du Capitole. Then let me know what they're like.
vii. For information about getting to Andorra, see my Andorra blog.

Posted by mohn 20:08 Archived in France Comments (0)

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