Departure Day

Why is it that the weather on your last day is always the best? I guess you could call it ‘Sol’s Law’. I got up quite early, used the hotel lobby WiFi to add pictures to yesterday’s blog, checked out, leaving my bags with the concierge and set off under the brightest of cloudless blue skies to where I should have made my way last night. The trusty Blue Line from Parque took me to the river near the ferry terminal and the one major area of the city centre I hadn’t yet explored – Alfama.

Breakfast in a sunny square was good but maybe I should have waited to feast at one of the more traditional establishments that line the narrow streets of Alfama. I didn’t get to check out why there was a big poster for Jose Saramago, an author I like a lot. However, refreshed, I make my way up to the cathedral a fine edifice with imposing twin towers and more tuk-tuk operators than you could shake the proverbial stick at. They could probably have taken me up to the nearby castle but I preferred to saunter in the sun through the narrow streets and plunging stairways of the district.

I felt doubly bad about missing fado last night as I though all the shows would start around 22:00 (a friend told me the best ones do) but many of the bars advertised shows starting at 19:30 so I might just have stayed awake,

Alfama is a fascinating district with many souvenir shops aimed at the tourist market but also dry cleaners, bag wash shops, hairdressers (no – barbers) and minimercados with those dim interiors that reveal so many product lines to the intrepid. Also there’s a full complement of churches as befits one of the earliest settled parts of the city. My foot funicular took me along part of the route of the famous Tram 28. The queue to board was already long so I just snapped it and thought of San Francisco.

After an hour or so of exploring I found a view of the river through a break in the street and made my way down steps and steep and slippery cobbles to Santa Apolonia which is the eastern terminal of the Blue Line. I thought I’d have another look around Chiado so rode the two stops to the Baixa-Chiado station. This must be one of the deepest stations on the metro (Google confirms it as the deepest at 45 metres) as I had steps and then four long escalators before reaching the surface. It was much livelier today than on my previous Christmas Day visit and after a bit of sightseeing and window shopping my eye was caught by a barber shop with beer. It’s a really funky venue where you have a trim with a Lagunitas IPA (if trendy, Sagres if not) while your friends enjoy a drink and/or a snack.

Time to head back, pick up bags and make for the Red Line to the airport. That was the easy bit. The metro delivers you to Terminal 1 and you follow signs to Terminal 2 as that’s what it said on my boarding pass. In a large concrete desert is a little bus stand with a shuttle bus to T2 – you have to be sharp to spot it! This takes you to the distant, isolated terminal which is exclusively for Ryanair, EasyJet, Whizz and Norwegian. It’s not connected to any other part of the airport – no lounge! – and is very sparse and functional. I do recall a lengthy bus transfer when we arrived but nowhere else have I ever had rubbed in so firmly “Hey guys you opted for low cost air travel – this is what it feels like”. Once again the Priority Queue was longer than the Other Q as they call it and since we all had to go to the plane by bus it didn’t really matter. The flight was thirty minutes late leaving and struggled with a head wind but my faithful Data Cars driver was there to meet me at Stansted. He’s a Pakistani with an MBA from London Metropolitan University and the best job he can get is driving. We had a lengthy political discussion all the way down the M11 fortunately with shared views about most of the ills of the modern world.

Lisbon provided an extremely pleasant break over Christmas. There is much more to see and do and it would feel very different at other times of the year. Worth another visit? Definitely.

Closing the circle (or G)

poolIt was a splendid warm week with a few visits to the pool purely to stimulate the thought processes of course. I sat diligently in writer’s corner in the shade and have achieved what I hoped for – enough written down that it has its own momentum now and writing a chapter now and then among other commitments will be OK. If any of it is any good that is,

Sunday was a dull cloudy, Essex beat Hampshire by an innings and lots and Watford lost 5-0. The only upside was it was my daughter’s birthday.  So Monday was time to set off after my stay at Cortijo Alto. It is so peaceful except when the farmers start spraying the olive groves at 6 am. Still it got me on the road in short order. My excitement today was twofold. I would virtually complete a circular tour of Spain being in Valencia only 100 km from Tortosa. Secondly thanks to the kind proprietors I was going to meet ‘The Hornet’ an olive tree my daughter and the family gave me for Christmas. I had a certificate and have already sampled some of its excellent first cold press extra virgin Arbequina oil. Now I was going to hug my tree!

IMG_2461I left the house and set off eastwards along the A92 autovia, pausing for breakfast near Granada with a fine view of the Sierra Nevada, still living up to their name. I came off at a junction signed Huercal-Overa, the town nearest to my tree but SatNav was not happy as we did some N roads with a few trucks making progress a little slower. I soon arrived and found the original San Francisco deep in the heart of Almeria. We had agreed I’d find my way to Olivas Querencia by amazing good luck or not at all so Angela kindly came to find me – the red Audi and a tall bald bloke are a bit of a give-away.

Angela and her husband Willem (yes, he’s Dutch) have owned Querencia since 2010. They bought a lovely house, a big farm and 22,000 olive trees.

IMG_2475They’ve made a brilliant fist of sorting the place out and have achieved coveted status as first cold press virgin olive oil with International Olive Council approval which means a lot of tasting by people in Jaen,  the capital of olive oil – one might say the Vatican of olive oil such is the mystery that surrounds it. Oh and it’s pretty tasty too like less fatty butter with added sunshine. And of course you’ll live longer.

We shared stories and I was treated to a fabulous unexpected impromptu lunch before going to visit the trees. Where I’ve been staying the olive trees are probably 100+ years old. At Querencia they are 10. I’m used to multi-trunk gnarled old things, these are beautiful single trunk olives neatly trimmed and already showing good olive production after blooming. But no hugging in case unwanted pruning took place!

It’s going to be a good year. FACT. Isn’t it great when something so serendipitous works out so well. Hey, I even played with their dogs! We will keep in touch and one of Fuzz’s yellow wristbands will be The Hornet’s identifier in the future.

But I had to be in Valencia and olive trees needed pruning and tidying up – sadly yellow leaves are a bad sign and have to be pulled off. So I got back onto the A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo which should take me straight to Valencia in about four hours. I guess it must have been my cheapskate settings at the start that say “Avoid Tolls” but we veered off round Alicante north towards Albacete and Madrid and then picked up the A31 into Valencia from the west.  My circle was rapidly becoming a capital G. It was fascinating as I drove through Spain’s granite and marble supply zone – every other building alongside the road proclaimed quality stone. It was a bit filled with mountain passes too – not as big as the 1379 metres  in Granada but at Lorca you top a rise a see the polythene plains of Murcia – I hope things have picked up after the disastrous rains earlier in the year. And later you come over another pass as the road turns into the A35 and there is the green plain of Valencia with fruit of every kind, then orange trees and then rice.

It takes me two attempts to find the hotel as SatNav lady has no truck with No Entry signs exhorting me repeatedly to turn left where it’s prohibited. I got here, showered and changed and went walk about in the old part of this fabulous city, remembering that when we were last here the Town Hall Square was an ice rink.

I went to the amazing Mercado de Colon, redolent of Victoria in Cordoba and San Miguel in Madrid and checked out a few bars where we’d been before including some great ham at one near the Hospes de Mar hotel we’d stayed at in 2015, took a light dinner in a nearby tapas bar and retired to post this. Last day tomorrow and fully back into the swing with a meeting about the Watford Community Trust Anniversary book on Wednesday.

SFO to LAS with hearts left behind

Our second hotel was a pleasant boutique hotel with otherwise great staff (see yesterday) who recommended a breakfast location not too far away. However they weren’t serving breakfast any more so we took ourselves quite by chance to a San Francisco classic diner Sear’s Fine Food which was great. Lots of antique paraphernalia and photographs and a splendid old world atmosphere and great bacon, eggs and pancakes. When we left it we went back to the building where the car was garaged and noted a fabulous art deco exterior on 450 Sutter. The lobby was amazing all marble, gilt and mirrors. Don’t miss it if you’re ever in that area.

Union SquareWe wandered around Union Square taking in its historical significance as a place of meetings and protests, admired the Dewey Monument statue of the Goddess of Victory high above us and thought idly about taking a cable car ride – one of the musts in San Francisco which we had failed to do in our previous days here. We had seen the lengthy queues down by Pier 42 and in Market Street and thought we’d have to wait for ever.


But at the stop in Union Square we managed to board the second car that pulled in. It is quite an experience and one we’re glad we did. As transport it is comfortable enough and a historic reminder of the early days of the city. It gives you the clearest impression of the vertiginous nature of many San Francisco streets and the utter chaos that seems to await the cable car after cresting every hill. The guards are also characters determined to maintain the sense of fun in taking this iconic ride – cable cars are not included in our three day travel card.

Cable car stop  Cable car RideCable car chaos  Hoppin off

By then it was time to make our way back to the hotel pick up our luggage and make for the airport. We had a rather slowly served lunch at the normally excellent Blue Mermaid and had to get a taxi back to Union Square. The driver told us he’d tried having a London taxi as a tourist attraction in The City but it couldn’t manage the hills and was knackered in two years.

I failed to take the correct exit on the way to the airport and SatNav again took us on a fine tour of the suburbs before delivering us to the car rental return area. San Francisco airport was great – the Air Train ride from the car rental centre to the international terminal was easy and the terminal had some very interesting displays on the history and development of San Francisco. We boarded quickly and easily with our “pre” status accorded by Virgin America in Boston and made the short trip to Las Vegas a destination included in our trip not because of any burning desire to visit Sin City but because it was convenient for the drive to the Grand Canyon, the next real item on the agenda.

We got a cab to the Hard Rock Hotel a recommendation from seasoned Vegas visitors as being a little bit off the strip and preferable to many. I’m no prude and have travelled extensively but I have to confess to a feeling of shock on walking in to the reception area of the hotel to find a pair of pole dancers strutting their scanty stuff at either side of the bar area that bordered reception. On a closer examination – well you have to don’t you – they were both so disinterested and disinclined to perform that the experience was neither erotic nor truly sleazy given their location. Impression number two wasn’t good either. Despite checking no-smoking on the booking form we were allocated a smoking room. To be fair it didn’t smell too obviously but there’s a principle at stake. We were asked if we could bear with it tonight and they’d fix it for us while we were away at the Grand Canyon. The basic room rates are so low as the resorts make their money in other ways that it was cheaper for us to pay for four nights rather than one and then two, and it meant we only had to take an overnight bag on our trip next day.

IMG_0723We wandered around the huge hotel/casino me resisting the temptation to purchase some really awful Beatles dolls – well Dee is a big fan! We then ate an acceptable dinner in one of the few eateries that remained open and retired to our not-too-smoky room.


Tioga Road and the Northern Sierra

IMG_5501We decided not to go back into the valley next day but to drive the Tioga Pass eastwards through the sierra. It is an amazing road but not for the fainthearted. It is very mountainous with twisting roads, vertical drops of 2000 feet with no Armco or stone barriers – just my kind of drive except for two twenty minute hold ups for road works which made the already narrow road single track and short bursts of alternate flow didn’t seem to be on the agenda. I think the 4×4 just in front of us were contemplating getting out their portable BBQ at one point!IMG_5494 Olmsted point

Half dome from Olmsted

As we travelled on passing Tioga Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Olmsted Point the out-turn that gives a great view of the Half Dome from the east we were very pleased with our decision.  As we paused there we thought of our trip to Walden Pond with Pat and Joe. Joe is an expert on and admirer of Olmsted who as well as co-designing Central Park in New York and the “Emerald Necklace” of green spaces round Boston was one of the architects of the national parks movement. Route 120 which is the Tioga Pass Road is the highest paved road in the US apparently and is closed from November to May each year so we felt privileged to enjoy this true wilderness, much as we had in Shikoku and Hokkaido last year. To be so far from any signs of habitation, enjoying fabulous views and the sounds of wind in the forest, birds overhead in beautiful sunny conditions was just great.

Mono LakeWe exited the road at Lee Vining on the shores of the weird Mono Lake which appears to have a significant number of clones of Lot’s Wife. It is a saline lake and the accumulation of salt rises up in tall pillars a bit like outdoor stalagmites. We had a lunch stop at the gas station and rest stop which was fine and took the decision to turn left and go north on the interstate 395 and then head west and back to San Francisco on the 108 through the northern sierra as an alternative to retracing our steps via Merced.

Good decision or bad decision? Probably the proverbial curate’s egg. As we swung off the sun-drenched interstate and started the climb towards the mountains we noticed the temperature drop (despite A/C in the car) quite dramatically, wondered why the blue sky was now jet black and were soon in the middle of the mother of all thunderstorms.

This was literally half an hour after the picture above and half a mile away

It only lasted about twenty minutes but was really scary. No other vehicles in sight, a twisty mountain road narrower than the Tioga Pass Road of the morning and torrential rain with sky-splitting forks of lightning – even I had to admit these weren’t the happiest moments of driving in my life. However we soon made our way to a high pass which acted as a sort of celestial watershed returning us to the sunny blue side of the mountain and leaving all that black wet stuff behind.


The drive was if anything more spectacular. Massive forests including the Stanislaus State Forest with isolated shacks, sudden flower strewn meadows, streams and lakes, the occasional camp and adventure centre and certainly no road works and the weather stayed good throughout the rest of the route apart from a quick shower as we entered Stanislaus. Route 4 crosses the Sierra Nevada through Ebbett’s Pass which as you can see is quite high up. This road is again usually closed from November to May because of snow. All the words that can be used to describe landscapes of this magnificence have become clichéd. So I’ll just say that we both descended from the sierra feeling refreshed, rejuvenated by the experience and extremely glad we turned left not right.

The SatNav decided on a rather unusual route back to San Francisco which involved a tour through the suburbs of Modesto before getting us back on the 385 and into San Francisco – an early evening journey we weren’t looking forward to as we had decided to change hotels just for this one last night and go from Japan Town to Union Square right in the heart of the city.

As it happened it wasn’t too bad and we found our hotel, parked the car in a parking garage just round the corner and checked in in time to listen to the last knockings of a jazz gig (who finishes jazz at nine pm?) and eat at the highly rated hotel restaurant, the Burritt Room. It was pretty good too even if the service le a little to be desired from a rather bossy maitresse d’.

Seals, sea otters and other creatures

My son had told us to look out for sign to an elephant seal colony “halfway up the PCH” which we duly did next morning as we set off north. Expecting the possibility of the odd glimpse of these huge creatures, we were staggered by pulling into a parking lot, walking twenty yards and seeing hundreds of elephant seals. Flopped on the sand in a sheltered bay you’d see a shower of sand fly up as one of them moved forward. Others just grunted and rolled over. Still more appeared to be in mortal combat – roaring and thumping each other in the throat. We learned form a helpful volunteer ranger that these were all males and the apparent fighting was toughening themselves so they’d be the prime selection for mating when the females returned from their present deep water sojourn.

IMG_5089 IMG_5098 IMG_5102IMG_5097

Apparently they have been known to kill whales so being aggressive seems to be in their nature. You’d never believe it from the first sighting of these recumbent bodies on the beach. There was other wildlife around too – harbour seals out on the rocks, whales spouting further offshore and gangly pelicans which suddenly become elegant in flight.

P1030865We eventually tore ourselves away from the delights of this encounter with nature and soon afterwards encountered another American natural phenomenon. We all know of stories of people touring American in campervans – they’ve been doing it since the days of the good old VW Camper. Now it seems there’s a huge rental market as we kept passing – in the opposite direction – and being held up by these behemoths rented from or El Monte RV. And that’s what they are called nowadays – recreational vehicles or RVs. At one point on the PCH there must have been a convention – there were hundreds of them lining the road and the beach. I’ve been told I can be prone to exaggerate but not this time. There really were hundreds of them lining the road for at least a mile.

P1030939We drove on up through Big Sur where sadly the PCH drifts inland somewhat so the more spectacular views in this area were hidden from us unless we wanted to park up and explore.

But with the delights of both Carmel and Monterey beckoning we decided to keep going. The highway is a wonderful drive but I’ve actually driven more scenic and dramatic routes along the fringes of the Mediterranean so we kept on going counting the huge numbers of Mustangs coming towards us and being passed by us. We had been told by everyone we had to rent a Mustang but failed to do so and had to make do with a Chevy Impala – well they run faster than mustangs anyway, don’t they. P1030940

But there were loads of Mustangs in every hue driven by bright young couples, fifty-somethings and their offspring and a few loners perhaps out looking for their youth.

Soon we hit Carmel which I was keen to visit because of its role in the great film Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s first as a director. He obviously loved the place because he became mayor a decade later and I remember it as the first of the new generation of actors taking up politics – Ronald Reagan of course got there first and got to the highest office. Carmel-by-the-Sea is very lovely, quaint clapboard houses, well-kept streets, flowers everywhere and not a McDonalds or any other chain store in sight.

IMG_5132Apparently a bye-law requires women, well anybody I guess, to have a permit to wear high heels. We had a coffee, sauntered through its antique-shop-lined streets, bought some fudge and thought: “Need more time here”. This was to become a bit of a mantra for the whole visit. Perhaps doing America in three weeks was a little ambitious! We headed off towards Monterey and declined the first road we saw which required a toll. It’s called the 17 mile drive and maybe we made a mistake in going on the highway as it appears to be lined with fabulous mansions and affords great coastal views. Next time we’ll pay the toll.


IMG_5167The main attractions for us in Monterey were the aquarium and seeing Cannery Row of John Steinbeck fame. As with most aspects of US tourism it’s been over-commercialised but we enjoyed the huge tanks with their great variety of marine life, watching sea otters at play and seeing puffins and penguins disporting themselves. Monterey looked as if it would repay a longer stay as well but we still had quite a way to go and had no idea how bad traffic entering San Francisco on a Sunday evening would be.

It wasn’t too bad and the faithful Dolores navigated us directly to the Tomo Hotel in Japan Town. It’s a funky, anime-themed hotel right across from the peace pagoda. Spacious rooms were complemented by a shabu-shabu restaurant in house which saved us the hassle of looking elsewhere. You dip vegetables, noodles and thin strips of beef into a cauldron of water boiling on your table. It’s one of the few kinds of Japanese cuisine we didn’t try last year so could tick that box and while interesting and tasty it’s a lot of faff and won’t become a long term favourite. But we did go to sleep in a room with some excellent manga art on the wall.

Manga room

Seeking San Francisco

Hilly SFOur first morning in San Francisco was spent in part discovering for ourselves its very hilly topography. We went in quest of three day travel passes to get us around on public transport from Sutter Fine Foods which ‘internet told us retailed them. We foolishly thought it couldn’t be far as our hotel was in Sutter Street too. Striding up one ridge, down the next, passing through some rather seedy areas on the way soon corrected that impression. It doesn’t matter in which direction you head in the city, you will soon be climbing a hill – and many of them are really steep too. We should have watched Bullitt again before visiting as a reminder. We then discovered that given the oldies only pay 75 cents per ride and younger companions only two bucks we probably needn’t have bothered. Particularly as our first proper outing was on the hop-on-hop-off tour bus to get a feel for the city.

The tour guide was so screechy and so trying to be funny all the time we jumped off at the third stop and explored the Ferry Terminal on foot. This is close to the financial district and some posh downtown shopping but the terminal building while still having passages to the ferries is now a trendy fruits and vegetable and craft boutique location. We had very pleasant saunter through a fine building but with all the food outlets sporting long queues we decided to look elsewhere.

Royal Exchange Beer choicesLots of walking about meant we were ready for a beer and we found the excellent Royal Exchange Bar and Grill. I got to musing about how good brewing has become in the States. There was a time when Budweiser, Coors and Miller were all you could ever find – none of which I would willingly ever drink. Nowadays craft beers are everywhere and of very high standards and a great variety of tastes and styles.

On our way up into San Francisco IMG_0605yesterday we stopped off for a quickie at the Highway 1 Brewing Company a typical modern day microbrewery with a pilsner, a pale ale, a summer ale, a porter and this week’s special wheat beer on offer. The beer was excellent but even better was the brewery’s slogan – “turning water into something drinkable”. Awesome!



In a stationery and card shop lobby we noticed this fine piece of marketing!

Back on the bus we were again amazed by how maps – even Google’s – foreshorten reality and make you think places are fairly easily reachable from one another. One thing’s for sure when the hippies took over Haight Ashbury in the 60s they didn’t often visit Fisherman’s Wharf 5 miles away to the north of the city. This tour guide was less shouty and we stayed for the duration including crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.


We got off the bus back at Fisherman’s Wharf and had a drink in the Blue Mermaid a bar attached to the classy Argonaut Hotel. On a trip to the restroom Dee noticed that a wine tasting was taking place in the hotel lobby area so, always keen to support local enterprise, we joined the other guests in sampling some rather good central valleys wines.

We then caught the regular bus back to the hotel and then set off for dinner at an amazing restaurant recommended by a sound recordist friend, Foreign Cinema, which was way down in the area known as Mission. It was a fantastic steer. Great cocktails while we waited for our table, superb food and service, a great wine list and movies being shown in an open to the skies courtyard: this place is great. Somehow we were once again – a common feature in our lives – the last to leave the restaurant. A cab back and the sleep of the sated and satisfied.