Saturday, 2 February 2008

Travails With My Jaunt

It’s a brave man who calls Bill Blunt ‘unadventurous’. Not for me the easy life of pipe and slippers - even as my sixth decade starts to slip slowly away, like a golden sun setting in the west, I demand more. You’re never too old to learn, as they say – and I, for one, have that maxim branded on my chest.

So, a mini-tour of Europe (courtesy of cheap-flight pioneers, Ryanair) was ‘just what the doctor ordered’ to stimulate my decaying brain cells. Forgive the cliché, but they’re right when they say ‘a change is as good as a rest’.

As someone who is best known for his trenchant columns on sporting events, my readers may be surprised to learn that I’ve always nurtured a desire to branch out into travel writing. Another string to a bow which already resembles a seven-string guitar will never come amiss.

More than a century and a half ago, the great artists of the time pioneered The Grand Tour. At great expense, and not without some sacrifice of time and effort, it became fashionable to explore the European Continent. Well, thanks to the technological advances society has made since then, it’s now possible to follow in their paint-spattered footsteps for little more than the cost of a couple of cheap DVD players. Special offers from the low-cost airlines puts a slimmed-down version of the nineteenth century Euro-jaunt well within the reach of most people’s wallets.

An eight-day trip from the UK, taking in two Spanish cities, an Italian and a Belgian town offered the chance to sample a slice of Europe for the not-so-grand sum of £52, thanks to Ryanair’s winter sale. Getting from my home on the Wirral to Liverpool John Lennon Airport required a £1 bus fare to Birkenhead Central station, £1.75 to cross under the Mersey and £2.50 for the coach from Liverpool Lime Street to the airport. From there to Valencia was £10, including the obligatory ‘taxes and charges’. A maths teacher might find it interesting to set their pupils a challenge to work out the relative costs for each part of the journey… but I can save them the work. The 12 mile trip to the airport cost 43p per mile, whereas the flight to Valencia cost a mere penny a mile. I can’t pretend to understand the economics of it all, but since Ryanair posted a profit of £326m in the six months to September 2007, I can only think it must be because they charge a fortune for sandwiches during the flight.

My travelling companion, Thomas Hamburger, did me the great service of booking the hotels for our trip. The boy did well, managing to secure very acceptable rooms with twin beds, for around £25 for each of us per night. I must confess I was a little worried we might have to share a bed, even if it would be a la Morecombe and Wise, but in the event we found twin beds rather than doubles to be the norm everywhere we stayed. Quite how the continentals got their reputation for sexual frivolousness in the absence of double beds confounds me.

Valencia (Spain)

Once in Valencia, we took advantage of all the city offered With temperatures nudging 20 C, we got our first taste of ‘proper’ sun since October. There’s nothing like sipping a cool beer in a quiet Spanish plaza in January to lift the mood, but Valencia also offers the enticement of Chocolate con Churros – yummy twists of dough, freshly fried and ready to dip into the thick, sweet chocolate that the Spanish seem to love so much. We couldn’t help but notice that these chocolate parlours were full of ladies who lunch, adding grist to the popular theory that women lust after cocoa like a man desires a pint of Newcastle Brown.

But of course, our main target on our first day in Spain was what any red-blooded male’s aim would be … tapas. Thankfully, we found it aplenty, and no finer than in the bar opposite the magnificent city-centre market. The next day (after an evening during which THJnr philosophised about the problems of ‘writing’), we ambled into one or two bars, including a Basque one, where we partook of pinxtos (the northern Spanish equivalent of tapas – and very nice, too) and sideria, a brew which makes Magners look like the sheep’s pee it really is. We managed to fit in a trip to the coast, and dipped our toes in the Med to reassure ourselves that we weren’t in England (photographs are available, to prove the point).


From Valencia, the flight to Bergamo (Ryanair-speak for Milan, but actually a full hour by bus from the capital of couture) was just €10. I have spent more on a magazine (admittedly an adult one) than I have on that flight. Here, a three day tourist card was available for just €5 – a bargain since this also includes the airport transfer as well as the two funicular railways from the low town to the high town. Top tip: Italy isn’t the cheapest place to spend a few days but, if you do find yourself in Bergamo, take the funicular railway up to the high town, and take a meal – or just a coffee – in the restaurant at the top of the line. You won’t regret it – if only for the view. And the coffee. On Thomas Hamburger Jnr’s advice, avoid the Mexican Karaoke Bar in the low town, even if it sounds like a good idea at 2am in the morning.


The Bergamo – Brussels Charleroi leg of our journey again cost just €10 – and brought a surprise. As a former mining town, and the scene of a major colliery disaster as recently as 1956, it can sometimes seem a little rough around the edges, but as a northern lad I felt instantly at home amongst the beer bellies, flat caps and coal-dust scarred faces. The men of the town were quite interesting, too. Nevertheless, the civic burghers have done their best to move with the times. An integrated transport system is centred round the grand Charleroi Sud railway station, in front of which the canal glides sleekly by, tastefully lit at night. Head for the main square of the town, where dozens of bars battle for your business, ready to force distinctly strong Belgian beers upon you. In the evening, the bars and take-aways in the square are illuminated as if in homage to Rusholme in Manchester, and it’s a strong man who wouldn’t be tempted to sample the beers and the frites and mayonnaise on offer. The walk back down to the station will feel easier after a few of each. And the statue of a steelworker on the canal bridge, facing the station, will seem, somehow, just a little err… risqué. Thomas has an interesting photo of this, which he has promised to get to me once it's developed, so I can share it with my readers.

The big surprise on leaving Charleroi was to find ourselves departing from a different airport. In the 72 hours we had been there, the industrious Belgians had managed to open up an entirely new airport – a swanky, plush affair quite different from the shed we’d arrived at. THJnr and myself were among the first few hundred people to use the place, seemingly outnumbered by the press and TV photographers. But we were off to Madrid... (of which more, later).


Theresa H. Hall said...

So wonderful to read of you adventures. Have a wonderful time!

"Sleeping Kitten - Dancing Dog!"

Gail said...

But Bill, you must be so young, judging by the photo of you and Thomas dipping your toes (even though you tried to hide your faces, you cheeky monkey)

Bill Blunt said...

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'young', gail ... still, I take my compliments where I can find them, these days!