I first picked up this book from the pile under the TV in Tamarack, the beautiful apartment we have rented for our last three months in Barbados during The Time of Covid. It looked interesting and I made a mental note to read it when I had finished the three books I had on the go at the time (Alias Grace by Margaret Attwood, Cell by Stephen King, and Life after Life by Kate Atkinson).
I picked it up again and put the other three to one side for a few days, when I found out that it was written by the husband of the sister of our lovely landlady, Jane, who lives in the apartment downstairs with her equally lovely husband, Elton.
I absolutely devoured this book. What a wonderful read! Entertaining, informative and utterly engaging, it tells the story of – I quote – ‘one man’s mission to discover the heart and soul of [the] Caribbean Paradise’ that is Barbados. Believe me, he does!
Written in an upbeat and humorous anecdotal style, it provides the reader with an insight into the history, customs and culture of Barbados and it’s people, from the perspective of a middle-aged (sorry Julian) Englishman who made the island his home a few decades ago, when he met and married Jane’s sister, Sue.
I loved reading his colourful perspective and thoughtful insights on places and experiences that we were already familiar with, just as much as finding out about other things to do and places to go that were new to us. I learned things I didn’t know, I nodded in agreement with things I did, and laughed out loud, at least once every couple of pages, at the laser sharp accuracy of his observations, constantly interrupting M from his own reading to read him a paragraph or two that had us both in stitches.
As well as a hilarious succession of amusingly instructive anecdotes, the book provides facts and figures about the history of Barbados, the do’s and don’ts of living (or visiting) the island, some tips on how to ‘talk like a Bajan’, and the author’s ‘Magnificent 7’ beaches, wonders, views, attractions and recipes.
In addition to being crammed with funny stories and observations from Julian’s experiences in Barbados, the book is also peppered with ‘flashbacks’ and anecdotes from Julian’s travels around the world during his lengthy career as a BBC racing correspondent for the World Service, and his fond memories of his former life in a sleepy Berkshire village.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is planning to come to Barbados, has been before, or is already here. It literally has something for everyone!
I was only halfway through Absolutely Barbados, when, just last week we were honoured to be invited to join in the author’s birthday celebrations at Chicken Rita’s, with Sue and Jane and a few of their friends. It was strange to meet the author of a book I was reading, especially as it was a biography! Even though we had never met, I felt as if I already knew him. It was such a relief to discover that he was as funny, sweet and charming in real life as he was on the written page! It was also lovely to see how, even after all his years here, he is still completely infatuated with his Caribbean Paradise.
As if the past few months haven’t brought enough challenges to the people of Barbados, mother nature has now well and truly iced the cake with a liberal sprinkling of volcanic ash!
La Soufriere is an active volcano in the north of St Vincent that has been showing signs of increased activity for the past few months.
On Friday the 9th of April, she finally blew, in an explosive eruption at 08.41 in the morning, sending clouds of ash miles into the sky and all the way to Barbados, 100 miles or so across the sea to the east.
Before I go on to describe our experience here in Barbados, I have to say that, first and foremost, my thoughts go out to the people of St Vincent. Anything we are experiencing here can be nothing compared to what they are going through. There have been images circulating on social media of people walking down streets covered in ash, homes and cars engulfed by ash, people fleeing in tiny boats with smoke and ash pouring into the skies behind them. So far, we have not heard of any casualties, but I understand that thousands of people are still huddled together in emergency shelters, all over the island, as I write.
On Friday, we first heard about the eruption, on social media in the middle of the morning. At the time, it appeared that most of the ash cloud was going to pass us by to the north. By midday this seemed to have been the case, so we cheerfully headed down to the beach thinking that we’d dodged a bullet! Little did we know …
As we enjoyed a beer at our favourite little beach bar, the skies to the west began to darken.
I logged on to social media to discover a stream of posts about subsequent eruptions, bigger than the first, and more ash clouds heading our way. We headed home to get under cover. But, again, it veered north at the last moment, provoking jovial claims that Barbados has her own field force!
So, Friday night we went to bed wondering what all the fuss was about. A tiny part of me was a little bit disappointed. I’m going to be completely honest here, so please don’t judge. I think I’ve said before, I have a morbid fascination with the power of nature. I think it’s linked to my equally morbid fascination with all things apocalyptic. I feel guilty, because I know that these events have devastating consequences for people, that I would never wish on anyone, but I still can’t help being strangely excited by a really big storm or high winds and torrential rain. I have never experienced an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami and of course I hope I never will. But a part of me has always wondered what it would be like to see mother nature venting at her worst!
And now I know. Saturday we woke up to more darkening skies. The sun could barely peek through the ash-laden clouds that filled the sky. More massive explosions had occurred overnight and in the early morning. Neither of us heard or felt anything but we didn’t sleep well. Dogs were barking and howling on and off all night and M was calling out in his sleep, dreaming that ash was falling on him, every time the mosquito net brushed against his leg. As the morning progressed, a soft film of dust was settling over anything outside, and we decided to move indoors.
And that is where we have been ever since. Indoors with all windows and doors tightly closed and the fans on. We spent Saturday afternoon watching TV – a first in Barbados – and consoled ourselves with a tot or two of rum. It was a very strange day, as wave after wave of ash passed over the island and the deposits on the ground got thicker and thicker.
Each ash cloud reaches us about and hour and a half after the explosion on St Vincent. Skies get dark in the west as the cloud approaches, and the skies in the east take on an eerie yellow glow. At 3.30 yesterday afternoon, day turned to night. Birds stopped tweeting and all other sounds were muffled by the thick layers of cloud. Even the sea was quiet. You can smell the sulphur in the air. Your skin feels dirty and gritty. It irritates your eyes and throat causing sneezing, nose-blowing, and throat-clearing – no actual coughing yet. We went to bed on Saturday night, not knowing what the coming day would bring.
And, so far, it has just brought more of the same, actually a little worse. During the night, the wind picked up. It too, had been unusually quiet yesterday. It blew ash in at the bottom of the east facing shutters in our bedroom. I’ve blocked them up with towels now and the other rooms seem ok, but now we have a light film of ash over everything in the house. Not a lot, but you can feel it when you walk barefoot on the floor and, when you pick up your phone or kindle, you have to wipe it off. There is a film of ash on my keyboard as I type. Fingers crossed all our “devices” will survive this!
This morning at 06.30am, we went outside, during a gap in proceedings, to see what things were like, and were so shocked by what we saw, that we let the door slam behind us! Locked out, on our balcony at 06.30 on a Sunday morning with another ash plume rapidly approaching. We decided it did constitute an emergency, albeit of our own making, and sheepishly called the owner downstairs to see if she could let us back in! Of course, she did, and was very understanding.
It’s now just after 9am and another cloud has just hit from an explosion a couple of hours ago, with another to follow. I’m tracking them using a service called windy.com. doesn’t seem as if anything else has occurred since 7am. Fingers crossed! Nevertheless, it’ll be another day snuggled up in front of the TV in 30 degrees. We have thunderstorms forecast for tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll rain and wash some of it away.
In the meantime, spare a thought, and if you can maybe a donation, for the people of St Vincent.
Miami beach is our absolute favourite beach in Barbados for swimming and relaxing. We discovered it 2014, when we first stayed on the east coast, and it was recommended by our hosts at the time. We have visited many other beaches on the island and are always willing to try out other people’s favourites but, so far, none has compared with Miami, and we keep coming back here.
Miami Beach enjoys some of the best features of the south, east and west coast beaches, all rolled into one. It has the powder-soft, white sand of the west coast, and the water is warm and shallow, with just enough east coast surf for a bit of fun. It has a long wide beach with an area at the back shaded by Casaurina pines, and it’s south facing position at the bottom of the island, makes it a great place to catch one of Barbados’ legendary sunsets.
Miami beach is popular with locals. During, the cooler hours of the early morning and late afternoon, people come there to exercise: walking, swimming, playing paddle ball, or working out on the fitness equipment. I’ve even seen people boxing, practicing yoga or karate moves and doing shuttle runs.
A man-made promontory divides Miami Beach in two. The cove on the west side is smaller and more sheltered, and as close to a swimming pool as you’re going to get in the area. There are a few picnic tables on the headland, and a small area of sand, but this area is largely used for swimming. The water is calm, warm and shallow. If the waves are too rough on the main beach (which they can be in certain conditions), and you don’t feel brave enough to get out beyond the breakers, a short walk over to the other side will present you with a gentler option for your sea bath. Generally, visitors favour the east side and locals the west.
How to get there
If you are travelling from the west, Miami beach is on the main southern coast road, just after Oistins. You can park in the car park behind the old Barbados Postal Service building, that also serves the Oistins Police Station and Magistrates Court. If you prefer, you can carry on along the main road, past the point where Thornbury Hill Road forks off to the left, and take a right down Enterprise Drive. Turn right when you hit the beach road and you can park anywhere along there.
The facilities on Miami beach are good. There is a lifeguard station on the headland and a shower and toilet block at its end. In the car park there is usually a street vendor selling fishcakes and soft drinks, and another couple near the shower block. In normal times, they would sell beer and fish cutters (the Bajan version of a sandwich), but this has all changed during the Time of Covid. Again, in normal times, on the main beach, a couple of people rent out sunbeds for BD$10 a day, and there is a stall that sells beachwear.
For many years, a highlight of Miami Beach was Mr Delicious, a catering van that sold Bajan snacks and cocktails. Sadly, Mr Delicious closed down a year or two ago, reportedly due to family “issues”. The lonely old van now stands desolate and rusting, in the corner under the trees.
On the beach road, there are a couple of hotels where you could grab a more substantial (and pricier) lunch if required, and at the time of writing, what looks like a new beach bar, is currently under construction at the far end of the road by the shower block.
Thanks to the Barbados National Conservation Commission, who look after the outdoor environment in Barbados, you can even get free Wi-Fi on Miami Beach. However, be aware that the signal can be poor at times.
Generally, Miami beach is fantastic for swimming. But conditions vary, depending on the weather. On a calm day (and most days are like this), the water is calm and crystal clear, but in unsettled conditions the waves can be frighteningly big and create a strong undertow. For us, the waves are part of the fun of bathing on Miami Beach. Timing your entry and exit to coincide with a gap between the “big ones”, is essential to avoid catastrophic wipe-outs. I’m slightly ashamed to admit, that a highly amusing form of beach entertainment, involves watching the display of spectacular, inadvertent acrobatics when various people get taken out by a wave. Our own personal experiences of this, have involved embarrassing disrobing incidents, and the loss of some very expensive sunglasses.
However, some people have been seriously injured, and you do have to be careful. There is a flag system in place. Green means it’s safe to swim, yellow means you should take care, and red means you should stay out of the water. You can also get a sense of the strength of the undertow from the colour of the surf. If the surf is brown, it means it’s churning up the sand and you should take care.
Of course, if it’s too rough to swim on the main beach, you always have the option of moving round the corner.
Miami Beach is close to the fishing port of Oistins, the bustling heart of the southeast corner of the island. There are plenty of places to stay in the area, and a relative abundance of shops, cafes and restaurants. Most accommodation consists of self-catering houses and apartments, but there are a couple of hotels on the beach road. For a while, the only hotel in the area was the boutique, Little Arches, with its roof-top restaurant, Café Luna.
A couple of years ago Accra Beach, one of the island’s most popular south coast hotels, built a sister establishment down at Miami, the Abidah. Honestly, the towering, aquamarine and white, Abidah was a shocking emergence that dwarfs the quaint and elegant Little Arches next door. However, initial fears that the beach would be overrun with sun-greedy, rum-swilling tourists, have so far not been realised. However, The Time of Covid began soon after Abidah opened, and only time will tell what the future holds for the gloriously generous Miami Beach.
There are plenty of places to eat in the area. The most obvious is the Oistins Fish Fry, which comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights, but we also love Surfers Café and, if we fancy a treat, Café Luna. For lunch on the beach, with the absence of Mr Delicious, and the current unavailability of a fish cutter washed down with a cold Banks, we’ve taken to picking up a patty from one of the street vendors by the bus station, or Crumbz Bakery on the corner of Thornbury Hill Road, and bringing down our own cold beers in a cool-box.
Miami beach is very close to the airport. In fact, every flight that arrives in Barbados flies low over the beach on its approach to the runway. You might think that would be an irritating intrusion but, to the contrary, it is yet another point of interest for the Miami beachgoer. Grantly Adams is not Heathrow. There are only a few flights in and out of the airport each day and they are concentrated at the same time. Early to mid-afternoon is generally when most inbound flights arrive. Plane spotting is a popular pastime on Miami Beach, with everyone stopping what they are doing and shielding their eyes to watch the planes pass over. When we are expecting visitors, we have been known to wait for them on the beach until we see their plane arrive, then hop into the car and head over to the airport to pick them up.
The Time of Covid
Miami Beach is a very different place during the Time of Covid. The sunbeds are tied up in blue tarpaulin waiting for better days, their owners reputedly temporarily trying their hand at selling fruit and vegetables instead. The usual street vendors, with their cold beers and fish cutters, have been replaced by newcomers offering limited menus of fishcakes and soft drinks. While it is never crowded, pre-Covid you would have to get there early to nab your favourite shady spot. Now, you pretty much have your pick, whatever time of day you arrive. Fewer planes are coming in, and their arrival stimulates extra interest and discussion about which airline they represent, and where they have come from.
Miami Beach is officially called Enterprise Beach, and indeed, this is what is on the sign as you hit the beach road. However, locals always refer to it as Miami, but everyone I have asked, doesn’t know why. Enterprise is an area to the east of Oistins that is popular with Canadian and American visitors and immigrants (I prefer the term “immigrant” to that of “ex-pat”). It is a bit of a hub for surfers with some of the islands surf schools operating in and around Freights Bay.
Miami Beach didn’t exist until the late 1970’s, after the headland was constructed. Because the currents move from east to west on the south coast, the structure allowed for a build-up of sand on its east side, and so Miami Beach was born. Once the beach began to grow, the trees were planted with the deliberate intention of creating a much-needed area of shade.
Miami Beach is popular with locals and tourists alike, but its location means that it is never overcrowded, or hasn’t yet become so. It seems to be far enough away from the west and south coasts to deter most “all-inclusive” hotel guests from venturing that far. A few guests at Little Arches (and presumably Abidah in the future), have been known to leave the poolside and come down to the beach, standing around awkwardly for the time it takes for a member of the hotel staff to lay out their sun-beds, plump up their plush, navy cushions, and erect their matching parasol.
Miami Beach is especially popular though, with the “returning national” population, and with immigrants from the US, Canada and Europe, who have made Barbados their home. The main attraction for them seems to be the shade, and regulars will unfold their beach chairs under the trees and settle down for a day of reading, relaxing, chatting and people watching, interrupted by the occasional dip.
Bajans tend to frequent the beach in greater numbers at the weekends, setting up the picnic benches under the trees with foil covered, steaming trays of all sorts of deliciousness for family parties and other get-togethers.
Fred is almost an institution on Miami Beach. A warm and friendly, recently widowed, retiree from the USA, who has had a home on the island for 30 years, who visits the beach every day except Sundays, when he lunches with his neighbours. He sits in the shade of the same tree, arriving around 10:00 and leaving promptly at 15:00. You could set your watch by him, and we do. We tend to head home around 16:00 ourselves so, when Fred leaves, we know we have an hour left.
If no-one else is there, Fred reads or makes use of the NCC Wi-Fi to play Words with Friends on his i-pad. But, generally, he acts as a magnet for other regular visitors to the beach and is rarely alone. All manner of people are drawn to him, and he is a focal point for networking and introductions on the sand. Everyone seems to know Fred, and Fred seems to know everyone. People come to the beach specially to talk to him. They’ll park their car on the beach road and pop down for a seat and a chat, before carrying on with their day.
We met Fred a few weeks after we arrived this time. He has subsequently introduced us to other people, facilitating the first buds of an emerging social life on the island and some helpful contacts for future visits. He is a font of knowledge about living on Barbados. Whatever you need, he can tell you where to find it or how to go about getting it, whether it is a ladies hairdresser, good quality beach chairs, a tasty roti, what is covered by your rental insurance, or how to open a bank account.
Fred is a storyteller. Not only does he have an interesting story to tell on almost any topic you can imagine, but he also knows more about the recent history of Barbados than anyone else I have met. But Fred has another quality that is so rare in this day and age. Although he likes to talk himself, he is also a fantastic listener. He has an uncanny ability to urge you to tell him all sorts of things that you wouldn’t normally tell a stranger.
But the thing that fascinates me the most about Fred, is how resourceful he is. Many of his stories involve how he has fixed something or built something from scratch. Like the time when some girls that were staying with him had a flat tyre that was running on the rim, and he was able to make their car sufficiently driveable to get them to a place where they could get a new tyre, by wrapping a rope around the rim. Or the time when he was contacted by the water authorities who suspected he had a leak and he flew down with everything he needed in his luggage to find the source of the leak and repair it. Or the time when the sole of his shoe came away while he was in transit at an airport, and he just happened to have a roll of gaffer tape in his pocket which he used to fix it. When a man on the beach was talking about some issues he was having erecting a steel mesh fence, Fred just dropped into conversation that he has a special tool he could borrow called a “chain grab”, from when he built a fence around his own property to keep the neighbour’s dog out.
Bottom Bay is one of our favourite beaches on the island. No matter where we are staying, we always visit it at least once or twice on every trip. When showing friends and family round our island “highlights” it is always high on the list and never disappoints. We often stay in the area around Bottom Bay, and when we do, it is where we exercise every morning. 12 lengths of the beach is about 2km and takes us just under half an hour to walk.
Bottom Bay is often listed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It has it all in terms of iconic Caribbean beach characteristics. Wild breakers, rolling onto a small, palm-lined crescent of soft, golden sand nestling between rugged coral cliffs. It even has a cave. It’s not tranquil in the classic sense of the word, it’s difficult to hold a conversation above the sound of crashing waves and palm fronds rattling in the stiff Atlantic breeze, but it is utterly mesmerising. A few windswept moments spent gazing out to sea, where the rollers meet the reef, will blow away the most stubborn of cobwebs and sooth the most agitated of souls.
How to get there
Bottom Bay is on the East Coast of Barbados in Saint Philip, just north of Sam Lord’s Castle. Take a right from Highway 5 down Bottom Bay Road after Wellhouse and before Bayley’s Primary School and AJ’s Pool and Bar. At the end of the road is a small car park from which some steep stone steps lead down to the beach.
Bottom Bay is a natural and unspoiled beach. There are no “facilities” as such. If you fancy staying for a while, take a picnic. In tourist season, there are usually a couple of local guys around who will rent you rent a rickety sunbed. For few dollars, they’ll knock you up a homemade rum cocktail served in a coconut shell, spectacularly harvested and cracked open, especially for you, by a barefoot climb up a palm tree, and single swipe from a machete. You also can buy little trinkets and hand-made jewellery from a seller at the top of the steps.
Although the locals venture out beyond the surf, strong tides and a heavy swell mean it’s not safe to swim at Bottom Bay. It’s not unusual to encounter jellyfish in the waters of the East Coast too. They tend to be small and, while they will give a nasty sting, are not particularly dangerous. It’s just a case of being aware and careful but not too terrified to go near the water!
There is a small settlement that sits just above Bottom Bay called Applehall. A couple of luxury homes sit right on the cliff edge, and just behind them is a newish development of small villas, most of which have swimming pools. Most of them are privately owned, but many are available for holiday lets. There are very few bars or restaurants in the area other than a few local rum shacks. At the top of Bottom Bay road, Lendees, a BBQ takeaway, serves fish, chicken, or pork ribs with chips on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Time of Covid
Bottom Bay is quieter than ever during the Time of Covid. There are no trinket sellers or sunbeds to rent, and no sign of the tree-climbing mixologists. Even after just a few months, there is a sense that the beach is being reclaimed by nature. A lone male monkey seems to have made the gully his personal domain. The steps are becoming overgrown and slippery. Lizards stop and watch as you make your way down, seeming surprised to see you. Beach creepers are sending sneaky tendrils out across the path so that in a few more months, if you didn’t know it was there you might not find it. There seem to be more crabs than usual scuttling over the sand and uncharacteristically bold flocks of shorebirds will barely acknowledge your presence.
Unlike may of the other beaches in Barbados, I’ve not been able to unearth any particular history on Bottom Bay and how it got its name. I can only assume that it is called after its location, and the fact that it is positioned at the bottom of a cliff, but then again, so are many other beaches in the area. However, I did learn from a man we met in the car park one day, that Bottom Bay was the place you went when you wanted to blow away the memories of past lovers.
Even at the height of the tourist season, Bottom Bay is never busy. Early mornings will see one or two locals taking their daily exercise there, and a couple of fishermen gathering bait for a day’s fishing elsewhere. A steady stream of visitors, Bajans and tourists, drop in from time to time throughout the day. Most, climb down the steps to the beach, take in the view and then move on.
We met Derk one morning, when he arrived on the beach with a couple of young men to go free diving for conch (pronounced conk). Derk, and one of the others, carried big logs adorned with plastic containers to convert them into flotation devices. Derk was wearing a worn wet suit, which he stuffed with chunks of polystyrene for added buoyancy. The other two men (one of whom was really just a boy) were wearing only shorts and t-shirts. All three had masks and snorkels.
We went over to chat to Derk and find out what they were doing. He was friendly and garrulous. Slim and muscular, with a wide smile that revealed more than a few missing teeth, it was hard to gauge his age. The other two divers eyed the ocean nervously, barely acknowledging our existence.
In just the few moments, as they prepared to head out to sea, we learned that Derk had been a fisherman, like his father before him, since he was a boy. He had supported his wife and family through fishing, for 30 years. Today, he was looking for conch to sell to a local Chinese restaurant. The idea was that they would swim out a few hundred metres and allow the currents to carry them further down the coast to Sam Lord’s Castle, diving as they went.
The other two were clearly anxious to get going. They waded into the surf and Derk hurried after them. He shouted back to us that he had a beautiful conch shell he could clean up and sell to us if we met him at 8 o’clock the following morning. We shouted back that we would be there, and he was gone.
We watched for a while as they swam further and further out until they were just tiny figures bobbing in the waves. From time to time they disappeared behind the heavy swell. The boy without the log seemed to be floating further and further away from the other two. I was terrified for them but had to assume that they knew what they were doing. The term “hand-dived” when applied to seafood, suddenly took on a whole new meaning for me! Conch, as a rare and expensive delicacy costing anything between $25 and $30 per pound, suddenly seemed hugely under-priced, relative to the risks that were taken in its acquisition.
We had turned to leave and were heading towards the steps when we heard shouting and turned around. The men seemed to be drifting back towards the shore. Derk was aiming for our beach and looked as though he was just going to make it. The other two were moving further south and out of sight around the jagged coral cliffs. Something seemed to have made them abandon their plan. We walked back down to where Derk had reached the beach and was striding towards us with his log balanced on his shoulder.
He explained that the waves were too big and the currents too strong. They knew when it was necessary to respect the sea and had decided to give up. Besides, the water was so murky that they couldn’t see the bottom and it was unlikely that they would be able to find any conch. I asked about the other two and he reassured me that they were deliberately heading further down so that they would not have has far to walk when they came ashore. By the time we parted at the top of the steps we had arranged to meet him back at the clifftop at 11am to collect the conch shell and its meat, hand prepared by Derk himself. Somehow, we had also signed up for a charity walk in a couple of weeks’ time!
Needless to say, a Bajan 11am stretched out to almost midday. We’ve learned to allow an hour beyond a given meeting time before it is acceptable not to wait any longer. It was the hottest time of day and there was no shade on the cliff top. We were sweltering. We couldn’t go home as we would have felt awful if he had turned up with the goods to find that we had given up and gone. Especially as he had not found any more conch that day. He arrived about 10 to 12 on a pushbike. The shell was majestic, and the meat looked and smelled fresh. He gave us our entry forms for the walk and told us to find him on the day to get our numbers. We left him pumping his bicycle tyres up for his journey back home.
I made conch fritters for dinner that night. Chunks of meat coated in a seasoned batter and deep fried with a lime and chilli mayonnaise for dipping. They looked good but in all honesty were extremely chewy. Imagine the rubberiest squid you have ever eaten and double its rubberiness. I’m fairly sure conch would fall into that category of food where you burn off more calories eating it than it contains. Maybe it was my cooking? I’ll have to try it in a restaurant next time I see it on the menu just to be sure!
There have been 160 more deaths in the past 24 hours, taking the total to 34,796.
We are officially in a sustained decline now.
For the first time, everyone over five, who has symptoms of the virus can get a test. At last!
John Van Tam, my favourite speaker by a country mile among those that have delivered the daily breifings, thinks that we may have to live with the virus for years.
The New Way of Life
The weather is great again. I’ve had a really nice day. I just feel in a good mood today. It’s so weird how our moods fluctuate so much, from day today, during this experience.
I spent the morning getting to grips with Zoom. We’ve decided we’re going to subscribe to the full version as we like it best out of all the ones we have looked at. We have out first workshop on Thursday.
We’ve actually got a busy week! M had a web meeting today with a business network group he is a member of. After that he was working on his slides for Thursday. We’ve got more prep to do tomorrow and on Wednesday we’re going to get M’s blood test done. Thursday we’ve got the workshop and I’m OUT in the evening! Friday is curry and quiz night. I’m cooking pakora, a lamb and spinach curry and another dal this week.
I went for another lovely walk down to our local nature reserve in the afternoon.
I seem to have developed sinusitis type symptoms on the other side of my face now. I rang the GP and he said it can happen after a facial injury and its best to take a course of antibiotics to prevent a more serious infection. I’ve already picked them up and started taking them as its all done electronically. I started the antibiotics less than an hour after speaking to the doctor. Pleasingly efficient.
I spent the afternoon making some pasties. The dough is like a puff pastry but also used yeast. The filling is a mixture of Nduja and Manchego. It’s taken most of the afternoon to make them and now the pastry is chilling for a final time. I can’t finish them till 7pm!
We’re having Sunday Lunch left-overs for dinner. I love left-overs! Decent home cooked food without any of the cooking or washing up!
Global Cases 861.113
Global Deaths 42,382
UK Cases 25,150
UK Deaths 1,789
381 deaths in the last 24 hours, one of whom was M’s distant cousin. Biggest number so far.
I felt a bit down when I woke up this morning, but I dragged myself into the office and wrote my diary. I tidied my desk, phoned my Mum and wrote a to-do list for the rest of the day. If reading this is like watching paint dry, just imagine what it’s like living it?
The news is all about ventilators, testing and the lack of personal protective equipment for our healthcare workers on the front line. What’s going on? They can build massive new field hospitals all over the country, build thousands of new ventilators, and introduce financial support packages, the likes of which we have never seen before, but they can’t get our doctors, nurses and carers the basic equipment they need to protect themselves from infection, or test enough people to be able to manage this fight effectively.
On testing, our case fatality rate is working out at about 7% at the moment which is way higher than the suggested 1%. Of course, that’s because our denominator is rubbish and probably at least 6% smaller than it should be. An early “rough and ready” trial suggested that 85% of NHS staff, self-isolating at home because they or a family member had symptoms, tested negative and could have been at work all this time! I despair!
The GREAT news of the day was that M’s sputum specimens came back clear from pseudomonas! YEYYYYYY! He is now ready to start his long-term prophylactic antibiotics – if he can just get through to his consultant to issue the prescription. That’s proving a challenge at the moment, for obvious reasons. I just hope he gets it before he gets another infection. I know there are other big problems and pressures on the NHS right now, but if he gets another infection, or has to go back on the inhaled tobramycin, it will put even more pressure on the system. Fingers crossed we’ll hear back from them tomorrow.
There’s also a lot of talk about the loss of smell and taste as a symptom of the virus. In lots of younger, fitter people this might be their only symptom and they are happily going round spreading the virus because they don’t know they’ve had it. The sooner we get the antibody test, the better, in this respect. We could have had it and not know, and are locking our selves in the house for 12 weeks for no reason! Unlikely of course, but not impossible.
My friend and fellow writer, A, turned 70 today. She celebrated quietly at home with her husband (as if she had any alternative). I sent her an ecard and one of our friends bought her some gifts on our behalf and left them at her doorstep. A is also a brilliant proof-reader and editor. She is currently working on my novel, Wait for Me. I finished it in 2015 but have learned so much about writing since then that I want to re-write it. I’m doing it a chapter at a time and sending them to her as I finish them. On Chapter 4 of 15, at the moment.
We went on a bike ride, cooked dinner and watched War of the Worlds (the new series on Fox) and Kingdom (the 15th Century Korean zombie series).
Before I went to sleep I checked on the Ocado website again to see if I could get a slot. BOOM! Straight away it came up saying that we have Priority Access! There must be a register somewhere that they can check for “very vulnerable” people. Anyway, I’m well impressed! Placed an order for Thursday evening.
Excited to be on the last leg of the trip, we were on the road early. The relatively short 120-mile journey over to Sweden was going to be all about the bridges!
The Storebaelt Bridge links Funen to Zealand. It actually consists of two bridges and an artificial island that spans the 11 miles between the two largest islands in Denmark.
The bridge was opened in 1998 in what was the biggest construction project in Danish history. It took 12 years to complete the project, which transformed the lives of Danish people. Prior to its completion, the only way to travel between the islands was by air or sea ferry. The journey today takes only 10 minutes. The bridge is open 24 hours and costs about £30 each way for an average car.
The Eastern bridge, the Ostbro suspension bridge, is a spectacular 4.4-mile-long structure. Rows of 85-metre-long cables fall gracefully away from two 250-metre-high towers. A tunnel carries trains to Sprogo Island where the motorway and the train track meet. The Western bridge, the Vestbro is a 4.1-mile-long box girder bridge.
Image by By Henrik Sendelbach, CC BY-SA 3.0
The Oresund Bridge links Denmark to Sweden. A 2.5-mile-long tunnel runs from Amager, an island just southeast of Copenhagen, to the artificial island of Peberholm. From there, the bridge runs 5 miles to the Swedish coast. The bridge is also open 24 hours a day but costs around £50 each way for an average car.
The bridge is a key element of the EU’s vision for a Europe without borders. The creation of Oresund region aims to integrate the Skane area of Sweden with the area around Copenhagen. Combined with a cashless economy and multilingual, open-minded citizens on both sides, it allows people to travel between Denmark and Sweden without restrictions.
Image By Nick-D – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
We reached Malmo around midday, where our son was waiting for us at the apartment he shares with his partner, in the Davidshall area. He was keen to show us round the town that he has made his new home and, after a quick freshen up, we set off on an extended romp around the main attractions.
Trailing in his enthusiastic 6-foot-four wake, taking two steps for every one of his, we took in the sights and sounds of Malmo.
It is a small but charming little town. Rumours of a crime-ridden society fuelled by excessive immigration and a right-wing reaction to this, were completely unfounded. We came across a welcoming ceremony in the town square where new citizens from all over the world were being welcomed with music, applause and open arms.
We had lunch at the Malmo Saluhall, an indoor food hall based in an old warehouse where you can graze on free-range, organic charcuterie, Swedish sushi, oysters, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, noodles, home-made ice-cream and chocolate. Honestly, it’s a foodie’s paradise that’s definitely not to be missed.
After lunch, in temperatures approaching 30ᵒ, we indulged in a spot of people watching at the Western Harbour where locals sunbathed on purpose built wooden decking under the gaze of the soaring Turning Torso tower.
We took a detour home via the glorious Kungsparken before taking some time out to attend to our blisters and re-hydrate before the evening’s entertainment.
That night we ate dinner at Bastard, the restaurant where our son works, where we were joined by his partners parents. We ate outside, managing to keep dry under a canopy as the heat of the day gave way to torrential rain and thunderstorms. The food was amazing. He arranged for a veritable smorgasbord of all their best dishes. Plate after plate arrived at the table; rabbit rillette, oysters and rhubarb, baby gem salad with walnuts and cherries, asparagus and duck egg, cod and sea aster, rhubarb semi-freddo, fig-leaf ice cream. It was all divine.
The kids gave up their bed for us that night and slept on their sofa, as we were heading up to Gothenburg the following day, to return when they both had more time off work.
We hit the road straight after breakfast, taking the A1 north-east up to Hamburg before heading directly north towards Denmark. Driving on the autobahn was a little intimidating. The slow lane is slow, and the fast lane is fast. Very, very fast. As in The Netherlands, the “only use the outside lanes to overtake” rule is strictly adhered to. However, the inside lane on the A1 towards Hamburg was solid with container lorries heading for the port, and moving into an outside lane to overtake could be terrifying. You could check all your mirrors and be just about to pull out, when a high-performance car would appear from nowhere, travelling way over 100 mph, quickly forcing you to change your mind. As such, we made fairly slow progress for the first part of the journey, compared to the day before.
On a positive note though, this was the only area on our entire trip where we encountered any roadworks. Back home almost every journey these days is delayed at some point or another. Not the case in Europe, in our experience at least. Even when we did come across them, as we did near Hamburg, they were short and well-managed. There also appears to be a convention that lorries remain in the inside lane in traffic jams allowing cars two travel more freely in the two outside lanes.
The port of Hamburg is massive. Ships, containers and container cranes for as far as the eye can see for miles and miles. Eventually, we entered the tunnel that took us under the Elbe estuary and out the other side into the most northern state of Germany, Schleswig-Holstein. Almost a peninsula, the area sits between the Baltic and North Sea bordered by the river Elbe and Denmark. It is an area with a turbulent history, having been controlled by Germany and Denmark at different times over the centuries. It is a largely rural area and one of the least densely populated areas of Germany, famed for its impressive lakes and beautiful sandy beaches. The last part of the drive through Germany was, therefore, mercifully scenic and peaceful after the congestion approaching Hamburg.
Around lunchtime, we crossed the border into Denmark near Flensburg, when the A7 became the E45. Crossing the border here involved a little bit more fuss than The Netherlands German border, where nothing happened at all, other than the satnav informing us that we had crossed it. We had to pull over and queue for a few minutes to show our passports.
A few hours further north, at Kolding we headed east, leaving Jutland over the first of many bridges, for Funen, Denmark’s second largest island. We arrived at Odense, our destination on Funen, early afternoon and checked in to our hotel. This time we had pushed the boat out a bit and had booked the Radisson Blu Hans Christian Anderson, which was walking distance from the obligatory Hans Christian Anderson museums. The hotel was lovely. Modern, clean and comfortable with spacious rooms and great beds!
The weather took us by surprise. It was hot and sunny and the Scandinavian equivalent of a Bank Holiday weekend. The tiny square outside the hotel was full of people drinking outside in the sunshine at red chequer-cloth covered tables. We spent our afternoon in the cool of the Hans Christian Anderson House and Museum, before also giving in to the temptation of enjoying some outdoor refreshments.
Across for the bar, and right outside our hotel, was a traditional Danish restaurant, Gronttorvet (Green Tortoise). It seemed very popular and, rather than repeating our Bremen experience, we decided not to look the gift horse in the mouth and book a table. They were busy and only had one table left, for two, outside, at 6.30pm. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
After a quick change, we were sitting at another, chequer-cloth covered table (green this time) in the quaint, cobbled square, enjoying a chilled bottle of Gewürztraminer. This was our first encounter with the eye-watering Scandinavian wine prices. At just under £40 a bottle, we only had the one. The menu was traditional but the house speciality, which all the locals were eating, Stegt Flaesk (crispy pork, served with white potatoes, homemade beets and parsley sauce), had to be pre-ordered at least two days in advance. So, I had gravid lax to start and Mike had the, apparently famous, Green Tortoise tart, which, in fact, did not contain Green Tortoise, but chicken and asparagus. Who knows, maybe Green Tortoise tastes like chicken, or vice versa. To follow, I went for the Pariserbof, minced beef on French bread with homemade pickles, and Mike had the Herregardsbof, minced steak with pea salad, fries and bearnaise sauce. We finished with homemade apple pie and chocolate cake. Thank god it was a one-minute walk back to the hotel! It was a great meal in a great setting for about £120 for two (including the £40 on wine), but I’m not going to pretend we weren’t more than a little envious of all the Danes around us enjoying their pre-ordered, holiday celebratory Stegt Flaesk.
We disembarked at 08.00 local time and were on the road by 08.30. On the way out to Malmo, we’d decided to split the journey to into two four-hour trips on Day 1 and Day 2, and a shorter, hour and a half trip, on Day 3. On the way back, we planned to do the whole journey over two days. Our destination on Day 1 was Bremen, in northern Germany.
We hadn’t anticipated how difficult the first morning was going to be. Be warned, the area around the Hook of Holland and Rotterdam is incredibly busy, especially during rush hour. Negotiating congested, fast-flowing, four-lane motorways with multiple consecutive complex interchanges and exits on both sides, while adjusting to driving on the right, proved to be too big a challenge for us. We ended up missing a turning and were forced to abandon our planned scenic route and just follow the satnav.
However, once we got out of the Rotterdam area, things improved considerably, and we made good progress. We followed the A12 that skirts south of Utrecht and joined the E30 just after Apeldoorn. We crossed The Netherlands in about three hours stopping only once for lunch at a service station.
Driving in The Netherlands was straightforward. Good roads, courteous fellow drivers and plenty of good quality stopping places. This was the first time we noticed some driving practices that, we later realised, seemed to be commonplace across northern Europe. In particular, was the strict adherence to the principal of only moving into a faster lane to overtake. Very rarely did we come across middle lane “hogging” and it contributed to the overall enjoyment of the driving experience.
Services were generally good, but we would definitely recommend La Place, if you see one. Good quality fresh food, spotlessly clean, comfy furniture, log fires, magazines … honestly, well worth seeking out. A complete contrast to the typical motorway service station.
We crossed the border into Germany just after lunch. The 150 miles or so between the border and Bremen is quite remote and rural with very few places that warranted a stop, so we headed straight for our destination, arriving in the early afternoon. We’d booked into Motel One in the centre of the town within walking distance of all the main attractions. We parked up the street in a public car park at a cost of about £20 for 24 hours. The hotel is modern, clean and comfortable with small but very stylish rooms and does a great breakfast. At £76 we felt this represented great value for money.
We made the most the weather and of our limited time in Bremen by heading straight out to find a biergarten on the riverside. Paulaner’s an der Schlachte was a good choice. Nice beer in a lovely location. Suitably refreshed, we took a stroll down the river to the old town where we explored Schnoorvietel, the historic district that dates back to the 15th century. Narrow, cobbled streets are crammed with restaurants, cafes and craft and souvenir shops. We were drawn to Hegarty’s Irish Pub, not by the lure of the Guinness, but by the availability of an outdoor seat in the sunshine in a pretty little square.
From there we wandered up to the main square, or Marketplatz. A wide square, typical of many European cities, overlooked by the town hall, the cathedral, the parliament building and a series of tall gabled houses. At the centre of the square is a statue of Roland, a nephew of Charlemagne, who was a key influencer in the political autonomy that Bremen enjoyed in the 15th century.
It was here in Marketplatz that we first encountered the Bremen town Musicians. The musicians were a donkey, a dog, a cat and a cockerel, all characters from a fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm, in which they trekked to Bremen together to escape a lifetime of drudgery and neglect. They are represented in a sculpture in Marketplatz, standing on atop of one another in a pyramid formation.
We enjoyed a small carafe of wine in one of the many large outside cafes in the square, before looking for somewhere to eat. Having been distinctly uninspired by any of the German restaurants we found (sorry Bremen!), we decided to have a curry in Restaurant Shalimar, right next door to our hotel. We’d spotted it when we arrived and joked about having a German curry, never imaging that’s where we’d actually end up.
It was good though. Poppadoms and pakora to start, followed by Lamb Saag for me and Lamb Biryani for Mike. I’m a sucker for anything Indian with spinach in it, and Mike gauges the quality of an Indian restaurant by the quality of the biryani. It passed! Our only mistake was chatting to the owner about where we were from. Turns out his brother owns a restaurant on the Foleshill Road in Coventry, close to where Mike grew up, and everybody knows that Birmingham, where we live now, is world famous for the Balti. European curries, in our experience, are often quite mild, to allow for the chilli intolerant European palate, and we did ask him to make sure it was spicy. However, we felt he had overcompensated a tad when our food was served eye-wateringly hot. Nevertheless, true Brummies that we are, we thoroughly enjoyed it! So, if you’re ever in Bremen and fancy a curry (unlikely I know) definitely seek out Restaurant Shalimar, but don’t ask them to spice up your food!
We fell into bed around ten, tired, tipsy, totally stuffed and ready for a good night’s sleep before Day 2, Bremen to Odense, the home of Hans Christian Andersen.
Earlier this year, our youngest son moved to Malmo, in Sweden. His partner is Swedish and, for the past few years, they’ve been living between Malmo and London. Uncertainty over the impact of Brexit on their way of life and their future, prompted him to give up his job, as executive chef for a couple of successful restaurants in London, and move to Malmo before the 31st of March. Of course, as we all know, the 31st of March has come and gone and nothing has changed, but the least said about that the better …
Like all mums, I was keen to see where and how he was living as soon as I could. I’m not entirely sure what that’s about. I think it’s partly about peace of mind and simple curiosity, but at a deeper level, it’s also about reducing the feeling of distance between us. Since I have been to his house and spent time in the town that is now his home, it feels closer, more real somehow. Now, when he talks to me about what he’s been doing and where he’s been, I can visualise it more easily. When we Facetime, I know exactly which room he is in, because I recognise the picture on the wall. I know what the view is from the window of that room, because I’ve been there and seen it for myself.
And so, we decided to visit in June, just a few months after he arrived himself. I’d have gone sooner, but waited until June as we were in the Hebrides in April, our baby granddaughter was one on the 29th of May, and our son and his partner suggested it was good time to visit from a weather perspective. To be fair, it also gave them a bit of time to settle in.
We decided to make the journey by car, partly because a European road-trip was an item on our 60’s bucket list and our son still had a few bits and pieces that needed bringing over, but largely, just because we could! Having finished full-time work in March, I’m still revelling in the glorious decadence of having complete ownership of my time. We could have flown over, spend a long weekend there and flown back, in four days, but instead, we took four days to drive there and three to drive back, on top of the six days we were out there. Time-rich decadence indeed!
A little bit of research indicated that Stena Line ferries seemed better value than P&O, and that Harwich was our closest port. The shortest route to Harwich, according to Google Maps, was via the M25, but we opted for the cross-country route via Cambridge. Our common sense and experience telling us that delays on the M25 were highly likely to cancel out any advantages over our chosen, slightly longer but more scenic route, that meandered along the A14 through Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.
And so, we set off just after lunch on a Monday morning and reached Harwich just in time for tea, driving past the ferry port and heading down to the old town in search of somewhere to eat. Harwich is a place of contrasts. A humdrum small Essex coastal town to the south, an international port to the north and an unexpected, tiny historical conservation area with a distinctly nautical theme, to the east. We were both charmed and delighted by the old town, which was not without it’s own contrasts. On one side of the estuary, the network of quaint medieval alleyways, and architecture dating back as far as the 17th century, overlooks the towers of multicoloured shipping containers and oversized cranes, of the humungous port of Felixstowe.
Relative to its size, old Harwich appeared to have a preponderance of small hotels and drinking establishments. The buildings, many of which had long since been converted to shops, or fish and chip shops, were small with overhanging upper floors, solid timber doors and cross-windows. My overactive imagination transported me back to the days when it would have been a bustling 17th century port, and the inns full of seamen and pirates, waving tankards of ale and singing sea-shanties.
Before I could get too carried away, my husband shook me from my reveries by reminding me that we had to find somewhere to eat before heading back to the ferry for the 9pm boarding.
We decided on The Pier, not because we knew anything about it, but because it overlooked the harbour, looked busy and inviting, and specialised in seafood. We briefly considered eating outside, to make the most of the views, but although it was a lovely June evening, there was a cool breeze blowing in from the North Sea that just trounced the warmth of the sun.
As it turned out, dinner at The Pier was a great way to start our Scandinavian adventure. I had the scallops with mushroom puree, pickled mushrooms and bacon jam to start, followed by baked spiced Harwich crab with skinny fries and pickled red onion. Mike had salt and pepper squid, his “go to” seafood starter, and the fish pie. As we were driving, we washed it all down with water and a single glass of house white. It was all divine! Great food in a beautiful setting that took us completely by surprise.
Completely and utterly replete, we headed off to the ferry port. Our boat was due to depart at 11pm but boarding was from 9pm. We had been advised to get there an hour before boarding at 8pm. To be honest, the early arrival was unnecessary. Boarding was very straightforward, involving a few simple security and passport checks, and we were settled into our little cabin by 10pm. We resolved to arrive for the return journey at boarding time exactly.
Travelling by ferry is not cheap. A cabin is mandatory for the overnight crossing, and as we intended to sleep for most of the journey, we went for the basic two-berth, inside option. Basically, bunk beds in a small, windowless cocoon. It was cramped and uncomfortable, and the feeling being completely cut off from the outside world was, frankly, a little claustrophobic and disorientating. All in all, at £50 a night, when you compare it to the average price of a room in a decent Premier Inn, not very good value for money. In total, the return journey cost us about £300 but it could have been considerably more had we chosen a more luxurious cabin (not difficult), and travelled in high season.
It wasn’t all bad. After a look around the ship, which boasted several lounges, bars, restaurants and a cinema, we snuggled into the bottom bunk, shared a bottle of wine and watched some TV, before tossing a coin to see where we would sleep. Unlike when we were kids, the loser got the top. I won …