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The wonderful world of stereotypes

Red tulips at my place by Per Ola Wilberg

Tea, bulls and bicycles…

I’ve often thought that stereotypes make the world go around. The Frenchman and his bicycle, the sleeping Spaniard dreaming of bullfights and the Englishman carefully brewing his five hundredth cup of tea of the day.

Holland is one of the key destinations served by P&O Ferries, and arriving in that country travellers may bring with them a number of different preconceptions. Booted with clumsy wooden clogs, churning cheese and dressed in orange, you might encounter a Dutchman up to any number of liberal activities, so be prepared!

Of course, upon closer examination many stereotypes don’t quite live up to reality. Unfortunate I know, but none the less true. However, visitors to the Netherlands may well be able to enjoy one of their national emblems on a trip down through the country.

The tulip is one of about 100 different species of bulbous flowering plants that can be found all around the world. Grown from bulbs and spectacular to view in the months between March and April, thousands of visitors flock to the Netherlands each year to see them blooming.

A chap called Charles de L’Ecluse is one who is particularly responsible for the growth in popularity of the tulip in Holland. In the sixteenth century he authored a popular book on the subject and later planted a remarkable garden at his home in Leiden, from which hundreds of bulbs were stolen over the years.

International tulip theft, now that’s a novel concept. Perhaps the tulips of today are all great-great-great grandchildren of L’Ecluse’s, it’d be a fittingly remarkable notion to imagine that they were.

So, in spite of stereotype, for the green-fingered it is clear that Holland is a wise destination. With P&O you could be cruising into the tulip-sunset sometime soon.

The arrival of the Normans

Hastings 1066 by Francois Schnell

1066 and all that

Sailing from Calais to Dover as the white cliffs approach you can’t help wondering what all those Normans must have been thinking as they neared the British coast.

Whatever it was it certainly wasn’t a debate about what to purchase in the Tax-Free Shop, or whether another bottle of wine really is a sensible idea after lunch – let’s face it these are Norman Conquerors we’re talking about, of course they had another bottle after lunch.

As the cold salt water bit into their armour did they argue about which level they had parked the horse and cart on? No, this is 1066 they didn’t have any levels, and hadn’t brought their own horse and cart anyway; they were planning to steal somebody else’s the minute they reached England.

Yes things must have been pretty different when Guillaume le Conquérant, or William the Bastard as he was fondly called by his loyal English subjects, crossed the channel bringing with him Camembert, Catholicism and a whole load of knights, whose double-barrel-surnamed offspring were set to fill the society pages of Tatler 1000 years later.

And the poor old English, stuck on their Island without a ferry service to take them the other way resigned themselves to their fate: no more Kingdoms, no more Merlin and no more mead. Merd!

Crossing the channel

Sunset Over La Manche by Dimitry B

Britain’s geographical barrier

The French refer to the English Channel affectionately, and with less of a hint of nationalism as La Manche. Translated into English, this expression means ‘the sleeve.’ Only 21 miles separates England and France where the stretch is at its narrowest, between Dover and Calais – but it still provides a formidable geographical barrier.

There have been a number of notable crossings of the channel which are certainly worth noting. On 7th January 1785, shortly before the French Revolution kicked into gear, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jefferies piloted a balloon over the water and ninety years later (the aforementioned) Matthew Webb successfully managed to swim the straights.

1959 saw the first hovercraft crossing and perhaps most bizarrely of all was the record set on 26th June 2006 when an open-top sports car completed the distance in 194 minutes.

Meanwhile a trip on a P&O Ferry will last for a more conservative 90 minutes, allowing you the time to relax and watch the White Cliffs of Dover melt into the distance before you can step off the gangplank onto French soil.

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Dover to Calais: an alternate way

Over Dover by laszlo

Less than two hours from the continent

Hopping on to a P&O in Dover means that you can be surrounded by crumbly French cheese and Calais in around 90 minutes. Given that, one might be surprised to learn that some people are still quite motivated to propel themselves across the stretch – swimming.

A friend of mine once remarked that he admired the Chinese for ‘persevering with chop sticks for thousands of years after the invention of the knife and fork.’ Admittedly, I feel this same grudging respect for those who feel compelled to swim across the channel.

Few sports require the participant to negotiate oil tankers, swarms of jellyfish and the possible icy bite of hypothermia, but channel swimming is certainly one. Whilst the British Channel has proved to be quite useful in keeping out Hitler and Napoleon – there are a few less notable historical figures who have made light work of it.

First across was a chap called Matthew Webb who kicked and crawled his way across in 1875 in a time of 21 hours 45 minutes. Webb’s achievement was hailed by the Victorians who generally considered the idea of swimming in cold water to be a soul-enriching experience.

Webb, buoyed with his successes decided to tackle a dangerous swim across the Niagara River for a booty of £12,000. The swim was declared to be suicide by many, and sure enough ten minutes after jumping into the waters he was sucked under by a whirlpool and never seen again.

Meanwhile back in the English Channel more than 750 people have now followed Webb’s achievement in crossing the waters. The most notable of these is possibly the comedian David Walliams who completed the swim in 2006, raising £1 million for charity along the way.

Alternately, you could always jump on the boat.

The ‘baffling’ language of Belgium

béguinage of Lierre / begijnhof van Lier, Flanders - Belgium by e's

A linguistic dilemma

Hello hoe u bent? Bonjour comment allez vous? It’s the traveller’s worst nightmare; you have just sat down next to an attractive looking stranger and committed one of the worst faux pas- or Valse Stappen – in modern Belgium.

Mistaking a Flamand for a Walloon can be as socially mortifying as dunking your chips in ketchup rather than mayonnaise in these parts; the Belgians are fiercely proud of their linguistic peculiarities.

Not only do you have to worry about the two main languages, French and Dutch, but head out into the province of Liege and you could find yourself in a village where the only language spoken in German. Fluch!

What are you supposed to do, buy three separate phrase books for one trip? If I want to visit the famous ‘Chip Museum‘ is that the pommes-frite or the friet?

This eccentricity extends to their political parties too. Can you imagine? Every David Cameron or Gordon Brown has a doppelganger who speaks the opposing language, no wonder they brew so much beer.

But rest assured fellow travellers, this refusal to speak each other’s tongue has one fantastic benefit for us, the universal tool for cross Belgian dialogue these days is good old English. Tickety-boo then, as they say on the playing fields of Eton.

Spain and France in the great wine debate

Bottle of Red Wine + Glass + Cork by thebusybrain

Vin or vino?

The Bordeaux region of France and Spain’s La Rioja both produce some of Europe’s finest wine but which one is the best?

Bordeaux produces big robust reds that blend Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec grapes to make some of the most famous wines in the world. Chateau Margaux, for example, sells upwards of $1750 a bottle.

However if you drive across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain you will find yourself tasting the vibrant young vanilla and fruit flavours of Rioja’s Temperanillo, Graciano and Garnacha grapes that have been blended in this region since Roman times.

The best thing about Bordeaux and Rioja is that they are so close to each other, drive from Bilbao and you’ll soon be saturated in wine heaven, meandering between both regions and deciding what suits you best, a Cafe in Saint-Emilion or Tapas in Logrono.

Although roughly 85% of the wine produced in both regions is red, there are other things you should try. Bordeaux is unbeatable when it comes to sweet wines, look for Barsac and Sauternes in particular, whereas the Spanish side of the border is the place to go for an excellent Rose; cold, crisp, strawberry-scented and delicious.


Pintxos by untipographico

Beautiful Basque tapas

Anyone who calls themselves a gourmet but hasn’t experienced the pleasures of drinking chilled Rioja and munching through a plate of Pinxtos (pronounced Pinchos) in Bilbao or San Sebastian is living in ignorance, I don’t care how many Michelin starred restaurants they’ve eaten in.

Pinxtos are the Basque Country’s version of tapas, the difference being that they are served on small slices of toasted baguette so you just grab one and tuck in.

Walk into a bar and you’ll see them all laid out for you to sample, just help yourself to what looks good and tell the barman how many you’ve eaten afterwards. It isn’t the most hygienic dining experience but it’s seriously worth it.

Being the Basque Country, Spain’s finest foodie location, each Pinxto bar you visit will have their own chef freshly preparing the goodies for you. Local specialities include peppers stuffed with salted cod, Iberian ham with quails eggs, and Lomo (little steaks).

If you walk in to a bar and just see a bit of bread and ham on the bar head out and look for the real thing, it’ll just be round the corner. In fact you should keep moving from bar to bar until you have had your fill, just as the locals do. This is Europe at its best.

The best surf spot in Europe

Surfing by danflo

A hidden gem on Spain’s northern coast

The Basque Country’s Mundaka is the best surf spot in Europe, forget Portugal, France or Cornwall, this is it.

Mundaka itself is a lovely small town and designated site of historical interest, home of many small inexpensive boutique hotels, and all centred on a UNESCO protected estuary. So those of you who don’t surf much, but maybe just enjoy hanging out in beautiful places, will find plenty of relaxed people and a great atmosphere.

October is when it really comes alive, thanks to some of the world’s best pro-surfers descending on Mundaka and its smaller neighbour Bakio for the Billabong Pro-Mundaka, Europe’s elite surfing competition.

It is held here because of incredible waves that provide surfers with some of the best rides of their lives. But be aware that this is not for amateurs, there’s a strong rip current and the take off is deceptively hard. If you are considering surfing out here make sure that your fitness levels are good before you set off.

If you are looking for the spot note that beach is between Guernika and Bermeo, it’s easy to find and visible from the road, look for the lineup by a little harbour, and park up near the church.

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