Sunday, 29 June 2014

To Tatsfield Bus Stop, the long way (there and back), but with a chunk of corned beef pie and a cup of tea when we got there!

Ready to head home after our corned beef pie
Going the long way to the bus stop is far preferable to riding along the 269, although, as we returned we began to have second thoughts. The reason was simple: quiet country lanes are dangerous. Around a bend a car or other cyclists appear out of nowhere. At least on the 269 you can see the cars coming and they can see you. We agreed that on the outward journey, using the long route was best because it's on the outward journey that we like to chat and there's little traffic around (although you've still got to watch it). On the return journey, having exhausted our conversation (today we discussed corned beef pie, bread pudding and bread & butter pudding) we're more inclined to get our heads down and concentrate on the ride.

It was a good morning in terms of the weather: bright sunshine like yesterday, but the rain the day before had dampened the pollen count and my eye was feeling fine. I might not have mentioned yesterday that my hay fever was probably the worst it's ever been. My eye got a little itchy at the bus stop and, foolishly, I rubbed it, causing the right one to inflame. A unsightly 'bag' of sorts developed underneath it and took a good day and a half to disappear. I started to worry about it, but it's calmed down now and, thanks to some protective eye wear on today's ride, all is fine.

We left the house at the usual time of 0630hrs and headed in the usual direction as the plan was to repeat yesterday's ride – the slow way there and back to the Tatsfield Bus Stop. It was a pleasant ride, but we were itching to eat the corned beef pie that Phil had made and when, finally, we reached our destination, Phil produced the aforementioned pie along with a couple of decent plates AND cutlery. I provided the tea, a much-needed accompaniment, and the feast was perfect. We've discussed bringing a small table, tablecloth, cutlery, crockery and some wine and while this has been a bit of a joke, it looks as if it's taken on a serious note and might well happen in the not-too-distant future. We're thinking breakfast of corned beef pie and baked beans washed down with a Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon. I wonder what sort of looks we'll get from passers by? Today's looks were pretty strange and that was just with our pies, on plates, balanced on our laps. Mind you, when you see somebody at a remote bus stop, knife and fork in hand, eating something substantial-looking like a chunk of corned beef pie, it's definitely a double-take moment.

Corned beef pie, on a decent plate with some cutlery. 
No sign of Dawes Galaxy this morning, which was good news as I don't think Phil and I fancied sharing our pie with anybody. We sat around and discussed our culinary plans for future rides – bread pudding was mentioned – so we could have a veritable feast ahead of us involving a main course AND dessert, not forgetting the wine to wash it all down.

We rode home the slow way, the same as yesterday, and I encountered similar gear problems to yesterday too, which was annoying, although I'd managed to change down at the right time for Hesiers ... it was the smaller hill on Church Lane that caused the problem.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Tatsfield Bus Stop – the slow way there (and back)

The weather forecasters had been promising rain so much that Phil decided an abort text before it even rained, ie the night before the ride, would be a smart move (no need to get up in the early hours, bleary-eyed, to send out the obligatory abort text).
Too good to eat...Phil's corned beef pie ready for the ride 

I know that feeling. In fact, I was quite glad because it meant that I was free to lounge about and possibly go for a ride – weather permitting – at a slightly later hour. As it turned out, the weather was fantastic, I woke up very early (something like 0500hrs) and was downstairs eating my Shredded Wheat at an ungodly hour. The weather was so good that I figured I'd better text Phil to tell him I was going for a ride (remember, he'd aborted the night before). But, as luck would have it, he was thinking the same way and suggested we meet around 0630hrs. I looked at my watch, it was around 0600hrs – or thereabouts – so I had a good half an hour to sort out the tea.

I couldn't understand the weather. It was blue skies and sunshine (perfect riding weather) but, as we progressed, certainly by the time we reached the bottom of Hesiers Hill and were on our way along Beddlestead Lane towards Clarks Lane, the clouds had gathered. But still, a soaking was no way near imminent – there were blue skies.

When we reached the Tatsfield Bus Stop we did the usual: drank tea and ate biscuits and then we got into a conversation about lawlessness, which was good fun. Dawes Galaxy appeared. Dawes Galaxy is a man from Selsdon. We don't know his name so he goes by the name of his bike, a Dawes Galaxy. He was going to the Oval to watch the cricket in the afternoon, raising the subject of potential rain, but he didn't seem too bothered. In fact, it was odd seeing Dawes Galaxy riding his Dawes Galaxy, a bike he keeps locked up during the winter months.

We watched as Dawes Galaxy rode away, towards Botley, along Clarks Lane, and then we too headed for home, taking a right into Beddlestead Lane and basically repeating the outward ride, which was pleasant in the early sunshine, even if, on two occasions, I had the bike in the wrong gear for going up Hesiers and then as I approached a smaller hill. Both times I had to ride back to the bottom of the hill and click the Kona into the right gear. On one occasion the gears froze, but miraculously unfroze themselves – I need to oil it more often.

As avid readers will be only too aware, corned beef pie has been an important part of the conversation of late. Well, now Phil has truly excelled himself (see photo above). Not only has he already received a 'respect is due' for his sausage sandwiches in the past (the last one made with home-made bread) this time he's gone and baked a corned beef pie, a slice of which I will be sampling tomorrow morning. We've discussed bringing wine – I hope he doesn't – but then we start to look like fit alcoholics out for an early morning ride. Believe me, it's a long way from the truth.

On the weather front, we managed to get home without any sign of a soaking, although within 15 minutes or so of being home, I looked out of the window and, sure enough, it was raining.

Monday, 23 June 2014

A weekend of sneezing...

I suffer from hay fever but never take anything for it, so it's my own fault that I suffer. The reason I take nothing is because I feel that hay fever isn't a 'proper' disease that warrants taking drugs to alleviate the symptoms. Fine, take an Aspirin for a headache, enjoy a Lemsip when you get a cold, but hay fever? It's just a few sniffles, a bout of heavy sneezing and some itchy eyes, innit.
Phil and Matt at the Tatsfield churchyard, Saturday 21st June 2014.
Well, yes and no. When I reached the Tatsfield churchyard on Saturday morning, my eyes were getting itchy as Phil and I broke out the tea and cake. Yes, we had some honey cake made by one of Phil's daughters and it was fantastic. Andy missed a real treat, but then he did have a fortnight in the Canary Islands to compensate. Earlier I'd sent Phil a text declining a sausage sandwich – I had one the week before and, unbelievably, the clicking noise of what I thought was a bottom bracket problem, that had disappeared as I'd lost weight, re-appeared! Perhaps it was the sausage sarnie's fault, or perhaps I do need to fix my bottom bracket. I wasn't prepared to take any chances so the sausage sandwich was off the agenda, but a piece of honey cake was offered instead and that can't do any harm, can it? No, of course not, and it was very, very good.

Last week Phil and I had discussed how our respective mothers both made a decent corned beef tart – very easy, by the way, you get a tin of corned beef, a tomato and a potato. Boil the tomato and potato, mash it up and mix it with the corned beef, add, perhaps, a little tomato pureé and then put the lot in a pie, ie sort out some frozen pastry – or make your own – and make a pie, bake it for about 25 minutes, not sure at what temperature, probably 200 deg C, and Bob's your uncle. My mum's good at making it so I'll order one for a future ride and as an alternative to sandwiches at work.

Honey cake to go with our tea, courtesy of one of Phil's daughters. 
I'm really getting into comfort foods at present, having recently purchased a tin of Bird's custard powder. You can't beat stewed apples and blueberries (or blackberries, or both) with a bit of Bird's. And what's a better accompaniment to sliced bananas? Bird's custard of course. It's easy to make too. A little tip: when you're having bananas and custard, add about a teaspoon of banana-flavoured Nesquik to the mixture prior to adding the hot milk and returning it to the boil – wonderful!

So, hay fever. I grin and bear it when perhaps I shouldn't. As Phil and I sat at our usual bench in the churchyard, admiring the view and soaking up the early morning rays of what was a perfect summer's morning, the eyes began to itch and I rubbed them and for the rest of the weekend I was sneezing loudly, rubbing my eyes and generally feeling pretty crap. Saturday night I hit the sack with sore eyes. I didn't sleep too well and when I woke up around 0700hrs, knowing that Phil wasn't going cycling on Sunday, I weakened and didn't go, much to my own disgust. Still there were things to do, one of them being gardening, and mum was coming over for some lunch and a bit of weeding (there's a lot of tall grass lurking in my flower beds).

The hay fever wasn't as bad as Saturday, but it was still a bit irritating and my loud sneezing must have disturbed the hazy summer Sunday peace for many of my neighbours.

I hate missing a ride so next weekend the plan is to hit Westerham on both Saturday and Sunday. I might even get a ride in mid-week if I take some time off.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Westerham, World Cup, sausage sandwiches...what a great weekend of cycling!

We managed to clock up 44 miles this weekend with two 22-milers to Westerham early in the morning. There was contrasting weather too. Saturday was bright sunshine and most definitely tee-shirt weather. Conversely, Sunday, while relatively warm, was overcast and there was always the threat of rain, although it never happened.

I was expecting a flat front tyre, but didn't have one when I entered the garage at 0630hrs on Saturday morning and soon Phil and I were on our way to Warlingham Green to meet Andy. We all agreed to Westerham and set off on the 269 – heads down, no talking – until we reached our destination.
Phil, yours truly and Andy at Westerham Green, Saturday 15th June 2014.
Once seated, we discusssed David Beckham's trip into the Amazon, which wasn't as good as it could have been in my opinion. Bring back Charley Boorman. I found the Beckham's programme to be a little shallow. There wasn't enough about Beckham and when he did open his mouth it was always to say how nice it was to be in a place where nobody knew his name, although there are not many places in the world where he remains anonymous and if I was Beckham I would have been a little annoyed with the other guys who kept asking those they encountered whether they knew who it was who stood before them – most of them did, but there was a group of remote villagers who looked bemused.

I wasn't too happy with those he chose as travel companions: two Americans and a long-standing mate from the days before Beckham was Beckham. In fact, I'd like to have heard more about his childhood friend as the two Americans seemed like much more recent acquaintances and there was no real attempt made to delve into their personalities, their backgrounds, what they thought of being in the Amazon rain forest and their thoughts on Beckham.

Also, I wanted to see Beckham roughing it a bit more; most of the time he wasn't under canvas and I felt a little short-changed and of the opinion that Beckham should leave 'adventure' programmes to the likes of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears, not forgetting real explorers like Benedict Allen. That said, I like Beckham, but in this programme, while he said that riding a motorcycle was liberating and that by wearing a crash helmet he could remain anonymous, I would have liked more than the notion that by travelling into the Amazonian rainforest, he can find people who don't know him – which, effectively, was what the programme was about. In fact, I felt mildly sorry for old Becks because it was quite obvious that 'being Beckham' means his life isn't entirely his own.

Sausage sandwiches – Matt and Phil caught munching as Andy sips his tea.
The weather on Saturday was wonderful, making the ride very pleasant. We parted company with Andy halfway along the 269 and reached home around 0942hrs. I had a fairly chilled day involving a walk in the Ashdown Forest. It was also the day England played Italy in World Cup 2014. Sadly it was on at 11pm – not ideal when you've got some serious cycling to do the following morning. I stayed up for the first 22 minutes of the game and went to bed with the score at 0-0. When Radio 4 woke me up the following morning I discovered that Italy had won the match 2-1, meaning that if England loses its next group game (with Uraguay) 'our boys' will almost certainly be on the next flight home. Oh dear!

There's a great Private Eye front cover this week showing the England team walking down the steps from the plane as they arrive on Brazilian soil. The pilot is wondering whether to keep the engines running. Judging by England's first match of the tournament, he should certainly keep them ticking over as it won't be long before we hear those magical seven words, "England is out of the World Cup".

Hazy sunshine on Westerham Green on Saturday morning...
Sunday was warm but overcast and while good weather was sort of hinted at by the TV forecasters, it never really materialised. As I mentioned earlier, there always seemed to be a threat of rain in the air, but it held off as we headed off again at 0630hrs to meet Andy on Warlingham Green. We aimed for Westerham again, arriving roughly five minutes later than yesterday, but still just before 0800hrs.

On Saturday we noticed that some wooden tables and chairs had been plonked on Westerham Green, making tea drinking and cereal bar munching a little easier, although we didn't have any cereal bars. Andy had brought some very tasty biscuits with him, which went down a treat. Phil, however, receives another 'respect is due' for surprising us with his excellent sausage sandwiches, this time made with home-made bread. Is there no end to this man's talents?

When I think about how our cycling has developed since the pre-blog days of 2006, I find it hard to believe how things have changed from when Andy and I stood outside the Co-op with a bun, saying very little and putting all our efforts into the ride. Today, it's morphed into a much more complex experience involving a regularly updated blog PLUS tea and cereal bars and now the odd sausage sandwich and Christmas cake and soon, perhaps, some corned beef tart as I discovered today that Phil's mum – like my own – is a dab hand at the old corned beef tart. It won't be long before it appears on the ride and now we're even talking, albeit jokingly, about bringing a bottle of wine along too (although if we ever did, we'd have to leave later, as the thought of a glass of Cabernet at 0800hrs on Westerham Green doesn't really appeal.

Over the next three weeks it will be down to Phil and I to motivate ourselves as Andy is off on holiday to the Canary Islands next weekend. So, when Phil and I are riding down the hill into Westerham – or wherever we happen to be going over the next fortnight – Andy will be fast asleep in his hotel room and won't have too much to do when he wakes up (other than pleasant walks in the sunshine, eating Mediterranean food and taking a dip in the hotel pool).

We rode out of Westerham at around 0830hrs and chatted most of the way to the start of the hill and then quietened down as we put all our efforts into overcoming the mental torture of what is a long, slow incline all the way to the Botley. We passed the Tatsfield Bus Stop and were approaching the mini roundabout at the top of Titsey Hill when Phil announced he had a rear wheel puncture. We stopped, Phil fixed it and soon we were on our way again,  pleased by the way passing cyclists took an interest in our welfare simply by asking if we were alright. Perhaps I was wrong about 'cycling etiquette'.

Phil's puncture caused very little delay – no more than 10 minutes – and after bidding farewell to Andy, Phil and I pushed on towards Warlingham Green, Hamsey and, of course, Sanderstead. We sailed down Church Way, said our goodbyes and got on with our lives – for me it was mowing the lawn (front and back). For Phil a family barbecue at his mum's place.

As I write this the weather remains warm but overcast. Here's hoping next week will be a little brighter.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Matt and Andy on the move...

Coming up from Westerham towards Botley...
I don't think there are many 'in motion' shots on this blog, so here's one from last Sunday, taken by Phil, across the road from the Tatsfield Bus Stop on the return ride up the hill from Westerham.

Check out what we were doing One Year Ago. That's what I love about the blog, the fact that I can check back and see what we were up to...Click here.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

To Westerham...

I woke up early and was out of bed by 0530hrs. Great weather. Sunshine and blue skies even at such an ungodly hour. Tea and Shredded Wheat before 0600hrs and then I had to inflate my front tyre. By 0615hrs I was in the garage pumping the tyre, hoping it wouldn't go down. It stayed up, but I reckon by this time next week it'll be down again. To be honest, it's a mystery, as when I checked it a few weeks back, despite the fact that it was flat, I couldn't find a puncture and this is getting boring so I'll say no more about it.
Andy in shorts, Phil in Lycra and yours truly with the ASBO specials and
the number four crop  We're leaning against a statue of Winston Churchill.
Phil and I set off at 0630hrs, in the wrong gear, and had to circle around the street until we found the right ones. There was nobody about, which was nice, as we headed up Ellenbridge, into Southcote and then up Elmfield, hanging left into Morley and right on to Church Way. All was quiet at Sanderstead pond as we slipped quietly on to the Limpsfield Road, next stop Warlingham Green.

No sign of Andy when we reached the Green, but no messages received either, and soon he arrived and we decided to head for Westerham. It was a good ride with nothing extraordinary to report.

When we reached Westerham we discussed fanatics, people who won't accept that there's another perspective on something and who believe that their way alone is the right way, even if it's the wrong way. Fanatics are basically crazy people and there are plenty of different types of fanatic around. We hear a lot these days about religious and political fanatics, but they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are what I call 'right on' fanatics who let their own warped and misguided views of life restrict them in so many ways. To be honest, each to their own, as long as they don't expect everybody else to adhere to their way of life. This was one of the topics we discussed as we drank tea and munched biscuits.

The sunny weather brought out plenty of other cyclists. In fact, back at Botley, on the outward journey, a couple of Lycra monkeys referred to Andy and Phil as tortoises (they probably meant all three of us, but I never heard what they said). We had a little laugh about that as it wasn't meant malicously (and was probably true, although we had slowed down for a roundabout) but being as Phil was wearing his Lycra shorts and Andy had on his flourescent yellow top, they were both almost Lycra monkeys themselves. I was the only one who adhered to the rules of the club, our unofficial club – No Visible Lycra. I wasn't wearing any Lycra, just my Tesco ASBO trousers and a hooded top – straight outta the housing estate. And now that I've got a cropped head of hair under my crash helmet I was, in many ways, looking even worse than I did the other week when I rode out on my daughter's bike.

We had plenty to chat about when we reached Westerham and, if I'm honest, I didn't really want to get back on the bike. As I said to Phil and Andy, if I had a newspaper and possibly some alcohol and some food and a radio, I could have sat around on the green all day, like a mildy eccentric tramp, forever putting off that ride up the hill, that punishing incline that lasts all the way to Botley. But we had to be going and soon we were riding out of town.

Andy said goodbye half way along the 269 and Phil and I continued towards Sanderstead, passing an old man on a bench when we reached Sanderstead pond who was out early enjoying the morning sunshine with his wife. According to Phil the old boy let one go as we passed but again, like the tortoise comment earlier, I heard nothing. We had a chuckle about the old geezer as we sped down Church Way towards home. Next week we're planning two consecutive rides to Westerham based on the fact that we haven't been cycling a great deal of late.

I spent most of the rest of the day sitting in the garden reading and drinking tea. Life doesn't get much better.

Friday, 6 June 2014

At Dusseldorf Flughafen...

I think I prefer ‘flughafen’ to ‘airport’. Here I am at Dusseldorf Flughafen awaiting the 1320hrs British Airways flight to London City Airport. It’s a 70-minute flight and there won’t be much in the way of food once on board so I’m considering getting a bite to eat on the ground before boarding the plane.

Watching the planes at Dusseldorf flughafen, Friday 6th June 2014
The problem is there appears to be something missing and I can’t quite put my finger on it; I’ve been in and out of this place on many occasions and I swear there was more in the way of food and drink outlets. Perhaps I’m mistaken.

An organised start to the day
I arrived here early, having taken breakfast at the hotel around 0800hrs, checking in online from the hotel 'business centre' and then walking from the Mercure Hotel Hagen to the hauptbahnhof (far better than ‘station’ don’t you think?). It took about 25 minutes to walk through the centre of Hagen, pulling a suitcase on wheels, and I’m going to take back what I said on the blog yesterday about Hagen being a bit like Croydon. It’s not. In fact, it’s much better. Let’s just say that parts of the centre of town bear some resemblance to Croydon, but having now walked from the hotel to the station, I’ve discovered it’s far bigger than Croydon and a little better too.

Minutes after take-off, saying goodbye to Dusseldorf...
The journey from Hagen to the flughafen was just over 13 Euros and the ride was pretty smooth, taking roughly an hour, possibly a little less. At Wuppertal a girl sat next to me; she whiffed of cigarettes and then started doing what most women seem to do on trains: she put her make-up on. Once again I found myself fantasising about getting my own make-up kit out and slowly transforming myself into a circus clown, adding the red nose at the last minute prior to disembarking.

I’m so glad that I’m flying into London City airport and not Heathrow. London City is right in the centre of town and all I’ll need to do is get a tube and an overground train and I’ll be home.

As always, I’ve enjoyed being in Germany. Berlin was fantastic and so, I hasten to add, is Dusseldorf although, on this occasion, I’m just passing through.

On the approach to London City airport – in the Southend/Clacton area
Eating too much in Hagen
Last night I ate in an Italian restaurant in the centre of Hagen, recommended by the hotel receptionist. It was fine in the sense that the food was top quality, but it annoyed the hell out of me. First, they took their time with everything, even getting a menu to me. I had a beer while I waited for the menu, can you believe that?

And they gave me miles too much time to decide what I wanted to eat. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, when I ordered what I thought would be an average-sized meal, it turned out – much, much later, I hasten to add – to be a huge meal fit for two people, not just one. The problem here was that most people tend to eat out in twos, but when you’re travelling, you invariably eat alone, unless you're entertaining somebody. So I ordered parma ham with salad as a starter and then, for mains, a pasta dish and a side salad. Simple, you would have thought, nothing out of the ordinary, but no. First I get the ham: a whole plate piled high with the stuff, almost an entire pig. Then, when the main course arrived, the salad was equally huge: about three tomatoes, sliced and arranged around a tennis-ball-sized piece of Buffalo mozzarella. One tomato, sliced, with a couple of slices of Mozzarella would have been sufficient. The main course was fine, give or take, although the langoustine that accompanied the dish was virtually impossible to open up and didn’t look that appetising anyway – so I left it on the plate, on its back, in the sauce.

Battersea Power Station and the River Thames from the air
"Can I have the bill, please?"
Once the meal was over, the next task was getting the bill. The first bit – getting the waiter’s attention – took long enough and then I had to wait for him to get his machine and do what waiters do when they want you to pay up. It’s always at this point that I find myself getting shirty (inwardly) not because I begrudge paying, but because of the time it takes to get their attention. And yet, if I made a move for the door they’d be there straight away, asking where the hell did I think I was going without paying them?

I ate all the ham, most of the main course too (except that langoustine) but I left half of the ‘side salad’. It was too much. So I felt a bit miffed with the restaurant as I headed back to the Mercure, a good 15-minute walk away, possibly a bit longer. As you can imagine, no tip was given.

Back in the hotel I watched a bit of Question Time on BBC World. One of the guests was that bloke from The Call Centre, a reality TV programme about – yes, you’ve guessed it – a call centre. It was so boring that I fell asleep and when I woke up, I switched off the TV, turned off the light, drew the curtains and fell asleep again.

I’m obviously not the only one who’s finding Dusseldorf airport a bit boring today. I’ve decided that rather than spend money on a cup of tea and risk the temptation of a cake in the process – one thing the Germans do very well is bakery items – I’d make my way down to Gate B38 and start writing something – and here I am doing just that. Except that there’s no WiFi so I’m using Microsoft Word instead. God! Isn't this the most boring stuff you've ever read? Me going on about no WiFi and how I'm using a word processing package instead?

About to hit the tarmac at London City, Friday 6th June 2014.
I’m very tired for some reason. I nodded off on the train earlier and now I’m doing it again. All I have to do is close my eyes and that’s it, I'm asleep. A glass of wine on the plane should mean I’ll get 40 winks, who knows? Either way, I’m knackered and this might affect whether I ride out or not in the morning, although I hear some big storms are on the agenda tomorrow. I’m feeling heavy-lidded right now so I might get a cup of tea otherwise there’s a risk that my lap top might slide off my lap if I nod off again. Mind you, you're probably beginning to wish my lap top would fall off my lap – anything so you don't have to read any more of this crapola.

Fiddling with iphones – a global problem
A man is sitting opposite me. He has picked up his iphone and is scanning his emails, just like a girl to my left. More people have turned up, including a girl in white trousers with a small bottle of mineral that she is now knocking back. She looks in her purse and pulls out a white iphone. In fact, everybody around me has an iphone in their hands except for me – although I have an Apple Macbook on my lap. A Japanese woman and another woman in a purple top are sitting to my right. The girl in the white trousers and the man have now gone somewhere – through passport control, no doubt, where I must be heading soon. The woman next to me is eating a sandwich.

Back home in the UK
The flight home was very pleasant: clear skies all the way, but not much in the way of food, just a cereal bar and some red wine. I asked for two of those little bottles and two cereal bars because I was hungry and of course they obliged.

The weather was still clear as we crossed the Channel and descended over Clacton and Southend on our approach into London City. I was amazed at the size of the sandbanks just off the coast and it was great looking out at familiar landmarks, like Southend's one mile long pier and then, shortly before we landed, Battersea Power Station and (yawn!) the ExCeL exhibition centre.

Once on the ground I had 'lunch' in the shape of a pastrami and cheese roll, which cost me a staggering £6.50 (for a roll!). I washed it down with a cup of tea and then jumped on the DLR to Canning Town, changed on to the Jubilee Line and then took the Horsham train from London Bridge to East Croydon where I jumped into a cab. I reached home around 3.30pm and have spent the rest of the afternoon chilling.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

In Hagen...

Reluctantly I bade farewell to Berlin. I checked out of my hotel and walked the short distance to the metro and took a train to the zoological gardens, from where I took an overground train to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof and then another train to Hagen. It was a long journey of over three hours, but the luxurious German train, even in second class, made the whole experience worthwhile. Our first stop was Berlin-Spandau and I was immediately reminded of the 80s band and, of course, Rudolf Hess who, if I remember correctly, was imprisoned here.
The view from room 530, Mercure Hotel Hagen...
Naturally the train left on the dot at 1427hrs and was soon speeding along at something like 174km/hr, but as smooth as you like. I decided to do some work and put some finishing touches to an article I was writing. Somewhere along the line I was disturbed by somebody who said I was sitting in their seat and then, after I moved, somebody else accused me of the same thing. Very annoying as I found myself playing musical seats without any music. It was quickly resolved. My ticket didn't carry a reserved seat - I could sit anywhere - but unfortunately, because German trains don't have paper 'reserved' tickets sticking out of the top of the seat (reserved notices appear digitally over the seat below the luggage rack) I failed to see that I was sitting in a reserved seat...until it was too late.

Another great thing about the German trains is that you don't have to make your way to the buffet car when you fancied a drink. Fortunately, somebody comes to you to take your order and returns with whatever you decided upon. In my case it was a wonderful orange and vanilla tea.

Room 'end of terrace' room, so to speak, and very pleasant
As the train powered through the German countryside, I continued with my article and then, at roughly 1822hrs - actually, it was probably bang on the dot of 1822 - the train arrived at Hagen where it was damp, rainy and overcast. I found a taxi and was driven to my hotel, the Mercure Hotel Hagen, a building of Colditz proportions sitting high on a hill and having these wonderful tiled ledges that, by rights, should have people hanging on to for dear life, be it Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare or Jason Bourne from the Bourne movies.

Not a bad hotel. I wouldn't call it corporate, more 'middle management', the sort of place where, after a company booze-up you come down to the self-service buffet rather sheepishly because the night before you had a few too many and said things you wished you hadn't and now it was time to face the music. You pass the familiar surroundings of the bar you inhabited the night before and every embarassing moment of your debauched evening floods back to you as you scoop a pile of greasy button mushrooms on to your plate, using a slotted spoon, and take a seat in some faraway corner, hoping that all your colleagues have already had their breakfast...until, that is, they turn up, eager to remind you of your appalling behaviour the night before.

I wonder if the Kemp brothers ever visited Spandau?
Fortunately I wasn't in that position as I travelled - in Schindler's Lift - from the fifth to the mezzanine level to eat a healthy breakfast of cereal, fresh fruit, yoghurt and dried apricots, but this is definitely that sort of hotel. It's a bit lairy with its Apple Macbook white furniture and fittings – Apple Macbooks used to be white – and a horrible icy mauve lighting that gives the place a certain coldness it could easily do without. But I mustn't moan. Well, actually, perhaps I should moan as dinner last night was appalling. There was only a buffet available and I was late down so I made do with bony breaded fish 'fillet' - some of which I had to spit out for fear of choking - accompanied by over-cooked aubergine, green beans and potatoes, plus a Warsteiner, all of which I finished in about 10 minutes. I went out for a walk and found, about five minutes from the hotel, some wonderful restaurants that would have been a darn sight better than what I had just experienced.

Still, the room was fine, although I had left a window open and, at roughly 4am, the roar of traffic, even five floors up, was enough to wake me up and I didn't really get back to sleep. Having closed the window and drawn the curtain to keep out the light, I tried to sleep but all of a sudden something started up in the bowels of the hotel. It sounded like a ship's engine being fired up, but I wasn't on a ship, I was in a hotel, even if it did boast Bismarck proportions and now sounded a bit like a battleship making its way out of port.

I'm now sitting in the reception area using the hotel's business centre (the lap top is playing up a bit). I've been in my room working all morning and I need to print something out, so I thought I would use the occasion to update the blog.

We have Pound Shops, the Europeans have EuroShops. This one in Hagen.
Hagen doesn't compare favourably with Berlin. The hotel receptionist told me that the downtown was pretty rubbish, although I think I'll go and find out for myself just as soon as I've printed out what I need to print out.
Woolworth's is alive and well and can be found in Hagen, Germany!
Postscript on Hagen's downtown: I moseyed into town after lunch to check things out and, to be honest, Hagen was kind of okay. If anything, it's a bit like Croydon, there's even a TK Maxx and, believe it not, a Woolworth's, a C&A and, I daresay, if I look hard enough, a Claire's Accessories. Also, while they don't have pound shops in Germany, they do have Euro Shops (shops where everything sold costs 1 Euro). Hagen had that down-at-heel look that Croydon has - there's even an Aldi supermarket - and the same kind of low-rent shops. I was hoping for a decent restaurant. All I found was bakery-oriented caffs of the Greggs variety, but not called Greggs.

Later, as I made my way back to the hotel after dinner in town I noticed a man sitting at a bus stop drinking from a bottle of beer – always a bad sign. Earlier I had seen a man taking a leak in a doorway and there's plenty of graffiti around too, making it even more like Croydon. But I'm only talking about the downtown. Take a cab into the suburbs and, like Croydon, it's a different story and quite pleasant.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Taking a ride around Berlin...

Tuesday 3rd June 2014: After a fairly hectic morning involving the conference I was attending and general glitches with my lap top, I finally managed to relax with a beer in a place called Rosado, a kind of Argentinian steak house restaurant, except that I only ordered a cream of tomato soup and a Warsteiner. The annoying thing about the soup was the phrase 'cream of...' because, while I would have quite happily settled for a much healthier and simplistic tomato soup, it arrived with a huge dollop of cream in the middle of it. Not pleasant. Why, I wonder, didn't they chuck in a couple of flakes for good measure and possibly a cornet, and call it a 99?
Bike number 3113 in the Hotel President Berlin's car park prior to my ride.
Anyway, as with most things in life, I got used to it. I was sitting outside of the restaurant under a canopy, watching the traffic as there was little much else to watch. This, it has to be said, was a late lunch. By the time I'd gotten out of the conference venue and walked back towards my hotel it was almost 3pm and I was feeling very tired. Tired and emotional if the truth be known, but the beer relaxed me and although I was depressed about my lap top (I was certain it was game over for my old and faithful computer) I felt suitably chilled out as I made my way back to the hotel to dump my case and all the conference gubbins before heading off to the railway station to buy a ticket for tomorrow's journey to Hagen.

Yours truly with the bike out on the streets of Berlin, 3 June 2014.
I had exhausted all the boffins at Apple regarding the state of my computer. Earlier I'd been to the over-trendy Apple Store and discovered that I might have a major problem of the 'you're going to need a new lap top' variety. I entered my hotel room in a forlorn, depressed and cheesed-off state of mind. Everything, I said to myself, was so fucking futile.

The bike in the Tiergarten.
But then I had a brainwave. Well, not a brainwave exactly, just an idea. What if I take the battery out of the computer and put it back in again? It didn't make sense – and it probably wouldn't work – but what if it did? So I used a teaspoon to release the battery from the underside of the computer. I dusted it out and replaced and secured the battery and guess what? It only worked! "Thank you, God! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!" I exclaimed, looking, for some reason, at the hotel room wardrobe. I can honestly say that I hadn't felt more pleased with my life in ages and resolved there and then to hire a bike from downstairs and take a ride around the city.

My two destination objectives while on the ride
I had things to do, like buy my railway ticket for tomorrow's journey to Hagen and I thought I'd pay a visit to the Reichstag too. Who needs to spend a fortune on taxis when 12 Euros to hire a bike is perfectly reasonable? Hiring the bike proved trouble-free and soon I was out in the hotel car park with the keys to bike number 3113 (note that's 13 backwards AND 13 the right way around in one number). I bring up the number 13 for the simple reason that it seems to be following me around at the moment and I don't know why.

Yours truly at the Reichstag – next stop Berlin Hauptbahnhof to buy a ticket
I turned left out of the hotel and used one of Berlin's many designated cycle lanes to move along Schillstrasse and Klingelhoferstrasse, which turned into Hofjagerallee. I soon found myself in the Grober Tiergarten, the most amazing park space in a city centre I'd ever come across. Riding along quiet, car-free lanes with only other cyclists for company I passed through some amazing parkland consisting of woods and green space and lakes along with the occasional statue or sculpture and not forgetting a red squirrel. It was simply wonderful and ultra peaceful with nothing but birdsong and the whirr of bicycle wheels to keep me company. This ride takes Berlin to the top of my chart for cycling around foreign cities – way ahead of Montreal and Essen and a tad better than San Antonio and Indianapolis, although the latter compares favourably with Berlin.

Where east meets west at the Brandenberg Gate, Berlin
I rode through the park until I saw a sign for the Reichstag and decided to ride there and take a few pictures. When I arrived there were school parties, people chilling out on the lawn and a general atmosphere of well being, which was pleasant.  The railway station wasn't far (no more than a five-minute ride, so I hopped on to the bike again and, having padlocked my bike outside, went into the station in search of the ticket office.

Berlin's holocaust memorial
Berlin's main railway station was amazing. A modern building of glass and steel with tracks above and below where I was standing, plenty of food outlets and shops and plenty of hubbub. German railway stations are great places to be as there's always somewhere to get something good to eat and there's always somebody around. Everything is so organised, even the ticket office works on a ticket-based system: you push a button on a machine and you're issued with a number and then you wait for your number to be called. The wait was certainly under two minutes and within five minutes I'd bought my ticket on the 1427hrs train to Hagen tomorrow afternoon.

The Rosengarten inside the Tiergarten, Berlin
As happy as Larry, I waltzed back to the bike, unpadlocked it and rode off in the general direction of the Reichstag and, of course, the Tiergarten where I enjoyed cycling around the park as the light began to fade. Looking into the wooded areas on either side of me, I started to think about what it might be like camping out for the night (not that I had any intention of giving up my warm hotel bed) and just as these thoughts entered my mine I saw that Berlin's homeless had got there before me: fine in June, but I wouldn't fancy it at any other time of year.

Earlier on the ride, prior to entering the Tiergarten
Near the Zoological Gardens I found a kind of pub/restaurant in the park offering some very pleasant outdoor seating amongst the trees and – although I never had any – some excellent-looking food of the pizza and salad variety. I ordered a much-needed beer and chilled for 20 minutes or so before re-mounting the bike and making my way through some traffic to reach Tauentzienstrasse and eventually my hotel. I rode straight into the car park, locked the bike and handed in the key at reception.

Something has to be said about the bike. Alright, a woman's frame and one of those Dutch-style affairs, this one had that pedal-backwards mechanism to aid braking as well as a front brake. There was a dynamo, so the light came on automatically, a bell to warn pedestrians and other cyclists that I was there and, the best bit, a stand, which proved invaluable. Every time I wanted to take a photograph, I simply stopped, put the bike on the stand and wandered off to do the necessary. The bike was solid, as are most things German, and totally reliable. I wasn't anticipating a puncture, put it that way.

Berlin is a great city to ride around because it has dedicated cycle paths and the needs of the cyclist have been taken into consideration by the town planners.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Using the Berlin Metro...

Monday 2nd June 2014: I had a number of choices open to me this morning: take a taxi to the convention, ride a bike there, catch the bus or walk. In all honesty, I don't like taking cabs as I think they're too extravagant. I'll only take a cab if I need to, like in Indianapolis a week or two ago when it was plainly obvious that to do anything else might have been too risky. As avid readers will recall, I was staying in the bad side of town and I had been advised not to go out on foot but to take a cab. Furthermore, I was too far from the downtown to consider anything other than a cab.

Berlin metro (at Wittenberg Platz) otherwise known as the Untergrund Bahn.
In Berlin, however, everything appears to be so convenient: there's a metro station just a short walk from the hotel. I decided to leave the bikes until I have some free time (like tomorrow afternoon) and walking was out of the question and I'm glad I didn't bother as, when I reached the Brandenberg Gate, having taken the metro from Wittenberg to Potsdamer Platz and then walking the remaining 750 yards, past the holocaust memorial, which never fails to impress, I discovered that the Kempinski hotel I required was not the Adlon Kempinski, where Michael Jackson famously dangled his newborn out of the window, but the Kempinski Bristol, which was a short cab ride away. Time wise I was fine so I jumped into a cab and off I went, only to discover that taking the metro, walking past the memorial, getting into a taxi and all the rest of it could have been avoided as it is possible to walk from my hotel. Having said that, it took around 30 minutes to walk back as I tried it out tonight and have just returned from to the conference. Admittedly I took a stroll along a few side roads en route, but nevertheless it's a fair old hike. The great thing, of course, is that it cost me nothing and I'm now planning to walk to the conference in the morning.

I was up very early this morning (around 0630hrs) and once showered and shaved I headed downstairs to sample the hotel breakfast and it was really good. Not that I'm a great eater. I opted for yoghurt, muesli and a bowl of fresh fruit plus a cup of tea and that was my lot and then I hit the road for the short stroll to the metro station and a fairly short ride to Potsdamer Platz followed by everything I've already detailed above.

Most Berlin hotels offer bike hire for EUR10.
Where the bikes are concerned, the private hire offered by most hotels almost negates the need for a bike share scheme. Wherever I go I see padlocked bikes being advertised for hire (always for between 10 and 12 Euros) and, as I've said already, my hotel (like virtually every hotel in town) is no exception.

The other good thing on the bike front is that there are dedicated cycle lanes everywhere and this, of course, prompts people to ride as they know they are safe – you'll see a lot of cyclists in Berlin. It all bodes well for a ride sometime tomorrow. As I was travelling most of Sunday, I can take a few hours off to cycle around Berlin before heading off to Hagen on Wednesday. My original plan was just to go to Hagen and not attend the conference, but there was a strong relevance in the event in connection with my planned meeting on Thursday so sticking around in Berlin was cheaper (I'm told) that flying back to London and then back to Dusseldorf on Thursday. Wednesday will be taken up travelling so I'll have plenty of time on the train to catch up with stuff, although I've yet to suss out the train situation, something else I need to consider tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps I'll ride to the railway station to make enquiries.

There's also the Tiergarten area of the city that I'd like to ride through if it's possible. In a nutshell it's a huge urban park covering 520 acres. Only the Englischer Garten in Munich (1030 acres) is larger.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

In Berlin...

Getting to Berlin from London is, as you can imagine, far less stressful than going to the USA. For a start, the journey time in the air is just 90 minutes, and when you arrive you're only an hour ahead of the UK. I know, this is obvious, but it's worth mentioning as we in the UK are very lucky to have Europe on our doorstep and it's fantastic to be so close to a great city like Berlin, especially now that the wall's down. Yes, I know, the wall's been down for some time now, since 1989, but it's worth remembering that it wasn't that long ago when there was East and West Berlin and that today, the city is united as, indeed, is Germany.
Berlin's Bike Share bikes – nice looking machines

I flew out of London Heathrow Terminal Five at 1535hrs and after a bag of Koh Samui Thai Spice (honey red pepper almonds and Thai spice cashews with pineapple and coconut) which was amazing, and one of those small plastic bottles of red wine, we were ready to land at Tegel airport.

Now I know that the Germans are known for their ultra-efficiency, but I found it slightly odd to be just off the plane and in the covered 'jetty' that links the aircraft with the terminal building and to already find myself in a queue. I was wondering what the hold-up was all about, but it turned out that passport control was literally at the end of the jetty and a few feet beyond that was the baggage reclaim – a small reclaim, if I'm honest, but fast and 'intelligent'. An intelligent reclaim? Well, yes. As I stood there waiting for my non-descript black suitcase to appear, I noticed that baggage coming up the ramp gave way to those already on the carousel, as if they possessed an intelligence of their own. Perhaps they do and we just haven't noticed. Imagine that: as you sleep, your suitcase is watching you.

Soon, my case appeared and I grabbed it – or rather I tried to grab it, missed, and was ably assisted by a fellow passenger who grabbed it for me, preventing it from doing a full circle on the conveyor. Once I had my suitcase I was only a matter of paces away from customs and then the public area of the airport. Everything was a matter of feet away, meaning that the plane itself was probably no more than 50 yards from where I could hail a taxi, which I did!

I love German taxis. First, they're Mercedes Benz and second they are the colour of Heinz Cream of Mushroom soup.

Tegel is also surprisingly near to the centre of Berlin – a mere EUR25 taxi ride away and then, once in my hotel (Best Western President) I found that everything was close at hand: the metro station was a short walk and resembled a northern England masonic hall, there were buses and, most importantly, there were bikes.

While in the taxi I'd been looking out for a bike share scheme and there is one – and in true German fashion, the bikes involved are pretty smart-looking and have a baby seat at the rear, presumably for mums (and dads) with babies. What I also liked about Berlin was that, clearly, they don't anticipate people stealing the bicycles. I noticed that many bikes, while padlocked, are not padlocked against anything but instead are supported only by the bike's integral stand, with the padlock around the rear wheel and frame.

But forget the bike share scheme! While the bikes are good, there's a far better option: the hotel bikes. For just EUR12 per day I can hire a good, old-fashioned European-looking bike from the Best Western President, which puts a whole new slant on things. I might even ride to the conference I'm due to attend over the next two days rather than take a much more expensive taxi. But I think I'll be taking the metro and then walking to the Brandenberg Gate, where I need to be, but I'll be hiring a bike on Tuesday afternoon, once the aforementioned conference is over. The hotel in which the conference is being held, incidentally, is the same one where the late Michael Jackson once hung his baby out of the window (at least I think it is). I remember being there back in 2003 (or thereabouts) while working as editor of Hotel & Restaurant magazine. At that time they had, in addition to a wine list, a mineral water list, and claimed to have different brands from different parts of the world. There was, if I recall correctly, a mineral water sommelier too (how poncy!).

Beer by candlelight at Antica Roma, Berlin
The Best Western President seems pleasant enough. The room (416) is what you might expect, but guess what? There's no restaurant! It seems that every hotel I stay in these days doesn't have a restaurant, but, as I've said before, it means that I have to get out and about and find somewhere to eat. Today, I found a nice Italian restaurant nearby and took a seat outside (it was warm as it is in the UK at the moment). I ordered pasta with salmon and shrimp in a cream sauce – Penne Papalina – with a tomato salad and Tiramisu to finish (my favourite dessert) plus a beer and a cappuccino– all for EUR25.60. I'm here for a couple of days so I might make Antica Roma (Wittenbergplatz 5-6, 10789 Berlin) my restaurant for the next day or two as it's good value-for-money and close by the hotel. Another thing I liked about Antica Roma was the candle on the table. Other tables had candles too and there was something very soothing about the creeping twilight and the flickering candles.

I've started re-reading Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, mainly because when I initially read it, it somehow passed me by – in an intellectual sense – and also because I've heard so many people talk about how it was a book that changed their perspective on life and literature. Also, when I first picked it up many years ago I don't think I was in the right frame of mind intellectually to understand it (or want to understand it). I'm reading the same copy I bought back in the day, which I've kept in remarkably good condition.

After dinner, with the light fading fast, I took a brief stroll around some of the empty streets of Berlin to the rear of my hotel. I found a small German bar and was tempted to go in, but common sense prevailed and I headed back to the hotel instead, not only to write this post, but also to get a good night's sleep ahead of the busy days ahead.