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Thoughts between Barcelona and Bilbao, May 30 [Jun. 9th, 2011|12:52 am]
On the very not-so-fast train to Bilbao

We judder across the countryside where rain has been falling. Unrequited windmills, sometimes called-on to bring ground water up, sit motionless, thir yellow colour making them look like sunflowers, perhaps as conceived by Salvador Dali. On the other side, giant linear irrigation sprays await the call that drier times will bring.

The ridges are lined with giant wind turbines, forming a shooting gallery for a modern Don Quixote, perhaps. This is agricultural Spain, sprouting form limestone hills and shale deposits which perversely seem to offer only a pauper soil for the farmers who scratch a living here. Their richer neighbours on the limestone probably look down on them, because overall, this seems to be a land of plenty.

The thing we notice most is the quality of the infrastructure. Ours is an interurban train that is fast without reaching VFT speeds. There are roads, motorways, bridges a-plenty, all neat and gleaming, nothingas decayed as one can see on the suburban rail lines outside Boston, or in the loop of Chicago--or in much of Australia for that matter.

Spain has jumped eagerly into the EU life-style and living standards, but with its present difficulties, perhaps it has over-reached itself. We left behind us in Barcelona a square filled with students protesting at the way services are to be cut, even as the greedy bankers (a term that I happily decline to question) have cut nothing other than the wages of their servants, perhaps. In the seaside town of Sitges, we found another encampment of students, idealistic and keen to make a new future that may (or may not) be an improvement on the old future.

We, however, are headed very much into the old past, as we ride a fastish train on our way to cherry-pick in a modern dilettantish way, along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an old pilgrimage route of ancient times that stretches at least to the Rhine, where we crossed the path several years ago. The last portion runs along parallel to Spain's largely flat north coast.

Not for us the travails of hot dusty plains: we will skip by those in a van and walk the shady, leafy and scenic bits, garnering a sense of Spanish history.

In a sense, though, we won't be in Spain at all. We have been in Catalonia, and we will be in land that is mainly Euskadi (Basque) and Galician (Celtic). The folk we meet will be Spanish in the sense that the Scots and the Welsh are English: they may have to concede the description at times, but their teeth will be gritted.
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Adventures in Marrakech [May. 26th, 2011|11:04 pm]
An earlier version of this was sent to Tripadvisor, who seem to be a bit delicate about posting the blunt truth about excrescences like the Elephant and Castle in Chicago (they say they have posted my review, but it is completely invisible. My kindest comment was to note that it was "English for the Disneyland set".

By the same token, I wonder if or whan this true tale of woeful hotel security will appear on their site? Don't hold your breath: here it is:

I would like to warn people about the Hotel restaurant Jnan El Harti, located at 30 Rue Cadi Ayad, Marrakech.

It wasn't bad, as Moroccan hotels go, but think twice before staying there if you are carrying any valuables. One of our party was handed a key card to a room that was already occupied, causing a modicum of shock of the occupants when she walked in.

More importantly, each door has both a physical key (cylinder and tumbler type) and an chip-based card system. I had stepped up to the roof (quite pleasant) for a party, while my wife was down in the room. Imagine her shock when a woman, using a standard key, opened her door, and then claimed in French, to have been looking for her room.

The hotel staff did nothing, but let slip that the woman must have been the occupant of room 303 (we were in 309), and they asserted that she could not possibly have unlocked the door, it must have been our fault in not locking the door. We went to the door of 303, my wife identified her as the woman who had entered her room, and I invited her not too gently to present herself at the desk, with her key.

I was stern with her, because I had discovered by then that she had been seen, trying her key in other doors, and I suspected that she was a thief. I later changed my view, because I saw that the key was illegibly labelled. In short, she was a fool, who decided that rather than going down to the desk and asking what her room was, she would wander around, trying doors.

If you saw a teenager testing car door handles, you would know what to think, and while she was no spring chicken, my suspicion was a reasonable one.

This suspicion was not diminished when the idiot on the desk would take no action on my complaint. I found out later that this was because she was a friend of the owner. They still said that her key could not open our door, in spite of her telling them that it had done so.

I called in our tour leader, a Moroccan, and asked him to require them to get the key and test it. They argued with him as well, but he was firm and in the end, with much heaving of sighs and rolling of eyes, they did. Guees what? The key to Room 303 opened our door--as well as 303.

To me, this says one thing: some lazy locksmith had stripped out most of the tumblers, at least in our lock, but I decided not to comment on this, as it was not the right time to engage in technical discussions about lock mechanisms.

Even then, they seemed to think it was fine to have another guest in the hotel able to open our door at will, I said it must be a master key, and that it would have to be replaced by a chip card. Our tour leader agreed with me, and undertook to supervise them while they did this.

The breakfast was OK, but security was appalling. Mind you, they had a gorilla in the lobby some of the time, whose only action was to roar that no more than three people could use the lift (registered capacity 5 personnes!). He, of course, was not to be seen when the woman was merrily trying all the doors on the third floor.

One must wonder why he was enforcing the lower limit: methinks their locksmith also services the lifts.

The breakfast was passable, the view from the terrace was good, but I would only recommend this place to those with no possessions, or to my enemies.
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Good management, good HoHo Buses [May. 3rd, 2011|09:03 am]
We ran into problems coming out of san Antonio. Storms in other places had shredded the schedules, so everybody needed to be re-routed, and our easy trip to Boston via Dallas became a longer run with a tight connection in Chicago.

The desk staff were on top of it, but the pointy-head senior manager who got rid of all the supervisors had left nobody there to see and fix the growing problem. In the end, one of the two clerks had to stop and walk out to get help.

San Antonio has nice (but efficient) TSA people, free wifi and helpful ground staff. If you need to be stuck somewhere, it's a great place to do it.

I cannot lavish the same praise on the grumpy lump of a control freak who was in charge of the taxi queue at Boston. This incompetent caused huge delays by not posting passengers to designated spots, ready to board their taxis, delaying everybody until a batch of taxis was in place, then grudgingly allowing one or two to go to their taxis.

I was told not to go to our taxi, but being a foreigner, I failed to understand. Sadly, the wheels of my case did not run over the idiot's feet. better luck next time! (By the way, we have similar idiots in Sydney: it just seems to happen in some airports.)

Now on hop-on-hop-off buses: in Boston, they are imitation trolley-cars, and there atre quite a few competing brands. Old Town Trolley Tours are orange, and with one exception, our five drivers were excellent value, providing details, rather than trying to be entertainers. "Billy Ketch" was especially good, and while I know the name of the sad sack who started by singing the "Trolley Song", I shan't quote it. He needs to go and listen to Billy Ketch.

McManly's First (and only) Law of Good Nosh: an unassuming-looking place, off the beaten path, has to be good, or it would have gone broke.

We ignored this law tonight at Durgin-Park in Boston and went to an unassuming place ON the beaten path. It stays alive because there is one born every minute. The eccentricity started when we were placed at a table for twenty, by ourselves, when there were plenty of small tables around. We assumed refectory eating, but nobody was seated with us.

Before the food came, just after the drinks were served, a waiter rammed our long table with his hip (it must have hurt) and slopped our wine and beer at the other end. He went sturdily past without looking to see what had happened, and while the waitresses looked over at my expostulation, and hurried with mopper cloths, this numpty stood behind the bar.

Finally, he came over and said "They said over there that I should apologise," and I decided that he probably wasn't all that bright--I would have made the apology sound like my own idea, and I would have got in faster.

We were promised "Yankee Cooking", and call me daffy, but I don't see cornbread as Yankee fare, but no matter. My two pork chops were delicious, but I think that providing my two chops must have entailed the death of three large pigs, and left another one feeling decidedly unwell.

So the service was a bit odd, the ambience was somewhere between trashy and decidedly run-down--and just as we were leaving, a coach group came in. I suspect that Durgin-Park is trading on a former reputation, but the food was OK and the prices were good.

A curious experience, but not one to hurry back to for repeats.

This reminds me: Trip Advisor has canned (without explanation) my caustic review of 'The Elephant and Castle' in North Wabash Street, Chicago. I don't know if it was my suggestion that the Guinness was short-measure and watered, my description of the place as "British for the Disneyland set", my comments about the unwelcome stream of prattle from the biumbette waitress who stood half a pace from my left earhole while we were eating or my notes about the food which was too awful to encourage one to regurgitate. Maybe it was the heading: "Fee, Fie, Faux" that I gave it. I don't know: they were all mild enough.

Actually, looking back, I realise that the "pint" was probably an American pint (simply not acceptable if you are pretending to be British), and the apparent watering was probably a result of the glass having been poured and held, awaiting a customer. I have consumed enough pints of Guinness that I should have realised that it came far too quickly, and completely lacked a head, but I was thirsty.

All the same, if eating in Chicago, don't look for a genuine taste of England here. And if anybody from the Chicago checkers of standards, weights and measures reads this, perhaps they should pay a surprise visit. Nobody else should go near the place.

Go to Boston, and eat at 'Legal Seafood', where the food is good, the service is prompt and brilliant, the wine list is good, and the ambience is marvellous.
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Of Hoho buses and ball games. [Apr. 24th, 2011|06:25 pm]
We have now experienced hop-on-hop-off buses in about a dozen cities: it's a good way to get around, get one's bearings, and find out what is where (of the stuff you knew) and also what you should have known about but didn't.

The one drawback: the guide(s) who think they are (or ought to be) in show business. The wannabe stand-up comics, the Worthington children who should never been put on the stage, but who will insist on singing anyhow. Those who confuse volume (provided by the amplifier) with merit.

It struck me in Florence that if they had existed in Dante's time, he would have posited another new low in circles, be speckled with pits into which these pests might go.

Anyhow, we saw Chicago yesterday.

Today, we wandered, gawped at shops, found the South Shore railroad station (not in Millennium Park as all the natives insist, but on the western side of Michigan Avenue, just in Randolph Street. Then we found the CTA station, caught a red line train to Wrigley Field, and watched the Cubs go to 5-0 down at the end pof the Dodgers first innings. They struggled to 5-2 and held that for a while, but died at the end. The final score was 7-3, which means the Cubs won eight innings 3-2 and lost one 5-0.

People sang there: somebody sang 'God Bless America' and 'Star-Spangled Banner', with the words that always resonate for me after seeing the light-and-sound show at Fort McHenry, where the writer sees that the flag was still there. That was good. So was 'Take Me Out To the Ball Game', which everybody sang at what was a clearly pre-organised moment, and when the Dodgers stopped to change pitchers, they played YMCA and all the fans srtood and did the actions.

Definitely not cricket.

Mind you, in 1859, Mr Lincoln went to see a Chicago-Milwaukee cricket game. That was the year England played the US in cricket (and won) and about the year that baseball replaced cricket in the hearts of USians.
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Dateline:Chicago [Apr. 22nd, 2011|09:12 pm]
[Current Location |United States, Illinois, Chicago]

I have concluded that there are no problems with service in the USA, but there are terrible problems of management.

We flew some 13 hours from Sydney to LA, where, even though the baggage was booked through to Chicago, it had to be unloaded, so we could go through Customs and Immigration first. Given that the second flight was a domestic one, this was understandable, and we had three hours to get to the second flight.

Guess where we spent 2 hours and 45 minutes of those three hours? In queues, waiting for processing.

Now I have spent similar time in queues at Heathrow, where the delay was due to laziness onthe part ofthe staff: the four people dealing with non-UK, non-EU entrants were all tied up with difficult cases, while on the other side, a dozen cretins sat around sipping tea and laughing. Up the way, the staff who had processed all the UK/EU people stood around chatting, while we fumed.

The staff at LA worked their tails off, but there simply weren't enough of them to cope with the arrival of four planes at the same time.

Well, that's why you build in time. We made it. No thanks to the pointy-headed managers, with the cold minds and absent hearts of bean counters, allowed their poor staff to be worked so hard.

We got here, checkedin and kept going, notching up some 30 hours, virtually without sleep, then slept about 13 hours straight, emerging almost locked into Chicago time: as a rule, flying nine time zones east is fairly devsatating, but so far. so good. Tonight will be the test.

We have settled in and adopted a new saying: "It's English, Jim, but not as we know it." Conversation involves a sort of trapdoor function: we understand them, most of the time, they rarely if ever understand us. We plan to keep our answers to waiters and such down to "yes" and "no", as far as possible. That way, I may get Parmesan cheese, rather than black pepper, and Chris may avoid an unwanted anduseless doggy box.

These are all nice, helpful people, but they struggle to understand us, and are prtobably mystified that we, saturated with Hollywood and American TV, can so easily understand them.

I plan not to mention the confusion that occurred today when I misheard "really bad day" as "willy bad dick". I often hear Australians murmuring equally indecent comments: I have a case of the Mondegreens, mediated by a dirty mind, I think. Siggy Freud would have a field day listening to me.

Now the good news: so far, it hasn't snowed in Chicago. It did last week, and it's been trying again, but it hasn't made it.

That's all.
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The kraken awakes! [Apr. 7th, 2011|11:24 am]
There have been several unrecorded trips since Rome. We have been twice to New Zealand to play with the grandchildren, to Brisbane for the CBCA awards (I won the Eve Pownall, which was nice), and we also made it to Lake Eyre and Wilpena Pound, as well as having a couple of days in Adelaide.

The odds are that I won't ever post anything on those, so here are a few pictures


My friend the dragon



The famed "Cazneaux Tree". Look it up!



by the time we got there, Lake Eyre was already drying out, though as we left, they had another 100 mm (4 inches) of rain.


Hotel, Marree, sunrise.


Tourist accommodation, Melrose. It seems they bought an old wrecked truck, posed it against a tree, and then built the unit on the back.


Most trips have a serious purpose: the Lake Eyre trip included a visit to the dog-proof fence (5000 km long) for one planned book, and this was one of many mistletoes that I took for 'Australian Backyard Naturalist' (in production).



Same thing here: Charles Darwin, James Cook and others visited the Bay of Islands in the past, and so will a fictional character that I'm working on, so we did too. Sunset at Paihia.


South of Auckland, we went to see a few of the volcanic areas. This one is a commercially run place called Orakei-Korako. Pricey, but well worth a visit. Disappointingly, they wanted to overcharge on the coffee. We went into town and had some there instead.



And we visited the Hundertwasser toilet block at Kawakawa, often described as the world's most photographed toilet block. Just Google to see more of the shots people have taken, or to learn the story.

NOW: we are off to the USA, Morocco and Spain, Real Soon Now, and I hope to be a little more reliable in my postings.

Time will tell!
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Quiet day in Rome [Jul. 16th, 2010|02:50 pm]
Well, this one never happened, and it's too late now. Suffice it to say that one CAN have a quiet day in Rome, on a relative scale.



On our quiet day, among other things, we got to the Borghese Gardens and saw the pines that inspired Respighi's 'Pines of Rome'.



And we found this delightful car, surely intended for Carabinieri called Noddy?

To be fair, it's far more sensible in what is laughingly called Rome's "traffic".
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Around Rome [Jul. 15th, 2010|02:49 pm]
Great Lies of the Colosseum No. 1:
“The queue is an hour long, and we can get you in, with a guided tour, much faster”.

Perhaps the queue WAS that long, but it took half an hour for the guide to start, then he went on for 45 minutes, before taking us into queues that went on for another 20 minutes. A couple of people walked away, he called them back, and when he stopped for another boring stand-up comedy routine, we walked into shade. He saw us go and called us back. I declined the request, and as soon as he turned to browbeat the more acquiescent prisoners, we beat a retreat, went around the rest on our own, and headed out.

In the open, we were waylaid by Africans selling hats, fans, sunshades, dark glasses and sun visors fitted with battery-powered fans. I have yet to work out where they get their supplies from, but there must be vans somewhere, filled with weather-dependent items. Tonight they will be out flogging roses, I imagine.

We headed down to the Tiber, and ate in a quiet place on the edge of the old ghetto. Chris had crostoni with Alici, I had crostoni with prosciutto, and we found that Roman crostoni are made with untoasted bread, unlike those in Florence. Delicious! (I had a snackish dinner of crostoni tonight, and it seems the non-toasting thing was just that restaurant. Maybe their toaster was broken, but if so, long may it stay broken!)

After lunch, we walked across from Navona, then on to the Pantheon (amazing!) and another church that was far more amazing. Not as amazing as the Capuchin church near Barberini where pics are strictly forbidden because the whole crypt is decorated with tasteful arrangements of the bones of dead friars. Will pics follow? Wait and see.

Then we walked on to the Giardini Quirinale, a sadly browned-off square of grass and pigeons, declared to be a work of art, with amazing signs. Then we got lost: my sense of direction went haywire, and we started going tentatively in what seemed like the right direction, trying to get a map fix, and seeing the roads not going the right way. It must have been a sensitive area, because there were police dotted around, so I went to two carabinieri (these are the tough police), smiled and said in my impeccable (that means bird-proof) Italian: “per favore, dove Venti Settembre?” I then pointed the way we were going and back the way we had come.

Carabinieri are nice: I talked to some in 1986, and these were equally nice, and smart. In spite of my cunning use of Italian, one of them smiled, pointed the way we had come, and to show that he had penetrated my masterly linguistic disguise, he said “that way”. I smiled again, said “grazie”, and we headed off. Just to explain, Via XX Settembre is the major road that we needed to reach and walk along before slipping sideways onto Via Flavia.

They say you can't walk this town: we are proving them wrong. Incidentally, we saw some people out celebrating and guessed they were the ones who hadn't yet been rounded up in a big gangs bust. Maybe they are still free because the carabinieri get side-tracked by lost tourists.

We had a speedy feed early tonight then jumped on the hop-on-off bus and rode it once around the city as the sun set. I will have some nice pics to display later. Just after 10 pm, we arrived back at Barberini where a pharmacist's sign reported that the temperature had dropped from 35 at 8 pm (when we boarded the bus) to 31C. Our idea was to travel around the town after the rush hour: ha, bloody ha: it was still going!

Tomorrow, they say, it will only be 30 degrees (that's 86F). We'll see. Tomorrow, the Borghese Gardens and a prowl around some ruins. Rome has quite a few of those. We'll probably lunch at La Lampada.
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Reaching Rome [Jul. 14th, 2010|02:48 pm]
Direction: south from Florence to Rome then circumlocuitously all over Rome by HOHO bus,

The only real surprise came when our train to Rome Termini turned out to be a Naples train. That meant that the Rome train did not show up on the departures board, but each train has a 4-digit ID, and when we saw that number on the Naples train, we settled.

It was uneventful, the cabbie got a bit lost and knocked off the odd 70 Eurocents and stacked on 4 euros for other charges: mainly 2 euros for two baggage items, and another two euros because he had a nice moustache or something, but it was worth it.

The hotel was dilatory in getting us into our room, but I think I got a free beer out of it (the final bill will reveal all). In the end, we got access, unpacked and headed out for a late-ish lunch, which we took, just around the corner in Ristorante La Lampada, Via Quintino Sella 25-27.

To quote Obelix, “These Romans are crazy”. I think Obelix must have dined in a few Roman trattoria, because I note that in reviews, a number of places are classified as “eccentric”, and I think that term belongs to this place. Mind you, we plan to eat there again.

Anyhow, I had Calamari Alla Griglia (grilled squid) which was delicious, and Chris had one of our favourites, Penne All'Arrabiata, ditto. The catch: mine was supposed to come with Insalata Mista (sp?) or mixed salad, but Signor Padrone, turned up to ask: “was I having patatte fritte?” That is, was I having allegedly baked potatoes that would be dripping in oil. No, I replied, I was having salata. “OK, no problems!”

He whirled off, and next moment a junior dervish appeared and plonked down a large bowl of patatte. I like patatte and started to dig in. A lady behind Chris, probably Australian, had just received a salad in double quick time and said quietly that she might have my salad. I made a gesture and baptised the patatte as a species of salad just as Signor Padrone arrived with salad. I pointed out that I had accepted the patatte.

“OK, no problems,” he announced, whirling off. He was apologetic later, but as I observed, “no problems”.

Then we jumped on a Hop-on-hop-off bus. We chose to patronise Rome Open Tours because we came upon them first: there are at least four firms in the game, and they had, we could see, bright stops that are easy to spot.

One can be too loud in the praise of these people, but I will not be tempted to go that way. The buses were grubby, the management was woeful (we were left 15 minutes outside St Peters in the late afternoon sun, without explanation, buses were late and then took too long leaving destinations). The others may be worse, but if so, God help their victims.

Still, we got the layout of the town, supposedly too large to walk, but we are doing it happily. Chris had Calamari Alla Griglia for dinner, and I had escalope of pork, in honour of Obelix. Along with a half-litre of house red, because their half bottles of Tuscan chianti had run out.
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Siena, and back [Jul. 13th, 2010|07:20 pm]
The bus south to Siena takes a litle over an hour, and arriving three minutes before the bus we expected to miss left, we found it empty and there was just one person in the ticket queue, so we got it.

I will get back to the beauties of Siena later, but just now, I want to add a memo to myself to sound a warning about 'Le Giubbe Rosse' in the Piazza del Republica (I need to check the spelling!) where a media of beer, d0 decilitres, costs 9 euros and weighs in at about 30 decilitres. The staff are rude and arrogant and overbearing, and so it dod not surprise me that they tried to question that I should question the short measure. ha! Little did I know that I will be spreading their infamy far and wide. We chose the place because of its position, and we were more than willing to pay the over-price, but not to be ripped off.

Avoid the Guiubbe Rosse.

By contrast, our morning drinks and lunch in Siena were a delight.

Sadly, I have to say that I have learned why it is that the Italian nation has given the world the term 'fiasco'.

Keep in mind that I have been a manager, and also a management consultant in my time. A lot of my work was with government departments who are infamous for their fiasci, and also for a large builder/developer who went spectacularly south, some years later, in part because they didn't do what we had told them to do. I do not use the term lightly. The people at Giubbe Rosse were low-grade crooks, but I would never call their operation a fiasco.

The point at issue is the free access that one gets to a "panoramic view" that is at once outstanding and panoramic. The problem is that a spotty youth stands at the entrance, which is unsigned, and lets people queue and queue. The idea is that he doesn't let more than a certain number of people in, but it appears that at times, tour groups are allowed in through a separate entrance, and the punters are left to wait.

The worst part is that there is no attempt, as we had assumed, to ensure that people do not have to pass on the extremely narrow spiral staircase, so when we and another six people were allowed in,
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