Tag Archives: travel

Manchester to South Wales (via the Welsh Marches Route)

There are two main routes between Manchester and South Wales. There is the “Heart of Wales” line, which is the very scenic route, and the Welsh Marches line, merely quite scenic. A few (ahem) times over the last couple of months my wife and I have taken the train from Manchester towards South Wales, and back again, and this is about the Welsh Marches line, not quite as scenic as the Heart of Wales line, but still an interesting journey.

The route runs through Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Leominster, Hereford, Abergavenny, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and then through to Milford Haven or Carmarthen. It isn’t, however, all that quick — over three hours to Cardiff, over four to Swansea (which might test even Michael Portillo’s patience), and it could certainly do with a few upgrades.

Most of the times we have travelled on it, we’ve booked Advance tickets, which require that you travel on a specific service and usually come with seat reservations. Each time the booking form has asked for seat preferences (table / airline; aisle / window). However, each time we’ve picked the tickets up, they’ve been “Coach *, Seat ***”. However, I’ve seen “reserved” tickets in the back of some seats, so there must be some magic we’re missing.

You keep using that word (reservation), I do not think it means what you think it means.

Getting on at one of the major stations (e.g. Manchester Piccadilly or Cardiff), you need to be at the right part of the platform to be by the doors when the train arrives, or you’re likely to be standing. One time we got lucky and bagged a seat whilst others stood, another time we were standing for 30-40 minutes until the train reached Crewe and a few people got off. I’ve also seen people standing at Hereford just as the local college finishes (and presumably just before it starts), which makes the lack of definite seat reservations a worry if you really want to sit down, and particularly, sit down together.

The time we weren’t lucky.

The trains are “Class 175“, and it has varied as to whether the trains are two coach (175 0nn) or three (175 1nn). On one journey to Swansea there were people standing for quite a bit of time, and it wasn’t helped when we reached Shrewsbury to find another train had been cancelled and they were shuffled onto the train we were on to get down to Newport and change for another service.

I have to feel a bit sorry for these little trains, they run for almost six hours from Milford Haven or Carmarthen up to Manchester, then have about 15 minutes before they’re on the way back for another six hours. This does mean they don’t get a proper clean for twelve hours other than the Transport for Wales staff doing their best to clear loose items into rubbish bags. Which means, fellow passengers, when you leave the train, please take your rubbish with you, as someone else will almost certainly be sitting in your seat within a few minutes!

At a couple of points through the journey, as long as there’s room, a trolley service will pass through the train offering tea, coffee, snacks, beer, wine, gin, tonic, you know the drill. Sometimes they may ask you to pay cash if the machine isn’t working — or if the reception is bad.

Speaking of reception, there is free WiFi on the train, but the uplink speed isn’t great, and some sites, including Google Drive, are blocked, which might make working on the train a bit of a challenge. If you’ve got a signal and a generous data plan on your phone, you might be better off tethering to that.

Getting the negatives out of the way, the route itself passes through some historic towns on the borders between Wales and England.

Regardless of history, according to Wikipedia Ludlow apparently once featured three Michelin-starred restaurants in the not too distance past, but now has none. Leominster was the site of “one of” the last ordeals by ducking stool in England. The stool itself is on display in Leominster Priory and depicted on the town clock.

Leominster Town Clock, image from Likeaword at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leominster_Town_Clock.jpg

Not forgetting larger towns of Shrewsbury, curiously twinned with the Royal Navy submarine of HMS Talent, which would have some trouble getting anywhere near the town, and Hereford, birthplace of King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynne (I wonder if my new MP Andrew Gwynne is a descendent?).

Whilst we’ve been using this route for trips for work or family of late, we’ll have to use it to explore some of the historic towns on the route soon, and some of the scenery it passes through is really quite beautiful. Some longer trains, though, please TfW?

Dragon Hotel, Swansea

According to the hotel’s own website, the Dragon Hotel is “…this fully airconditioned lesisure [sic] hotel was featured as South West Wales’ premier 4-star hotel.”

As someone that was brought up with frequent trips to Swansea to visit family, the Dragon Hotel has always been around, though I’ve never had need to stay there, as I was always staying with family. The road outside the hotel has changed substantially since I was a child, it used to be a roundabout with pedestrian underpasses leading to an open area in the centre of the roundabout. That was filled in a couple of decades ago to make it more friendly to bendy buses, but it is in the middle of yet another regeneration as Swansea City Council tries another traffic management plan along The Kingsway.

As time has moved on, I’ve had more reason to find nearby hotels and my wife and I have stayed at the Dragon a few times. Most recently, towards the end of August 2019, I stayed in three different rooms on the sixth and seventh (out of seven) floors (due to three different bookings) during a week as I wasn’t sure how long I was staying around.

During the week there were some good deals to be had, between £50 and £60 per night, but that rose substantially for the weekend. The best deals were on twin rooms rather than doubles, but as I was staying by myself, that wasn’t a problem.

The rooms are functional, two single beds, a large TV with Freeview channels, a hospitality tray with the usual selection of teabags, instant coffee sachets and UHT milk. There are no in-room safes, nor a mini-bar.

Most of the rooms appear to have a mobile phone for complimentary use around the city, provided by “Handy.” I have no idea what sort of personal information those things hoovered up, which I assume they must to pay for themselves, so I haven’t used one, but it also looks like they might not be around for much longer.

The bathrooms are surfaced with white ceramic tiles, with a large illuminated mirror that has two vertical fluorescent tubes (though in one of the bathrooms, one of the tubes flickered). Toiletries are large pump-action soap dispensers.

One evening, as I got back to my room, I was greeted by a gentleman, wearing only his shorts, laying across the corridor on a speakerphone, but the hotel didn’t provide entertainment the other nights.

There is a comfortable bar on the ground floor with a few local beers, though I’ve tended to head into town for a drink when the urge takes me (particularly to “Copper” or “No Sign Wine Bar”).

All in all, it’s clean, slightly tired, and I wouldn’t describe it as South-West Wales’ Premier Four-Star Hotel, though I don’t know what would fit that description, but it’s very convenient for the centre of Swansea, as opposed to some of the others that are closer to the Marina, or slightly out of town, and what are you expecting for that sort of price?

Hotel Indigo, Cardiff

This will be a brief review, as I was only there for one night and didn’t take any photographs.

Hotel Indigo is part of the IHG chain (Holiday Inn etc), but as I type this, the Cardiff hotel is currently rated the #1 hotel in Cardiff on TripAdvisor. [Hotel’s website here.]

From Cardiff Central train station the hotel was about a 10 minute walk (not trailing any suitcases). The entry is quite well disguised in an arcade off Queen Street, which is in the pedestrianised shopping area in Cardiff, and within that the reception is quite small, just 2-3 desks in a cosy lobby, but the staff were friendly. There is a single lift (“elevator”) to the guest rooms and the hotel’s restaurant/bar — a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Bar. When I checked in we were offered a 15% discount voucher for the restaurant, but that is a limited time offer.

My room had frosted windows with no view, but the room and bathroom (with monsoon shower) were obviously relatively new and well-decorated. The hospitality tray had a selection of Welsh teas and coffees (as an aside, I grew up in Wales and don’t remember many tea tree and coffee plantations, but that must be global warming for you), and a small fridge.

A nice touch was the rocking chair with a “nos da” (“good night”) cushion, and Welsh decorations on the wall. A tea pot and tea cosy would have topped that image off to perfection!

The bed was firm, and quite high off the ground, which may or may not be to your preference. Whilst it was a busy weekend in Cardiff, and I could hear the occasional voice of someone walking down the corridor outside, it didn’t disturb my sleep.

All in all it was a nice hotel, in a very good location, and not too badly priced. Worth a shot.

Spain gets a little bit Moorish.

The Alhambra. Just the name conjures up a mental image of the medieval clash between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam, a time of religious quests and bloody battles. These days, the tales of battles are limited to the legendary queues to obtain tickets to visit it, so after a particularly busy start to the year, I decided to do my duty as a Londoner during the Jubilee double-Bank Holiday weekend and get out of Dodge to make way for the tourists that were on the way in.

An extra day of leave booked either side meant I was heading out to Granada on Friday, then had all of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the best part of Wednesday out there before flying home that evening. I booked tickets to visit the palace on the Monday morning and a night-time visit on Tuesday evening, thinking that would be a perfect way to round off the trip, then waited until it was time to head out.

Granada airport is really rather small. Nothing so fancy as a jet-bridge, just steps down from the plane to the tarmac, and if you’re travelling without luggage, as I was, you’re out of the airport in a couple of minutes. I was ready to treat myself to a €20 taxi ride into town, but as I exited, the €3 coach was sitting there, which made the choice simple. I’d left a dull London that was about to head into a rain-soaked weekend, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug as the sun hit my face.

I’d booked a single room at the hotel, but when I checked in they actually apologised that was all they had available, and promised that when it emptied out a little on Sunday I could move into a double. The single room was quite small, but no smaller than it is in many hotels, and it was very clean. I resisted the urge to head straight up to the palace and wandered around some of the older parts of the town, the Albaicin, for a little while instead, stealing the odd glance of the fort towering over the rest of the city, and trying to ignore the sounds of ‘Eloise’ blaring out of one of the jukeboxes that didn’t quite fit with the feeling of the whitewashed twisty, steep, narrow paths.

In retrospect, the t-shirt and shirt I’d needed at home was perhaps a little overkill for the south of Spain, and even at 9pm I was rather warm walking around, which meant I had to stop off at the odd bar for a cold beer, and in Granada almost every place that serves beer, serves a plate of tapas with it, frequently fried in lots of oil and not uncommonly covered in batter. This is not a place to come to lose weight.

On Saturday, I was prepared. I didn’t know what to expect on Monday, so I was heading up to the Alhambra to pick my tickets up. It was just a fifteen minute walk from the hotel to the ticket office, passing the dilapidated remains of the ‘Hotel Washington Irving,’ named after the American author that in the late nineteenth century spent some time living in the palace and wrote “Tales of the Alhambra.” He also wrote “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and was later the US Minister to Spain, trivia fans.

My worst fears of the ticket office were far from realised. There was a queue, but that was simply a queue if you wanted to tickets with cash for entry that day. A short walk around the corner presented the machines for picking up tickets pre-booked with a credit card, or buying tickets with a credit card for that day, and there wasn’t a queue at a single one of them. Not that it mattered, it felt much better to know I had the tickets as otherwise I’d have known no more than the reputation and would have been worrying whether I’d have ended up paying for a trip to Granada and not having been able to visit the main reason for going there.

Given I’d gone to all the effort of climbing up the hill, I wasn’t in a rush to head back down, and had a wander around the parts of the fort that didn’t need a ticket. Starting with the “Justice Gate”, perhaps the most impressive of the entrances to the complex, the passage inside the gate doubles back on itself twice in an attempt to slow down invading armies that had breached the outer door.

Inside is the palace of Carlos V. An imposing, late addition to the Alhambra. Late in this context means the sixteenth century and it was designed by a pupil of Michaelangelo. Inside is a large circular courtyard and the palace houses two museums, one of the Alhambra and the other, the Museum of Fine Arts. I was pleased and surprised with how quiet it was inside.

Later in the afternoon I had another wander around the Albaicin. I was on the hunt for the Mirador de San Nicholas, supposedly the best place to get a view of the Alhambra, but after finding a small square with a reasonably good view, the Placeta Carvajales, I was confronted with a human traffic-jam. A human traffic-jam in their Sunday best. From the back, I could see a bunch of people, and in front of them a platform with the statue of the Virgin Mary towering 12-15 feet high.

However, I could only see the back, so there then began a slightly comical sequence of events where I’d dash through some back streets, trying to get ahead of the parade, only to end up out of breath and sweating slightly back at the end of the procession. Eventually I managed to pick the right choice of streets, and to be fair I think the procession paused in front of a couple of churches that allowed me to take the lead, and I emerged at a street that was cordoned off ready for the procession to hit it.

Leading the statue were two columns of people, mainly women, on either side of the road carrying large candles. Behind them a man was reading from a text, closely followed by a group of other people. I began to think this was a funeral procession and this must have been the family. Behind them, were some young men and women dressed in robes, swinging incense, and carrying more candles. Then there was the statue. If this was a funeral, perhaps there was a coffin underneath the statue, but it wasn’t obvious. It was borne by almost 20 men and looked heavy. It was moved for a few steps, they set it down and paused, and then moved it again.

Whilst I was standing out of the way to take a couple of photographs, and feeling self-conscious even with that, there were other that were getting much closer to the procession, and even wandering amongst it to take their photos. I’m not convinced that they were all tourists either.

Still not entirely sure what I’d just witnessed, I settled down for some food at the Paseo de los Tristes, the ‘Promenade of the Sad’. I ate here a few times, I’m not sure what that says. It was 9pm, so still on the early side for food in this part of the world. I was surprised it was still light given I was now considerably further south, but perhaps Spain cheats by being an hour ahead of where it should be based on longitude. As I sat there, a pretty good violin player was playing and a woman was writing her diary on the wall, with the Alhambra towering over all of us, as it has done for 800 years. I thought there could be few places on earth that I would rather be at that particular moment.

After dinner I crossed the river and walked up Cuesta del Rey Chico back to the Alhambra. This goes up the other side to the “main” road and is much quieter. It is overshadowed by the imposing stone walls, but like the rest of the Alhambra there is water everywhere. A stream follows the side of the road and at one point there is a drain one of the other parts of the complex pouring water out a short way up one of the walls. For the south of Spain the amount of water that is constantly flowing around the Alhambra is astonishing, and more than welcome. You are never far from the sound of running water.

I reached the top and turned around again, realising that the shallow steps were much easier to see on the way up in the dark than on the way down, so I ambled down, meeting a few more people than I’d met on the way up. Some of them were already pausing for breath, still much closer to the bottom than the top, I was hoping they weren’t going to ask me how much further it was as I wouldn’t have had the heart to tell them.

Following those exertions, a cerveza and tapas was in order, so I went to La Gran Taberna opposite the hotel. Given they come with every drink you buy, the tapas are delicious in some of the bars, as they were in this one. Some bars focus on seafood-based dishes, others meat, others mix them all. It was 11:20pm and there were still families out eating with young children. On the wall of the bar was, I thought, an old poster for some bullfighting. Then I checked the dates and realised it was a poster for this weekend’s bullfighting. I was momentarily tempted, but thought I still had enough to see before I was heading home.

Sunday was a quiet day. This time I was determined to find the Mirador de San Nicholas. It was much higher in Albaicin than I’d expected, and I’d not been as close to it when I was at Placeta Carvajela than I thought I’d been, but worth it for the view. It was busy, not just with tourists but also with its fair share of people selling tourist tat. The view of the Alhambra is fantastic, and I could see the Sierra Nevada in the distance, still with snow on some of north-facing slopes that look towards Granada.

Whilst the Mirador was busy, it was quiet only a street or two away, so I wandered down the side-streets to Fuente del Triunfo (Triumph Gardens, not named after a British motorcycle), and thence a spot of lunch whilst watching the final laps of the Catalunya MotoGP with some seafood tapas. Following the MotoGP there was quite a bit of coverage of the Jubilee celebrations from Britain, which looked rather wet.

Monday was the day I’d been looking forward to. This was the day I was visiting the Alcazabar, the Palacios Nazaries and the Generalife at the Alhambra, the day I’d been building up to. I had a morning ticket, which allows entry from 8:30am to the ‘untimed’ part of the Alhambra, and I had a timed 10:30 entry to the Palacios Nazaries. I decided to start at the Alcazabar, the oldest part of the Alhambra and the western-most part, looking out of the city. I was there at 8:20 waiting for it to open, and I was the third person in through the gates.

Looking out over the rest of the city and the valley stretching westwards, the views from the towers of the Alcazabar are fantastic, and all the better for getting there ahead of the crowds. When the Cross was first raised on the Torre de la Vela (Bell Tower) on January 2nd, 1492, the fleeing Boabdil (Muhammed XII of Granada) who was heading for exile, cried, and was admonished by his mother with “you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

Next was the Palacios Nazaries. You can only enter this within a 30 minute window printed on your ticket, but once inside you can stay as long as you want. You enter into the council chamber, and from there take a route through to the Hall of the Ambassadors, the largest room in the palace, the Court of the Myrtles, the Court of the Lions, the Hall of the Abencerrages, the Queen’s Tower, the Patio de la Lindaraja before exiting to the Partal Gardens.

Parts of the palace are undergoing renovation, but that doesn’t stop each new room from making your jaw drop. Not only are they impressive to see, but the history that has taken place in each of them. The Hall of the Abencerrages, for example, is beautifully intricate room with a eight-sided vaulted ceiling. It is also where according to legend, Boabdil’s father killed sixteen princes of the Abencerrage family after one of them had fallen in love with a woman of the royal family.

The Court of the Lions is nearing the end of a lengthy restoration and it’s centrepiece, a fountain mounted on the backs of lions, was half open from the protective wooden shroud that has been surrounding it for some time.

From the Partal Gardens, you walk to the gardens and the palace of the Generalife. This is a much more modest building, but surrounded by a number of gardens with trees, fountains and neatly tended flowerbeds.

Before heading back down the hill for a spot of lunch I dropped into the Palace of Carlos V again. A stage was being set up inside for some event or other, so I was glad I had taken some photos on Saturday. There was also a chap there employing what appeared to be the ‘blunderbuss’ method of photography. With a relatively expensive camera set to continuous shooting, he kept the shutter pressed down and waved it around. I know that at the end of the holiday I had trouble cutting down my 450 photos to under 200. I don’t know how long it would have taken him to edit his album. I presume he must have a mighty hard drive on his computer.

It had taken the better part of the morning to explore the palaces, but there was still the afternoon to fill, so I stayed on the cultural theme and headed to the Convento de San Jeronimo. You enter into a cloister that surrounds some orange trees, off which are a number of rooms — a refectory, a sacristy, and with the names of past abbots set in tiles in the floor. As you near the end of the cloister you enter the church and my eyes widened. You have to be a little bit insane to be the architect of a cathedral, and the architect of this one was certainly a few collonades short of a cloister.

A little bit of a walk north and I ended up at La Cartuja, another former monastery. Walking around the cloisters here, most of the rooms are now full of art related to martyrdom, but again as you get to the church at the end of the walk around the cloisters you have to pause for a few moments. The church is full of stucco ceilings and has a chapel that has columns on the wall that appear to be all capitals and no column.

At first glance the marble altarpiece is reflected in a series of mirrors behind it, then you realise that the mirrors don’t match the altarpiece, and they are actually windows into a room behind with another, much darker, altarpiece in complete contrast to the white and light church. Photographs are not permitted in La Cartuja.

Granada feels like a relatively small city, and several times wandering around I saw the same faces again and again. Some of those will have been tourists on the same path as I was, but others were definitely locals.

In one of the city squares whilst I ate a meal in the evening there was what appeared to be a flamenco competition or demonstration. On top of the procession I was starting to think I’ve been quite lucky.

Tuesday was my last full day in Granada and I started it off by heading to the remains of the Arab Bath House on Carrera del Darro, the road winding along the river that runs through Granada. Following this was a bit of walk to the Sacromonte Caves, a museum of the cave dwellings that were used until quite recently. They’re well preserved and there are detailed signs, in English as well as Spanish, telling the stories of life and industry in the area. Of course, it also has the obligatory panoramic view down the valley towards the Alhambra and the rest of the city. The caves weren’t the easiest to find, and as I got back to the city to the Paseo de los Tristes I overheard a couple of other tourists trying to find them, so I pointed them in the right direction.

In the afternoon I headed up to Carmen de los Martires, a nineteenth century stately home and ornamental gardens. I’d read there was a great view of the Alhambra from there (what, another one?), but when I reached what I thought was the viewing platform there were trees and grass blocking the view. Then I noticed another pathway that climbed further up. I followed it, zig-zagging as it wends its way up towards the top wall of the gardens and then I realised that was where the view was. If you’ve been to Granada and not found the way up to top of the gardens, you have missed another great view of the Alhambra. If you are going to Granada, don’t give up until you’ve reached the wall at the top of the hill in the garden for a view of the palace, the valley, and behind you, the Sierra Nevada.

When you get back down, don’t forget to have a walk around the rest of the gardens, filled with grottos, fountains, and a small lake with a keep in the centre of it.

As the day drew to a close, it was time for the second visit to the Palacios Nazaries, but this time by night. It follows much the same route as the daytime visit, but the floodlighting adds a different view. It is also much quieter, so I had more time to pause along the way. Alas, the amount of light means that photography with a compact camera is difficult and requires a steady hand.

Finally, Wednesday dawned. I checked out of the hotel, which had been very helpful and friendly throughout my stay. There was still much to see before I left for the flight though! Starting with the Royal Chapel, which contains the tomb and displays the coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos) under whom other religions were expelled from Spain. One one hand, Ferdinand and Isabella approved Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World. On the other hand, they segregated communities and created ghettos for Jewish people.

The altarpiece in the Royal Chapel continues the theme of martyrdom with scenes of John the Baptist being beheaded and John the Evangelist being boiled alive. Also in the chapel are a crown, sceptre and sword from the fifteenth century. They look simple, but it is evocative to think of them being used 600 years ago.

To round the visit off, the cathedral was the final stop I had planned. I had seen the cathedral from the Alhambra and it is large enough to dominate a fair part of the city from there, it appears even larger when I got inside. The organ has four banks of pipes that dominate the nave and lead up to another stunning altarpiece, this one several stories high covered with art.

So that was that. Lunch, coach and back home. Except when I left the cathedral there were queues of people lining the street. I might as well hang around and see what is going on. I say “see” what is going on, because I still have no idea what actually was going on. There was a procession of four large models, that looked perhaps like Ferdinand and Isabella, perhaps followed by two Moors? Following them was a dragon with a women in a white dress standing on its back, then people dressed in various costumes and at the end a number of people wearing papier-mache heads who were going around bashing kids on the head with paper balloons.

If anybody can fill me in on what this was, I’d be very grateful. Put together with the other procession and the flamenco event I either planned my trip very fortuitously, or this was just another random weekend in Granda.

I worried that the roads weren’t going to be open again in time for the coach to get me to the airport, because taxis were also pretty thin on the ground, but it all worked out.

From 35C at lunch, when I got back to Heathrow it was 12C or less, the tube was broken due to flooding at Stratford and I spent 25 minutes standing outside Walthamstow Central station until the last bus of the night arrived at 12:15am to get me home just before 1am (I’d landed just after 10pm), in time to watch the weather forecast with warnings of wind, rain, and possible localised flooding. Welcome home.

¡Viva España!

Like many people, I grew up with an image of the Costa del Sol. TV programmes showing 1980s package holidays in Torremolinos and countless programmes on late night ITV since then (not that I watch late night ITV of course). The tales of streets populated by bars and Fish and Chip shops to serve the holidaymakers and ex-patriates has meant it never really bubbled to the top of my “to see” list. Further east, yes, Granada and the Alhambra is still high up on that list, but the Costa del Sol could wait until I retired.

Or until I had a meeting there, which is what happened recently.

This year’s TERENA Networking Conference was held in the University of Malaga in early June, and I appear to have wrongly stereotyped the city. Once I stopped unaccountably giggling at being confronted with road signs to “Torremolinos,” it is a beautiful city with polished, cobbled streets, a mighty cathedral, a huge castle — as befits a city on a hill leading to the sea, and of course a bullring. Whilst I didn’t see a bullfight, we did have a social event consisting of a barbeque inside the bullring, which was a wonderful structure. It looked like a 1920s or 1930s building with a concrete base and iron and wooden upper tier.

I’ve only been to Madrid and Barcelona before, but I love Spain. I love the history, the culture, the food, but in addition to the view of the Costa del Sol, I also had a stereotyped view of Spanish government. I think I have to re-evaluate that too. The streets were clean, and the conference organisers had even worked with the municipal transport company to put WiFi on the bus route from the centre of the city, where everyone was staying, to the University campus to the west and information on the dot matrix signs at the bus stops. We have a UK networking event in Manchester next year. I wonder what the chances of a similar feat are? The host of that was also at the Malaga meeting and is going to give it a try.

I also flew into Larnaca for a meeting in Nicosia a few weeks ago. Where next? Magaluf? Mind you, if the talk on climate change that was presented at the conference is anything to go by, that whole region could be close to uninhabitable in a century.

Manila

Now that I’d arrived in Manila, what did I do?

Most of the time was, of course, work related. However I did have a day or so the weekend before the meeting started, and a couple of hours in the odd evening to wander around.

The meeting hotel, the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, is a little to the south of the centre of Manila, but being a cheap backpacker at heart, I thought I would walk up to the city to try to see some more of the local environment. As soon as I stepped past the security guards at the bottom of the ramp up to the hotel’s entrance, taxis were hooting their horns and stopping, or at least slowing down. It isn’t hard, is it? If I have my hand out shouting “TAXI!”, it means I want a taxi. If I’m walking down the street, it is safe to assume that is what I want to do. Tootling your horn (no, that isn’t a euphemism, I’ll get to that in a minute) and stopping beside me isn’t suddenly going to make me change my mode of transport. Anyway, rant over.

Well, first rant. Taxi drivers pale into insignificance compared to the other thing that tarnishes my images of some countries — prostitution. Or at least the assumption that because I am white, I am looking for an Asian woman to sleep with (or in some cases, an Asian boy). Only two taxi-toots out of the hotel I hear a “hey, hey” to see a woman pointing at me then at herself, and this was before 11am. I walked on, my opinion of Manila already slightly dented.

It was hot and humid, and in my rush to pack, three things I’d forgotten were sun-cream, sunglasses, and a cap to shade my face (the latter being as much for everyone else’s benefit as my own). I put those top of my list of things to buy as I wandered around with little firm idea of where in particular I was going to go once I reached “the city.”

Like much of Asia, Manila loves its shopping malls. The first one I stopped in was a slightly older affair, with plenty of dirt around the edges. Not the gleaming polished marble floors you expect from the name. I had a quick walk around, but as shops don’t open until about 10am, everything was still being set up, so I went back out. The most common form of mass public transit in Manila is the jeepney. This is a small bus with open sides and highly decorated, ploughing the streets of the capital on well-known routes which are displayed in the front window and often painted on the sides. What I hadn’t been expecting were the sheer number of them. On some streets there were as many jeepneys, which can hold perhaps 20 people, as you’d see Hackney Cabs on a London street in rush hour.

I let them pass and continued up. The next area I went through contained lots and lots of “KTV” bars, I assume the acronym stands for Karaoke TV. I knew that karaoke is popular in Asia, which is odd given how easily embarrassed locals get, but there were an awful lot of KTV places on A. Mabini, which I found quite curious. Further up was another mall, but this one was the gleaming, polished marble monolith that I’d expected. Inside it was massive, and I spent a little while wandering around trying to get a grasp of its geography before giving up and reverting to type with an iced latte in the ‘Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf,’ whose sister branch in Kota Kinabalu I’ve frequented on more than one occasion. It didn’t take long before another guy sidled up and said he was waiting for his wife, then letting on that he’d let me sleep with her, and when I tried to be polite he offered younger partners, at which point politeness went out of the window and I looked to see if there was a policeman around before just walking away.

There are quite a few western men with Filipino women in Manila, and it may be wrong to comment on that straight after the previous paragraph, because I’d like to believe that most of them are in love and fighting just that kind of prejudice, but after spending some time travelling around Thailand, I can’t help but wonder that for some, even if it is a tiny minority, it isn’t quite the whole story.

A little while later, cooler, but still lacking sun-cream, sunglasses, a cap, and a lens cleaning kit for my camera (something else I’d realised I had forgotten whilst taking photos of the spectacular sunset from the hotel the previous evening), I left the mall and walked back to the hotel. The hotel had a pool and bar facing west to Manila Bay, and most evenings provided the sort of sunset that I’d been missing for the past five years.

When the sun had set, I decided to try again and headed out along a similar route looking for some food. The karaoke bars had now taken a much seedier edge, with women in short skirts standing outside and men (or should that be ‘pimps’) trying to persuade me to try their bar. I rapidly tired of that and turned back to the hotel down a different road which had families out playing in the street. It didn’t look seedy, but it did feel a little edgy as I stood out like a sore thumb, and the families were obviously poor.

The following day I decided to be a little more organised and started off by catching a cab to the “Mall of Asia.” Supposedly this is the third largest mall in the world, and it didn’t take me long to find a baseball cap at Adidas, sun-cream from Watson’s pharmacist, and more coffee from another ‘Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.’ About half the shops in MoA appear to be food outlets. The taxi cost less than £1, so I wasn’t worried about splashing out on that mode of transport, and did so again to take me straight up to Fort Santiago at Intramuros.

Intramuros is the only remaining area of Manila that still has a significant amount of colonial architecture, most of the rest having been destroyed by bombs, earthquakes, or Imelda Marcos’ zealous redevelopment plans, and Fort Santiago is the location of several significant events over the country’s history. After wandering around a bit more of Intramuros and nearby bits of Manila, I caught another cab back to the hotel.

Breakfast at the hotel was something worth getting up for. The largest breakfast buffet I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. Almost every nationality was represented with miso soup, sushi, steamed pork balls, eggs, omlettes, bacon and sausages, rice, pastries, cooked meats and lots of juicy, succulent, fruit. If you have a yearning for a good breakfast, this is the place to go. Only slightly let down by the random tea and coffee service. Then again, there was plenty of fruit juice if you can do without a morning coffee.

This probably doesn’t paint all that nice a picture of Manila, but it is worth remembering that as with most countries, you don’t get fair impression of them from just their capital city. I’d still love to come back to the Philippines at some point and explore some of the 7,000 islands, climb some of the volcanos and settle back in a hammock on the sandy beaches. This was, after all, just a work trip with a disproportionate number of hours spent inside windowless conference rooms of an air-conditioned hotel.

Manila (or at least getting to it)

I’d been looking forward to this since it was booked, a trip to Manila in the Philippines for APRICOT 2009, the Asia-Pacific network operator’s forum. I’d wanted to go for a while, so when one of the programme committee suggested I submit a talk on our recent backbone upgrades to 40Gbit/s, I jumped at the chance. It was my first time heading back to South-East Asia since April 4th, 2004. I can be so precise about the date as that was the day I returned from my year away.

Preparation had been to my usual minimal level. I’d taken the day before I left as vacation to give me a chance to pack, but I still went into the office for a videoconference and checked my email before just buying some travel guides, heading home and getting ready to go out with George in the evening. An evening which was supposed to finish early, but which to no great surprise finished at the usual time.

As I was going to be away for the best part of three weeks in tropical Asia, I didn’t want to carry a heavy coat with me. I’d made that mistake before, and somebody that works in the Holiday Inn, Bangkok, will have picked up a nice North Face fleece in April 2003, so I left for the airport through a chilly London in just a polo shirt with a t-shirt underneath to save some space in my case, which was already packed with a bunch of shirts and t-shirts to save on the number of expensive hotel laundry jobs. Whilst later than I’d expected (a phrase you may recall I used frequently on travel updates during my year away) and having to use the tube all the way as it was easier to get to the now unloved terminal 4, I was still there in plenty of time.

Terminal 4, now that only a handful of airlines use it following BA’s move to ‘T5,’ is a much nicer place. It is still the same building, still just as tatty, and some of the shops have closed, but the restaurants that are open now have spare seats, and there is room to wander around. The flight to Hong Kong was twelve hours of average economy-class flying in Qantas. Nothing special to report, but the on-demand video system helped me while the hours away with ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ ‘Australia‘ and ‘Body of Lies.’ The hot chocolate with marshmallows was also a nice change, and made up for the shoddy food service where the wine didn’t arrive until after I’d finished my meal.

At Hong Kong I had to deal with the Philippines Airlines transfer desk, as my bags had only been checked as far as Hong Kong, but they dealt with everything painlessly and I didn’t have to go through immigration and re-check my bags, as I’d originally been expecting.

The flight from Hong Kong to Manila was on a Philippine Airlines 747. It looked very much like it had been bought from British Airways, as it had the same blue seat coverings and grey designs on the outside of the galley and WC walls. The flight was quite empty, so there was plenty of room to stretch out, just a shame it was on this two and a half hour segment rather than the previous twelve hour one. Immigration in Manila was far easier than I’d been expecting. I just handed my passport to the official, he stamped it and handed it back. Two european-looking chaps in the queue next to me didn’t have such luck and I overheard them being told they needed to pay for a visa. I didn’t catch which country it said on their passport though. I waited at the baggage carousel with some trepidation, still not being entirely sure my case had made it on the plane, but sure enough, there it was. Unusually, I had to show my baggage claim ticket as I exited the hall, to prove the case I had was mine, but soon enough I was in a taxi and heading to the hotel.

The journey was relatively short, but the traffic was an experience. Traffic lights have phases that last several minutes, junctions with traffic policemen have phases that last even longer. Cars drift from lane to lane, and whilst there is liberal use of the horn, it isn’t excessive, but still there are few badly dented cars on the roads. I’m still not sure I’d want to drive a car through Manila, much less a scooter or motorcycle. The journey cost the princely sum of PHP180, just under £2.60. A bargain for the entertainment it provided, especially as the driver spoke a bit of English and I was able to ascertain he’d been brought up in Pasay (the area of Manila between the airport and the hotel) and had recently changed to being a taxi driver from driving private company cars.

After all that drivel, I have now arrived in Manila. I suffer from jet-lag far worse on eastwards journeys than I do on westwards, so after I checked in, I did a brief ‘wow’ from my balcony at the view of Manila bay and the warm, humid, welcoming embrace of South-East Asian air, before heading back into the air-conditioned room and collapsing into bed, with the lights still on and partially clothed, and sleeping.

I’ll continue in another post.