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Take an unforgettable ride to North Wales on the old iron snake
Posted on the 10th October 2014 in the category travel



North Wales is a place close to my heart, my auntie and uncle moved to Porthmadog when I was a child and I have been visiting most years ever since. The older I get the more I appreciat the scenery, sea and pace of life. I've driven there and been driven there but the train line from Brum to North Wales is a wonder of the world for me. The journey holds lots of memories. I remember as a child listening to a couple bickering all the way from Herlech to Welshpool. One of the couple's kids pointed out the window at a cow - "what's that daddy?" he said. The dad matter of factly said: "That son is a cow, just like what your mom has been like all holiday."

Last month Arriva TW were kind enough to give me tickets to ride the line again, a viaduct had just opened meaning the coastal line could run all the way to Pwllhelli without the need of a replacement bus service. Here is my account of the journey.

 

 

THE first time I took the train from Birmingham to North Wales was unforgettable.


It was a Bank Holiday Friday in the mid-1980s and as we pulled off from New Street Station a student came bounding alongside the train and tried to jump on.

Though the door was still open he did not bank on the suitcases blocking his path and he fell beneath the train looking desparately in my eye as he went. He reminded this nine-year-old boy of the Lurpak butter man disappearing into a baked potato.  

Thankfully my subsequent journeys on the train to Porthmadog to see family have been memorable for better reasons than that fateful journey.

The Birmingham to Pwllheli line is the kind of route Michael Portillo would still wax lyrical about despite clocking his Bradshaw handbook of UK train routes.

With a new bridge near Harlech recently opening it now can be ridden all the way to its destination at Phllweli.

The storms washed away the 150-year-old wooden bridge last year and travellers have had to get the dreaded bus replacement to Porthmadog ever since.

But as Arriva Trains Wales were so proud of the new bridge I thought it would be rude not to ride the train to one of the most scenic spots in the UK.

The rolling hills of Shropshire are a nice taster of what is to come as is rural Powys. But the fun starts when the train splits at Machynlleth (a great town in itself).

One half of the Cambrian Lines heads to Aberystwyth on the main line and the other goes North to the Llyn Peninsular on the coast line.

The first train station outside Machynlleth is one of my favourites.

Dovey Junction. A lesson in less is more. There is just a platform, and a sign with Dovey Junction written on it.

No ticket office, no coke machine just concrete at its finest. What makes it special is it is in the middle of a valley and defines what us city dwellers calls “in the middle of nowhere.” It is a twitcher's paradise and bird watchers can take a path from the station into the valley.

After Dovey Junction our iron snake speeds through lush green countryside as hills turn into mountains and rivers into streams.

The train station names get longer and harder to pronounce as the feeling of being in a foreign country is reinforced.

But it is the coastal stretch of this route which is magical. Not many places have sea, sand and mountains within one glance. The train line, an incredible feat of human ingenuity itself, splits the sea from the mountains.

Either side of the train gives great views. As the train turns into Cardigan Bay on a sunny day the view is breathtaking. Sparking water laps up to yellow sand as giant green monsters of mountains look down on the picture postcard scene.

The picturesque towns of Tywyn and Fairbourne come and go. Another highlight is the approach to Barmouth, across a bridge spanning the bay.

The sand stretches inland - gold is believed to dwell below ground as well as above - the golden sheen of the sand at sunset is delightful.

Barmouth's painted guest houses, slate roofed churches and enticing pubs come into view as boats bob on the tide.

It is a great Victorian holiday town and if you buy the day ticket which allows you to disembark then Barmouth is a must.

After Barmouth the stations seem to get smaller as their names become harder to pronounce - Tygwyn, Talsarnau and Llandecwyn all have their own charm.

The brilliantly named Tallybont, which as a kid I always thought was the Black Country's very own seaside town, is another little gem.

This part of the world was so popular with Midlanders that for years the Birmingham Mail and Express and Star would be stocked here during the Summer.

As well as the scenery there are some eye-catching homes built on gravity defying spots throughout the train ride. Some modern, some old and some really old.

Harlech Castle looms above Harlech train station and this town is another quaint place to get off and have a wander.

The new viaduct at Pont Briwet is a joy to cross mainly because it is so shiny and new. The relief of not having to get a bus seemed to be written all over my fellow passengers faces.

Views of Snowdonia now fill one side of the train’s windows and it becomes harder to pick a side of the train to gawp out of. Portmerion, the faux Italian folly village which was home to The Prisoner, appears briefly on the coast. The stations of Penrhyndeudraeth and Minffordd are the closest to Portmerion and are walking distance from another.

Porthmadog is a bustling town with plenty of pubs, art galleries, craft stores and shops to keep you entertained but it is a railway town at heart.

The Blaenau Ffestiniog Railway chugs its way into the heart of Snowdonia taking in some of the best views in Wales. And to the delight of train spotters everywhere Welsh Highland Railway now runs up to Caenarfon after reopening a few years ago.

Porthmadog signals the start of the Llyn Peninsula – the part of Wales which looks like a finger pointing at Wales.

This remarkable place has deep religious history and modern history with those two Welsh titans of the 20th Century David Lloyd George and Lawrence of Arabia being born a few miles apart.

Criccieth is another town with a castle. In fact you can see across Black Rock Sands from Criccieth to Harlech and visa versa. And then the line continues to Pwlhelli with its holiday parks and markets. The train line has been taken Brummies and Black Country folk to this part of the coast for over a hundred years. Some fell in love with that part of the world and now live there, like my auntie and uncle.

I'm not sure whether the student who fell beneath the train ever got to North Wales. He didn't die but broke both his legs.

The adults on the train were at first shocked and sympathetic. But after an hour delay they were standing on the platform shouting swear words down at him.

I thought they were mean at the time but I totally understand their despair now – they did not want to get to the best part of this remarkable train journey in the dark.

For more information about prices, offers and routes on the Cambrian Lines visit www.thecambrianline.co.uk.



I got the ride of my life in marvellous Mallorca
Posted on the 25th September 2014 in the category travel



Mention Mallorca to a cyclist and they go misty-eyed and weak at the knees, writes Steve Zacharanda.

So the chance to cycle in Mallorca – the Mecca of cyclists from across the world - was the perfect chance to see if I remembered how to ride a bike, surely even I couldn't forget that.

With its mountains, cycle friendly drivers and climate the Spanish island attracts cyclists spanning from Team Sky to mates on riding holidays.

The region of Calvia is now pulling out all the stops to attract cyclists of all abilities and ages.

Nestled in the south-west of the island, with the sea on one side and the Siera de Tramuntana mountain range on the other, Calvia is a cyclists' paradise.

It also include tourist traps Palma Nova and Magaluf – which bikes are perfect to get away from if that is not your thing.

Our base was the Viva PalmaNova and Spa. The sprawling complex not far from Magaluf's infamous strip felt a world away from where British teens let off steam. The manager was an uber-cool Dutch guy with a striking resemblence to Viggo Mortensen and the air of a guy who would not panic even during an alien invasion.

My royal terrace apartment was incredible. Three floors and with a jacuzzi on the roof. A jacuzzi to myself? It took less time than Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins would take to get in a slanging match before I was nearly nude, armed with a fag, a bottle of beer and enjoying the jacuzzi. What a start to a break.

Thanks to Team Sky staying at another complex on the island and cycling ever increasing popularity Viva Hotels are now catering for the saddle sore in a big way.

Viva employ cycle guides and have installed cycle stations in their hotels where guests can pick a bike, helmet, cycling shorts and all the other gear needed to get going.

Our mountain bikes gave us the option of off-roading and road riding. Our guide Juan Carlos quizzed us about our fitness and picked a suitable route from countless variations on the island.

After a couple of comedy cycle circles and me careering into the floor we were off.

I'd forgotten about the exhilaration of riding a bike without stabilisers.

The warm air in my face as well as the smells and sounds of life whizzing past.

After the tenth driver in a row gave way to us or kept their distance I realised all the talk about Mallorcan drivers being cycle friendly was true.

Juan Carlos said: “Everyone on the island either cycles or has a family member who cycles so all the drivers are extra careful when they see us.”

This made me relax, I forgot my innate fear of being wiped out on a UK side road by a Skoda estate driven by a bloke who was trying to change the radio station.

With the sea air whistling in my ears and stunning scenery in front of me the next couple of hours was a real joy. We went off-road, down hills, up not-so-steep inclines and stopped every so often to admire view after view.

And this being a holiday we even stopped for lunch mid-cycle. Restaurant and bar El Repos is in one of those coves which are straight out the movies - Playa Del Ago. High rocks, deep blue sea and white sand. In fact Juan Carlos told us it had featured in a Michael Caine film in the 1960s.

The beer tasted even better because it was earned as was the simple tapas we ate whilst staring out to sea.

However, the ride back was a harder than the ride out. Actually it was technically easier but food and beer brought on the dreaded “stitch”.

And I embarrassed to say I got off my bike and pushed it up a hill. Not very macho and thankfully Juan Carlos gave me the arm round the shoulder treatment and not the hair drier to get me going again.

Back at the hotel I felt great but knew I would be aching soon. So I cashed in my massage voucher and got my aching limbs a going over by a professional.

Like our cycle ride my massage was just the right side of enjoyable and not too sporty.

The spa facilities at the hotel were brand new and the swimming pool had ever new way to spray or drop water on one's body. As I got into my jacuzzi for the second time I actually found myself looking forward to the next day's ride.

Mallorca has a fascinating history. It has been invaded more times than an all-inclusive bar. The Moors controlled the island for hundreds of years before James the First conquered it for the Christians in 1229.

A visit to the Galatzo Estate is a must for history buffs. The estate takes up a hearty chunk of Calvia and includes a villa, a mountain, gardens and a rugged landscape made for Jeeps and walkers. There is also a prehistoric settlement and a sanctuary for abandoned donkeys who work the land. Also in there valley there is the spot where an evil count used to torture his subjects so everyone else could hear their screaming.

And there is a lot of fun to be had in Calvia without the aid of a bike. Like eating, a lot.

The first restaurant we enjoyed was about as Mallorcan as we could hope for. Maybe not the picture of Franco in a display cabinet but with food that good I'm willing to overlook anyone's politics. And blood sport - bull fighting.

Meson C'an Torrat is known across the island for it's suckling pig and the place was filled with locals getting right involved in various meat dishes.

Bulls stared down from the wall, as did pictures of the owner, who was a matador before he swapped riding bulls for cooking them. The interior was festooned with all types of memorabilia including photos with famous people. It was the antithesis to the white walled bars of the bright young things by the sea. It was wonderful, like the suckling pig and the Ron Amazona liqueur in the coffee at the end.

Another mouth-watering food frenzy was had at Las Olas in the scenic beach town of Santa Ponca. Minus the bulls' heads but with ocean view this sea food restaurant ticked every box for a long drawn out lunch.

Tapas included Andalusian squid, Padron's pepper, croquets and more calamari which was as good as squid can get. The “blind seafood paella” for main course was the best paella I've eaten. They call it blind because all the bones have been removed so a blind person could eat it without worrying about choking.

As the Las Olas lunch approached the magical third hour a selection of sweets was brought out – meaning cycling was off the afternoon menu.

The mountains were calling. And thankfully we were being driven there. The winding roads reached higher and higher giving us views of the rugged coastline as the sea become more sparkling in the distance.

The mountain roads are professional cycling heaven with the world's best using the place to prepare for the Tour De France, Olympics and other top events.

But I was happy to be in car, with music playing and the sound of laughter never far way.

We ended up at an adorable mountain town called Deia where gravity defying houses on steep paths look out to spellbinding vistas.

Deia is a haven for artists on retreat, writers looking for inspiration and musicians wanting to look cool at the bar. Writer Robert Graves made his home there which is now a museum. Celebs are the new must see visitors and residents of this town, but I was happy to share a few brews with the locals.

Bar Sa Fonda is my kind of place. Its walls, ceiling and toilets are plastered with famous and obscure album covers. A notice board has a collage of snaps of drunken happy people and the barman wore a knowing smile when we said we'd stay for just the one. It was not corporate and I got the feeling the live music turns up when he/she wants to.

Mallorcans' have a reputation of being the Med's party people and our guide was proving he could keep the fun going despite his grey hair. Our night ended with singing and smiles all round.

It is no surprise the night life on the island is fantastic, whether it be the sophisticated clubs of Palma, to Magaluf's shot-fueled sick splattered strip or Deia's cool mountain vibe there will be somewhere to push the night into the early hours.

And if mingling with the super-rich is your thing then we found the perfect place. Whilst out cycling we found out where the yachting types hang out. Our second cycle with Juan Carlos was more gentle and less off road. I even managed to stay on my bike all of the time.

We stopped at Puerto Portals which is obviously where the beautiful boat people lay their anchor – and cash. Boutiques, cafes and restaurants share the 1980s marina with the visiting yachts.

Unlike the previous ride I did not gorge myself when we stopped so the ride back to the hotel was lovely.

We used the purpose built cycle lanes and I promised myself I'd get a bike as soon as I got home and change my life.

Then I remembered the look on the face of the cyclist I ran over back in 2001 and thought if only the UK was as cycle friendly as Calvia.

For more information visit www.visitcalvia.com and www.jet2holidays.com/cycling.



Adam's Big Apple - My 9/11 Letter from America
Posted on the 11th September 2014 in the category travel



Nine years ago I was fortunate to spend September in New York state as a guest of The Rotary Club.

 

It was only four years after 9/11 so it was still fresh in everyone's minds.

Everyone had an anecdote, my favourite was the fellow who was having a bonk with his mistress on that day: She phoned and he said: "I am at work in the World Trade Centre."  

She replied: "I think you better put the TV on.” And promptly divorced him. 

I was honoured to interview Gerry Sheehan who as well as being a Rotarian was a real  9/11 hero on that day when so many of his fellow policemen died.

This is a feature I sent back as one of my Adam's Big Apple - Letters From America to The Great Barr Observer, Sutton Observer and Tamworth Herald.  

 

 

The ashen-faced relatives of those who died on September 11 started reading their loved ones names out at 9am on the tragedy's fourth anniversary.  

The names were still being read out six hours later. 

The morning  of September 11th 2001 was just like any other but at 8.46am the world changed forever. Although the natural world order was turned upside down so many  everyday lives were destroyed within a few hours. 

Whether it was the  stockbroker who instantly died in his office with his phone in his hand, the waitress who died in the Windows of the World restaurant, the fireman who rushed back into the towers only to perish amongst the falling rubble, the mayor of  Ploughkeepsie who still does not know what happened to her husband or the just  average New Yorker who knew their city would never be the same again.

9/11 changed everything. Speaking to so many New Yorkers on the fourth  anniversary it is obvious what an all encompassing event the terrorist attacks  were, everybody knows somebody who was personally affected by the man made  disaster. 

Some stories are desperately sad but others are inspiring,  there are so many tales of people getting up late or missing the train and  surviving where all their colleagues died. 

Rotarians were affected like  everyone else; West Point Rotarian Gerry Sheehan was in charge of the New York  Police Department Bomb Squad on that fateful day. 

He got to the World  Trade Centre as the first tower collapsed.  

"You could not see a thing -  there was a state of confusion. It was pitch black and we soon realised many of  our colleagues had died," he said. 

Gerry found his friend of 30 years,  fire chief Louis Garcia, and they set up an emergency command post. On  9/11 split-second decisions decided whether it was life or death for many. They  decided to move their makeshift command centre a few hundred metres away from the towers. 

 Minutes later the second tower collapsed and the first  command post was destroyed. 

 "I will never forget the sound of the tower falling. It was like a muffled roar as the building collapsed. 

 “There was smoke  everywhere - the only way we knew where we were was because the River Hudson was  behind us," explained Gerry. 

 "The Fire Brigade hierarchy had all been  killed and there were no mobile phones working, so coordinating the rescue  effort was a near impossible task." 

Off duty policemen and firemen came  to the disaster site, often putting their personal grief aside to pull people  from the rubble. After commandeering land phone lines, the true extent  of the attack was revealed. 

The Pentagon was hit and heroic plane  passengers had foiled hijackers flying to the White House. Then the phone  calls started. 

 

"People were phoning in reporting bombs all over the city  and we had to investigate every one of them," he said. 

Gerry does not  like being called a hero. But he realises how lucky he is. 

"After 9/11 I  cherish my family a lot more and I spend a lot more time with them. I try not to  be critical of small mistakes that people make.

"I stayed on until the  first anniversary, in case anything happened, then I retired. "I think  about it a lot but the memories are fading.

“If I go to Manhattan I visit Ground  Zero but I do my grieving in private." 

Ground Zero is an eiree,  emotional and unique place, the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end and a  lump comes to the throat as you walk around a desolate 16 acre site where  thousands died in one morning. Craning your neck and imagining the half a mile  high superstructures collapsing is heart stopping, upsetting and overwhelming.  

There is not much laughing or joking though the macabre pose for photos and twin towers trinkets are sold for a few dollars. 

The New York and  Hudson Valley Rotary District was emersed in the rescue and recovery in the  hours, days, months and years after the disaster. 

Rotarians gave up  their holidays to help the volunteers clear the rubble and look for survivors at  Ground Zero. My host for a week in Woodstock, Michele Lerner, was one of the  thousands of Rotarians to help out four years ago. 

"My first cousin was in the World Trade Centre as were a few close friends," she said. 

"It was a very  sad time for New York, you could feel the death hanging in the air around Ground  Zero." 

"We went down and served food in a restaurant at ground zero to  all the workers and policeman, we all had to show we were doing something to  help." 

 

Though the deaths took place in down town Manhatten the victims  were from across the world. It is still the biggest single loss of British  life in a terrorist attack. 

But it was the tri-state area of Conneticut,  New Jersey and New York that was deeply affected. Throughout the state there  are small villages and towns that were so cruelly touched by 9/11. Several  communities have a concentration of firemen or policemen and the shiny new  memorials dotted on village greens across the Hudson Valley betray the human  sacrifice of the men and women who served their community with the ultimate  sacrifice.

The confirmed death toll stands at 2948 and there is still 24  reported dead and 24 people still missing. 

 

Stephanie King from Highland  Rotary Club remembered the chilling day. 

 

"We were all devastated, the  planes flew from Boston and straight down the Hudson River into the World Trade  Centre it was horrible," she said. 

But Stephanie explained America  pulled together. "There were so many people volunteering they were getting in  the way at one stage." 

 

There was a little trepidation in the air as the  anniversary of the terrorist attacks approached. 

 

At a bizarre event in Ulster  County, New York called the Renaissance Faire 20,000 Americans came to get a  taste of ye olde Britain. 

 

There were less than expected but there seemed  to be no worries about the terror threat. Despite getting the historical period  wrong by about 200 years, (I am pretty sure Robin Hood was not around during the renaissance period) the New York attitude shone through the fake 

British accents  that greeted every visitor. 

 

A Brooklyn native, dressed in English  attire, working on the faire was not giving in to the terrorists.

"The Government  tell everyone to stay in for 9/11 anniversary, why should we stay in and watch the twin towers fall down on the TV fifteen times, we need to get on with life."  

And that is exactly what the people of this remarkable place have done.



 

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