Dipping off for wee dram in LBJ's Washington watering hole
Posted on the 9th December 2015 in the category travel

There are times on press trips when I just have to dip off. Don’t get me wrong, I never miss a beat on an itinerary, I never am late to hold people up.

But sometimes I see something which I know I have to see, after all the chance of getting that chance again could never happen. In Washington I had one of those moments. We were having dinner opposite Martin’s Tavern.

The historic Georgetown boozer where the Kennedys, LBJ and almost every other 20th Century US politician of note drank before and after making history, in fact made history in there.

I’ve still not finished LBJ’s biography but I remembered Martin’s Tavern from the passages about the great Sam Rayburn, the wiley old fox of the senate, holding hushed meetings with LBJ.

As we were on a guided tour I knew I couldn’t get the guide to stop off there so I took my chance after I gobbled my food. We were with a tour group so no-one would miss me, even the elderly woman who said: “wow, someone from the stone age!” when I said I was a print journalist.

I said I was having a fag (cigarette, id already shocked a PR saying I’d been up early looking for fags) I knew I had ten minutes tops So I belted across the road and in to Martin’s Tavern.

The place was half full and had the atmosphere of place which has hosted a thousand great nights in its 82 years. I waited at the bar with the air of an elderly alcoholic seething as someone orders coffees in a Wetherspoons.

I asked for a whiskey – which one said the barmaid – they had about 50. I looked at the menu, I could only afford the Tullamore Drew, which narked me because I can get that at any off license.

I told the bemused staff I was a journalist and was there for a brief while and was there any chance I could have the cheapest whiskey and sit where LBJ and Rayburn sat all those years ago. Better than that they said, you can sit where Nixon used to sit in the 1940s and 1950s.

Are they taking the piss I thought? Or I could sit where President Truman sat or where JFK proposed to Jackie. Again, no I wanted LBJ booth. The chubby host took me to the back room, an oak panelled affair.

And there it was – up against the back wall – The LBJ booth, and thankfully no one was there. It was the perfect place to plan dark deeds, to talk in hushed tones about destroying careers, and there was no chance of being overheard as Rayburn and LBJ discussed plans deep into the night.

I wished my pal John was with me, I’d have loved to have had a long night in deep discussion about all sorts, we had spent a few hours in Washington last year, I wish I knew about Martin’s then. I sat down and gulped my whiskey and drank in the small room. Thoughts of a political career ran through my mind, ideas of conspiracy seeped into my thoughts and I wondered about the historic deeds that had taken place in this booth.

Perhaps LBJ came here the night before he passed the Civil Rights Bill, perhaps he came up with the bastardly blackmail plots to get Southern politicians to bend to his will. Perhaps that’s where LBJ came up with the plan to slander an opponent, so the legend goes he said: “I want him to deny that he has slept with a pig.”

I suppose I better finish the four volumes of Caro’s masterpiece to find out, but whatever happens I was so glad I got to sit in Martin’s Tavern for those brief few minutes before rejoining my group – who hadn’t missed me but noticed I was rather pleased with myself.

Whistlestop travel, don’t you just love it.


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.






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