Thursday, 26 May 2016

On the trail of asparagus

Green and white asparagus - image courtesy German National Tourist Office

What’s green in England and white in Germany? The answer, most commonly at least, is asparagus. Both are excellent, their taste enhanced by the brevity of the season, which acts as a sort of asparagus interruptus. In Germany much more is made of it. Chalk written notices outside restaurants trumpet that der Spargelsaison has arrived. Roadside kiosks selling it open all over the place. It’s not unusual to find, on a menu, a dish incorporating a whole kilo of it, sometimes eaten with ham. There’s still time to drive over for the current season, which ends officially on midsummer’s day, June 24, or Johannistag –said also to be the birthday of St John the Baptist – sometimes called Spargelweihnachten or Spargelsylvester (asparagus Christmas or New Year’s Eve). The popularity of the vegetable was given a big leg up by French King Louis X1V, though there’s no record of him saying “let them eat asparagus”. It became established on princely tables in what is now Germany after the Elector of Palatine developed a taste for it around the end the 18th century. The German National Tourist Office is now promoting two “asparagus trails”. One in Baden, the other in Lower Saxony.

Lower Saxony trail - image courtesy German National Tourist Office

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Airline boss warns on Brexit fares risk

Gdansk, Poland - choice of such destinations could be hit by Brexit
Good to hear easyJet boss Carolyn McCall on Radio 4's Today programme, confirming my earlier warnings about the threat to low air fares in Europe if the UK votes to leave the EU. Though she was careful not to state unequivocally that fares would rise she made it plain that conditions would be such that they might. Under the EU Open Skies regime easyJet could fly where it liked without facing obstructions. EasyJet, for example, can establish bases at airports in other EU countries. Outside it life would become much more complicated. UK airlines would need to negotiate rights, perhaps to maintain such bases, perhaps operate on individual routes, for which there might be a price. As I have already noted on this site, civil aviation, has long been a political football. Just look at the row over low cost carrier Norwegian's efforts to launch budget flights from Cork using an Irish - and therefore EU - registered - subsidiary. And on top of all that the free movement of workers in Europe has clearly benefited leisure travellers by widening the choice of destinations served by low cost airlines. Witness the huge range of cities in central and eastern Europe that you may now explore without breaking the bank.

Friday, 20 May 2016

On location in the Welsh marches

Chirk Castle topiary
Conrad Hilton famously professed that the three most important ingredients of a successful hotel were location, location and location. That may explain why, in the tiny North Wales village of of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, there are two places to stay - the West Arms and The Hand. The setting would be hard to beat. There are few places that keep drawing me back so frequently. This time it was just a one night stop, a diversion on the way to the Lancashire fells, so there was no time to enjoy some of the Ceiriog Valley's superb walking (you may read my account of a longer visit here - including the story of how, but for the intervention of Lloyd George, the village might have been submerged long ago to provide water for brewing in Warrington). But there was time to explore Chirk Castle, at the eastern end of the valley, and to walk for a while cross and beyond Thomas Telford's astounding aqueduct that carries the Llangollen canal high above green meadows below.

Aqueduct with 19th century rail viaduct alongside

All along the valley road the verges were splashed with daffodils - as were the castle gardens.

We ambled around the castle through the extensive woods, a medieval hunting park, past a birdwatching hide above a leafy slope where a nuthatch, its underparts somewhere between pale brown obliged by putting in a brief appearance. The castle is one of that defensive chain of border strongholds built when Edward I was battling to subdue the Welsh in the hills to the west. Captured rebel leaders were incarcerated in its dungeons.

It was built at the end of the 13th century by Roger Mortimer, who had become captain of the English army. After that a chequered period saw five of its owners executed for treason until the Myddleton family made it their home in 1595 - and stayed put for 400 years. Much later the castle was rented by the de Walden family. Lord "Tommy" de Walden was involved in the development of first world war tanks. He was a supporter of Dylan Thomas. I lingered over the guest book in the Bow drawing room, spotting the signatures of Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc. Those of King George V and Queen Mary and also there - and that of George Bernard Shaw. In a room nearby jerky black and white cine film plays, taken by and of the de Waldens and their guests, riding, skating. Pugin had a hand in some of the interior design. The gardens, with their sweeping views over the surrounding landscape, are magnificent. They stretch down to a ha-ha, a short, steep drop designed to keep animals out without breaking the line of sight. But it's perhaps the topiary that gives the sharpest insight into a world where the rich and powerful could afford armies of labour. Even today it takes six weeks to trim the sculpted yew introduced in 1873 by Richard Myddleton Biddulph. Imagine how long it must have taken back then.

And so, after strolling on the castle lawns for a while, to the The Hand, with its eponymous wooden sculpture by the front entrance. The sculpture reflects symbol, in evidence at the castle, that has given birth to several colourful myths. The truth, according to the National Trust, is that baronetcies that funded King James I's campaigns in Ireland were allowed to incorporate the "red hand of Ulster" in their arms. Though these days it has a spa, The Hand is essentially a pub with a restaurant and rooms. It sits at the feet to the Berwyn mountains, whose sometimes bitter weather imposed untold misery on King Edward's mercenaries from balmy southern Europe. The main restaurant was quiet, so we ate Welsh lamb and beef in the bar and ignored the lure of wine in favour of cask bitter. In the morning, taking a run in defiance of pittering rain under chilly grey skies, the silence was broken only by the occasional care or bus, the bleating of 
sheep - and the rush of river water.

Double rooms with a full breakfast range from £95 to £135. Roast rump of lamb, with broccoli puree, broccoli crumbs & a redcurrant reduction costs £16.50. You might not have room for anything else. And they'e honest enough to tell you on the menu that they serve pies from McCardle's, and excellent butcher's in Chirk. If you're on your way home, don't miss the can ce to go shopping there.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

BA confirms free shortfall economy food may go

British Airways' new chief executive has confirmed that the airline is considering whether to axe free food in economy on short haul flights. Quoted in an interview with Travel Weekly he promises that if it does happen, BA's meals will be the best on offer. It was also possible passengers would be able to order their choices in advance. According to one report it might provide snacks bought in from Waitress. Would paying on board be such a bad thing? Not in my opinion. The airline's current snacks aren't enough if you're starving and are redundant if you're heading home for dinner. If I was really hungry I would certainly be happy to pay for one of those very acceptable curries that the airline offers on longer flights, for example, though that's probably a wish too far. Behind the speculation lies the impact of low fare airlines, whose services have been going through a period of mushroom growth (see earlier report here). It has not been lost on observers that BA's newly installed chief executive came from one of those carriers - the Spanish airline Vueling. Making passengers pay for their gin and tonics would be one way of shaving costs and helping it to compete more effectively on fares.

Friday, 13 May 2016

These shoes are make for walking - in the right direction

Shoes that tell you in which direction to walks have been tested by low cost airline easyJet. They are connected by Bluetooth to the satnav in your smart phone, which sends them a signal triggering a sensor in the appropriate shoe, which vibrates when you need to turn left or right. All users need to do is tap in their destination before setting off. easyJet says this latest example of wearable technology would allow sightseers to walk to museums or other attractions without the inconvenience of having to look at maps or even consult their phones. The airline calls the shoes "Sneakairs". It says it has already tried them outing Barcelona and could eventually be developed for passengers to buy on board.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Buy the sofa that softens the delay

Time was the airports were just places where you caught flights but the days when you couldn't get much more than a paperback and a some duty free booze or smokes are long gone. Now they're shopping malls. For passengers in search of new armchair, sofa, bookcase or coffee table, Amsterdam's Schiphol has pushed the boundaries of retail diversity by turning part of its terminal into a furniture showroom. Travellers passing through Piers H or will be able to check out the look and comfort designs of which is creating several "living rooms". Gideon Ruig, the airport's commercial development manager says it "must always remain innovative and adopt a pioneering role". The living rooms "give passengers a contemporary waiting area, with the opportunity to immediately order online all the products they are seeing and using".

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Equations in flight - don't do the maths

Airline security is like motherhood and apple pie: above criticism. But it shouldn't be. Is it any wonder that tighter inspections at US airports are causing thousands of passengers miss their flights (see my full story under news at when such an atmosphere of paranoia prevails? It's reported today from the US that an Italian university economics professor was taken off a domestic flight in Philadelphia after a fellow passenger became suspicious of his scribblings. Turns out he was writing down a differential equation. The mind, as they say, boggles. Couldn't a member of the crew have made an instant judgement on whether this man was a threat? Daft incidents should not just be dismissed as aberrations. They have the cumulative effect of making travellers take really useful security measures less seriously.