Thursday, 23 October 2008

Beware the amateur review

I came across the following reader's review today, on a well established web site, of Cote in Wimbledon, a relatively new local restaurant which has impressed me greatly: "Great food, a nice atmosphere, but the most truly French thing about this place is rude service".

Here we go again, I groaned. It was not just that I had found the service there to be perfectly in order - more that the post yet again highlighted that tired old anti-French prejudice which seems to run and run whatever the reality.

How is it that in countless visits to that country during more than four decades, I have rarely if ever encountered this legendary rudeness?

Indeed, while the British have improved in recent years, service in French restaurants - never regarded there as a demeaning job - has been consistently better.

Reading the post was no different, I suppose, to listening to a man in the pub. But it was a reminder nonetheless of the downside of Internet chatter and the need to take on line amateur reviews with a large pinch of salt.

Friday, 17 October 2008

French hotel pick - the Loire

"Looks a bit close to the motorway", warned my wife, inspecting the map as we drove south from Chartres - and she was right. The Auberge de la Brenne at Neulle-le-Lierre was indeed only a stone's thrown from the autoroute which links Paris with the Loire Valley.

But in early evening, as we checked in we could hear only the faint rush of traffic, and from inside, nothing.

Our rooms, in a large, renovated village house 50 metres or so from the building which houses the restaurant (part of a former railway station), were adequately spacious and charming. Bathrooms had modern showers which you didn't need to squeeze into. Our relatives from New England, who were unfamiliar with provincial France, and for whom this was a first taste, were impressed. "Don't be fooled", we advised. "Not all the rooms you stay in will be this elegant."

Maybe not all the food, either. Dinner was excellent. The choice of starters on the 31 euro three course menu we chose were a wonderful tart of delicate pastry with sun dried tomatoes, onion compote and local goat cheese or a terrine of rabbit in a sauvignon jelly. Mains included a dish of the day of confit de porc cooked a second time in a jus. Among the puddings was a sable with light apricot cream and home made yogurt with raspberries.

As we breakfasted on croissants, fresh baguette and home made preserves - including green tomato jam - we mentioned we would have stayed another night if Tuesday hadn't been their day off. No problem, said the owner. If you don't mind eating what I decided to cook, you can. He produced a similarly balanced three courses, including a delicious main of guinea fowl.

If you go via Rouen and Chartes. the Auberge de la Brenne is a good 5hr drive from Calais. To get there in time for diner you need to take a crossing departing from Dover at around 9am.

The hotel is well placed for visits to Amboise, on the Loire, and that most stunning of chateaux, Chenonceaux. where it is possible to make a gentle walking circuit. This takes you beneath the much photographed arched galleries of the chateau which span the River Cher. You can find details currently on the web site of Sigma Press, which publishes Judy Smith's guide Holiday Walks in the Loire Valley

A double room with breakfast and a three course dinner for two ranges between approximately £112  and £140 at the current exchange rate. Drinks extra.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

India's restaurant hygiene drive

India's Food Safety and Standards Agency is to publish a directory of 1000 eateries whose hygiene is a defence - if not proof - against the debilitating effects of "Delhi belly".

The move comes ahead of the Commonwealth Games in two years' time, and is aimed at ensuring athletes do not miss out on medals while confined to their bathrooms.

It reminds me of the extreme precautions taken by past tourists, including the perhaps apocryphal story of one American who, on being presented with a cocktail in a bar, inquired: "but did they boil the ice cubes?"

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

How to get stranded passengers home

When addressing the issue of scheduled airline passenger protection it is necessary to separate two questions: how to ensure travellers are reimbursed for flights paid for but not taken; and how to get them home if they are already abroad when an airline collapses.

A reader, noting the advantages of scheduled airline insurance in a comment below, prompts me to deal with this distinction. Taking out insurance is one way to make sure you do not lose your fare payments if the carrier fails before you depart. Paying by credit card - provided the amount it over £100 - is another.

The repatriation issue is much trickier. I believe it must be tackled by bringing scheduled passenger into the ATOL protection system which covers package holidaymakers. This, of course, would not provide advance warning that an airline was running into trouble, though the Civil Aviation Authority, which operates it, has a good record of minimising damage to holidaymakers. That is to say it usually ensures that operators do not fail with the maximum number of customers abroad.

But by paying a mere £1 per flight into a recently established fund which protects tour operator customers, scheduled passengers would be assured of getting home without facing unexpected bills for one way fares. They could either return on aircraft chartered especially or on other carriers, which would be able to recoup costs from the fund.

In the aftermath of very big failures, which require immensely complex rescue airlifts, passengers might not get back exactly when they had planned, or even to the right airports. But this would be an enormous improvement on the present situation, in which repatriation of scheduled passengers depends largely on their ability to shell out for a one way ticket and recover the payment from an insurer - or on the availability of seats on other carriers at arbitrarily fixed single fares.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Shifting sands - a hike in North Jutland

To battle against a fresh gale on one of North Jutland's seemingly endless, shining beaches is to feel the raw force of nature. Gusts this strong, says Villy Hansen, can shift up to three tonnes of sand in 24 hours.

On such days there is reason to be thankful for a nip of one of Villy's home made specials, wild herbs or flowers steeped in vodka, sometimes boosted by the addition of a little extra, flavourless liquor, and sweetened with acacia honey.

Each morning he brings a different bottle, fishing it out of his back pack after we have walked for an hour or so. The first is made with bog myrtle leaves. Next it's bell heather, then Burnet rose hips. We come to think of it as a sort of alcoholic elevenses.

Villy joins us each day to explain the ecology of this curious landscape. Preconceptions of flat and featureless Danish farmland are quickly dispelled. There may be no imposing hills and tumbling streams but there is drama enough in the immense skies and the restless sea which continues to shape and extend the country's northernmost spit at Grenen, where Skagerrak and Kattegat meet, and The waves clash like warriors in close combat.

It is the wind whipped sand which provides the chief fascination: not Blake's single grain in which to see the world – though Villy carries a magnifying glass with which to identify the minerals each represents - but billions of them, which have changed people's lives.

On the first morning we walk through a forest of conifers, planted in the late 19th century to stem the march of dunes and emerge at a curious farmhouse, sole survivor of its kind, with a windmill built into its roof. Once there were dozens of them but excessive use of the land, partly for sheep grazing, allowed the sand to invade. Some families struggled on. One, over eleven generations and on 14 separate occasions, were forced either to slow the progress of the dunes with spades or shift heir home, lock stock and barrel.

At Raabje the little church, built without a tower perhaps to avoid the attention of for fear of seaborne marauders, remains. But the village of 100 or so residents which provided its community, once obliged by law to attend services, is long gone. The stones that built it came from Lubeck, in northern Germany, by sea and then via a system of lakes and rivers since drained. Fish was exported in the opposite direction. In the churchyard is the grave of one Carl Andersen, a local poet who heard one day that his namesake Hans Christian was travelling up the coast. Carl set out in the hope of meeting his hero - but the innkeeper decided he was too undistinguished to be allowed in.

More recently the dunes have been planted with marram grass which, besides halting their progress, makes it easier for the hiker to climb them. They constitute an unexpectedly wild landscape. Cranes have returned to breed on marshy ground around small lagoons, where they may be safe from foxes. Oystercatchers fly up and circle noisily at our approach, warning us from their nests. Red deer browse in the bushes. If you are lucky, you might see a golden eagle.

One evening Villy takes us out in search of nightjars. He hopes they will come close to catch the bugs which plague us but though we hear their calls, like the puttering of mopeds, we see only their dark shapes, flitting briefly between branches. But it is worth being out after dinner to glory in the long light that attracted a school of painters around the start of the last century, whose works are to be seen at the nearby Skagen Museum.

It also provides the opportunity to climb the Raabje Mile free of the company of sightseers who can park their cars at its foot. The Raabje Mile, high point of what Villy calls the Danish desert, is a dune which has been left, for research, in its unhindered state. Eventually, if still unchecked, it will continue eastwards until it cuts one of the main roads and the railway line linking Skagen with the south.

Countless wrecked ships have been washed up on these shores. We find a section of wooden hull, of indeterminate age. Villy shows us spoons from one vessel which foundered some time in the 1900s.

We hike for three days, covering in total between 30 and 40 miles. To make a week of it we spend a night each in the lively university city of Arhus, with its pavement cafes and lovely cathedral, and Aalborg, whose tourist office provides an excellent guide booklet conducting the visitor
on foot around its sites of historical and architectural interest. The rest of the time we spend in Skagen, a busy port and hugely popular resort, walking out to Grenen past huge Second World War German bunkers, some subsiding but largely still intact, whose vanished guns were aimed an preventing enemy access to the Baltic.

Just before ending our walk there we climb the tower which is the only part of the extraordinary Tilsandedekirke still visible. The rest was buried after worshippers, towards the end of the 18th century, wearied of digging their way in and sought royal permission to close the church.

We dine royally on superb fish soup and lemon sole at the Skagen Fish Restaurant – where sand is spread on the floor - and return to the museum, to see how art reflects reality. That special light, bouncing between sea and sky, is unmistakeable. It glows on the faces of Michael Ancher's rugged fishermen, softly bathes PS Kroyer's wife Marie, as she stands at the water's edge. We can now vouch for their inspiration. We, have seen it first hand.

This article originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine

Air passenger protection - time to catch the wind of change

Airlines continue to face severe difficulties. Even though oil prices have dropped the advantages are being offset by the weakness of sterling against the US dollar and the looming downturn in major world economies.

In the past I have advised readers to pay by credit card or to seek out scheduled airline failure insurance - SAFI as it is known in the travel business - which ensures you get your money back if a carier goes bust. That remains my advice.

But travellers do not always pay by credit card. And it is ever clearer that SAFI, which is at best a double edged sword, is not a satisfactory long term solution, either.

Just as banks are now likely - whatever the Government decrees - to become more cautious about lending to those they regards as in any way risky, providers of such insurance are unlikely to offer it to passengers booking with potentially shaky airlines.

The withdrawal of cover can clearly exacerbate problems for the airline involved, possibly even driving it under when there might have been a chance of bailing it out. The travel industry grapevine is such that news of a withdrawal spreads rapidly. And while travel agents may be cautious of steering customers away from the relevant airline, they are certainly less likely to recommend it.

So we go back with the need to include scheduled airlines in the protection system already afforded to package holidaymakers. The recent XL impressed on the Government the complications which arise when a company carries both protected and unprotected passengers.

Othe companies may step in to help with the rescue of customers already abroad, as firms such as Thomas Cook, TUI and First Choice did after XL capsized. But they do not want to subject their reps in resorts and at airports to the risk of verbal - or perhaps physical - assault by angry unprotected passengers who feel they are being treated as second class citizens.

This would be less of a headache if most of those unprotected understood and accepted the risks they were taking, but research has shown that a huge proportion do not.

The two class system has to go. The notion that in an age of unfettered competition, scheduled passengers should sort out their own protection, is surely discredited.

The astonishing results of the banking crisis suggest that the wind has veered against the untempered free market. Governments have been forced to think what was, only months ago, unthinkable. The US administration has introduced measures which would have been seen in much of that country as extreme socialism.

By extension, political minds may by more persuadable. Ensuring scheduled airline passengers are not left stranded or out of pocket may be a minor consideration against the backdrop of global financial meltdown. But if not now, when?