Thursday, 1 September 2011

Birthday in Ruegen rain

My birthday in Germany seems a long way off now. The island of Ruegen wasn't kind to me on my birthday - it tipped it down! What a difference from glorious sunshine at Mount Saint Helens last year - but it was definitely an interesting place...
I found out that a couple of people have won The Telegraph just back competition twice. (One competitor twice this year). Thought I'd have another go. My story didn't win - but here it is.

We arrived on the island of Rügen on my birthday:  For me the sky should have been pure sapphire-blue, not this stippled grey-black, the sea turquoise rather than drab mercury; the chalk cliffs bone-white instead of this ghostly ash under the mist. No child-painted yellow sun splashed onto the sky, just pearl-grey raindrops.
No lilting happy-go-lucky island voices either. Instead - the machine gun-fire of Teutonic precision. At the campsite, the owner took my details: Name, Adresse, Alter? Solemnly he rattled the details into an ancient computer.
‘Ah, it’s your birthday,’ and his face broke into a smile. ‘Wait a minute’ and he reached for a large bottle of blackberry wine. ‘Willkommen auf Rügen. Have a look and pitch your tent wherever you want’.
We viewed the fields on the edge of the woods. They lay under water. We peered through black beech trees. Everything underfoot was sodden. We returned to the field at the top, and elbowed our way in between two Dutch, pushing aside a table to secure the only dry pitch on the site. I prayed they wouldn’t hold it against me.
The rain was relentless. We escaped into the campsite restaurant, ’Zur Spechthöhle’.  The Woodpecker Cave was a strange metal contraption built in segments, each segment smaller than the one before. It felt like we had entered a warm, damp womb.
The larger-than-life proprietor stepped out from behind the bar: unruly beard, ruddy-red cheeks, and an overall that stretched over a large belly. He looked as if he had come in straight from the fields.
I guessed he would have been born around the time the wall went up; grown up in the old GDR. He would have seen the wall tumble. I wondered if he liked his new world, including the foreign campers.
His voice boomed out, ‘Morgen scheint die Sonne’ and the campers broke into spontaneous applause. ‘My wife, the cook, has promised it’. His black eyes twinkled mischievously, ‘And if it doesn’t, I will cook all evening’.
Next morning, we peeped out of our tent with dewy eyes to see a watery sun. We headed for Prora. I gazed at the stark concrete buildings, covered in graffiti, windows smashed; weeds taking possession. So this was the Nazi’s dream holiday camp – in ruins but tenacious. A poignant symbol.
We wandered onto wet mustard sand and viewed the buildings that stretched out of sight. It takes an hour to walk end to end at 3 miles long. The camp was built to accommodate 20,000, but the war began and Prora never saw a single holiday-maker. 
The sky darkened and the heavens opened. Then from the grey concrete a freshly-painted section appeared.
‘Welcome to the longest Youth Hostel in the world’, a sign greeted us.
We entered a gleaming building, bustling with hostellers. I asked the smiling receptionist if we could have a coffee. As I warmed my hands on a steaming mug of coffee, the rain ceased and a small strip of powder-blue appeared. It wasn’t pure sapphire but it held hope.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A Tale of 12 Cities - then 1

 Amsterdam, Barcelona, Budapest, Dubrovnik, Florence, Heidelberg, Istanbul, Krawow, L'viv, Tallin,Venice, Vienna:
These were the 12 cities I presented to Tom, asking him to choose 1 of the 12 for a birthday treat.
Diverse in choice, you could say.

As the time for our city break grew closer, I realised I had my favourites. After a long, hard winter, and a taste of warmth in the preceding week, I realised I wanted to head south for some sunshine.
I had my own shortlist - Barcelona, Istanbul and Venice (maybe Florence). But of course, the destination had long been arranged.

The day arrived. We drove to Luton airport. I walked around with my eyes on the ground (for fear of give away departure signs), feeling slightly disconcerted and claustrophobic. Occasionally, I heard northern languages. I convinced myself we were heading to a Russian satelite country.
I made it to the gate. Then Tom told me I had to put my bag in my hand luggage. The earphones attached to my MP3 had to come off as they were tangled up in my bag. At that moment they announced the destination - BARCELONA.
Could I have made it to Barcelona without knowing? Who knows. Difficult though, with all the loud Spanish spoken over the speakers on the plane!

On the first day, despite the metro multi tickets we had bought, we walked everywhere, soaking up the Mediterranian warmth. The old town was a maze of narrow streets and solid appartment blocks, mingled with modern sculpture and art. Finally, we made it to the sea.

I couldn't help but think of Prince Charles when I was in Barcelona. The architecture is innovative, courageous and inspirational. What would Charles have made of it?
Tom and I, tried to imagine Charles born in any other century, dismissing Tutor, Georgian, Victorian architecture along the way. Architects must roll their eyes - or laugh out loud when he speaks out against The Gerkin, or any other inspirational landmark on the London horizon.
But in Barcelona, they embrace the new, the imaginative, the creative.
The 'modernisme' period produced art noveau at its best. The Gaudi buildings are unrestrained in their fantasy, but are stunningly beautiful at the same time.

La Pedrera was sarconically nicknamed 'the quarry' by locals. The Casa Batllo is verging on Disney kitch, yet it is strangely aesthetically beautiful in form and use of materials.
The Sagrada Familia is the most controversial of all Gaudi's projects. Started in the late 1800s, the building is only half complete. Some architects are horrified that Gaudi's organic aesthetic has been abandoned in favour of modern building methods. The cartoon-like sculpted figures recently added are seen as a betrayal of Gaudi's vision.
Still the building forges ahead, and the aim is to finish it by 2026 (anniversary of Gaudi's death). Some say, it may be finished this century.
For myself, when I entered the Sagrada Familia, I was moved as I have never been moved before inside a church - the scale of the building, the light, the stain-glassed windows, the unrestrained vision, the celebration of the natural world.

Since Franco died, the Barcelonians haven't stopped building: for the Olympics and for the new millienniuum. The port is awash with exciting new buildings - so much so that Barcelona was awarded a prestigeous architecture award - the first time to a city, rather than to an individual.

I loved Barcelona. The down side to our break? Not having enough time. Feeling shattered from packing in so much.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

In Someone Else's World

The email came hot on the heels of the Telegraph Justback competition win email - just a few hours later. It read:

'I am delighted to tell you that you are one of the three finalists for our BGTW/Traveller Travel Writing Competition for your piece: "A portrait of a city - Zurich Ghosts".
I am not able to tell you at this stage whether you have won first, second or third place - this will be announced at the BGTW Yearbook Launch at the London Transport Museum on Tuesday March 8 between 6.30pm and 9pm for which an invitation is attached and I do hope you'll be able to attend in person.
Perhaps you could let me know and meantime, many congratulations'.

At first I thought it was a joke. I never won anything - or at best the last prize (and therefore the rubbish prize that noone wants) in a raffle.
And now I had won two travel writing prizes in one evening.

I travelled down to London and met Tom, my husband, at Covent Garden. Strange to meet up in London 'san infants'. We enjoyed a meal together and made our way to the Transport Museum.
The venue was strange - all the great and the good of travel writing seemed to be there, crammed between ancient London trams, cabs and buses. The journalists were networking furiously as I stood there awkwardly with Tom, feeling I was trespassing on someone elses world.
A travel magazine accountant introduced himself, and a PR person from one of the ferry companies. No influential travel writers/editors for me then! Where was Simon Calder? I spotted the organiser of the competition, and introduced myself. I knew then, I hadn't won first prize as she seemed distracted - and was clearly still searching for the winner!

Still I had my five minutes of fame. I made my way to the podium to collect my prize (Two cityjet tickets) feeling slightly embarassed.
I spoke to the organisers afterwards who were sweetly complementary about my piece.
Second prize ain't bad - and I wasn't sure I wanted to go to writing school (A writing holiday was the first prize). Suddenly the thought of writing about my morning in a souk as soon as I had visited felt like too much pressure! Now I knew how the children felt in school.

So, we made our way home, goody bags in hand (I now have a proper black journalist's notebook for making notes when travelling!)

We stopped at my sister's house in Hitchin where I had left the car, had a quick cup of tea and left at 10pm, thinking we'd make it back to Matlock by midnight. (Big mistake to calculate when you'll get home). Just outside Hitchin the car lights failed. After waiting an hour in a grubby pub someone turned up to sort us out. At 12.15am, lights fixed,  we headed for the motorway - to find the sliproad closed. We had no choice but to travel south before travelling north. Then just outside Matlock, Tom drove over a large plastic container that jammed under the car. I had to get down on my hands and knees in the middle of the road, and pull with all my might to get it out.
Finally we crawled into our street just after 2.30am.

'Na ja', as the Germans say - all in a days work!

The thing is, I'm hooked now - I've just entered my third competition. Maybe my good luck will run out now.

Here's a link to the piece:

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The folly of New Year resolutions?

Okay, I recant. The resolutions made back in January have paid off - or at least one of them has. It has focused my mind; made me have a go; ultimately allowed me to succeed.
All the cliches ring true: 'If at first you don't succeed...', 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained'...
I decided to enter the Just Back Competition with The Telegraph, a weekly competition for would-be travel writers. I duly sent in my first attempt...and didn't win. Husband Tom said, 'try again - the more you enter the higher your chances of winning'. So I tried again...and again...and again...until I had had seven goes and was slowing coming to the conclusion that my writing ambitions were indeed folly! Maybe it was time to throw the towel in.
In the meantime, I was working out what the editorial team went for in choosing their winners. But just as I was running out of stories and self-belief, the email arrived:
'Congratuations, you are this week's winner of The Telegraph'.
The next day, the article was online. The day after, it was on the back page of The Telegraph Travel section. There was something really sweet about seeing my name in print within the pages of a National Broadsheet and the experience has left me wanting more...
Here's the article:

By Helen Moat 10:43AM GMT 18 Feb 2011
Saturday 12 March 2011
Just back: into the Ngorongoro
Helen Moat wins this week's Just Back travel writing competition for this tale of a nail-biting encounter on the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania.

The odds are 50-50. Two jeeps. Two drivers. One has a death wish; the second wants to see another day. We just don't know it yet. None the less, my husband peers into the Tanzanian night, sizing up the relative merits of each jeep and its driver. It's a pointless exercise in the gloom, but he strides with confidence towards his chosen vehicle. Meekly, his brood follows behind.

The others in our group clamber into the second jeep, and we're off. It's six in the morning, and although I'm still groggy with sleep, my stomach is churning with anticipation. We are visiting the Ngorongoro. Even the name, as it rolls around my tongue, is full of African promise.

Soon we are skirting the crater rim. To our left, lush vegetation drips with dew. To our right, the land plunges hundreds of feet to the crater floor. A buffalo looms out of the darkness, nostrils spilling clouds of icy breath, and gazes disdainfully at us as we cautiously inch around it.

We are drifting onwards when, from nowhere, the second jeep appears. It lunges towards us, screams past, then swerves back in before skidding to a halt inches from the precipice. John, our driver, slams on his brakes. Luckily, a burst tyre is the only casualty.
Wheel changed, we continue along the rim in the half-light and shifting mist. Then, without warning, the cloud disperses to reveal a biblical scene straight from Genesis. Shivering, we climb out of the jeep; the air is thin and cold at this altitude. It is strangely still.

When God visualised creation, this is surely what he saw – the Ngorongoro.

Far below our feet, we see swathes of forest, grasslands and marsh. At its centre, a pale shimmering lake echoes the arc of the caldera. Flamingos create a pink ribbon on the water's edge. Roaming across this mammoth stage are lion, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, gazelle, antelope, elephant and ostrich. It is teeming with life. Then we tumble down into the crater and watch the greatest natural show on Earth.

Later, as we climb out, the kamikaze driver overtakes us again, loses control and comes to a halt. This time he has broken his axle and is reduced to front-wheel drive. Repeatedly, he tries to move off, but his wheels simply spin on the gravel.

John tries to ram the damaged jeep into action and fails. As he smacks it with ever increasing force, I clutch the seat under me, convinced we will be thrown to our deaths below, fodder for hungry lions.

The others abandon their hapless jeep, seeping oil now, and climb into ours. When it's crammed to the gills, we crawl to the top of the caldera. I step out of our jeep, jelly-kneed, and inspect the damage. To my amazement, there is nothing worse than a broken bolt on the bull-bars.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Who the heck is Rabbie Burns anyway?

Tomorrow is the 25th January, Burns' Night, celebrated by Scots the world over. We've got the Haggis and neeps laid in. Husband Tom has polished up his performance of Burns' poem, 'To a Haggis'

The English have Shakespeare. Everyone knows who Shakespeare is - after all, we quote his plays at every turn: 'eaten me out of house and home', 'dead as a door nail', come 'full circle', disappeared 'into thin air', 'play fast and loose', 'foregone conclusion', 'neither here nor there', 'bag and baggage, 'too much of a good thing', 'the long and the short of it', 'elbow room', 'there's the rub', , 'what's done is done', 'in one fell swoop' 'short shrift,' 'laughing stock,' ...and so they go on and on...

The English have Shakespeare...and... well, the Scots have Burns. And how many Burns' quotations are used in everyday speech? Well there's 'the best laid plans of mice and men', and there's...well that's it really.

On top of that, how do you take a man seriously who has written poems entitled: 'To a Mouse', 'To a Louse', 'The Twa Dogs', 'To a Haggis', 'Tam O'Shanter', 'My Nanie's Awa', and 'For a 'That and a' That'.
My Dad dismissed Burn's as a 'drunkard and a womaniser' (don't think he realised he was a failed farmer as well, or he would have been even more dismissive).

But for the Scots, he is a national treasure: poet extraoardinaire, lover of Don Quixotesque proportions, champion of the common people, champion of the Scottish language, champion of Scotland generally.

Yet, before you non-Scots dismiss him too, just remember this - we don't greet the new year with Shakespeare, but rather with the words of Burns, 'Auld Lang Syne'.

So, we're ready to salute the great bard again. We've already had round one of celebrations. Our friend Bill, has turned haggis and neeps into a gourmet meal. Tom has turned his rendition of 'To a haggis' into a performance of Shakespearean dimensions; all dramatic delivery, Olivier pauses, arm sweeping, knife welding, haggis stabbing. And in all of this, the guests sit in bemused bewilderment, wondering what the dickens he is saying.
Just as well really. One Burns' Night, I had a fit of the giggles when I realised that Tom was about to insult the French and French cuisine through the words of the poem -  as a French guest and restuarant chef - sat there listening (thank goodness) with no idea of what was being said!

So here's to you, Rabbie Burns!