Back in the early part of 2004, in the bad old days of Gaydar, I was innocently surfing around when a young Irishman popped his head over the parapet and said Hi.
HE turned out to be one of life’s exceptional men, although I didn’t know that at the time. Some weeks later we met, in Dublin, he lived in Galway and he cheekily bought himself a ticket to come to Brighton, not knowing how well we would get on. If it hadn’t gone well he would have simply thrown the ticket away. He liked Brighton and so after a few months moved over to live with me.
Michael Wall was quite simply one of life’s brightest, charming, intelligent and wonderful people anyone could wish for. We fell hopelessly in love, eventually, and settled into domestic bliss. We got Civil Partnered in 2006 and upgraded to marriage in 2014, happiness forever.
Some years later he was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, as a result of childhood abuse and professional homophobia. Over the next few years he became very anxious and depressed but we continued with our very happy and almost idyllic life and were managing his condition – changing jobs a few times while developing some skills that were very much in demand. But during the past few years his illness did not improve and he started drinking, this is the classic self medication a lot of depressed people take.
In June 2019, he felt the need for a rest and decided to take a few months off from the most perfect job he had ever had. Everything seemed to be fine but over the course of one weekend he drank a lot, this resulted in many visits to hospital but usually coming home with a reasonable clean bill of health.
On Thursday August 8, 2019 he felt quite ill and collapsed in my arms suffering from a cardiac arrest, his heart had simply stopped and he died. He was just 44 and in the standard clichés of these things still had the best part of his and our life ahead.
Living with a lover with depression is very challenging but loving him as much as I do this really didn’t matter and we coped quite well. His sudden death has turned the light out in my life, he will always be with me in our home and moreover in my heart.
To say that I will miss him is the most ridiculous understatement possible, my world has been destroyed and that is not too dramatic. Of course my life will go on, quite how and why is difficult to say. We are not religious at all but I like to think that one day, who knows, I maybe with him again. So this is farewell my darling but I will never say goodbye.
Michael has been a regular Gscene columnist for the last eleven years.
Roger Wheeler visits Sicily, the birthplace of the mafia, taking in Giarre, Syracuse, Palermo, Taormina and a trip up Mount Etna.
DON Vito Corleone’s famous quote from the Godfather followed us around Sicily. Mario Puzo the author of the book may well have been an American but he knew a lot about Sicily, its mafia the Cosa Nostra and La Camorra. You will see the technically fictitious name Corleone everywhere.
Principe di Corleone is the local wine company, nice wine but beware the serious men in suits in 30 degree heat, walking in to restaurants, sitting, smoking, being served something without question, nodding at some folk who almost bow at their feet, then leave again.
Sicily is stunning, dominated by the brooding presence of Mount Etna, technically a long dormant volcano until December 2018 that is. It is the largest Mediterranean island with a population of over 5 million and the same number of visitors each year.
There is an enormous variety of ancient ruins; the Greeks left lots as did the Norman French but strangely the Romans didn’t seem to be too bothered. Coming from the UK we weren’t too concerned about very old ruins but it seemed to be all the American tourists wanted to see.
Flying into Catania we drove the short distance to Giarre to find our hotel. Giarre is the original small Sicilian town, not particularly attractive, a main road with some shops and of course a very large church. Although it is almost on the coast, its seaside neighbour Riposto is equally uninspiring, just a large yacht harbour, some nice restaurants and a beach. Our hotel, in Giarre, originally named Hotel Etna, was very nice indeed and we would recommend a few nights there but not the 14 days that BA Holidays thought we should have.
Staying in Sicily you have to take a trip to Mount Etna as it is an unforgettable experience. Being taken in a very rugged 4×4 across lava fields and off-road through ancient forests was eventually worth it, the scenery was breathtaking. Walking across this desolate landscape we felt the awe-inspiring power of the volcano beneath our feet, very memorable.
You need a car, a few days in Giarre was enough so we set off to visit Palermo the capital city. The drive across the island was great, the mountains and vast rolling plains were a surprise and beautiful. Palermo is a fantastic Mediterranean city, shops, restaurants, great hotels, museums and churches definitely worth a couple of days of anyone’s time.
We chose what was reputed to be the best hotel on the island – Grand Hotel Villa Igiea – it’s part of the Accor group. We got a very great deal on a very nice room although it can cost up to 1,000 euros per night if you want to spend that sort of money.
Along with everything else, Sicily boasts some ‘must see’ places – one of these is Taormina, a beautiful little town high on the cliffs above the Ionian sea. It’s been a tourist destination for over two hundred years, with its famous Greco-Roman amphitheatre which is still in use; It is very attractive, lots of little lanes, shops and cafes with great views over the bay.
Being tourists we shouldn’t complain about other tourists but we still do. Taormina was uncomfortably packed and it wasn’t even high season. It draws thousands of tourists all year, we went, stayed half an hour had a coffee, bought the tee-shirt and left.
Escaping from Taormina we went to see one of the most spectacular sights on the island. The Alcantara Gorge, in the Gole Alcantara Botanical Park, this is one of the ‘must see’ places, very popular with families and therefore children but it should be seen. Beware of the gentlemen offering to ‘help’ you park, for money, its free.
It is very easy to get away from the tourists on the island; there are lots of very quiet small roads winding around the hills, through some fascinating small villages. Driving south along the coast there are some beautiful calm little fishing villages, appearing never to have seen a tourist.
We end in Syracuse, once the largest city in the ancient world, founded in 734 BC it’s awash with Greek ruins, lovely squares, a stunning waterside with all the usual cafes and restaurants and of course all the obligatory designer boutiques.
History surrounds you in Syracuse, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site; it is quite expectedly a beautiful city. If there is a ‘next time’ in Sicily then we would certainly stay here for a couple of days. Quick warning, anyone ‘helping’ you to park is to be avoided. We took this advice and probably saved ourselves literally hundreds of euros.
Eating well on Sicily is easy; there are so many excellent restaurants, the choice is difficult and naturally pizza is everywhere, but these are distant cousins to those we have at home. Some are so large it was impossible to finish, almost unrecognisable as a pizza, we even had one that had a topping of chips, maybe not the best idea but interesting and we ate it! In almost every restaurant we wondered what that gentleman in his three-piece suit was doing, he certainly wasn’t eating, we shouldn’t say any more!
Sicily is almost perfect, the climate, the history, the scenery, the towns and villages, the food, the wine and the people. Once is not enough!
It’s 1990 in a gay bar in Canal Street Manchester, two young single guys met, with the potential of just a fleeting experience. Who ever knew what was to follow.
This is how many relationships start; Bob and Ian liked each other – quite a lot. They got together and within a short space of time they decided to give up their very comfortable lives in UK and ‘live the dream.’ They both have very strong eco principles, firmly believing in everything being as ‘green’ as it’s possible to be.
They both loved Italy and decided to open an eco-friendly self catering hotel, but where? Tuscany was too expensive and too popular with wealthy Brits and over priced Michelin starred restaurants. They looked further east to a little known region The Marches – or Marche in Italian, a region of rolling hills, stunning coastlines and medieval hilltop villages as yet unspoilt by mass tourism. They call it Tuscany for grownups.
After a long search, in 2003 they found two derelict houses near a pretty village called Francavilla d’Ete which they turned into Casal dei Fichi (House of Figs, because of the number of fig trees in the grounds). This was a ‘Grand Design’ Italian style, the result is simply beautiful.
The Marche region is in many ways similar to Tuscany but without the hordes of tourists. The countryside is quite beautiful in a very gentle way; there are gentle hills, mountains, valleys and many wonderful medieval fortified villages.
The accommodation Bob and Ian provide brings a new meaning to comfort, they have six self catering apartments with every possible convenience.
We have had poor experiences with self catering cottages, not here, they have thought of everything. They cater mainly for couples but obviously children occasionally appear. Although being gay owned and run do not assume that the guests will be gay, over the year Bob tells us that they have an average of six same-sex couples staying. We spent seven idyllic days there and although they were full we saw almost no one.
The grounds are beautifully landscaped and very cleverly designed so that each apartment has its own semi private garden. The pool is quite lovely, heated by solar panels, of course, surrounded by banks of lavender and once again we were alone we had almost exclusive use as most of the other guests never seemed to be around.
The grounds are beautifully kept and there is even a vegetable patch that guests are welcome to help themselves to plus fresh eggs from their own chickens.
There are many self catering establishments, which are today becoming more and more popular, throughout Tuscany, Umbria and Marche, all in beautiful countryside and sunning scenery.
Mike relaxes in the garden
Roger cleans the apartment
Casal dei Fichi is different and the boys have set a new, very high, standard. They do not ask for any ‘security’ deposit, there is no inventory or any of the normal T’s & C’s or rules that you have to follow. They do, however, ask for full payment at time of booking. It certainly isn’t particularly expensive, you can pay from 650€ to 950€ per week, considering the facilities and the location this is almost a bargain The nearest airport is Ancona just an hour’s drive away, reached from Stanstead via Ryanair. BA fly from Gatwick to Bologna which is about a two-hour drive.
We flew to Rome with easyJet but that did entail a three-hour drive admittedly through some very beautiful country. A car is essential.
Bob and Ian are exceptionally friendly hosts and try to make all their guests feel like personal friends, that’s a tall order but they succeed in many ways. Some guests are even taken out to lunch or dinner but we were happy not to be included in these treats.
There are lots of very good restaurants in the lovely local villages, the boys have full details having checked them all out personally, and they have excellent local knowledge and are very well-known in the local community. They have even negotiated deals with some of the restaurants who will offer a discount to Casal dei Fichi’s guests.
Casal dei Fichi does exactly what it says on the tin: extremely comfortable catering apartments set in beautiful grounds. Bob and Ian’s story is quite inspiring; they are two very shrewd and clever businessmen in a highly competitive market, keeping one step ahead of the competition.
They’ve come a long way from Canal Street, Manchester to offering an excellent product in one of the loveliest places we have ever seen. Their commitment to the environment is fantastic; there should be more like them.
This is truly the place to stay, completely unwind and forget everything. Peace and tranquillity is their byword.
Roger Wheeler and his husband Mike stay steer clear of the tourist hotspots and explore off the beaten track in Mallorca.
Millions of people, Brits included, visit Mallorca every year with most heading straight for the famous beach resorts of Cala Figuera, Illetas, Palma Nova, Can Pastilla, or Palma with its magnificent Gothic Cathedral, there are plenty to choose from.
If it’s gay Mallorca you seek and it can be very gay, then you need to concentrate on the major resorts, but you miss a lot by not seeing the interior of this beautiful island.
As usual we spent hours trolling though many internet sites looking for something a little different, there was plenty of choice but, purely by chance we found Hotel Es Lloquet – the Secret Place. It looked promising and after so many hours gazing at the computer screen we succumbed and booked.
It isn’t called the secret place for nothing, truly hidden in the heart of the countryside, close to Campos and not far from the famous Es Trenc beach. It is about an hour’s drive from the airport but, almost impossible to actually find, as there are few signs and of course the sat nav on our hire car was useless.
Eventually, after almost having given up the search, we drove up a small dirt track and there it was, our own secret place for a few days. A charming old, restored, farmhouse. There was nothing as formal as a reception desk and no one in sight in the huge stylish lounge until the rather charming Jorge appeared and then, all was well.
Hotel Es Lloquet – the Secret Place is the epitome of peace and quiet. Only 18 rooms, all of which – in the main building – have their own private terrace and jacuzzi, huge comfortable beds and vast bathrooms. It is in need of some TLC but that in no way detracts from the quiet beauty of the location and the hotel itself.
The few staff on duty – Jorge; Jaime and Cristina – could not have been more friendly and helpful, nothing was too much trouble. The hotel, although fully booked, was like a ghost town, we saw no other guests. There were vast lounges with extremely comfortable seating around the pool but, no one there. The two swimming pools were quite lovely, the main pool was beautiful and deserted, and all you could hear was birdsong – bliss.
Campos the nearest town is a sleepy, typically Mallorcan town with a few shops and restaurants, not exactly a destination but quite pleasant. The beach at Es Trenc when I last visited, way back, was very quiet, quite nudist and gay, not so anymore. Crowded, noisy, not exactly relaxing, although the beach itself, what you could see of it, was the same white sand and of course the azure blue sea was still quite lovely.
We selected a semi quiet spot and settled down for some serious sun worship. Within minutes several fully clothed ladies decided to sit right next to us and talk, loudly, on their phones. There was no escape, we left, sadly never to return, the thousands of tourists, which included us, make the whole experience one to be endured rather than enjoyed.
There are several nice villages in the area with some great restaurants but once again the hoards of tourist are there too, so nice quiet suppers in local tabernas were hard to find. However, on our way back from the beach we spotted Moli de Sal, it looked promising so we went back for dinner
It is set in a beautiful old mill; we ate some really lovely food in the stunning garden. The kitchen which is basically a barbecue, includes a full range of meat and very fresh fish. A great place to eat in an area not noted for its cuisine.
If you want to avoid the crowded beaches there are many places to see in the heart of rural Mallorca. We were told about Ermita de Sant Honorat, not far from Lluc Major. This is a monastery on top of a very large hill, Puig de Randa, which rises 550m out of the plain. It was founded in 1275 and today has a good restaurant, museum, a very beautiful church – Santuari de Cura – and tourists are few and far between. The 180 degree views over most of the island are stunning. It’s well worth the trip.
We were sorry to leave Es Lloquet behind us, heading off for a few days in Palma, which in hindsight was a mistake, hot busy city that it is, we should have stayed put. Should we ever choose to return there is no question of where we would stay.
The Village People and Pet Shop Boys have been telling us to Go West for years, but today the mood in London is more Go East. Roger Wheeler and his husband Mike Go North to see what all the fuss is about.
East London is now the place to be, Shoreditch and Hoxton, once known as very deprived areas is now Tech City. What was once just a congested roundabout in Old Street is now referred to as a Silicon Roundabout. Now there are lots of uber smart hotels, restaurants, 30 or so very trendy cocktail bars where the Hoxton Hipsters congregate to drink. Hoxton Square is now fully stocked with ‘speakeasies’ designer shops, artist studios and galleries, mind-blowing choices of places to eat some very exotic foods.
Of course, Brick Lane has been the centre of Indian cooking for decades, but today it is no longer the best place to find decent food. All this slotted among of some of the oldest social housing estates in London together with beautiful Georgian townhouses and lovely little canals, although everyone seems to live happily alongside each other. There does not seem to be any clash of cultures. Of course many of the new hi-tec IT businesses are located here, some of them world leaders in their fields. This is really the centre of new British business.
I was born in SW London. My mother rarely went north of the river let alone ventured into the East end – but that was a long time ago. So having read so much about the new East we decided to spend a weekend there.
Montcalm hotels are a new group and they have built one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen. CalledM by Montcalm this is a 400 room hotel on the city road. OK you might say so what? When you look at it, it looks two-dimensional, a 17 storey boutique hotel, it is almost impossible to take it seriously. The design of the exterior, including cladding and windows, is sloped at an angle, a myopic optical deception. Built at an obtuse sharp angle it is almost impossible to recognise it as a hotel.
The rooms are pretty standard, very nice, large beds, bathrooms etc., except the windows are at this strange floor to ceiling angle, disconcerting at first, particularly on the higher floors. There is a spa in the basement, every hotel in the world now have a spa, this one has a good swimming pool which was great for a before breakfast dip. Dinner in the 17th floor restaurant is excellent, if you can get a table by a window, (they don’t reserve them), the views across London are stunning, but keep away from the slanting full-length windows if you suffer from vertigo. The foods not bad either.
So onwards to immerse ourselves in Hip Hoxton Square, there is too much choice for us poor provincial tourists to take in. We wandered into Le Petit Pois, a small, very French restaurant and sampled some of the best food we have had for some time. Just round the corner in Curtain Road there is The Queen of Hoxton, a venue with everything from rooftop BBQ, basement restaurant, DJs and retro arcade machines.
Columbia Road flower market on a Sunday is fun, as is the wonderful the Geffrye Museum of the Home on Kingsland Road, its free, it’s a must see. A fascinating exhibition of domestic homes and home life in London since 1600. Worth an hour or so of anyone’s time.
The list of things to do, see eat and drink in Shoreditch is simply amazing, we went back for another weekend and will go again. London’s West End is, today, strictly for the serious tourist, with its 53 five-star hotels, endless bad restaurants and tacky attractions.
Of course the famous sights are always worth seeing and there are some excellent restaurants and the theatres are world-famous. So for comparison sake we spent a weekend ‘up West’ as my parents would say.
We booked into in the unremarkable Hilton Doubletree in Southampton Row, a perfectly acceptable hotel right by the British Museum. We saw the fabulous Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales theatre, a show to end all shows and had dinner in the amazing Brasserie Zedel in Sherwood Street, just off Piccadilly, where you can get a very decent meal for around £20, in a very French bistro style.
There are thousands of restaurants in London, most worth avoiding but we do have a favourite called Andrew Edmunds in Lexington Street. It’s a small independent restaurant housed in the last original 18 century townhouse left in Soho and run by the lovely Oliver. Lexington Street is minutes away from Old Compton Street so not far to go for the central gay scene, which has nowadays in our humble opinion has become a little tired and faded round the edges.
So West or East, both have something going for them, but for us the East End is now where it’s at and of course you can always hop on the tube and go ‘Up West’
As Samuel Johnson said 250 years ago “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” that’s even more true today.
For 10 reasons to visit Shoreditch and Hoxton, click here:
Everyone has heard of and most people have visited Amsterdam at least once and loves its beautiful architecture, canals and wonderful life style.
I used to live there and while I had visited most of the major centres in the Netherlands, I had never been to Rotterdam
Until now I had just assumed that it was just a huge port city, it is after all known as Europort – a very heavily industrialised port, the 10th largest in the world, with petrochemical refineries and storage tanks, bulk iron ore and coal handling facilities as well as container and new motor vehicle terminals.
No thanks I thought, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Much of Rotterdam was reduced to rubble in the second World War but since then they have been very busy indeed, rebuilding a very modern city.
We were totally unprepared for the surprise; this city really has the wow factor.
A new fast train service takes just 25 minutes from Amsterdam to The Netherlands’ second city. In that short time you go from the 17th Century right to the 21st, arriving at one of the most startling railways stations I have ever seen. This stunning building almost defies description, apart from being a modern railway station it features a shiny steel-clad flying buttress reaching right over the plaza. This building prepares you for the shock of a completely modern 21st Century city.
They call Amsterdam the city of the past and Rotterdam the city of the future. In the past 20 years the city has completely reinvented itself and they have not finished yet.
All the new landmark buildings and innovative construction is quite stunning, high-rise reflective glass and steel is everywhere. We stayed in the Marriott Hotel right in front of the station; this is an extremely modern and very comfortable hotel. Rotterdam isn’t high on many tourist’s agenda, so the price for this excellent four star hotel was just €81.50 a night – a bargain! You can quadruple that sum for a similar hotel in Amsterdam.
The city centre is mainly pedestrianised, very easy to walk round with very modern trams gliding along. The streets are wide and even when busy Rotterdam never feels crowded.
Just a short walk from our hotel we discovered one of city’s architectural masterpieces the Markthal – Market Hall, this really does defy description.
A feat of fun and functionality, Rotterdam’s stunning Market Hall holds offices and over 200 apartments, with a covered market hall and public space. Its grey stone exterior arches, in the shape of a horseshoe, over the vast interior open space which houses a fabulous food market with many fun restaurants and bars. Coating the entirety of the inside of the archway is an enormous mural featuring an impressive array of fruit, vegetables, insects and flowers. The PR says that the building demonstrates how beautifully art and architecture can come together, they’re not wrong.
Almost next door to the Market Hall are the unique Cube Houses, an experimental housing system devised in the late 70’s. Structurally, the cubes sit tilted on a hexagonal pole. Inside, the houses are divided into three levels accessed via a narrow staircase.
Completing the tilted design, the walls and windows are all angled at 54.7 degrees, providing excellent views of the surrounding area. The only drawback – aside from claustrophobia is that despite a total area of 100 square meters, the angled structure means only a quarter of that space is actually usable. One is open as a museum, very curious and not somewhere where I could live but they are, amazingly, very popular.
It quickly becomes clear why this city is known as the architectural centre of the country and has been called Manhattan on the (River) Meuse. But of course there is a lot more to this amazing city than its breathtaking architecture. The Luftwaffe didn’t destroy everything and there is still a lot of the old city which has been carefully restored.
One of the most famous landmarks is the Hotel New York, based in the former HQ of the Holland America Line which operated a direct service to America by sea. During the 19th and 20th century thousands of Europeans left for the Promised Land: America. It was an attempt to escape poverty and religious repression. It was opened as a hotel in 1992 and has been beautifully restored, well worth the walk to visit.
Rotterdam is very much a walking city, though trams are very cheap and efficient. We hopped on a tram out of the central district just to see where it took us and we ended up in Delfshaven. This picturesque yacht marina is one of the parts of the old city that survived the 1940 bombardment of Rotterdam. It has had a remarkable history and was apparently the departure point from which the Pilgrim Fathers left to found what was to become the USA.
There’s a lot to see and enjoy in this surprising city, the gay scene is not large, a couple of bars and of course a sauna, but in any major Dutch city everywhere is potentially gay!
We thought that we knew all about the Greek Islands of the Cyclades, having visited Mykonos, Paros, Ios, Santorini, Milos and yes we were told that they are all different, but after a while they do tend to look somewhat similar.
Until, that is, we went to Sifnos. A tiny and little known island not too far from Milos but way off the major tourist trails, which has just a couple of ferries per day which bring all the islands supplies as well as the few visitors.
It seems that Sifnos is owned and run by just five families, everyone knows everyone else and no one locks their houses or cars.
Arriving in the pretty little port of Kamares, it’s the only port, you are aware of exactly how different this island is. It is extremely mountainous. The harbour front is pretty standard with tourist shops, cafes and car hire places, all owned by the same family, right behind this little port village is a mountain range which you can drive up. The view from the top is spectacular but not recommended if you don’t like steep hill climbs with vertical drops on one side.
There are quite a few decent four and five-star hotels for such a small island but on our first night we stayed in what can only be described as a backpacker’s hostel, cheap but not particularly cheerful.
Next day we drove to the ‘capital’ Apollonia, a slightly larger village of 870 inhabitants, to look for another place to stay. There is one travel agent, owned of course by the same lady who owned the hotel we had just left. Here we met Nick a most helpful man; he knew everything about the island and the accommodation.
He found us a beautiful house, Villa Delenia in a fabulous little seaside village called Vathi. This really had the wow factor, just 200m from a very quiet sandy beach, with little restaurants sitting almost in the water. There are several small bars and just two tiny shops.
The house had two bedrooms, two terraces, large garden etc., designed for five, we had it all to ourselves. We fell in love with Vahti and the Villa Delenia, the peace, tranquillity and general beauty of the place is quite simply gorgeous.
Everything about Sifnos is small, it has an area of only 75 sq km. What on the map seemed a long way, from the port to the main ‘town’ was in fact just 8km and 10 minute drive. With a population of just 2,625 there are no less than 365 churches, one for every day of the year.
Touring Sifnos is easy, just a few roads, well signposted and hardly any traffic. Although small there is a lot to see and enjoy here, there are many headlands and lovely bays there are nine beaches, all sandy and gently shelving, but once you have found perfection as we had you really don‘t want to look anywhere else.
We were told that we had to visit Kastro, one of the most fascinating places on Sifnos. The village has been inhabited for over 3000 years and was at one time the capital of the island, its well worth a visit.
We were invited to lunch at Restaurant Cyclades at Platis Gialos one of the main beaches, the restaurant was owned by the same lady that owned the car hire company. Everyone really is related to everyone.
Sitting quietly enjoying our lunch, nearly always fish straight from the Aegean, we overheard English being quietly spoken on a table nearby. They were a family from Mere in darkest Wiltshire, all of us being so far from home in a little restaurant in a far-flung island we naturally started chatting.
Andy and Sheelagh with their two beautiful grown up daughters had flown out to Athens, bought a boat and were simply sailing around the Greek Islands. The girls, one a doctor and one an accountant, had just a short time with their parents but Andy, a retired Naval Commander and Sheelagh a retired BA purser where simply sailing where the mood took them.
We christened them the sea gypsies and although not very keen sailors ourselves rather envied them their relaxed nomadic seafaring life.
It’s a small world as it very quickly became apparent that whilst we had never met, we had mutual friends and apparently had been at the same party in Hove in the early 80’s, but we don’t need to go into details about that party.
Sifnos is quite simply beautiful, no one has heard of it, let’s keep it that way.
Going to a Greek Island is like taking drugs, once you start you can’t stop, you have to keep going back to experience another one, says Roger Wheeler.
Mike and I have been regular visitors to the Cyclades archipelago for several years. There are about 300 inhabited Greek Islands and they are all quite different.
The name Cyclades refers to islands forming a circle around the sacred island of Delos and according to Greek mythology, Poseidon, God of the sea, furious at the Cyclades nymphs, turned them into islands. Possibly the most famous of this group is Mykonos but there are about 20 others that are rarely visited.
We were invited to see Milos so we flew to Santorini, took the fast ferry and were so very pleased that we did.
Milos is a small island with just about 5,000 inhabitants. The port town is Adamantas where most tourist hotels and restaurants are, but the chief town is Plaka, perched on top of what they call a large rock, to us it looked like a small mountain. It’s an ancient village, the streets are so narrow no cars can get in and surprisingly there are not too many tourist shops.
On these islands you will find stunning views around every corner, Milos is no exception. There are few roads on the island so if you want to see some of the best beaches and the most beautiful villages hiring a car is essential as there is little public transport.
Our first two nights were spent on the very quiet southern coast at The Golden Milos Beach Hotel at Provatas, right on a sandy beach, an uncomplicated and really lovely hotel. We were there in September when the sea was so warm we didn’t want to get out.
Our last two nights were spent at the Miland Suites Hotel, set on a hill overlooking the harbour and bay in Adamas. There is only one word to describe this hotel and that is ‘wow’. The phrase boutique hotel is sometimes overused, but not in this case. This small eight room hotel was quite stunning and run by a very friendly family. Mama brings cups of lemon tea and lovely fruit punches whilst you’re lying around the pool under billowing canopies. The rooms are really suites with small terraces, dressing/sitting rooms as well as a large bathroom and obligatory huge bed.
To make our stay even more interesting we were invited to a day long cruise on a large catamaran. Not being particularly good sailors we were in two minds until we saw the crew – two very personable, attractive, young Greek sailors, any doubts we had vanished. It was one of the best days we have ever spent on holiday, idyllic is the only word to describe it and were joined by a small group of, very well-travelled, Americans who were great fun to spend some time with.
We sailed around the enormous bay, moored in a deserted cove, swam around the boat whilst the boys who turned out to be cousins, cooked a wonderful lunch of freshly caught octopus and served us lots of local wine. This trip is simply a must do if you ever get to Milos.
Milos is quite different from any other islands we have visited. The coastline is rugged with hundreds of bays and inlets plus 70 beaches and, no surprise, one of them is gay!
The Greeks love this island to the extent that unusually for such a small island there is an airport with regular flights from Athens, allowing the current Prime Minister, Mr Tsipras, who is a regular visitor, to be able to fly down to his house on the Island. Although the Greek financial crisis is well documented, this group of islands have been enjoying a boom time, the tourist industry is flourishing and the local economy is strong.
Milos has many claims to fame, apart from being where they found the statue of Aphrodite (the Venus de Milo now in the Louvre in Paris) it also has the world’s largest deposits of Perlite, used for, amongst other things, cat litter and Bentonite which is essential for the mining and drilling industry. About 25% of Milos is owned by a mining company (Mining Greece) that ships these minerals all over the world. Milos is very fortunate to be the only Greek island with some serious industry.
We would have loved to be able to spend more time exploring Milos and will one day definitely go back, but we were on our way to Sifnos and that was yet another surprise.
Santorini, a mythical name with associations of Atlantis and ancient Greek legends, is the rim of a dormant volcano which blew up roughly 3,500 years ago, causing the entire centre of the island to sink into the sea.
Santorini’s main business is tourism with over 800 hotels, most of which claim to be at least four star and charge accordingly. Today, over 3 million tourists a year from all over the world, half of which arrive on cruise liners, spend a few hours buying tourist tat, gaze at the over hyped sunset and then get back to the ship. There are only 10,000 permanent inhabitants living on the island which doubles during the high season, with young Athenian workers.
It is undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful place, mainly because of the caldera, the cone of the volcano which flooded when it collapsed. All volcanoes have a caldera but the Greeks seem to have hijacked the word specifically for Santorini. This particular caldera is the largest on earth, the water is 380m deep and it is spectacularly blue.
Most of the hotels on the caldera cascade down the cliff, which means a lot of steps; without doubt the hotels are extremely luxurious and, of course, ensure spectacular views. We checked into the IRA Hotel in Firostefani which is about 15 minutes walk from the main town Thira, which is also the official name of the island. This can make things a bit tricky when checking in at Gatwick as the destination boards will sometimes just state Thira, with Santorini in very small letters.
The narrow streets of Firostefani are full of bars, restaurants and shops. The whole area is thronged with hundreds of selfie taking visitors.
The IRA hotel is quite stunning; the rooms are luxurious but watch out for those steps, we had no less than 17 down to the bathroom, risky in the middle of the night. The service was immaculate and the food terrific, meals are served wherever you wish, on your own balcony, by the pool or on one of the many terraces.
Most rooms have spacious balconies with a view which is always interesting, watching the cruise ships sail in and out of the lagoon and of course that sunset. We paid £200.00 a night which included an excellent breakfast, not bad value for money. You can pay a lot more at some of the more swanky places favoured by our friends from the Far East and the US.
This side of the island is very excited by ‘the sunset’. All the restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels shout about their sunset view and yes it is spectacular but the best in the world? Maybe not, a sunset is just that, we could not see what all the fuss was about, but it is certainly beautiful and worth seeing.
If you want to see the island you really need a car and at 35€ a day not expensive. There aren’t that many roads, the traffic is challenging but no worse than anywhere else. The main problem is the idiot tourists on the 4×4 quad bikes, which cost the same to hire as cars. They are a curse throughout the Mediterranean; you should avoid driving at night, when they can be a real threat to safety.
You can spend a fortune with some of the many sailing and diving companies that are everywhere, water sports and sailing is the big thing, but very expensive.
Santorini is a ‘buy one get one free’ destination as the opposite side of the island is a totally different experience. It’s quiet, calm and scenic, being the part that wasn’t affected by the eruption.
There are some lovely beaches, at least one is nude and partially gay, many very pretty little villages and best of all, fewer tourists.
The contrast between the two sides is dramatic. We had a guide, Adonis (but they aren’t they all Adonis) who drove us down this side of the island. He took us to the ancient city of Akrotiri a 4,000 year old Minoan town that was covered in volcanic ash which has allowed it to be amazingly preserved, they have constructed a fantastic museum right over the huge site, well worth the 5€ entrance fee. In many ways it is similar to the ruins of Pompeii.
The beaches are quite small but attractive. The main industry if you can call it that, is wine and tomatoes. Volcanic soil produces fantastic tomatoes and grapes but it would produce many other vegetables but the population has grown somewhat lazy relying on tourism to provide a living.
easyJet flies from Gatwick during the summer, we went in September which is the perfect time to go, the flights cost about £350 return.
Would we go back, probably not, it’s one of those destinations that you really should see – once.
South west France and north-east Spain is the Basque Country where they speak an ancient and incomprehensible language, eat different food and have a different attitude to life.
The Basque culture runs right up to Biarritz and Bayonne in France. We had never visited this region so decided to have a look and drove down from Bordeaux.
The Basque Country itself is usually recognised as being an autonomous community in northern Spain. They have a distinct and celebrated cuisine, strong cultural traditions and a different language – Euskara – that pre-dates the Romance languages. For many years there was a strong movement for independence from Spain but since 2008 they have had their own government and a high degree of autonomy from Spain.
There is no border as such between France and Spain and as you drive through the only thing you notice is that the road signs change language, looking for signs to San Sebastian all you see are signs to Donostia, which is the Basque name for San Sebastian, we weren’t aware of that fact for some time!
It’s a great place to visit, and of course they speak French and Spanish as well as their own language but their whole approach to life is very relaxed and definitely not particularly Spanish. The small towns along the coast have a unique feel and the main centres, San Sebastian and Bilbao are very attractive.
The weather is good, the beaches fantastic and the sea warm despite it being the Atlantic. We stayed at the Mercure Monte Igueldo in San Sebastian. This hotel is stunning, more like a Spanish Parador than a French Mercure. Situated on a hill overlooking the fabulous bay of La Concha, the views are breathtaking; the rooms are great, the service and food are hard to beat. Plus with the fabulous roof top swimming pool we felt very happy. At €120 per room this hotel is a bargain.
San Sebastian is a city of 183,000 inhabitants and gets over 450,000 visitors every year. We went in June and it wasn’t at all overcrowded, with temperatures around 30 degrees the enormous golden sandy beach was busy but it’s so big there was loads of room for everyone.
Apart from its wonderful location, scenery and beaches they also have many festivals, from jazz to film, to dance and theatre, there always seems to be festival happening. Not surprisingly it’s going to be the European Capital of Culture 2016.
But it was its reputation for food that drew us here, of course with a total of 16 Michelin starred restaurants it’s very easy to eat extremely well, at a price!
The main attraction is, however, the enormous range of pintxos or tapas bars in the old town. Here you can wander from bar to bar and for a few euro eat some of the most ingenious and amazing little plates of delicious food. The range on some of the bar counters must run into 50 or more. They are very proud of this traditional form of dining which has now become highly sophisticated haute cuisine in miniature. Naturally every little pintxo come with a zurito, a small glass of beer or wine. Txakoli, is the local young white wine, it is served extremely cold and poured from a height to force fizz into the liquid. It’s deliciously acidic. A glass will set you back €1.50. We ate very well, almost too well, for around €25 each including the local wine.
With pintxos, the idea is to eat one or two of what each bar does best. A favourite was La Cuchara de San Telmo in a side street running off Calle 31 de Agosto– it is said that they produce the most delicious pintxos in town, such as foie gras with apple compote for €3, or cheese-laced risotto cremoso for €2.90.
There are plenty of museums and art galleries, as you would expect, plus some beautiful 16th century architecture in the old town. There are all the major shops and lots of boutiques selling some beautiful and expensive things, none of which you need but very tempting, leave your credit card at the hotel.
The main airport for the region is Bilbao, BA fly from Heathrow and easyJet from Stansted, or easyJet from Gatwick to Biarritz, which is just over the French border. There is a very good train and bus service to San Sebastian.
San Sebastian came as a huge surprise; we had been told that we just had to go but it wasn’t until we got there did we realise quite why.