Friday, 13 June 2014

CROATIA

image Croatia, 1990. Franjo Tuđman's nationalist party had just won the the Croatian republic's first parliamentary elections following the decision by Yugoslavia to abolish the one-party political system.
Less than a week had gone by and tensions were still high when Red Star Belgrade arrived to play Dinamo Zagreb - a city gripped by Croatian nationalism. 3,000 fans of Red Star  - led by the frankly terrifying Arkan - made the journey from Belgrade; and were met at Stadion Maksimir by many more Dinamo fans. While the game began, it never finished.

Amidst the running battles both on and around the pitch, young midfielder Zvonimir Boban, took exception to a policeman beating a Dinamo fan - deciding on dispensing his own retribution. Having kicked the policeman in the head, Boban had allowed the fan to escape. In being captured on video doing so, he became a hero to Dinamo fans and Croatian nationalists alike.



Tuđman went on to be the first President of Croatia, as much of what was once Yugoslavia descended tragically into war, and Arkan? Well, Arkan became a very naughty boy indeed. He was assassinated in 2000, before his trial for crimes against humanity could begin.

Boban went on to be banned for six months, and to be as revered in Croatia as he was reviled in Serbia.
"Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause," - Zvonimir Boban.
He was eventually forgiven by the policeman.

But never mind all that. Well, actually? Do. Because for all of what went before, what came after as part of Croatian independence, was one of the best football kits of all time. A kit worn by one of my favourite international XIs - the 1996 Croatia side.


Croatian artist Miroslav Šutej designed both the national flag and the coat of arms of Croatia, but Šutej's most enduring legacy - for fans of football at least - is surely the šahovnica-inspired design still worn today. The kit was debuted by the national team in their first, unofficial friendly in 1990, but It wasn't until 1994 that the kit evolved (beyond a wonderfully bizarre Lotto number very much of the time) and the broader checked design that we know today, truly appeared. Davor Šuker (pictured), Aljoša Asanović, Alen Bokšić, the outrageously talented Robert Prosinečki - names that evoke memories of that timeless summer of Euro '96. Not forgetting of course, the main man of the Maksimir - Zvonimir Boban.

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image There is always a danger of Museum fatigue when travelling. Though some are truly fantastic and are absolutely worth a trip in their own right, that most are so frequently found at the top of the to-do in most destinations, means that occasionally they need to offer something different to really pique your interest. Something different to really stand out. Something like... Jesus' diapers.

Yep. I know right? But apparently so.

Well, technically they were his swaddling clothes. Wait! I'll save you the trouble of Google-ing it:
"... an age-old practice of wrapping infants in blankets or similar cloth so that movement of the limbs is tightly restricted. Swaddling bands were often used to further restrict the infant. Swaddling fell out of favor in the seventeenth century." - Wikipedia
Anyway - apart from that - Dubrovnik truly is the Pearl of the Adriatic. Tread the marble streets, allow the smells of seafood and Dalmatian sausage to be tempt you into the restaurants that nestle within the impossibly narrow walkways, then bathe in the reflected sunlight as you can only fail to answer one simple question. Where you have ever been that was really this wonderful?

Take the time to walk around the ancient city walls - a vantage point from which you really can get more of a flavour of life in the Old Town - and if you can find your way out, you might well find where to swim straight off the rocks and even get yourself invited to a game of water polo with the locals.

So are Jesus' undercrackers really in Dubrovnik? You'll just have to go and find out...

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(Credit to 1001 Travel Destinations for the wonderful photo)

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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

BRAZIL

image Brazil’s Edmundo Alves de Souza Neto scored 187 goals during his career both for club and country. For 18 different clubs, to be precise, as Edmundo not only scored goals, but caused trouble wherever he went. He was involved in a car accident in which three people died, went AWOL from Fiorentina in order to attend Rio de Janiero’s famous carnival, caused various fights and brawls, but ultimately – here was a character that scored fantastic goals. At the inaugural World Club Championship he scored an absolute peach against a Manchester United team absent from the FA Cup that year. Here it is, complete with the wonderfully fitting local commentary...



But never mind all that. At his son’s first birthday party, Edmundo booked a carnival - complete with animals - as the main form of entertainment. Hopefully by now you will have grasped that Edmundo generally was neither a fan of decorum, nor a man to be bound by the generally accepted conventions of socially acceptable behaviour. Something that he most famously demonstrated by plying Pedrinho the monkey with beer – and whiskey – at the party. On the one hand, animal welfare groups were outraged; but on the other, this was exactly the kind of ridiculous behaviour gleefully received by those of us who otherwise had to make do with the generally anodyne nature of footballer behaviour. Quick to calm the situation, Edmundo denied everything - reassuring people that no such outrageous behaviour occurred. For the avoidance of any doubt then, here is Edmundo definitely not plying a monkey with beer... 


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image Blue skies and a warm breeze calm your senses, and you feel the warm, soft sand beneath your feet and between your toes. Sandwiched between the Amazon and the ocean, Lençóis Maranhenses is a bizarre little paradise that to most, would seem like a desert due to the 1500km2 of sand that continually moves and shifts as sand dunes do. Four to five times as much rain falls here as the Sahara though, so much rain in fact that during the rainy months of January to June, crystal clear lagoons form amongst the dunes – creating individual oases as far as the eye can see. Despite the short life-span of these lakes, fish manage to make themselves at home here. Incredibly, one species of fish can even remain dormant in the sand after the lakes have dried up – ready and waiting for the rains to return... 


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(Credit to trip2gether on Flickr for the wonderful photo)

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Monday, 13 June 2011

Travel whimsy



"I keep seeing it and thinking it's exactly the sort of thing I should be looking at. But then never looking at it. What a chump."

In need of short, salient snippets of travel whimsy on an almost daily basis?

I'll put a few of the best ones here, but for now you can pootle along to leophillips.tumblr.com



Chechnya, and why Ramzan Kadyrov is my hero. Or not.

Succeeding what was left of his father (violently assassinated in an explosion that ripped through Grozny’s main stadium), Ramzan Kadyrov has recently convinced Dutch footballing legend Ruud Gullit into accepting the role of head coach at local Russian Premier League team Terek. It must be the same persuasion which this week brought a Brazil team featuring players who won the 2002 World Cup to play a game here, ostensibly as a “mark of respect” to the Chechen people. Gullit must presumably be hoping Kadyrov can work his considerable magic on the Dutchman’s own family, who were ‘unable to settle’ when he was in his last coaching position. In Los Angeles.

For now though, one of the world’s few (and the former Soviet Union’s many) fantastic Bond villain-esque characters has contented himself with playing a key role in this friendly kick about, before treating those gathered to a traditional Chechen dance at half time. You really couldn’t make it up.

Not merely a stooge of Medvedev (who in turn is very much a stooge of Putin’s), Kadyrov controls a volatile republic in a dangerous and complex area of the world in what is, admittedly, probably the only way possible. Even with Russian backing, no shrinking violet is going to last long here. Along with shameful views on women’s rights (who are the property of their husband), a large percentage of Chechnya’s violent and fatal crime is attributed to his henchmen, and that isn’t forgetting what could be his own personal chapter of alleged human rights abuses. Still, I suppose he’d make the trains run on time. If there were any.

That is unfair actually, there are trains operating here. Though access for foreigners is complicated to say the least, not least because of the tribal nature of the north Caucusus and the protection and danger money that has to be spent along the way. The “World’s Most Travelled Man”, Charles Veley, was rumoured to have spent tens of thousands of Euros just to safeguard himself for a few hours as he was taken in and out of Chechnya safely. More money than sense perhaps, but who wants to be the world’s most sensible man?

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Travel whimsy



"The word skullduggery so close to Huck Finn-ery blew my tiny mind."

In need of short, salient snippets of travel whimsy on an almost daily basis?

I'll put a few of the best ones here, but for now you can pootle along to leophillips.tumblr.com



Oblivia

I think this ['The Happy Isles of Oceania', by Paul Theroux] was the first piece of travel writing that I ever read that didn’t paint everything with a rosy glow. The father of Louis (and Marcel), Paul Theroux set off around rather a lot of the South Pacific islands during the time of his divorce, with the minimum of kit aboard his one-man inflatable dinghy.

He was in one of the most beautiful places in the world - and I remember him pretty much hating everywhere he went. Finding squalor and thievery, vandalism and skulduggery, it was something of a revelation for me and struck a chord with some of the places I’ve been in the world. Far from this being a trip of idyllic Huck Finn-ery (although strictly speaking, that story itself wasn’t so idyllic), we find an example of how difficult travel can be if thoughts weigh heavy on top of you - and the effort it takes to turn things around in places that don’t unfurl themselves to you as you had hoped the might. The title itself really is something of a misnomer, and this book does well to shatter the illusion that people have about getting away from it all.

Besides, getting away from it all is something reserved for holidays - this is about travel, and if you look at the etymology of the word itself (which I’m sure I will go into in the future whether you like it or not), you begin to understand the difference.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Gibraltar and Morocco

Gibraltar 11-12th November, 2010


Fag-end of a once-great empire, let me further patronise Gibraltar by saying it’s one of those places of which my knowledge is limited - but if it’s there, that’s generally reason enough for me to visit it.

Gibraltar international was recently named in the top ten most extreme airports by none other than Channel 5, by virtue of the crosswinds that whip over the Rock and threaten to make things jolly tricky for landing aircraft – but seldom do. Part of the rather unique charm of the place is that looking at the runway you notice that it doubles as a road and pedestrian crossing in-between flights. “Don’t drop any rubbish here”, the warning sign warns – perfectly reasonably, but it goes on in a tone that wouldn’t have been out of place leaving the mouth of the petty apparatchiks in charge at my college, “next time it could be you on that plane”.

My CouchSurfing contacts exhausted, I stay over the border in Spain at the cheapest place I can find for an upsetting €28. It’s clean, cheap, and in a good location – the three boxes I seek to tick when I travel on my own. Only planning to stay for one night I put a move on and start my whistle-stop tour of Gibraltar – finding my way in through what was once the only entrance into the fortified city, pounding the cobbles of Main Street and avoiding the relentless offers of fish, chips and all-day breakfasts. My bearings are found at Trafalgar cemetery, named after those who lost their lives at the battle of the same name, and were buried before they returned home. From there it was uphill to the Rock as I stubbornly set about walking to the summit and finding all manner of dead ends. With no room for pavements, narrow staircases often took people up to their homes – with a warning reminding them at the bottom – “Look left for cars.”

The place is peculiar. The narrow winding roads that seem to have sprouted up the sides of the Rock are undoubtedly quite a feat – but I’m not a huge fan of the British seaside, and Gibraltar is pretty much that. A kind of British Dubrovnik. Except for all that we contributed, we weren’t the Venetians.

Anyway, at least the Barbary apes seem to approve. ‘They’ (that is, ‘they’ referring to people unknown in the generic sense – not the apes themselves) say that the apes made their way from Africa in under-sea tunnels that once linked the continent to Europe. One of the most famous, iconic features of Gibraltar – they are famous for their tempers and warnings are pretty clearly presented to people visiting the Rock. ‘They’re wild animals’, ‘don’t piss them off’, ‘don’t ask them stupid questions’, ‘don’t feed them or they’ll shred your arm and disrespect what was once your sandwich’, and so on.

That’s not enough for most people. And as it happens, I love it when they ignore the warnings. This time it was one particularly dozy family with a child in a push-chair, who’s blanket was stolen by an errant simian. To be fair – after a while he did tire of it, but that certainly didn’t mean that he was ready to give it up without a fight. And he didn’t. No sooner was the blanket retrieved than the little fellow was halfway up this woman’s arm chowing down on her shoulder.

That’s what happens when you don’t ‘Hail to the Chimp’.


Morocco 12-25th November, 2010


The honking of car horns grew ever louder as driver after impatient driver joined the chorus that never quite harmonised. A filthy boy led me to a taxi, and received a dry slap as thanks for his troubles before bolting, tears streaming down his face. “Taxi solo?”, no thanks old chap – do your worst. Already three people in the car – we’ll be off soon thinks I. Or not. Moroccan shared taxis work on a leave-when-full basis, and full means full. Two passengers in the front, four across the backseat, and I wonder how many of the 346,758 miles have been put on this car by the driver who joins us.

A bit of faffing ensues in Tetouan, where I have to change to a second shared taxi. This time headphones – for music – and elbows – for jabbing out some space – are both primed. My bag continues to smell of kerosene, which adds to the smelltrack of the entire journey to Chefchaouen.

It’s very much a feature of human nature that, for our brain to understand things quickly – we tend to generalise. The great shame of this, I find, is that generalise to too great an extent and things become pretty much the same and without realising it, I kind of write places off. Arriving in Chefchaouen’s medina, it’s late – and whilst maybe only somewhat reminiscent, it reminds me of the old town in Jerusalem. Now there are of course some differences. For as interesting a story as it makes, I do prefer not to walk narrow busy walkways where soldiers have machine guns, or have some member of the security forces visibly walking around with an earpiece listening to instructions. There were a number of people who offered me hashish, as the town is a well known place historically on the tourist trail where one can get high pretty easily. A clean and basic hostel here cost me £5, and when I met yet more Australians who were nothing less than excellent, we headed out for an entertaining, large dinner with wonderful hospitality and change from £4.

From the very same restaurant, Mohammed ran into me the next day whereupon he found me one of the few taxis heading in the direction of Fes, and got me in it. This car had done over 700,000 miles which explains why my passenger door wouldn’t close properly. “I probably should be more nervous about that than I am”, I said to the Mathieu beside me.

Four hours after a rather uninspiring journey reached it’s conclusion, I was staring out of the window at nothing in particular when I noticed a bound sheep being unloaded from the top of the bus. Then a goat. Then another sheep. For this was Eid dear reader, the Muslim festival which led to the excited almost Christmassy atmosphere when I got to Fes. As Christmassy as you can feel side-stepping burning sheep heads and sheepskins at every turn. The warmth still rose from the 1200-year-old city streets as I walked through the maze and eventually stumbled into the incredible oasis of my Dar courtyard accommodation, with it’s mosaic fountain and intricately painted wooden walls.

It’s always a pleasure to meet Americans who actually have some idea of the world outside their country. Normally, they’re called Canadians. In the interests of fairness I take supper with company from either side of the border, in what might be the only restaurant open that night in Fes.

Though it really isn’t for me to say, I do think I’m hilarious – but it is nice to have this verified by an independent adjudicator from time to time. So when a perfectly pleasant eavesdropper nearly spat food out his nose, I took it that I'd recounted a joke successfully. One British comic was bemoaning people who assumed that just because you went to one particular university, you therefore ought to know someone else with whom you have no connection - apart from that university. “Oh you went to Leeds, do you know so-and-so?” "Well, I never went to University" he went on to say "but no one says to me “oh so you didn’t go to University. You must know so-and-so?” on account of them also never having gone onto higher education."

Maybe it loses something in writing...


Stop, Hammamtime

At the halfway point of my trip approached, I’d planned that it would be high time for a full hammam service of lavage (washing down), gommage (scrubbing down with a coarse glove) and as a reward – a massage to conclude the whole experience. 40Dh was the amount mentioned by my Moroccan host, who also checked that I wasn’t taking any excessive amounts of money, wallet, or mobile phone with me. ‘Calm down dear!’

Hammams in this part of the world exist, historically, for reasons of necessity. Due to scarcity, the local water source was shared with the local mosque – where people could clean themselves before prayer, and keep neat and tidy generally in the absence of running water at home. This was definitely a local place, with a local feel, local people, and local languages. I soon show myself to be a tourist by inadvertently helping myself to someone else’s buckets of water – oops – before someone takes pity and shows me what I really should be doing. After unexpectedly having to wash myself, an old man who looks somewhat like Danny Glover is assigned to tend to my massage needs – but instead seems more keen on performing all manner of bizarre, though not painful, wrestling moves on me. After that, I’m washed, again, then scrubbed free of dead skin. Wherever I’ve been to public baths (St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Amman, Bishkek, etc) I find that guidebooks always try to instil a terrible fear into you – never failing to mention that you will have your skin shredded off and your spine knotted before you are tossed out onto the streets as a quivering wreck, mewing like a poorly kitten. Every time I read that, and every time I find that the treatment is never quite brutal enough for my needs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be having to scream a safety word when it all gets too much – but get rid of my dead skin and tension and I’ll probably be happy.

Whatever you do though, don’t send some idiot skaghead to bother me with soap – only to tell me later that this most definitely costs 50Dh, on top of 150Dh for the massage. “200Dh, really? Oh dear…” I say as I sit down to disagree in the least confrontational way possible.

Maybe I can paraphrase GMF at this point, "If life has taught me anything at all, it's how to keep my countenance in the presence of men whose rightful place is in a padded cell... Many... sharing the delusion that they could put any proposal, however lunatic, to me and make me like it. There's no arguing with such fellows, of course; all you can do, if you're lucky, is nod and say: "Well, sir, that's an interesting notion, to be sure - just before you tell me more about it, would you excuse me for a moment?" and then once you're round the corner, make for the high ground."

It took about four minutes of this discussion to decide that you know, I’ve never been in a fight. If this were to be the first time I ever had to hit someone and make a run for it – I fancy my chances laying out this mentalist and bolting the 200m to my Fessis base.

Seems I wasn’t the only one thinking this, as halfway through our rather tedious negotiations some other cretin came in and exchanged slaps with the hammam fellow, as the other staff looked on shamefaced yet unable – or unwilling – to offer a reasonable price to the non-Moroccan. This rather pathetic spectacle of a fight did block the exit, so I did have to wait before slapping down 100Dh (double what I wanted, but half what they wanted), leaving, and reminding myself that I do now expect to be knowingly ripped off once in every country – but once only. Macedonia is just about the only place that springs to mind where I wasn’t.

All of that said (and tapped in as blog-worthy material) there were at least two acts of stand-out strangerly kindness for every goddamned shyster that expected me to cross their palm with silver.


Dear Chicago

I don’t care if you agree or not, but life can get pretty boring at times. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t actually play centre-forward for Queens Park Rangers, and divide my off-seasons between winning the Ashes or touring with my rock and roll super group. Undoubtedly it’s a legacy of doing the easy thing and not making anything happen I suppose, but I’m only reminded of the fact when someone comes into my life and I’m reminded that for however brief a time – anything seems possible.

Someone is vague actually. It’s a girl. It’s always a girl.

In the space of a few hours, this group that I had become a part of had totally changed my perspective on the holiday. They used words like “gash” and “flange” in a vegan café and suddenly, instead of my fairly methodical plans for the remaining five days of the trip (where I was staying overnight, how I was to travel, what I was going to eat and what I was to see each day), I went with the flow and found myself happy to do something I rarely find myself planning for when I travel on my own – just hanging out.

Gone were my seaside crepes with amlou. Gone was my lobster plucked freshly from the Atlantic, with the wind in my hair and another four hour bus journey losing myself in music and panorama. In came cactus fruit, pissing off some idiot who put a doped-up snake around my neck expecting a tip, and genuinely interesting conversation. Also unplanned, my Moroccan cold worsened – a Snickers the only sustenance my body demanded in three days as I tried to stay hydrated and succeeded in losing my voice – something that strangely, I enjoy.

Soon enough though, and as soon as co-incidence had brought us together, co-incidence set us back on our regular courses once more. Maybe I read too much into it all but it did remind me that as introspective as I can be, the right company does coax me out of my shell and maybe, just maybe, not every man is an island - just a peninsula.


Marrakech (s)express.

“This place is sex massage”, he says. “Right ok, but you’re taking me to where I want to go, aren’t you?” I ask my guide. He leaves in disgust when we arrive at my destination, and I have no more than 2Dh to tip him with. Obviously I understand that a lot of people go to a bath house for sex. Sex for money. Once that seed of suggestion was planted in my head, it was tough to shift.

“You want male or female massage?” Bit of a no-brainer really. “Take off all your clothes, just leave your underwear”. Fair enough. “Follow me”. You’re the boss. “Are you fine?” I’m asked by the young lady, as I raise an eyebrow and straighten the cravat in my mind.

She leaves and after some time, I open my eyes and look down at myself. In doing so I’m instantly transported back to my childhood. Breakfast is an important meal – that I know, but when you’re up at 4am it’s not so appealing, and so you might as well delay it slightly, right? Wrong. The rule does not apply when your breakfast comprises of seven ice cream Snickers, go home, go to sleep, and wake up some hours later liberally covered in peanut-ty sick. This is what my exfoliating olive oil massage looked like, and any amorous thoughts were quickly and thoroughly dispatched with.

I took all of my will power not to punctuate the tranquil Enya bollocks music with howls of laughter as my feet were massaged – instead I sobbed with laughter into the hole in the massage table. “Just relax”. This experience was much more in line with what I wanted compared to the Fes debacle, and I strolled back to my hostel with the sunlight shining through the medina roof, and leading the way.

Nicely prepared for my flight, and with tension mostly dispelled, it’s bismallah Morocco - I’ll miss you. Though not for the reasons I would have thought.

Nagorno-Karabakh, burnt-out tanks and wild flowers

Armenia and dog shit on the stairs