Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Forest

New Forest Day 1 Sep 2011
I’ve never driven a car in my life and have always equated Harleys with people who have regrets. What I have enjoyed in my 50s is good, old-fashioned cycling. Not the head down, drop handlebars, lycra-clad grind of road cycling (though that looks great) but through woods or on back roads enjoying the landscape, flora and fauna. In fact, I like to go slow, stopping, looking, maybe a bite to eat in a field then off again.
So, with a keynote to the UKs General Practitioner conference in Torquay (never been there), we decided to stop in the New Forest (never been there either) for some cycle rides. The Burley Manor Hotel, is indeed a Manor House, with zigzag Tudor Brickwork, tall chimneys and a long drive but it’s really a mid-19th century copy of a Manor House, by some local who was desperate to be a Lord of the Manor. It also has the expected, hideous hotel carpets, chintzy chairs and rack of leaflets. Location-wise: perfect.

Three Tuns
Started with lunch at the Three Tuns Pub (recommended by local cycle shop)with spicy crab soup and a roast beef sandwich with horseradish sauce. Very tasty but am I being too picky to expect a spoon with soup? I had to go to the bar and wait to get one! Then there was the bore at the next table who, after gobbling down his sausage and mash, asked the waitress if they were beef or pork. “Toulouse” she replied. “Ah, French”, he snorted, “that says it all”. He then went on and on about the sausages, even complaining at the bar. This guy doesn’t come out for a meal, he comes out to make a meal of things.

Forest ride
After buying an excellent pack of cycling routes from the Burley cycle shop, off we went. The New Forest is anything but new. It’s been around for thousands of years, more recently as a hunting forest for the Normans (it was ‘new’ to William I) and subsequent kings. Stocked with deer for the hunt, it eventually became the source of oak for the British Fleet. The great curved boughs of the oak suited the bulwarks of big boats. What makes it such an enjoyable ride is the fact that it’s mixed woodland. You’re in old forest here, then fir trees, silver birches then a whole stretch of holly trees (winter fodder for deer). We went for miles hardly seeing a soul.

Deer. horses and shrooms
Once stocked by deer for the hunt, they were discouraged and culled when the forest became a source of wood for the Navy, as they ate the tree saplings, but although down they were never wiped out and have recovered to around 3000 today. Our first glimpse was a group of Fallow Deer in the dappled sunlight, spotted with horseshoe black framed backsides, through the trees - two stags and their family. Then in a field near the hotel an enormous Red Deer, a Landseer-like stag, who just stared back in defiance. A herd of Roe Deer added to the day.

Then there’s the horses, New Forest Ponies, perfectly tame, grazing and walking along the roads and paths. We were joined by one old nag when we sat under a tree in a village for a coffee and chocolate bar. I swear he spotted the fact that we had a Bounty Bar from 300 yards.
Another astonishing sight was the giant mushrooms. Always liked this poem….

Silent aliens in the woods
Tiny white atomic bombs
Push up leaves in the night
Sentries to tall trees
Spreading spores
But they don’t belong

There’s nothing in nature quite like them. There were Fly Agarics nine inches across, puffballs galore and every species I know, and a couple I had never seen. We could have collected dustbin loads from the side of the path alone. There’s nothing quite like sunlight through the trees. Great first day, 20 odd miles covered.

New Forest Day 2
Second loop on the bikes, this time, however, it rained. No it crashed down. We took shelter in the forest and when we emerged the bonus was that peaty, earthy forest smell you get after a heavy rain shower and the increased intensity of colour. Back to the hotel for lunch and then off to Torquay. Now the hotel did a fine dinner, really good food and wine, but the “sorry it’s just gone 2pm, we don’t do food after that time” attitude in UK hotels is annoying.

Torquay Day 3
Never been here, but coming from Brighton I expected it to be similar. It wasn’t.  It’s more like an up-market Blackpool, as the pensioners down here are loaded. The two towns clearly use different drugs. It has that mix of fine villas and cheap architecture, typical of south coast towns.
The Palace Hotel is old-school; a panel next to the bed with knobs on, cheap aluminium fire doors  and pink décor. The huge grounds however, were fantastic, with a swimming pool, indoor tennis courts and nine hole golf course. Gil shopped while I talked. This time it was to the people who train GPs. Fascinating bunch and as we have a demographic time bomb with an increasing, ageing population, who live longer and live longer while sick (costs £370 for an 18-44 year old on NHS, £2700 for a retiree) they’re in the front line. However, their training budgets are being cut.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Vienna and Wachau Valley August 2011

Vienna – Day 1

Midge Ure aside, Vienna is all music, architecture and Hapsburg opulence and as I’m working here for a day, five of us have decided to have some fun in Wein, then plan to move on to the Washau Valley for seven days, hence the rendezvous at the Beletage Hotel and off to Café Englander for our first Melange and Pils.

Keynote, Kunst, Mozart and Schnitzel– Day 2


Up early for my keynote speech to a Medical Education conference, which was quite daunting, as there were 3000 people and eight giant video screens. At one point I had all 3000 hold up their left hand (don’t ask why – it’s complicated). It went well with lots of people lining up behind the fixed microphones to ask questions – couldn’t see any of them. One very odd questioner defended the ‘lecture’ on the grounds that he and his fellow academics made lots of money from them, another asked why all key internet entrepreneurs were men. On the other hand there were lots of questions about the application of technology to medical education. It’s all good. The excellent chair, Professor Ron Harden, had to bring it to a premature end with queues still lined up to ask questions. Then off by taxi to meet Gil, Ken, Ronnie and Kim at the Kunsthistoriche Museum.


Surely one of the world’s greatest, and most overlooked, art galleries. The building alone is worth the fee with an entrance hall that looks up through a first storey oculus to a giant dome and a staircase with a huge Theseus and Centaur by Canova. With five Caravaggios, a roomful of Velasquezes, Rembrants, Rubens and Vermeer’s ‘The Artist’, you can spend hours in the galleries. Breugel’s ‘The Hunting Party’ is also here. Indeed, we broke for lunch (beer, roast pork and wurst sandwiches in the gardens) then returned for a second session in the afternoon.


In the evening it was time for some music. The Staatoper opera house is huge with five levels (stalls and four rows of balconies). It was a mixed, summer crowd with lots of visitors, some well-dressed folk and an astonishing couple who marched down the aisle to the second front row. He was a suited 60, she 30 at most, with supermodel looks and heels as high as champagne flutes. We watched this from our box and were transfixed as he clambered up on to the stage to take her photograph, knocking one of the orchestra’s music stands sending the sheet music flying. She was obviously mortified but he persevered, snapping away. The impatient oaf also started to clap loudly before the performance, as it was a few minutes late. She simply stared ahead. Before the interval, he started to look at his watch and hauled her off before the musicians had finished the piece. It was as fascinating as the performance itself. Despite this, the music was great, Mozart and Strauss, with a showman conductor. We had a great box off to the left of the stage and the building is a star in itself. Gil wore a full-length, black dress, putting us all to shame, and looked pretty stunning. The concert finished at 10pm and we were ravenous on exit – so having savoured Viennese music it was time to continue in the Viennese vein with food.


When in Wein, a Weiner Schnitzer’s a must, so off to Figmuller’s where they serve one foot diameter Schnizels with superb potato salad and excellent house wine (from their own vineyard). It’s just right, crispy on the outside and moist meat inside. I was the only one in our party of five brave enough to tackle the beast but got through it all, lubricated with a steiner of beer and a few glasses of wine.

Klimt, Sheile– Day 3


Sleepless night – must have been the Schnitzel! Stayed in the Beletage Hotel for our third night in Vienna, as we’ve stayed here before. What makes it special is not the First Aid box in the rooms, containing condoms, double ended lollipops, handcuffs etc. but the five course gourmet breakfast ( I must be getting old) undoubtedly the finest breakfast I’ve eaten in any hotel, all made on the spot by the in-house chef. They also have a small, eight seat cinema that shows movies all day and an excellent restaurant, the Salon. The beds lie like an island in the centre of the room as the Hapsburgs liked to be serenaded of an evening by minstrels behind the bed. One of life’s mysteries is why our friend ran five circuits round his bed (he’s a tad eccentric) – it was suggested that from the outside, through his window, it may have looked like he was chasing a dwarf. Ready for the Krankenwagen to the Krankenhaus that lad.


U-bahn to the Hapsburg Palace in south Vienna, the home of some of the finest Klimt and Schiele, and a lovely walk in the morning sunshine through the Botanic gardens, stopping off in the bamboo grove, where you can walk into the middle of the bamboo stalks. The great basin on front of the building is impressive but the building is fairly uniform and nondescript. Inside, however, there’s Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, ‘Judith’ and several landscapes along with a wealth of Austrian art. The secessionist Klimt is all Byzantine gold and icon-like erotic faces and figures.

In one small room there’s a circle of Messerschmidt faces, carved and cast in the late 18th century. These grotesques look remarkable today but must have been really avant garde 250 years ago. Fine meal in the Salon, the Beletage’s restaurant – al fresco in a courtyard.

Arty Hotel in Krems – Day 4

By train to Krems, a small town on the banks of the Danube. There’s a steady stream of cyclists here, as the 385 Km cycleway along the Danube goes through here. They come in all shapes and sizes and good on them. We’re already discussing a bike trip here next spring.

Interesting discussion with my mate from Scotland comparing Austria with Scotland. Both are small countries hanging off larger economies with which they are culturally and linguistically aligned. Both are small countries that have mountains and fertile/industrial lowlands. Both have produced a clutch of great philosophers and economists (Smith, Hume - Hayek, Wittgenstein, Popper) – OK I’m pushing it here. Heads are turned by the Scandinavian model (economic), but Scotland has, perhaps, more in common with the Teutonic model. When we arrived we saw political posters for politicians claiming ‘Our money for our people – not failed EU states’ – so maybe not!

We’re in the Krems Arte Hotel, a modernist, Bauhaus design. Modernism is not a ‘statement’ here, it’s part of the normal, aesthetic fabric of the place and sits comfortably alongside neo-classical and even baroque buildings. This has never been the case in the UK, where it is too often a deliberate provocation. Oddly, it’s full of choreographers for a conference on choreography called ‘Movement, deceleration and inertia’, although I’ve never seen a more sedentary bunch. They spend all their time sitting, beautifully poised I admit, in the bar.

Booked our boat tickets for the next day’s trip to Melke, walked along the Danube for some lunch in Krems then up the hill to the Piaristkirche, a Gothic building with a Baroque interior. It has tall windows which flood the interior with light and make the golden, gilded statues and ornamentation glisten in the sunlight. This is Italy in Austria. The Baroque church further down the hill has none of this light and the dark interior is laden by comparison. A beer garden meal in the evening, all goulash, beef, chicken and, guess what - beer.

Melke – Day 4

Surfing the Danube

The Wachau Valley by boat up stream past the precipitous Schloss Durnstein, where Richard the Lionheart was captured and ransomed. The fool, having survived the crusades, managed to get himself captured on the way back home by the man he had insulted in Palestine. The valley is covered with vine terraces on the north side and orchards on the south and is famous for its apricots (Marillen) so you get Apricot spirit, liqueur, jam, chutney, chocolate – the lot. It took three hours up past Spitz and Willendorf, where the Venus of Willendorf was found. Two lads surfed our stern wave on one bend.

Baroque gone bonkers

Melke is dominated by its huge Benedictine Abbey, Italianate, orange, yellow and white, high above the town. In the heart of the complex is the church. Now you have the sedate early Baroque of Rome, with its quaint little white plaster churches but here you have Barmy Baroque, marble clad and gold encrustation everywhere. It’s Baroque gone bonkers. Benedict Monks with too much money and not enough humility. They’ve recently sold a Gutenberg Bible to an Ivy League in the US to pay for renovations. The abbey has 500 rooms, the most famous being the Marble Room, again a Baroque dining room in which you would feel uncomfortable doing anything, never mind eating. It has a tromp d’oeile ceiling, marble pilasters with Herculean gilded, gold capitals. The library is more sedate with its 100,000 volumes and windows to let in natural light, as candles were not allowed. Dinner in a nearby Heuliger where we stuffed ourselves with lots of cold meat, cheese and wine. The apricot chutney with chilli was so good we bought a couple of jars.

Up the Danube – Day 5

Hired five bikes by calling the number advertised on their frames, then cycled north to Schloss Durnstein, where we walked up to the precipitous ruin to the pinnacle where Richard I was held for a King’s ransom. I can only imagine he made some Pythonesque mistake and asked for Crème Caramel in a local restaurant. Then off through vineyards and orchards to Spitz for lunch, picking up plums and grapes en route. After lunch we crossed the Danube on a local ferry that used nothing but the force of the current to get across. They simply angled the boat to take advantage of the current which pushed it sideways while anchored to a wire strung across the river. Dinner in the Yell restaurant where I had a dish I’d never tasted before - mushroom goulash with dumplings filled with crispy bacon.

Down the Danube - Day 6

Cycled south along Danube, 50k in the blazing heat. The hired bikes are like iron horses, at 5 euros a day they’re designed, I think, for town use only, two gears and you have to pedal downhill. The slightest hill brings out a serious sweat. The beer and goulash lunch didn’t help. Gil managed to fall off by pedalling backwards, which acts like an emergency brake –quite funny as she literally stopped and fell sideways, still in the pedalling position. Unfortunately, on getting up she managed to twist the handlebars 360 degrees putting so much tension on the brake cable that it was permanently on – made the next mile a bit of an effort until she realised what had happened. Final act back at the hotel, was some cream to ease the saddle sore and the forward flop on to the bed for a doze before dinner, another meat-fest in a Gasthaus courtyard just inside the west wall.

Goodbye Vienna – Day 7

Another three Weiner Schnitzels with a bottle of Resiling in Figmullers before heading off to the airport. One last word in praise of the Aperolspritzer, a soda water, wine and Aperol, early evening drink. I had one of these nearly every evening, and they’re the business. And of course the wine – the Wachau Valley is one of the world’s great wine growing areas and every bottle we drunk was from local vineyards – all of it way above expectations.