Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

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The Rock and the Hard Place

                Gibraltar is an absorbing place. If you are driving there, as we did, you must first negotiate one of the most unattractive parts of the Mediterranean coast of Spain, consisting mainly of a gigantic oil refinery at Algeciras, then deal with crossing the ‘border’-a matter of sitting in a vehicle queue for an extremely long time [even more so at present] and often in very high temperatures, followed by having to drive across an airport runway, which is at best an unnerving experience.

                Most people know Gibraltar to consist of one enormous great rock sitting on a peninsula which protrudes into the Mediterranean just before the rounded corner of Spanish coastline where the East meets the South. For some complicated, historic reason dating back to 1704 when it was captured by the Dutch and the British it actually belongs to the UK. Its area is only about two and a half square miles, but the population, which inhabits a crowded area at the foot of the rock, is 30,000.

                This population is remarkably mixed, for a UK territory, but consists of a vast number of Spanish, among others. Despite this Gibraltar retains a strong colonial flavour, sticking strongly to what used to be British traditions, cuisine and customs-more ‘British’ than the British. As you stroll along the shopping streets you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been teleported to Exeter High Street or Swindon town centre-with a few flourishes of Whitehall from the odd palace or mansion house flanked by plumed guards and a forest of flags, plus red telephone and post boxes.  All this is peppered with Ye Olde British pubs plugging pints, Sunday roast with all the trimmings and fish and chips whatever the weather.

                There is a cable car to get you up to the top of the rock, where you will have to dodge the marauding Barbary apes in order to catch what is a breathtaking view- the distant African shores and the sparkling Med dotted with myriad oil tankers. While you are taking it all in the bandit monkey gang will be mugging you for everything you have whilst spitting, baring their teeth and even biting in a most delinquent manner should you dare to remonstrate.

                All this renders Gibraltar a small gold mine in terms of tourism, but still more, it is the online gambling hub of the world and offers cheap fags, booze and petrol as well as being the gateway to Africa. So little wonder the Spanish would like it to belong to them.

                I fail to understand why countries should continue to own small bits of other countries far away, when the reasons for their ownership are so entrenched in the distant past. Spain itself owns Ceuta, a small bit of land sticking on the end of Morocco. The UK insists on hanging on to The Falklands. Yes, we all know it’s all about resources, and the inhabitants don’t want the change, but the handover can be over a period of time, as with Hong Kong, to give everyone a chance to adjust.

                Colonialism should be firmly set in the past. These days we ought to know better, oughtn’t we?

Going to the Dogs

                I don’t know what prompted us to accept our neighbours’ invitation to go to the dog track, but perhaps it was the aftermath of incarceration at Cahersiveen, where squalls had kept us banged up for an entire day and even a soaking walk to the nearest bar was scant relief. Admittedly, the proprietor of Mannix Point, award-winning site, one Mortimer Moriarti, mindful of the weather has done what he can to mitigate it for hapless tent campers. He has provided classical music ‘piped’ in the showers [!], a well equipped kitchen, washers and dryers and a comfortable sitting room with a peat log fire, squashy sofas, a piano, piles of magazines, card and board games and two, enormous, sleepy marmalade cats. Many had availed themselves of this facility, sprawling across the sofas, wet trekking boots abandoned on the wooden floor. Sadly, the site cannot win awards for weather. After a second damp and windy night we set off to see the Ring of Kerry.

                The morning was at last dry with some promise of blue sky. We followed the convoy of cars, motorhomes and coaches around the ‘Ring’, taking in Skellig Rocks, Ladies’ View and Moll’s Gap, then on to Tralee. Here in the West of Ireland tourism has drenched the countryside in a glow of affluence; the homes bearing the mark of architect’s pen, the hotels upmarket. We were persuaded to spend a second night in Tralee and take in the sights of the Dingle peninsula, allegedly more rugged and less tourist trodden. In the event, the road was just as clogged with sightseers as the Ring of Kerry, the lay-bys and viewpoints as crowded, the fellow travellers as irritating-as I’m sure we are to them. Here on Dingle we climbed to see the most westerly point of Europe, and yes, the scenery was spectacular.

                Foregoing the ‘dining package’ at the dog track we opted instead for fish and chips at Quinlan’s in the town, a happy choice,  then to the stadium, where we mingled with the hardcore regulars in the bar and attempted to make sense of the informative brochure. Groups of men clustered around the screens clutching race newspapers. I pushed what I knew of greyhound racing and its sharp practices firmly into a cupboard in my brain, having recently read a Roald Dahl story on the subject. I studied the names of the dogs, the ‘form’-all written in a mysterious code that may just as well have been the Gaelic that is widely spoken in the area as anything else. For Race 1 I selected ‘Christie’s Ashes’. I went to the desk with my 2 euros clutched in my hot hand, returning with a slip of paper. Outside the dogs were having a pre race stroll, some padding sedately, others prancing skittishly. My selected runner differed from the other five only in his wearing of a blue jacket, but had, by now become the favourite. The dogs seemed happy enough-enthusiastic, even. They were put into the starting boxes, there was a mechanical hum as the ‘hare’ started around then as it came level the dogs burst out in a tumbling blur, flashing past us and on around the track. A portly, florid gent brandished his programme and yelled encouragement, “Gaan, gaan!”

It was over in seconds. Christie’s Ashes had won. I went to the desk with my slip to claim my winnings and returned to our table flushed with success.  A whole 7 euros!

                The result of race one, however was beginners luck. I was to win nothing more-worse I was significantly lighter in the pocket by the end of the evening. This, of course is how the addicted become so in gambling. For us it was an experience and a fun evening though I doubt it will embed into my social life as a regular feature.