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This blog has now relocated to www.theworldandhistuktuk.com
Please visit our new site for all future and past posts…
My time in France is beginning to draw to a close. I do actually still have five weeks left in-country (not counting the two weeks’ holiday at the end of the month, which I’ll be splitting between Croatia and the UK) as I’ve just had approval for the extension of my teaching contract by another month. But even so, if those five weeks go anywhere near as quickly as the last six and a half months have gone, I’ll be out of here in no-time – so I have begun a marathon attempt to squeeze every day off and weekend dry, fitting in all the places I have been meaning to visit since October but haven’t quite round to seeing just yet.
First on the list was Angers, which I visited on Monday. A friend from university in Bath, also on placement this year and also teaching, works in Angers but lives very close to me in central Nantes. Everyone else seems to have visited her there already, something which for me has been on the cards since I arrived and yet which, like everything else, had fallen to the bottom of the pile.
As little as 35 minutes from Nantes on the TGV fast train (or an annoying hour and a quarter if you miss the TGV by minutes, as I did, and end up having to take the local TER train), Angers gets a rather bad introduction in the Rough Guide. Overall its write-up is pretty favourable, but first impressions are everything, and describing it as ‘a rather depressing place’ where people are unfriendly and don’t smile (show me a place in France that isn’t like that!) is hardly going to inspire you to pack your bags and go there on a whimsical jolly.
Frankly, my advice is (as so often, unfortunately) to ignore the Rough Guide – or at least that poorly researched intro to the Angers entry, and head to the city anyway. Sure, I was going to like it because I was there on a beautiful sunny day and meeting a friend, but it is hard to see what about the place could fail to please. Your entry point to a city that feels so much more Loire-like (and yet it’s actually on the Maine!) than still-Brittany-under-the-surface Nantes, the train station is just a short walk from the centre (again, ignore the suggestion you should take the bus and get a feel for it on foot). From there you can choose between a beautifully manicured Jardin des Plantes, a wealth of high street, boutique and independent shopping options, quirky Victorian back streets, a magnificent cathedral and a château that even without stepping inside (I didn’t on this visit) can only be described as breathtaking.
Perhaps I am beginning to unfairly downrate Nantes in the way that you inevitably always do when you begin living somewhere even relatively long-term, taking for granted what you have there, but everything I saw in Angers rated more highly for me than Nantes’ equivalent offer. The Jardin des Plantes, for one, may be right next to high-rise council estate-like buildings that tower over it in parts, but this doesn’t take away one bit from the quiet beauty and fancy grandeur of the park. It has the feel of a sprawling country estate in a way that Nantes’ own Jardin des Plantes feels more like an attempt at something stunning that has ended up as more of a regular city centre park. I am not knocking the one in Nantes, which in areas is also very tranquil, but by comparison to Angers it feels cramped, where Angers wins out on width and certainly on flower arrangements in the borders. Angers also did well out of the fact that I visited mid-week, whereas most of my trips to the park in Nantes have been at the weekend, when it is undoubtedly going to be busier. Either way, though, despite feeling so grand, Angers’ also seems a lot more lived in and used by the locals – big groups of grannies sitting outside the little church building catching up with one another and taking in the sun’s rays, and others sat solitary on benches elsewhere, reading a newspaper or simply taking a moment’s midday pause.
If pretty planted tulips aren’t enough to steal the show, then the cathedral surely must come close. Walking up to it from the side of the Maine river involves a trek up a considerable flight of old steps, but is well worth it and makes for by far the best approach – the impressive front of the cathedral at once striking even from far at the bottom. This is a beautiful building, and one from which you are also afforded great views back down those same steps and out across the water.
By the far the jewel of Angers’ crown, though, is its château. I didn’t even get inside – by this time I was almost out of the four or so hours I had given myself there, almost an hour of which had already gone on hot chocolate in Atelier Café (highly recommended for its quirky, shabby-chic-meets-grungy-student feel) – and yet I was so impressed by its striking appearance from the exterior that it ended up contributing forty-five of the 181 photos I took that day (and I was rather snap-happy in the Jardin des Plantes, too).
My instinct since walking alongside the huge, alternately dark and light stone layered turrets that somewhat resemble the look of a cake with alternate layers of chocolate and vanilla sponge, has been to describe them as looking like gas cylinders, the sort that you see at the side of roads in suburbs and the visible sides of which rise and fall as gas enters and leaves them. I realise that, much like the Rough Guide description of Angers as a ‘depressing’ city, this simile doesn’t really sell them very well, and to be fair probably doesn’t do them much justice – but that is indeed what they look like, in a far more attractive way than any gas cylinder could ever manage. These numerous turrets, which line the outside wall of the castle in an amazingly resistant demonstration of their protection of what lies inside, demand undivided attention from the second they come into view, and are striking beyond comprehension. In many ways because of their sheer size, they are the decisive factor that again means Angers easily wins out over Nantes without a moment’s thought in château wow-factor. These turrets tower into the sky, casting great shadows on the grass alongside them and putting on a show of majesty that Nantes fails to live up to, cramped between shops on one side and a tramline on the other. The expanse of the grounds of the château is in itself also very impressive – I walk fast, and it still took me a good while to get around the whole lot, with the houses and cliff face-like edges. If there is one place to visit in Angers then it is this, and I shall be back to see the tapestries that are housed inside – ironic that I didn’t get to see them this time, since they were the main reason the city was recommended to me!
It is probably typical away-from-home grass-is-greener behaviour that dictated how much I have been seduced by Angers, but the city seems to offer so much that Nantes doesn’t – a quieter general feel, ever so slightly smaller but still cosmopolitan enough, being likely the most attractive. With great connections to both Paris and Nantes, it makes for a very worthy stop by.
This is a post that I meant to write just after I last flew with Ryanair from Nantes to East Midlands. It is, perhaps surprisingly, not a rant about Ryanair. It is instead a rant about the inconsistency of airport security checks, and in particular their approach to liquids and gels (or LAGs, as some bored, overpaid acronym-inventing bureaucrat decided they should be nicknamed).
I travelled back from France to the UK a couple of times in February, once to visit a Thai friend who had been staying in Leeds for six months, and once to celebrate my sister’s birthday in London with my family. These trips necessitated three flights between them, while I took the remaining fourth leg (on the way to London for the birthday visit) by TGV and Eurostar.
Packing for the first trip, where I flew from Nantes to East Midlands and then continued by train to Leeds, I questioned in my mind whether the rules on carrying liquids in hand luggage were still in force. It had been almost three months since I had last flown, back in November, and I wondered whether in that time they hadn’t been in some way altered, either to make them stricter or to loosen them up a bit. These rules seem to change so often, and the limited information available on the internet is almost always out of date, so I left for the airport not really any the wiser about the current situation. But I had erred on the side of caution and packed only the bare essentials, avoiding anything over 100ml that I might be forced to throw away before I made it to x-ray.
So I was clearly surprised with the response at Nantes Atlantique airport, when I asked the security official whether there were any clear plastic bags available for liquids to be screened in; I didn’t have my own. His reply was simply to brush off any need for a plastic bag, telling me in a friendly tone that I could just leave the liquids in my hand luggage. This clearly flew in the face of what had previously been – and what I know now full well were, and indeed are, still – the rules. I continued through security and onto my flight, a little bit peeved that I could have brought that 175ml pot of hair putty with me after all, but otherwise pleased that the restrictions appeared to have been lifted ever so slightly. I am the sort of person who is more than happy for any security restrictions whatsoever if they mean that I get there safely, but even so it is nice to be able to make travelling that little bit easier where you can.
In fact, though, there had been no change to the restrictions at all. This much I discovered not when I flew back from Newcastle to Paris with EasyJet a couple of days later (since I had taken nothing over 100ml with me, I had nothing over 100ml to bring back – though I did put my liquids in a plastic bag, which are cheekily on sale at Newcastle airport for a £1 donation to the NSPCC), but rather the following week when, after my weekend in London, I again returned on an EasyJet flight from Newcastle to Paris (but this time brought my own clear cosmetics case to avoid again buying the world’s most expensive disposable plastic bag!) Having come to London by train, where there are clearly no liquids restrictions at all, I had taken a couple of items over 100ml with me; notably, a new pot of that nice hair putty that I had bought and opened just a couple of days beforehand. Going through security at Newcastle, the still-in-action liquids restrictions were made quite clear, and I had to throw away everything over 100ml. I also had a pair of scissors confiscated which, because of having come by train straight from work on the Friday night, I had forgotten were even in my pencil case at the bottom of my incredibly tightly packed bag.
So why, then, had I been given the opportunity to take liquids over 100ml through security in Nantes, but not in Newcastle? Quite simply, inconsistency. Inconsistency proven again today by the insistence at Nantes that I check in my small suitcase, because the jams and cheeses in my case were prohibited in line with the rules on ‘liquids’ and ‘gels’.
In much the same way, back in 2009, when the liquids rules were also in place, I was able to get a 500ml bottle of Coke through security in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on the flight to Bangkok – I only realised it was still in my bag, where I had put it half-finished during the taxi ride to the airport in Chiang Mai, when we were in another taxi on the way to our hotel at the other end. But that was a domestic flight, presumably not required to adhere to the same rules that are obligatory for international flights, and rightly or wrongly I expect something like this to occur a little more in Thailand anyway. I certainly don’t expect flouting of the rules in a fair-sized regional airport in a developed, western European country.
The important point here is that, if you are going to have rules like these, then you have to stick to them. If you don’t, then there is no point whatsoever in their existence in the first place. If terrorists are out there looking for ways to blow up a plane using whatever they can sneak through in a plastic bottle, then they are going to be looking for every crack in the system, and they will jump at the chance to exploit those cracks to their advantage. These are determined people – tight security at one airport won’t put them off looking for another where they can take through what they like. Much like the commercial interests that get in the way of stricter security on not just planes but other means of public transport too – it’ll cost too much, it’ll slow things down so we won’t be able to handle as many passengers, you know the things I mean – anything but the tightest sticking to the rules as they are laid down will always prevent us from having anything close to totally safe skies. And that’s aside from leaving passengers utterly bemused at patchy, changing-by-the-day enforcement of already complicated rules about what can and can’t make it into the suitcase you are taking into the cabin with you.
A nervous flyer, when I am in the air I sometimes whisper to myself, a secretly transmitted message to the pilot, ‘take your time, I don’t get care if we get in late, just get me there safely’. The same principle applies to air travel security – by all means inconvenience me if it’s going to keep me safe, but for crying out loud do it properly or you might as well not bother at all.
Extended highlights from another amazing trip to Thailand. I really struggled to choose between all my shots, so there are quite a few to share – including total overkill on Sangkhlaburi’s wooden bridge, for which I apologise in advance (but it’s an impressive, and totally, photogenic, sight to behold).
A very brief post because I just have to share this video clip with you, from Thailand’s Got Talent – the warmth and acceptance reminds me quite how much I love Thailand. I’ve got goosebumps right now.
Compare these two pictures. One is from the D’Ma Hotel’s web site, showing a plush, pleasantly decorated room. The other is the reality, the hotel in the flesh; nowhere near the most grotesque I’ve had the misfortune of staying in, but really nothing special either – just your slightly below average budget Thai hotel. The sort that, in the sort of upcountry location that Khon Kaen is, I would be happy paying 200, maybe 250B for – but not the 400B I forked out last night. It is in fact rather similar to places such as the Roma or Saen Samran hotels, nearby but indeed more centrally located, and indeed which manage to serve up rooms similar to the prices I’ve mentioned.
Last September I had a very pleasant stay at the Pimarn Garden hotel, a boutique number and supposedly the (slightly pricier) sister of the D’Ma. Save for a few subtle shortfalls in service, the place was lovely, with the convenience of a hotel (in-room safe, fridge, TV, air-con, telephone, very well finished bathroom) but the atmosphere and ambience of a guest house. I would have liked to stay there again this time, for my very short one night stay in Khon Kaen, but, much like they told me last time that they didn’t have any of the cheapest 600B rooms available, this time when I called from the bus en route to Khon Kaen, they seemingly only had their most expensive ‘President’ suites – which rack in at 1,200B.
So D’Ma was the alternative. As I’ve said, it is supposedly the budget sister of the Pimarn Garden, with practically identical web sites. If you believe what you read then it is cheaper because it is less centrally located, and because rooms lack a fridge and safe. They are still very pleasantly decorated, in what looks like much the same style as the Pimarn Garden. They still come with air-con and a nice bathroom, and the hotel still has free wi-fi for guests.
Get there and it’s quite a different story. Picture two shows the reality of D’Ma Hotel; hard beds, the most basic of basic fabrics and a dull, unimaginative décor that certainly doesn’t lend itself with any ease to the word ‘boutique’. Add to that the fact that the whole place – corridors, doors, window frames, you name it – is painted in what is at once both a shocking and depressingly aged, dulled pink – and you begin to get a feeling for my disappointment when I reached my room. I had been hoping for something at least close to what I had enjoyed back at the Pimarn Garden last year; what I got could not have been further from it. The switch for the main light revealed itself to be hidden behind the television after a half an hour hunt in the dark, and dodgy electrics producing sparks from my charging laptop’s plug just behind my neck only added to the bargain.
Another look at D’Ma’s web site is revealing. All those appealing photos of Pimarn Garden-esque rooms are, cites the little disclaimer towards the bottom of the page, of deluxe rooms. I was in a standard. At this point I felt and still feel three things. Firstly, that I had been cheated; if you are going to sell significantly different types of rooms, with accompanying significantly different levels of comfort, then fine – but put pictures of both on the web site, and let customers make up their own mind as to which to stay in. Don’t pull a con by tricking us into thinking we’re getting a plush-ish room when actually it’s a bog-standard basic one like we’ve all stayed in countless times before in dead-end spots across Thailand.
Second, a wish that they had just told me they had more expensive, but more comfortable, deluxe rooms available. If their web site is to be believed (which I increasingly thing it’s not – but that is feeling three, still to come) then their deluxe rooms, at 480B, are only 80B more than the standard ones. That’s about £1.60, an amount I would have been more than prepared to pay to upgrade from the not-hideous-but-not-very-nice-either room I was in to something far, far nicer and, in any case, much closer to what I had thought I was getting in the first place. But perhaps my most residual feeling is that of disbelief and distrust. I visited this hotel last year whilst doing some guide book research; I don’t remember exactly what I saw back then, and I don’t have photos as my laptop died shortly after my last visit (hence this trip to take new ones to accompany the work), but the place garnered a good review from me so I don’t see that I could have been shown a room like this. Either things have really gone downhill there (really really downhill) since September, or I was shown a token deluxe room – perhaps they guessed I was reviewing, I don’t know. But I do not believe for one minute that they have a good stock of deluxe rooms in the same building as this grotty number. The two just don’t mix; why would you go down that route in business?
Nor do I believe that a hotel that so actively seeks to con its would-be customers, by using pictures of one type of room to sell an entirely different, totally inferior room, deserves a positive review from me like the one I wrote them last year. So they won’t get it. I’ll be changing their review before I file my work – D’Ma Hotel has left a very bitter taste in my mouth, and it is one that they may live to regret. I can take cheap hotels that aren’t the nicest around, but I don’t like ones that try to con you.
Just an afterthought. Two days ago I was staying in one of the nicest rooms I’ve had the pleasure of renting – at Chuen Jai House in Sangkhlaburi; a beautiful bamboo hut, very airy and with beautiful lighting. A very basic room; no air-con, just a fan, a mosquito net, a cold water stone bathroom and some of the nicest staff, who I’ve known for a little while already, anywhere. There are many people (I spent a couple of days with such people before heading to Sangkhlaburi) who wouldn’t expect a dead simple guest house with a cluster of bamboo huts to be more promising than a sturdy, concrete built hotel – but I would stay forever at Chuen Jai and not another day at D’Ma. Which just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a house by its bricks.
A selection of photos from my three-day trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – reflections to follow (at some point):