4 Days in Paris April 2016

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Me at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Paris in Springtime. According to the songs that is the time to go. Unfortunately, my trip was a bit early for that and it didn’t really look any different to Leicester apart from the buildings and river etc. I guess you should go there late rather than early April, or maybe even early May. Still, I had a good time over all. You can get special offers on Eurostar for £29 each way and I availed my self of this. From London to Paris takes about two and a half hours on the high speed train. Amazing! In the old days it took about twelve hours on the boat and train. You can get to Paris quicker than you can get to Manchester now and it is very romantic, at least in my imagination.

The good thing about travelling by rail is that you can take a musical instrument with you without paying extra. On my European Musical Trip last year I took my accordion which weighed a ton and nearly wore me out. This time I took my guitar which is a lot lighter but is rather bulky and gets stuck in the doors and exits. Very disconcerting! Also, it proved very embarrassing on the Paris Metro which was very crowded and I managed to annoy several people with the guitar on my back knocking into them. Still, I eventually managed to get to my hotel on the outskirts of Paris and settle in. The view from my window was not what I was expecting but the hotel was very cheap and there was a metro station very close by.

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View from my hotel room

That night I decided to go to an open mic. That was the main reason I had decided to go to Paris. To check out the live music scene. Because of the problems I’d had with my guitar on the Metro I decided to leave it behind and hope to borrow one when I got there. Maybe take my guitar the next day when I was a bit more confident.

I checked out the possible venues on my phone and found quite a lot of places I could go to. I decided on the Bombardier Pub in the Latin Quarter with a possible back up at The Galway Irish Pub just around the corner and near the Seine. I also planned how I could get back to my hotel. It was quite a way out and the Metro closes just after 12 and taxis are expensive. I found out there was a night bus that went near Bagnolet so I decided I would get this! More about that later!

There was no open mic at the Bombardier but I ended up getting a free burger meal that had been made by mistake. I guess they took pity on me or thought I needed it! Unfortunately, I don’t really like burgers or chips but I thought it would be rude not to eat it! At least it filled me up.

From there I went to the Galway Irish Pub which did have an open mic and I performed and had a really good time. It was a really cosmopolitan crowd with a big American contingent and the standard of the acts was very high. The bar staff were really friendly and told me about another open mic I could go to at a pub called The Highlander Scottish Bar in two days time which, apparently, was the best one in Paris. I noted that down. It was virtually next to the Pont Neuf, a bridge I’d played my guitar under many years ago.

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The Galway Irish Bar Open Mic

Getting the night bus was pretty easy but I wasn’t that sure where to get off. It was a strange experience. Most of the passengers were workers returning from a late shift and looked tired and morose. There weren’t any other late night revellers like me! I got off too early and proceeded to have a real problem getting to my hotel. I could see it in the distance but there were about three motorways in between. It took me over an hour to get through. I then found there was a bus stop just outside the hotel. A bit annoying but at least I knew where to go for the rest of the trip!

Next day I decided to go to Pere Lachaise cemetery which was only a couple of stops from my hotel at Bagnolet. It is an incredibly interesting place. Apart from having the tomb of Jim Morrison, which was perhaps my principal reason for going there, it has the graves of luminaries like Colette, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and many others. I took lots of photos there. It is a very evocative place that reminded me in some ways of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. I find the statuary quite compelling.

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Jim Morrison’s Grave

I spent a long time in the cemetery and it was quite tiring. It is very big, so I decided to go and hire one of the public bikes and cycle into the city. As usual it took me a while to sort out how to use it and had to phone the help line. They were a lot better and more helpful than the equivalent in Frankfurt a few months before. I was soon on the road and on my way to the centre. Notre Dame here I come! And yes, I took lots of pictures of the magnificent cathedral all the way  round. I also went around the city centre and into the Latin Quarter. The buildings are amazing and I went into a reverie imagining I was one of the poets and  Existentialists in the 1940s and 50s, talking earnestly in sidewalk cafes.

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Paris bikes. Easy to use.

The Paris bikes are easy and cheap to use. After an initial charge you get the first half hour for free. If you know where you are going you can use them for virtually nothing, changing over every half hour. There are plenty of cycle tracks but the roads in Paris are quite scary. I abandoned my original plan of cycling back to the hotel and took the metro. That night I was so tired I just fell asleep and didn’t go anywhere. Spent the night in!

Next  day I decided to go to the Philharmonie de Paris where an exhibition of the Velvet Underground was being held. There were amazing posters all over Paris advertising this. I decided to cycle there but unfortunately I went in completely the wrong direction and ended up miles away. My sense of direction seemed to abandon me in Paris. I swallowed my pride and took the metro. I don’t like travelling underground but at least you get where you want. I arrived at the exhibition hall and there was a court yard with an excruciating loud noise going on. I thought it was the beginning of the exhibition and filmed it with my camera. It wasn’t! It was just good old fashioned construction work! What a fool I felt, but it was a noise worthy of the Velvets so I kept the recording.

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Philhamonie de Paris. Velvet Underground Exhibition.

I first heard the Velvet Underground in 1968 and they became one of my favourite bands. The exhibition traced their early period from 1965 to 1968. It was very good with lots of film and exhibits that I have never seen before. It really caught the essence of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Warhol’s Silver Factory. It was a true assault on the senses. I spent a lot of time there and would recommend it to any Velvet Underground fans.

From there I decided to visit Montparnasse. It’s an area of Paris I have not been to before that was associated with artists and Bohemians. I must admit it was a bit of a disappointment. I did get there fairly late but the cemetery was closed and the neighbourhood looked quite ordinary apart from the strange, grotesque and enormous tower. Who put THAT there?? Maybe I just missed the good bits and need to go back, but I did end up in a rather good cocktail bar in the middle of it’s happy hour. Happy I was indeed!

I decided to go straight to the open mic at The Highlander Scottish Pub. By the time I got there it was already full and there was a long list of performers waiting to play. It was a great night though and everyone ends up with three songs which means you can really get into it. Because I was high on the Velvet Underground I decided to do one of their songs Heroin. This could have been a disaster but it wasn’t. It went down a storm! I did my other two songs and from then on I had a room full of new friends and the bar staff kept giving me free drinks! I couldn’t have wished for a better night, and the other acts were brilliant too. I filmed a couple of them with my phone. Again, there was a large American contingent. Like in a lot of European cities the British pubs and Irish bars are the place for live local music and open mics. There is also a receptive listening audience. The Highlander’s music cellar had bags of atmosphere. Definitely worth a visit.

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Highlander Pub Open Mic

Next day I got the Eurostar back to England. I hadn’t used my guitar once. It only takes two and a half hours to get to London. Paris will become one of my regular haunts I think!

3 Days in Rome February 2016

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At the end of February I went to Rome for three days. I’ve been there before but that was a flying visit when I played at a festival in Florence. The last time I went I wasn’t over impressed, which may sound odd and slightly absurd, but I was only there for about five hours. During that time I went on the open top tourist bus, visited the Trevi Fountain and had a meal. Then I hightailed it back to Florence on the high speed train. Because the city didn’t look like it did in either of my favourite Rome films, Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita, I was disappointed and, yes, I know I’m sounding a bit stupid and trivial but that’s the way it is. I wanted to be mown down by a million Vespas and Lambrettas and it didn’t happen! It didn’t fit in with my preconceptions of Rome. In my mind it should have been noisy and anarchic and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. It is actually quite a relaxed and easy going place and nowhere near as big as I thought it was.

This time was an improvement and I became better acquainted with the more interesting aspects of the city and, apart from being attacked by a dog at one point that fortunately didn’t bite me but did shred my trousers, I had a really nice and interesting time. I had two whole days there which wasn’t enough to see everything but was enough to make me want to go back again.

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Trip to Rome Day One

 

The first day I visited the Spanish Steps which are nice but are being renovated at the moment and are fenced off, then I walked to the Vatican where I stumbled on a mass being given by the Pope! I wasn’t expecting this but I was amazed by the efficiency the crowd were exited at the end. Although there were thousands of people in the square there was no crush or panic. A real lesson in crowd control! It is interesting that the Vatican buildings are so well preserved that they almost look new i.e. recently built. Intriguing, I suppose to look old, buildings need to have evidence of decay, it’s not enough to actually be old!

Which leads on to the next part of my tour, the Coliseum. This definitely looks old. Most of it isn’t even there! Apparently the stones of the outer wall were used to build the Renaissance buildings of the Vatican and other parts of Rome. What we see is the mainly brick inner wall but it is still pretty impressive, as is the Triumphal Arch.

That night I went to an Open Mic at a bar called The Public House. Met some really nice people and played a few tunes on a borrowed guitar. It takes place every Wednesday night. They also sell really good cocktails.

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Trip to Rome Day Two

 

Day two was even more interesting I went to the Trevi Fountain and then walked along the Tiber to an interesting and dilapidated area of Rome called Testaccio. This is in the process of being regenerated but at the moment  is a fascinating mix of abandoned buildings, graffiti, a brilliant art gallery and ancient ruins. There are also people living and working there. A truly fascinating place as is the last place I went to, the Protestant Cemetry. This is where Romantic English poets Keats and Shelley are buried. I really love both of their work.They both died in their mid twenties within a year of each other. It is very evocative with some amazing sculptures and tombs. Again, well worth a visit.

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The Protestant Cemetery

All this walking wore me out so I spent my last few hours reading in the garden of the National Gallery. Very relaxing and a lovely and peaceful place to sit.

There’s so much more to see so I’ll be back soon no doubt. Next month I am visiting Paris to check out the live music scene.

My European Musical Adventure Part 2 October 2015

Frankfurt Station
Frankfurt Station

I arrived in Frankfurt at about 10.30 p.m. It was an easy run and the bus station was next to the railway station, like they are in many European cities. It makes sense. Why don’t they do that in British cities? Mind you, the bus stations have a very different atmosphere. There is a slight air of desperation with people waiting for buses, an atmosphere of uncertainty. And things happen that don’t happen elsewhere. Everyone has a story to tell!

I was a bit nervous when I arrived at Frankfurt. After my experiences with the hostel in Brussels I was afraid that things may go wrong. Also, the reviews of the hotel I was staying in were not great. There was talk of drug addicts and prostitutes hanging about outside the hotel! Well, at least they weren’t inside and, actually, it turned out to be fine! Yes, it was a slightly dodgy area but it was really close to the station and the town centre and it was clean and had a 24 hour reception which meant I wasn’t standing around for hours outside. I had a really good night’s sleep!

I didn’t know what to expect with Frankfurt. When I worked out my itinerary for the trip it was a convenient stop on the way from Brussels to Prague and it’s a place I didn’t really know anything about apart from it was where hot dogs were invented! I certainly wasn’t expecting a major festival to be happening that had taken up most of the town. I eventually found out it was a commemoration of the re-unification of Germany. Things were happening everywhere. I decided that busking was not really going to be feasible. There was noise coming from countless tents and stages. At night there was a major rock concert in the centre of town with thousands of people and a major police presence. Very exciting. Yet again, my busking plans had been thwarted (or was I just bottling out?!).

Festival time in Frankfurt. Stages everywhere!
Festival time in Frankfurt. Stages everywhere!

Anyway, I decided to try and rent a bike from the stands outside the station. This time I had more luck and I managed to get the pay station to accept my credit card. However, it took a long time for me to work out how to actually unlock the bike. The instructions for everything were in German and when I tried to phone the helpline the operator knew nothing about how to hire the bikes. Great helpline!! In the end I worked it out by downloading the Android phone app that was in English and I realised that hiring the bike was easier than I thought. Fantastic! I went cycling off round the city.

Got the bikes to work! Liberation!!
Got the bikes to work! Liberation!!

The city is interesting with a futuristic financial area full off postmodernist buildings and hipster delis. It was so nice not having to walk but still be able to get round and see everything! Bliss!! As expected, there are very few old buildings but it has a good atmosphere and it is very nice down by the river. I had an Indian meal from a market stall which wasn’t that great but it filled me up.

View from Frankfurt Station
View from Frankfurt Station
Frankfurt centre. Many interesting modern buildings.
Frankfurt centre. Many interesting modern buildings.

At night I had a look round for live music venues. There is a street with several jazz clubs and bars down in it and I was heading for these. I had been told about a bar called Club Voltaire that I went to but when I got there it looked a bit dull so I didn’t stay long. I also never got to the jazz clubs. On the way I came across a bike park and decided to do more biking, this time at night. Loved it! What a liberating feeling biking is! Then I went back to the hotel and watched Star Wars Episode 1 on my computer. It was better than I remember it.

Frankfurters everywhere cooked over wood barbecues!
Frankfurters everywhere cooked over wood barbecues!

Next morning I went to the bus station to get the bus to Prague, the next city on my list.The stop I wanted was down a side street. The buses are actually clean and comfortable but the bus station was a complete mess. Rubbish was everywhere. The bins were either overflowing or broken. This is not what I expected in a German city! There was also nowhere for passengers to sit and wait. I was beginning to feel like a second class citizen. It was good experience though and the other passengers were really friendly, and of course it is really cheap! You may think it’s odd me saying it’s a “good” experience but at least part of what I was doing was to see things from a different perspective, and it made me aware of how other people live and survive. It made me a part of things just by being there. There really were shades of the Jack Kerouac zeitgeist in what I was doing. I was on the outside looking in and I saw much that I haven’t seen before.

The trip from Frankfurt to Prague is really good. The scenery is wonderful and there are hundreds of miles of pristine forest. The only stop we made was at Nuremberg which is pretty grim. Glad I wasn’t staying although lots of passengers got off there. You can’t just base opinions on what a place looks like. It’s the people that count and Nuremberg’s history is pretty disturbing what with the carpet bombing and Sovietisation. It makes Coventry look picturesque! I was glad to get back into the beautiful countryside though.

On the bus to Prague
On the bus to Prague

Prague is a beautiful city. I think it was the nicest place I’ve been to on the whole trip. Again, it wasn’t good for busking because of punitive by-laws. You need a licence and can only play for an hour at a time. Some of the buskers on Charles Bridge were brilliant, among the best I’ve ever seen. There were two accordionists playing Bach fugues, perfectly! I decided not to go rogue, and didn’t busk!

Prague at night
Prague at night

Unfortunately, there were no street bikes to hire so I was back on foot. I went all over and was particularly impressed  by the Franz Kafka Museum. It didn’t have many exhibits but it presented itself as a kind of art installation and it gave a real insight into the work of Kafka, especially his novel, The Castle. It’s inspired me to revisit his work.

Franz Kafka Museum, Prague
Franz Kafka Museum, Prague
Kafka's illustrations of The Castle.
Kafka’s illustrations of The Castle.

That night I took my accordion to an open mic at The Red Room bar. This was very good and I made lots of new friends including a couple from San Francisco who were doing a European tour. They did a brilliant version of Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix using acoustic guitar and voice. Check them out: The Jeff Jolly Band.

Red Room Open Mic, Prague. Jeff and Desiree playing.
Red Room Open Mic, Prague. Jeff and Desiree playing.
Statue outside the Kafka Museum, Prague
Hilarious statue outside the Kafka Museum, Prague

Next morning I was up early to get a bus to Berlin. This left at seven in the morning but I made it. It stopped at Dresden which is also a grim East German city that suffered terribly in the War. It made me realise how profoundly affected Europe was by the War, something I hadn’t really realised as a child growing up in Leicester which was relatively unaffected by bombing, although I did know about Coventry which was another beautiful city reduced to rubble! I went there as a child to visit the new Cathedral on a school trip.It was very memorable, especially the statue of Lady Godiva! What a terrible thing war is!

Kurferstendamm Berlin
Kurferstendamm Berlin
Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Full of strange, dislocated people.
Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Full of strange, dislocated people.

Berlin was my last stop and I only stayed there for a day before I went back overnight on the bus to Brussels. I went to a strange bar that night that had an open mic. It had a stream flowing down the bar! The barman didn’t think I was drinking enough beer. He was quite eccentric! It was mainly songwriters and the standard was really high. The atmosphere wasn’t as good as some of the places I’ve been to and I left early to make sure I got the metro back to the hotel before it shut down for the night.

Arcanao Bar Open Mic. Some really great singer/songwriters!
Arcanao Bar Open Mic, Berlin. Some really great singer/songwriters!

I had most of the day in Brussels before I got the train back to London so I decided to go to the Musical Instrument Museum and the Magritte Museum. Both were really interesting, especially the Magritte. I never realised a seminal surrealist could be so conventional and bourgeois! Still, I like his work!

Magritte Museum, Brussels
Magritte Museum, Brussels
Outside, the riot squad are getting restless, they need somewhere to go..
Outside, the riot squad are getting restless, they need somewhere to go..

Got back to London at 7 p.m. Adventure over, but there’ll be another one soon!

My European Musical Adventure Part 1 October 2015

Me in Brussels. Beginning of the trip!
Me in Brussels. Beginning of the trip!

So, here I am on my second travelling adventure of the year. I’ve got the bug now. A bit like a latter day Jack Kerouac in search of kicks and excitement. Well, okay, visiting several European cities in a very short time! In this case, from Tuesday 29th September to Wednesday 7th October 2015. This is a shorter time than my Interail Spanish trip in April but I’m visiting nearly as many cities. I’ve also taken my accordion along for the ride. Am I  mad, it weighs a ton, or seems to after a very short time. Still, the idea is to possibly do a bit of busking on the streets of Europe and also maybe get involved with open mics and jam sessions. I thought the accordion would be more interesting and exotic than a guitar which is lighter but takes up more room, and there are millions of guitarists around. It makes me yawn just thinking about it.

Okay, the train ride to Brussels went very smoothly. Changed at St. Pancras no problem. It’s the first time I’ve been on EuroStar. It’s a bit like taking a plane with all the security checks! I managed to get through without setting any alarms off. I’m getting good at this now! The train wasn’t quite as luxurious as I had expected it to be. There were no electrical sockets or WiFi. This makes the buses I have travelled on so far actually better. In fact, the one I’m travelling on at the moment even has a selection of films you can watch. Now, if only I could speak German! Never mind though, the scenery is gorgeous!
The journey from London to Brussels took only two hours. The train is staggeringly fast although you don’t really notice it. I got to Brussels late afternoon and walked from the station to my hotel, Hotel Francois. For once I found it easily but ended up waiting for over an hour for the person to come to the reception. He never arrived. One of the guests woke up a man who was sleeping in room 1 and told him I was waiting. I’m not one to complain but this hostel is about the worst I’ve ever stayed in. All the rooms were unlocked all the time so there was no security (or key) and I got a bunk bed with no pillow or blanket. To be fair, the place was clean although there was no toilet paper. It was also right in the middle of the beautiful old town. I managed to survive their for two nights though. Brussels is very expensive and the Hotel Francois cost €20 a night. The nearest alternative cost €90 a night. That’s why I stuck it out. By the second night I was getting used to it anyway. 

That night I had a walk round the town and had a tasty kebab supper. I also took some pictures of the city at night and looked where I might do some busking. I went back to the hotel and eventually managed to get to sleep. I was in a room with five people and it was pretty noisy but I must have been tired. Didn’t wake up until 9.30 a.m.

Brussels at night. Beautiful.
Brussels at night. Beautiful.
Brussels. Love the trams!!
Brussels. Love the trams!! Just rode around on them for the hell of it!
Brussels Cathedral
Brussels Cathedral
Busker in Brussels. You need a licence and can only play in certain places.
Busker in Brussels. You need a licence and can only play in certain places.

That morning I decided to try some busking. Unfortunately, there was virtually no one about. The town doesn’t fill up ‘til gone twelve. I decided to put the accordion in Left Luggage at the station (it was beginning to get really heavy) and do the busking later. Then I had a good look round the town. I tried to rent a bike but had the same problem as when I was in Valencia. I couldn’t get it to read my credit card. Very frustrating!! So I got a 24 hour travel pass that I didn’t realise expired at midnight. Okay, as you have probably realised, after a promising start things were not exactly going to plan. Well, that’s part of the adventure. That is my rule. You take and deal with anything that comes, good or bad. And later on it got really good. The busking never happened because of various problems I hadn’t thought of like local laws and regulations. Officially, all buskers need to be licensed and can only play in certain places. What did happen though was a brilliant jam session at the Café Floréo near where I was staying. Had a great time playing all night with some excellent musicians and made a whole load of new friends. Fantastic! I slept well that night!

Cafe Floreo
Cafe Floreo, Brussels. Great live music bar!
Cafe Floreo, Brussels. Great jam night on Wednesdays.
Cafe Floreo, Brussels. Great jam night on Wednesdays.

I got the bus for Frankfurt on Thursday 1st October at 16.30 from the Gard du Nord station, Brussels. Everything went smoothly and I found the bus stand easily and I was in good time. I wasn’t sure I was looking forward to a six hour journey though, but it was an opportunity to have a good rest!