Newquay, Cornwall, UK

Covid Restrictions Apply.

This is my first Cornwall trip. It’s also my first Covid trip.

The idea was to take the train from London Paddington early in the morning so I’d get the most out of my first day in Newquay. Five hours from London via Plymouth to Par, I will change trains to Newquay. This is the longest I’ve had to wear a mask yet. It goes surprisingly well, and the horror stories I’ve read in the news about people flocking to Cornwall instead of going abroad this summer don’t seem to apply when travelling on a Monday. It’s no challenge to sit at a safe social distance until I reach my destination as there are not many people on the train.

I arrive at Newquay’s small end-of-the-line platform around 11 am. This presents me with a challenge I hadn’t thought through. Hauling my two-wheel luggage through Newquay’s high street towards my hotel, I can’t wait to leave my bag and go exploring until I can get the key to my room at the hotel’s Covid-friendly 3 pm check-in time. After ten minutes’ walk past surf shops, pubs and hotels, I arrive at my home for the next five days, The Best Western Hotel Bristol on Narrowcliff, facing the high street and overlooking Tolcarne Beach below.

As it turns out, I can’t leave my luggage because of Covid restrictions, so there’s nothing else to do than be thankful I am travelling light. I pull the noisy wheels behind me back through the town centre, past Great Western Beach and Blue Reef Aquarium on one side, and a Wetherspoon and Tesco on the other side. I reach the other side of Newquay, where there’s a restaurant I’ve wanted to visit. Why walk all the way across town when there are plenty other eateries closer to my hotel? Because I’ve seen on their online menu that they serve lobster and chips, a combination I’ve never had before. 

Though pulling the luggage behind me is irritating, I decide to treat this as my daily exercise and a warm-up before tomorrow’s surf lesson. I walk up and down the hilly streets of Pentire, which is a primarily residential part of town. I walk past Newquay Golf Club and catch a glimpse of the town’s perhaps most famous beach, Fistral Beach. And finally, after one last final haul up a steep gravelly hill, which makes the wheels on my luggage cry out loud, I find what I was looking for: The Fern Pit Cafe & Ferry, which not only promised Lobster and Chips on their website, but also ‘arguably the finest views in Newquay.’ And who am I to argue? The views from the tranquil outside seating area are lovely and a perfect setting for my Lobster and Chips, which don’t disappoint. While eating, I people-watch small figures in the distance, paddling in the low tide River Gannel below. I also do a bit of birdwatching when two seagulls fight over leftovers on a nearby table.

I give the tired wheels on my small suitcase a chance to rest and take a cab back to the hotel for a Covid-friendly check-in, fully masked and socially distanced. I spend the rest of the afternoon at Tolcarne Beach – conveniently located five minutes walk from the hotel – exploring a cave or two, but mostly just enjoying the sand and saltwater between my toes and the sound of crashing waves ringing through the salty air.

Catching a Wave on a Corona Holiday.

The following day, it’s time for another long walk. With my suitcase firmly in place in my hotel room I walk east out of Newquay town centre towards Watergate Bay, where I will take my midday surf lesson from the Westcountry Surf School. It’s grey and hazy, and it doesn’t look particularly promising for a day spent on the beach, but I leave in good spirits, excited about the surf lesson – my first time on a surfboard. I walk past the Tesco Express, which will cater to my snacking needs for the rest of my stay here. I continue along the deliciously named Lusty Glaze Beach, and past the luscious Porth Beach. Then along the coastline, high above the sea’s noisy crashing waves, which I can’t see because of the foggy haze. I do see lots of green grass and yellow and white flowers.

Finally, the fog lifts just in time for my arrival, overlooking Watergate Bay, and suddenly I see dozens of surfers in wetsuits in the waves down below.

The surf school is located in a parking lot, where a couple of trailers function as office and locker rooms. I buy a coffee at the small makeshift cafe and sit down to watch the morning-class surfing on the beach below while waiting for my class at noon. When the time comes, I realise the first challenge is just getting the wetsuit on. The wetsuits live up to their name and are still quite moist when my group of six people struggle to shimmy into the clingy fabric. With a bit of help from each other and a lot of wiggling and pulling, we sort it out. Then it’s time to follow our surf instructor on the ten-minute walk down to the beach. Our instructor is recently back from the Bahamas (he says he returned because of Covid), and he looks the part of a proper beach-bum-surf-dude, which suits the occasion perfectly.

We pick up each of our massive surfboards and carry our boards for a few minutes down to a quieter part of the beach. I catch myself thinking that carrying the board will wear me out before we even get in the water. It’s not that heavy, but it’s bigger than me and difficult to carry properly. Once we find our spot, our instructor informs us of safety measures and takes us through the motions on land; we all have to jump on our boards and land in the proper position. Then it’s time to do the same in the water.

Pushing the board through every aggressive wave charging towards us proves to be exercise enough in itself. My arms are already tired before I even try to catch my first wave. About thirty meters from the shoreline, I stop and plot the action. I point the surfboard towards land, turn my back on the waves and look back for the next appropriate wave coming my way. I miss the first one – I’m not ready. I struggle to hold on to the board as it so desperately wants to glide along with the wave as it was meant to do.

Another wave is coming, and I decide this is the one. I walk a few steps with my board, and when the wave is close enough, I hold tight and jump on, landing perfectly on the board, lying down on my stomach, pushing up with my arms in a perfect Yoga Cobra Pose. The wave pushes the board, and as it surges forward, I jump up, landing on both feet, and I’m surfing. I’m SURFING!!!

Not for long, though. In about seven or eight seconds, I reach the shoreline, and I have to jump off the board. But I surfed. And I did it on the first try. I get a shout of acknowledgement from our instructor, who is helping one of the others out in the waves. I go back out, and for the next hour and a half, I catch a few more waves, sometimes they knock me down the moment I get on the board, and sometimes, I don’t even bother getting on the board when the wave comes, because I’m so exhausted.

But that’s life. Sometimes the sea will be calm, and sometimes you will find yourself in the middle of a storm. Waves will come and go. Some of them will knock you out, but sometimes you get to ride the wave. Sometimes you are ready when the wave hits, and you get to ride it out. And standing there in the middle of an onslaught of incoming waves, I feel calm in the knowledge that some waves will glide right through me, some will sweep me off my feet, and once in a while, I’ll get on top and triumphantly ride along. I know this won’t be my last surf session.

The Aftermath.

My body is beat after the surf lesson – without a doubt, the best workout I’ve had all year and a reminder that I need to exercise more to be better ready for the next time I go surfing. For the last two days of my stay, I walk with sore limbs high up on cliffs and way down at sea level, and I’m pretty sure no beach between Fistral Beach and Watergate Beach is left untouched by my feet.

Though the water here is good for surfing, it’s not as inviting for swimming. A bit too cold and a bit too wild. So paddling it is. I lunch twice at my ‘local,’ The Colonial, on Tolcarne Beach, where I read and people-watch, sip a Pina Colada or two and eat seafood (Seafood Curry, Catch of the Day). 

Every day I’ve been here, I’ve woken up to grey, misty weather, which has lifted after midday, giving way to a bright sunny afternoon. On the last day, I have a train to catch around noon, so my final impression of Newquay is shades of grey. The view out of my hotel room window is so hazy that I can’t see the water, which is quite a contrast to the evening before, with a glorious sunset of yellows, oranges and reds settling over the calm sea.

Check-out is at 11 am, and I find a bench in a parking lot across from the train station, overlooking Great Western Beach. Well, it would have if it hadn’t been so foggy. The seagulls have their own conversation above me as I talk on the phone to a friend in Australia. I wonder if I’ll get to surf down there one day. We chat until it’s time for me to catch my train.

The train ride back to London is uneventful. For most of the trip on this Friday afternoon, there are fewer than ten people in the carriage, making social distancing as effortless on the way back to London as on the way to Cornwall. As I arrive back in London and disappear into the Underground for the tube that’ll take me back home, I know that this will not be the last time I return home from Cornwall.

Stats
Population, Cornwall: 565,968
Population, Newquay: 22,000
Warmest month: July (average 17.8C)
Coldest month: February (average 8.6C)

Naples, Italy

I land in Naples – Napoli – before midday and get a cab from the airport to my hotel to make the most of my brief time here. My hotel, San Francesco al monte, turns out to be a good choice, located on the top of a hill. The room is nice, old-fashioned but pleasant, with a view of the city below and Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

In hindsight, this was at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, where we were still allowed to travel but recommended not to go to northern Italy. This is southern Italy, and there’s no sign of the pandemic yet. Whether it’s because I’m travelling out of tourist season, or the creeping, sneaking coming of the pandemic spreading, I can’t be sure, but I do appear to be the only guest at the hotel where I’m staying.

Leaving the hotel, I walk down a steep flight of stairs leading to one of many narrow veins that pulsate down towards the heart of Napoli. I go with the flow and soon find myself in the city centre, which bustles with noisy liveliness. I consider going on a tour of underground Naples late in the afternoon, but since I have very little time in the city, I prefer to stay overground and walk around to get a feel of the place. And get a pizza, of course. Napoli is the home of pizzas, after all.

I get a seafood pizza at Pizzeria Brandi, which has excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. The pizza is decent, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t have gotten better and cheaper elsewhere. Well, at least now I’ve had pizza in the town where this dish originated.

Back outside, I walk around the Spanish Quarter, a colourful and gritty neighbourhood with trash thrown in the streets left to rot on the ground and laundry hung to dry in the air. The grid of narrow streets and steep stairways is an enchanting place to get lost in, and I catch myself wondering on several occasions how someone managed to park their car in such a small space, as is often the case around here. 

Down by the seafront, the fabulous view of Mount Vesuvius is breathtaking – even more impressive than the birdseye view from the hotel. It’s so much closer to the volcano down here, where angry waves attack the rocks on the shore and paint a dramatic scenery, which adds to the enjoyment of the view.

I sit down at Gran Caffe Gambrinus. I’ve chosen this cafe because it’s where the underground tour starts at 5 pm and I’m still considering whether to join the guided tour or not. I order an espresso, a Negroni and a small cake, but I also get crisps, another cake, focaccia, and olives. When I point out I didn’t order these extras, the waiter says, ‘That’s fine.’ But it’s not ‘fine.’ My table looks ridiculous with all those little appetisers on it, and I soon realise I’ll have to pay for them. This is a lesson in how you can be conned even when trying to avert the situation. I wonder if it happens more often to solo-travellers and even more so to solo-female-travellers. I have to grin it and bear it, making a vow to myself never to return to this cafe and under no circumstances leaving a tip – my silent revenge. Va fa Napoli, indeed.

There is a cemetery with thousands of skulls in the northern part of the city, the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle a Napoli. It’s free to get in but not within walking distance from where I am. I take a cab up there, which seems to take ages. I’m glad I didn’t attempt to walk – I can’t always tell from Google Maps how far it is, and have in the past thought somewhere looked close enough to walk when it wasn’t. 

I walk around in the impressive caves full of skulls and bones for about 20 minutes before getting another cab going back into town. I ask to be let off at Piazza Municipio, where there’s an installation of 100 iron-statues of wolves by Chinese artist Liu Ruowang. It’s impressive to see all the wolves in the same space, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

I’ve seen signs of Granite di Limone throughout the day, and I suddenly get a hankering for one, so when I walk past Monidee Cafe, where I see they make them, I go inside and order one. The ice-cold taste of lemon cleanses and refreshes.

Soon enough, I’m back in the backstreets of central Napoli and find the Diego Maradona mural I’ve read about. I spend a few minutes looking at all the pictures, graffiti and artefacts of the controversial but much loved and universally esteemed football legend who was such a popular fixture in this town in the 1980s. Then I continue up the steep stairs to my hotel’s street.

I walk around the hotel, an old monastery, and the remainders of the convent show when I go on a walkabout trying to find the hotel restaurant. I don’t see one other person on any floor other than the receptionist on the ground floor. At first, I can’t even find the restaurant. My search leads me down several empty hallways and lonely staircases, leading to nooks and crannies, several rooms with exhibitions of artworks, and a basement with what looks like a conference room but might just as well be a ballroom. The emptiness makes the place seem perfect for making a horror film. A Neapolitan version of The Shining, perhaps? I’m relieved when I find the restaurant without encountering two twins in the hallway.

Not surprisingly, I’m the only person in the restaurant. A waiter emerges from nowhere, and I order what sounds like a good meal; chestnut and red prawn pasta. Unfortunately, the pasta is too al dente by about 30 seconds, and it’s way too salty. I eat it without complaint, but this is a stark reminder that it’s usually not good to eat at the hotel and better to go out and find something in a restaurant or a stall in the street. Anyway, I’m done with this day. After my salty meal, I go outside and inhale the salty air from the sea instead. I sit on the vast, empty terrace on the top floor for a while, watching Napoli at night from above and the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius towering over it all.

Many people go to Napoli specifically because they want to visit Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, but Napoli itself is definitely worth visiting. Since I was only there on a layover for just about 20 hours – before continuing to Palermo the next day – I didn’t have time to travel out of town. My brief stay has made me realise that the hard city with the tough reputation has many endearing attributes worth returning for.

Stats
Population, Italy: 60,000,000
Population, Naples: 2,187,000
Currency: Euro
Warmest month: July (average 24.5C)
Coldest month: January (average 9C)

Sicily, Italy

Palermo.

I get an early morning flight from Naples to Palermo and arrive around nine, then take the bus into town, which takes about 60 minutes and costs around six Euros (at the time of writing this).

I get off the bus at Via Roma and first walk to cafe Bisso Bistrot at the famous Baroque square, Quattro Canti, where I’m meeting one of the friends I’m staying with while I’m in Palermo. I get an espresso while I wait. When visiting any place in Italy, an espresso with whatever assortment of Sfogliatella, cornetto, zeppole, or other types of sweet pastries is a must to get into the right mindset. The square of Quattro Canti is magnificent, with four picturesque buildings making up the four corners of the square.

You can’t go to Palermo without visiting the harbour. A walk along the seafront presents fabulous views with a backdrop of rocks and mountains in almost every direction. 

Not surprisingly, there are several options for eating good seafood. Even though seafront restaurants are usually inevitably tourist traps to some extent, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good meal, for instance, at Trattoria del Pesce Fresco where my order of Seafood Linguine is mouthwateringly delicious. 

Ballaro is a traditionally working-class and slightly derelict neighbourhood with cobblestone streets and a famous food market. It’s worth sitting down for a meal or snack and soaking up the lively atmosphere. A typical snack might be aubergines in olive oil and some squids and bread, which is tasty but so oily you can’t overeat – maybe that’s the point.

A cool hang-out in Ballaro is the cafe Moltivolti, with a strong sense of community and lots of activities. I set up camp here almost every day while I’m here to write.

Another interesting and unusual place to visit is further west in Palermo’s Zisa area: The catacombs. As of this writing, it costs four euros to get in, and photography is not allowed. Walking down the stairs into what amounts to a mass grave, it’s an eerie place to walk around. Surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of skeletons of adults and children, some dressed, some not, Some standing, some lying down, it feels surreal and overwhelming and once back outside, it feels extra good to be alive.

There is a lot of beautiful architecture to marvel at. Near Quattro Canti, there’s Fontana Pretoria, also known as the Fountain of Shame, with its naked men and women statues. Behind the fountain is the beautiful baroque church San Giuseppe dei Teatini with its colourful dome.

Palermo is a rugged town that looks like it’s taken a beating or two, but that’s part of its charm. 

Taormina.

After a few days, I take a train from Palermo to Taormina (via Catania, four and a half hours). When arriving at Taormina station, I take note that though the town of Taormina might look close to the station on a map, it’s too far to walk as it’s up on the top of a mountain and you can’t go straight up from the station. Getting a cab from the station to the town centre and hotel of choice is essential.

Taormina is on the southern coast of Sicily and is very different from Palermo on the northern coast. Smaller with 11,000 inhabitants, a number that significantly increases during tourist season, as Taormina is a popular vacation destination. There’s an abundance of hotels to choose from, many with sea views and the distant south-western backdrop of Mount Etna.

This is not tourist season, though. There are glimpses of this being a place where the well-to-do come to play; there are many shops with designer clothes, and a look at the restaurant prices reveal it’s more expensive here than in Palermo. It might be choc-a-bloc with people between May and September, but there aren’t many people in early March, and half the restaurants are still closed. Though Taormina comes alive in the summer months, there’s a certain quiet charm to the place out of season. It’s no problem finding a seat in a restaurant; it’s a bigger problem finding a good restaurant that’s open. Though the daytime weather is mild, it gets nippy in the evening, and on the first day, I buy an overpriced sweater in one of the designer shops. I don’t even want it, but I do need it.

Taormina is made for designer shopping, fancy dining and swimming in the beautiful green and blue waters below. As these options are limited outside of the season, other options take precedence; like visiting the Greek Theatre of Taormina, which has beautiful views of Mount Etna in one direction, and the Sicilian coastline and the Italian mainland in the other direction.

Another thing for film fans like myself is to visit the locations, the two small mountain villages Savoca and Forza d’agro, where some of the Sicilian scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films were shot. Group tours are available, but I book a cab (through the hotel), which makes it more manageable.

After an early morning coffee and pastry, it’s time to explore.

The drive to Savoca is along and above the seafront, and the views are breathtaking. From Savoca, via Santa Teresa, the drive up the windy mountain to Savoca is stunningly worth it.

One of the first things you see when you arrive in the village is the famous Bar Vitelli, in which Michael Corleone sits with his two guards and meets the father of his future bride to be. I save the bar ’till the end of my walk around the village, through narrow cobblestone roads, past old houses with religious ornaments carved into them and superb views continuously.

When looking down at pastures with sheep bleating, it’s tempting to try and guess where the three actors stood, looking up toward the village when they filmed the famous scene in The Godfather II when Calo tells Michael, ‘Look, Corleone’. Savoca famously was used as the town of Corleone as the actual town of Corleone (in the northwestern part of Sicily) was already too big and modern to look ‘authentic’ at the time of filming in the early seventies.

In high season, the village might be more filled with tourists, but it is nearly empty in early March, and I get the feeling of having the place to myself (almost). One of the famous locations in the film is the San Niccolo church, and I look out over the beautiful scenery while the church’s bells ring out. Once back where I started, I order a Negroni and raspberry pastry at Bar Vitelli before reconvening with my driver for the afternoon.

The drive to the second village, Forza d’agro, goes back towards Taormina before turning right and up to the top of another mountain. In Forza d’agro, it’s easy to get lost in the old town in the quiet, narrow streets. Two churches in the village were used for locations in The Godfather; the one for Michael Corleone’s wedding and the one that serves as a backdrop for when the young Vito Corleone is smuggled out of town to get away from evil mobsters and flee to America.

Back in Taormina, I take a cable car down the mountain to the beach (three euros each way as of early 2020), where the clear, sometimes green, sometimes blue water views are truly spectacular.

I considered getting a Granite al Limone from the stall situated where the cable car stopped. But the lady running the place was so grumpy I decided against it.

The beach is a blend of pebbles and a little sand. Walking westwards along the road for ten minutes or so, I get to another even more beautiful beach, where you can walk over a slight stretch of sand between the mainland and out to Isola Bella. The water goes back and forth from both sides, but if you time it right and walk fast, you can get over without getting wet feet. The handful of people I see cross take their shoes off, but it is possible to time your walk between the small waves coming in from each side without taking your shoes off. I make it over with dry feet, sit down, and watch the scenery for about thirty minutes. When it’s time to go back to the mainland, I stand for a while, waiting for my chance to cross back with dry feet. An Italian woman emerges behind me and says ‘Coragio’, and then she runs across. I run after her and this time my feet get wet. I sit down on the pebble beach and let my feet/shoes dry while watching the beautiful water and sky.

Ristorante Da Giovanni, which is on the main road, Via Nazionale, at the top of the stairs coming from the beach, has fabulous views of Isola Bella. I enjoy a tasty ravioli meal with the local fish, Grouper, with almonds and broccoli cream.

I have my final supper back in town before returning to my friends in Palermo tomorrow – I order a seafood risotto, and I don’t order a Tiramisu, but I get one anyway. Like in Napoli a few days ago, I’ve yet again fallen prey to some weird Italian scam, where a meal I didn’t order was forced upon me, and now I have to pay for it. I leave the Tiramisu uneaten, and I don’t add a tip to my overpriced bill. All I can do is promise myself never to return to that restaurant, which insultingly enough is called Tiramisu. Other than that, I have a nice evening walk through the quiet town. In the evening, I marvel at my marvellous view of Mount Etna and the coastline at the hotel making its way towards Catania while I listen to reports on the tv about the increasing cases of this new phenomenon everyone’s talking about: Coronavirus.

Taormina gets busy in the warmer months, from spring to autumn, as with any popular tourist destination. And there’s no doubt that visitors will find the most action and more options in the high season. But visiting out of season has a quiet charm of exclusivity that you won’t find when the streets are full of people all fighting to get a reservation at the restaurant of their choice – I think I enjoyed my trip more for being here at ‘the wrong time’.

Stats
Population: 4.9 million
Palermo: 676,000
Taormina: 11,000

Oslo, Norway

It’s a few days after Christmas, and most of Oslo town is closed. Since I’ve mainly been here before in the light, bright warmer months of the year, being here on the flip side of summer is a cold and dark experience. Arriving in the evening on December 26, my three travelling companions and I walk from the train station and through the city’s Main Street, Karl Johans gate, which leads upwards and towards The Royal Palace (‘Slottet’), the official residence of the King and Queen of Norway.

We walk past the palace where people have laid flowers and lit dozens of candles in memory of Crown Princess Martha’s former husband, Ari Behn. He sadly killed himself over Christmas – a story that’s taking up all the front pages in Norway right now.

We continue into the darkness of Slottsparken, a public park surrounding the palace and walk through the park to the other side before reaching our destination, our guest house (‘pensionat’) for the next two days, Cochs Pension. We chose to stay there because it’s featured in the book, Halvbroren by one of Norway’s most famous novelists, Lars Saabye Christensen. The hotel is also across the road from The House of Literature which isn’t open while we’re here but sounds like a great place for literary events. 

According to Google, Cochs Pension is a 2-Star hotel; nothing fancy but safe, clean and warm – and our room has a lovely view over the northwest side of Oslo. We can also look down on the restaurant on the corner, Lorry, which, as it says on its website, is ‘one of Oslo’s oldest restaurants,’ with a history dating back to the 1870s. One of the dishes on their menu is a traditional Norwegian fish soup and lots of other classic options of Norwegian cuisine. 

After dropping off our bags, we go back into town and arrive at the Christmas Market just as they’re closing down for the evening. We go in search of something to eat.

With most restaurants closed until the next day, we have limited choice; we consider the junk food option, the Nordic burger chain, Max, but end up in a tiny hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant called Dalat Cafe, which turns out to be an excellent choice. After dinner, we search for an open bar, but that’s hard to find on a Christmas holiday, so we call it a night and walk back to the hotel for a good, early night’s sleep.

The next day, over breakfast in a small cafe, ten minutes walk south of our hotel, we decide to get out of town for the day. More precisely, we want to go to the north of the city centre, since we know that there are snowy conditions outside of town. After breakfast in a bakery/cafe, we take the T-bane Metro line Number 1 the thirty minutes or so to the outskirts of northern Oslo and get off the train two stations past the famous ski jump ramp, Holmenkollen, at Skogen station. We step out into a winter wonderland. People are skiing and sleighing and having the kind of childish fun that snow inspires even among adults. We haven’t brought any skis or sleighs, so we’ll have to make do with strolling, though I get enthusiastic enough to sit down on the top of a small hill and let my thick winter coat be a sleigh for a short moment. Wheeee! To be a child again, if only for ten seconds.

After a long walk in the snow, we return to the city centre where it’s been snowing a bit for the few hours we were out of town, leaving a thin layer of snow on the ground. We take a tram to Frognerparken, also known as Vigeland Sculpture Park, which is a nice park for strolling and serves as an outdoor museum with over 200 sculptures in bronze granite cast iron, all done by the same artist, Gustav Vigeland. Some are dramatic, some are cruel and violent, while others are erotic or funny. It’s a brilliant collection of sculptures, including an angry boy, a naked man balancing four babies in his hand and on his foot, and lots more.

Though we’re tired and cold, we want a drink before going back to the hotel. We walk past the bar, Angst, but an empty cafe signalling ‘anxiety’ doesn’t feel so inviting right now. Instead, we end up at the bar at Hotel Bristol.

At least there are about a handful of other patrons there, though there are more staff at work than customers. Afterwards, my companions go to another bar. I’m too tired and cold, and I also have fish soup on my mind, so I have dinner at Lorry. I relish the hot soup, and equally, I take delight in the fact that I only have thirty seconds to walk back to the hotel after dinner.

The following day we wake to white city streets. The snow has grabbed hold of the city streets and the thin, white layer has grown thicker overnight. I have a plane to catch in the afternoon, but we have time for a walk through the snowy Oslo streets in the embassy district, where all the big houses look extra fancy in the snow.

Later, we do one final walk down Karl Johans gate past the Christmas Market on our left and the nearby Nobel Peace Center – which I visited years ago – on our right. I say goodbye to my companions (who will stay a day longer) and continue towards the train station from where I’ll get a train to Oslo Airport, Gardermoen, about half an hour from central Oslo. As I reach the harbour, I walk past Oslo Opera House with its remarkable structure that resembles an iceberg and is built for people to walk upon the roof. But I don’t have the time for roof walking on this occasion – I’ve got a train and a plane to catch.

Oslo can be lovely to experience in winter, but I confess I prefer warmer days, so I think the next time I return will be in the summer.

Stats
Population, Norway: 5,300,000
Population, Oslo: 697,000
Currency: Norwegian krone (NOK)
Warmest month: July (average 17.7C)
Coldest month: January (average 2.9C)

Memphis, TN, USA

Three Days in Memphis.

Monday.
I arrive at my hotel, Comfort Inn Memphis Downtown. It’s just a few blocks from the famous Beale Street, with a partial view of the Mississippi River one block away. There’s also a distant view of the famous Peabody Hotel over some nondescript rooftops.

I go straight to Beale Street and have a late lunch of BBQ spare ribs and fries.

Then on to the B.B. King Blues Bar to catch the 5 pm gig with a blues-rock trio in decidedly denimed attire.

Singer, Memphis Jones, is joined by a bass player and a drummer. The first song they play is Memphis, Tennessee. They know what they’re doing – getting all the tourists hooked immediately. They’re pretty good. Nothing revolutionary, but it’s nice to hear live music, and it’s an excellent introduction to a city that’s so known for its musical history. The concert is free, so I make sure to tip the band 10 dollars before leaving. So not entirely free after all.

After the late afternoon gig, I walk down to the Mississippi River, at the end of Beale Street, to catch the sunset. There are many people down here, and it’s clearly a place to hang out. Lovers are strolling past. Families sit in the grass. A bunch of guys play basketball. Youngsters on electric scooters whizz past. Further south, the Big River Crossing reaches across the Mississippi over to Tennessee’s neighbour state, Arkansas. In fact, you’re already in Arkansas halfway across the river when crossing the bridge.

I walk north along the river from the Beale Street Landing in direction of my hotel, where another bridge, Hernando de Soto Bridge, lights up the Memphis evening with LED lights in bright colours and exhilarating patterns.

Dinner consists of pizza at Aldo’s on Main Street. A friendly waitress suggests ordering a ‘small pie’, as a ‘big pie’ can, according to her, feed a small village. I order pepperoni, peppers, jalapeños, onions, tomato and no cheese. And ginger ale. As promised, even the ‘small’ pie is not small at all, and I can’t finish it even though it’s delicious. I take the rest of the pizza back to the hotel and eat the rest later, knowing I’ll wake up about a kilo heavier tomorrow.

Tuesday.
On my first morning in Memphis, I visit the Cotton Museum, a short walk from the hotel. To see the exhibition, you have to walk through the beautiful original Cotton Exchange hall and into a large room where the actual exhibit is. An introductory video doesn’t delve as deeply into the slavery aspect of cotton production as perhaps is warranted. However, the collection of cotton-related products is compelling and shows how intertwined cotton production was with the history of the Blues. There are many old relics and photographs to look at and an entertaining, educational section aimed at children. It hits home that I never considered that golf balls and dollar bills contain cotton.

Down by the riverside, one block from the Cotton Museum, several electric scooters are scattered, waiting for someone to use them: Bird, Bolt, Lime. As I already downloaded the Lime app in Los Angeles last week, I ‘log in’ to a Lime and get moving. I follow the Mississippi River south in direction of New Orleans, Louisiana, from where I arrived yesterday. But I’m not going on a Lime all the way back to NOLA. Just a mile or so further Downtown to the Civil Rights Museum.

I ‘Lime it’ to the Beale Street Landing, where I ‘log out’ of my scooter and cross the road to walk up a steep flight of stairs, leading up to a row of, no doubt, costly houses with impeccable views over the river and beyond – West Memphis, Arkansas.

The walk continues through a considerably quieter part of town, just a few blocks south of busy Beale Street. There’s an outdoor art installation with a painted piano and a few restaurants, and a Blues museum. There’s a passing tram, or trolley, as they call them here. And then there’s what I came here for, The Civil Rights Museum. A jolt goes through my body when I first catch sight of the scene of one of the most famous images in recent history. The Lorraine Motel/Hotel, now part of the museum, stands as it were like a monument and reminder of that terrible, pointless murder of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. It happened right here. And I can feel it. The history of this location sizzles through the air. Only two other people are loitering outside the motel, and we quickly realise why there are not more of us. A sign with the opening times reads: Tuesday – closed. I wanted to visit the Civil Rights Museum, Mason Temple and Stax today, and Sun Studios and Graceland tomorrow. I decide to walk to Mason Temple and Stax as planned, but I can see on Google Maps that it’s in an entirely different neighbourhood. Luckily, I spy another Lime lying nearby, so off I whizz again.

A person has set up a small tent near the museum with placards surrounding it. The placards protest poverty and homelessness in Memphis. It seems like the person opposes the Civil Rights Museum and how the Lorraine Motel stands empty as a part of the museum’s exhibition rather than being used to house homeless people. It’s an interesting point. But I imagine that’s a touchy issue, especially since the person calls their ‘campaign’ the James Earl Ray Memorial (Earl Ray being the man who was arrested for killing Dr King).

I cruise my way through the backstreets of Memphis into an increasingly desolate area of town. After swerving one too many holes in the road, I decide to leave the Lime before falling and cracking my head open. I’m not in a hurry to try out the American healthcare system and see if the insurance really would cover a serious injury. I walk alongside the main road and see that this is maybe not the best place to walk around alone as I stride past needles and broken bottles of beer and a group of homeless men who stare me down as I walk by.

This is not the sightseeing part of town. Highlights around here include a KFC, a Taco Bell, a petrol station, and numerous cars passing by on the road. Soon I find the Mason Temple. It’s closed, and I take a picture of the church itself and a sign mentioning Dr King. As I’m about to leave, a man shouts to me from his car: ‘Just ring the doorbell, ma’am, they’ll let you in.’ They are used to tourists like me. I thank him and go back to the door and ring the bell. A guard immediately buzzes me in. I ask if I can look inside the church. He confirms that I can and asks me to sign the visitor’s book. 

Inside the big room, holding about 2000 worshippers, I’m alone, except for a man hoovering the floor. The noise aside, it’s very peaceful in here, and it’s nice to feel like I have the place (almost) to myself. I stroll through the room, trying to connect myself to another time when Dr King was standing up there on the podium delivering his legendary ‘Mountaintop’ speech.

I sit down in front of the pulpit in one of the chairs in the first row and take it all in. Pretending I’m at a service but the sermon is that of a roaring hoover, sucking the congregation into a loud vacuum and pulling us out of ourselves – which I suppose is what a good sermon is supposed to do. After fifteen minutes, I walk out in the lobby and say thank you and goodbye to the friendly guard. The man in the car is still there when I get back outside, and he smiles and gives me a thumbs-up as I emerge from the church. I smile back and shout, ‘Thank you.’

The Stax Museum is another 20-25 minutes’ walk away. I walk down a road with boarded-up houses on one side of the street and shotgun-shacks with small porches on the other side. A basketball stand lies across the street, a can of Coke caught in the hoop. Grass grows out of control on every lawn I see. In fact, there’s not one lawn, as much as one long stretch of wild-growing grass alongside the narrow, dusty road. Strewn around garbage compete with wildflowers about covering most ground. I swear I’ve walked into an eerie scene in the True Detective TV series. Who knows what might happen on an isolated backroad such as this. The sun beats down on me, and I realise I’m out of water. Five minutes later, I’m relieved to be back on the busier main road, Mississippi Boulevard. There are several boarded-up houses here, too – poverty is a horrific reality for so many. In fact, ‘nationally, Memphis has the second-highest poverty rate among cities with a population over 500,000, Detroit having the highest‘. It’s telling that still after all those years, the two big cities with the highest poverty rate in America also are the two cities that can equally claim to be the home of soul music (Stax in Memphis, Motown in Detroit).

I pass by a sidestreet called Ida Place, and when I look around, I see the street sign of a sidestreet on the other side of Mississippi Boulevard called Edith Avenue. Quite the coincidence considering my name is Ida, and my grandmother’s name was Edith. I turn left on E McLemore Avenue. (Several months later, I find out if I’d walked to the right down E McLemore Avenue, I would have found soul legend Aretha Franklin’s birth home down a sidestreet just a few minutes walk away. Damn!). A few minutes later, I stand in front of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Luckily they’re not closed like the Civil Rights Museum, so I head inside to buy a ticket to heal my soul – and a bottle of water to quench my thirst.

We’re ten people or so entering the exhibition. First, we watch a video about the history of Stax. It shows how audiences in Europe were less segregated than American audiences when the Stax artists toured there. One of the musicians interviewed in the video points out that he didn’t sleep for the twenty days they were in Europe because he didn’t know if he’d ever get to go back to Europe and wanted to soak up every moment. Steve Cropper – famous for being the guitarist in Stax Records house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s and later in the Blues Brothers band – is clearly a point of pride in Memphis because he’s being interviewed on video about his connection to Memphis in pretty much every exhibition I go to while I’m here, which becomes a bit comical after a while.

As we leave the theatre area to go into the actual exhibition area, a man comes up to me and says: ‘Excuse me, ma’am, I think you lost this.’ He’s holding up my battered phone. It must have fallen out of my pocket while watching the film. I thank him and feel thankful. Of all the people who might have picked up my phone, some might have stolen it, but he was one of the honest ones. Thank you, sir, whoever and wherever you are. My phone screen is broken from when it cracked when I dropped it on the ground by some ruins in Vietnam just a couple of weeks ago. Now I’m in another part of the world – indeed, a former enemy territory of Vietnam – but the cracked phone reminds me every day of another timezone of the world (GMT+7). Now, I’m in timezone GMT-6. Such is the magic of travelling. Today, I’m not about to see the ruins of an old temple in a jungle in Vietnam, but the leftovers of an old recording studio in a city in the United States of America.

The museum itself is excellent – so many artefacts. So much to see and learn. I can’t keep track of it all, but that’s part of the appeal. It’s a blast from the past, a sensory overload, an explosion of information. Highlights for me include; the recreation of a small southern baptist church with a gospel soundtrack playing. Isaac Hayes’ BLING Cadillac. A rebuilt Studio One, where Otis Redding recorded Dock of the Bay. Hundreds of 7-inch records hang like shiny, identical looking black artworks except for the various coloured centre labels that reveal which song you would hear if you put the record on and reveals each record’s makers’ identities. Fantastic exhibition. Great museum. I buy a Stax t-shirt in the gift shop, and then I order an Uber because I can’t bear to walk in the heat anymore. 

Next stop, Sun Studio. The Uber driver says it’s good that I ordered an Uber as this is not a safe area to walk in. I reply I have already walked from the Civil Rights Museum to the Stax Museum. He shakes his head at the stupid tourist sitting in the backseat of his car (that would be me). 

The outside of Sun Studio looks like I’ve seen in pictures, and the excitement about being here is undeniable. Inside is a souvenir shop (of course) and cafe area. I buy a ticket from the wide-smiled girl behind the counter and sit down to get my first ever Cream Soda (too sweet for me) at the bar in the small entrance area while waiting for the next guided tour in about ten minutes.

Then the tour begins, and our very energetic guide takes us upstairs. She tells us how in the 1950s, record producer and founder of Sun studio Sam Phillips loved blues music so much that he wanted to start a label to promote this music as no one else seemed to be doing so. It was at Sun Studio that the idea of distorting the guitar sound was invented. Some musicians recording at the studio dropped one of their amps on the way to the studio, and it broke inside, creating a hissing noise when they played. To fix the problem, Phillips put some paper inside the amp, and this though solving the hissing, made a distorted sound that sounded so great that they decided to keep it. This was pretty much the birth of the sound and idea of rock and roll. Phillips’ favourite discovery was Howlin’ Wolf, and he didn’t like Elvis Presley the first time he heard him (too poppy). It was very much thanks to Phillips’ secretary that Elvis eventually got to record (That’s Alright Mama) at Sun Studio and thus became Phillips’ most famous discovery. Presley didn’t stay with Phillips for long, though, as he was soon lured away by more lucrative offers than Phillips could afford to give the new rock and roll star.

After the upstairs tour, we go downstairs to the studio area where artists still record today. It’s where Elvis recorded, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins – all in the famous picture where the four of them turned up at the studio the same day and fooled around. Sam Phillips secretly recorded the session but knew he couldn’t share the recording with anyone for contractual reasons. The so-called ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ recordings were only revealed after Phillips’ death. Our guide tells us that most recordings at Sun were done in one or two takes. But when Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Great Balls of Fire, he was so drunk that he needed over 30 takes before he got it right. The blue drum kit in the studio belonged to U2 and is the one Larry Mullen Jr plays in U2’s tour documentary, Rattle and Hum. Our guide also demonstrates how Johnny Cash would play his guitar and get a unique sound by putting a dollar note between the strings. It’s a great tour, and I leave feeling full of input from a day rich in cultural exploration.

After the Sun Studio tour, I walk back to Beale Street. I catch the end of a set of two blues musicians, a black singer and a white lead guitarist, playing for a small crowd of people in an outdoor bar. The next band, four musicians who play country-rock, are not as exciting, so I continue my walk past the many bars on Beale Street. One plays Tom Petty’s Free Falling that merges with the sound of a blues band playing on the other side of the street, making for a sonic Americana-blend. 

Many of the bars’ signs brag of being ‘World Famous’, which sets the tone of the street. Every place here tries to sell the dream of a past that no longer exists to tourists like me. I go into A. Schwab’s (the oldest store on Beale Street). These days it’s a combined cafe and souvenir shop selling all things Elvis, including t-shirts, chewing gum, mints, pens, wallets and whatever item you can print the name Elvis upon. I have a milkshake and two boxes of Elvis-mints, which leads to the question: Did Elvis have fresh breath? I have a BBQ meal at another ‘World Famous’ joint; waffles, fried chicken, sweet potato fries and lots of hot sauce and maple syrup.

Wednesday.
Today is a big day; Civil Rights Museum and Graceland. Two opposites. I would have loved to have taken a one-day trip to Tupelo, Mississippi, to see Elvis’ childhood home, but it’s not possible in the time I’m here to get to and from Tupelo in one day without renting a car. I also realise that it’s in Memphis (just south of Graceland, in fact) that Al Green – another soul legend – is a Reverend and holds services most Sundays. I wish I’d known that when I booked this trip so I could have planned around it. But you can’t do and see everything, and I accept that I’ll miss out on seeing Al Green.

I ‘Lime it’ to the riverside park and walk up the stairs to the fancy houses with the great view and continue to the museum. This time it’s open. The exhibition is brilliant. Like at Stax, there’s so much information it’s too much to take in, so I concentrate on fragments. We walk through the history of Africans in America, and it’s a grim history (as we all know), but it’s also one of hope, beauty, and resilience.

The exhibition comprises an onslaught of information and photos, videos, audio, and simulated experiences. For example, you can ‘join’ legendary cilvil rights activist Rosa Parks in 1955 on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, as she is told by the white bus driver to move to the back because she is black. You can ‘experience’ – or imagine – segregation by standing in a mock-up of a cafe with a group of black people sitting apart from two white men. There’s a section about the legendary marches to Selma in 1965 to demonstrate for black people’s right to vote. There’s a section about the history and work of the Black Panther Party, and much more.

Perhaps the most moving part of the museum is towards the end of the exhibitions, in a section on Martin Luther King where a sign reads: ‘Dr King spent the last hours of his life in Room 306, directly behind you…’ That’s when I realise that the exhibition has now taken me inside Room 307 of the Lorraine Motel, and when turning around, I look straight into Room 306. There’s a glass wall between the two rooms so visitors can look into the final room Dr King slept in, which looks like it did on that fateful day in 1968, complete with a suitcase, a plate of breakfast, a cup of coffee and a newspaper. What a poignant way to end this part of the exhibition.

But it’s not over yet. The exhibition continues on the other side of the road, where visitors go inside the old boardinghouse from where Dr King was murdered. This is equally chilling and emotional. This part of the exhibition is primarily about the murder of Martin Luther King, his assassin James Earl Ray, and questioning whether it actually was Earl Ray (or only him) who was behind the murder. Then I walk downstairs through a gift shop and back outside.

On the way down to the Rock and Soul Museum to catch the free shuttle to Graceland, I walk past a building that says ‘Gibson Factory’. It’s closed and under construction. I didn’t know that Memphis was home to the Gibson guitar, but I’m not surprised – everything else about Memphis screams MUSIC! (UPDATE: I later find out that Gibson is moving their factory to Nashville).

The shuttle arrives and we are about 15 other people who board. There are a lot of holes in the road on the way to Graceland, and the vehicle actually shakes, rattles and rolls all the way to our destination. About 20 minutes later – slightly rattled from all the shaking and rolling on the bus – we arrive at Graceland in the southern suburbs of Memphis. We walk through a car park before we get to the gates that lead into a new’ish part of Graceland. This part comprises several buildings exhibiting different aspects of Elvis’ influence and possessions; his car collection, his costumes, and a section about stars he inspired, which include objects like a piano once owned by John Lennon and a suit worn by Justin Timberlake. It’s easy to notice that mainly white people appear to have been inspired by the ‘King of Rock and Roll’.

There’s also a Glady’s Diner, where one dish on the menu is Elvis’ favourite sandwich, a peanut-banana sandwich made with bacon grease, just like his mama (Gladys) made it. There’s Vernon’s Smokehouse (named after Elvis’ father), where one of the items on the menu is meatloaf like Elvis liked it. I have no idea how much these two dishes differ from how Elvis had them, but I make a point to try both. They’re both a bit dry and very, very filling. We are ushered into a room to watch a short introductory film. Then it’s back outside to wait in a long line, slowly snaking its way forward in U-turns to get on one of the shuttles that arrive every few minutes to take visitors across the road and up to the actual Graceland building where Elvis lived.

Before entering the house, we’re told not to film anything, that we’re not allowed upstairs, and we must keep moving so we don’t hold up the people behind us. A quick run-through of the house is as follows: To the right, a living room next to Elvis’ father’s bedroom. Stairs leading up to the off-limits area. There’s a closed door at the top of the stairs, and it’s hard not to wonder if this might be a door to the bathroom where Elvis died. There’s a dining room to the left and through an open door the wood-panelled kitchen.

Then we walk downstairs to the basement. There’s a pool room and a striking yellow room with a small bar area and three televisions. The audio guide (narrated by actor John Stamos) tells us that Elvis had three televisions because he heard that Nixon always had three TVs to watch everything simultaneously. Good thing Elvis lived at a time when there weren’t hundreds of TV-channels to choose between – how would he have had room for all of those TV-sets?

Back upstairs, we walk past the Jungle Room, which appears to have been everyone’s favourite room. It’s undoubtedly festive, with a green shaggy wall-to-wall carpet and wooden furniture and Hawaiian-style ornaments. In one chair, there’s a giant teddy and a guitar.

There are several other areas of the grounds, like father Vernon’s office, a small shooting range, a ‘games room’, the stables, a swimming pool, and the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his mother, father, and grandmother are buried. Then back to wait for a shuttle to go back to the other side of the road to the other exhibitions. The car collection is fun but opulent. I don’t care much about the costumes, but it is fun to see the black leather suit Elvis wore at his ’68 come back television show. For five dollars extra, you can go inside Elvis’ planes. I haven’t paid an extra five dollars, but I can see the aircraft from outside the enclosure, where they’re parked for all to see from a distance.

While waiting for the shuttle to go back into town, I walk back across the road to stand in front of Graceland to take some pictures that I couldn’t take from the shuttle. I stop for a moment and look at all the messages and names scribbled on the stonewall. I look up the driveway leading up to the house and think of the times Elvis must have driven and walked that path. But it’s hard to connect. In contrast, I remember when I was in New York for the first time, went to the Dakota Building, and stood where John Lennon was murdered in 1980 – that I could connect with. I remember feeling upset and emotional. But here at Graceland, I’m not feeling it. Just because someone is an idol doesn’t necessarily make you a fan.

On my last evening in Memphis, I want to try Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar. It’s supposedly one of the best restaurants in town and serves a more high-end cuisine than the bbq joints around the corner on Beale Street. I enter the restaurant and ask for a table. The hostess says the words people who dine out alone will invariably hear be asked: ‘Just one?’ Just one! They have a table in the wine cellar, so downstairs we go. There are only two other occupied tables when I arrive, but the place is full when I leave about an hour later. The service is excellent, and I choose a menu where I mix and match three choices – they are all delicious. I order a glass of local white wine from Oregon. Well, Oregon is more ‘local’ than the European countries from which the other wines originate. I choose the lightest dessert, a creme brûlée, also excellent – what a sublime and also expensive meal. And a nice change from bbq and pizza.

I walk down to the riverfront one final time and enjoy the view of the mighty Mississippi River and the light show from Hernando de Soto Bridge. Then I return to my hotel a few blocks walk away.

I could easily have spent a whole week here; a trip to Tupelo, a Sunday Service with Reverend Al Green, visit the Rock and Soul Museum and the Blues Museum, go to see Aretha Franklin’s birthplace and so on. The last three days have been a lovely introduction to an exciting and soulful city. I have never been to Nashville, so I can’t compare Memphis to that other city legendary for its musical legacy in the state of Tennessee. But I find it hard to imagine that Nashville can have more to offer a visitor than Memphis has. Nashville has become ‘cool’ in the last couple of decades. Memphis doesn’t come across as cool. Quite frankly, it’s too hot to be cool. Thank God for that.

Stats
Population, Tennessee: 6,800,000
Population, Memphis: 652,000
Warmest month: July (average 31.5C)
Coldest month: January (average 4.3C)