Friday, September 16, 2016

The Llandudno Diaries: Day 3 - Wednesday 22nd June 2016

It seems to have become a tradition on our holidays to have a day trip out of town. So today we are off to the county town of Conwy, which is just a short bus journey away from Llandudno.  There is a vast network of buses covering the towns/resorts of North Wales and if/when we return, we would definitely do more exploring.

The weather today is much warmer than yesterday.  Conwy may be the county town but it's small but perfectly formed.  It has a number of small independent shops/gift shops and has lots of cafes and restaurants.  I particularly liked this quirky optician's...

The town also boasts this exquisite 16th century townhouse by the name of Plas Mawr.

Just after we arrive, it's time for coffee and a traditional Welsh fruit loaf by the name of Bara Brith.  (Which I've named my little cuddly toy sheep after)

After coffee and cake we take our first look at the town's gorgeous little harbour.  I've never been to Cornwall but I imagine that is how Cornwall would look, However, we are not in Cornwall, we are in Wales!  And it is lovely.

Despite being a small town, Conwy has lots of cafes and restaurants for its size.  Being on a British seaside holiday, of course we have to try a chippy and this particular one boasts that its the best one in North Wales.  And it's time for lunch...

Faithful travelling companion has fish and chips, whilst I have chips and a cheese and onion fry-it (pictured above) which I'd never heard of before. The fry-it turns out to be cheese and onion in batter and is quite tasty as are the chips of course.

Conwy has lots of little independent shops, craft shops, etc so its a great place to just stroll around. It even has a shop for all those people out there who are obsessed with those days of old when knights were bold!

Conwy boasts a big attraction and a small one. This little red building is the smallest house in Great Britain, and is located facing the harbour.  

 On the other side of the harbour is the stunning Conwy Castle.

Due to our tight schedule today we don't have time to explore the castle from the inside, but there are other views to be had from the water.  Regular readers will be aware of my love of boat trips on holiday so we couldn't resist the opportunity to take a half-hour boat trip around the harbour on the Queen Victoria (pictured below) and out to the estuary, passing the Great Orme and returning to the harbour with a smashing view of Conwy Castle on this beautiful warm day.  

The temperature seems to have risen as the afternoon's gone on and the weather is now very hot.  We need to leave Conwy but before we do, time for a late afternoon coffee stop.  Then it's back on the bus for the short journey back to Llandudno, to get ready for yet another dinner at one of the town's many restaurants.

Tomorrow: our final full day in Llandudno, and an emotional return to the Great Orme....

Monday, September 12, 2016

An intermission

Regular readers may have noticed that there hasn't been too much activity on this blog over the past few months, and some important posts remain unpublished.  I just wanted to explain that there are various reasons for this, including lack of time/exhaustion and basically my own health hasn't been so great. But most importantly it's also been a very upsetting summer due to difficult personal circumstances.  After a very upsetting few months, we lost a close family member during the past couple of weeks.  He was taken from us far, far too young after a short period of serious illness.  I won't go into any more detail but suffice to say that it has been a very upsetting time for faithful travelling companion and myself.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm hoping to catch up and publish some of those outstanding posts: I'm now off work for my annual summer-fortnight so should hopefully find some time to post my Eurovision reviews (only 4 months late, which seems to have become the norm over the past couple of years...!).  Talking of Eurovision, there has been some big news over the past few days that Kyiv will be the ESC 2017 host city, after weeks of on-off rumour, speculation and false alarms.  That news, and the opening of song-submission season, means that off-season is, well. off! 

But back to our own situation: although there won't be a "summer holiday" to blog about this year, we are having a last-minute short break coming soon, in yet another new destination ('new places' seems to have been the 2016 theme!) and of course the diaries will be published on here.  Hopefully soon :)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Hacienda - How Not To Run A Club" - Peter Hook

In case you didn't know, Peter Hook is the former bass player of Joy Division and New Order; he previously documented the history of Joy Division in his book "Unknown Pleasures - Inside Joy Division" and in October 2016 the long-awaited follow-up "Substance: Inside New Order", is due to be published, which will be a must-read, if its predecessors are anything to go by.  So I thought it would be a good idea to rewind to 2009 when Hooky published his first book about the famous Manchester nightclub.

In the 1980s, Factory Records decided to diversify its interests and open its own nightclub: The Hacienda.  New Order co-owned the club and kept on ploughing money into a venture which on reflection was way ahead of its time,  Hooky was not only a shareholder in the club but also a regular attender through thick and thin, so he's certainly qualified to write this very detailed story - every chapter includes a full list of the DJs and their playlists, and the acts who appeared at the club, year after year - and even the club's accounts are, well, accounted for.

As with his Joy Division book, Hooky writes in an appealing down-to-earth and unpretentious style, so don't expect any deep literal journalistic analysis here: instead there's lots of plain speaking and fondly remembered anecdotes.  And there's certainly no airbrushing as he tells the story of the club's ultimate downfall, as the euphoric age of acid house gives way to the arrival of gangsters, guns and drug overdoses, and a constant undercurrent of violence.

As the book's title suggests, The Hacienda wasn't the most professional business model, and whilst reading this book you will ask yourself how the club managed to stay open for so long.  But then again Factory was no ordinary record label so it follows that The Hacienda (which like all Factory releases even had its own serial number, FAC51) was no ordinary club.  Hooky however warmly acknowledges the various unsung heroes who kept the club running from day to day despite all the pitfalls along the way.

"The Hacienda - How Not To Run A Club" certainly lives up to its title, highlighting a business model which probably shouldn't be emulated.  But there are many entertaining anecdotes along the way, and this book should be treasured as a historical snapshot of a time long gone, but also a time which meant so much to so many.

EuropeCrazy's Book Reviews!

Firstly, an explanation.  I love books.  I used to be a very avid reader but the combination of work and life and, well, just not having enough hours in the day, meant that I ended up with a very large number of unfinished books.  And every birthday and Christmas brings yet more books to read.

Being the self-proclaimed "queen of the backlog" I ended up with a huge amount of books to read in addition to my large amount of DVDs and TV recordings. However I've been making inroads and as part of my plan to widen the remit of this blog beyond the original focus on European music and travel, I would like to include a few more book reviews along the way.  My initial plan is to publish at least one book review a month although if you've followed this blog over recent years then you'll realise that's easier said than done :)

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: August 2016

Big news at EuropeCrazy HQ this month as I've now moved over to Virgin Media and discovering the joys of fibre broadband, Tivo and on-demand viewing.  All very 21st century :)

Most of my viewing this month focused on the Rio Olympics which received the same blanket coverage on the BBC as London 2012.  Unfortunately I've ended up with yet another backlog thanks to hours and hours of evening and overnight recordings so although Rio 2016 is over, it will be going on for a bit longer yet in my house....!

I was late in discovering "BRIEF ENCOUNTERS" (ITV).  The series is now finished but I would be very happy if ITV decided to go with a second series of this drama, set in the early 80s.  The basic premise of this show was based around the early days of those Ann Summers parties, but if you were expecting anything trashy and tacky, then think again - it was an extremely engaging drama with characters you couldn't help but root for.  Yes it was lightweight, but sometimes that's what you need.

Every year it happens: "THE CHASE" (ITV) goes on its summer break and the teatime quiz show slot runs riot with summer pilot/replacements. This year we had two of them, both running for two consecutive weeks: "CASH TRAPPED" not only presented by Chase legend Bradley Walsh, but also devised by him too.  Unfortunately it was just too confusing to stick with, whilst its successor "ALPHABETICAL" hosted by Jeff Stelling, didn't do enough to hold my attention.  It all proves that the formula for quiz show success isn't as easy as it looks.

We hardly had time to digest Rachel Frederickson's (controversial) win on "THE BIGGEST LOSER" (Sky Living) before a new series came along.  Some changes this time round: out goes Jillian Michaels - in comes Jen Widerstrom and the one and only Jessie Pavelka (Jessie and Jen pictured above).  Jessie first came to my attention on "Fat - The Fight of My Life".  I make no apologies here for being completely shallow, but if you had this guy as your personal trainer then shifting the pounds would be more pleasure than pain.  This series is a change from the usual as it also features former athletes who haven't stayed in shape.

Serie 4 of "DAG" (Sky Arts) is here, with its trademark deliciously dark humour still in place.

Sky Arts' "TRAILBLAZERS" series brought a very interesting documentary on the influence of pop radio in the UK - from Radio Luxembourg to the 60s pirates, to Radio 1 and commercial radio, and even a mention for legendary 80s Irish mega-pirate Radio Nova, a major obsession of mine back in those days.  It was particularly interesting to see former Nova newsreader (and partner of the station's late founder Chris Cary) Sybil Fennell commenting on the station's famous closedown which never fails to bring a tear to the eye whenever I hear that clip.

That's all for this month: now off to catch up with some of that backlog of recordings....

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A temporary intermission...

Just popped in to say that my blogs will be out of action for a little while as I'm switching over my internet service (along with TV and phone) to a new provider very soon.  Hopefully everything will go smoothly and it won't be too long until I'm back here with the conclusion of the Llandudno diaries and some of my other long-overdue posts.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Llandudno Diaries - Day 2: Tuesday 21st June 2016

Isn't it great to wake up to this view?  The Great Orme, the Grand Hotel and Llandudno Pier.  We're heading in that direction after breakfast.

The weather today is a bit duller than it was yesterday, but it's still pleasantly warm and the temperatures have to rise as the week goes on.

One other familiar sight on the seafront is the Rhyl Flats Offshore Wind Farm, which is actually 8km north east of the 'Dudno.

That's the only modern concession to the seafront though.  Llandudno promenade is sedate rather than raucous, with no sign of all the usual seafront souvenir shops etc.  You have to head all the way up to the Pier before you come across candy floss, fast food and seaside souvenirs.

Today we're taking the Marine Drive tour in a vintage coach ride up the Great Orme, This is the limestone headland (above) which dominates the Llandudno landscape.

It is an authentic old coach (above) complete with original seating.  The driver also provides an entertaining and very informative narration throughout the journey.  The coach leaves from next to the Pier and begins to climb up the Orme.  Having travelled on the corniche in the South of France, and along the Dalmaian Coast in Croatia, I can honestly say that this journey rivals those for thrills and spills, narrow scary roads, high mountains and stunning coastal views.

We are particularly interested in spotting the goats who live on the Orme.  It's well-populated by sheep too, but the goats are harder to find, although they eventually make an are some from later on in the journey.

We have a stop at the 'Rest and Be Thankful'.

We then make our way around the other side of the Orme, passing a row of very expensive houses known as "Millionaires Row", including property which has belonged to Sir Cliff Richard and goalkeeper Neville Southall to name two.  On this side of the Orme there are views over to Anglesey and Snowdonia, before we make our way round to the West Shore, where you can find the white rabbit statue.

There are many references to Alice in Wonderland in Llandudno. If the myth is to be believed, the "real Alice" who inspired the story, took holidays in Llandudno in the 19th century.  There are statues and references to the story all over Llandudno and you can also follow an "Alice In Wonderland Trail".

After the tour, we head back onto the Pier.  It's been years since I was on a seaside pier.  As a regular visitor to Blackpool as a child, going on the Central Pier was a big part of the holiday.  Mum, gran and I would even go to theatre shows at the end of the pier.  But as I grew into an adult I developed "pier fear".  As a child it didn't bother me, but as an adult, seeing the water underneath the boards sparked off an irrational-but-real fear.  However I managed to overcome this and have a trouble-free stroll down Llandudno Pier, where I encounter a new friend.  More about him later.

From the pier you can see the Happy Valley gardens which sit at the foot of the Great Orme.  Due to time constraints we didn't have time to explore the gardens on this holiday but that's definitely on the 'to do' list for a future holiday here... yes we've already decided that we want to come back here.

One thing I have noticed is the number of people who have brought their dogs with them on holiday. There's quite a selection of breeds on the pier today, it's like a mini Crufts!

After our coffee at the end of the pier, we stroll back to town, for a late lunch. The pre-holiday research is paying off and this nice little Turkish restaurant in town delivers the goods.  This chicken kebab would turn out to be my favourite meal of the holiday.

We do some souvenir shopping in town after lunch.  I end up with a couple of new friends.  I purchased my little sheep on the pier earlier today,  There are many, many soft toy dragons in the various souvenir shops in town, but you know when you've met the one.  

So this is basically like every Welsh cliche wrapped up in one picture.  Meet Dafydd the dragon and Bara Brith the sheep.  Mini rugby ball appears courtesy of faithful travelling companion, who is as partial to cliched stereotyped holiday souvenirs as I am :)))

Tonight we have dinner at an Indian restaurant.  Most of the town's restaurants are located on or around Mostyn Street which is the town's main street.  There is a cuisine for every taste in Llandudno, although we have noticed that the restaurants aren't too busy at night during the week. This probably has a lot to do with many of the hotels offering bed, breakfast and evening dinner, which means that many of the holidaymakers on full board don't really have any need to frequent the town's good selection of eateries.

Llandudno attracts a lot of coach trips for, let's just say "people of a certain age" and the town can resemble a "retirement village" at times.  But I don't have an issue with that - after all, if we were a few years older, retired and lucky enough to be in the position to afford a few coach trip holidays, then of course we would be doing that too.  I have some older friends who are retired and are lucky enough to have the health, the freedom and the finances to afford this type of holiday, which they really enjoy doing.

The promenade is deserted again, just after 11.00pm as we end the evening by making our way back to our guest house.

In the next instalment....a day trip!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Llandudno Diaries - Day 1: Monday 20th June 2016

Over our many years together, travelling all over Europe (and beyond) on holiday, we have been to many places but we have never been to Wales. But it has been on the cards for a while - it just wasn't the right place or the right time.  Until June 2016. 

Due to Llandudno's geographical position in North Wales, you have to change main line trains at Warrington Bank Quay and then transfer onto the Arriva train which takes you onwards through Cheshire and the North Wales coast, through well-known resort towns such as Rhyl, Prestatyn and Colwyn Bay before finally reaching our destination...

Llandudno station is just a few minutes' walk from the promenade, which oozes class.  It's a Victorian resort and all those seafront buildings have been beautifully preserved.  It's a very unusual seaside promenade as you won't find chip shops or souvenir shops, it's solely lined with hotels and guest houses.  

Our home for the next few days is one of those guest houses, with a fabulous sea view.  To the left, the Great Orme, and the Little Orme is to the right of the promenade.  The Great Orme was to play a significant part in this holiday,... but more of that in later posts.

After arriving, checking in and unpacking, we head out to explore the town.  Our first impressions of Llandudno are that it's a lovely little town which is very clean and well looked after.  It also has a surprisingly good selection of shops, and a couple of retail parks. but I'm no longer the shopaholic I once was, so I wasn't really here to shop.  Nevertheless I did pick up a few souvenirs along the way.  

There's also a good choice of restaurants which I researched on Trip Advisor beforehand,  Tonight we have dinner at a restaurant which clearly models itself on Frankie and Benny's, and serves some seriously huge portions like my massive pizza (above) - no, before you ask, I couldn't finish it!

After dinner, there's something on our to-do list.  Euro 2016 is on at the moment and we're lucky enough to be here when the group stages are taking place.  Tonight Wales are playing Russia and the match is being screened in Wetherspoons pub The Palladium (pictured above).  Over recent years we've become used to banks and churches being turned into pubs.  This pub previously was a theatre and a cinema, so it's a bit more interesting than the usual purpose-built pub.  There's also a great atmosphere as it's packed with Welsh fans - of course Wales beat Russia so there's some celebrating going on!  

The party doesn't go on all night though.  We head for another very quiet bar.  It becomes apparent very quickly that Llandudno is not party central, but we're not bothered about that.  We didn't come here to party - it's a more low-key break than usual.  So the town and seafront are deserted long before closing time, and another thing we noticed tonight was that quite a lot of the restaurants are closed on Mondays.  

In the next instalment....exploring Llandudno, and our first encounter with the Great Orme. 

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: July 2016

I find it frustrating when really interesting documentaries are shunted into a late-night slot in favour of dull dramas or reality shows.  If you missed "JUST CALL ME MARTINA" (BBC1) you missed a warm and engaging profile of the legendary record-breaking tennis star who grew up in Czechoslovakia and made her home in the USA after defecting there.  Martina became a non-person in her home country but these days she has joint US and Czech Republic citizenship and returns regularly to visit the area where she grew up.  Despite political hard times, Martina still reflected on her upbringing with positivity: "I was never hungry, I was never cold" she said, with a smile.

This documentary began with Martina marrying her partner Julia in New York. Martina found her identity as a gay woman in a time when such things were swept firmly under the carpet; since that time she has become an activist for gay rights and many other causes.  This documentary revealed her warm sense of humour and likeable personality.  Martina's achievements in tennis made her one of the greatest female athletes of her generation.

"EAT WELL FOR LESS" (BBC1) is back, and it hasn't changed.  It's an insult to viewers who struggle to put food on the table, watching comfortably well-off home-owning families being asked to chop their own veg and grate their own cheese - aww, shame - to save money.  And it's all overseen by the eternally irritating Gregg Wallace.  The message of the show remains that you don't have to buy big brands to eat well - it's just a very patronising hour to endure before you get the message.

Just a few weeks after Carla Connor departed the cobbles, "CORONATION STREET" (ITV) said goodbye to Kylie Platt, fatally stabbed by one of Callum's old mates.  Unfortunately ITV scored an own goal when they gave away their own spoiler.  I'm really sad to see Paula Lane leave the show as she made Kylie one of the show's best characters, turning her from an initially unlikeable chav into a multi-layered character, unlike many of the show's one-dimensional characters who take up far too much screen time on the show.

There are big changes happening in Corrie world.  A new producer, Kate Oates, has taken over from Stuart Blackburn.  She's promising more big storylines and interestingly, more character interaction. The show is also going up to 6 episodes a week from 2017.  Too much of a good thing?  I remember when it was only on twice per week.  Changed days.

Not sure what the point of "LOUIE SPENCE: TAXI DRIVER" (Sky One) was, apart from giving him a week's trial as a taxi driver and some much-needed screen time, but Michael Buerk's narration was priceless.  Michael of course narrated My favourite moment was when the wrestling boss "was having second thoughts about Louie entering his ring".  You can't beat a bit of innuendo.  And let's face it, we certainly need a few laughs after some very dark months in this country and the world.

The path of true love never runs smooth though, as they say, and when a marriage or long-term relationship breaks down there can be some issues which both parties just can't resolve.  Bring in the mediation service.  Fly-on-the-wall documentary "MR V MRS: CALL THE MEDIATOR" (BBC2) was uncomfortable viewing at times, watching separated couples discussing their troubles on camera.  There was something about it all which left a bit of a bad taste.  And I certainly don't envy the mediators their jobs, trying to resolve the often un-resolvable.

When it comes to 1960s retrospectives, 1967 gets all the glory: but over the past couple of weeks, some TV shows have focused on the year before that.  Apart from being the 50th anniversary of a certain team winning a certain football tournament, 1966 was profiled in "ARENA - 1966: 50 YEARS AGO TODAY" (BBC4).  I always enjoy this retrospective type of show but the same things keep cropping up time after time.  This documentary for me was refreshing as it provided a genuinely interesting insight into a year which I didn't really know much about beforehand.

Another 50th anniversary was celebrated in "CLASSIC ALBUMS" (BBC4): it's been 50 years since the Beach Boys' legendary "Pet Sounds" album was released.  This was a great documentary going behind the scenes of the album's recording and the band's evolution from making lightweight pop songs about surfing, to ambitious, layered productions with honest, mature lyrics.  "Pet Sounds" remains one of the most important and critically acclaimed albums in the history of pop music.

BBC4 does these music documentaries so well.  This month we were also treated to another episode in the occasional series "THE PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF POP".  This time it was Danny Baker's turn to look back at the period between 1966 and 1976, a landmark period for music.  Baker mixed his own reminiscences with those of the fans who bought the records and went to the concerts.  More please!

Documentary event of the month though?  "ONE NIGHT IN 2012" (BBC1) rewound to exactly 4 years ago, with the story of that fantastic opening ceremony imagined and directed by Danny Boyle. I remember that I wasn't really looking forward to the London Olympics 4 years ago, but then that opening ceremony happened, and the feelgood factor lasted all the way throughout the event.  4 years on, the Rio Olympics are due to start at the end of this week, and yet again I'm not really looking forward to it, what with the terror threat, the Zika virus and the Russian doping scandal.  But given the world's current state of gloom, we need something to cheer us up.  Over to you, Rio!

From the sublime to the ridiculous: just when you thought TV had plumbed all possible depths, along came "ALAN CARR'S GREASE NIGHT" (Channel 4).  The 'chatty man' and his co-host Katherine Ryan promised an "entertainment extravaganza" set in a 1950s prom.  What we got instead was one of the most critically slaughtered TV shows I can remember in a long time.  Now I'm usually quite a tolerant person but I switched off after 30 minutes.  29 minutes too late.  Why Didi "Frenchy" Conn agreed to be part of this is beyond my understanding.  Less greased lightning, more car crash.
Hopelessly devoted? Nah, just hopeless.  There was a good programme waiting to be made about "Grease", one of the best films ever made, but this wasn't it.

Square-Eyed is going to take a little summer break and will be back in September.  In the meantime, EuropeCrazy HQ is undergoing a digital transformation as I am switching TV, phone and broadband providers in a couple of weeks.  Hopefully everything will go well and I will soon benefit from a super fast fibre broadband connection, which will enable me to watch more on-demand TV over the internet rather than building up a huge backlog of recordings.  Who knows - maybe some day I'll even get Netflix :) but that's a long way away.  So many recordings and DVDs to be watched.....

Summer Rewind 2016: The Euros - tournament of fairytales

Three weeks ago, the Euro 2016 football tournament ended with some very surprising champions - Portugal. We certainly didn't see that one coming - in my own view there have been many better Portugal national teams than this one.  But congratulations to Portugal anyway - and its yet another example of this particular tournament producing a fairytale ending.  

Every match was televised live either on BBC or ITV and you couldn't move for coverage of this year's event which was expanded to 24 teams for the first time.  it's hard to imagine a time when it was all very different.  Time for some reminiscing.....

Once upon a time, the Euros - or the European Football Championships as they were known back then - didn't always have the high profile which they have now.  The first one I really remember watching was in 1980.  It's hard to believe it now, but in those days, many people didn't own televisions but rented them from a  store like Radio Rentals or D.E.R.  When our rented colour TV broke down in the summer of 1980, we were supplied with a replacement TV with a much larger screen, which I remember watching (very limited) highlights of the tournament on.  Back in those days, you didn't seem to get live coverage of matches (apart from semi-finals/final) unless any of the home nations were playing.  

I don't really remember much about Euro 1984: TV coverage in the UK was virtually non-existent with no home nations present.  I do have very vivid memories of watching the final though.  Mum and I were on holiday at my aunt and uncle's home in Dumfries that week, and we watched the final on TV in one of the pubs in the town.  It was a very memorable match won of course by the great French team.

Things were starting to change by the time of Euro 1988.  There was more TV interest thanks to the presence of England and the Republic of Ireland.  1988 was a summer I will always fondly remember for various reasons: I had a very enjoyable summer job during that long hot summer, and the Netherlands were on fire in that tournament.  That goal in the final by Marco van Basten remains one of the greatest goals ever scored in world football. 

Euro 1992, held in Sweden, was a very unusual experience for us in Scotland as our national team qualified for the first time.  Which was a great achievement as with so few teams, it was always a lot tougher to qualify for. But it was the same old story as we never progressed beyond the group stage. (Neither did England).  Scotland never qualified for another European Championship.  Maybe some day, we live in hope.  

But what about the fairytale?  Well, that appropriately belonged to the land of Hans Christian Andersen.  Denmark had been invited to compete at extremely short notice in place of what was then Yugoslavia, who had been expelled from the tournament due to the civil wars which were raging there.  The 'Danish Dynamite' team had impressed in the 1986 World Cup but never even qualified for Italia 90, so expectations were not so high.  But during Euro 1992, they beat France, then the Netherlands, and then went on to win the whole thing by beating none other than world champions Germany in the final.  

4 years on, to Euro 1996, the famous "football's coming home" tournament held in England. Expanded to 16 teams, there was a lot more TV coverage than previously.  Scotland and England were drawn in the same group. You can guess the rest....anyway we had the emergence of a great Portuguese team, and a very strong team from the Czech Republic.  The Czechs came very close to their own fairytale result, but lost to Germany in the final.  Germany had ended England's dream in the semi-final.  Which of course went to penalties.  Remember that famous comment by Gary Lineker: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win". 

Strangely enough I can't remember much about Euro 2000 which was the first jointly-staged tournament, taking place in both the Netherlands and Belgium - apart from Italy sinking into their old defensive ways, and then current world champions France beating the Italians in the final.  Looking at the tournament stats there were a lot of goals and high-scoring matches, which is always a good thing.  

Euro 2004 rolled round and it was once again time for the fairytale ending.  Greece - a country which hardly ever qualified for the Euros or the World Cup - beat hosts Portugal in the opening match and then beat holders France and then the Czech Republic on the way to the final.  The last match of the tournament was a rematch of the first: Portugal v Greece.  And yet again, Greece beat Portugal, this time to win the trophy.  Portugal had beaten England, on what else but a penalty shootout, on their way to the final.  I found Greece to be a rather dull team if I remember, but it was still a great achievement for them to win and have their moment of glory.  2004 was a big year for Greece, as Athens also staged the Olympics.  Little did we know that just a few years later, everything in that country was about to come crashing down, thanks to the debt crisis.  

Euro 2008 was another shared effort between Austria and Switzerland.  None of the UK's home nations even qualified.  I was particularly impressed with Turkey's spirited never-say-die performances during that tournament and they made it all the way to the semi finals before being beaten by Germany who lost to Spain in the final.  I was happy to see Spain win with their exciting attacking football, although was disappointed that the exciting high-scoring Dutch team never progressed beyond the quarter-finals. Spain were at their height and would follow this up with a World Cup win 2 years later.

Euro 2012 was staged in Poland and Ukraine and there was a lot of controversy prior to that tournament due to a controversial Panorama documentary about racism and hooliganism at football matches within both countries, and also some concern about whether the countries were ready to host. The tournament went ahead without much controversy.  England went out on penalties in the quarter-finals (to Italy, not Germany this time) and Spain continued their dominance of the world's major football tournaments. They were so strong in all areas of their team and had an effortless win against Italy 4-0 in the final. It certainly wasn't a tournament for the underdogs.  

So finally to Euro 2016.  Expanded to 24 teams, with blanket TV coverage, it managed to deliver some surprises and some noteworthy stories.  

For example, there was a very interesting fixture on the first weekend.  Albania v Switzerland may not have made the headlines but I was particularly fascinated by the story of the two Xhaka brothers playing on opposite national teams, whilst a large chunk of the Swiss national team was made up of players of Albania/Kosovo origin.  The camaraderie in the tunnel before the match was very surreal, wasn't it!  Switzerland was the strongest side on the day.  

The early stages of the tournament was marked by incidents of hooliganism in Marseille involving the fans of the England and Russian national teams.  (One of my work colleagues was due to visit Marseille on holiday during that time but all trains into the city were diverted due to the hooligan incidents so he and his friends had to make alternative plans!)

I was also on holiday with faithful travelling companion during Euro 2016.  And it couldn't have been a better time to be in Wales.  Just like the Scotland national team, Wales have spent one major tournament after another on the sidelines, so it was great to see them finally make it to the Euros. And unlike Scotland, who had to watch the Euros from the sidelines for the 24th year in a row. Wales arrived at this tournament with little expectation - and in that great tradition of the Euros, they went on to provide the fairytale element along with another debutant nation: Iceland.

Two draws and a win had taken the Icelandic team out of the group stage to the round of 16, where they would meet England.  The English media commentators were very quick to fast-forward to the next round, thinking that beating Iceland would just be a formality before England would meet France.  But they hadn't reckoned on the fighting spirit of the Icelandic team.  And they had the mythical "HU!" chant, which captured everyone's imagination.  Yet again the fairytale aspect of the Euros came to the fore.  Iceland eliminated England and made it to the quarter-finals, but were eventually overwhelmed by a strong performance by the French team.

Wales, meanwhile, went on to face Belgium in the quarter-finals.  A prior social engagement meant that we weren't able to catch the game live, but caught this incredible result on delayed transmission. And what an incredible, heroic result it was for the Welsh team.  This really was the stuff of fairytales - a 3-1 win against a team of talented, highly-paid superstars from Belgium.  Yet what impressed me about Wales, throughout this tournament, was their humility and genuine enjoyment at being there. Despite having a Real Madrid player in the line-up (Gareth Bale), the team had no airs and graces and brought a refreshing attitude to Euro 2016.

Having defeated Belgium in heroic style, they faced Portugal in the semi-final.  As I said in my introduction, there have been many better Portuguese national teams who have competed in the Euros and the World Cup, but who have been very unlucky in the past.  Up to and including the semi-final, Portugal could best be described as a one-man team: the uber-arrogant Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry men.  Ronaldo has been known to spit his dummy out of the pram from time to time, but his comments after Portugal's group game against Iceland were unpleasant and unprofessional.  

Considering they boast one of the world's best-known strikers, Portugal had make it this far with very few goals and playing very dull football in comparison with their predecessors of the Figo era.  Sadly for Wales though, they couldn't repeat their performance from the quarter-final, and they absolutely missed Aaron Ramsey.  But Wales (pictured above) said "Diolch" (thank you) to the fans and went home with their heads held high.  They were welcomed in Cardiff with an open-top bus parade and a party in the local stadium.  Wales may not have won Euro 2016, but they were winners.

In the final, much was expected from the host nation after their 2-0 victory over Germany in the other semi-final.  It was almost a foregone conclusion, and when an injured Ronaldo exited at an early stage in the final, it looked like France's name was on the trophy.  Like many other finals, it was a bit of a damp squib.  0-0 after 90 minutes, the ball never found the net until extra time.  The goal came from Portugal, not France.  Portugal had written their chapter in the Euros fairytale.

Ronaldo made sure that he would play a very significant part in the final stages of the match, yelling his team-mates on to victory, playing the part of the national team manager.  I wouldn't be too surprised if we were looking at the future manager of the national team, of course it could be argued that he's doing that already!

It won't be long until qualification starts for the next big international tournament: World Cup 2018.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 4 - Friday 29th April 2016

Our last full day in the city before we return home, and we're slowing the pace down again to explore some other areas of the city centre.

The road up to Plaza Mayor is packed with restaurants, but every day we've noticed that one particular restaurant gets a lot of attention, with what seems like every walking tour stopping off there. But I managed to get a rare photo of it without all those tour parties hanging around.

So what's so special about Sobrino de Botin (pictured above)?  Well, it's only the world's oldest restaurant and has been in operation since 1725.

On our way into the city centre we stop off at the Mercado de San Miguel.  *Gratuitous food and cakes photography klaxon!*

 Above: some tapas.

 Above: cake, anyone?

 Above: Meringues. Much to my regret, I didn't have one :( 

Above: disappointing news as Laura learns she can't have all of those crisps for 2 €.

After hanging out in the Mercado for a while, we then head back to the Plaza Mayor.  I would imagine that these flamenco costumes would probably cost an arm and a leg, so I went for the more affordable option elsewhere; a red and black flamenco-style cooking apron.  Maybe it will inspire me to dance flamenco whilst rustling up some of my signature dishes, ha ha.  

 Above: a little lunchtime tapa. Accompanied by a sangria!

After lunch at one of the restaurants on the Plaza, we return to Puerta del Sol, the city's buzzing main square and transport hub.

I was quite fascinated by this statue of a bear eating fruits from a tree...

 ...and couldn't resist taking a photo of the fans on sale at this shop on the square.

10 streets lead off the Puerta del Sol. We followed one of them and ended up on ...

...which is a pedestrianised shopping area with all the well-known Spanish and international stores.  
After a little climb up a side street we eventually find ourselves back at Calle Mayor and Plaza Mayor. Unfortunately we are going home tomorrow so have to get back to our hotel to do some packing as we have an early rise to head to the airport.  

But there is one last night out before we go, and yet another restaurant on Calle Cava de San Miguel for our evening meal.  There are so many restaurants to choose from on this street which runs from Calle del Segovia to Calle Mayor.  

Just to mention that chicken isn't really a big thing here on menus, but we managed to locate it - not just in an Indian restaurant last night, but also in our restaurant tonight. Oh, and chips...:)

But we can't leave Madrid without a final visit to the Mercado de San Miguel, which on a Friday night is as buzzing as you'd expect - but also very civilised.  You couldn't really imagine the socialising-in-a-food-market thing working over here, but it's these little continental contrasts which I love about holidaying in Europe.

So, would we recommend Madrid for a city break?  Most definitely.  I'd recommend that you stay in or around the old town, in the vicinity of the Plaza Mayor to get the best out of a surprisingly walkable city centre. Fans of tapas will be well catered for, and even almost-vegetarians like myself won't struggle too much to find something on a menu.  This was something which worried me before the holiday, pushing up my anxiety levels, but I needn't have worried.  Lots of food - and some seriously big portions too! I was also worried about personal safety, but on our experience Madrid felt a much safer destination than, say, Barcelona.  Indeed, we came to the conclusion that we might even love Madrid more than Barcelona.

There are enough interesting experiences to keep you happy on a short break to Madrid, whether you want to explore world-renowned museums and culture, or just soak up the atmosphere of this buzzing European capital.  We had a lovely time in Madrid.  So if you ever get get the opportunity to go to Madrid...then take it!