Saturday, 21 April 2007



originally uploaded by deskspacemedia.

Settignano was everything I wanted Italy to be, like those Stella Artois adverts they show on Channel Four before the Sunday night movie. Last week I heard someone whistling the Godfather theme as I walked past the Duomo. It would have been a more appropriate musical accompaniment to a stroll through this village, positioned high above Florence in the Tuscan hills.

The bus deposited most of the passengers at various points around Florence, leaving just three of us to make the ascent into Settignano. Opposite me sat a beautiful Italian girl wearing a University of Pensylvania T-Shirt. To my left was sitting a man in his eighties with a walking stick. He was wearing shades, jeans and trainers and was talking to himself, as many elderly people on Fiorentine buses seem to.

Settignano itself is beautiful. The sheer simplistic loveliness of it, and the oppressive like-wading-through-treacle heat made the whole experience quite dreamlike. First I wandered roughly West, past a primary school and along a road that offered supreme views over a small, bright-yellow field, on to a thick patch of woodland and over Florence, the Duomo always visible. The road led to an up-market cemetery and then a children's playground, which could have been one from my childhood in Kings Lynn were it not for the silver birches and olive trees that circled the swings and roundabouts. Everywhere seemed empty. I saw only two people, a couple sharing an intimate moment leaned up against a Fiat, Badly Drawn Boy drifting from the car stereo, out of the open door and across the field. Occaisionaly, a scooter buzzed past.

I walked back to the central square and then headed in the opposite direction, what I assumed to be South-East. This road offered views over the other side of the village, looking out North to the Tuscan countryside, a view even more beautiful than the vistas of far off Florence. Perfectly arching hills, more of those silver birches, a few plush hillside houses and a gravel track that swooped down for must have been a mile before arriving at a beautiful converted farmhouse, that for some reason I imagined belonging to a wealthy English family.

By the time I boarded the return bus to Florence only around fifty minutes had passed in Settignano, but it was easily one of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip so far, a much needed contrast from the dusty lived-in centre of Florence.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Florence Nightlife

Dmitri spoke English with a kebab shop owners accent. A young Greek who had spent half of his life living in Brighton, he was travelling through Europe on a Yamaha and spent much of the evening searching for cheap accomodation near Milan. That evening we sat sipping Chianti from plastic cups as the delicate score from the Usual Suspects floated across the common room. More wine was consumed later at the Astor Cafe, a stiflingly hip and semi-debauched bar / club / cattle market nestled behind the Duomo, an ironic clash of ideologies not lost on the two nuns we saw walk past the window, heads turned in shame.
Dmitri spent most of the night talking at me about his French girlfriend and the myriad of subtle complications that blighted their relationship (travel, commitment issues, ex-boyfriends, ex-boyfriends that were 38 and had a wife and two kids). He waved a camera phone picture in my face and admitted that the initial attraction haed come, on his part, from a desire to be with the woman from the Clio adverts. It seemed a relationship doomed to failure.
Afterwards we meandered through night-time Florence, past the behemoth Duomo and across the Ponte Vecchio, a dissapointing anti-climatic mess of tourists and tacky jewellry shops that ranks alongside Wembley and Buckingham Palace in the things-to-do-before-you-die-but-wish-you-hadnt stakes. More impressive, in a gentler, more modest way, was the Church of Santo Spirito and the piazza that shared its name. We walked down one of the deserted streets and heard Football coming from one window and Opera from another, an appropriate introduction to Italy, indeed.

I returned to the Astor Cafe the following evening with Camillo - a Colombian / American as flamboyant as his name and Daniel - a bespectacled German as flamboyant as his name. Daniel spoke English perfectly, possibly because he had spent a year living in Camden, a stay that resulted in an ability to affect a perfect Cockney accent. Camillo tried a similar trick when regailing me with stories of his various conquests throughout Europe and the four girls from Kings College he had shared a room with in Rome. At one point, he told me, one of the girls had mocked another's accent with the put-down "you're such a Mellinda". Only later did I realise that Camillo had misheard, and this girl was actually referring to her friends flat Leicestershire vowels.
Camillo's quasi-misogony pailed compared to the young Italian men in the Astor Cafe who set about confirming every prejudice I had ever had. They poured over the group of straight-haired, white-toothed Minnesotan girls sitting to our left. Even my Colombian friend, who had earlier outlined his desire to "pick up some hot Iyalian chicks", was appalled by their leacherous behaviour, and I thought back to what I had discovered in Amsterdam, that cliches are only cliches because they are true.
We walked home past San Lorenzo Church and saw a young local lad pissing by the side of its walls. This was where, just a few hours later, throngs of tourists would queue to experience this impressive monument to organised religion. Maybe thats why he was doing it, out of some loathing of tourism or Catholicism or both of the above. The following week, I saw a gang of lads kicking a football against the side of Siena's duomo and realised that, while the loud Americans and English at least respected the historical sites, the locals just didnt give a shit. I guess its the equivalent of chavs in Winchester necking cider just outside the Cathedral grounds. Just because its in the Rough Guide doesnt mean its more important than booze or copping-off or Wembley Doubles.

Before he left the hostel the following morning, Camillo shook my hand and patted my back as I lay sprawling, semi naked and half-asleep on the top bunk. That was the kind of guy he was. I saw him again that evening, just after I moved into my apartment in Florence, clutching two bottles of wine and accompanied by a couple more of those Minnesotan girls that seem to outnumber locals 3 to 1. No doubt that night he went about creating new stories to entertain that hostel dwellers in Venice, his next port of call.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007


Amsterdam Bar
Amsterdam Bar, originally uploaded by Peter Glorie.

Clichés are only clichés because they’re true. Somewhere along the line, somebody stood up and exclaimed ‘Germans have no sense of humour’ or ‘the Italians are emotionally volatile’ or something else that, at that point, would have sounded as radical as it now does clichéd. Travelling abroad and discovering new countries should reverse this, and open the eyes of the ignorant and uneducated. And, by and large, it does. Apart from in Amsterdam, that is.
I stayed in the Flying Pig Hostel, an institution deservedly famous amongst travellers. I would say it confirmed around eighty-seven percent of all cultural stereotypes I held dear. The girl at the desk, who also ran the bar, had blonde pig tails and spoke perfect English in a Grolsch-advert accent. Australians stood in the corner, boozing and playing pool. Americans talked loudly about what they were going to buy with “their first million”. Everywhere, the thick fog of weed hung low.
I did my best, too, singing Michelle by the Beatles in a karaoke bar on the final night, an incident pieced together in my mind from various Polaroid pictures and camera-phone videos taken that night. Earlier, I watched a group of Scotsman dance to American pie in a tiny bar at the heart of the red light district. The locals shook their heads disapprovingly. I probably would have done, too, if I were them. It was beyond cliché.
But it was fun. And isn’t that the whole point?

Monday, 19 March 2007


Piran, originally uploaded by Visual Valhalla.

In ten days time I shall be in Florence, ready to embark on my three-month European adventure.
In response to a Ljubljana query I posted on the TravellersPoint travel forums, some guy suggested I explore Piran on Slovenia's small stretch of Adriatic Coast, just south of the Italian border. After discovering this superb photo of the town on Flickr, it has just moved to the top of my itinerary.

Friday, 16 March 2007


"I watched young, cosmetically-enhanced girls gyrate to Techno music as a group of hormonal German lads took photos of the No Photography sign. This is San Antonio. A resort that manages to be both massively over-sexed and riotously un-sexy at the same time."

Airports are like their parent city in microcosm, a good barometer of what to expect from your holiday. Barcelona International is all asymmetrical lines and wide, clean walkways, busy but never rushed. Heathrow is over-priced, over-crowded and shambolic, an appropriate introduction to the capital. Ibiza Airport – like the island it serves – is compact and relaxed, and full of exhausted, sun-burned British. Over the entrance is a large neon sign that reads ‘Ibiza – Eivissa’, like the entrance to one of the island’s famous superclubs. The whole island is the venue.

I was greeted at arrivals by a row of sweaty and bored-looking holiday reps holding crumpled bits of card with names scribbled on in thick black marker. The piece of card that read James Crouchman was being held by Lía, the hostel proprietor with whom I had been conversing for the last several weeks via email. Firstly, she had missed the r out of Crouchman, so my second name now read like a piece of luxury furniture. Secondly, she looked nothing like the young and pretty Spanish girl I had imagined sitting on my computer. She was older, for a start, and had bronzed, rough skin, possibly from overexposure to Ibiza’s twin assaults of sun and Class-A drugs.

Lía and I sat on the pavement outside waiting for two more hostel guests to land on a flight from Newcastle. Lía sat sucking on a spliff and talking in long drawls as I explained the etymology of ‘Geordie’ and ‘Hen Night’. She drove back on Ibiza’s dusty, roadwork infested roads at break neck speed, and I thought back to the final email I had received from her before my flight:
“Dear James,
I look forward to pick you up. I hope my car becomes fixed, after I crashed last week and nearly injured seriously a pedestrian.”
I looked to my left and saw the Geordies – wedged between two suitcases and without a seatbelt – cross themselves twice.

First things first. Ibiza has a reputation. Of course it does. Admitting to a circle of intellectual friends that you are going there always provokes the same reaction. It’s just not what nice middle-class people do. And this is what makes Ibiza such a wonderful holiday destination. There are no pretensions, just good times. The broadsheet reading yummy mummies stop at Barcelona. Those who board the connecting flights from the mainland to Ibiza are after simple pleasures – sun, sea and sticky fornication.

The boisterous port of San Antonio is where this reaches saturation point. The West End of the town consists of row upon row of bars with crude names where young Britons drink, grope and vomit at discount prices. The music here is slowly changing, banging house and trance being replaced in many bars with Brit-rock and Indie music, but the ethos remains the same. Scratchy guitars or drum machines, people here still party all night, and then roll out at five in the morning to purchase a greasy takeaway from one of the many high-street style fast-food chains, like a more humid Blackpool, or Wigan with palm trees. In San Antonio I was lured into a back alley strip club with promises of cut-price admission fees and all inclusive shots, bottles of lager and lap-dances. Here I watched young, cosmetically-enhanced girls gyrate to Techno music as a group of hormonal German lads took photos of the No Photography sign. This is San Antonio. A resort that manages to be both massively over-sexed and riotously un-sexy at the same time.

Ibiza Town, the capital of the island and by far the more bustling and industrial of Ibiza’s two main resorts, is similarly blessed with a plethora of clubs offering potential debauchery. Here, hedonism seeps through the streets, but more of the affluent, sexy, continental-style hedonism as opposed to the cheap-and-cheerful lager-lout shenanigans found in San Antonio. Pacha – the only Ibizan club open all year round – is the town’s premier hotspot. It holds up to 3000 people, most of whom are either beautiful, firm, wealthy or some combination of all three. If clubland in Ibiza can sometimes resemble provincial England at chucking out time, Pacha is a class above – a genuine institution with a classy clientele and high prices to match.

Ibiza Town makes an excellent base for your stay on the island, as it offers plenty of opportunities to escape the heat and hustle that can sometimes become oppressive. On the day after the night before, I headed to D’alt Villa, the elegant walled old-town area that rises high above the town and offers stunning views over much of the island, as well as Ibiza’s tiny neghbour Formentera, the Kuwait to Ibiza’s Iraq, and a place populated by skeletal models and shipping magnates. It is an uphill trek through a warren of cobbled streets to the ruinous castle that sits atop D’alt Villa, but well worth the effort. Here – as Iberian Airlines bank over your head and descend into the airport – you really do experience a sense of breezy escapism and perfect contentment.

Ibiza is small, and therefore extremely manageable to the budget weekend traveller who nonetheless wants to explore. Taxis and buses are readily available and reliable, but by far the most enjoyable and stylish way to get around is to travel, Bond style, in one of the several water taxis – a network speedboats that offer a breezy alternative to the usual stuffy vehicles. Boats depart Ibiza Town for the beaches of Talamanca and Platja den Bossa to the North and South, and there are several that connect San Antonio to its neighboring resorts.

And it is worth exploring the island, and discovering for yourself why Ibiza holds such a magical spell over those who holiday there regularly. Salines Beach is one of the lovelier stretches of coastline, as well as one of the trendiest, and manages to combine the two things that Ibiza does so well: relaxation and pure pleasure-seeking. It is another resort packed full of extremely beautiful people; beautiful in that frustrating, couldn’t-be-arsed way that is so alien to the British, and serves as another reminder that Ibiza is not the best holiday destination for the more paranoid, image-conscious traveller.

Calla d’Hort, on the South-Western tip of the Island, is another beautiful, secluded stretch of beach. It overlooks the famous and always impressive mini-island of ‘Es Vedra’, a large, uninhabited (but for a few goats) chunk of rock two kilometers off Ibiza’s coast. As well as being the backdrop for the musical film South Pacific (and countless cliff-top wedding ceremonies), the stunning sunsets over Es Vedra have been an Ibizan must-see for several decades. Here I dined at Es Boldado, a paradisiacal restaurant that offered huge paellas and a fantastic sea-front location offering views of the beautiful surroundings.

I caught an early flight back to Barcelona. Ibiza Airport – again in keeping with the island as a whole – is pretty empty at 8am. The only signs of life that I encountered were four dazed Northern Irishmen who looked as if they hadn’t slept an hour since their country’s famous victory against Spain two days earlier. People don’t seem to get up early in Ibiza. They have their priorities right.

Thursday, 15 March 2007


Originally published on, the Alternative World Travel Guide

"The tanks that once rolled through the cities of Eastern Europe may have vanished, but soldiers and secret police have been replaced with a far more sinister presence – the Gap-Year Student"
James Crouchman spends the week in Latvia

IT was around midnight when I finally found the correct street. Perhaps it was the combination of sleep deprivation and poor street lighting that explains what happened next. My hostel – appropriately enough for an area that forms a border, culturally as well as geographically, between Northern Europe and Russia – was positioned between a smart café-bar on one side and a shabby strip club on the other. The entrance itself was no more than a thin slab of flaking wood between these other two establishments and, unfortunately for me, I chose the wrong door. I entered and scanned the room – walls dripping with sweat and dimly lit by a mauve light-bulb – and it slowly dawned upon me that I wouldn’t be staying in a hostel staffed by miserable sex workers. A burly man with several tattoos tapped my suitcase and grinned. “You want next door.” I caught the eye of the stripper in the corner, standing underneath the neon ‘Marquis de Sade’ sign that adorned the sticky walls. She had momentarily stopped thrusting her naked body to awful cod-reggae, and was now cackling like a Bond villainess. I was almost pleased to have brought some comic relief to what was probably a miserable existence. In terms of utter, soul destroying humiliation, it was right up there with getting lost in the sanitary towel aisle of Boots, or calling your Junior School teacher ‘Mum’...

(Read the full article on Roadjunky)

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