Just back: running a marathon in Annecy

Whilst half the world was packed onto the capital’s streets for the London Marathon last weekend, I was on the shores of Lake Annecy representing Britain in a much more sedate, local marathon. Choosing to amalgamate my passions of running and travelling were key in deciding to leave the multitude of British runs behind to try something a little different.

An overnight stay in Geneva and limited day’s exploration of Annecy’s Old Town was all just a preamble to the moment when we joined over 3,000 runners lining up at the lakeside departure point loosening their toned, sinewy forms to motivational anthems – ranging from Queen to generic French electro-pop – blaring through the speakers. The throng soon settled and a thirty second silence, immaculately observed for the Boston Marathon tragedy, showed the solidarity that I believe all runners felt after the event.

The starting gun was sounded and jostling began as the lycra-clad procession made its way along the lake’s edge before circling around and cutting through the Old Town below the beautiful Palais d’Isle – a former palace straddling two canals that gives the town it’s most iconic sight. The route then settled onto cycle paths permanently keeping the lake stretching out to one side and undulating green hills to the other.

The Annecy Marathon is a quintessentially local race and the antithesis of the big, brash London Marathon with it’s huge crowds and constant wave of energising noise. This was a run where self-motivation was key as the relatively quiet route passing through rustic villages and farmland offered little to distract from the building muscle pain except beautiful views of the lake with the imposing, cloud-crowned mountains in the distance. The soothing calm of rubber soles rhythmically padding in unison on the tarmac was only intermittently interrupted by enthusiastic cowbell-wielding locals and shouts of Allez Francois, Allez Michel and even Allez John.

The weather remained overcast throughout the weekend and the mild temperature made for very kind running conditions. The drawback being that the promised spectacular views – whilst still pleasant – never truly attained their potential as they were continually masked in a disappointing grey shroud.

A very satisfactory race finished where it started to cheering crowds in Annecy in 3 hours 42 minutes – a time that showed grit and determination to overcome a body that didn’t look like it had the potential to do it. After collecting a medal and a ridiculous gold survival blanket before limping back to my hotel for a much needed nap, the morning’s massive exertion extended permission for extreme indulgence.

A hearty plate of tartiflette – a local speciality consisting of potatoes, lardons and onions covered in melted Raclette cheese was the perfect post-run helping of stodge. The low-key atmosphere of the day so far was also mirrored in the Old Town’s subdued Sunday night watering holes as we treated ourselves to a few well-deserved local beers. Afterall, this is, to some extent, why we do it.

Slovenia/Croatia Road Trip – Part Two: Feeling the Pebbles Between Our Toes

After leaving the Slovenian coast we drove down to Pula at the tip of the north-west bulge of Croatia. We got horrendously lost and confused trying to drop Tom, one of the American recruits, off at Pula bus station and so sacked off the town and it’s impressive Roman Amphitheatre and drove a little further to our apartment in a village by the sea to hit the beaches instead.

I have to be honest, the first day and a half in Croatia was pretty disappointing and I was wondering what all the fuss was about. We went to the local tourist town of Medulin – full of harbour-side bars, shops and a dirty, stony beach. The Bora winds were still in full force and with sand to play with they seemed even meaner and made lying on the beach or even standing up deeply unpleasant.

Luckily, Leah got talking to, not the tourist information office, but a security guard at the bank and found out about a protected natural park called Kamenjak. So, the next day we drove down there and paid a small fee to get in (which presumably keeps the riffraff out). Again, it was a little disappointing at first as the winds were blustering (even the windsurfing school wouldn’t take anyone but experts out), the sea was rough and the sun wasn’t really shining. But we crossed over to the other side of the peninsula and eventually we found what we had been searching for. It was a bay ringed by trees, protected from the winds and boasting beautiful, calm turquoise water. We blissfully stayed here for a while wading in the sea, taking in the sun and relaxing. Water you can actually swim in without becoming impotent is still a massive novelty for Brits.

Just a couple of minutes walk down the path we came across another great place for swimming and this time also sunbathing. James, like a bloodhound, would go off searching for the nearest thing to jump off and then come back to fetch me to take photos. This he would regret each time, as my reactions are not too keen, and he would need to jump in at least five times for me to take a decent picture of not just his feet, the sky or the nearest topless Grandma.

There wasn’t any point exploring any further as we had found what we were looking for so we came back to Kamenjak the next day and found another even better place to essentially do nothing all day. Croatia doesn’t really do the classic long sandy beaches but rather pebble beaches or flat plateaus of rock. To me, the latter are actually preferable to normal beaches as they cut down on the sand that you find in your shoes, under your fingernails and tucked away in your arsecrack for the following few weeks. These two days were fantastic and really showed me why so many Czechs have made this their number one holiday destination (1. Croatia, 2. ‘In the nature’, 3. Greek Islands).

On the whole, the Croatians were lovely people. Our hostel owner (middle-aged man, definitely not a transsexual) gave us lots of information about the area, seemed to be obsessed with providing us with Croatian television channels, and even became our taxi driver by taking us into Medulin one night for free. In Medulin we had only our second drunken night out of the trip (we must be maturing as we didn’t see getting shitfaced every night as a necessity) and James, Leah and I sat outside a bar all night playing drinking games in a way the Americans have perfected. Our waiter kept plying us with free shots and was generally the nicest, most efficient waiter outside of a James Bond film which made us realise what we had been missing in Prague. Furthermore, he didn’t bat an eyelid when James – a man obsessed with the science of the food to drink ratio needed for the longest night possible – somehow procured the next table’s left over chips for us whilst the family were still sat there.

At the last minute we decided to travel back overnight to make the journey more manageable. We started off at 10pm with loud driving music and the last dregs of chat to keep me awake and focussed. James did well to stay up until about 3.00am before drifting off for eternity and at 4.30am I pulled in for nap but was kept awake by the world’s loudest man. The car had become this perfectly silent space where any of his movements – which were frequent – stopped me from going to sleep. At one point, for some unholy reason he put some chewing gum in his mouth and I couldn’t keep my mind off the loud, crisp initial crunches and then the monotonous, never-ending sounds of a cow chewing cud which was like water torture. I could have killed him. Or told him where the secret underwater nuclear bunker is located.

After a nearly perfect run, the final insult was getting horrendously lost in Prague. We zigzagged through the city spotting areas that we knew but had no idea how to connect them with the airport. Of course, this being the Czech Republic, where nothing from collecting parcels from the post office to buying a stamp is made easy, signs for the airport came and disappeared quicker than the English sun. But we got there and at the time it felt like my greatest achievement – I felt like I had traversed the Gobi Desert on a tricycle or swum to the Moon.

Whenever I have dropped off a rental car before, it’s been to a car park a safe distance from the rental office but suitably, for this occasion, as soon as we trundled through the barrier it was like a Formula One pit stop. Two guys met us as our dirty, dust-covered Seat Ibiza with its missing wing mirror and dinted front bumper limped into the parking space via a 12 point turn. We tried to unpack the car as nonchalantly as possible – “Damage? What damage?” – whilst an amused man armed with a clipboard and raised eyebrows wordlessly begging the question “what the hell have you done?” subjected the car to intense scrutiny.

There were lots of ups and downs over an eventful eight days but overall our trip was immense and we got what we went for – sun, sea and pebbles.

Slovenia/Croatia Road Trip – Part One: Car Abuse in Slovenia

Mine and James’s foolproof plan: rent a car and drive around 10 hours from Prague to Slovenia and then on to Croatia, all with the aim of soaking up the sun on the beaches and around the lakes we’d heard so much about.

We set off at 11 in a lovely shiny, new Seat Ibiza and after a couple of hours of hazard free driving things were going well. Especially well as my British handicap of being used to driving on the right (that is to say, correct) side of the road, had only led me to one near-fatal roundabout accident so far. Until Austria that is. At some point in the mammoth stretch between Vienna and Klagenfurt (a random dot on the map in the south of Austria that represented hope and achievement) we were funnelled into a corridor of doom – a narrow lane buffeted by concrete barriers with a six inch clearance on either side and poles and reflective signs sticking out at random intervals. Without warning and with a small thud, my right wing mirror suddenly lost a jousting match with one of these threatening poles and the mirror and plastic covering were obliterated and lost for ever.

I was very annoyed at myself (and the Austrian Ministry of Transport) but we carried with on regardless just wanting to get to Bled and put off seeing a mechanic until the next day. The views soon made up for the frustration as we wound along the motorway through miles of beautiful forests with the impressive Julian Alps surrounding us and hundreds of tunnels to break up the journey.

We arrived in Bled at around 8pm to be greeted by a positively-lovely possible-transsexual owner who revelled in our stories of misfortune throughout. We lost no time in making the most of the rest of the evening as we went for a run around the lake and a refreshing swim in the calming dusk light. Lake Bled is fairly touristy but beautiful nonetheless – it’s overlooked by a castle and snow-capped mountains on either side and in the middle of the water is an island housing a monastery. It’s also surrounded by places to walk, kayak, bike and visit.

The next day we drove to Vintgar Gorge which we’d been told was well worth a visit but a series of events stopped us from seeing it that day and ended up emasculating us completely. We arrived but, finding out we needed to pay for entry and having no money, James (his turn) had to drive back to the town of Bled and then come back. By this time he was in a slightly agitated mood which got worse when pulling into a parking spot by the side of a river he inadvertently drove the car into a hidden ditch. The car was balancing precariously over the river below with the front right wheel in the hole, the back wheels a couple of feet off the ground and us two still in the car – it was like the final scene from the Italian Job but without the gold and a cockney with an idea. The Slovenes are good in an emergency though as one guy helped us both out the car and within moments another had pulled the car out of the ditch with a rope attached to his. A few seconds of relief followed before realising that the car was haemorrhaging water.

This is when we realised that we are not men. Needing help to even open the bonnet and formulate a plan we proceeded to drive around Bled in an abused car filling it up with water every few minutes. Of course, one garage happened to be closed and the other one was tucked away in the middle of a housing estate which we eventually found with the help of the hostel owner’s simple but lifesaving son. As we waited for these real men to look at the car and patch it up we both sat looking on in admiration and developing a bit of a man crush. We started entertaining the delusional dream of running off and becoming something useful like a car mechanic before sacking that idea off as we don’t know so much as what a spark plug is.

The car was patched up with a rubber band, plasticine and the hair of an Albanian virgin by these grease-covered Adonis’s and although the car was proclaimed thoroughly damaged, it would be okay to get us away to our destinations and home. We were meant to move on to Croatia at this point but out of sheer depression we commenced getting very drunk and put the journey off for another to stay in Bled.

The next day we decided to use our extra day by driving to Lake Bohinj – a lake that is meant to be more beautiful and unspoiled than Lake Bled. This is something we will never be able to prove however as the whole day was subjected to the kind of rain reserved for the tropics and although we did go to Lake Bohinj, we didn’t really see it as it was clouded in mist. We did stop off for a nice look at the raging torrent that the river had become but I managed to make a tit out of myself whilst trying to make it back up a slippery bank which proved to be much harder to climb up than it was to get down. Three-quarters of the way up, whilst traversing a stream, I lost my grip, slipped and slid down the bank a couple of feet before I got my grip back and hung on for dear life (okay, it wouldn’t have killed me but I would have been even more annoyingly muddy). All the while James was highly and amused and just stood there taking plenty of photos. I made it up covered in mud and was glad when we found a restaurant in the middle of the woods to escape the rain. The apocalyptic downfall was getting even worse by this point and we were happy to be out of the rain especially at the point when a crack of lightning was followed by the electricity in the restaurant going down. All quite amusing until the restaurant gave me the wrong dish – some kind of vegetarian effort – an insult which is beyond a joke.

The nighttimes in Bled were very pleasant though as we were there for the Bled Festival which I’m sure you’ve all heard of. Lots of festivities were going on, including hundreds of candles on the lake, fireworks, pretty naff light shows accompanied by disproportionately epic music, swing bands playing every Beatles song known to man and bars and streets full of very young looking drunk 16 year olds. All this created a really nice atmosphere around the lake and livened it up a bit.

The next day we left Bled in the company of two Americans we’d met in the hostel – Tom and Leah – and after a swim in Lake Bled from the West bank to the island and back we made towards the coast. Unfortunately, the car was still not cooperating fully and the warning lights came on after about 80 kilometres. The engine was audibly in pain but a bit of water and a more gentle driving approach stopped her whining and saw us get to the Skocjan Caves in the South West of Slovenia.

The cave system was pretty impressive in its scale and the variety of stalagmites and stalactites but the prescribed manner in which we were allowed to see them and had to listen to a fairly uninteresting, long-winded commentary in two languages took away from the experience a little. Definitely worth experiencing though.

Impressively, it was here that James became the first person since the cavemen to get into an argument in a cave. Ignoring the admittedly sour tour guide’s repeated attempts to keep order and not allow any photos in the cave with or without a flash (presumably to make people visit the caves if they actually want to see them) he continued to unsubtly take poor-quality photos complete with a give-away flash. First the tour guide shouted at him to make him feel like a naughty schoolchild and then a guy from the tour group confronted him. All I heard very loudly was “You are annoying me!” and James’s expert comeback of “Well…. you’re annoying me” before I cringed and slunk off. En-ger-land.

Eventually we made it to Piran – a recommended town on the short Slovenian coast. On the drive in and from our excellent hill-top hostel we could see some amazing views of the surrounding coast which got us excited. But unfortunately we arrived during a period of ‘Bora’ – a violent bout of wind (natural not human) that kicks up on this coast after a long period without rain and lasts for a couple of days. Guess when we arrived? Yep, right at the beginning of Bora season. So, although Piran is probably a lovely town, it just wasn’t that pleasurable being there as we got battered by the constant wind. Also, by this point we were looking for beaches and we just didn’t have enough time to get to them before we had to leave.

Despite everything that had gone wrong on the trip so far, Slovenia has to rank up there as one of my favourite countries. So much is packed into such a little area as, in a couple of hours, you can visit the seaside, spectacular natural scenery like caves, lakes, mountains and forests and pleasant towns and villages, all of which are presented in a much more subtle, endearing manner than the big-hitting tourist destinations. I’ll definitely be going back.

Bavaria Nice Times in Munich

As seems to be the case with my holidays at the moment, my trip with Maeve, the girlfriend, to Munich and Bavaria was a success despite God’s best attempts to ruin it. You can’t break me, God – I am Job!

The first day was a good start though as the weather was quite sunny and much better than the Hurricane Günter that we had been expecting. Wandering around Munich’s Old Town it’s obvious that the city goes about things with understated beauty and rarely does seems to beg for your attention and this is definitely not a bad thing. Mainly there’s the ornate town hall in the roomy main square with the longest cuckoo clock routine I’ve ever been lucky enough to walk away from. Other than that it’s generally just full of spread out nice old stuff. It’s the greenery with which Munich excels as a lovely city to be in. We took a two kilometre walk alongside a green coloured river flanked on either side by trees and parks and ended up at the English Gardens – the most well-known park in the city. We stopped for a well-earned refreshment break where I learned that German light beer is actually not that good and it’s the Weissbeer where the action’s at. We barely made a dint into the park but we still encountered a lot more greenery, water features and student-bums sitting around on a Tuesday afternoon that gives you the impression that this city is the ideal place in which to do nothing but piss around in picturesque parks.

We both managed to get ill (in the notoriously malaria ridden region of southern Germany) which meant that the next day was a little more low-key. Off we went to the Deutsches Museum – a massive museum of science and technology – and I remembered after two minutes that I didn’t particularly like either science or technology. The first room contained old electrical conductors and lots of German plaques and was followed by nanotechnology and other stuff and it just reminded me of how my family would hate me for not liking this stuff. There were bits with tunnels and boats that were at least mildly interesting. Wow, did I just describe a museum? Sorry. In the evening, even though I was suffering, on principle I tried to force down a one litre beer at the shamelessly touristy but still awesome Hofbrauhaus beer hall. I failed then I bought a t-shirt which makes me as bad as the little American girls who buy a massive beer take their photos, upload their photo to facebook, give in after two sips and then leave.

The great thing about the Germans is they know how to make things easy and this certainly goes for travelling around. There is a travel pass called the Bayern Pass which gives you unlimited travel in Bavaria for a not so cheap €22 for one person but then peculiarly goes up to only €26 for two people, €30 for three people and so on. So, our plan was to go exploring.

Firstly, we used the Bayern Pass to go to Neuschwanstein Castle – famously the inspiration for the Disney castle – two hours south of Munich. The castle is spectacular and one of the best I’ve been to. It commands great views of the surrounding area and if you want to feel good about yourself you can walk to it up a hill by overtaking the painfully slow horse and carts taking the majority of people up. You can pay to get inside but I’m not a massive fan of castle interiors so we just stayed outside and in the courtyard and this was plenty enough.

Before we left for Germany, I had scoured the internet and found a lovely sounding hotel that boasted views of the castle and I even put in a special request for a castle-facing room. This was exactly what we received but our joy was short-lived as our total view of the castle was obscured by scaffolding that made it look like a block of flats. We heard that there would be scaffolding on a part of the castle but it couldn’t have been aimed so perfectly at our window our room if it was Sauron’s Eye looking for a midget with jewellery. The hotel was unnecessary anyway as the whole town closes at about 8pm (it has no inhabitants) and so there is nothing to do except get attacked by a massive bat whilst you play cards in the TV room. True story.

The next day before going back we decided to go for a boat cruise on nearby Forggensee and despite it being an overcast, quite foggy day, we went for it. I‘d read that the harbour was a twenty minute walk away so in classic tourist fashion we set off with nineteen minutes to spare. Turns out that the walk to the actual jetty takes about thirty minutes. Of course, after missing the cruise, we then missed the bus back to the train station by one minute and ended up hanging around drinking milk pretty much straight from a cow’s udder in a cafe wasting more time. It was getting quite frustrating.

But then we got back on the train and went to Andechs – a hilltop monastery where monks brew their own beer – and this place turned out to my Disneyland. There are four beer gardens so that means it’s possible to do a beer crawl around a monastery and so I was excitable to say the least. I was on the weissbeer and black beer and they were both wonderful whilst Maeve was busy making Schnapps Spritzers. Then food consisted of massive chunks of meat, so I contented myself with a wildebeest’s ankle or some such which made me even more ecstatic. We stayed there until mid-evening and then walked down into the town and visited a bar before bed, finding that even the card game Snap was beyond my capabilities.

On our final day we resolutely intended to eventually get our cruise in on Lake Starnberg – a bigger lake than Forggensee. So we got a bus back to Starnberg and walked down the harbour in plenty of time, waited around for a bit, only to see the harbour master just rub the next cruise off the board – ‘technical difficulties’. Maeve came up with a plan to get the train around to another town and catch the earlier slow-moving cruise – this had become a matter of principle. The walk from the station became a jog and we made it with one minute to spare. No matter, that the heaven’s open just as we boarded. The rain and and ever-moving fog kind of made the cruise all the more interesting though as they shrouded the surrounding mountains in a little bit of mystery and kept the scenery changing.

Despite a few hiccups this was an excellent trip and I will definitely be going back and making more use of the Bayern Pass as there’s lots more to see. I’ll also be finishing a one litre beer so that I can pretend in my heart that I am a real man.

Getting Out of Prague – Czech Paradise and the Orlik Reservoir

With a month left in the Czech Republic, I finally got a student of mine to show me some proper Czech parts of their countryside at the weekend. After speaking in our last lesson about my desire to see some more of the Czech Republic before I go back to the UK, he invited my girlfriend and I to the Orlik Reservoir, an hour south of Prague on the River Vltava, a place he seems to have a love for which borders on the sexual.

Calling Zdenek a ‘student’ sound ridiculous to me as it conjures up the idea of him being below me in the ladder of life but he is in fact a successful civil engineer with a seemingly perfect Czech life and English which is arguably better than mine. Actually, hanging around with a student outside of class is a bit weird when it comes to error correction and ‘teacher talking time’. When you hear something that is blatantly wrong or something that sounds stupid, but you get what they mean, do you correct them in real life? I let a few mistakes fly but then I just couldn’t control myself when he repeatedly said he was ‘building a tent’. Luckily, he also had a fluent friend with him who had spent years in South Africa and every time Zdenek made an error – like calling the shore of the lake a peninsular – this guy would mumble ‘fucking hell’ to himself before laughing and walking away. Not how I’d learned to do it on my TEFL course but his way worked by shaming Zdenek into correction.

Zdenek was right as the Orlik Reservoir is a beautiful area of pristine water, thick forests and a quiet, calm atmosphere. Without a ring of surrounding mountains, it is a little more subtle in its beauty than, say, Lake Garda or Lake Bled, but there’s still plenty of tranquil natural splendour to soak up and activities to do.

We stayed at the Podskalni campsite where Zdenek was like a celebrity. He knew everyone there and even had familiar banter with the lady who sold us ice cream. As soon as we got there we grabbed a beer and jumped in the lake for a refreshing early evening dip whilst Maeve put the tent up (she is the man in the relationship). The second drinking stop was with two classic old guys, one of whom introduced himself as “Miroslav – there is no English equivalent”, and two minutes later they were generously sharing their Scotch whisky with us. Then we were joined by a group of Zdenek’s friends and accordingly the night took a turn for worse as one of the group began to ply us with Czech rum – not one of the Czech’s best achievements – with a simple form of peer pressure that my sheep-like character has let me get into many messy situations over the years.

Pretty worse for wear, we ended up at The White House, a kind of a social club in the middle of the woods which we’d been warned was awful. And awful it certainly was as, on a Saturday night, there were only three people there – one faceplanted on his table, and one receiving and one giving a blowjob in the corner.

The next day was a struggle but probably the most pleasant debilitating hangover I’ve had for a while. We spent the whole day swimming in the lake, sitting on the gravel beaches getting sunburnt, and stealing Zdenek’s dog so we could take it for walks (the most placid dog in the world which nevertheless decided to take a dump right next to a sunbathing couple). All-in-all, it was a really nice day.

The week before that we had a very enjoyable trip to Czech Raj – or ‘Czech Paradise’ – half way between Prague and the Polish border. It’s one of those places that I’d heard of but never really looked into. So, like a participant on a blind date with low expectations, I followed the group organiser (‘group’ being a grand term for four people and ‘organiser’ meaning the person who printed out the train timetable) first to the town of Jičin and then an uninspiring two kilometre walk – except for photo opportunities to rival the classic Windows desktop picture – to the start of a part of the area called Skalní Město.

This is probably why I was massively impressed when we suddenly came upon hundreds of sets of sandstone towers jutting up all over the place. Good old interactive fun as you can clamber up and down these stone structures, explore dank caves and ignore the safety barriers to your heart’s content. Also, very good for pinecone wars, ridiculous photos and getting lost.

Post-walk, we stopped in Jičin – apparently one of the Czech Republic’s most desirable places to live – for a couple of cheap beers. The same things always seem to happen when we take a trip outside of Prague and step away from the tourist crowds. The pubs and squares always empty at about 5pm never to fill up again, the trains we need to get home finish very early and we ask ourselves the same question – “I wonder if they need any English teachers here”. I love living in Prague but the crowds can get to you sometimes, especially when you need to be somewhere and a row of people stretch out across the pavement in a fighter squad formation. But these places are always to the other extreme and I could find them quickly getting pretty boring – a bit like teaching in Saudi Arabia except with more alcohol to numb the pain. Also, I’ve found myself getting used to the crowds and enjoying the constant hubbub of life on the streets.

Going Home for a Holiday – Yorkshire

I’ve been living in Prague for fourteen months now and it’s still a bit strange to think of going back to England as a holiday. I went home at the weekend for a wedding of an old friend in the middle of nowhere in North Yorkshire. But it was also a great excuse to escape the urban sprawl of Prague and to visit some of friends and cheer myself up with some classic English countryside.

It has been over a year since I saw my country in the sunshine. The last time I ventured back I brought my American friend who had the pleasure of experiencing the overwhelming greyness of a December in the UK and visits to the future UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Riverside Stadium of Middlesbrough, the Manchester suburbs and Otley for a night out. But the sun was blazing for the whole weekend and it gave the place a glow and, for the first time ever, I left England with a tan.

To be honest, I am a massive negative Nigel when it comes to Britain and my home city of Leeds normally takes the brunt. I tell Mr Foreign that I’m from this fairly non-descript city and they either vaguely know where it is before asking me how far it is from London or a smile crosses their face and they shout “Leeds United!” That’s as far as it goes. Meeting an English person is even worse:

“Where are you from?”

“Nottingham.

“Oh right.”

“You?”

“Leeds.”

“Oh, okay.”

“…”

Where two Americans meeting each other will somehow find an extremely tenuous link that they can enthuse about for hours, we generally have nothing to say. But that’s not to say that the area where I’m from isn’t worthy of a bit of praise.

I’m not even from Leeds, that’s just the biggest google-mappable sized city to me – I’m actually from the beautiful area of Wharfedale. Basically, this part of West Yorkshire is like a giant pair of testicles – Leeds is one average ball, Bradford is the other hideously deformed ball and Wharfedale is a belt of charming suburbs at the very tip.

Wharfedale is a green belt of rolling hills and little towns marking the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. First of three nostalgic visits for me was the Cow and Calf – a formation of one big rock and one small rock – that overlooks the spa town of Ilkley. Up here there are some nice hiking trails, great views of the valley below and a perfectly situated traditional pub. It surprised me coming back here that Ilkley now even has a supped-up Tourist Information selling all kinds of Yorkshire rubbish – I purchased a Know Your Sheep book which will be very handy and not a waste of money I’m sure, and a white rose of Yorkshire flag – it’s strange what being around foreigners does to your regional pride. I cringe at the memory of chanting “Yaaaahkshire!” at a group of “Star Spangled Banner” singing Americans and feel an unstoppable compulsion to introduce every Eastern European to the genius of Yorkshire Puddings.

Next up was The Chevin. This fairly well-known area of natural beauty above the market town is more of a forested area than Ilkley but includes more of the same trails and beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Otley and The Chevin is actually pretty active in the social calendar as it hosts well-attended folk festivals and cycle races. To balance this out, during the  day the place generally reeks of death as the grey army descend and make use of the charity shop capital of the universe.

The wedding on Saturday was thirty minutes away in North Yorkshire so I drove to my romantic Bed and Breakfast (for one) in Harrogate. This spa town is a pleasant town full of attractive Georgian architecture and wide-open spaces and is certainly a place your Grandma would love. For her there’s the famous Betty’s Tearooms for a scone and overpriced tea. My tastes however are slightly more downmarket and I took the Dixy Chicken (fake KFC) at 2am option. I bowled into the grubby takeaway wearing my wedding suit to raised eyebrows from the staff and immediately confronted by one of those perpetually angry, ignorant Englishman I generally hate shouting “The Euro should f***ing burn!. Leave the f***ers to it!” at no-one in particular. Ah, home.

Food is always a very important part of going home. It’s surprising, how it’s the really little things that aren’t even necessarily English that you can miss. I spent months just wanting a deep pan pizza or a really dirty kebab. Cheese and English tea – the biggest Czech  deficiencies – are regularly smuggled over up people’s bottoms and in hollowed out prams so we can easily ignore the sub-standard Czech alternatives. My first day back home alone consisted of a warm award-winning pork pie for breakfast, fish and chips (the old national dish) for lunch and curry (the new official national dish) and cider for dinner.

I always get abuse from my students for the perceived poor state of English food. Granted, it’s simple and not that great but it’s at least as good as the stodgy, bland but filling Czech food. They base their opinions on that one time they had Fish & Chips in a pub in central London. They aren’t to know that to get fresh Fish and Chips you need to go to an actual Fish and Chip shop not get the frozen version at Wetherspoons and more importantly you must go north. Also, to get good country fare you have to make it out into the countryside to one of thousands of excellent country pubs using locally sourced produce to mix the traditional with the modern. And at least we know what a fresh vegetable is. Rant over. Screw you, Pavel!

The bottom line is that it isn’t the most spectacular place to visit – say. on a par with the coastal vistas of Croatia or the forests of Romania that I was blown away by – but it’s a damn sight better than I generally make it out to be

Off the Beaten Track in the Czech Republic

After doing most of the prescribed tourist sights of the Czech Republic – Kutna Hora, Plzen, Česky Krumlov, Karlstejn – during my first year here it’s time to start looking away from the beaten track and finding more obscure places to visit. In this respect, the students that I teach are a goldmine. They can tell me if somewhere I find on google is an area of outstanding natural beauty or actually an industrial complex with low levels of gamma radiation and a cleverly-worded website. The last two weeks has seen two pretty warm weekends and two Bank Holidays so there’s been plenty of time to get out and about.

The first weekend, following a tip-off, we decided on the horrendously-named Telč (Telch – a place that sounds like you’ve just stood in something). Telč (I should watch where I’m walking) is a small town again in the middle of nowhere somewhere below Prague and it was sold to us as a ‘smaller Česky Krumlov’. With a large square bordered by multi-coloured houses and a series of town-centre lakes, it offered some excellent photo opportunities and was generally lovely – the kind of place your Grandma would love if only it wasn’t full of foreigners and strange food. The day took a welcome turn for the slightly odd as we arrived during a classic car fair which saw the square (more of a kite-shape) fill up with pretty cool classic Skodas and motorbikes, and more unusually military vehicles and tractors. Then there were dogfights between enemy aircraft over the town, jazz bands and kids’ pie eating contest which gave the place a bit of longevity and a great small-town-big-event atmosphere.

Next was Česky Sternberk – a 13th century Bohemian castle that I’d never heard of until that week and one that was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. A three hour train journey – anywhere, no matter how close to Prague, seems to take three hours – got us to our destination in the most picturesque way possible. The scenic train journey snaked along the Sazava river, through forests and past colourful meadows before eventually dropping us off at a tiny shed in the shadow of the Česky Sternberk castle.

The castle was pretty nice and fairly standard as castles go – nice views, lots of stone and an expensive, relatively uninteresting interior – so we spent a good hour looking around up top before deciding enough was enough and coming down the hill for the highlight of the day. Unashamedly, this was lounging for hours, slowly baking in the blazing sun, on a terrace drinking cheap beer facing the castle with the Sazava in front of us and nature all around. One of those times where walking around seems pointless but sitting around with a cold beverage fulfills every need.

As well as the fun of exploring a country more in-depth, getting away from Prague also gives you the chance to experience a slightly more open side to the Czechs in public. Most of my students are really nice, warm and friendly people but there’s no getting away from the face that the service industry is full of people that outwardly seem to hate you. Furthermore, the prices outside of Prague are always a lovely surprise as you get unbridled joy out of the smallest difference. Beer in Prague, for example, is gloriously cheap compared to Western Europe, but then you come out to the countryside and you can get a beer in the middle of a castle or on a sunny square for lessthan in Prague’s dingiest pubs. In British terms, the discount is pretty miniscule (discounts range from 10-15 pence) but it’s the disproportionate sense of happiness and satisfaction that counts. The tourist attractions are also cheaper as we got impressive panoramic views of Telc and the surroundings of Cesky Sternberk for not much more than an average Prague toilet entrance fee.

Neither destination is worth doing if you are in the Czech Republic for a few days and in a rush but both places are excellent if it’s a sunny day (everyone knows that the sun could make a landfill site look homely) and you’ve got plenty of time on your hands for exploring.

In the Footsteps of Charles IV

At the weekend I went walking In the Footsteps of Charles IV. Yes, the Charles IV of Holy Roman Emperor fame, Charlie-Boy. C-Bomb Number 4. No? Basically, I was apparently walking in the footsteps of a 14th century Czech king.

In the Footsteps of Charles IV is an organised public walk outside of Prague to Karlstejn that’s put on every year for anyone who wants to do it. The full route is 50 kilometres but it’s possible to do 10, 15, 20 kilometres or whatever you can be bothered to do. As a group of occasional walkers and hardcore gulash eaters, we did 15 kilometres.

By some miracle of human perseverance I pulled myself out of my comfortable, under-used bed at 8am and with my flatmate met a gaggle of similarly hungover looking people at Prague’s Main Station. From there we took a short train journey out of Prague to some random, ramshackle place called Černošice where we would start our walk. After an almost uninterrupted five months of bleak weather that made going out into the Czech countryside less appealing than a weekend in Chernobyl, this weekend was the first tempting chance leave the urban sprawl of Prague and get in touch with mother nature. Or something.

The Czechs love the outdoors and, one thing I’ve learned from my students is that they are always out in the nature (as the endearingly incorrect Czechism goes). Inevitably out on the walk we met hundreds of families, dog-walkers and couples sampling the beautiful spring sunshine and we even passed a women’s football game. Possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while.

The walk was pleasant as the route snaked through Czech villages that were pretty and Czech villages that were under construction, past colourful meadows and through forests, ending at Karlstejn Castle – a touristy but charming little town which sits under an imposing Gothic castle. To be honest, the scenery was charming but not spectacular and the pace and elevation were never quite taxing enough yet it was just the ticket to brush off the winter cobwebs and dissipating hangover.

Somehow, for the second time this month, I managed to finish the day with a bright red forehead and a rosy neck, so at this rate, the year’s going to be filled with peeling skin and a head permanently coloured like a tomato. Interestingly enough, with a forest continually to the right of me and open space to the left of me, it was only my right which turned red and so I ended up with a ridiculous kind of football strip of skin.

Probably the highlight of the day was the finish where we received a diploma to mark the momentous occasion of finished a 15 kilometre walk in the mammoth time of five hours (thanks to much sitting and eating) – on green card with my name written in felt tip pen. I felt as happy as a small child and now it’s up on my wall just next to my Nobel Peace Prize and Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Prague Half Marathon – Destroying Pavel Nedved

Left hand side in the blue and black - that's me

Ever since waddling through my chubby teenage years, running has been my thing. With poor portion control and a love of everything savoury, it’s also going to be only way of avoiding heart-disease and obesity until my knees inevitably give way in my late-Twenties. Over the last nine years I’ve competed in half marathons in Newcastle, Glasgow, Prague (in 2008) and Leeds and slowly trundled through a full one in Pisa and now I proudly have a trophy cabinet (box under the bed) full of medals. Yes, these medals are all for merely taking part but that’s the best sporting achievement I’m ever likely to obtain.

The Prague Half Marathon on Saturday was my first decent-sized run of a busy running season and it crept up on me and arrived a few weeks too soon. A life-shortening weekend in Wroclaw coupled with a disproportionate cheese-to-everything-else diet and a couple of weeks of icy conditions not suited to running, left me in a perilous position only a month or so before the run. I did my best to get myself in shape but I felt like I left it too late so I had to dig into my arsenal for my two main weapons. First, was pride, I had to beat a friend who had recently excelled in his first half marathon and the second was my classic Yorkshire cheapness – I was not going to spend €50 on a race and not get a PB.

On the greyest day outside of a Soviet-era soap opera, 11,000 people took to the streets of Prague to do one of the most attractive urban runs in Europe. The first five kilometres alongside the river was a giant mess of people and so I had to use my third and final attribute – my pigmy size – to pick my way through. Afterwards, the congestion eased and everybody spread out and I could run at my own pace as I tried to put my foot down to alleviate constant feeling of self-doubt (an annoying lack of clocks) and a bladder that felt like it was going to explode from the start. I traditionally try to sprint the last two kilometres and this time it nearly killed me, especially as the organisers tantilisingly count down every one hundred metres with a kilometre to go.

In the end, I finished with a really pleasing PB of 1 hour 30 minutes, 30 minutes behind the clichéd group of front-running Kenyans but a whole 17 minutes quicker than Czech football legend Pavel Nedved. Always said he was over-rated.

Little amusing things always happen in a run that help you get through with an occasional smile punctuating the almost ever-present grimace/sex face. Like at one point, the course loops round so you double back on yourself and run past people a fair way behind you. Here, I met the 11,000th-place runner loping along very slowly being followed a few feet behind by an ambulance crawling along presumably waiting to scoop her expired body up off the pavement. It was like watching a zebra caught in the eyeline of a waiting lion.

Other delights include a woman I passed twice, who I can only guess spent the entire race singing the Rocky theme tune (not Survivor, but you know, the other one) over and over again…on her own to no-one in-particular.  There was world’s laziest spectator who was not only sitting down but using wooden clappers to take the effort out of slapping two hands together. Oh and there was my Mum who failed to respond to the shout of “MUM!” both times I passed her. That embarrassing moment when you know everyone has seen you fail and you just have to pretend you weren’t waving but scratching your head and sprint away from the scene of the crime.

In two weeks it’s the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon – not entirely sure what that consists of but I’m looking forward to a mid-point tipple of wine and cheeseboard. Then in June it’s the Gorlitz Marathon which I am not looking forward to at all.

Derby Day in Prague – Sunburn and a Scoredraw

Ever since being teargassed at a bad-tempered Prague derby in 2008 I’ve been hooked on watching football in Europe. It’s much less sanitised – for better or worse – than England and always offers something interesting, if not always on the pitch. I’ve experienced the electric atmosphere of the San Siro in Milan, Hertha Berlin at the impressive Olympicstadion and the rustic charm of Artmedia Bratislava in a cowshed in Slovakia and I hope to see a lot more football action in the future.

On Saturday, it was again the Prague derby of the city’s main rivals, Slavia and Sparta. This year’s contest didn’t really look like it was going to be a classic with Slavia underperforming after some crippling financial difficulties and Sparta sitting pretty on top of the league. And, in the end, it wasn’t, as the two teams played out a spirited but rather toothless one-all draw but it was still a really nice day at the shiny Synot Tip Arena topped off with a much-needed bout of sunburn.

Slavia took a surprise lead after a beautifully delivered corner found Martin Latka’s head and the underdogs could have had a few more. Then after forcing Slavia ‘keeper Martin Berkovec into a couple of stunning saves, Sparta eventually scored through Tomáš Přikryl (just try saying that) before the game petered out a bit and the off-field antics became a lot more interesting.

Three of us were sat right next to the Slavia Ultras – a set of hardcore fans who seemingly model themselves on the British fans of the Eighties (even down to their use of British flags and terms like ‘The Slavia Gentlemen’). These guys never sit down and certainly never shut up – even down to the children’s match at half time as the fans went crazy when a seven year old Slavia lad scored and then wheeled away with a classic airplane celebration. I’d definitely recommend that you try to sit by them but maybe not in amongst them though as you might find yourself out of your depth as they don’t take too kindly to tourists.

There seemed to be quite a few measures in place to placate the Ultras and to avoid any violence. For one, only non-alcoholic beer was served, which scuppered our plans of drinking in the glorious sunshine, but could be understood. Secondly, their every whim was catered for. Whenever they wanted to unfurl banners across the section, set off a couple of flares or cart in a tonne of flags, the officials were happy acquiesce, stand by and watch and do the occasional bit of firefighting. Overall, they whipped up and raucous yet non-violent atmosphere and a fun, awesome spectacle.

Cooped in the opposite corner the Sparta Ultras were obviously jealous of this attention, threw their toys out of the pram and kicked off in the second half. It started with what looked like a toilet seat being thrown onto the pitch. Then came a series of plastic seats that had been ripped up and flares were then let off in the middle of the mass of fans. The firefighters’ unenviable job was to get amongst them and to put the flares out whilst the police went in and arrested the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, kind of behaviour is virtually institutionalised in football in Central and Eastern Europe now which leads to families staying away and for a pretty intense, unwelcoming atmosphere. Add to that a generally poor standard of football and a game in these parts shouldn’t be a great prospect but somehow it is. Tickets are cheap, beer is normally plentiful and if you choose the right section in which to sit and the right game (derbies, historic rivalries and top-of-the-table clashes are always best) then the entertainment should be there. It’s an experience that I don’t think should be missed especially as almost every city in Europe has at least one decent team, each has a unique atmosphere and it’s a chance to see the locals at their best and their worst