Portsmouth and three literary heroes

Portsmouth is a place steeped in history: you can step back in time with a visit to Southsea Castle (built on the orders of Henry VIII), visit what’s left of the Mary Rose (the ship that spent 437 years under the sea), and walk around Lord Nelson’s HMS Warrior ship. However, Portsmouth also has a vibrant literary history. ‘Really?’ I hear you say, well let’s follow in those footsteps.

plaquecharlesdickensbirthplacemuseumportsmouth(Look out for this plaque when you visit Charles Dickens’ house. http://www.beautifulengland.net/)

Charles Dickens was born and baptised in Portsmouth in February 1812. To this day he is referred to as the city’s most famous son. Admittedly, Dickens only lived in Portsmouth for a few years, but his father – John Dickens, a clerk in the naval offices – rented a property at 1 Mile End Terrace, Old Commercial Road in 1809 where he spent the early part of his life. The house, which still survives, is now theCharles Dickens Birthplace Museum. The parlour, dining room and bedroom in the house have all been furnished to replicate the regency era, giving an insight into how his family lived. The exhibition room in the museum even boasts the author’s personal items, including a snuff box, inkwell, paperknife and – for those with morbid tendencies – the couch on which he died.

Portsmouth must have had an impression on the young Dickens, as he returned to the city to research for his novel Nicholas Nickleby. He wrote:

‘I don’t know much of these matters,’ resumed Nicholas; ‘but Portsmouth is a seaport town, and if no other employment is to be obtained, I should think we might get on board some ship. I am young and active, and could be useful in many ways. So could you.’ (Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby) 

The protagonist, Nicholas, travels from London to Portsmouth to become a sailor. If you’re a Dickens enthusiast, don’t expect to land a job as a sailor, but Portsmouth is a great place to book a session at the central library and get your hands on a wide range of Dickens’ texts and his periodicals ‘Household Words’ and ‘All the Year Round.’

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Overnight: Mumbai to Jodphur

Mission: Fly to Mumbai, visit several places in India and Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam then come back on ourselves to fly back to England through Saudi Arabia from Mumbai. 

Advice for female travellers, 18 hours on a third class sleeper train and one bed for three.

Before I begin to enter into the details of what was one of the best journeys out of the whole 10,000 miles covered in total, I think it is important to talk about female travellers in India, that old bug-bear. For ninety percent of our time there were just two of us, and we’re not the most sensible of sorts. And yet, thankfully, we traversed even ‘dodgy’ borders completely harassment-free. Whilst this could just be good luck (changing your style of dress will only go part of the way to deterring unwanted attention) we did take several precautions.

(nomadicmatt.com)

Most sources state that you will certainly encounter some kind of unwanted groping in Mumbai, for example – however, this didn’t happen to us. We both wore salwar-kameez and more often than not wore a headscarf hijab style. Whilst the latter may seem a little extreme I whole heartedly recommend it. This made me feel safer in a number of situations. It can also be comforting to shield your face if you feel threatened, such as when you are zig-zagging through an unknown city at night in a rickshaw, encircled by staring, unsmiling men whose intentions you aren’t really sure of.

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Travelling light in Venice (Part 1)

The excruciatingly early flight, the arrival at a tiny, almost desolate airport 50 miles from civilisation, the seemingly endless coach trip into the city centre, all preceded by a long and weary night travelling to Stansted. This is budget travel. It has to be said though, travelling without checked luggage is one of the most liberating travel experiences I’ve had to date. No baggage charges, no waiting in the airport arrival room populated by Europe’s most irritating passengers, staring blearily into oblivion and wincing as your possessions are hurled onto the sticky conveyer belt before you. From my childhood I can still recall the indelible image of a cheesy Dorito wedged between the strips of the conveyer belt at a sweaty Spanish airport and watching it pass me by several times before the luggage began to be released. It was spectacularly crushed as some poor customer’s very expensive leather suitcase came hurtling through the air and left a powdery orange residue which managed to glue itself to everyone’s bags – I’ve fantasised about travelling light ever since.

1280px-1_venice_grand_canal_rialto_bridge_2012(Venice’s Grand Canal is in constant motion as the heart of the city. wikimedia.org/)

If there’s a European city to travel to with the minimal amount of baggage, it’s Venice. Maneuvering smugly through its narrow streets for the first time with only a well-packed handbag was absolute bliss. Whilst the other tourists heaved their vast entourages of luggage up and down the city’s numerous bridges and lurched heavily around sharp corners annoying the locals, we breezed through effortlessly. Admittedly though, luggage or no luggage, arriving at the coach stop on the outskirts of Venice and taking a trip on the ‘People Mover’ (a small tram) through the industrial district, you’d never guess at what lies beyond. Just a couple of streets away, Venice bursts into life. The magical mystery of the city is even more captivating as you delve deeper into it. Follow the faded signs on the walls towards Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, and through the maze of streets, you’ll find that no two are the same. Venice’s charm lies in its colour; the lemon-yellow buildings with black wrought iron balconies, the green shutters and scarlet flowers on window sills, the blue blaze of the canals, salmon-pink stone walls and the beige decay dripping from everything you see. Venice envelops you in its depths and it’s often an effort to remember that you are, in fact, in a city, not inside an Impressionist painting. However, once you reach the Grand Canal, Venice’s vigour brings you back to the reality of present day. The canal sees constant movement; small private water taxis appear from nowhere, the gondolas cruise through the city like waterborne thrones, and the larger vaporetti certainly make their presence known, cavorting past, crammed with people and making a splash as they pull into the piers, which function like bus stops.

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Bran, Brasov and Bucharest

Dracula! Cue lightning.

 Now be honest, what did you picture when you saw that word? Perhaps a dark night, a lonely castle lit by mysterious blue lights, with an eerie sense of dread and serenity, pierced by the howl of wolves and the occasional flutter of bats? It would be great if that were true, but Bram Stoker’s eponymous real-life antagonist has a different story to tell, one that is much more inspiring but equally bloodthirsty.

Last summer I finally got round to fulfilling the dream of thousands of kids worldwide and went to see the count’s residence. Let me tell you, you don’t want to miss this opportunity.

Bucharest - Carol I(A brief tour of Bucharest begins the Romanian adventure. Photo from the author)

My trip starts early in the morning on a bus en route to the Carpathian Mountains. The ride through Bucharest is long but well worth it. My first stop is the Peleș Castle, in the town of Sinaia, home of King Carol I and Queen Elisabeth of Wied. Frankly, it’s one of the finest pieces of architecture I have ever laid eyes upon, though that’s not saying much coming from someone who doesn’t travel that often.

The entrance fee is ridiculously cheap – a little less than £4, which is halved for seniors and quartered for students. However, no more than two groups of separate nationalities can enter at a time, which allows for a relaxing tour of the premises. The atmosphere of royalty sets off right from the front gates and its compact gardens, where every stone and metal frame bears impossibly intricate ornaments. If you really want to take in this sight, then cease moving, stop thinking and just look at it. Take as long as you need. You’re welcome.  

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The Rich and the New

Hong Kong is the most fascinating and impressive of hybrids. For centuries a refuge for those fleeing oppressive rulers in China and no more than an inconsequential island, it was to become one of the most crucial trading points in the entire world. Today, it remains a kind of westerner’s gateway into Asia and still feels like a kind of outpost.

(hongkongbusinessregistration.com)

The island was freed from British rule in 1997, but is still in the middle of a 50-year grace period where unrestrained capitalism is allowed to run riot before handover to ‘communist’ China in 2037. The result is a kind of Thatcherite wonderland, where there is still a whiff of Empire and the phrase ‘the colony that worked’ is used readily and not without good reason. Hong Kong is still thus its own country, and is home to the widest gap between rich and poor in the world.

I was lucky enough to see both sides during my stay – not just rich and poor, but old and new as well.

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