Saturday, 27 August 2011

THE MOVIE THAT PUT IRELAND ON THE TOURIST MAP


My favourite line from my all-time favourite movie is: “He’ll regret it till his dying day, if ever he lives that long.” Fans of The Quiet Man will immediately recognise it as having been uttered by fierce-tempered farmer ‘Red’ Will Danaher, played to blustering perfection by Victor McLaglen.
Danaher is the bullying big brother of beautiful redhead Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara) who steals the heart of retired boxer Sean ‘Trooper Thorn’ Thornton (John Wayne) who’d killed an opponent in the ring in the States. Despite Danaher’s best spoiling efforts and aided and abetted by the colourful and conniving villagers of fictional Inisfree in the west of Ireland, Sean, who was born there but grew up in Pittsburgh, woos and weds Mary Kate and then has an epic fistfight with his new brother-in-law.
Based on the 1933 short story Green Rushes by County Kerry novelist Maurice Walsh, The Quiet Man was director John Ford’s pet project and his cinematic love letter to his parents’ homeland. “It will never make a penny,” was one snooty studio reader’s opinion of Frank S Nugent’s 179-page screenplay. I hope he enjoyed eating his hat. The film cost $1.75 million to make, took in $3.8 million in its first year and has earned umpteen times that in video and DVD sales and rentals.
Shot in the summer of 1951 mainly in and around Cong, County Mayo, and released the following year, it sparked a phenomenal influx of tourists eager to see the sights so gorgeously portrayed by cinematographers Winton C Hoch and Archie Stout. Their work earned them Academy Awards (Ford, whose real name was Sean Aloysius Feeney, got the Best Director Oscar) and put the town and county on the map.

REV'S RES: The Reverend and Mrs. Playfair's house
Today, the coachloads of Quiet Man pilgrims who descend on Cong year-round are thrilled to find not much has changed since the cast and crew packed up and headed home. Most of the buildings featured in the film, such as the Reverend Playfair’s ivy-covered house, are still there, and you’ll see fans, many of them moist-eyed Irish-Americans, wandering around doing more pointing than a bricklayer.
The house first appears when courting couple Sean and Mary Kate are out walking under the watchful eye of pipe-puffing mischief-maker, matchmaker and bookmaker Michaleen Og Flynn, who’s following in his horse-drawn trap. Fed up with the rigid formality, Sean spots a tandem bicycle propped against a window, tells Mary Kate to jump on and they go racing off down the street. The house is also seen near the end of the film when the Rev Playfair (Arthur Shields) collects his £15 winnings from his boss, the Anglican Bishop (Philip Stainton), who’d foolishly backed Danaher to win the fight.
Playfair, a former amateur pugilist with a big collection of scrapbooks full of boxing articles and pictures, is the only person in the village who knows about Trooper Thorn killing his opponent, but the tragic secret is safe with him.
Look! There’s Pat Cohan’s pub, where Michaleen’s horse, Napoleon, comes to an automatic abrupt halt, nearly catapulting him out of his seat and prompting the line: “I think ye have more sense than meself!”

PAT'LL DO NICELY: The most famous pub in Ireland
Michaleen was played by rubber-faced pixie Barry Fitzgerald, real name William Joseph Shields (brother of Arthur), who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Father Fitzgibbon in the 1944 tear-jerker Going My Way. However, his ‘gold’ statuette came to a sticky end. While practising his golf swing he knocked the head off it (during World War Two they were made of plaster because of metal shortages) and had to glue it back on.
Cohan’s is where Sean and Danaher take a break from their fistfight, which resumes when the latter comes crashing backwards through the closed front door after throwing a pint of porter in the Yank’s face, for which he gets a piledriver of a punch in his own. The pub was actually a dressed-up grocer’s shop and the interiors were shot in Hollywood, so the punch that was thrown in California puts Danaher on his backside 5,000 miles away in the street in Cong. Cohan’s opened as a fully-licensed bar in 2008.
Nearby is the house where dying man Dan Tobin makes a miraculous recovery, springing from his bed while being read the last rites when he hears the crowd outside running to see the big fight. Hopping down the street pulling his trousers on over his long nightshirt, it’s the biggest comeback since Lazarus. White-bearded Tobin was played by Francis Ford, the director’s brother, and the young priest praying by his bedside, Fr Paul, was Maureen O’Hara’s brother, James.

DAN DOMAIN: 'Dying' man Dan Tobin's cottage
Ashford Castle, on the near outskirts of Cong, is one of Ireland’s poshest, most palatial and magnificent hotels, and for the several weeks of filming it was home to Ford, Wayne and O’Hara. It was also home last weekend to me and my pal John Morrison, another lifelong Quiet Man fan, when we made a pilgrimage we’ve been promising ourselves for years. This was our base while we toured Cong and the surrounding countryside, visiting the places seen in the movie.
The castle dates from 1228 when the Anglo-Norman de Burgo clan who’d recently kicked the backsides of the native O’Connors decided they liked it there and put down roots. Three-and-a-half centuries later, in 1589, the de Burgos got a taste of their own medicine when English nobleman Lord Bingham and his boys decided they liked it, too, and sent them packing. In 1715 the Oranmore-Browne family took over, and in 1852 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the brewing dynasty moved in, extending the estate to 26,000 acres and adding two Victorian-style extensions either side of the French-style chateau. In 1939 the castle became a luxury hotel, and in 1970 a large part of the grounds were given over to a golf course.

WHERE STARS STAYED: Stately Ashford Castle hotel
The management are to be applauded for finding and recruiting the most professional, courteous and attentive staff I’ve ever encountered anywhere. As is the case with any successful business, the people customers deal with are the most valuable asset, and Ashford has hired the best of the best.
Several scenes in the film were shot on the castle estate, including that in which fly-fishing parish priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) almost hooks the monster salmon he’s been after for years (out of shot, local man Jim Morrin was in the river tugging on the line). If only Mary Kate hadn’t come along moaning about her new husband bunking down in a sleeping bag – “with buttons!” – Fr Lonergan might have landed it. Bond, an epileptic who was rejected by the draft during WW2, was a close friend of Wayne and bequeathed to him the borrowed shotgun with which his buddy had once accidentally shot him.
Danaher’s house, looking much as it did except for the addition of a front door porch and garage door, is on the estate, too. This is where Sean comes calling with flowers in hand and Michaleen in tow to seek the irascible squire’s permission to court his sister, only to be sent off with a flea in his ear as a tearful Mary Kate looks forlornly from the left hand upstairs window. The third fairway of the castle golf course, which didn’t exist in 1951, is where Sean first spots the barefooted Mary Kate herding sheep with a black and white collie (Jacko, owned by local shepherd John Murphy).

MUCH THE SAME: Will and Mary Kate Danaher's house
This area is also seen in the run-up to the big fight when Sean, who’s had enough of Mary Kate’s bickering over her unpaid dowry, drags her along the ground by the collar, followed by the crowd. In a continuation of this scene but in a different location close to the Danaher house known as the Meadow Field, Sean dumps his wife at the feet of her brother who’s harvesting the hay with his workers and says: “You can take your sister back. It’s your custom, not mine. No fortune, no marriage. We call it quits.”
St. Mary’s Protestant church, whose exterior was used in the “patty fingers” scene where Sean is told off by Michaleen for scooping holy water from the font for Mary Kate to bless herself, is on the road out of the estate into Cong. But sadly, wealthy widow Sarah Tillane’s (Mildred Natwick) house, where Sean seals the deal to buy White O’ Mornin’, the cottage in which he and seven generations of his family were born, no longer exists, having been demolished years ago to make way for a car park for visitors to the estate. Saddest of all, the long-neglected White O’ Mornin’, by the Failmore River 13 miles west of Cong, has been reduced to a barely recognisable pile of rubble. It’s a crying shame.
Ten miles southwest of Cong between Maam Cross and Oughterard is Leam Bridge, also known as the Quiet Man Bridge and unchanged in 60 years. This is where Sean sits and views White O’ Mornin’ while his late mother’s voice reminisces: “Don’t you remember, Seanie, and how it was? The road led up past the chapel and it wound and wound. And there was the field where Dan Tobin’s bull chased you. It was a lovely little house, Seaneen. And the roses! Well, your father used to tease me about them, but he was that proud of them, too.” It would bring a tear to a glass eye.

SPANTASTIC: Leam Bridge, aka The Quiet Man Bridge
Drive 22 miles southeast of Cong and you’ll come to the now disused but still accessible Ballyglunin railway station which in the film was called Castletown. It’s here that Sean gets off the green steam train at the start and is immediately surrounded by curious rail staff and villagers as narrator Fr. Lonergan clears his throat and sets the scene in voiceover, saying: “Now then, I’ll begin at the beginnin’. A fine soft day in the spring it was when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off. He didn’t have the look of an American tourist at all about him. Not a camera on him. And what was worse, not even a fishing rod.”
After asking directions to Inisfree and being sent off in all directions, first by the conductor (“Do you see that road over there? Don’t take that one, it’ll do you no good”) and then by a fishwife (“My sister’s third young one is living at Inisfree, and she’d be only too happy to show you the road — if she was here”), Michaleen appears, lifts Sean’s case and says: “Inisfree? This way.” And so they set off from the station in Michaleen’s trap and the adventure begins, to the comedic melody of “The Rakes Of Mallow”.

WHERE IT BEGINS: Disused Ballyglunin railway station
If you want to see Lettergesh Beach, where the Inisfree horse race meeting was filmed, drive 25 miles west of Cong to Renvyle, where the best view is from in front of Lettergesh post office. It’s during the races that Michaleen and Fr. Lonergan launch their plot, on which the movie hangs, to persuade Danaher to let Sean court Mary Kate.
The Quiet Man isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — or in Michaleen’s case, glass of whiskey. There are those who dismiss it as a mawkish dip into an over-romanticised world of shenanigans and blarney that never existed except in John Ford’s mind, but stroll through Cong on any day of the week and you’ll see there are many more devotees than detractors, all walking around with movie locations maps in their hands and a smiles on their faces.
Yesterday, the biggest smile in Cong was worn by Maureen O’Hara herself as the 91-year-old screen legend joined thousands of fans celebrating the film’s 60th anniversary. Fittingly, by her side were John Wayne’s daughter Marisa and his granddaughter Laura Monoz Bottini, and watching from the sidelines was 78-year-old local man John Joe Mullin, who in 1951 worked in Ashford Castle and served Ms O’Hara her breakfast every morning in the same room she slept in last night. “It was a lovely job and she was a lovely lady,” said an emotional John Joe. “Very, very gracious in her manners.”
Six decades after the cameras stopped rolling, the film clearly occupies a special place in the hearts of the people of Cong because, like Trooper Thorn, and the scenery so spectacularly portrayed in Ford’s fond salute to Ireland, The Quiet Man still packs a punch.

TAKE THAT: Sean lands a right hook to Danaher's chin
I’ll leave you with an anecdote I was told in Pat Cohan’s pub. On a day off from filming, John Wayne travelled to Croke Park in Dublin with a member of the crew to see the fiercely-fought All Ireland hurling semi-final between Wexford and Galway. At half-time, the crewman said to him: “Youre a big athletic man, I bet you’d love to be down there with a hurley in your hand.” Wayne took a drag from his cigarette and drawled: “Well, I sure as hell wouldnt like to be down there without one.”

QUOTABLE QUOTES
1. Fr. Lonergan:Now then, here comes myself. Thats me there, walking. That tall, saintly-looking man. Peter Lonergan, parish priest.
2. Fr. Lonergan: Ah, yes. I knew your people, Sean. Your grandfather, he died in Australia, in a penal colony. And your father, he was a good man, too.
3. Fr. Lonergan (to villagers): Now, when the Reverend Mr Playfair, good man that he is, comes down, I want us all to cheer like Protestants.
4. Fishwife (to Sean): Sir! Sir! Heres a good stick, to beat the lovely lady.
5. Danaher (to Sean): “Yer widow, me sister, she coulda done a lot worse.”
6. Michaleen (to Mary Kate): Is this a courting or a donnybrook? Have the good manners not to hit the man until hes your husband and entitled to hit you back.
7. Mary Kate: “Would you be stepping into the parlour? The house may belong to my brother, but what’s in the parlour belongs to me.” Michaleen: “I will then, and I hope there’s a bottle there, whoever it belongs to.”
8. Mary Kate:Could you use a little water in your whiskey?Michaleen:When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey, and when I drink water, I drink water.
9. Feeney (Jack MacGowran, to Mary Kate):I saw him today, as I passed by the chapel, a tall handsome man.Mary Kate:If you passed the pub as quickly as you passed the chapel, you’d be better off, you little squint!
10. Feeney (to Mary Kate): “Is that a bed or a parade ground? A man would have to be a sprinter to catch his wife in a bed that big.
˜ See www.ashford.ie and www.discoverireland.ie
˜ Author Des MacHale’s meticulously-researched books are a must-read for all fans of The Quiet Man. See the amazon website, where you can also buy the DVD, and Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Dead Republic, about a fictional IRA veteran hired by Ford as an advisor on the movie.

Friday, 19 August 2011

IRELAND: OH MAYO MY!



THERE’S nothing like the excitement of going at full gallop across a windswept beach in the west of Ireland at low tide with your horse’s hooves churning up the waters of the wild Atlantic as they rush ashore. And that picture above of me on docile old Blaze in Clew Bay, County Mayo, is nothing like the excitement described.
Falling off a horse is easy. The hard bit, I find, is staying on. Anything faster than a trot and we tend to part company. It’s a case of what goes giddy-up must come giddy-down, usually with a backside-bruising bump.
Fortunately, Blaze harbours no ambitions to win the Grand National, so I stayed in the saddle instead of ending up in the sea. That’s what makes her the ideal mount for youngsters and getting-oldsters like me who sign up for a memorable day out with GoTrekking! at the Westport Woods Hotel.
Pony and horse trekking on the beaches of Clew Bay, below, or in the woods and foothills of nearby Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain so beloved of barefooted pilgrims and blister pad producers, is a thrill, but stick a snorkel down your boot just in case.


Westport, a worthy three-times winner of the national Tidy Towns competition, is home to Matt Molloy’s pub, Ireland’s busiest and best traditional music venue which is rocked to the rafters seven nights a week by foot-stamping tourists and locals having a great time. One of these evenings the floorboards will give way.
When he’s not off travelling the world, Matt, the flute player with trad legends The Chieftains, picks up his instrument and joins in the fun. Whatever your views on diddly-dee music, there’s nothing more diddly-deelightful than a top-class trad session in a packed Irish pub, especially when it’s Molloy’s, which is on just about every coach tour itinerary.
Westport is a relatively small place, but it punches well above its weight in selling itself as a tourist destination, in large part thanks to the tireless efforts of people such as Westport Woods boss Michael Lennon, musician-publican Matt and other local business leaders.
They have a quality product to promote, and their job is made so much easier by the admirable civic pride of the townspeople who keep the place picture postcard perfect. Litter on the streets is unknown, and the council spends more money on flowers than Elton John, which makes for colourful holiday snaps, below. A visit to Westport is not to be sneezed at. Unless you suffer from hay fever.


I was sneezing after cycling the 18km stretch of the traffic-free Great Western Greenway between the Mulranny Park Hotel and Newport, but it was nothing to do with the air being full of pollen. Rather, the ditch I rode into after being confronted by two fierce-looking wild mountain goats was full of icy water.
My previous run-in with pointy-horned beasts was 20-odd years ago in Pamplona, where my record for shinning up a drainpipe still stands. It was a memorable trip, on a rickety old bus full of Vietnam veterans and aged hippies who’d retired to Torremolinos and spent their time drinking cheap brandy and smoking free black tobacco cigarettes in Marco’s Mini Bar.
While I survived dangling from a balcony as several tons of ill-humoured fighting bulls thundered past just a couple of feet below, one of the hippies failed to survive the 500-mile journey back to the Costa del Sol. We all thought he’d fallen into a cannabis-induced coma, but he was dead, having suffered a heart attack somewhere along the way. Maybe it’s just as well he didn’t wake up — he’d have been really annoyed about having his face slapped so many times and a litre bottle of fizzy water poured over his head, God forgive us.
The bicycle I dipped in the ditch was supplied by Canadian nice guy Travis Zeray of Clew Bay Bike Hire & Outdoor Adventures, who laughed when I told him about my encounter with the goats. Seemingly, they were more afraid of me than I was of them, but I’d like to see him lying in three feet of freezing water with a pedal sticking in his ribs, expecting at any second to be skewered.


Scary moments aside, and despite being soaked to the skin, riding the Greenway through some of the most spectacular scenery, above, in Ireland with the help of a gale at my back — master of the understatement Travis said it was a gentle tailwind — was a joy. Imagine what it must be like on a warm, sunny summer’s day.
Such a day found me pitting my wits — and some unfortunate big fat worms — against the salmon that have for decades made Mayo’s River Moy a magnet for anglers from all over the world. Although the Ridge Pool in the middle of Ballina is recognised as the hottest spot from which to pull the biggest fish, those that put up the biggest fight are found in the private two-mile stretch of the Moy that runs through the Maloney family’s Mount Falcon Estate just outside town.
This is where famed fashion designer and avid angler John Rocha comes to enjoy a bit of r&r (in his case rod & reel), although I had more luck with my worms, float and Jumping Jack weight at Cunningham’s Pool than he had when I later saw him casting his fly a mile upriver.
Ghillie Robert Gillespie is a master of the art of fly fishing and knows the Moy like the back of his hand. Robert, widely regarded as the best in the business and therefore in big demand, and Mount Falcon boss Shane Maloney were my companions for the day, and I couldn’t have wished for better company. I don’t know which of us was more excited when I hooked my first ever salmon.
I do know that my barman buddy Garrett’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when I walked into Neary’s when I returned to Dublin and presented him with the whopper pictured below. Garrett’s passion is cooking, and that salmon provided him with a week’s worth of delicious meals. Fish is supposed to be good for the brain, but not for Garrett’s, because he forgot to bring me some. Mind you, he did say it was delicious.


One man who forgets nothing is archaeologist, historian and walking encyclopaedia Jim Henry of Setanta Ireland Tours, who collected me at the Downhill Hotel in Ballina for a tour of north County Mayo. During our day out I learned more about this beautiful part of Ireland than I would have from reading a dozen books.
The cold case cops should give Jim a call because he knows where all the bodies are buried, especially those of the ancient Sweeneys who once ruled the roost in Mayo. Every time we drove past a graveyard he took great delight in telling me it was full of my late clansmen and women. As for Achill Island, which we viewed from Blacksod Point, it should have sunk under the waves years ago with the weight of all the Sweeneys buried there.
The coastguard station at Blacksod, below, played a significant role in the timing of the D-Day landings in 1944. On June 4, meteorologist Ted Sweeney filed a weather report warning of bad conditions which delayed the Allied invasion of France scheduled for the next day. A break came in the weather on June 6, and Operation Overlord proceeded, so hastening the end of World War Two.


But the highlight of our tour for me was a stop at Mayo’s 6,000-year-old Ceidhe Fields, where you can walk among what remains of the Neolithic dwellings, tombs and dry stone walls that marked out the enclosed farmland. It’s the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world, excavated from the bogland that grows at a rate of one centimetre every 10 years — a bit like what’s left of my hair. Mercifully, Jim made no mention of the 6,000-year-old Sweeneys buried under all that peat.
The glass-topped, pyramid-shaped visitors centre 8kms northwest of Ballycastle is a must-see and has as its centrepiece a 4,300-year-old Scots pine tree, below, which was dug from the bog and is now preserved for all time. A platform on the roof of the clifftop, award-winning centre provides the most awesome panoramic views of the fields and the surrounding countryside, which can be a problem for the staff because as closing time nears visitors are reluctant to leave.
After 10 hours of driving around with Jim I was reluctant to retire for the evening, but he had to be up early next morning to regale a busload of American tourists with more fascinating tales of the flora, fauna, folklore, history — and graveyards — of north County Mayo. They were in for a treat.


For accommodation deals see www.westportwoodshotel.com, www.mulrannyparkhotel.ie, www.mountfalcon.com and www.downhillhotel.ie. See also www.slainteirelandtours.ie and www.clewbayoutdoors.ie

Saturday, 6 August 2011

MAJORCA: CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS AND THE WINGED AVENGER


I bought that green shirt, above, for €40 in Seville. The sunglasses hanging from my neck cost $200 in Dubai. But I couldn’t begin to put a value on my 22-year friendship with the 85-year-old Irishman in the picture with me, taken in Palma de Mallorca. His name is Kevin O’Regan, and he’s an alcoholic
In his hometown of Cobh, County Cork, which for years he tried to drink dry before knocking the booze on the head in the mid-80s, he’s still known as Master Kevin. This is a nod to the heady days when his father, the renowned yachtsman Paddy O’Regan who won the coveted Thomas Lipton Cup in perpetuity, owned the long-established firm of Thomas Murray Chandlers.
Cobh, or Queenstown as it was under British rule, was the last port of call of the ill-fated Titanic during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in April 1912. It was also the port where in May 1915 the recovered bodies of the victims of the Lusitania, sunk by torpedoes from U-boat U20, were brought ashore and where many are buried.
As the son of a respected and wealthy businessman and an accomplished sailor himself, Kevin enjoyed a privileged youth, spending his weekends racing the family yacht, Cygnet, against those piloted by the sons of Cork’s merchant princes. In Cork, the rich and not-so-rich are known as the have yachts and the have nots.

HULL OF A GUY: Captain Kevin sails Bloody Mary
Kevin isn’t rich, but he does have a yacht, the blood-red Bloody Mary, on which he has lived and sailed since retiring in 1987 to Palma’s posh Club de Mar marina where he tops up his old age and work pensions with a night watchman’s job on a multi-million euro ocean-going palace.
If anyone were ever foolish enough to test his sentry skills, one withering look from beneath those steel wool eyebrows would be enough to send them fleeing.
I’ll never forget the night in Bar Bermuda when a crewman off a visiting yacht thought it would be funny to slip a rum into Kevin’s Coke, but he smelled it before the glass was even halfway to his lips. Looking around for the culprit, his beady eye settled on the sniggering South African leaning on the bar.
“You, sir, are a little bollocks!” Kevin bellowed, and whacked him across the ear with the heavy end of his blackthorn walking stick. Yer man wasn’t a little bollocks, he was six-foot-plus and at least 15 stone, and he hopped around that bar squealing like a stuck pig. I’d say his ear’s still ringing, and that was 20 years ago.
Kevin couldn’t have chosen a more idyllic place to drop anchor, so it’s a shame that the vast majority of those millions of tourists who visit Majorca every year don’t bother to check out Palma, where I lived from 1988 to 1994. I suppose it’s an endorsement of the quality of the resorts that they feel no need to stray far from the beach or the poolside, but a day spent sightseeing, supping and shopping in the Majorcan capital won’t disappoint.

SEU-PERB: Palma's magnificent La Seu cathedral
The cathedral, or La Seu, which overlooks the Bay of Palma and was completed in 1601, is famous for having one of the biggest Gothic rose windows in the world, and infamous for being the scene of one of the city’s most puzzling crimes, which to this day remains unsolved.
On a sunny Sunday morning in the summer of 1992, Kevin and I secured our bicycles to a lamp post outside the main door and went in for mass. An hour later when we came out, the bikes were still there, but — brace yourselves — ­someone had pinched Kevin’s padlock and chain. It was the subject of much hilarity in Bar Bermuda for weeks, and he eventually saw the funny side.
Nowadays, Kevin's creaky old pins are finding it increasingly hard to obey the signals from his still razor-sharp brain, so he gets around Palma on a battery-powered scooter, often with his bilingual pet cockatoo Captain Snowy perched on his shoulder. All he’s missing is a wooden leg and an eye patch.
Snowy might be a talented linguist, but he’s also an evil little devil with a beak like a pair of pliers which he sank into my right index finger when I was daft enough to look away while feeding him some walnuts. There’s gratitude for you.

FEATHERED FIEND: Captain Kevin and Captain Snowy
A short walk down the hill from the cathedral is El Borne, Palma’s version of Barcelona’s La Rambla, and like its better-known big city counterpart it’s the place where, if you don’t keep your wits about you, you’ll easily fall victim to pickpockets.
Just off El Borne is Calle Apuntadores, a narrow street full of bars and some of Palma’s best restaurants. Especially good, and offering exceptional value, is Pizzeria Giovanini, which is owned and run by all-round nice guy Miguel who was a waiter when I first met him in 1988 and who’s now a respected restaurateur.
Giovanini doesn’t look much from the outside, but once you step inside, take your seat and start tucking into the food you’ll quickly realise that first impressions can be deceptive. Miguel and his wife have worked their butts off over the years — they still do — to build up their business in a street where so many have failed, and they deserve every further success that comes their way.

FAB FOOD: Giovanini
Whatever you do, don’t confuse Miguel’s place with the nearby Vecchio Giovanni. When I lived in Palma it was THE place to dine (Miguel worked there), but on the evidence of my last visit — which will definitely be my last — it’s gone to hell. The staff on the night were surly, the service was appallingly haphazard and the food was forgettable. It’s always been my practice that if I’ve nothing good to say about a place, then nothing is exactly what I’ll write, but dinner in Vecchio Giovanni was such a bad experience that I feel obliged to steer you away from a good restaurant gone bad.
On a happier note, just up the street from Miguel’s place is Restaurante Pope, where the seafood soup is as good as ever. A couple of doors along, on the corner, is cheap and cheerful Bar Dia, a lively and noisy late-night hang-out run by Juanco and his wife Luisa that’s frequented by local bar staff, waiters and long-time expats and where the chips are freshly made — none of your old reheated frozen rubbish. Also in Calle Apuntadores, the family-run cellar restaurant La Cueva serves the best tapas in the city.

MAJESTIC: Bar Abaco, where Spanish royals hang out
But the jewel in the crown of the area known as Apuntadores-La Lonja is Bar Abaco, which occupies the former townhouse of a long-dead wealthy nobleman who clearly knew the value of his five a day. Step inside and it looks like he’s never left, especially as the place is littered with baskets full to spilling of every fruit you could imagine. If you’re going to come a cropper on a banana skin anywhere in Palma, this is the place.
Baroque music and Gregorian chants play from the speakers, white doves flutter around the rafters, rose petals rain from the minstrels’ gallery, burning incense fills the air and that fella sitting over there in the corner, doesn’t he look remarkably like King Juan Carlos? Oh, it is King Juan Carlos, and that lady sitting beside him is Queen Sofia. And, look, there’s Crown Prince Felipe, all six foot four of him in his deck shoes, sharing a joke with ex-King Constantine of Greece.
On another night you might find yourself sitting near supermodel Claudia Schiffer, or Hollywood hotshots Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Bob Geldof or Princess Stephanie of Monaco. Be assured, and thankful, that you’re unlikely to bump into any of Ireland’s Z-List so-called celebs. That bunch wouldn’t get a first, never mind a second glance in Abaco.
Palma doesn’t figure highly, or at all, sadly, on most people’s lists of long weekend city break destinations, what with Amsterdam, Barcelona, Prague and Berlin ruling the roost, but it offers everything the others offer, with the added bonus that it oozes class.

RAILLY OLD: The antique electric train heads for Soller
A weekend stay will allow visitors the opportunity to hop aboard the quaint little electric train for the hour-long trip to Soller on the spectacular north coast. Built in 1912, the rickety, wooden-panelled train travels through olive and citrus tree-clad valleys, along the sides of lofty mountains, over viaducts and in and out of tunnels. It’s like something from a Wild West movie, and you can imagine flaming Apache arrows flying through the windows at any moment.
On arrival in Soller, grab yourself a freshly-squeezed orange juice from the kiosk outside the station (the best I’ve ever tasted) before boarding the equally quaint tram for the short ride down to the port. There’s an abundance of great restaurants there, many if not most specialising in fish and shellfish. My favourite is Restaurante Es Passeig, right on the waterfront, which is always busy. At peak periods you might have to wait for a table, but it’s worth it.
Each summer, Kevin abandons his berth in Club de Mar for a few weeks, gets some help to sail Bloody Mary to Port de Soller and anchors in the bay where he spends his days on board writing his diary, rubbing Deep Heat into his new hips and having lengthy one-way conversations with the attentive Captain Snowy who throws in the occasional “Hola!” and “Bye-bye!” just to be sociable. I’m not saying the skipper’s a bit cuckoo, but as a double-act he and that finger-pecking fecker would have psychiatrists queuing up to get them on the couch.

PIER-FECT SPOT: Port of Soller
Talking to birds is bad enough, but Kevin’s also prone to bursting into song, and it’s a job trying to shut him up once he gets started. All it takes is a trigger word and he’s off, in bars and restaurants and on the packed Soller train the last time I visited. This stems from the distant days when he trod the boards of the old Cork Opera House where he appeared in umpteen productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. In a long and colourful career he also trod the floor in Cash’s department store (now Brown Thomas) in Cork where he was the full-time Captain Peacock, and drove the length and breadth of Ireland as a travelling shoe salesman.
With his often turbulent life’s journey nearing an end, Kevin is philosophical about the storms of his own making that he’s weathered along the way. At the height of his drinking he got through a bottle of whiskey and countless pints of stout a day, and breakfast each morning was a tumbler of neat vodka to stop his hands shaking (“I spilled most of it,” he joked). Now he starts his days with milky coffee and an ensaimada, a sweet Majorcan pastry dusted with icing sugar.
Reflecting on the demons he’s defeated, his trials and triumphs, Kevin said: “I had a 40-odd-year love affair with liquor. I was drinking myself to death, and only stopped when my doctor told me I’d pay for the next round with my life. Rehab was hell on Earth, but much to my amazement I came out the other side sober, which was a strange sensation I’d long forgotten. I couldn’t have done it without the help I received from Sister Eileen Falvey at the Aiseiri Treatment Centre in Co Tipperary and the support of my best friend John Mansworth. Not that I didn’t try to flee, mind. I did everything but dig a tunnel. In my sail racing days I was known as Houdini because of the seemingly impossible situations I used to get Cygnet out of, but there was no escape from Aiseiri, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
“Buying the boat and retiring to Majorca has been the saving of me. Bloody Mary’s my home and Palma’s my haven. I’m happy and I’m busy, doing my watchman job and working with the local sail training association, Joves Navegants, which I helped to found. I’ve fought my fights and now, thank God, I’ve found peace. Job done.”
Not quite. One big challenge remains for my dear old pal before he sails off into the sunset and his ashes are scattered in the Bay of Palma, as per his instructions, and that’s to learn the local lingo. Captain Snowy speaks more Spanish than Captain Kevin.
* Captain Kevin died peacefully in his sleep in hospital in Palma on May 14, 2015. He was 89. I was privileged to have him as a friend. 

FLAG PALS: Captain Kevin and young sail students

Monday, 1 August 2011

SCOTLAND: SCOTS WHEY HEY!

GLAS-GO! Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery
The last person hanged in public in Glasgow was an Englishman, which went some way to appeasing those in the crowd who had only just bought season tickets. Dr Edward Pritchard exited this world at the end of a rope on July  28, 1865, in Glasgow Green. He’d poisoned his wife. When his mother-in-law became suspicious, he poisoned her, too. This was just one of the fascinating facts I learned during my first ever open-top bus tour (£11) of my home city. But it wasn’t enough for the Aussie tourist sitting in front of me. He asked to see the statue erected in Pritchard’s honour.
I haven’t lived in Glasgow, which will host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, for 28 years (Pritchard hasn’t lived there for 146), so I thought it was time to learn something about the place that gave me this accent. Wandering around with a guidebook is all very well, but you can’t beat the insider knowledge of a native bus tour guide with a sense of humour.
It rains only twice a year in Glasgow, from January through March and April through December, so always carry an umbrella. This will also come in handy when walking in George Square, where gulls and pigeons practise their bombing runs with remarkable accuracy.
English is widely spoken, although the Glasgow or ‘Glesga’ version delivered with gusto and rich in r’s can prove unnerving to the untuned ear, making “Good morning” sound like a threat.

CHEERS: The rough, ready and wonderful Horse Shoe Bar
Drop into the Horse Shoe Bar in Drury Street near Central Station for a pint and one of its famed mutton pies and you’ll hear the local lingo, or patter, at its blood-curdling scariest as punters vie to out-slag each other. When I was there last Thursday afternoon, a large gentleman wearing glasses was greeted with: “Ach Wullie, howzitgaun ya specky fat bastard? Waant a lager?”
They don’t have punters in the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in Ashton Lane in the city’s fashionable West End, they have patrons, don’t you know, but while it’s on the posh side it’s far from being pretentious. The Chip has an enviable reputation built over 40 successful years for providing top-class and innovative cuisine at affordable prices in the most delightful surroundings.

DINE-AMIC: Fabulous Ubiquitous Chip
The three-course pre-theatre menu served from 5 to 6.30pm is a steal at £19.95. I had a starter of smoked salmon and hake fishcake, garden pea puree and pickled onions followed by Woodneuk Farm beef and chilli sausage with chickpea and spinach dahl, and for dessert the Chambord jelly, honey mousse and vanilla tuille was a wise choice.
Wiser still is the Chip’s choice of waiting staff, who clearly love working there. They’re young, enthusiastic, smart and courteous, and every query about the dishes on offer was answered with a detailed description. I can’t praise them highly enough. These girls and guys know their onions, and every mouthwatering morsel that comes out of the kitchen, and their contribution made a good dining experience great. If they were footballers they’d be playing at the highest level and earning millions.

RED & BREAKFAST: Blythswood Square
Then they could afford to live it up in the £1,500 a night penthouse suite in Glasgow’s 5-star Blythswood Square Hotel and Spa, which is just a five-minute walk from the vibrant centre and where the staff are also at the top of their game. It occupies one side of the square that used to be the city’s red light district, but the only tarts you’ll see around there now are in the window of Greggs the bakers in nearby Sauchiehall Street. The hookers are gone but not forgotten, and in a wry wink to the neighbourhood’s seedy past, red lights burn in many of the hotel’s street-facing windows.
Like the Chip, there’s no snootiness at the Blythswood Square, just the very best of Scottish hospitality and an emphasis on quality that ensures repeat business from satisfied customers.

OCH AYE THE NOUS: Carnoustie's renowned golf course
I stayed at the Blythswood Square before heading north over the Forth Road Bridge to Carnoustie, the famed North Sea links course that has hosted the Open seven times and was the venue last week for the Ricoh Women’s British Open won by Taiwan’s Yani Tseng with an impressive 16 under-par 272.
Not as impressive, though, as my efforts in the hole-in-one short chipping contest in which my first shot went flying over the fence and bounced off a couple of cars and my second ended up in the back of a delivery van full of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t let loose on the course proper, of which Ernie Els has said: “You’ve really got to have your wits with you to play Carnoustie. It’s probably the best bunkered course you’ll find anywhere in the world.”
Having seen some of the bunkers, I have to agree, because you’d need a ladder, never mind a sand wedge, to get out of them. They’re like World War One trenches. But that’s the sort of challenge that has golfers flocking to the place. That, and the jaw-dropping scenery.

TREE-MENDOUS: Spoil yourself at Gleneagles Hotel
Next stop, and the glittering highlight of my all-too-brief trip home, was an overnight stay at Gleneagles Hotel where everything is jaw-dropping, especially the prices. Rooms start at £525 a night for a double or twin Classic on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis, and the Royal Lochnagar Suite is £2,145.
Included is unlimited free use of the Club facilities that include the gym, swimming pools, outdoor hot pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, tennis, snooker, putting, petanque and croquet.
The ESPA spa (Favourite Spa in a Hotel in the 2008 and 2010 Conde Nast Traveller Awards) offers a wide range of facials, body treatments and massages. Among the most popular packages is the 95-minute Retreat (£135) that includes a foot treatment and back, face and scalp massage followed by a two-course lunch.
The 850-acre resort is also home to shooting, fishing, equestrian and gundog schools and the British School of Falconry, but it’s for golf that Gleneagles is most renowned.

TEE-RIFFIC: Try a round  at Gleneagles
There are three championship courses: the PGA Centenary Course which will host the 2014 Ryder Cup, the King’s Course and the Queen’s Course, plus the nine-hole PGA National Academy Course for beginners, or duffers like me, though I don’t think they’d take too kindly to me doing a Time Team on their manicured fairways. A special Sunday to Thursday offer available until October 31 allows up to four golfers to buy a tee time from 2pm on for £320.
From one sort of driving to another, I signed up for a late afternoon off-road Range Rover safari and picnic in the heart of the Perthshire countryside just 20 minutes from Gleneagles and saw my mountainous homeland at its most ruggedly beautiful from some dizzying up, down and sideways angles. It wouldn’t surprise me if those things could be driven up a vertical wall and across the ceiling.
The last time I went on a picnic I sat on my schoolbag as my pals and I shared a big bottle of Irn Bru and munched on rock-hard crab apples (it was like sucking lemons) pinched from old Smelly Kelly’s orchard.

MOOR CHAMPAGNE? Picnic time in the Highlands
Gleneagles was a little different. I sat on a green tartan blanket atop a hillock, sipped champagne and spread pate on a crusty roll baked just a couple of hours before. High above, a pair of red kites circled. The only sounds were the bleating of sheep on the mountainsides, the far-off yet unmistakeable growl of an unseen Harley Davidson and the much closer pop of a cork.
I could’ve sat there all day, but I had to return to Gleneagles for a date with a plate at eight and didn’t want to be late.
Dinner in the Strathearn, one of the world’s 10 Great Hotel Restaurants, costs £58 for three courses including dessert and £70 for four. I chose Isle of Mull scallops with baby leeks, tomato and chocolate dressing to start, followed by three succulent Scottish lamb cutlets with potatoes and vegetables.

YES, PEAS! Fine dining at Gleneagles
I would’ve had some Princess d’Isenbourg Sevruga caviar (£150 for 30 grammes), but I wanted to leave room for dessert, which was a scoop each of vanilla and saffron pistachio salted caramel ice cream with the biggest, fattest, juiciest blackberries, strawberries and raspberries I’ve ever tasted.
My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I perused the “Classics Prepared In The Kitchen” breakfast menu the next morning.
There’s porridge, of course, plain and simple if that’s what you like, or creamy with Drambuie-laced raspberries.
From the smokehouse there’s Orkney kippers with lemon and melted butter, smoked haddock and Mull cheddar cheese omelette, Finnan haddock and poached eggs and Marburry hot smoked salmon and poached egg kedgeree.
Or you could choose 28-day aged Scotch beefsteak with Portobello mushrooms, free-range egg, vine tomatoes and Rooster potatoes, or perhaps fried duck eggs with dry cured back bacon washed down with Bucks Fizz, Drambuie Fizz or a frozen Smirnoff Bloody Mary. They also have tea. For those who like to help themselves there’s a hot and cold buffet the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Having eaten enough at dinner and breakfast to choke a horse, I headed to South Queensferry, near Edinburgh airport, to see the real things in action in glorious sunshine (it does put in the occasional appearance) at the Gillespie MacAndrew Hopetoun International Horse Trials.

MANE EVENT: Dressage at Hopetoun House horse trials
The event’s host, Lord Hopetoun, said he would've been happy to see 150 competitors, but it attracted 500. That might just have had something to do with the fact many are friends of Olympic equestrian and Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall who were married in Edinburgh’s historic Canongate Kirk last Saturday afternoon.
I wonder if they were aware that Robert Burns’ great love Agnes MacLehose, better known as Clarinda and for whom he wrote Ae Fond Kiss, and his chief inspiration, the tragic Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, are buried in the kirkyard, as is the economist Adam Smith.
The trials, which finished on Sunday in the grounds of the magnificent Hopetoun House where the amiable earl and his wife live with their young children, drew large crowds of horse-loving spectators and families who were simply enjoying a different sort of day out.
They also served as a selection trial for the Irish riders who’ll compete in the European Eventing Championships in Luhmuhlen, Germany, from August 23 to 29.
Despite my total ignorance of horses, I can see the attraction of eventing, if only for the fact I’d get to walk around in the fresh air in a smart tweed jacket and cavalry twills with a copy of Horse & Hound under my arm.
The dressage, though, is a bit too Strictly Come Dancing for my liking, and as for golf, well, no one’s going to benefit from me swinging a club. Except the driver of that Tunnock’s Tea Cakes van, who went home with a brand new ball.


˜Blythswood Square offers several special deals. The Shopping Galore two-night weekend break, for example, which is valid until December 30, 2012, costs £250 per person sharing based on two sharing a Classic room and includes full Scottish breakfast each morning, three-course dinner from the Market Menu on one evening and a £50 shopping voucher each from Cruise. For an additional £80 per person you can treat your feet to an Ila Luxurious Seaweed Foot Experience in the spa.
˜For details of weekend leisure and activity breaks and longer holidays in Scotland, plus features on touring, festivals, sporting events and other attractions, see visitscotland.com/surprise