Sunday, April 12, 1998

Russ Williams - 'Katowice is the kind of place that makes Burnley look like Las Vegas'

Russ Williams - 'Katowice is the kind of place that makes Burnley look like Las Vegas'

RUSS Williams is a constant traveller but his favourite passport stamp is a boring red one which just says: Union Island.
"I've been there three times and got three stamps," he tells me. "It is a mini mini island in the Grenadines - the kind of place where you can see the bottom in 100ft of water. It is so small and intimate that you can make out what people are doing in their front rooms as you fly in."

Snorkling and lounging on a catamaran in the Caribbean is his idea of a nice Christmas though he does admit that every other year he spends the festive season in Finland.
"I've been to Finland about 100 times because my wife comes from there. Her family have got a great place on an island with traditional log cabins and saunas; in Finland there's no nonsense about wearing a towel or swimming costume in the sauna: you're totally naked. And when you've finished you go out in the snow for a beer, then you go back in to beat each other with vine leaves. Strangers can't see a thing, because the island belongs to my wife's family."

Which all sounds pretty decadent, though when not working as a disc jockey Russ has plenty of down-to-earth interests: he is also a football writer.
"I travel a lot to see matches but there are a few stadia I'd still like to see. One is the stadium of Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. The local derby between Boca and River Plate is the most hate-filled occasion in football. I'd love to see that."

And here's more proof that following international football can be a tough business:
"Last year I went to Katowice in Poland to see the England World Cup qualifier. It's the kind of place that makes Burnley look like Las Vegas. And it's lucky that my doctor is an amoeba specialist! I picked up a parasitic gut infection there which meant that I had to take the strongest dosage of antibiotics you can ever have - without going unconscious.

"And then immediately afterwards I went on a round-the-world trip for Virgin Radio, broadcasting from different cities as we went along, doing 29,000 miles in two weeks.
"The adrenaline kept me going for the fortnight but being ill was hellish. We did stuff like arriving in Hong Kong at 4pm, going on air between 6 and 9pm, then jumping on the 10.30pm plane for a nine-hour flight to Australia. It took me two or three months to recover from that trip.

"The most amazing show was in Mexico City, where I thought I was going to be shot on air. We were broadcasting from a dodgy bar, where lots of dubious characters were carrying guns. There were police too, who were supposed to be protecting our expensive equipment from being stolen, except that they kept wandering off - unless we kept handing them hundreds of dollars in bribes to stay.
"And all this was going on while we were doing the show! I couldn't exactly tell the listeners in detail because I didn't want to offend some of the nice Mexicans we had met. But that's the beauty of travel."

Russ Williams presents the mid-morning show on Virgin Radio (1215AM or 105.8 FM) from Monday to Friday. His book 'Football Babylon II' (published by Virgin) comes out in August.

Creme caramel amidst the rickshaws

Creme caramel amidst the rickshaws

There is a corner of India which will be forever France. Jeremy Atiyah joined the hippies and sadhus in Pondicherry

THE FRENCH only controlled one town in India, but what a town. They call it Pondichery, we call it Pondicherry. Either way, you would (rightly) expect it to be a steamy, sleepy Tamil place of dropping petals and bananas, populated by soft-treading, barefoot women with flowers in their hair, boney intellectuals on slow-mo bicycles, ash-smeared sadhus, lepers and hippies from Croydon.

But you would not expect these people to be obsessed with a 19th-century Cambridge intellectual and a self-appointed foreign messiah.
A deliberate travesty, but I am trying to make a point. The Cambridge intellectual was none other than Sri Aurobindo, who took a first in classics, and then became guru to India's best known ashram.

At least Sri Aurobindo was Indian. The self-appointed messiah was French. This was the woman known as the "Mother", whose kindly face stares down from the walls of every shop, restaurant and hotel room in town; and who, until her death aged 97 in 1973, had taken responsibility not only for running the ashram, but also for founding the nearby "international" city of Auroville.
But was there not just a little irony in a town full of Indians being so deferential to a member of the former imperial power?

"You are too immature," a bearded ashramite told me over an unpretentious communal lunch of brown rice, yoghurt, vegetable curry and bananas. "The Sri Aurobindo ashram is independent of these old-fashioned concepts. We do not think of nationality or religion. We are finding a new spirituality for the next millennium."
To my eyes, an ashram was a place where people went to learn wisdom from a guru, a monastic retreat involving yoga, meditation, and maybe a touch of hippyism?
"This ashram is about the virtues of work," came the stern reply. "The Mother taught us that everybody should seek enlightenment through work. We all have to be productive. We are not hippies." Oops.

As well as owning large swathes of Pondicherry, the ashram also employs half its citizens in cottage industries, producing goods ranging from perfumes to fabrics to paper. It even runs a number of guesthouses, including the Seaside Guest house, where I stayed: pounds 6 per night for a gigantic air- conditioned double room in a former colonial mansion. The fact that the Sri Aurobindo ashram is all about work does not stop people taking their holidays there. A lot of the guest house residents are visitors from Delhi and Bombay seeking temporary respite from their stressful lives.
As for meals - the ashram enables several thousand people to eat three large, wholesome meals a day in the former governor's residence, paying about 30 pence per head per day. If you are staying in an ashram guesthouse, you can share in this absurd bargain.

But was it the French who set the people of Pondicherry on their path to spirituality? Certainly the policemen carry bayonets, wear red kepis and are proud of it. And India's best mineral water is bottled here. At Le Club restaurant on the Rue Dumas - all whicker chairs and starched tablecloths - I went for a mid-morning fruit juice and was informed, with Parisian disdain, that drinks comprised "70 per cent juice and 30 per cent pure, chilled Pondicherry mineral water, Monsieur." The result was delicious.
And Pondicherry does not stop at fruit juice. Beer is served cheaper and colder here than anywhere in India. The new town contains off-licenses selling "genuine" Napoleon brandy. And the rooftop restaurants serving French food are excellent. Dishes range from approximations (the creme caramel in the Rendezvous) to the spot-on (the coq au vin in the Satsanga).

Of course Pondicherry is not all French. In the east of town, the traffic comprises bullocks, rickshaws, scooters and high-slung Ambassadors, trundling along streets where advertised services range from urology to advocacy to computer training to "shirtings and suitings" - a typical Indian high street, in fact.

But it was hard to deny that France had done something for the place. Tamil Nadu is not the Cote d'Azur, but Pondicherry makes more use of the sea than all other Indian towns put together. Of an evening, for example, romantic couples in Pondicherry come to canoodle in the Place de la Republique. Other improbable locations in the area include the Bazaar Saint Laurent and the Grand Hotel d'Europe, as well as the war memorial for the "French Indians" who died for France.

Basically, the French occupied the whole seaward side of town. Some of their old villas are now collapsing into mouldy piles of plasterwork; others, though, have been magnificently restored, with gleaming fluted columns and white ornamental balustrades running up to verandas overhung with banyan trees.

In the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, I found a troop of schoolgirl nuns and crows hopping between the neon strips. Outside, sleepy rickshaw drivers lounged under their own awnings and a builder with a tray of cement on his head whispered: "Bonjour, monsieur."
Or did he? It can be so hard for western visitors not to turn imperialist in India. Pondicherry was doing things to me the Mother may not have liked. Clearly the time had come for me to do her bidding - and make the pilgrimage to the city that was free of nationality and religion, Auroville itself.

That afternoon I joined a local group tour. On the bus from Pondicherry was an American lady whose desire to come to this place had arisen after meeting a "God Realised" woman in San Fransisco.
"Really?" asked a bearded German in sandals. "But what do you mean exactly by God Realised?"
"That woman just had no life. She'd sleep two or three hours, then spent the whole day, you know, giving darshen."

Indians in the group were also engaged in the task of understanding each other.
"From which city you are hailing, sir?" a Bengali gentleman was asking a Keralan. "The Tamils' command of Hindi is terribly poor!" an Assamese was exclaiming.
Such multi-culturalism was perfect for a visit to the future city of the world. On the way we had passed orchards, banana-fronde huts and bullock carts; now in the visitor's centre we were looking down on a scale plan of the completed city as it is designed to look some time in the next millennium.

"The shape is of a galaxy, with cement arms lined by corridors of greenery swirling around a hub," explained our guide. "The four arms of the galaxy represent the industrial, international, residential and educational areas of the city. At the hub is the Matrimandir Temple."

For those who care, Auroville does not look likely ever to be finished. Given that its foundation stone was laid on 28 February 1968, I saw remarkably little evidence of any construction at all. We were told that only 45 per cent of the necessary land had so far been bought - efforts are still being made to acquire the rest.
We peered about dirt tracks, trees and lots of flowering shrubs with names like "progress" and "psychological perfection". A building site? Some half-constructed public buildings emerged from the trees like Aztec ruins - the conference hall we were informed ("Can you hear the acoustics?").
The one building in Auroville that might have been worth writing home about was the Matrimandir Temple itself. There in the heart of it all, the temple was approaching completion.

To reach it, we began passing checkpoints manned by Auroville volunteers. Walk here! Stand there! Remove shoes! No bags or cameras! No talking please! Single file!
Even without this reduction of our scraggly tour group to the level of the Mother's school children, the first glimpse of the temple, a great golf ball dome filling the horizon, would have been quite impressive. Eventually, we were told, it would even be covered in fibre-glass gold- plated disks.

Stepping inside the dome, we saw ramps flying off in all directions above our heads, with teams of ant-like workers apparently at work. A perfect James Bond set. We proceeded, like prisoners, along a circular spiralling walkway that took us slowly to the top, passing signs reminding us that no "dampness, dirt or dust" would be allowed into the innermost chamber.

And finally there it was, a momentary glimpse through a doorway of the innermost sanctum itself, a high enclosed room of unadorned white marble, housing nothing but a huge glass crystal, catching mystical light from a hole in the ceiling. The heart! The key, the essence, the innermost truth - of Auroville!

I shuddered to imagine any community at all, let alone a "world city", basing itself around such a corny architectural concept. Blame it all on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, I told myself, as we drove back to the bananas, the petals, the rickshaws, the smells, the beer and the delightful Eurasian chaos of Pondicherry.
pondicherry fact file

Getting there and around
The author flew to India as a guest of Gulf Air (0171-408 1717), who fly to Madras (now known as Chennai) from London on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The fare is pounds 481 plus around pounds 27 taxes. Pondicherry is 160 miles south of Madras. Fly to Madras and take a prepaid taxi, booked inside the airport, to Pondicherry. The cost will be less than pounds 15. Otherwise, hot, crowded buses from Madras cost 50p.
For internal flights, the author used the excellent Indian airline Jet Airways (UK reservations: 0181 970 1525). A 15-day pass for circular or same-direction routings costs $550 (pounds 338). Sample one-way fares include Bombay-Madras ($154) and Delhi-Madras ($235).

Where to stay
The author stayed at the Seaside Guesthouse on the seafront (14 Goubert Avenue), where huge air-conditioned doubles are available for around pounds 6. The ashram also owns several other guesthouses in town. If you wish to dine in the ashram, tickets covering breakfast lunch and dinner can be obtained from the guesthouse for around 30p per day.

All British passport holders require visas in order to visit India. Contact India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA (            0891 444544       for recorded information, calls cost 50p/minute).

Saturday, April 4, 1998

A mystical magical tour

A mystical magical tour

For the best views of north Wales, says Jeremy Atiyah, put the coast behind you and head for the bleak hills
Jeremy Atiyah 
Saturday, 4 April 1998
North Wales: what a daft place to put a seaside resort. Llandudno is the kind of town where the first wisp of cloud in a clear blue sky introduces a torrential downpour.
Only when you look back on the esplanade from the Great Orme hills just west of town, do you begin to understand. Those perfect, curving stucco terraces were built in an age when the Costa del Sol was not an option. Llandudno is a place where people kept their ankles covered.
And outside the warmest months of the year, it still is. I saw more sheep on the pavements than people. The resort waits until April to begin getting its kit off. The pier, the highlight of any British seaside resort, has been closed for repairs over the winter but is due to reopen at Easter; the century-old Great Orme tramway, which trundles up the hills overlooking the town, opened for the season last weekend, while the cable car that glides up into those same hills is still thinking about it.
But, sadly, the wind will continue to blow cold off the sea until June at least and, personally, I advise trippers to north Wales to turn their backs on the shore. Get on the train instead, and try out the following easy circuit, arriving in England at the end of the day. Well, you'll arrive if you can work out the timetables. Welsh trains are so small and local that not many people know whether (or where) they run. The Conwy valley line, from Llandudno through Snowdonia to Blaenau? A clerk at Llandudno had no idea. A call to National Rail Enquiries tentatively cleared up the matter: I went to catch the train at 10.17am.
It turned out that on Sundays they run a substitute bus. "Not too many passengers Sundays," remarked the driver as I boarded. The two of us - the driver and I - were soon chugging alongside Conwy Bay, through heather- bound valleys under glowering skies. Edward I's monstrous Conwy Castle came and went, and we began climbing into the wild heart of Snowdonia. The main stop in the middle of the park was Llanrwst, a dripping-wet village surrounded by ferns and bracken and rushing streams, and the launch pad for 1,000 Snowdon treks.
Finally, we came down through the remote pastures of the Lledr valley to Blaenau. The barren, heaped-up rubble from a century and a half of slate-quarrying entirely surrounds this benighted town. I think it would look a lot better under snow. Cottages in the high street go for pounds 35,000.
What Blaenau does have, though, is a scenic railway. As well as being the terminus of the Conwy valley line, it is the jumping-on point for the narrow-gauge Blaenau-Ffestiniog line. Opened in 1836 to lug all that slate down to the sea, this descends the 640ft to Porthmadog in just 13 miles. These days it's a steam-engine job, having been restored for the benefit of tourists in 1982. Me? I took the bus (the train cost pounds 12 one way) but I did have the pleasure of seeing the steam engine in a siding, with men in frock coats and toppers clambering over the engine.
The bus to Porthmadog incidentally also went via Portmeirion, a bizarre Italianate village built in the Twenties by the architect Clough Williams- Ellis. If you get off, you can see what Wales would have looked like had we remained a Roman colony. It is a one-hour downhill walk from here through trees to Porthmadog, where the first thing I heard was a pair of school kids abusing each other in Welsh. Later I found bus drivers trying and failing to express themselves in English. This was Wales all right. Having admired the boats in the harbour and the views over Snowdon, I set off on the next leg of my journey - along the Cambrian Line, down the west coast. It was then that I discovered just how unspoilt is the Cambrian coast. My nomination for the remotest station in Britain goes to Dovey Junction - a mere platform in the middle of nowhere.
The only trouble with doing the journey in this direction is that the wild coasts and magical valleys of Wales are soon replaced by the West Midlands. Go too fast, and before you know it you're in Birmingham. No danger of that for me. The day I travelled, a bewildering succession of substitute buses had been laid on to cope with a familiar Welsh problem - torrential rain had led to flooding on the line.
Notes from the Welsh Overground
On days when the trains are running, eight narrow-gauge railway networks gather together under the banner of "The Great Little Trains of Wales". A Wanderer ticket is valid for unlimited travel on any four days out of eight, price pounds 28, or eight days out of 15, pounds 38.
The line that Jeremy Atiyah missed out on performs a useful function as the missing link between the Mid and North Wales rail networks. The 13-mile Ffestiniog Railway (01766 512340) runs from the grown-up station at Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog; the best place to change trains to rejoin BR is Minffordd. A one-way ticket is pounds 6.40. On Sundays, it is impossible to complete the loop to or from the north coast because no trains run between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Llandudno.
Wales & West Railways operates most of the standard-gauge trains in Wales. It has rail pass deals, such as the Mid Wales Day Ranger, covering the lines from Wolverhampton to Pwllheli and Chester to Shrewsbury.
Notes from the Welsh underground
It's not as easy as it was to scratch beneath the surface of Wales, since a couple of mines closed to the public. The world's biggest slate mine in Blaenau Ffestiniog is no longer open to visitors; neither is the Gwynfynydd gold mine, the main source of Welsh gold, where visitors used to pan for the precious metal and keep what they found.
There are still a couple of opportunities for going underground. In the Rhondda valley, the Big Pit Mining Museum in Blaenafon (01495 790311) describes the story of the coal industry in Wales in the days when the country had one. It opens daily at 10am, with the last tour at 3.30pm: pounds 5.50 adults, pounds 3.75 for children (who must be at least five).
The Sygun copper mine in Beddgelert (01766 510100) describes the history and geology of mining the metal. It is located beside the A498 in Snowdonia, and opens daily from 10.30am to 4pm. Adults pounds 4.50, children pounds 3.
Simon Calder