Sunday, 29 April 2012

Eating Maggots in Monaco

I'm not proud of where I'm from, not Britain, the north of England nor Blackburn. It was purely an accident of birth and, having travelled a bit, I know there's nothing special about any of those places. But if someone has such pride, far be it from me to piss on his chips, or his frogs' legs, or his pizza, or whatever his national dish is. Please remember this - it's important for later.

I arrived on the outskirts of Monaco, which is only a kilometre or so from its centre. Monaco is tiny. I entered a tunnel and it was immediately obvious that this isn't an ordinary sort of place. Most countries build tunnels as a necessity, to bury through a pesky mountain that's in the way, and even then they keep them as small as possible to reduce costs . Not Monaco. Today's tunnel was merely a bypass, and a bypass that contained at least two roundabouts. Roundabouts in a tunnel? Mental. Anyway, the bypass did its job a bit too well. It spat me out the other side of the country making me miss it entirely. I heaved the bike around and found another way in.

I cycled around for a while looking for the casino as a nice location for my official photograph but I couldn't find it. I'd been here before, about twenty five years ago, and so I knew I wasn't missing much. I've never really understood why a casino is associated with wealth, exotic cocktails and sophistication while a betting shop is associated with poverty, alcoholism and tiny biros. At heart they're both the same, although admittedly it's hard to imagine James Bond in a bookie's. Monte Carlo's casino is just slot machines and spinning wheels. It's Blackpool's Golden Mile in an Armani suit.  

Bugger the casino. I found a lovely location for the photo, the new breakwater on the harbour.

It was also time for my Eat Something Silly I've Never Had Before challenge. Surveying all the opulence before me, the speedboats the size of houses, the million dollar apartments, the Pradas and Versaces, I reached into my bag, took out a packet of maggots and ate them.

Now, you might consider this to be cheating but I see it as a contingency plan. I assumed that there would be a few places on this trip, the ones I could cycle through in ten minutes, in which it would be difficult to find something I'd never eaten before. Enter Dean. Dean is a Nerja padel friend. That's someone I play padel with, rather than someone I go paddling with. There's an important difference. Dean gave me a packet of BBQ-flavoured maggots for just this type of occasion. They're deep fried - not live - I'm not a monster. And so I ate them, took my photograph and - job done - cycled out of Monaco to visit my cousin Vicky and her fella, Richard, who live just the other side.

Vicky used to work for Riviera Radio, the only English language radio station on the coast. She's freelance now but still arranged to interview me at the radio station in Monaco the next day so that details of my trip could be broadcast to thousands of uninterested, gin-soaked, retired Brits (apart from the four lovely ones who Facebook-befriended me and who never touch a drop of gin, probably). But as an upshot of that, a young and enthusiastic puppy dog of a bloke from Monaco's television station wanted to do an interview with me for the telly the next morning.

We met at the harbour again. With beard and straggly hair, I looked like one of Jesus's disciplines, framed by all the things that would have caused my boss to yak on about camels and eyes of needles. Then the puppy dog interviewed me. There was pride in his questions. He clearly loved where he was living. He was a servant of Monaco. The first few questions went alright. "And what do you do in each capital?" he asked. "Well, one thing I like to do is eat something I've never eaten before. In France I had an andouillette and in Switzerland I even ate a marmot," I replied. And then it came. "And what did you eat in Monaco?" he beamed, probably imagining my munching down caviar, or oysters, or a big bag of diamonds.

Oh dear.

Could I be honest? Had I really cycled ten thousand kilometres to arrive in his magnificent Monaco to eat a handful of maggots? Is there anything less associated with Monaco than maggots?

"I had barbajuan," I replied. Luckily, the day before, Vicky had sourced a Monegasque pastry, stuffed with bette, a special leaf, but, to all intents and purposes, spinach. The barbajuan was lovely but I've eaten pastry before, and I've eaten spinach before, but diplomacy states that sometimes it's simply better to lie about eating invertebrates. I didn't want to hurt him. Besides, maybe a non-maggot-loving billionaire watching this on the box would be intrigued by my ride and sponsor me a million pounds. Or pay squillions for the film rights. Yes, of course. That's exactly how you become a billionaire, giving away tons of money to an insect-eating tit.

It turns out I was right. No one and his cheque book got in touch.

If you're interested, I'm also carrying a black, shrink-wrapped Chinese egg that curiously has no sell-by date. Roll on San Marino. And food poisoning.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Madrid and Anal Measurements

The Madrid road system was designed in an unusual way. Someone with a nasal infection sneezed on to a piece of A3 and a committee said, "Yep, looks good. Let's build it!" There are thick, angry streaks of red, chunky strands of yellow dribble and thread-like splatters of white. They all come together to make a city that it is almost impossible to penetrate on a pushbike. Madrid is protected with a titanium hymen of motorways and dual carriageways.

Back in Priego de Cordoba a few days earlier, I spoke to the world's friendliest tourist information bloke. When he realised I was English he almost burst. I thought he was going to open with a song. Foreign visitors must be a rarity around these parts. After dealing with Priego business, I asked him if he had a map of a bike-friendly route into Madrid. "It's difficult," he said, "it's all motorways." Yes, I know. That's why I need a map. "Maybe you can use the ship tracks." Eh? My bike's never been much good in water. "They're what the farmers used to use." Now I was really confused. When it dawned on me what he actually meant, I was even more worried. Not ship tracks, but sheep tracks. Would my only way into the city really be the way that the sheep get in and out? Do sheep really get in and out? I mean, what would they go there for? There hasn't been a decent sheep movie in years, not since Madonna's 80s ovine porn, Crazy For Ewe.

Luckily, a few days later, I found a map and so, using it and the directions offered by, I set out to capture the capital. Unfortunately, the initial route suggested by ViaMichelin wasn't on my map but I thought I'd give it a go. This was the first track.

It looks to me oddly like Kenya. Pushing a heavily laden bike with thinnish tyres through three inches of sand isn't much fun. I doubt UniCycle54 Africa will be happening any time soon. Desert wasn't one of the obstacles I'd envisaged on my way to Madrid. Once through the Sahara, I got lost in little villages, incoherent in industrial estates, hazy in horrible identikit housing projects and mystified in massive business parks. But finally, without ever having to sneak illegally on to a motorway, I turned up at a hostal in Fuenlabrada, a suburb of Madrid about twenty-five kilometres from the centre. Stage One had been, eventually, a success.

City suburbs aren't the most exciting of places and so I thought I'd google Fuenlabrada to see if it is threw up anything interesting. I did. The first thing was that, almost twenty-eight years ago to the day, Chelsa's rubbish striker Ferdinand Torres was born here. Even better, last summer, another Torres - Father Andres Garcia Torres - was removed from his priestly role here for allegedly engaging in homosexual behaviour. The fun element to this story is that he actually offered to have the width of his anus measured to prove that no one had been up there. Is that scientific? Anyway, if the priest's claims were true, it looked like neither Torres had recently scored.

Although not entirely free of the motorway force field, the next day's Stage Two involved an early morning leap from suburb to suburb, inching ever closer to the centre of Madrid. To begin with, everything went well. Too well. I was basically heading north and compasses are great for that kind of navigating. But then my compass started acting bizarrely. I'd turn a corner and it would suddenly point south. So I'd turn around 180 degrees and it still pointed south. Impossible! I cycled in circles for a bit until I'd completely lost my sense of direction before admitting that I was buggered. Now I had no idea which way lay the centre of Madrid. All I was sure of was that it was fifteen kilometres away. And for all I knew it could be fifteen kilometres upwards.

And then I saw, like a motorised Buddha, a fat man in a car. I cycled up to his sagely window. He called upon the wisdom of ages and prophecised that if I turned left and then left again, I would be on the Road To Madrid. And He was right, and I finally reached Nirvana.

* * *

I won't bore you with the details of how I eventually escaped Madrid. I got very lucky. The highlight was when I wandered accidentally into a secret government base. Well, I say accidentally. I saw the Prohibited signs but thought it was the right way. It wasn't. It was a centre for phytogenetics, which basically involves stitching pigs' heads on to the bodies of human infants. Probably.

I bet you thought I was going to tell you how cool Madrid was and the wonderful things I did there. They really were wonderful. But now I've run out of room.

Note to self: In future, perhaps less stuff about anal measurements.