The winners and losers in another year of travel
Sunday 21 December 1997
For the best airports of the year I have to nominate Munich (which blends awesomely into impeccable shopping malls), and Tashkent, where the immigration officials laugh with charming incredulity when tourists say they wish to visit the country.
For the worst airports, I propose London's Heathrow for being too crowded and Paris' Charles de Gaulle which manages to combine chaos, rudeness and ugly architecture in equal proportions.
The nicest train journey was from Bergen to Voss in western Norway, alongside fjords and glowering valleys in a snow-storm, while the best drive was from Amman to Baghdad, especially the Iraqi leg (which comprised 500km entirely alone on a vast, immaculate highway). The worst journey was the bus from London to Amsterdam on which my fellow passengers had reached a state of vomity drunkenness before we were out of Victoria Station.
My experience of airlines this year has been pretty random, but I certainly did enjoy the massage service offered in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class. I also enjoyed flying long-haul on British Airways, not least because BA offers more scope for celebrity-spotting if you hang around by the toilets in the front part of the plane (my jackpot was Princess Anne and top Chilean footballer Marcelo Salas on the same flight). My most charming flights of 1997 were internal hops around the Seychelles where the pilot has to buzz the grass landing strips before landing to stop the kids playing football on them.
For my least promising flight of 1998, however, I nominate Yemenia, who put me on hold for three days before suddenly phoning me up one evening asking if I cared to get down to Heathrow in the next two hours. On the other hand, the plane itself turned out to be so clean and new that it might as well have been inside its Boeing wrappers.
My favourite hotel experience by quite a long chalk was in the Park Hyatt Tokyo where I sat on the 49th floor in a bath that would have been big enough for my extended family had I wished to invite them.
One of the worst hotels that I experienced, on the other hand, was on Tenerife where I made the mistake of leaving out my most expensive shirt - in fact my most expensive possession - to be pressed. The shirt never came back and I was forced to attend a black tie function in a T-shirt with a shoelace round my neck. To this day nobody has the faintest idea of what happened to my shirt and I can only assume that there is a waiter somewhere trying to impersonate me.
What about food? My favourite meal took place in a German pub on the banks of the River Moser overlooking the Luxembourg border. Not only was the pork and beer extremely hearty but the sense of pan-European unity could have been pricked with a wurstchen. On the subject of Europe, mussels in Lille and prix fixe menus in Bordeaux were also highly memorable (but then they always are).
Europe is not the only continent to have tickled my palate this year. Sushi and sashimi delivered by conveyor belt in Tokyo stunned me by its miraculous cheapness and that was three months ago, before the east Asian currencies had started to collapse. My worst culinary experiences of the year tended to be in Latin America, where distilled additives and processed meat seem to have become a substitute for food. In fact the single nastiest thing I have eaten in 1997 was a Chilean hot dog known as a completa, of which the largest, heaviest components were thick shining layers of multi-coloured grease which squeezed their way over my cheeks and nose with every bite.
My winner of the overall category for nicest place visited was Marrakesh in spring. Nowhere else does summer begin with snake charmers, hooded strangers and Club-Med style hotels in such exquisite proportions. Tattiest place? Liverpool was promising; Baghdad edged it on atmosphere.
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