Bars, Booze and Burgers – The Manchester Drinking Scene

Apotheca

Apotheca – Where it all began.

If there’s one thing I love about Manchester, it’s the plethora of friendly, intelligent, witty folk who write about the city’s food and drink scene. If you’re ever struggling for inspiration on where to take a new hot date (or to break up with an ugly, older model) a quick search through the Twitter machine will give you all manner of fantastic ideas.

It was after reading one such foodie blog recently that I came to a realisation; other than my two eating competition articles and my general missive on alcohol, I’ve never actually written a food or drink piece on this blog myself.

I gave a bit of an overview of my pub habits back in the aforementioned booze blog, but as I trotted around the Northern Quarter the other Friday, I began to realise just how much the city and its social scene had changed. At first, I thought I was getting a bit old and neurotic (well, older and more neurotic) but having sounded out other people, times definitely seem to be changing; and to try to figure out why I thought I’d recount how it all began.

The Early Years 2001-2005

I moved to Manchester in late 2001, but my first proper experience of city centre pubs came at the back-end of 2003. Before this time, my weekend shopping trips to town usually just involved the standard luncheon fayre of The Printworks (an easy option when unaware of everything else that the city had to offer) with Norwegian Blue, Old Orleans and Henry J Beans taking my hard earned cash from me in exchange for a pile of horse burgers and nachos.

Peveril Of the Peak

The Peveril Of The Peak – What’s not to like about a place that looks like this?

As i got to know the crew where i worked down Oxford Road in 2003, Friday lunchtime trips to the pub became de rigeur, and tended to be to more ‘traditional’ boozers. The local for the guys at work had long been The Peveril of the Peak, a bizarrely named pub with traditional opening hours, tucked away from prying eyes down Great Bridgewater Street. The Pev is a great old place full of snugs, local nutters and that comforting smell of wet dog. Yes, it can get a bit claustrophobic in there on a moist Friday night, but for a bit of banter of a lunchtime, it was ideal.

On occasion, we’d mix it up with Rain Bar (good for outdoor drinking on Manchester’s two sunny days of the year), The Paramount (big Wetherspoons, cheap decent ale, but it’s still Wetherspoons for crying out loud) or the now defunct Kro2. Eventually we settled on a new local as we were looking for something that catered for us on a night out, and the lucky recipient of our custom was The Thirsty Scholar. Renowned at the time for its sticky floor, and, er, having Bud on tap, the Scholar was actually a top notch meeting spot, eventually getting retro table-top video games and an outdoor decking area.

I still pop into the Scholar on occasion, usually when en route to a gig at the Academy, and it never fails to impress with its great ales, admirable vegan ethics and friendly staff. It’s amazing to have such good boozers relatively far from the centre itself, and between the Scholar and the amazing Big Hands, I’m forever spoilt for choice before a show.

We tried to keep things fresh between 2003 and 2005 by going to The Lass O’Gowrie a fair bit. The Lass is still a great, award winning pub, and Manchester’s retro gaming and Doctor Who Mecca, featuring regular meetings  and themed nights to this day. Another slice of old Manc, The Lass prides itself on snugs and traditional values and it’s also one of the few pubs in Manchester to show rugby on its big screens. The crowd you get in there is a great mix of old hands and young students, all there for the same purpose; to have a good time.

The other pub we frequented in those days was the Temple. An odd concept, this former public convenience is a tiny little bar with great continental bottled beers and Krombacher on tap. I’ve been there when its been both empty and really busy, but on either occasion it’s a great pub to hit up for a cosy drink or two, with its amazing, locally-themed jukebox and comedy scrawls in the toilets.

Strangely, other than the odd leaving do in Revolution, I don’t really recall visiting bars such as Odder or Joshua Brooks when i worked down that end of town, whilst The Briton’s Protection and Sandbar were probably just that little bit too far away for those who just wanted a quick half in their lunch hour or before their train home. We did hit up Space and Font on occasion, the now-defunct former being a good bet for some decent food, whilst the latter served (and still does) some of the cheapest cocktails in Manchester.

Looking at the area now, it’s great to see that the majority of the old stagers are happily co-existing with the new wave of Gorilla, Black Dog Ballroom NWS and Whim Wham Cafe, giving some great, varied options for a decent night out in the south of the city.

Sam's Chop House

Sam’s Chop House – A Proper Pub For Proper People.

It was around this time too that I first sampled the Chop Houses that Manchester offers. Both Sam’s and Thomas’s have amazing food, great ale, and a more mature vibe than a lot of the pubs in town, with Sam’s in particular being the closest you’re going to get to a ‘local’ in such a major city centre, and it now serves us dutifully for all our rugby-watching needs. That mid-area of Manchester is definitely the place for ‘proper’ pubs from the Town Hall Tavern near Albert Square all the way down to The Old Nag’s Head and the Sawyer’s Arms on Deansgate. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the city is just full of trendy bars and 1980s dives, then you can point them there and tell them to get a grip of their lives with a large slice of self-confidence that they’ll find somewhere to suit.

Manchester truly does cater for all sorts, and if it’s after a ‘Diversity’ badge to sew onto its Cub Scout uniform, it certainly has that, and the city is showing few signs of slowing down either. As much as new bars are springing up, there are still a fair few golden oldies going strong and even a new Chop House (Albert’s) has opened up in recent years.

Up to the here and now 2005-2013

When moving jobs, you get an insight into a whole different culture, and this also went for the drinking habits of my new workplace as I switched from the south of the city to the north in late 2005. Initially, the culture was again one of lunchtime drinking, with a lot of the team nipping for a half at least every Friday, if not the rest of the week, and it usually took a leaving do, Birthday drink or agency party to get a big crowd out and about for a full evening of drunken debauchery.

The main lunchtime drinking holes this time were places like the Ducie Bridge or Sinclair’s Oyster Bar (still probably the cheapest pub in town, albeit now overrun by the local whack jobs and psychopaths).

Centro

Centro – Shabby until the end.

In the evenings, this was the point at which a few of us ended up in Northern Quarter bars for the first time, usually the more established ones such as Cord, Fringe (beer garden! Well, beer car park!) Centro and, God help us, Bluu. Largely, the NQ of the time was a quieter part of town full of thoughtful important haircuts and those after a little slice of Bohemia. It still got a bit busier on Fridays but the friendly, community vibe kept idiots away and ensured the regulars were well catered for,

Even I wasn’t that much of a frequent flyer on the NQ hipstercopter at this time, but then in late 2008, something happened. Apotheca opened. Practically on our work doorstep, the place had Asahi on the pumps, excellent, friendly staff tweaking the nozzles, tables freely available at one minute past five on a Friday and lovely pizza only next door in its sister restaurant Dough. The opening of this pub happily coincided with a time when many of us like-minded early-to-mid-20s guys and dolls were starting to really focus on our careers and as the ‘work hard, play hard’ vibe began to ring true, it was guaranteed that everyone was in a shared mindset come Friday afternoon. Beer o’clock.

Often taking over most of the back bar, the Friday Drinking Crew as it would be known had many, many regulars and also picked up numerous new recruits along the way through friends of friends. It didn’t matter if you were only out for one or two or 20, it was time to shoot the shit at 5.01pm and let off some steam in the company of many like-minded individuals. In fact, it became so standard, the pre-pub email conversation at 4.30pm would be:
“?”
“Y”
And that was enough to know the time and place for Friday drinking each and every week.

We did mix it up a bit, mainly during the summer when we’d always fruitlessly try and search out a beer garden (always to no avail), but on the whole, we’d be propping up the Apotheca bar every Friday from five until 11 for months on end. Eventually we experimented with late night trips to Illusions (or Magic Bar as we always called it) in The Printworks, usually when only a few of us remained, but after it closed we ended up sticking to our NQ guns more and more.

AF Christmas

The Almost Famous Christmas Burger – epic doesn’t even cover it.

Since Apotheca opened, we’ve seen an explosion in the NQ. The Blue Pig, Bakerie, Hula, Noho, Barcelona, Marble, Port Street Beer House, Black Dog Ballroom, The Northern, Almost Famous, Solita, Terrace, Home Sweet Home, The Whiskey Jar, Kosmonaut, Walrus (later Hunky Dory), Tusk and the bizarrely named R-House have all opened, whilst Centro became Tib Street Tavern, Rodeo became Keko Moku and most recently, the legendary Socio Rehab converted itself into the SuperCaliMexiFragilistic Lust Luck Liquor & Burn.

Nestling in alongside the old guard, all of these pubs offered something a bit different. Pool in Black Dog, craft ale in Port Street, the best burgers known to man in Almost Famous, football in Tib Street or hardcore zombie annihilation in Keko Moku. The Northern Quarter certainly changed massively, but why?

Because it had to. As much as everyone likes a good niche or a best kept secret, businesses in this day and age simply cannot survive without masses of custom. Take Centro. I was in there on Michael Jackson Death Night TM, and we were pretty much the only people in there. Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to get straight to the bar and to get a seat, but I’m not naive enough to think that a pub can survive on Friday and Saturday trade alone. In fact, in Centro’s case, it tended not to be hugely busy at weekends either and the increasingly shabby interior suggested it was almost relying solely on its status as an NQ pioneer to keep its doors open.

The Great Northern Warehouse area of town has always been relatively isolated. Okay it’s near enough to the more mainstream Deansgate Locks, and the hugely enjoyable Knott Bar, but over time the Warehouse seems to have had a higher turnover of bars than Guns N’ Roses have had guitarists. Recently though, the area seems to have become more stable, with Epernay offering great champagne cocktails and Taps’ quirky ‘pour your own’ schtick bringing customers in from far and wide. The impact of Spinningfields’ redevelopment to this wider area can’t be ignored either. Initially just a couple of office blocks with a Gourmet Burger Kitchen and a Natwest, the place has now exploded into life with Alchemist, The Oast House, Neighbourhood, The Liquor Store, Southern 11, Yacht Club (then Ski Club), and Revolucion de Cuba all in the vicinity, attracting suits and students alike.

So what’s happened to the old school city centre drinker? Largely, and this is solely through my sometimes inebriated eyes, people are flitting about between areas more and more. The NQ used to be the best place for a crawl, but with a large number of bars in close proximity in Spinningfields and in the Whitworth Street West vicinity, people have so much choice that a relatively small city centre has expanded massively. You can dabble in ale, cocktails, and regulation lager, or maybe you fancy partaking in a tiki tipple, traditional pub grub or underground speakeasies. Either way, you’re going to find something in Manchester to cater for every occasion, and that is why I love it as much as I do.

You may think from this blog that I’ve experienced pretty much everything Manchester has to offer, but that really isn’t the case at all. I’ve never really spent much time in Dry Bar or Night & Day and I’ve only had the briefest of trips to Mother Mac’s, The Wheatsheaf, The Castle Hotel and Gulliver’s. I also still have yet to sample Band On The Wall or Matt & Phred’s or The Frog & Bucket comedy club despite their famous status, whilst the majority of The Printworks is still pretty alien to me, and will hopefully remain that way.

I’ve dabbled in the Piccadilly area’s least salubrious boozers, taking in The Waldorf for the footy, The Sevenoaks for late night quiz machine fun and the Garden’s own Wetherspoons for a rogue shot of Apple Sourz. Kro has become a standard watering hole for a quick stop off on the way to the train as well as being our traditional Christmas Eve drinking spot, whilst Fab Cafe is a late night temptation for sci-fi stomping.

Brewdog Manchester

Brewdog Manchester – A Little Slice Of Northern In A Very Different Quarter.

Across the rest of the centre there are still parts of student-ville further down Oxford Road that I have yet to take in, having only been to Sandbar, The Footage and The Deaf Institute a couple of times each, whilst Deansgate and Spinningfields still both have a couple of establishments left to try. The promise of further regeneration of the Peter Street area is also interesting. Kickstarted by Brewdog’s NQ snub, Trof and others are soon to move into premises that were for so long renowned for violence and general drunken idiocy.

So, that’s where we are. Choice has massively increased. Bandwagons have been clambered upon, and we’ve all become a little older and more cynical. Will my drinking habits change as the Printworks overspill claim even more of the Northern Quarter? Probably. As I said at the start of this ramble, the Friday night crowd is becoming more and more like the one I went so out of my way all those years ago to avoid. The one saving grace seems to be that bar owners are feeling the same way and are already ahead of the game, coming up with new ideas and venues to keep us interested even in our advancing years. One thing is for sure, I’m certainly not going to be short of a watering hole for many years to come.

Adventures In Competitive Eating – Part Two: The Chicken Waffle Tower

Chicken Waffle Tower

Inside the Chicken Waffle Tower

In the big list of Things Never To Do Twice, I’d like to think the top three could include 1) ride a wild farm animal 2) sell hooky cigarettes to Russian gangsters and 3) give yourself meat sweats by attempting to eat something that’s physically impossible to fit inside your temple-like body.

Never having been one to play by the rules, I decided that number three was just plain silly, and not learning a thing from my experience of the Meateasy Sandwich, I decided it was time to tackle the Chicken Waffle Tower.

After the last challenge and following a runner up placing at an ad-hoc Street Hotdog competition (like Street Countdown, but with hotdogs) I had plenty of people telling me they’d be up for having a go on the next challenge.

Sure enough, Southern 11 in Manchester soon obliged with the Chicken Waffle Tower; a giant stack of fried chicken and waffles, drizzled in the suspiciously monikered ‘creamy white gravy’, with spicy fried chicken on the side, complete with BBQ beans, homemade coleslaw and Parmesan truffle fries.

I couldn’t decide whether this was going to be easier or more difficult than the last challenge. I always presume there’s no limit on the amount of fried chicken I can nail and I decided to leave fries until last this time (you can always pick at fries after a meal, can’t you?) so the only unknown quantity was the waffle stack. Would they be potato-y like Birdseye’s ‘waffley versatile’ variety or were we looking at the type best served with ice cream or maple syrup?

After some to-ing and fro-ing, the final number to attempt the challenge was eight, double the amount from last time, theoretically giving us a far better chance of success, and the day’s build up was good with the same routine as last time; normal meals and plenty of water. But it wasn’t long before psychology played a part once again.

Arriving at the restaurant we got the big, most-obvious-to-other-punters table. It was also warm. Very warm. Last time had been a Summer’s evening so we had sat outside away from the crowds, a gentle breeze refreshing our glistening brows. This time, the pressure was well and truly on.

The Chicken Waffle Tower Arrives

The Chicken Waffle Tower Arrives

As the plates (well, bread boards) arrived, one thing was for certain; this was way more food than we’d seen in any of the pictures. There were four rather than two battered chicken legs propping up the sticky tower like a twisted HR Giger masterpiece. There were about five waffles in there too along with some hefty pieces of fowl.

Once the 45 minute countdown began, I stuck to my plan: take down the tower first. The chicken was fresh-from-the-fryer-scorchio hot and the sweet waffles seemed light but big and tricky to chew through. I still managed to destroy the chicken breasts and all but two half-waffles in a decent enough time but as I became intimate with one of the drummers, I hit the wall. 10 minutes in and I was almost beaten.

Last time, I demolished a kilo of assorted meat in nine minutes. Tasty, barbecued meats. This time? The saltiness of the chicken seasoning and the sweetness of the waffles immediately made every bite a chunder-quelling chore. Just looking at it, imagining the taste, I physically shuddered. Taking a time out I rattled through the ‘slaw (I wasn’t going to fall for that one again) and took some sips of water and beer. Eventually I felt well enough to carry on but uncertainty still plagued my mind.

I chomped half the drumsticks and picked at some chips. I tried dunking the waffles in the beans and combining the chunky chicken batter with sweet waffle to try and take the richness away, but it was to no avail. With 10 minutes to go, and after working through the fries as a consolation, I had two chicken drumsticks and just over a waffle to go, none of which were going anywhere. Beaten again. There were three of us who came close this time but again, no one triumphed.

Tower Remnants

Close but no cigar

Without wanting to sound like a sore loser, I do think the picture we had seen that tempted us into the challenge was misleading and if I was served chicken that heavily ‘seasoned’ as part of a normal meal in Southern 11, I’d launch it in the general direction of the chef’s head. But people have been successful at this challenge, although  I’ve got no idea how. One guy even did it in nine minutes and celebrated with two desserts. A brilliant example of utter lunacy right there.

Despite it all, it was good fun, if painful afterwards and indeed now, but I think I need to hold my hands up and retire from the competitive eating game.

Although there is Vegas…

Adventures In Competitive Eating – Part One: The Meateasy

The Southern Eleven Meateasy Sandwich

Meatgeddon had arrived.

I must admit that I was rather late to the Man Vs Food party. Three series had been and gone before I became absorbed by Adam Richman’s never-ending trawl around America’s finest food havens, but once I watched one episode, I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated, not only by the randomness of some of the dishes he consumed but also the amazing challenges he tried to overcome week after week.

Over the years, the only food-related challenges I’ve taken part in have been low-key unofficial ones, such as seeing who could put Pizza Hut out of business by eating as much pizza as possible in their lunchtime all-you-can-eat buffet deal. I did 20 slices in 45 mins and was pretty sure I had cheese poisoning afterwards. I also like a good meatfest at Bem Brasil where you are brought a selection of barbecued meats on skewers until you place your red card on the table, thus admitting defeat.

I’m not very good with attempting short challenges such as trying to nail as many Jaffa Cakes or Ferrero Roches in a minute as is humanly possible, but I know I can eat relatively quickly and that I can eat a lot so when one challenge rocked up, I couldn’t possibly say no.

The mammoth task in question was at Southern Eleven in Manchester. Their creation, the Meateasy, is one messy monster sandwich featured a kilo of meat including three quarter pounders topped with melted cheese, Texas BBQ sausages, pulled pork, more pork, plus lettuce, onions, tomatoes and gherkins, all encased in a foot-long ciabatta loaf. And of course that wouldn’t be enough of a challenge by itself, so alongside it was a bowl of parmesan-topped skinny (!) fries and a small saucepan of coleslaw.

The challenge is simple: take this bad boy down to Chinatown inside 45 minutes and it’s free, plus you receive a winner’s certificate. Fail, and it costs £25.99 and your dignity. Don’t forget too, there’s no leaving the table throughout the task.

My strategy had to begin early; should I eat normally during the day or starve myself ahead of the gargantuan sanger? I chose to eat normally but didn’t snack, instead I made sure I nailed plenty of water throughout the day. When it came to crunch time, I chose a Brewdog Tactical Nuclear Penguin as a nerve-calmer, rather than get gacked up on a pint, and then a glass of Pinot Grigio for the challenge itself.

When the four boards were brought out for my three friends and I, it looked terrifying but do-able. Once the stopwatch had been started I went straight for the meat, knowing that the sheer amount of protein could cause me issues if I didn’t meet the meat head-on right there and then. I finished the carnivorous cavalcade in around nine minutes, moving swiftly onto the fries.

It was here that the challenge really began. I knew I had to still take down the ciabatta. I knew as well I had to annihilate the tomato, something which I hate, and never, ever eat, let alone in a challenge situation. Suddenly, the texture of the gherkins wasn’t making me feel too good. As hard as I tried to hide the tomato in a bready coleslaw sandwich, it kept popping out to tease me with its gooey nonsense.

Halfway through I pretty much only had coleslaw, lettuce and bread remaining but each mouthful became such a chore. I’m no Olympic athlete but I believe this may be called “The Wall”. The lettuce eventually went. The top of the ciabatta was next to bite the dust, followed by about half the coleslaw as I desperately attempted to mix up the dry foods with the more moist.

There were about ten minutes left when all I had in front of me was three quarters of the bottom half of the loaf and half a third of a pan of coleslaw. Combining the two, I knew I had to go for it. But I couldn’t. Lifting the makeshift sandwich to my mouth I couldn’t physically fit it in. One last bite eventually went down, but I knew that I was done. I kept on trying until the final whistle but on this occasion, food won.

Could I have done anything differently? I don’t think so. The meat simply HAD to go, and go quickly. The fries were good, but the salad selection was a tad slippery. At the end of the day though, it was just the creaminess of the coleslaw after all of that other stodge that I simply could not take. A valiant effort but ultimately not good enough.

Is any of this big or clever? Probably not. I certainly don’t feel too clever today. But I am quite competitive. I definitely don’t like losing. So, despite the pain and agony of such a narrow defeat, will I be game again for another silly challenge like this? Let’s just say I don’t think I’m retiring from the sport just yet.

Litter – How Can We Keep Britain Tidy?

Watching BBC Breakfast a couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to see a prominent feature about reducing litter on Britain’s streets.

I remember the glory days of the Keep Britain Tidy campaign in the mid-80s at a time when the organisation had just become a limited company. Teaching kids to tidy up after themselves was de rigueur in schools across the land and it became part and parcel of getting the country to smarten up its act despite a lot of deprivation. The campaign at the time made sense – a lot of people were holidaying in Britain to save money, so it was only right that we should keep the place neat and tidy for ourselves. Beaches at the time were also taking a slating and the impact of the campaign had a positive knock-on effect to these too.

But in the last decade, or possibly a little longer, standards have really slipped. This itself seems odd as it’s happened at a time when recycling has really taken off. Initial dismay towards fortnightly rubbish collections have turned into an appreciation for making sure as much waste material goes to the right place as possible, but nevertheless council cost-cutting has seen bins overflowing and city centre collections and street cleaning teams reduced in number, letting litter fly around the streets like there’s been a zombie apocalypse. In Scotland alone, around £100 millions is being spent each year on tidying up after litterers, money which could be far better spent on other economic issues.

So why do people litter in the first place? The main reason appears to be that most people really don’t deem what they are doing to be wrong. I will guarantee you that you could go to any major train station on any given morning and see a commuter drop a used Metro newspaper onto a bench. Who do they think is going to pick this up and take it away for them? Some sort of newspaper-hoarding goblin? Maybe part of the problem is that because they haven’t paid for it, they don’t really care about what happens to it. The Metro gets left everywhere as well, from seats on trains to station platforms to Starbucks tables. It got so bad a couple of years back that The Metro themselves were forced to remind people that leaving it “for someone else to read” isn’t recycling, it’s littering, with a poster campaign on trains and buses.

Another major culprit in Litter Britain is the blue and white delight, the paper Greggs bag. Not content with destroying their arteries with grease-sprayed sausage rolls, people seem only too eager to just dump the wrapper on the floor or on the nearest wall. Yes, it’s paper but that doesn’t mean it miraculously turns into nothingness when out of a human’s grasp. Similarly, fruit remnants get left almost everywhere. Again, I appreciate this is recyclable material, but a banana skin on a pavement is not going  to bio-degrade overnight.

The problem in Britain is that no-one really knows what the solution to this is? One obvious one is to use those who litter as an example. Some community service programmes already get criminals to clean up certain litter eye-sores and this is a great way to punish those who exhibit anti-social behaviour and also to help communities. But it doesn’t really hit those who litter in the first place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get a talking to from a policeman for littering despite all those who pull the wrapper off their fag packet and instantly let it slip from their hand and blow away in the wind. I would whole-heartedly support big fines for littering as long as it was properly and sensibly enforced.

Alternatively, it would be great to get kids more involved again. I strongly believe that one of the reasons I don’t chuck my trash onto the pavement is because of the way I was brought up. I remember on one school camp we went to some sort of adventure park where the owners of the place encouraged kids to collect empty drinks cans and get rewarded with different badges depending on how many they brought back to drop-off points. There was an absolute mad scramble to collect all the different badges and it made the whole situation fun. Okay, so maybe I was an unwitting victim of child slave labour, and maybe the park in question just couldn’t afford their own wardens, but even so, it gave us children an awareness about where litter should and shouldn’t go.

I want to be proud of my country again, but at the moment I’m disgusted by it everytime I set foot outside of my front door.

La Dolce Vita – The Affs’ Good Life In Rome

Il Vittoriano

I’ve never done much travel writing before, probably because I haven’t travelled enough to warrant it, but having just been on a rather jolly excursion to Italy, I thought I’d wrap it all up in a bit of a report.

The trip to Rome started (as many holiday discussions do) in the pub as a tipsy pipe dream. Myself and a friend both agreed that the match that England play in Italy every other year in the Six Nations always looks like a great spot to take in a game of rugby. Open air stadium, sun shining, laid back Italian culture and a great atmosphere. The only difference between this and our plans to travel down under, or to Germany for Oktoberfest or pretty much everywhere else on the planet, was that this time we got hold of some match tickets. I say we, it was my friend who did pretty much all of the organising, but nonetheless, this time we were kick-started into action.

When the tickets arrived despite having bought them off the Internet via less than official channels, we thought we’d better actually get the plan sorted. Originally we thought we would fly out on Friday and return on Sunday, somehow fitting in a game of rugger in the middle. We soon realised that a) direct flights and b) any flights at all over this particular (Valentine’s) weekend in February were going to be costly, so suddenly the whole thing was looking less than cost-effective.

After compromising by swapping planes in Paris, and also by flying out on Thursday, we got the whole flight and three night hotel deal for around £250. Not bad at all. And so with about a second mortgage’s worth of spending money in my drinking wallet, it was time to fly out.

Or so we thought. During the week of departure I got wind that the French were looking to strike, up until and including the day we flew. We also saw on the news that Rome had experienced its first snowfall in 26 years only the weekend before. Our equivalent flight on the Wednesday had been cancelled, so we got to Manchester Airport with some trepidation…but somehow we got lucky. The flight went ahead and the change over in Paris was smooth. Touching down in Rome, we hopped aboard the Leonardo Express and headed towards the main city centre train station, Termini.

Termini Station

Ken Stott's personal train

First impressions of Rome sum up the city completely; it’s a bit scruffy. But to be fair to the Italians, this only adds to the charm. The trains (apart from the nice posh touristy Leonardo one) are scrawled from tip to toe with graffiti (much of it about Rebus, but we weren’t sure if this was some anti-Ken Stott protest, or the tag of the Italian Banksy). Arrivals in the airport also left a lot to be desired, but in all honesty we were more concerned with finding our way to our hotel. On the whole, the place oozed with the Italian attitude of “we don’t need to try too hard to dress things up, we know people will still come.”

We’d been leant a guide book by another friend and through this and other sources we had heard that the area around Termini was a bit dodgy, and our hotel, worryingly, wasn’t too far South of this. This made us a little apprehensive, but on arrival, the centre of town seemed just like any other. Yes, there were a few tramps about and some “interesting” looking shop fronts but overall the place seemed pretty relaxed and quiet as we meandered towards our hotel.

We stayed at the Hotel Santa Prassede which was, shall we say, functional. We had a nice comedy introduction to the chap on reception who couldn’t cope with the name Knight (Meester Cannicht!!!!!) and when we got taken to our twin room featuring only a double bed we were a little worried, but the chap let us have an adjacent room as well for the first night, offering to make the double into two singles after that. Overall, it was probably what we expected, and what we needed; somewhere to get our heads down after long days on the booze in an excellent central location.

We dropped our bags off and headed out to find some food. Upon finding an “Irish” bar and restaurant, Old Marconi’s, literally on the same road as the hotel, we couldn’t resist and soon found ourselves tucking into a pint of Guinness and a chicken-y and crisp-y potato-y plate of nosh. We thought we’d take it easy that first night, especially as it was about 10pm local time by the time we arrived, but for some reason the bar just didn’t close. There weren’t that many punters in there, although a few did come and go after us. Even so, the barman seemed perfectly happy to carry on serving as long as there was someone in there. A far cry from the strict British last orders system and this meant that I was already liking this city a hell of a lot.

The Colosseum

A rather shut Colosseum

We made an early start on the Friday with the intention of getting around as many of the tourist spots as possible by foot alone. Starting at the Colosseum we soon realised a flaw in the plan; Rome was pretty much shut. After getting mugged of a note or two by some long-johnned ‘authentic’ Roman Centurions for a few tourist snaps in front of the Colosseum, our new 2000 year old best friend Thomas (you from Manchester? Manchester Unite yes?) told us that the monument was closed, as was the Forum and the Pantheon due to predicted snow. Not actual snow, predicted snow.

Apparently the weekend before, the city had been caught completely off guard and they had to evacuate all tourists from the ancient ruins for fear of broken limbs caused by the ice. Luckily we could still get up close to these architectural works of genius but we were prevented from going in.

Il Vittoriano

Possibly the whitest building...in the world

Moving on down the road we came to the impressive, if slightly Fascistic Il Vittoriana. Our guide book told us that the place was hated by locals for its imposing ice-white look, but I found the sight impressive even whilst getting moved away from the front of the building by scary looking police with guns. We would have liked to have gone into the building and even stood atop it to look out over the city, but as it looked like some official governmental event was going on, (flags were strangely at half mast throughout Rome whilst we were there), we hurried on with our journey before we got caps popped in our collective tourist asses.

We carried on pottering, and soon realised not only how easy it was to get around the place but also what astounding architecture there was at every turn. One minute we’d be walking down an alley only to emerge into a piazza boasting a massive, imposing obelisk in front of an equally impressive building dating back hundreds of years. Many were embassies or other governmental buildings and it was great to see such ancient buildings still in use.

We then went to visit the Trevi fountain, famous for its role in La Dolce Vita, and were amazed by its size and grandeur. Desperate for a coffee at this point, we took our first Espresso “at the bar” (where you pay less than at a table) and continued on our way West. The Pantheon was our next sight, a glorious old Roman temple which again was unfortunately closed. Despite this slight issue, there was still no denying the epic spectacle.

Trevi Fountain

La Dolce Vita woz 'ere - the Trevi Fountain

We eventually arrived at a bridge over the Tiber that would take us into the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City. Despite the now-rainy weather, the sights we saw and the sense of occasion that is produced by the place was really amazing to behold. St Peter’s Square leading up to the Basilica is vast to say the least, and you can only imagine what the atmosphere is like when the throngs descend to witness one of the Papal addresses. Following our guidebook around the Basilica itself we heard the stories behind all the fantastic architecture and history of the place. To think that the building was first constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries and yet remains so intact and impressive is astounding, as is the fact that Michelangelo played such a massive part in its construction at such a late stage in his life.

St Peter's Basilica

Approaching the Pope's gaff

We continued around and down into the grotto beneath the Basilica, witnessing the tombs of Popes past, before setting off on a climb to the top of the tower. You can choose to either get a lift part way and then climb 300-odd steps or do the whole caboodle of 500+ by foot. We chose the latter, paid our money and began the journey. Towards the top, the spiral staircases tilt to such astounding slants that they give the place an Alice In Wonderland feel, and you begin to wonder how much narrower it will get. Once at the top though, the effort was definitely worth it. Despite the weather, the views across the city from atop the dome were incredible and after catching our breath and spending a few minutes walking around above the whole city, we began the descent.

After a pizza and beer lunch (we were in Italy after all), we went to the Vatican Museum, trying to avoid the ridiculous amount of umbrella sellers on the way. Featuring works collected over centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, the museum features just about every type of art and artefact you could imagine, from wall-dominating tapestries through to thousand year old sculptures and paintings from throughout the ages.

The Vatican Museum

Greek scholars doing their thing...as painted by Raphael

Of course, the one part of the museum that no-one wants to miss is the Sistine Chapel. The incredible frescoes covering every inch of the place leave tourists and pilgrims from across the world agog and you could spend hours just scanning the intricate works and finding parts that you missed first time around. Despite the warnings, pretty much everyone took photos in there, and you can’t really blame people when they’ve travelled from far and wide to see it.

After the museum visit, we began walking back towards our hotel, and by this time it really was throwing it down with snow, the ancient cobbles providing a hazardous walkway towards the city’s South-east. We decided we deserved a quick Peroni Red on the way back so we stopped at a café on the Piazza outside the Pantheon under an outdoor heater (we’re not completely insane). Whilst taking this breather we discussed the fact that we needed to scope out the best place to watch the Man Utd v Liverpool match the next day so thought we’d check out some “traditional” Irish bars on the way back. First up was Finnegan’s which seemed highly recommended in the guide book but in reality was pretty full of hateful Brits abroad, blasé bar staff and not the finest quality Bombardier or Nastro Azzurro. We thought we’d press on and find another couple of bars which sounded like they’d be smaller, and in no way were we disappointed.

The first, The Druid’s Den is a great little place. Run by JJ, a Scottish ex-pat, we struck up a rapport and enjoyed a few quality pints of Guinness at the bar. We mentioned we were also going to try The Fiddler’s Elbow, and JJ said to ask for Heather there, as the place (which was only round the corner), was run by one of her friends. Sure enough, The Fiddler’s also provided a great welcoming atmosphere with amazing bar staff, better Guinness than you get in some bars back in Blighty and all the laid-back joviality you need when on a trip abroad.

The Druid's Den

When in Rome...go Irish - at The Druid's Den

We then decided to head back to Old Marconi’s for a quick bite to eat before doing another tour of the pubs. We ended up on the electronic dartboard in The Druid’s and found ourselves on the receiving end of a bit of a hustle from three swarthy European rugby chaps. My form soon plummeted, especially as I failed to truly comprehend the rules of the darts variant “cricket” that we were playing. Despite the loss, we had some good banter and after a couple of hours realised they were Spanish rather than Italian as we had thought all along. Typical ignorant Brits abroad, but hopefully you won’t see us on some awful reality show that reveals our drunken idiocy on the continent.

The next morning’s hangover was special to say the least. We intended to get an early start to see some more sights but rolling out of the hotel at 11am, we thought it best to just focus on breakfast and getting to the pub for the football.

The previous night, JJ had agreed to open early for the lunchtime kick off so we headed down there after an Irish breakfast at Old Marconi’s accompanied by a couple of litres of Coke. Once again though, the snow became a worry. JJ had offered to ring for a few taxis for us and a few other chaps in the pub so we thought we had plenty of time to watch all the football and then potter on up to the Stadio Olimpico, but as the weather worsened, we began to get more and more concerned. At halftime, when JJ tried phoning through, the taxis had been taken “off line” just as they had the previous week – the police deeming it too dangerous for nutbag Italian taxi drivers to be out on treacherous icy roads.

Padlocks in Rome

On the way to the game - padlocks in the snow

Helpfully, JJ gave us directions to get to the Metro underground station, which would get us to the tram, and eventually the stadium. We decided to head off early in case of delay and negotiated the simple underground (cheap tickets, straightforward line layout) before hitting the tram queue. And what a queue it was. Snaking around a couple of blocks, it soon became apparent that this was going to be a cold, wet wait. One of the guys we were loosely following checked his iPhone and declared that it wasn’t too far (maybe a couple of miles) to walk to the stadium, so after some umming and erring, we decided to travel on foot. After a slushy, cold, slightly more than two miles walk we eventually arrived at the stadium, and rewarded ourselves with a big Peroni and a pig bap, which surprisingly was cheaper than the equivalent at the Manchester Christmas Markets, and tastier too.

As this was the first time Italy had played a Six Nations match at the Stadio Olimpico, we weren’t sure what the turnout would be, but my word, they and their fans put EVERYTHING into the occasion. With balloons and hats on all the seats, the near-capacity crowd became a sea of red, white and green, and the Italian anthem was a typically boisterous but good-natured affair. Despite the snow on the way to the ground (and indeed the snow on the pitch), we were on time, and the game went ahead. I won’t go into detail about the match itself, other than to say England were awful in the first half and after conceding two tries in two minutes towards the end of the first 40 minutes, I wondered what I’d let myself in for. England still triumphed, and the atmosphere really contributed to an enthralling, if scrappy game.

Stadio Olimpico

A snowy Stadio Olimpico

On our way out of the stadium we decided to walk for a bit and then flag down a taxi, as conditions had improved a bit. I suddenly heard a female voice to the side of me exclaim how “f**king cold” it was and when I agreed, she apologised for her potty mouth, and we soon struck up conversation. Debs (her name) was there with other half Phil, a great Essex couple who had experienced a rather warmer Italy v England match 10 years previously. We mentioned to them that we were intending to head back to The Druid’s to watch the France v Ireland game and they came along. Failing to find an available taxi, we eventually found a Metro and somehow beat most of the other punters back to The Druid’s, only to see the other rugby game called off at the last minute. Realising how lucky we were to actually see a match, we settled in for the evening, grabbing pizza from next door and nailing Guinness and Harp until the wee small hours with our new acquaintances.

Leaving Rome

Arrivederci Roma

On Sunday it was time to head on back home, so we meandered to the train station, sad to see the back of a now-sunny Rome. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and experienced those typical heading home from holiday blues, made worse by being told that our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Manchester had been cancelled. Fortunately Al Italia got us onto a Paris flight and after some negotiation and tense moments at Charles De Gaulle, we successfully boarded a flight to foggy Manchester only a couple of hours later than planned.

All in all, the trip was an amazing experience. Arranging a holiday around a sporting event proved successful, and the freak weather meant we got to experience something that few others have or ever will. Yes, it was disappointing not to get into the big famous monuments, but we still made the most of our time, and were treated brilliantly by every single local we came across. As a first time in the country, it could barely have been better, and I must say that next year’s planned trip to Dublin is going to have to go some to beat it…

Alcohol – Is It Really A Danger To Society?

Alcohol, or booze as I like to call it, is always in the news for one reason or another. Whether it’s due to mass hysteria that alco-pops are turning Britain’s kids into feral nightmares or that the supposedly cheap cost of plonk somehow contributes to the downward spiral of alcoholic life, alcohol often gets a bad rep and blamed for many of societies’ ills.

But can alcohol be solely blamed for taking such a grip on people’s personalities and lives? Or are there other reasons for people acting the way they do? It’s time to explore alcohol in a bit more detail, including some of my own experiences with the stuff to see just what on earth is going on. Warning – this article may feature tales of someone under the age of 18 drinking booze. You’ll just have to cope with that I’m afraid.

My relationship with alcohol started around the Sunday lunch table when I was probably around 11 years old. I would be on drinks duty, fetching and pouring my Dad’s can of Kestrel (no idea why he drank the stuff) and I’d taste it on occasion and be utterly repulsed by its unpleasant metallic taste (the beer, not the can). Maybe Dad deliberately drank rubbish beer to put me off ever trying it, who knows. At Christmas, when the wine was cracked open with Mum, Dad and various relatives, my brother and I would make our own “exotic” concoctions. I’d usually have a lime cordial over a few games of cards. It seemed cool at the time, alright? Both of my Grandads enjoyed a Scotch and I felt like I was joining in. Thankfully I seem to have inherited their love of the stuff, and I hope they’re both looking down now, secretly proud of the collection I now have in my drinks cupboard.

My first REAL pint in a REAL pub was in January 1994 during a Manic Street Preachers gig, so I would have been 14. It was Fosters’. It was in a plastic pint glass. It made me feel a bit squiffy to be honest, although I’m not sure if that was the adrenaline of my first gig or my first pint or what. All I knew was that it went down pretty well. I don’t remember necessarily when my next drink was or even when I started drinking more than just a pint. I remember drinking a steady four or five pints of Fosters’ in my local (when I may have been just a little bit under age to be doing so) and going out round Bristol to metal and indie nights where the only difference to that routine may have been a cheeky Scotch and soda to round off the night. Similarly I remember a few Fosters’ Ice bottles slipping down a treat in Salcombe’s beer gardens on holidays with friends.

My friends and I were never ones to go too bonkers with booze at that age, preferring a quiet few pints. I think we were probably a bit scared of going above the four to five drink comfort zone and spending the night in A&E having our stomachs pumped, although we did raid some parental drinks cabinets in our time, creating Southern Comfort and Tango cocktails and other strange homebrews. Again, nothing too crazy, and we weren’t drinking every day but alcohol was still a relatively big part of our lives.

There were a few strange moments – I do recall having a Scotch pre-school on my Birthday one year, possibly in my GCSE year. I probably did it more for effect than anything. But largely, especially since I had an older brother who wasn’t bothered either way about going on the sauce, I took it steady, but was still probably drinking more than I should have done at a young age. Do I regret it? No, not really. Those nights out were more about the night itself rather than trying to get as annihilated as possible. Similarly I would never drink that much at gigs in those days. I did have a few all day sessions around the age of 17-18 during the summer, but who wouldn’t on a sunny Bristol afternoon with jazz in the air and cider on tap?

When I went away to University I filled my time with what any sensible student would, interspersing lectures and degree work with excessive drinking, pub lunches that turned into all-dayers and house parties fuelled by wine and lager. Again, cheap booze was the order of the day, the girls often buying a sub-£2 bottle of Lambrini before going out and some of us men folk developed a taste for £2.99 Co-op Rioja that probably hadn’t seen a grape in its life. I probably felt the worst I have ever felt from booze on a couple of occasions in those days, notably staying in one night with a litre bottle of Asda’s own Claymore Scotch and mixing it with a two litre bottle of Irn Bru. If that is what alcohol poisoning feels like, please never let me have it again. It felt like my innards were rotting through my skin. Bad times, but it taught me a valuable lesson; don’t shop in Asda.

There were several “incidents” at University that could no doubt be blamed on booze. A fair few injuries and scraps (involving people other than me, natch), but we were in Yorkshire so I’d expect nothing less. Did I also blow a considerable amount of student cash in a very short space of time to compensate for a break up? Yes I did. But it was my choice. And again, with hindsight, it was probably as much about showing off and attention seeking as it was drowning my sorrows. Perhaps the only regret I have about my Uni years is that my memory is now pretty bad, caused no doubt by the sheer amount of brain cell killing grog I poured down my neck, but that was a decision I took. Can I still function in society? I like to think so, although those who know me may say otherwise, but moving on…

When I left University, I calmed it down a bit. Responsibility, lack of disposable income and moving to Manchester and having few friends up here contributed. But again, after a few years, it became a Friday norm to go out with a few colleagues for some stress relieving post-work pints. Team Drinking extended to more and more people so you could usually guarantee that there would be someone about come Friday to share a jar with. Some say I instigated this cultural shift, but it could well have been more down to the economic gloom and a lot of people approaching 30 with a shared mind-set. Either way, some great times were had tearing up Manchester’s Northern Quarter, and it was the first time I really felt like I had a local since about 1997.

Post-work drinks then started involving more non-Friday events. Football down the pub on Saturdays and Sundays took off. Karaoke nights, pub quizzes, and the now frequent train-based pub crawls were all attended by various acquaintances, and all through a shared joy of alcohol and pig by-products. Would we have bothered if alcohol wasn’t available, making us giddy with its intoxicating ways? Probably not. A few of my friends do swing towards detoxes on occasion for health, money or other reasons, but they’ll still happily come to the pub for a half of lemonade or some such.

But could I do that? No. I fully admit that if I wasn’t drinking I find it difficult to be out with others who are for a full night. I have the utmost respect for people who can do it, but it really isn’t for me. Yes I can have a quick Coke in a boozer or other non-alcoholic beverage but not if the intention is to stay there for a good few hours. It seems a waste and I resent paying the ridiculous prices that soft drinks cost when for a little more I can have something bigger and tastier. Does this make me an alcoholic? No, I don’t think so. I don’t go out every night, and I sure as anything don’t sit at home by myself drinking every night. In fact I probably only have a tipple two or three days a week. Do I drink more on those two or three occasions than an adult should according to medical guidance? Probably, yes, but I’m not the only one by a long way. And I enjoy the sense of euphoria that alcohol gives. I enjoy the social aspects of getting a round in and sharing a pint and some banter. I like the taste and smell of a nice San Miguel after a long week of work. And yes I can talk to my friends without a pint in my hand, but pubs were invented for drinking (probably, I’ve not done the research) so I intend to use them precisely for that.

But what of the terrifying scenes witnessed across our town centres on a Friday night? In Manchester I’m the first to admit that the sights you can see are often shocking. Women sat on kerbs unable to stay awake by 8pm, men scrapping or urinating down an alley. This happens all over the UK, and is booze to blame? Partly. The people seen in such states still chose to take that route to utter obliteration, and chances are some of them may have been in a fight or been otherwise unlawful when the tribalism of football was at play rather than beer, but that is just speculation. One thing’s for sure, pubs will continue to sell alcohol and people will continue to get drunk. They do it to get over disappointment and misery. They do it to celebrate success. They raise a glass to toast summer sun, or to escape the long dark winter nights. They do it for every reason known to man, and it is ingrained into British culture as much as queuing or complaining about public transport. You could probably count thousands of people in this country who wake up on a Saturday morning with a sore head and a bellyful of regrets. I for one will fully admit that I can count at least four or five occasions when I have either acted like an idiot, annoyed or upset people, done something irresponsible or let myself or others down in the past couple of months alone. I’m sorry, yes, but I’m not blaming beer, I’m blaming myself.

I do also appreciate the effects that alcohol can have on individuals and their families in worst case scenarios. I’ve witnessed first-hand someone close to me in constant denial that they are an alcoholic, despite being done for drink driving. To them, this just meant they needed a lift to the pub. They drank every single night, and I was surprised they held down a job. It tore their family apart and left a trail of debt and despair, but this was simply because alcohol is a drug and when that drug is combined with a mind-set that isn’t right in the first place, it can be a recipe for disaster.

And here we are in 2012. I’ve had a relationship with the stuff for 18 years and I don’t see it ending any time soon. Has it cost me a lot of money over the years? Yes. Has it cost me my dignity? On occasion, yes. Do I blame it solely for every woe that has happened to me over the years? No. At the end of the day, I still wake up each morning sober and in control of who I am and the decisions I make. And it is this fact that the media seem to miss. Alcohol may enter the bloodstream but at some point it leaves, and at that juncture, what people are left with is themselves. If they cannot cope with that reality then maybe there is sadly very little hope for them at all.

Great British Icons – Part One

Following the death a couple of days ago of the great Keith Floyd, I began to realise that we no longer mourn the passing of icons, we mourn the death of institutions. Of legends. Of eccentrics. Of the heart and soul of Britain.

Floyd was an utterly maniacal genius. He was years ahead of his time. From his humble beginnings in Somerset and Bristol, he got one of his first gigs peeling potatoes – his first “cooking” job. But he showed drive and determination to get to where he wanted to be – in front of the camera.

But why does he still get vilified even after his death? Because today’s politically correct society cannot see past the alcohol. And the smoking. And the swearing. And the womanizing. And the flippant attitude to money.

Yes, he was obnoxious, but that’s because he knew how to push people’s buttons. Yes he was offensive, but that was what his appeal was all about. No-one else could set up a field kitchen in an Italian square, despite local protestations and then proceed to rustle up an amazing risotto, even complaining along the way that the locals were making too much noise. Even when local Asian fishermen tried to charge him for cooking on a local quay he carried on regardless with his trademark bottle of wine to hand, barking orders at his cameraman who was probably fearing for his safety. Why did Floyd act like this? Because he could. Empirical attitude or not, he honestly just wanted to do the best that he could with the gifts that were given to him. He was the first of the TV chefs. And possibly still the best.

Sadly, more and more of these great British icons are disappearing from this Earth and in their place is a vacuum of personality and entertainment. Gone are the risk takers. The eccentrics. The old soaks. Why? Who knows. Even when celebrities do self destruct these days, they do it with so little charm that it becomes unsurprising, almost as if it is all an act, just to get the publicity. Look at Kerry Katona’s This Morning slurring. Jack Tweed’s (alleged) rape. Peter Andre and Jordan’s oh so public marriage and inevitable split. These are not world-weary travellers. These are not experienced hell-raisers. These are kids who got a lucky break and threw it back in the face of those who gave it to them.

It makes me sound and indeed feel old, but I can’t help but think back to a sadly bygone age. To those who gave so much to the world but who sadly get so little recognition for the great things they truly achieved.

Fruit

I am getting rather annoyed by the abundance of fruit at the moment. There is a diet going on everywhere around me and all it seems to consist of is dead, rotting apple cores, leaky banana skins and smelly orange peel everywhere.

I never have been one for fruit, I have an innate distrust of things that grow on trees where flies and bumblebees can eat them. Don’t get me wrong, I eat my greens, but vegetables are a whole different kettle of, er, fish. You (usually) cook a vegetable. A lot of them grow underground where it is safer.

So why do people have to chomp on fruit? I mean, imagine if I started chowing down on a cauliflower at my desk. I would get sectioned. No, fruit is the devil’s work.