#OnTheRoad On Instagram: Isles Of Scilly

For the next few days on Instagram, Gadling is off to the Isles of Scilly.

The Isles of Scilly sit about 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall, which occupies the far southwest of England. The islands, just five of which are inhabited, are known for their mild Gulf Stream-enabled climate, white sand beaches, palm trees, turquoise waters and historic gardens. Tourism is the local economy’s chief motor; the islands are also known for their flower industry.

The smallest of England’s 326 districts with around 2200 inhabitants, the Isles of Scilly are an understated place popular with families and a smattering of British celebrities. Both seem to like the islands for their carefree, relaxed atmosphere. But while the islands are dotted with a few high-end properties and restaurants, they are largely devoid of the glitz and flash associated with many celebrity haunts.

I’m not headed down Scilly way for celebrities, by the way. I’ll be there for quiet walks, bicycle rides, fresh seafood and, weather willing, some spring warmth.

Do you have any photos you’d like to share with a larger audience? Mention @GadlingTravel in your own photo AND use the hashtag #gadling and your photo will be considered for a future Photo Of The Day.

[Image: Flickr | rodtuk]

Eurovision 2013: All Of Europe Under One Roof

Launched in 1956, Eurovision is a Europe-wide music competition held every May under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participating countries select their representative songs over the course of the preceding winter and spring. Some countries – like Sweden – make their selections via televised heats held over several consecutive weeks. Others – like the U.K. (this year, at least) – make their selections by internal committee.

Eurovision is a major event in Europe, with a remarkable 125 million viewers.

Nowadays, Eurovision lasts for almost an entire week. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are now so many participating countries – 39 this year; even more in recent years – that two semi-finals are required to winnow down contestants to a manageable tally for the grand final. After semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday, this year’s final will be held later today in Malmö, Sweden. (Sweden won Eurovision last year, and with its win came the right to host this year’s contest.)Eurovision is not generally considered to be a showcase for serious music, and few global stars emerge from it. One very notable exception is ABBA, who turned their 1974 win with “Waterloo” into enormous international success. In lieu of musical seriousness, the event unleashes a kind low-impact skirmish of muted patriotisms and a massive gay following.

For many countries, participation in Eurovision is a rite of passage, a sign of progress. An Israeli friend once told me that in the late 1970s her family would dress up to watch Eurovision in their living room. This symbolic appeal of Eurovision remains especially strong in some Eastern European countries and the Caucasus today.

All members of the European Broadcasting Union can participate in Eurovision. This fact explains Israel‘s participation. Other EBU members beyond the borders of Europe include Morocco (who participated just once, in 1980) and several countries that have never participated: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. True Eurovision nerds will tell you that Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Liechtenstein have all submitted applications for EBU membership.

So right, tonight. The odds have Denmark‘s Emmelie de Forest, Norway‘s Margaret Berger (with likely the strongest straight-up pop song, a little piece of driven magic titled “I Feed You My Love”), Ukraine‘s Zlata Ognevich, Azerbaijan‘s Farid Mammadov and Russia‘s Dina Garipova at the top of the pile.

In addition to these, Hungary, Romania and Greece have emerged as fan favorites. ByeAlex, the Hungarian entrant, sings a lush, quietly earnest song called “Kedvesem.” The singer looks like a quiet, earnest Mission District hipster; he distinguished himself in the press conference for the second semi-final winners on Thursday night by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Romania’s entry, sung by a countertenor opera singer named Cezar, is an instant Eurovision dance classic with a particularly over-the-top choreography. The Greek entry, by Koza Mostra featuring rebetiko singer Agathonas Iakovidis, combines folk, punk and rebetiko themes.

For those who follow Eurovision obsessively, the event itself is a kind of quasi-religious experience. The line between fandom and evangelism is imprecise for this tribe, many of whom attend Eurovision regularly. This week in Malmö, the Eurovision tribe is everywhere, sharing the gospel of playful but somehow meaningful pop music. The photo above, taken yesterday, gets at some of the gospel’s magic. It’s simple and interpersonal. Koza Mostra’s lead singer, Elias Kozas, has swapped flags with a German Eurovision fan. No negotiations. No conflict. No international frustrations. Just a snapshot of a moment within which flags don’t matter much.

Mayotte’s Zam-Zam: Restaurant And Launchpad

Last month I visited Mayotte, an island located between Madagascar and Mozambique in the Mozambique Channel. Mayotte is part of the Comoros archipelago, but unlike the rest of the Comoros, it is part of France.

In 1975, when the rest of the Comoros became independent, Mayotte elected to remain with France. In 2011, the association got even tighter when Mayotte became an overseas department of France. But despite its integration into France, Mayotte is a world apart from the mainland. Its population is largely Sunni Muslim and its most common language is not French but Shimaore, a tongue related to Swahili.

Mayotte is incredibly lush. There are lemurs and lizards on the land, dolphins skipping along the surface of the sea, and huge bats with wingspans as wide as eagles hovering above. The diving and snorkeling is world-class, reefs buzzing with life. The tourist infrastructure is operated largely by métros, or French people from metropolitan France. It would be easy to spend an entire vacation there enveloped by a “métro” bubble. It became clear very quickly that we would have to make an effort to engage with Comorian culture.

I was keen to try Comorian food. Food is a good route to a sense of culture – maybe the best. The Petit Futé guide to Mayotte lists a favorable review of Zam-Zam, a restaurant in the southern town of Bandrélé, conveniently near our guesthouse. One afternoon we set out to find it. After a 15-minute walk we came across a sign for it. A man saw us looking around and pointed to a yellow shack on a side street. He told us the restaurant would reopen later that evening.That man turned out to be Abdou, the owner of Zam-Zam. A friendly fellow originally from the island of Grand Comore, Abdou was charming and eager to chat. His English is good, too. On an island where few people speak any English at all, this was appreciated.

The food at Zam-Zam was fantastic. There was coconut chicken with a delicious, perfumed rice, mataba (cassava leaves cooked in coconut milk with fish) and pilao, a spicy chicken and rice dish sharpened with coriander and cumin. This was the best meal we had in Mayotte without a doubt. It was so good in fact that we returned later in the week for lunch.

Abdou is an entrepreneur. When he brought over the check he handed us a brochure with photos of his rental property and restaurant in Bangoi-Kouni in the north of Grand Comore, the most populous island in the independent country of the Comoros. The images got under my skin. Shot in a friendly, amateur vein, they depict white sand beaches, a simple thatched cabin nearly enveloped by equatorial greenery and Abdou’s son stretching out his arms in front of a lake. The brochure suggests “sea excursions, traditional fishing, cooking classes and musical evenings.”

Mayotte may not be major tourist destination but it has an easy, familiar infrastructure for visitors. Independent Comoros, however, can claim far less in the way of tourist infrastructure. And this is why Abdou’s brochure is of such interest. An invitation turns difficult places into easier ones. Abdou’s brochure, it seemed to me, was a true invitation to take the plunge and visit Grand Comore.

In other words, if his kitchen can take such good care of me on Mayotte, I’m quite sure his rental house would do the job on Grand Comore.

This is one piece of marketing collateral I won’t be recycling anytime soon.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

My Mini-Holiday In Sweden

A few weeks ago I went to Sweden. I’d planned to spend the week doing research elsewhere, but when I sat down to actually review the visa requirements for said place it became clear that I simply didn’t have time to pull everything off without more lead time. So, with a few “spare” days ahead of me, I decided to go to Stockholm to see some old friends instead.

I flew out from London on a Tuesday night, exiting Arlanda just before midnight into foggy autumnal air. (Yes, I know that it’s spring, but “spring air” is usually a projection of warm things to come. When I arrived it was cold but not frigid. It felt like autumn.)

M was waiting for me at the airport bus stop near her apartment in the hazy cold. We walked back to her flat and talked about her dance class and its bewildering social networks. Then I fell asleep until 10:30. I woke up, made myself coffee and helped myself to breakfast and realized, again, that her flat is one of my favorite places in the world. Don’t we sometimes fall in love with the ways our friends live? M’s flat is of a perfect scale. Everything has a purpose, and there are many whimsical things – a postcard collection, an obscene refrigerator magnet, a to-do list for an upcoming trip.

I walked to Willys, the discount market in the enormous public housing project next to her flat and replaced the breakfast I had just eaten. I returned, cleaned the kitchen, and walked down to the nearby train station to ride into Stockholm proper. It had been a few hours of perfect idleness in a place familiar yet novel. It was going on 1 p.m. and I’d done nothing of note. I was content.

This became my pattern. My two-and-a-half days were days of idleness. I didn’t go to a single museum or tourist site. I tried, half-heartedly, to reserve a table at a buzzy restaurant or two. I failed, but this seemed to be of little consequence. I was having too much fun doing nothing.Here are some examples of nothing. I drank beer with T and we discussed next year’s elections and his upcoming date with a handsome Greek fellow. On another evening, A made me dinner, a slightly Asian variation on the fiskbullar (fish balls) that are a drab staple of school menus across Sweden. His were anything but boring, cod with flavorful basil in a cream-coconut milk sauce. His wife N arrived late from work and read a short story to her daughter in their mother-tongue after we ate. We talked until late.

I walked through some of my favorite parts of Stockholm, deciding that Vasastaden is my new fantasy relocation neighborhood. I ate salmon sandwiches. I drank lots of coffee, the best of which was pulled at Mean Coffee (Vasagatan 38).

I bought two beautiful ceramic cups by the exquisite craftsman Jonas Lindholm, on sale at Konsthantverkarna, a crafts guild. And, smitten again by the everydayness of Scandinavian objects, I bought broad plastic butter knives, salty liquorice, liquid soap and magazines to take home.

These were inconsequential days, yet my short break felt like the most meaningful holiday I’d had in quite some time. Most importantly, I suppose, none of what I experienced was fungible. I couldn’t have had this short, idle break anywhere but Sweden. Even the most mundane components of the trip were fully Swedish.

Now I’m going to ruin everything with an imprecise, half-baked aphorism. Some of the best travel is unplanned and idle and eventless, especially perhaps in places you love, places inhabited by people you treasure.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

In Praise Of Travel Lists

Travel lists get a lot of grief. I’ve overheard many fellow travel writers offer the opinion that lists of various sorts are deeply inferior to any and all narrative travel writing. Others have suggested that lists are slowly crowding out real travel writing entirely.

C’mon now.

Let’s agree for a few provisional minutes that the purpose of travel writing is, very generally, to inspire people to think about travel. (Why not? This is a good goal, all things considered.) Few genres of writing are better suited to achieving this goal than travel lists – lists of destinations, hotels, beaches, restaurants and so on. A list written by an expert can feel like an extended secret, like an invitation to experience the world differently.

Lists at their best are efficient. They cover key territory and reduce unnecessary noise. They reveal their writers’ passions directly. Are they the ticket to cross-cultural understanding? Not usually, but then very few traditional travel stories, no matter how drenched they may be in self-importance, ever accomplish this end.

Let’s take this past Saturday’s print edition of Guardian Travel as an example of the value of travel lists. The section was full of inspiring ideas in list form – summer holiday recommendations, adventures in south-west England, and cool accommodations on the Isle of Wight. There’s a more bullet-point-like list of upcoming holiday festivals in the UK as well.

The summer holiday recommendations kick off with some exciting suggestions about corners of France slightly off the beaten path, written by Jacqueline Mirtelli of Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency. Mirtelli suggests Cap Corse, the little-visited peninsula on the northern coast of Corsica, and finishes off her tip list with the inland villages of the Var, a region in Provence. Elsewhere Michael Cullen of i-escape tips the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Simon Wrench of Inntravel suggests the Danish Riviera, and Lucy Kane of Rough Guides lists Tbilisi, Palma and Montenegro as her summer travel recommendations.

In this short round-up piece the excitement of summer travel is infectious and inspiring. There is information here, and more importantly there are multiple jumping-off points for research. Could this sort of generalized excitement be achieved by one longer piece on, say, the Amalfi Coast? I’m doubtful that it could.

Like many absolutist stands that we travel writers get sidetracked into on occasion, the resistance to lists is misplaced. The wholesale replacement of narrative by lists would be a terrible development for sure; shy of that, there’s no need to attack the humble list. There is, however, as always, a need across genres for high-quality versions of all types of writing.

[Image of Cap Corse: Flickr | cremona daniel]