Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there


Is there a cure for wanderlust?
17/05/2010, 22:34
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At the weekend, I caught myself eyeing up the prices of apartments in Brooklyn. Again. I’ve been reading up on Norway after noticing a budget airline had launched a route from North East England to Oslo, a city and a country I’m yet to visit. My head is packed to the brim with dates and prices for visiting my mum in Ontario, to book a handful of days in Barcelona, while I wander whether I can return to New Zealand some day soon.

And then there’s the voice telling me to simply sling some clothes into a bag and disappear into the world.

In short, I have a severe case of wanderlust. It’s been building for the past few weeks, to the point where it’s now overwhelming. It’s excruciating. I don’t stress that for the sake of effect – there’s a considerable sense of panic, claustrophobia even, if I dwell the situation for too long.

Image by adamjackson1984 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But of course, there’s the reality of the situation. Money. Work. A manic few months ahead. I might escape for a couple of days in June, otherwise it’s the end of September before I can seriously consider travelling. The wait feels as if it’s going to kill me.

Yawning spans of time between trips are par for the course, because we have to scrimp and save to afford them, or we need to commit to the mundane trivialities of what some laughingly refer to as real life. So how do you quench your thirst? How you stem the loss of hours to idle daydreaming? If you’re a serial traveller, how do you stop your feet itching when you can’t travel just yet? Let me know in the comments.



Closer to home, the Central bar in Gateshead
07/05/2010, 17:51
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Dear me. I’ve been a little slack around these parts recently. Sorry about that. Lots to tell you about, and I’ll endeavour to do so in the coming days. I’ve loads to share about my trip to NYC in March, and news of perhaps the most daunting challenge of my life to date. More soon.

Meanwhile, the Twitchhiker book is into its third draft – currently there’s 25 per cent off if you order from Amazon; I’m not sure whether a book being reduced before it’s finished is good or bad news, but you could always buy it and judge for yourself. It won’t be 25 per cent worse for it, I’m certain of that.

Closer to home in Gateshead, and at something of a tangent to anything else mentioned so far, one of my favourite buildings is undergoing a facelift. The Central bar dates back to the mid 19th Century, and while it might be a hostelry I rarely frequented until recently (the ash-stained, toothless pensioners preferred their own company), it’s an adorable structure.

Designed in 1854 (the year of the Great Fire of Gateshead) and known locally as the Coffin, it occupies a wedge of land at the south west corner of the iconic Tyne Bridge. At the time it was built, the surrounding streets were the bustling thoroughfares of the town; Gateshead East railway station stood on the bridge immediately behind the Central.

In the decade since I moved to Gateshead, I’ve watched this corner of the world slowly regenerate from a slag-blackened heap of rubble and industry, and I’m delighted that somebody had the foresight to preserve one of the town’s most charismatic buildings. The Central was recently bought by a local bar chain who have spent tens of thousands of pounds restoring the brickwork, and after several months the covers and scaffolding have been removed:

Compare it to how the Central looked before the renovations began, in a photo by Paul White. Now the exterior is finished, work will start on the interior; the Central has a rather dubious past if you listen to the scuttlebutt, with hotel rooms on the first floor rented by the hour.

Soon it’ll be a live music venue with a rooftop bar, and will surely be one of the finest night-time venues in the region. If you’re passing through the north east of England in the coming months, make the effort to drop by; it’s a wonderful building in a neighbourhood that will blossom in the next couple of years, and I’ll probably be propping up the bar once or twice in there a week.



The Twitchhiker book – done! Sort of. Nearly.
05/04/2010, 16:12
Filed under: twitchhiker book | Tags: ,

It’s been deathly quiet round these parts for the past month, and with good reason – I’ve been trying to finish the first draft of the Twitchhiker book. I’m bloody thrilled to say that I completed the manuscript yesterday evening, with 85,903 glorious words, and only five weeks after my deadline passed.

I’ll tell you more about the writing process at some point, suffice to say it was the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. And there’s still oodles of work to be done; as this is the first draft, I’ve now got to work with my editor Lucy at Summersdale on revising the text and crafting it into better shape – editing, deleting, expanding where appropriate.

So lots to do, then, but I can now sleep a little more soundly. It also means if you’ve pre-ordered the Twitchhiker book on Amazon (and I’d be delighted if you did) there’s a far better chance of you receiving it, as opposed to a couple of months ago when the words were still locked in my head and stubbornly refusing to spill out through my fingers.

I’ll let you know more as and when I can, and hopefully I’ll be able to let you see the fabulous cover too, which was produced by @JO_PARRY_ART. It’s worth buying for that alone, as well as the foreword by the delectable @jemimakiss. Hooray!



The Shorty Awards – a very good night (and day) in NYC
04/03/2010, 19:27
Filed under: travel, twitchhiker project | Tags: , ,

So the Twitchhiker project won a Shorty Award! It’s very nice and shiny. Best of all, even though I stopped out til 4.30 this morning, which culminated in necking shots with a former Navy Seal who did three tours in Vietnam, the award is intact. No chips, no cracks, base still attached. Result.

I met plenty of brilliant people last night, the highlights being shaking hands with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and having a beer with Janis Krums, who helped push Twitter in the mainstream with a single photo. I also got to meet my fellow finalists, including @newyorkology – one of the finest Twitter users out there (and Amy’s website is pretty cool, too). The company was great, the bar was free. Perfect.

If you voted, thank you. If you supported the Twitchhiker project last year – whether you followed from afar, provided words of encouragement, offered to put me up on your sofa, shouted me a beer, drove me from here to there – then this really is your award, because it simply wouldn’t have happened without your involvement.

So to summarise: I’m in New York, I have no hangover, the award is in one piece and Stephen Fry has been in touch. Not the best day of my life, but a very good one.



Old New York vs new New York
24/02/2010, 17:54
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I never had any love for history until I visited New York. The city lends itself to urban exploration, watching the neighbourhoods and architecture of the city morph from block to block.

The Downtown Alliance published this photo on Twitter earlier, and it’s the sort of thing I can look at for hours – it’s a map of Manhattan as it was in the early 17th Century before it was settled, with the current outline and streets superimposed on top:


It isn’t just Battery Park City (at the top of the image) that was built on top of landfill – several hundred acres of land were added all the way around Manhattan as debris from foundations was dumped onto the shorelines.

If you’ve stood in Battery Park and looked back at the city, you’ll notice the skyscrapers of Manhattan come to an abrupt halt. That’s because they’re built on the original island in place of previous buildings, and the park was created from scratch in the 19th century.

Aside from forests, Manhattan also used to be covered in marshland and rivers. They’ve all been built over (aside from the forests at the Northern tip of Manhattan in Inwood), but you can still see the history. In the centre of the map, I noticed a stream meeting the original shoreline of the East River, and that just upstream there’s a street that appears to follow its course. A quick check of Google Maps reveals it to be Maiden Lane – immediately the name stands out because you don’t find many ‘lanes’ in Manhattan. The fact that it cuts across other streets also suggests it follows the path of an ancient river. And in fact, it did.

Of course, history’s everywhere you look, but New York gets me every time.



The 2010 World Traveller Internship – get moving!
08/02/2010, 20:54
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So here it is, your round-the-world itinerary for this Summer: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil and the US. Brilliant.

How much is all of this going to cost you? Nothing.

What’s the catch?

You have to win the STA Travel’s 2010 World Traveller Internship – so less of a catch, more of a competition. Somebody’s got to see those sights, however, so it might as well be you.

I’ve pleased to be lending a hand in judging the third round of the contest, so I thought I’d tell you a little about it.

Not only is this internship about experiencing the world, it’s about sharing those experiences¬† – perhaps through blog posts, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or my favourite platform of the moment, audioBoo. So during the judging round we’ll take an interest in you if you’re ravenous to travel, but also if you’re capable of engaging an audience, narrating a story, allowing others to walk by your side, to see the world through your eyes, to travel vicariously through you.

Interested? Of course you are. See the 2010 World Traveller Internship website here, and read more about the entry process here. There’s also a video of the Internship launch worth watching on YouTube.

A word of advice – if you want this opportunity, get in there now. To reach the second round, you to among the 50 most popular entries, so you’ll stand a better chance if you enter soon and drum up votes from friends and colleagues. Good luck!



I heart Barcleona, again (but hold your horses)
04/02/2010, 18:27
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Not so long ago, I was quite rude about Barcelona. It had been a favourite haunt of mine, just a few pounds and a couple of hours away via budget airline, but a series of events seriously soured my love for the city.

Last month I returned after a year’s absence – the first time for a week to knuckle down and write, the second time to celebrate my first wedding anniversary. Had anything changed? I think so. Barcelona certainly felt more accommodating. There was a higher police presence in the city centre and along La Rambla, and despite inclement weather there were plenty of people enjoying the streets.

El Ravel, the slums of the old city that have been gentrified in the last decade, is finally enjoying a trickle of curious tourists – the redevelopment of La Rambla Del Raval is drawing people through and into the neighbourhood. That’s not to say there weren’t some characters still hanging about outside Bar Marcella. While writing I’d stopped in Sant Antoni, the neighbourhood to the west of El Ravel, very working class with few attractions for the tourists. Again, the streets were quiet and safe after dusk.

Whether the authorities have dealt with the issue of gang crime and prostitution or simply moved it along, is another story. It’s a problem that Barcelona has never seemed to solve satisfactorily, but at least now it’s not so blatantly obvious as it was when it made front page news in Spain last year. I didn’t like that Barcelona very much.

That said, you still need to stick to the rules. Leave everything you can in the hotel – if you don’t need a handbag or backpack, don’t take it. If an opportunist doesn’t try and mug you, they may slash the bottom of the bag to steal. Wallets, phones, purses – inside a jacket that’s zipped up, or front trouser pockets only. You get the idea.

I didn’t stray too far from the city centre on the second occasion, but discovered loads of new treats such as Carrer de Josep Anselm Clave in the Old Town, a narrow street away from the base of La Rambla and running parallel to the sea front. It’s chock full of restaurants and bars, including the delectable Margarita Blue, which promises live trapeze acts through the week. Nearby Carrer Ample and Carrer de la Merce have an abundance of stops, too. In fact there’s a whole night out waiting for you in just these three streets.


And this, by the way, was what happened when I asked for a reccommendation from the locals in an El Born restaurant. Ladies and gentlemen, horse pizza. I’ll try anything once. But not necessarily twice.




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