War movies are a tricky thing to make and to appreciate. The best ones are often anti-war, for war is not a pleasant thing, but at the same time they have to be able to keep the audience engaged, either through entertaining or by making people think. It’s a difficult balance to keep and not many film makers are able to pull this off successfully. Here’s my top eleven of the best war movies of all times. Because why have ten, when you can do eleven.

11. The Hurt Locker

Before Kathryn Bigelow went down the torture-is-good-for-America rabbit hole, she made the rather excellent The Hurt Locker. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and beating her ex-husband’s Avatar at the pip, this is one of the most intense movies on the list. Bigelow, who got her action movie street cred with the 1991 Point Break about bank-robbing surfers, brings the story of a bomb disposal expert to nail-biting life.  Hitchcock once explained how to create suspense with the example of two men having a conversation. In the first version of this story the men speak for five minutes, when suddenly a bomb explodes at the end of the scene. No suspense. In the second version, the audience is shown the bomb at the start of the conversation, ensuring you move ever closer to the edge of your seat as the trivial discussion continues. Ergo, suspense. The Hurt Locker is 131 minutes of unbearable moments waiting for that bomb to go off.

10. Inglourious Basterds

In all its mis-spelled gloury this is Quentin Tarantino’s take on the swashbuckling World War II romp, a la Kelly’s Heroes. I find Tarantino one of the more frustrating figures in my movie-going life. I fell in love with his work in the nineties when I was studying film and I thought Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were the most refreshing thing to come into movies in a long, long time. Since then, each new movie by him fills me with equal parts of pleasure and disappointment. Pleasure at the sheer (and always growing) skill he brings to making them. Disappointment that he is still stuck in the nineties modus operandi he set with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown: Take a genre. Distill main character and plot cliches. Add a dash of the unexpected. Wink at the audience.

Inglourious Basterds follows that blueprint to a tee. We have the band of brothers made up of quirky stock characters. The impossible mission to execute. The over the top rewriting of history. And Brad Pitt speaking in hilariously atrocious Italian. Tarantino shows his genius as a film maker in two scenes. One a chat between a French peasant hiding a Jewish family and the one of a kind Colonel Hans Landa. The other a tense scene set in a wine cellar where any moment the heroes may blow their cover. Brilliant pieces of film making, but at the end of each Tarantino movie I can’t help but wonder what would happen if he ever threw his rule book out the window.

9. The Longest Day

They don’t make them like they used to. In the first few decades after World War II, the movies that came out were often star-studded vehicles giving wide panoramas of the main battles and events that shaped history. To me The Longest Day is the best example of this genre. Shot in black and white and released in 1962 it tells the story of the D-Day invasion and the battle for the Normandy beaches and hinterlands that set up the final defeat of the Nazi regime. It’s also a who’s who of famous actors of the day (a cinematic Live Aid if you will) with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton and Sean Connery among others gracing the screen. It was one of the first movies we had on video at home (having recorded it off the television) and I must have seen it at least a dozen times as a teenager. Filled with iconic scenes, from the interminable waiting for the weather to turn, to the first sight of the invading fleet by a lone German watchmen, The Longest Day is 3 hours of cinematic history.

8. The Thin Red Line

From the great spectacle of The Longest Day we now make a complete U-turn to the introspection that’s offered by Terrence Malick’s war movie. Though not bereft of impressive battle scenes itself, Malick is much more interested in the experience of the individual soldier. As a viewer, instead of being treated to wide aerial shots, you find yourself crawling through the grass on far away Pacific islands as contemplations on the meaning of life pass through the narrator’s head. It’s an almost a dreamlike child’s perspective (which Malick would later perfect in his 2011 masterpiece Tree of Life) and it makes you aware of the incongruity of so much bloodshed in such beautiful, earthly surroundings.

7. De Aanslag (The Assault)

The winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture in 1986, this Dutch movie tells of the assasination of an NSB officer and the repercussions this had during the war and in the decades following. It is based on the book by Harry Mulisch, which I read in high school and is one of many excellent World War II works by Dutch authors in the first half a century after the war. It is not your typical story of great battlescenes and brave heroism. Instead, it explores the sometimes depressingly commonplace reasons that led people to make the choices they made and the terrible consequences these had along the line. War is not always a tale of great good versus great evil. It is one of questionable people caught up in their own actions.

6. L’Armee des Ombres

Many war movies deal with the raw images, the intense fighting scenes and the unbearable tensions of life at its most violent. Then there are movies which explore the opposite, for after war often comes occupation and continuing the fight becomes an excercise in subterfuge instead of muscle power. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is one of the most stylish and memorable explorations of this quiet fight, focusing on the French resistance during World War II. Melville, who is mostly known abroad for his ultra suave Le Samourai, a movie about a lone hitman, which proved an inspiration for Tarantino and the like decades after its 1967 release, here delivers a film that shows the extreme courage required to continue the struggle from the shadows. There are many powerful scenes where someone’s life hangs on the ability to keep emotions from showing up under pressure. One scene has stayed with me. In it a member of the resistance has been taken prisoner and is brought to an empty ground. A machine gun is lined up on one side. The prisoners are told that if they reach the other side alive they will be spared. Do you accept the rules laid down by the Germans, run and perhaps live another day or do you not and die.

5. Grave of the Fireflies

Whoever out there still thinks that cartoons are only for kids, should immediately find a copy of Grave of the Fireflies. This is one of the most heartbreaking movies I have ever seen. It follows two children during the final months of World War II as they struggle to survive in a devastated country. After their parents pass away they leave their fire-bombed home town and stay with their aunt in the country. But food is scarce and the scarcity makes people harsh. The two young boys are sent away and find refuge in an abandoned cave. There they try to stave off starvation, but life is increasingly difficult, only the light of the fireflies keeping them company. This is not a story with a happy ending, but it is exquisitely told and beautifully animated.

4. Full Metal Jacket

This movie to me is the Abbey Road of film. One half is as brilliant as cinema gets, the other while not bad by any means (there’s no Octopus’s Garden here) is never able to live up to the promise of the first. To speak of the better half first. Kubrick’s Vietnam war drama, starts off in bootcamp. In the first few minutes every new soldier’s personality is stripped from him as his hair is shaved off and he is put in army garb, housed in an army barrack, living by army rules. The genius is in the way that Kubrick throws us into the same state of confusion as these recruits. For the first fifteen minutes or so, it is difficult to make out the individual characters as they are battered by the inspired expletive-filled monologue of the drill instructor. Slowly, they begin to take on personality, but quickly danger creeps in as one of the recruits breaks under the pressure. Then the scene changes and we are in Vietnam. From this point on the movie slips into a more conventional mold, with fighting scenes highlighting the futility and violence of war. Still good, but not as magnificent as its opening.

3. Das Boot

Three hours of sweaty, nervous men, cooped up inside the claustrophia inducing hull of a German submarine, or four hours if you’re lucky enough to have the mini-series version instead of the theatrical cut. It’s hard for me to explain why this movie is so good. It’s a bit like trying to explain my love for Lawrence of Arabia: three-and-a-half hours of desert. For some reason that doesn’t quite do it justice. Das Boot is a German movie about the crew of a U-boat prowling the Atlantic for prey, then becoming the prey itself. This is an expertly made movie, by a director who knows how to create suspense and hold it to an agonizing degree as one depth-charge after another explodes and bolts start coming loose at the bottom of the sea. The movie was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who would later be corrupted by Hollywood and torpedoe what was left of his own career with the dismal Troy, but here he shows what movies he can make.

2. Apocalypse Now

One of the movies that made me love movies. I first saw Apocalypse Now late one night on German television. Where I grew up we had two (later three) Dutch channels, which rarely showed any movies, and three German ones that frequently did. Unfortunately they did so in German, so my first exposure to the famous Marlon Brando scene ended with ‘Das Grauen. Das Grauen’ instead of ‘The horror. The horror.’  Nevertheless, I fell in love with it. This is just a war movie in the same way that the Odyssee is just about the return leg of a holiday trip. Coppola took Conrad’s novel, used Vietnam as a backdrop and then elevated it to something epic, something dreamlike, a journey up the river and into the heart of darkness that lies within all of us. Many scenes stand out, the famous helicopter attack to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Robert Duvall at the beach and the surreal sound and light shows of the USO performance and the bridge where American influence ends. The movie comes in a redux version as well these days, which adds a scene set on an old French plantation and a second one with the girls from the army show. They fill out more details of the story, but in my opinion the original version is the way to go. It is much more tightly pace and leads inexorably to its jungle climax. A great movie. Even in German.

1. Come and See

Which brings us to number one. This is a movie that I hadn’t seen until a few years ago. I had never even heard of it before, even though it came out in 1985. Made by the Russian director Elem Klimov, it follows a young boy as he wanders through the Belarus countryside at the height of the German occupation. He joins a local band of partisans but gets separated from them during a bombing raid. He tries to go home, but finds no one there, and searches for a nearby island in the swamp where he hopes they could be hiding. As he runs away to leave his home behind, the camera swoops back ever so briefly revealing the massacred bodies piled up behind the building, before rejoining the running boy. It’s one the many moments that stay with you long after the film has finished. As the boy continues his journey he ages visibly in front of the camera, turning from a naive youth into an old man who has seen too many things. The movies culminates in an extraordinary scene in which a German command burns down a village (one of 628 to have suffered this fate according to the closing titles). Come and See was released in the Soviet Union on the fortieth anniversary of the Soviet victory in the war and was a huge box office hit there. It deserves to be seen much more abroad as well.

Honorable mentions

Movies that didn’t make the cut but are worth watching nonetheless.

Flags of our Fathers / Letters from Iwo Jima. Two Clint Eastwood directed movies centered around the same battle, showing opposing perspectives. The juxtaposition makes for interesting viewing.

Der Untergang (Downfall). As famous these days for its internet meme, this movie focusing on the last days of Hitler’s life paints an intriguing portret.

Saving Private Ryan. Watch it for the first ten minutes as the D-Day landing unfolds in cinematic wizardry never seen before. Especially notable for its editing. The rest of the movie is a bit of a waste.

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The final island on our Caribbean tour was to be Trinidad. The larger part of the two-island state of Trinidad & Tobago, it lies only a few kilometers of the Venezuelan coast. Originally called Iëre – the island of the hummingbird – by the local population, Columbus, who sailed past it on his third journey renamed it to the somewhat generic Isla de la Trinidad. Still there’s some catchy names left in the names of the two channels that seperate Trinidad from Venezuela: the dragon’s mouth and the serpent’s mouth.

 

View of Port of Spain, with the dim outlline of Venezuela on the horizon.

 

The one word to know when coming to Trinbago is limin’. It’s the nation’s favorite pastime and means something like chilling, relaxing and generally having a good time. The people of Trinidad don’t enjoy working that much and contrary to the rest of the world, they actually decided to do something about it. The country has one of the highest numbers of public holidays anywhere in the world.

They start off with a base numer of 14 official public holidays, which have the nice habit of moving to a Monday whenever they fall in the weekend. They then add to that the inofficical public holidays, which aren’t really licensed, but nobody expects anyone to come to work regardless. An example would be the five days around carnival. As if that isn’t enough, there’s also the surprise public holiday. These are given at frequent intervals and normally coincide with some sort of joyous occassion. Any excuse will do. When we were there, it was the return of javelin gold medalist Keshorn Walcott from London which induced the prime minister to call a holiday for Monday at eight o’clock Sunday evening. And last but not least, there are of course the normal holidays that people are entitled to. If you put them all together, you will rarely have a five-day working week left.

 

When it’s a holiday in Port of Spain, the streets turn post-zombie-apocalypse dead.

 

We wandered around the airport a little looking for the driver our guesthouse had sent. A small crowd was beginning to form as soldiers were handing out little T&T flags. By the end of the morning that crowd had grown to 15,000 and several trucks filled with massive speakers blared out the sound of the steel drum bands playing on their roofs. Fortunately, we had gotten out just in time and made our way to the nation’s capital: Port of Spain.

Contrary to all the other islands we had visited on this trip, Trinidad doesn’t really have a tourist industry. The economy is built around the oil industry and most foreign visitors are expats or business travelers instead of cruise passengers. It was a refreshing change.

 

Office buildings in downtown Port of Spain.

 

The city itself was an interesting blend of cultures. After slavery had been abolished in the 19th century indentured laborers had been brought from China and particularly India to fill the gap on the sugar plantations. Today Indian-origin Trinidadians make up almost half the population, and they have stuck to their favorite foods, movies and gods.

 

The largest Hanuman statue outside of India.

 

Temple in the sea in Waterloo, Trinidad. The builder was not allowed to construct it on land by the English colonial rulers, so instead he created a small island just off the shore and built his temple there.

 

Unfortunately, due to the impromptu public holiday, and the two official ones that were to follow in the week ahead, all restaurants were closed with the exception of TGI-Fridays and its sort. So we ate burgers with milkshakes most of the time.

Come to think of it, American fast food chains occupy a disproportionate amount of real estate along the city’s main drags. The reason is quite simple: free advertising. As cable television swept through the region, it brought along all the US-based networks, which carry a lot of fast-food advertising. Locals figured out that all they had to do was purchase the franchise, and watch the money rolling in without spending a dime on getting customers through the door. So you can spot not only the big ones like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC, but also Wendy’s, Pappa Joes, Dunkin’ Donuts. You name it.

 

Trinidad’s favorite restaurant.

 

All in all, we spent almost ten days in Trinidad, most of them in Port of Spain, while taking a few trips to the northeast to watch baby turtles hatch, and to the south to see flocks of the country’s national bird, the scarlet ibis, fly across mangrove swamps. It was a relaxing end to our month in the Caribbean. And if there’s one thing that this country knows, it’s how to relax.

 

Scarlet Ibis in flight at Caroni Bird Sancuary.

When I was a kid, they used to show a commercial on TV for Bounty, the coconut filled chocolate bar. The tag line was Een Stukje Paradijs op Aarde: a piece of paradise on earth. It showed a tropical beach with the bluest of waters, softly swaying palm trees and a coconut falling and breaking neatly in half to reveal the white cocos on the inside. It’s what I imagined a tropical paradise would look like, and in the Grenadines we found a real life version of it.

After landing in Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent, the largest island in the group, we spent the Saturday roaming the busy market in the quaint little town. On Sunday, the streets were utterly abandoned, as people take their off-days quite seriously here, and we decided to head out the next day to one of the smaller islands in the Grenadines, which lie further to the south.

Vegetable and spice market in Kingstown.

A cargo ferry took us for an hour across the choppy channel to island of Bequia. As we entered the bay, we saw dozens of sailing boats anchored in the shallow waters. The main village on the island occuppied a narrow strip along the sea and houses were dotted across the hillsides that rose up from the white stretches of beach.

Sunset view Bequia bay.

Since there are no major resorts on the island, the village felt much more alive than any of the other places we’d visited so far, in spite of it being the low season. A string  of small bars and restaurants lined the waterside and a small walkway had been created that led past the lot of them. There was a nice beach at the end of the walkway, and two more a short watertaxi ride away.

The Guinness is Good in Bequai, though a little strong at 7.5%.

We stayed on Bequia for a week. Our routine was pretty simple: Wake up early in the morning for some breakfast and a swim. Have lunch and maybe visit one of the other beaches for more swimming and snorkling. Take a nap and go out in the evening for a cocktail or two and some dinner. Life was pretty hard out there.

Even at the local church, they take things in a relaxed kinda way.

As the island was so small, you soon got to meet many of the locals and we heard some of the stories. Even this far away from the business world, the impact of the recession was felt. Tourist numbers were down, a large cargo ship which was anchored on an enormous line and drifted across the bay had been put up for sale and left there for a year now, and a gorgeous hotel with many small bungalows was slowly collapsing in on itself as its owner had fled to France after apparently being hounded by the IRS for tax fraud.

Garden of an abandoned hotel in Bequai.

Nobody seemed too concerned by it all though. When the coconuts, mangoes and papayas still grow abundantly, and a cooling swim is a few meters away, you tend to worry a little less.

Evening fishing for a portion of sardines.

 

 

 

Having just finished the Camino de Santiago in June, I thought it would be useful to put down some general pointers for anyone who’s interested in walking this ancient pilgrims’ route themselves.

Our Compostellas. Written in Latin and where possible, carrying a latinized version of your name.

As a quick introduction, I walked the Camino in two parts. The first half, from Pamplona to Leon in 2004, and the second half a month ago from Leon to Santiago. In those eight years the interest in the Camino has increased enormously, with many websites, guidebooks and even a Hollywood movie (The Way), jumping on the bandwagon. As a sign of how mainstream it has become: My local outdoor store in Dublin had a special section of their floor devoted exclusively to the Camino.

As is to be expected, the number of people walking the route has increased dramatically as well, more than doubling over the last decade. This has caused especially the Camino Frances to become more crowded, but on the upside has also led to a wider variety of accommodation and other pilgrim facilities to be built.

So if you’re planning to go as well, here are some things to consider before setting out.

1. Which Route

Even though everyone speaks of the Camino as if it were one fixed route with a specific beginning and series of waypoints, there are in fact many ways to get to Santiago. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages would start on their doorsteps and walk towards Spain, meeting up with other pilgrims in the cities and towns of medieval Europe, such as Paris or Le Puy-en-Velay. Several routes became more or less standardized along the way.

A map showing the different routes through Spain and Portugal. You can of course start even earlier. Routes through France are quite popular.

The most common one that takes you through Spain today is the Camino Frances which usually begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, and passes through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon. Another route hugs the Atlantic coast and is known as the Camino del Norte. Additionally there are routes coming from Madrid, Portugal and even a short one from the coast where travellers from Ireland and England would have landed.

So which one should you take? The Camino Frances is the most popular. It passes through many medieval towns and villages and the uptick in pilgrims on this route means there is often a choice of albergues (hostel-like accommodation for pilgrims). They are rarely more than 10 kilometres apart. The downside is the other side of the popularity coin. You will not often walk out of sight of other pilgrims. In our nineteen days on the Camino this year, we had exactly one morning in which we did not pass or were passed by other pilgrims.

If you prefer the quiet, the Camino del Norte may be the way to go. The downside here is that there is less accommodation and the distances between albergues can be larger at times. Also, you won’t get to watch The Way and recognize all the spots that Martin Sheen is passing by.

One last pointer, whichever route you take, have a think on whether you want to start on the French or Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Each year a substantial amount of people wear themselves out on that first tough march across the mountains. It’s not compulsory. In fact, you only have to walk a hundred kilometres to get the coveted Compostella, so there.

2. When to go

Northern Spain is colder than you might think. I discovered this back in May 2004, when it started to snow a little after Burgos. Having packed one sweater and only a rain cape as outer wear, it was decidedly frosty. The lack of hot showers at the time didn’t help either, but that has mostly been remedied these days.

Rain clouds on the Alto de San Roque. The last peak (1,270m) before heading into the final stretch of the Camino in Galicia.

You can actually walk the Camino at any time of the year. Broadly speaking the seasons go like this:

Winter, from November to March. Can get very cold. Expect to have the Camino almost entirely to yourself. Expect to have to hunt around for keys to albergues as many of them will be closed.

Spring, from April to June. Generally mild conditions but always be prepared for extremes. It can snow in May, but temperatures can also rise to the high thirties centigrade. It gets busier on the route as the weeks pass in May and June.

Summer, July and August. Some like it hot. As most Spanish walk the Camino at this time, the route is at its busiest. Temperatures can touch the forties which leads to much night-time walking to avoid the summer heat.

Autumn, September and October. Very similar to spring conditions. Crowds are less than in the summer, but still busy enough and cold spells become more common as winter approaches.

Some general points:

You’ll always need a good windbreaker as weather can change quickly for the worse in the mountains.

The Meseta, the high plains between Burgos and Leon offer very little shade and can be difficult to cross in hot or stormy weather.

Galicia, the final province the Camino passes through is very green.  That’s because it rains there. A lot.

3. Fully equipped, no bags or bus tour

Traditionally, a pilgrim would put his belongings in a backpack, carrying a few sets of clothes, a sleeping bag and some toiletries and start walking. It gives a sense of freedom, being able to go as far as you like at any given day, and stopping where you will (accommodation permitting). Of course, it also means carrying a load on your back, though with modern light-weight materials that doesn’t need to add up to more than 10kgs.

The Camino gets busy with all sorts of walkers in the last 100 kilometers before Santiago.

These days, there are several other options.

The first is walking the full length of the Camino, but having your bags transported for you. You’ll only need to carry a day pack with water and some other necessities. The cost can be as little as €5 per day and pick-ups and drop-offs can be arranged with a quick phone call.

One thing to bear in mind is that some of the albergues do not allow ‘assisted’ pilgrims, so you may be more limited in your accommodation when you use a service like this. You can ensure a spot for the night by booking with an operator that offers full packages including hotel bookings, so you’re not dependent on the albergue network. Be aware, though, that if you book with one of these you are essentially committing to walking specific distances each day, and it’s hard to know how your body will hold up in advance.

The second option, for the less active among us, is the bus tour. It’s essentially a week-long, or ten-days, or whichever time period suits, journey in a bus that includes a bit of hiking each day. You stay in hotels, get to visit some other nearby sights and will be dropped on the Camino for a five to ten kilometre stretch of walking each day.  At that time you will be all fresh and happy as you traipse by the unfortunate pilgrims who’ve just lugged a heavy backpack up a mountain for the past three hours… through the rain… in the mud…  No, no, I’m not begrudging you your comfort. Not at all.

Two more quick tips

Shoes

And don’t take them off while drinking a coffee…

If there’s one thing that will determine your enjoyment of the Camino, it’s how well your shoes fit. Make sure that you have plenty of time to break them in. If you can, go to an established outdoor store, try on a couple of different pairs,  and don’t be afraid to go back if they’re causing you trouble. They don’t have to be expensive. Since the Camino is on relatively easy-going surface for the most part, you won’t need that high-end Mount Everest type of shoe. Personally, because of a weak ankle I prefer a boot, but plenty of people use walking shoes as well. Consider in-lay soles to cushion the impact on your knees and shins, as substantial parts of the Camino follow paved roads.

Poles/Sticks

People walk the Camino with no stick, one stick or a set of two hiking poles, and generally feel very strongly about their personal preference. The basic advantage is that using them takes weight off your legs; it can aid balance, and it prevents your hands from swelling as you keep them up by holding the stick. The disadvantage is that you always have a pair of sticks in your hands.  To me there are no real rules about this one, but you’ll probably have a preference for one or the other, so give them a go before setting out.

Enjoy the walk.

The Caribbean stretches out like a necklace from the coast of Venezuela in the South-East to the island of Cuba in the North-West. Almost all the islands are within sight of each other, which makes it easy to travel by boat, you would think, but unfortunately inter-island ferry connections are few and far between.

Martinique to St Lucia is one of the exceptions, though, and we made our way down to the docks to catch the fast ferry late in the afternoon. Fast ferries are the shipping equivalent of airplane travel. You have to arrive an hour or so early, get your baggage checked, and often you’ll have assigned seats and no way to even stand outside to enjoy the sea wind and splash of the waves. This one had a small deck at the back and after watching Fort-de-France disappear in the distance we went inside where ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ was playing on a TV. (It’s my favorite Matrix-movie, which probably requires another post to explain.)

Leaving Fort-de-France on the fast ferry.

We arrived in Castries, St Lucia, around 5.30 pm and were put in a long line to get through immigration. Travelling with an Indian passport always is adventurous in these kind of situations and this time was no different. Even though we had gone to the St Lucian consulate in Martinique and were told that Sujatha could get a visa on arrival, they had forgotten to mention one small detail. The ferry terminal doesn’t issue visas on arrival, period.

Apparently, only the airport immigration staff was in possesion of the required stamp, so the solution was for a driver to come pick us up at the ferry, drive us over to the airport, where we could get the thing done. After some lenghty discussions between immigration staff, we were told to have a seat by which time the entire ferry terminal was empty and all the security guys were just waiting for us to be picked up. They were pretty relaxed about it though. After another fifteen minutes, the driver still didn’t show, and they came up with a different solution. They would hold on to the passport and send it to the airport the next morning, where we could pick it up when leaving the island. As it was getting quite late by now, it had been an hour and a half since we arrived, we agreed, hoping that they couldn’t lose a passport in a country of only two hundred thousand people. Less people, less bureaucracy.

One of the security guys was friendly enough to hold back a taxi for us, and off we went into the St Lucian night. The thing to know about St Lucia is that it’s basically the top of a mountain range peaking out above the water. That means that the roads shoot up and down, curving through tropical forest and past chasms (which we couldn’t see in the dark), pretty much non-stop. A 26-mile ride takes about an hour. We made it to the Hummingbird Resort in Soufriere just in time to catch dinner service, and went to bed soon after.

View of that most perfectly triangular mountain. Petit Piton.

The next morning we woke up to a stunning sight. The resort, a collection of a dozen small bungalows and rooms, sat right on a sandy bay, and behind it rose the most perfect mountain you could imagine. Petit Piton. When you’re a child this is how you draw a mountain, a steep triangle rising sheer from the blue waters.

We ended up spending four days there. The resort was quiet and comfortable, it being the off-season, and the village had a few small restaurants and a great little coffee-shop overlooking the church square. Contrary to the Hummingbird, which sits at the edge of the village, most of the large resorts are hidden away on the beaches, valleys and hilltops of the surrounding area. The bulk of tourists that come here, only venture outside on organised tours, and it leaves the villages feeling a little dead. There’s pockets of wealth on the island, but it isn’t spread very well and local shops and restaurants don’t really benefit.

View from the pool at Hummingbird Resort, Soufriere.

The weather report in the Caribbean at this time of year always includes an update on any storms building over the Atlantic and on our second to last night in Soufriere a Tropical Storm watch was initiated. Ernesto, the first named storm of the season, was located some 900 kilometers to the south-east of St Lucia and moving towards the island at a rate of thirty kilometers an hour.

The next day fishermen started to secure their boats, but apart from that preparation was minimal, as the storm wasn’t seen to be strengthening significantly. Ernesto hit around six the next morning. We woke up to strong gusts of wind and sheet rain falling all around for the next hour or so. After that  the weather abated a little, but heavy showers fell every thirty minutes or so.

Ernesto rains down on the harbor in Castries, St Lucia.

We took a taxi back to the capital late in the morning. The roads were covered with fallen branches and we could see the occassional upturned tree on the hillsides. It took us about an hour again to get back to Castries, this time in full view of the chasms. The prime minister had shut down the country for the morning, which meant that all shops, the docks and airport were closed, and the empty streets had an eerie feeling.

At noon the all clear signal was given on TV, and we made our way to the airport to pick up Sujatha’s passport, which was lying already stamped at the immigration desk. The next morning, in between lashing rain, we went back to take a plane to St Vincent, as there is no ferry connection. Flight time, a massive eighteen minutes.

The Prime Minister and the Director of the Metereological Institute give the all clear.

I knew ahead of arriving that Martinique, a 128-square-kilometer island in the Lesser Antilles, would be quite French. It’s an official overseas department, it uses the Euro and its favorite sport is not cricket. Still, it’s a bit of a shock to see how French the island actually is.

The actual fort that Fort-de-France is named after. It’s still used by the French navy as a base today.

We arrived in Fort-de-France, the capital, named after the seventeenth-century fort that dominates the port and is still being used by the French navy, after a nine-hour flight from Paris. Driving downtown from the airport we passed a Carrefour, an Intersport, a Franprix and all the other retailers from the mainland. Not all that is French is popular, though. Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, who was born on the island is widely blamed for prolonging slavery as a ways to keep the family plantation going. They beheaded her after the fact.

Beheaded statue of Josephine in the city’s main park.

The city itself has a nice little center of small shops, bars and restaurants along the waterfront, where the island ferries pick up and drop off passengers. There is a beautiful library, shipped over in pieces from the Paris Exhibition, and a impressive cathedral in the centre. We had breakfast in a small cafe where they served coffee and stale croissants. Most of the locals seemed to be eating large baguettes with ham, cheese, chicken and other fillings, leaving the pastries to wilt in the display.

Schoelcher Library. Taken apart and sent by ship from Paris to Martinique.

We spent a day in Fort-de-France, and then rented a car to see the rest of the island. The roads are very well maintained and in no time we reached the former capital of St Pierre, which was burried by the eruption of a nearby volcano in 1902. Ironically, the only person to survive it was a slave who had been put in solitary confinement in a very sturdy prison cell. He went on to tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Ruins of the 700-seat theatre destroyed by the Mount Pelee eruption in 1902.

We then crossed the island, passing through rain forests to reach the Atlantic coast. Over the next few days we mostly relaxed, listening to the crash of the sea from the balcony of the small studio we rented, and visiting an old rum distillery and nearby plantation ruins. At night, the heat would dissipate a little, and a deafening chorus of chicadas, frogs and other insects would rise.

View on the Atlantic from our hotel on the Caravelle Peninsula.

As we drove back to the capital to catch our ferry to St Lucia, we passed a couple of old men standing by the beach in shorts, colorful shirts and flip-flops, playing a game of petanque. One of them had a fresh baguette under his arm as he looked on from beneath a palm tree.

I’m shocked looking at the last published post I made here: April 2010.

I started this blog in February 2007 to figure out what this whole blogging thing was about. Over the years I have apparently written 51 posts and gathered exactly 51 comments, which gives me a neat and low ratio of 1 (0r 100% which sounds a bit better).

I have received a total of 72,655 views over those five years. My busiest day was November 20th, 2008, with 296 views. It’s a bit peculiar since that was in the middle of a quiet period in which I hadn’t blogged for months. Sometimes inactivity is the best activity it seems.

My most popular post of all time is now ‘Funny Signs – What not to do in India’, with a massive 39k views. It contained 3 words and a picture. My least popular post is ‘Vive la France’  a 366-word piece on Sarkozy’s election. I got 4 views. Again, less is more. Or a picture speaks…

What else? My blog is most commonly found through the following search terms: ‘funny signs’, ‘goth loli’ and to round of the top three ‘japanese fashion’. Who knew?

Recently my stats have taken a bit of a dip, only hitting about 4 per day. So, time to bring this blog back to life.

Excellent little video in which the old-school video game characters strike back. Watch out for frogger and see if you can spot the C-64 sign :)

I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day as I slumped in front of my 360 blasting away mutants in full HD and reflected on the simplicity of video games of yore.  The C64 was the first real computer we had at home. I remember my brother and myself pooling our money with our dad, to become part owners of this miracle of modern technology. And though it was used for the occasional database application or beginners’ lessons in basic, to me it always remained a gaming machine first.

So in honour of countless rainy days spent loading games from tape or floppy, here’s my top 10 of best C64 games ever. These are only games I actually played, so a couple of classics may be missing.

10. Decathlon

Placed poetically at number 10, this sporting game extravaganza became the ruin of many a joystick. Only our original arcade survived the arm-numbing rattling, as we went through one poorly rendered athletics event after another. Gameplay was pretty much limited to how fast you could move the joystick left and right or up and down, with the final 1500 meters run being particularly painful. Still an honorable mention.

9. Colossal Cave Adventure/Hoehlenspiel

You are in a large cave. In front of you is a dragon.
Kill dragon
With  what? You bare hands?
Kill dragon with bare hands
The dragon is dead

Text adventures. The original interactive stories that leapt onto our monochrome computer screens in the 1970s, promising to take you to a magical land where legends were yours to be had at the input of 2-word commands. Go west, pick lock, drop bottle. I played dozens of them, drawing maps by hand to make sense of the illogical spaces, where retracing your steps could lead you somewhere else entirely. One of the earliest ported to the C64 was the original Adventure, which for some reason we had in German, so it was a language course and computer game wrapped in one. This surely was the limit of modern gaming.

8. Blue Max

One of the simplest games around. As a WWI fighter pilot you had to fly diagonally across the screen, taking out incoming baddies and dropping heavy ordinance on enemy arms factories. I’m putting it on the list just because we spent such an enormous amount of time playing it, getting ever further into German territory until you inevitably got shot down just before the end. The first game that got the mix of ascending difficulty just about right, as finishing it gave quite the rush.

7. Defender of the Crown

Now in all fairness I have to admit I played this game more on the Amiga than on the C64. On the latter the load times really got a bit on your nerves, but the core concept was still excellent. A knight in medieval England you go about conquering your neighbour’s lands, ransacking the odd castle and participate in jousting tournaments to woo your lady. If you ever wondered where those bodacious Evony ads get their inspiration from, it’s the original Defender of the Crown.

6. Turrican 2

One of the last games I actually owned on tape, which notched up the ratio of originally bought games to conveniently shared games to the 1% mark. Turrican 2 was simply excellent. Don’t ask me what the story was about. You played a Robocop lookalike, capable of such interesting transformations as turning into a moving circular saw, who had to shoot his way through a vast cave system. It had power ups galore, challenging boss battles and hidden bonus filled caves. Everything you still see in today’s 3d shooters.

5. A Bard’s Tale

The first Role Playing Game I’ve ever played, A Bard’s Tale took place within the stone walls of the bustling medieval city of Skara Brae, where a stranger striking up a conversation in the local tavern, always led to intrepid adventures. Looking back at the game, which at it’s core was a straightforward dungeon crawl, I’m amazed at the patience video games once required. Not only did you have to map out dozens of large labyrinths by hand or risk going in circles for hours, but you were forced to manage character inventories, leveling up, and of course walk into the wrong dungeon and you’d get killed every two minutes or so.

Still you were part of legend, bards sang songs of your brave deeds and many wintry nights went by in quest of Skara Brae’s deliverance.

4. Paradroid

A quirky little game this was. Starting off as a lowly maintenance bot, you scour the corridors of a mammoth space ship for other droids to take over. The battle for command was handled by a one-on-one puzzle game, and the stronger your opponent the smaller the chance of success. Get control over an armed robot and you could blast others from your path. We never quite managed to finish the game, but reading up on it on Wikipedia, my conscience is clear. It apparently had no end.

3. Maniac Mansion

Somewhere in the eighties people began to realize that reading and typing your way through a text adventure was perhaps not the most engaging and visual experience imaginable, so when LucasArts came along and created the SCUMM engine, there was a collective iPhone like, wow moment. The Script Utility for Maniac Mansion changed the game. Instead of reading that the room was large, you could actually see that it was large. Instead of typing, you could point and click your verbal commands together.

Yes, it was still clunky, but as a B-horror spoof it was also one of the funniest games ever. Game play became more open ended as MM sported multiple endings and different choices depending on the character you picked. The surfer dude, alas, was no match against the evil tentacle.

2. Beach Head

Another game on the list purely by hours of game play. The story is a pixilated version of the Longest Day, cut up into 5 distinct levels. The first sees the player navigate his ships across a map to get close to the beaches. After this opening the most entertaining level has you shooting incoming aircraft out of the sky, after which a battle ship type altercation ensues with the enemy fleet. The last level I never cared for too much as battle moved terrestrial and you move your troops inland, but hey, after playing for that long, you’d have to give it a shot.

1. Aztec Challenge

Ahhhh, the frustration. You’ve just spent 10 minutes dodging and jumping across spears. The gate of the Aztec temple is in sight. The music has reached it’s climax. When. Crap! You push the joystick in the wrong direction. The player crumbles to the ground. You begin again.

So many memories of this game, which by the way you shouldn’t play on a b&w television, because you can’t see the piranhas in the 6th level. It has all the hallmarks of classic C64 gaming. Music that sticks in your head. A random back story. And most importantly, oodles of frustration where every move can kill you and send you back to the start. Check out the video for the haunting, seminal score.

2010. We’re here. There’s no denying it and though I’ve stayed clear of new year’s resolutions, I do feeling like posting a bit more this year. There hasn’t been enough random associations as of late. So to start us off:

Top 5 Mountaineering Books

Ever since I first clambered through the Polish Tatra at the tender age of 19, I’ve had a thing for mountains. Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up in the Netherlands, a country whose very name evokes an utter lack of heights. I hail from the north, which is the flat part of the country, contrary to the hilly south whose highest peak is the downright vertiginous 322m Vaalseberg. So for the fellow armchair mountaineer, here’s my top 5 of dizziness-enducing books:

5. Touching the Void – Joe Simpson (1988)

One of the great controversies of mountaineering (and there’s quite a few of those) is at the heart of this outstanding book. Simon Yates and Joe Simpson are the first to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. On the descent things go horribly wrong. Connected to each other by a rope around the waste, Simpson slips and falls over the edge of a precipice. Yates digs in his heels and holds onto the rope. As time passes and Simpson is unable to climb back up, he takes out his knife and cuts the rope. Was he right or not?

As a tale of human persistance in the face of despair there is no equal. The book was made into an award-winning documentary in 2003. Joe Simpson survived to tell the tale and is now a speaker much in demand at corporate events around the world.

4. The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman (1956)

For those who’ve read it all, it doesn’t come more satisfying than the epic ascent of Rum Doodle. Bowman takes every cliche of mountaineering, mulitplies it by ten and ads some absurdity for good measure. The book chronicles a motley crew of dapper adventurers, under the intrepid leadership of Binder, an Englishman of the stiff upper lip type. Their goal? The ascent of the legendary 40,000 foot Rum Doodle. On their way they face more obstacles from their companions than the elements. A navigator who’d get lost in his own living room, an army of porters  who outnumber and outclimb the mountaineers and the faithful cook whose attrocious concoctions form the greatest motivation for the climb upward.

A classic in mountaineering circles, it has given it’s name to a bar in Kathmandu and a peak in South America. Frequently out of print, it’s worthwhile to try and get your hands on a copy. It was recently rereleased with Bill Bryson’s blessing.

3. The Crystal Horizon – Reinhold Messner (1982)

To many Reinhold Messner is the greatest mountaineer of all time. He was the first to climb all fourteen eight-thousanders (peaks higher than 8,000m above sea level). Always controversial and headstrong, he advocated the alpine style of climbing, which favors light-weight equipment and quick ascents over the more traditional expedition climbs which use porters and multiple high-altitude camps to assault a summit.

The Crystal Horizon is Messner’s personal account of his solo ascent of Mount Everest from the Tibetan side, generally considered to be the single most daring act of mountaineering. Apart from the hardships and ecstasy of the climb itself, what comes across is Messner’s obsessive personality in which mountains are everything, a place where he can experience a zen-like high, and for which all else, including human relationships, must give way. A fascinating insight into the mind of a master.

2. Annapurna – Maurice Herzog (1956)

Annapurna was the first eight-thousander to be climbed and the book which describes the French expedition that succeeded remains the great classic of moutaineering literature. It has all the elements of an epic adventure story and is irresistible to any man who’s still a boy at heart. A near impossible mission, a long trek through exotic lands, from jungles to white mountain peaks (no helicopter rides in those days). There’s treachourous uncharted routes,  scenes of a brilliant beauty and unimaginable suffering.

At one point Herzog drops his gloves and sees them roll off the mountain side as if in slow-motion, fully aware that he will lose his hands to frostbite. And that’s just the start of his trials. Mallory once said in response to why he wanted to climb Everest, Because it’s there. Read Annapurna and decide for yourself if it’s worth it.

1. Into thin air – Jon Krakauer (1996)

At number one is Krakauer’s riveting book on the 1996 Everest tragedy. A page turner if ever there was one, the book relates how Krakauer joins an expedition to write an expose on the increasing commercialisation of the Everest climbing scene. When a storm sweeps in it turns into a blow-by-blow thriller as a large group of climbers are caught out attempting to summit. A scramble begins to get the tourists and their guides safely off the mountain, but the death zone got its name for a reason.

What follows is a tale like no other: heroic, tragic, miraculous and existential as every decision becomes one of life and death. Like any great mountaineering book this one also has its fair share of controversies and several of the climbers present that day in May have published their own, sometimes differing, accounts. Among them are Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb and Beck Weathers’ Left for Dead. Footage of the events can be seen in the Everest imax movie.

Happy Reading!

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