The Beatles Story in Liverpool

Penny Lane sign

I’ve always liked the Beatles. When I was a kid we had the two Beatles greatest hits albums (the red one and the blue one, to those in the know). We played those records until the grooves wore out.

Beatles black and white
The Fab Four.

Likewise, I’ve always been fascinated by the Beatles story. There are many great bands in rock and roll history, but none that have the extensive lore that captured the essence of the times when the band rocked the world.

On my latest trip to the UK, I knew I had to finally go down to Liverpool and see for myself where the Beatles came from and how Beatlemania got started.

Beatles instruments
The signature instruments of the early Beatles.

My first stop in Liverpool was the Beatles Story Experience. The museum is on the side of the Mersey River at a place called the Albert Docks. The once decrepit shipping docks have been renovated to be a tourist destination, with several museums, stores, restaurants, and cafes.

The museum tells the complete story of the Beatles from their earliest beginnings in Liverpool in the late 1950s to the break-up of the band in 1970. Each small room re-creates a time and place in the band’s story, complete with many authentic artifacts from that period. One walks from the place where they met, to Liverpool’s Cavern Club, the Hamburg clubs, Brian Epstein’s record shop, the Merseybeat movement, London’s Abbey Road recording studios, the British Invasion of America, the landing at JFK airport in New York, the Ed Sullivan show, and so on. Although most of the displays are static, their songs are played at different times, and the audio guide provides context and interesting tidbits about the band. It was an enjoyable and informative visit, both for longtime Beatles fanatics and casual fans.

With the Beatles story properly refreshed in my memory, I now wanted to see some of the actual sites for myself. The next morning I called Phil of Liverpool Cycle Tours. I interrupted Phil’s breakfast to inquire as to whether I could take his bike tour that afternoon. Despite being the only one to sign up for the tour that day, he agreed to show me around.

Our first stop on the bike tour was the Liverpool Institute, where Paul McCartney and George Harrison went to school. There is a statue of a pile of guitar cases out front to commemorate their time at the school. Appropriately, the statue is called “A Case Study.” Next was one of the grammar schools attended by Lennon, which is still in operation and thus was not very interesting. A simple plaque on the exterior wall notes Lennon’s attendance. Phil explained that Lennon was a poor student. He was known as a ruffian, a trouble-maker, and a daydreamer. As a tour guide, Phil was full of good information about the four lads from Liverpool.

Lennon childhood home
John Lennon’s bedroom is on the upper left.

I always thought of the Beatles as poor, working-class boys from a rough city neighborhood in post-war Liverpool. They certainly weren’t well off, but they actually grew up in the suburbs. As a child Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi at a house called Mendips on very respectable Menlove Avenue in a suburban area known as Woolton. The house was bought by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and donated to the UK’s National Trust. The house is also not open to the public.

McCartney's childhood home
Paul McCartney’s home, where many early Beatles songs were written.

Paul McCartney’s childhood home is a few blocks away at 20 Forthlin Road in nearby Allerton. It is also preserved by the National Trust and is not open to the public. Many of the early Beatles songs were written and rehearsed in the front and back rooms on the first floor of the house. Phil told me how McCartney’s father was strict and would double lock the door if Paul and his brother Mike wouldn’t come home on time for dinner. One of the boys would climb up the drainpipe to get into an upstairs window in order to get in.

Penny Lane sign
An original Penny Lane sign.

Phil and I then rode down Penny Lane. Lennon and McCartney took a fair amount of poetic license in describing the places in the famous song by that name. There is a fire station nearby, but it’s not actually on Penny Lane.  Neither was there a barbershop on the street. The short suburban street is quite nondescript and does not exhibit the busyness one would expect from the song. Fans have stolen the street sign for Penny Lane so many times that now the only authentic sign is the one on a stone wall. As you can see in the photo it has been defaced by the fans.

St. Peter's Church hall sign
Where Lennon met McCartney…

After a Guinness at a pub on Penny Lane where the Beatles once hoisted a few pints, we rode up a hill to St. Peter’s Church Hall in Woolton, where John Lennon first met Paul McCartney on July 6, 1957. Lennon’s early skiffle band called the Quarrymen was playing there at a garden féte. The hall is still being used today. The site is marked by this stone plaque.

St. Peter's Church
St. Peter’s (Anglican) Church in Woolton, Liverpool.

We walked across the street to the cemetery next to St. Peter’s Church.  As we sat there on a low stone wall, Phil pointed out a headstone in the cemetery where the name of Eleanor Rigby is engraved.  According to McCartney, the original figure in the Eleanor Rigby song was called Daisy Hawkins.  He later changed it to Eleanor Rigby after a British actress of the time and the name of a store in Bristol. McCartney has said he may have been subconciously influenced by seeing the headstone, at some point, because he and the others used to hang around the area.

Strawberry Fields gate and sign
Strawberry Fields Forever… at least until the housing developers come.

The last stop of the 17-mile bike tour was at Strawberry Field, made famous by Lennon’s song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children’s home near Lennon’s house. As a child Lennon played with the kids there and in the grounds.  Much of the land has been transformed into housing, and the original gates were removed in 2011 and replaced by a replica. Even so, it made for an interesting stop.

Cavern Club sign
The Cavern Club lit up in neon.

That night I walked over to the Cavern Club. The Beatles played the original Cavern Club 292 times from 1961-1963. This was where Beatlemania started. The club was in the basement of an old warehouse.  It was down several flights of stairs. It was tiny, dark, hot, and humid in the club. Fans would pack it until hardly anyone could move. The original club was closed in 1973 and filled in during construction of an underground rail line. A new club was opened at the same address in 1984, using the original plans and even some of the same bricks.

Cavern Club view
The tiny middle hall of the Cavern Club, with the stage at the far end.

It wasn’t too crowded when I first got to the Cavern Club at around 8pm. A local solo performer was banging out 60s hits from the famous stage at the end of the room. Next, a pop quartet fronted by two women called the Mona Lisa Twins cranked out early Beatles hits note for note. They were very good, and it was a different sensation to hear the vocals sung by women.

Mona Lisa Twins
The Mona Lisa Twins play the Cavern Club.

By the time the Cave Dwellers took the stage at 11pm, the place was jammed and rocking. The Vox amps were blasting and my ears had had enough.

Cavern Club stage
The tiny stage of the Cavern Club, with two Vox amps ready to go!

Beatlemania lives on in Liverpool.

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Dubrovnik: Jewel of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik Harbor

Unlike many places in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, you can actually find a sandy beach in Dubrovnik. I don’t know if it was trucked in from somewhere else, or it if was naturally occurring. I don’t really care. I just want to sink my toes into sand when I’m at the beach.

Banje Beach
Banje Beach, just outside the town walls of Dubrovnik.

Europeans must have tougher bodies, and especially tougher feet, than I do. Most beaches on the Mediterranean and Adriatic are made up of pebbles instead of sand. Sometimes the rocks are rough like gravel. The pebbles can be the size of peas or even as large as golf balls. The beach in Nice, for example, has stones the size of lemons, but at least they are smooth.  The beach goers stretch out their towels and lay down on the rocks and pretend it’s comfortable. Seems more like a form of torture to me.

Dubrovnik Harbor
The harbor in Dubrovnik.

The coast in Croatia is beautiful. I only got to Dubrovnik and didn’t have to time to venture farther up the Dalmatian coast, or to go out to one of the many Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. The weather was perfect for lounging at the beach and swimming in the clear, cool water of the sea.

Dubrovnik walls.
The high walls of Dubrovnik.

Fortunately for my feet, I found that the closest beach to the Old Town, called Banje Beach, was sandy. It was an easy 10 minute walk outside the Port Gate of the Old Town. The view of the Old Town from the beach is fantastic.

I found a sandy spot on which to relax, however, the edge of the water was a small wall of pebbles…

Dubrovnki beach
Which way to the beach?
Dubrovnik street
A street in Dubrovnik at night.

Dubrovnik has existed for more than 1,000 years. The defining feature of the Old Town are the city walls that encircle the town. Some parts of the wall are twenty feet thick. There are only two gates in the wall. Some buildings in the town date from the 1300s. The town was bombed by the Serbs during a siege in the Yugoslav war in 1991, damaging more than half of the buildings and killing over 100 residents. I don’t remember hearing about that in the US news at the time.  In the late 1990s, the city repaired the damage caused by the Serb artillery shelling.

Dubrovnik side street
A narrow side street in Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik is very popular right now due to the hit TV show “Game of Thrones.” The Old Town is used to represent the fictional city of King’s Landing in the show. Walking tours of the old town that visit filming sites are big attractions for the tourists.

I liked walking around the Old Town, but it was so clean and perfect looking that I thought I had wandered into Disneyland or a movie set. Thousands of tourists (many of them from cruise ships) pour into the town every day. The main street becomes very crowded. It’s better to stroll along the backstreets in the evening.

Dubrovnik wall.
Dubrovnik town wall at dusk.

Dubrovnik, one of the best preserved medieval walled cities in the world, should be on your travel bucket list.

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Ruin Bars and Communist Statues in Budapest

Szempla in daytime

I’m not normally a bar-goer, but while in Budapest I heard about a particular kind of place called a “ruin bar” or “ruin pub.” A ruin bar is a quirky kind of bar set up in an abandoned or ruined building.  In Budapest, many wrecked buildings have been turned into ruin bars.

Szempla ruin bar
The Szempla Kert ruin bar in Budapest.

The first and most famous of Budapest’s ruin bars is Szimpla Kert. The owners of Szimpla converted an old factory in the historic Jewish neighborhood into the hippest new nightspot in Budapest in 2002. Instead of fixing up the place, they decided to install all kinds of strange objects into the space. They allowed customers to write graffiti all over the walls. They set up several different kinds of bars in various places within the building.  Each bar serves a kind of drink, such as beer, wine, cocktails, shots, and so on. They also created a space for live music and an open-air cinema.

Szempla in daytime
The Szempla Kert ruin bar in daytime; no partygoers hanging out the windows…

The response was overwhelming. Soon tourists were coming from all over the world to drink and party in the Szimpla ruin bar. Many languages can be heard as young people (and a few old timers) mingle, drink, and listen to music.

On the night I was there, the place was packed, mostly with young Brits. I sampled a few of the drinks and listened to the band for the night, an indie world music ensemble.  The lively vibe of the place was electric, but also a little touristy. Perhaps the original local hipsters have moved on to newer, trendier spots.

Trabant in Szempla ruin bar
Drinking in an old Trabant… (an East German crappy car produced in the worker’s paradise)
Lenin statue
All follow Dear Supreme Leader Lenin!

During the Communist era, the authorities in Budapest erected statues to the heroes of Socialism. This art, called Socialist realism, is a style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of Communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, in a realistic manner. The statues typically depicted the leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and the Hungarian dictator Kadar, factory workers, and farmers.

communist statue
Workers of the world unite!

After the Hungarian Revolution in 1989, the new government got rid of almost all of the statues.  Nobody wanted to see Lenin or Stalin watching over them anymore. Many statues were destroyed, but a few were saved in a place now called Memento Park. I don’t think the purpose of the place is to glorify this artwork with a nostalgia for the past, but to be a historical reminder of the tyranny that existed in Hungary from 1945-1989.

another Lenin statue
They couldn’t get enough of that Lenin guy. Vlad for everybody!

It was kind of bizarre to walk around this park today. I think the statues are symbols of the overbearing propaganda spewed at the people of Hungary (and the other Communist countries) for decades. I’m glad to see them gone from the center city, but they make for an interesting short detour on the way out of town.

Flag and man statue
These statues have to be big too, like the size of the Communist propaganda.

I Survived a Turkish Bath

I saw the sign for the Turkish bath from a block away. It pointed down a dark alley. It looked kind of sketchy, but when in Istanbul, do as the Turks do, I thought.

turkish bath
The oldest bath in Istanbul.

The Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami bath started in 1481. It is the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul. Not knowing what to expect, and ready for anything (well excluding getting naked of course), I pushed my way through the door. I was met by the manager of the establishment, a friendly gentleman who explained that I could leave my valuables in the locked changing room after I disrobed. I took off my clothes, wrapped a thin towel around my waist, and shuffled into the common area on wooden clogs that were too small for my feet.

“Please, go with Omar,” said the manager as he gestured to a man walking towards me.

Omar Sharif was a pudgy middle-aged man with large hands. He was wearing a towel and clogs like me. He looked eerily like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the notorious Al-Quaeda mastermind jailed in Guantanamo Bay.

“Come, come,” he said to me in his limited, broken English.

He led me into a large circular room with a domed ceiling. In the middle of the room was a giant marble slab.  The room was hot and humid, not quite as hot as a sauna, but close.

“Lie down,” said Omar as he gave me another towel and a pillow for my head. He then disappeared through a door.

Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, started in 537 AD.

I laid down on the hard marble, but soon relaxed as the heat seeped into my bones. My pores opened up and I started to sweat.  The grime that had accumulated on my skin as I had walked around the dirty city of Istanbul all day started to loosen in the sweat. I got drowsy from the heat and almost nodded off.

I was relaxed, but I was ready in case anyone attacked me.  OK, I was just dreaming about that scene in the movie called Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortenson fights some other Russian mobsters.

After a while Omar came back. While I laid down on the marble with just the scrunched up towel covering my groin, he starting rubbing me all over with a rough sponge mitt. He rubbed my skin very hard, scraping over and over. Removing dead skin I guess. Either that or this was some form of torture in the old Ottoman Empire.

Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn.

Next, he started massaging the muscles in my arms and legs.  Hey, I thought, this feels kind of good. I normally don’t like people touching me and never get a massage. He had very strong hands and kneaded my muscles over and over. This was fine, until he starting digging his thumb deep into a muscle and pulling down the length of the muscle. He attacked my calves, my hamstrings, and my quadriceps. I grunted with pain. It was all I could do to not cry out like a little girl and start wailing. But, I couldn’t let him see me act like anything but a tough guy. I was in a Turkish bath, for crying out loud.

Wait, I was in a Turkish bath and I did actually want to cry out loud!

All during this torture session Omar sang songs and chanted to himself in Turkish or something. He must really enjoy his job. He gets to torture people with his strong thumbs.

Hookahs for sale in the Grand Bazaar.

Finally the “massage” was over. He took me over to the corner of the room and made me sit on a marble step. He then grabbed a big sponge mitt and soaped me all over. Next, he grabbed the top of my head to hold me still while he dumped buckets of cold water over me. More painful massage followed, including some half-nelson arm twists. Please don’t accidentally break my neck, Omar!

More soap, more cold water. The wash and rinse cycle was repeated several times. This was followed by more hard scrubbing. Omar kept singing to himself, stopping every once in a while to see if I was ok. Once in a while he would stop working me over and dump cold water over his own head. I guess he was working up a sweat and needed to cool off.

By the end I was certainly clean and went into the next room to take a cold shower for a cool down. I felt good overall, except for the bruises in my thighs from his massive thumbs.

Steve in the Turkish bath
After the Turkish bath.
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How to Run a Most Excellent Small Hotel in Mykonos

Mykonos town harbor view

As Forrest Gump once said, hotels are like a box of chocolates. When you pick one, you never know what you’re going to get. Or something like that….

Mykonos view of windmills
The view from the terrace of my bungalow at the Villa Margarita.

My stay in Mykonos turned out to be wonderful, in large part because of the hotel that I stayed in and the people who ran it. I usually check Trip Advisor for the reviews of places before I make a reservation. Often the reviews are accurate and useful, but sometimes the reviews are faked. Your mileage may vary.

The reviews for Villa Margarita on the island of Mykonos in Greece were glowing. Every review mentioned the hotel manager named Nikos and how friendly and helpful he was. I was thinking, OK, the guy is probably friendly and helpful, but that’s his job isn’t it? I guess he could be surly and rude like some French waiters, but that would be bad for business. In these days of the Internet, such behavior would quickly be noted in the hotel’s ratings and his reservations would probably take a nose dive.

I got off the ferry from Athens and Nikos was at the port to meet me and give me a ride to the hotel. As we drove above the old town of Mykonos he told me some interesting facts about the island and things to do. His hotel was just outside of town, overlooking the famous windmills of Mykonos.

villa margarita
My bungalow at Villa Margarita (on the lower floor)

Although Nikos was originally from Athens, his grandfather lived on the island and he would spend his summers here. He said that his mother had started the small hotel 25 years ago. This was his seventh summer season back on the island to run the hotel for his aging mother. His younger brother Alex was a new addition to the team for this summer.

Mykonos town street
A typically narrow street in Mykonos town.

When checking in, Nikos and Alex quickly learned our names (my daughter was traveling with me) and every time I saw one of them they would greet me with a smile:

“Hello Steve! How are you today?”

I soon felt like they were my new friends instead of some workers at a hotel. It was refreshing to be treated that way instead of just as a customer or tourist who is here today and gone tomorrow.

Every morning I would walk the few yards from my bungalow room to the office.

“Good morning, Nikos. Could I get a cappuccino?” I would ask.

“Of course, Steve! In two minutes Alex will bring you one.” Nikos would cheerfully reply.

Nikos and Alex lived with their mother (who I never saw) on the upper level of my bungalow. They had a little white dog who would come visit me every morning as I sat on my terrace overlooking the windmills of Mykonos, enjoying my cappuccino.

little white dog in Myknonos
Allison and her new friend, Boobies.

“Nikos, what’s the dog’s name?” I asked one morning.

“Boobies” he replied, laughing as he did so.

“You named your dog Boobies?” I asked.

He explained that the dog was actually his mother’s dog, and that in Greek the term describes what we would call a “momma’s boy.” The dog was very attached to his mother so that’s what she called him.

windmills of Mykonos
The windmills of Mykonos.

My daughter’s 24th birthday occurred while we stayed at Villa Margarita. Understandably, she wanted to go out and celebrate in the wild party town of Mykonos, instead of spend a quiet night in the bungalow with her co-traveler, the old man. In Mykonos, things don’t start hopping until at least 11:30pm, and the night clubs and beach clubs with their famous DJs stay open all night.  The cool crowd doesn’t even show up until at least 2am. Or so I have been told. I wouldn’t know personally, since I have a hard time staying awake past 11pm.

Nikos told her that he would take her out, or if he couldn’t, Alex would. When Alex took the job at the hotel for the summer, I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into. Nikos had to stay at the hotel (he often worked all day, every day during the summer season) so Alex got date duty.

Mykonos town harbor view
Mykonos town harbor.

The next night was our last one at the hotel. As we came back from the beach we saw Nikos at the front desk.

“Hi Steve and Allison!” he called out.  He asked about our dinner plans for the night and gave us some recommendations. He then said that he was planning on taking a rare few hours off to go out with a friend that night, and would we like to join them?

I didn’t want to impose, knowing that he worked so hard all the time, but it seemed impolite to decline his offer. We agreed to meet him and his friend at one of the best restaurants in town later in the evening.

As we approached this swanky seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor in Mykonos town I was glad that I had stopped at the ATM machine beforehand. It was that kind of place. A stunning tall blonde hostess greeted us at the entrance. 1980s pop songs pulsed from the bar. The ambiance was Euro hip and the view across the harbor was magnificent.

Nikos was there with his friend Fania. She was the manager at another hotel close to Nikos’ hotel, also working nonstop and on call 24/7 for the summer. I thought maybe she was his girlfriend, but wasn’t sure and didn’t want to pry. We had an excellent dinner and great conversation. We talked about their careers in the hotel management industry, the state of Greece’s economy, and what they liked to do for fun in their precious free time.

Nikos and Fania in Mykonos
Nikos and Fania in Mykonos.

It was a nice night out with a local couple.  So unexpected. He didn’t have to invite us, but that’s the kind of person he is.

And that’s how you run a most excellent small hotel in Mykonos.

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