Tag Archives: travel

My Dad and 24 hours that shocked the world

50 years ago my Dad, Keith Collins, was caught up in an historical event that shook the world – the Russian invasion of Prague. I had spoken to him many times about this amazing episode in his life, but sadly he died suddenly in January this year and never got round to penning a first person account. This account is based on those conversations, between father and son, the last of which happened at Christmas.

My Dad was 26 years old, an adventurous traveller, having travelled extensively across 1960’s Europe from the North to the South, as shown by the array of stamps in his well used passport.

Dad's passport

In the spring of 1968 he started to plan a trip with a friend to Prague, the then capital city of Czechoslovakia; a jewel of a place, resplendent in medieval architecture and famed for its bohemian qualities. This difficult trip was something that most twenty somethings would never have dreamt of attempting in the 1960s, with the US and USSR at loggerheads during the Cold War.

This journey would be, unbeknown to them when they left London, a huge adventure, travelling beyond the iron curtain which had descended between East and West dividing Europe in the post 1945 world. It would be a trip when Dad got caught up in history in real time in a way that he could never imagine, creating vivid memories that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Going through my Dad’s passport I got a real and tangible sense of this trip of a lifetime. I can imagine the excitement as the days passed and the time to set off got nearer, packing your bags (have you got enough films for the camera and the right clothes for high summer?) and making sure that all the paperwork is in order.

Prague is a beautiful city and it has drawn generations of visitors. For nearly five decades it was cut off from most travellers unless they had a real determination to make it to this place steeped in history and overcome the burdensome red-tape in a world of visa’s.

Dad and his friend arrived in Prague on the 20 August, around a week after they had entered the country. They’d made it through to this magical place through countless checkpoints and overbearing bureaucracy.

Arriving in the city, tired from the long journey, they managed to find a B&B in a fairly central location. This would be an ideal spot to explore the city, gripped by such social and cultural change, trying to build a sense of identity removed from the conformity of the Soviet bloc. The spring of that year had seen the uprisings in Paris and young people across the world were hungry for change and had a thirst to move on from the age of post war austerity and rationing.

The owner of the B&B suggested a place for dinner, and a few beers later it was late and time to get some sleep. But their sleep was brief, and in the early hours of the 21 August, there was a loud knock at the door. The owner of the B&B, in an excited state, shouted: ‘the Russians have invaded’. Bleary eyed Dad and his friend pulled back the curtains to see Russian tanks rolling down the street. To say that this wasn’t something that they had bargained for, was an understatement. I can’t begin to appreciate what it must have been like to see the tanks right in front of your own eyes (surely this only ever happened on the news) and then for the sense of nervous energy kicking in about what to do next.

Russian tank

Shocked by what they were seeing their pragmatism took them off to the British Embassy. Surely this would be a haven in what appeared to be the Russians wanting to impose direct rule on this troublesome member of the Soviet sphere of influence? Banging on the door, a window finally opened and they shouted up to the member of Embassy staff that the Russians had invaded and asked what they should do. In a classic example of British understatement the staff member shouted to come back in the morning when the Embassy opened at 9am. Why panic and upset the British way of doing things? How typical.

They laid low until 9am and joined other visitors at The Embassy hoping for refuge. It was suggested they try to get a train out of the city, so they headed to the main station in Prague, hoping that they could at least get a train and head east towards safety. However, after waiting hours with hundreds of other anxious travellers, everyone in the station was rounded up and escorted off of the premises. What to do next? They had to get out as fast as possible and avoid getting caught up in the fast changing events across the city.

Somehow they found themselves talking to the teachers in a school group whose coach was heading back to West Germany. A lucky break and their journey to freedom. All seemed to be going so well until they reached a checkpoint that had been set up by Russian troops. They boarded the bus and looked at Dad and his friends paperwork. Suspicious of why these English men were on a bus full of German schoolkids one of the soldiers singled dad out, held a gun to his throat, and demanded to see his papers. The stand off and tension built. Imagine that a loaded gun shoved in your throat, your life flashing before you and drops of sweat rolling down your face. In a stroke of sheer luck and quick thinking, one of the teachers said they were English teachers with them on the school trip. Thankfully the soldier believed this story and the coach made its way to the border and on to West Germany.

Unfortunately Dad and his friend didn’t get the opportunity to take any pictures of their few hours in a city turned upside down and collapsing from hope to despair. Though in hindsight this was pretty lucky as it would have potentially becoming a massive hindrance to their journey out of the city.

Dad would develop a lifelong love of Prague and had the opportunity to visit this remarkable city after the Berlin Wall had fallen. Whenever he told the story it felt as fresh as though it was only yesterday and it was something that he talked about over the years with a slight glint in his eye, even then not quite believing what had happened.

Food heaven in the heart of Bath

Right in the heart of Bath is a magical world. You can wander into this special place via a normal unassuming door in the middle of the Royal Crescent. Once you pass the threshold you are transported into an oasis of calm that feels a million miles away and seems so unlikely in one of the UK’s top tourism hotspots.

The Royal Crescent Hotel is an important part of my life – its the hotel that I stayed in with my new wife on the night of the day that we were married. I can still remember it as though it was yesterday. And here I am again twelve years later, sampling a newly prepared taster menu to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Crescent.

For me food is always elevated to the next level by the experience of eating. The setting, service and company really does matter and adds to the feeling of well-being when trying beautifully crafted food and wine that massages your taste buds.

Sat in the lovely and carefully managed hotel garden sipping on a glass of martini chatting to my fellow diners, made the stresses and strains of the day melt away. Birdsong filled the warm evening air and the sunlight glowed as I intensely studied the taster menu.

When you look at a menu you’re seeing the chef’s passion and knowledge come through in black and white. Hours of trying and testing new ideas, getting the right combinations together and thinking about the diners experience. The outcome of this careful attention to detail is like an artist working on their canvass, creating a masterpiece that art lovers will devour: with the Executive Chef, David Campbell, as the brains behind this captivating menu.

This was going to be an evening of fine dining – full of new experiences for the taste buds.

With a martini filled mellowness we moved into the classy dining room for the main event. Each course of lovingly created food was to be accompanied by a champagne or wine and the choreography of the service added to the real sense of occasion.

We began the meal with Cucumber Soup with Earl Grey Tea and Cured Salmon, combined with Lime and Nasturtium Leaf. This was a clean and refreshing way to start a deep dive into a wonderful food experience. Freshly made bread, something that makes me very happy, was an additional treat; especially the beetroot bread.

Next came a modern twist on the classic Bath Chaps, a traditional and once locally very popular Bath dish that used a 65-day dry aged middle white pork. This melt in the mouth food was delicious.

Mackerel Tartar with Gentleman’s Relish, Leek Ash and English Sorrel’ followed and was a superb combination of British cooking: clean on the palate and very satisfying.

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I have to declare an interest: I love lamb. For me its the king of meat and I never tire of its taste and texture and always get a large dose of satisfaction and mellowness when its on the menu. So seeing that salt marsh lamb was heading my way created a real sense of anticipation; and I wouldn’t be disappointed. The salt marsh lamb with garden peas and bacon, mint sauce and lamb broth was the sensational star of the evening for me with is luxuriant feeling, each mouthful creating pure and simple pleasure.

Growing up in the 1980s gooseberries were a real favourite and it was so nice to see a classic ingredient, loved by generations, combined with the all round crowd-pleasing and comfort food, the crumble. The gooseberry and elderflower crumble’ didn’t disappoint and was the perfect pud to warm the heart and create that all-round sense of well-being.

We finished the meal with Eves pudding with Somerset Apples, which for me seemed very appropriate, as its my daughters name and I’m a huge fan of English apples. I never used to have a sweet tooth but I have recently got into my deserts and these two, to complete a lovely evening, hit the spot and made me smile inside.

This was an evening of food taken to the next level by a passionate team with a real attention to detail and passion for their craft. The experience of the evening was elevated to something pretty special by the story-telling and love of wine conveyed by the Hotel’s wonderful Head Sommelier, Jean-Marc Leitao. These couple of hours will stay in my food memory bank for a long-time and demonstrates why food is so much more than just the eating.

Available until the end of October this year, The Taittinger Tasting Menu, is £125.00 per person and includes a six-course tasting menu paired with wines and Taittinger Champagnes (the menu is subject to change to incorporate seasonal produce). For more information visit www.royalcrescent.co.uk