I first visited Prague at the end of the 1980s, just as the Iron Curtain was being melted down: it was charming and slightly exotic. You could freely wander round the palace in Hradcany, an unknown and incomprehensible Smetana piece was on at the Opera House, and red cabbage and dumplings vied for pride of place on the menus of the very few restaurants in town. The ghosts of Soviet troops could still be seen on the Charles Bridge.
Now the ghostly Soviets have been replaced by the all too solid flesh of obese Brits (and Brittes) on stag and hen weekends, courtesy of Ryanair, spreading their particular brand of joy involving witty polar bear costumes and skinfuls of Pils, followed inevitably by what Barry Humphries used to call liquid laughs. Only someone with a shaky grasp of post-war history could ask whether the Soviet/stag trade was in the end a wise one. Of course it was. But our boys and girls have certainly altered the city’s character at night in a way that is hard to love. Keeping them back home, laying waste to Oxford Street (difficult to do much more damage there) is the only good argument I can think of for building no more runways in the South East.
Lisbon Airport, my next port of call this summer, is expanding. It certainly needs to. The publicity posters tell us it will be more efficient and ‘calmer’ (if my Portuguese translation is roughly right) as a result. Someone should try that slogan over here.
Downtown Lisbon was as chocker as Prague, but it doesn’t seem to attract the stags and hens, and the bons bourgeois of France and Northern Europe are more congenial co-tourists. Lisbon has a lot going for it, and the price is right. Vinho Verde gives you indigestion really cheaply and a taxi in from the airport is, mile for mile, under half the price you pay in Corfu. The Portuguese got the message that they had to price themselves back into business rather earlier than the Greeks did, and the economy is now picking up.
We had done all the conventional stuff before – the Gulbenkian and all that – so we had to try harder to fill a sleepy afternoon. We found a recherché museum of chairs and another so-called museum of fashion, in a converted bank, which turned out to be displaying a collection of TAP pilot and air hostess uniforms over the last 50 years. The airline industry is following me around.
But we were only birds of passage in Lisbon, like the swifts who change planes there on their way north from Africa to the UK. Our destination was the Azores, where I calculated that Heathrow protestors, Australian cricket fans and hedge fund managers interested in RBS shares would be equally thin on the ground. When you have persuaded TAP (which well justifies its Take Another Plane acronym) that you do indeed have a confirmed flight, you set off due west from Lisbon and in a couple of hours you are on a volcanic rock.
Though they have been Portuguese for centuries, the islands were originally settled by Flemish émigrés, and you can see echoes of their influence today in the tidy gardens and execrable cooking. For 100 years or so the islands lived by selling oranges to England, until the Spaniards and others got the knack of growing them for export. They tried pineapples for a while, without conspicuous success, and did quite well as a transatlantic halfway house when that was needed, but now they are into the dairy business, fishing and tourism. Sadly, the combination hasn’t so far succeeded in stemming the outflow of people, to the US and Canada mainly.
In the middle of the 19th century the most easterly island of São Miguel became fashionable among a certain sort of hypochondriac English tourist who would travel huge distances to take the waters. There is a hot spring resort, originally developed by an eccentric Bostonian, but with beautiful gardens designed by an English gardener called George Brown. You can wallow in a big brown-coloured pond with muddy water at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is relaxing, not to say soporific, but you come out looking as if you had been painted with fake tan, and it takes a week to get the stain out of your swimming trunks.
Nearby is one of those strange lunar landscapes, as you find in Yellowstone Park, out of which comes sulphurous steam and smelly boiling water. Unfortunately, some time ago the locals had the bright idea of using the waters to cook with. They bury a big pot full of root veg, cabbage and sausage in the ground, leave it all day and serve it up with a knowing smile to unsuspecting visitors in the evening. If you like soggy turnips flavoured with sulphur it is your dream dinner.
150 miles to the west is another group of islands, which were much more to our liking. Taken together, they have it all. São Jorge has terrific scenery, seawater swimming pools, fascinating birdlife and amazing walks with such good 3G reception that you can watch ball by ball coverage of the Ashes on your phone as you go. Pico has a mountain, and its own wine which would not be on sale in hardware stores if it reached the UK. Faial has a restaurant where you can cook your own food on hot rocks, which neatly circumvents the chronic culinary skill problem, while Terceira has as many full-length runways as Gatwick and Heathrow combined. What more is there to life?