Cambridge, my cultural centre

I love living in Cambridge (the one in England), certainly not for the scenery but for its good transport links and for its cultural life. I would always choose to live in a university town, but it has to be said that for quality theatre or opera an evening out in London is usually required. Nevertheless there’s plenty of good music to be heard, with half a dozen amateur orchestras appearing at the university’s West Road concert hall (which has lovely warm acoustics) and lots of lunchtime concerts in chapels across the town.

Cambridge’s art scene is even better, with a world-class collection of old and modern masters at the Fitzwilliam Museum (also owned by the university) and the quite wonderful Kettle’s Yard, now closed for refurbishment before its 50th anniversary in 2017. Once home to Jim Ede, a very influential curator at the Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 1930s who was friendly with all the most important British artists of the time, the house itself became his (and his wife Helen’s) artwork with his remarkable collection of works by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Joan Miro, Constantin Brâncuşi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth displayed alongside perfectly chosen furniture, wall-hangings, plants and even arrangements of pebbles. Upstairs in an attic room there’s a superb collection of drawings and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a wonderful French artist who moved to London in 1910 and died in the trenches in 1915 aged just 23. Integrated into the house is a gallery (built in 1970) that hosts touring shows of contemporary art (usually too avant-garde for me, but I go anyway).

Just inside the entry to Downing College (on Regent Street), Edwardian stable buildings have been converted into the Heong Gallery, opened earlier in 2016. Small but perfectly connected (we’ve already had shows by Ai Weiwei and Richard Long), it’s open on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday only (free).

The Heong Gallery

It’s also worth heading out to Huntingdon Road to track down the New Hall Art Collection, housed in Murray Edwards College (which was in fact known as New Hall until some wealthy donors acquired the naming rights in 2008). As a women’s college, they set out to build a collection of art by contemporary female artists. Most of it is hung in the public areas of the college and can be seen from 10am to 6pm daily. A Self-Guided Tour booklet is available from the Porter’s Lodge, and free tours take place on the first Tuesday of the month at 6pm, and the last Wednesday of the month at 1pm, lasting 45 minutes. I particularly like paintings by Maggi Hambling, Fiona Banner and Charlotte Hodes and ceramics by Claudia Clare; there’s a statue by Barbara Hepworth outside, and there are also paintings by other significant artists such as Ana Maria Pacheco, Gillian Ayres, Miriam Schapiro, Sonia Lawson and Eileen Cooper.

The New Hall Art Collection

 

Constellations by Charlotte Hodes (1992)

The Cambridge University Library is also (until March 2017) celebrating its 600th anniversary – it’s usually worth the short walk out west to see what’s on in its exhibition room, and while Kettle’s Yard is closed the library’s entrance hall is also one of the places where pieces from its collection are on display.

The Open Studios scheme offers a great opportunity over three weekends in July to visit artists in their studios, dotted around the city in ordinary houses that you would not otherwise know housed such creativity. Many are members of the Cambridge Drawing Society, which puts on shows twice a year (currently at the Leys School on Fen Causeway) – these show off the frankly amazing technical skills of Cambridge’s artists.

On a bit of a tangent, I should mention that the Old Divinity School (actually opened in 1879 – see below) has been lovingly restored by St John’s College; it’s across St John’s St from the college, and is used for concerts and other events. And for a dose of true Cambridge culture you could of course visit the three pubs that I own a share of – more on that in a future post!

The Old Divinity School

Tangier – in my grandparents’ footsteps

The morning of the day that we arrived in Tangier (aka Tanger or Tangiers) I’d finished reading Tahir Shah’s delightful The Caliph’s House. It’s set in Casablanca, but he mentions his grandfather living in Tangier around 1960 – exactly when my own grandparents (or more precisely my father’s mother and stepfather) were living there and running a small hotel, Los Tres Pelicanos, which we couldn’t find any trace of. They did bring back a set of signed Paul Bowles novels, so they were presumably more in the arty set than the retired colonial gentry crowd to which my grandmother might have gravitated, having lived in colonial India.

View from our room at the Hotel Continental
Hotel Continental

Epitomising ‘faded glory’ – the Hotel Continental, in the medina with many rooms facing the sea, is one of the city’s oldest hotels. Past guests include Winston Churchill, Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac and the Rolling Stones to name but a few, and Bertolucci set some of the scenes for The Sheltering Sky here too. There’s a large terrace where one takes breakfast overlooking the port and a vast Aladdin’s cave of a gift shop which may not have been dusted for decades. Why else would you stay here? Certainly not for the fairly basic and unremarkable rooms. If you struggle with stairs the lack of a lift may present a problem too and the service is nothing special. On the other hand, it’s an ‘experience’ worthy of a couple of nights. It’s very cheap and clean and although it is billed as an alcohol-free environment, when Tim and I decided to eat dinner there, the waiter nevertheless managed to rustle up a perfectly acceptable bottle of Moroccan rosé. I’m not going to describe the public interiors, and recommend you explore these yourselves whether or not you decide to sleep over.

Matisse
Follow in the footsteps of Matisse at the recently renovated Villa de France, where in 1912 he painted Window at Tangier. The view from the hotel is not unchanged but it’s fun to ask at the front desk to be shown the room itself, and if unoccupied, you will be escorted there for a few minutes to take in the scene and spot the differences. There is no charge for this as you are basically looking at a hotel room, but a small tip won’t go amiss.

 

My grandparents would have known the delightfully old-world Hotel Continental where we stayed, the then British consulate which now houses the Museum of Contemporary Art (hosting interesting temporary shows; closed Mondays), and the very grand Grand Hotel Villa de France, which reopened in 2014 after years of closure. Matisse stayed here in 1912-3, in room 35, which has been kept as a shrine to the great painter. Of the many paintings created here the most famous perhaps is his Landscape Viewed from a Window (now in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum), but the trees are much higher now than they were then and it’s hard to clearly see the Anglican church of St Andrew, which was the focal point of Matisse’s painting.

Naturally we went to the church (it can take a bit of banging on the gate to gain access), where Yassine the caretaker was very helpful but there was no record of my grandparents, although they definitely supported the church. We also met the new priest, who after about 17 years as chaplain to the British embassy in Moscow was sent here for a year to try to fix the divide between millionnaire expats and the subSaharan migrant Anglicans asking them for money. A tough job!

Consecrated in 1905, the church is known for its Islamic-style décor (including the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic script around the chancel arch), and for the luxuriant churchyard housing the graves of various notable expats, as well as the odd tortoise.

St Andrew’s church

Of course the French cultural imprint is far stronger than the Anglophone one – in particular we noticed the strong arty publishing scene with bookshops selling literary pamphlets etc in French.

 Some practicalities

Our guidebook has trains terminating at Moghougha or Morora (about 5km south, just off the N2) and CTM buses at Tanger-Ville station by the harbour. Both are wrong – in fact trains now continue to the ‘new’ Tanger-Ville station by the waterfront 2km east of the centre, while the CTM bus station is at Moghougha (Dh80 by grand taxi – our driver complained that were ‘lots of constrictions’ meaning construction). Morocco’s TGV high-speed railway opens in 2018 (the trains are waiting in its depot at, where else, Moghougha), but Moroccan rail and bus terminals are not planned by anyone who actually uses public transport, so it will probably take the best part of an hour to get to the TGV station for the two-hour trip to Casablanca. Likewise, the ferries to Spain are being moved from the old harbour of Tanger to the new port of Tanger-Med, 45km east – highly inconvenient for public transport users, although there is a railway and a shuttle bus.

Our credit cards didn’t work at ticket machines in the railway stations, so expect to queue to pay cash. Taxis are often the only way to get around, both in towns and between them, and our drivers were all pretty good and safe.

We were pleased that trains and long-distance CTM buses were non-smoking and pretty civilised – although the buses didn’t have a toilet or wifi and (mercifully) the TV was off as well. I was glad not to be driving as I couldn’t work out who had priority at roundabouts.

As for languages, we speak French, but it was noticeable that English was more popular with younger people than the language of the colonial oppressor.

What we read in Morocco

As well as being amazed by how much better the 1993 Rough Guide to Morocco was than current equivalents (and amazingly, the prices listed were still more or less correct!), we also enjoyed a couple of books set in contemporary Morocco. Secret Son by Laila Lailani (Algonquin Books/Penguin), written by a Rabat woman now married and living in the US, is the tightly woven tragedy of a young man born in a Casablanca slum who makes it to university but finds that everything in his life betrays him. The Caliph’s House is by Tahir Shah, sitting in the line of British authors who set up home abroad (Peter Mayle, Chris Stewart) and have exotic encounters with local builders and the like – but his encounters are far more exotic, and not just with humans! It turns out he went to the same school as me, but that’s not important. John Hopkins’ The Tangiers Diaries (1997; Tauris 2015) covers the period from 1962 to 1979 (about Marrakech as much as Tangier). It’s by the Tangier literary figure you’ve never heard of, but he does offer enjoyable insights into unspoilt Morocco and the circle around Paul Bowles.

 

Marrakesh

Visit my friend Othman!

Just before sunset every evening food stalls are erected in the main square of Marrakech – the J’ma el Fnaa. They are all quite similar, so it’s hard to discern which might offer the best deal. I always go to stall 72 where Othman works – I first met him a few days before his 21st birthday, when his ambition was to learn better English so he could progress to become a Silver Service waiter in one of the upmarket hotels. He’s changed a bit over the years: still working the stalls, he’s become a bit cynical, but when on form can be helpful and funny. He may remember me. Some stalls offer you a complimentary mint tea after you’ve eaten. If you’ve any food left over, and you are accosted by a woman selling tissues, you might offer her the remains of your dinner. She’ll have a plastic bag to gather leftovers to feed her family. They’ll be slopped in like a flash.

Museum Tiskiwin (aka Maison Tiskiwin) was created by Bert Flint, a Dutch anthropologist, and features art from Morocco, Mali and nearby in the Sahara. Housed in a beautifully restored riad tucked between the Bahia and Dar Si Said palaces, it showcases a selection of North African arts and crafts that chronicle the region’s cultural trading history. The attendant has a bee in his bonnet about ‘not taking photographs’. It is NOT forbidden, but he is of the opinion that it detracts from your experience and he informed me of such with force! Nevertheless, if you are interested in fabrics, carpets and quirky objets then it’s well worth a visit. The main exhibition info is in French but English handouts with copious descriptions are available.

The five-star Hotel La Mamounia, opened in 1923, is set in superb gardens that are almost entirely surrounded by the city’s 12th century ramparts. It is possible to get a taste of the luxury and experience the splendour without actually staying there. The main thing to note is that there is a dress code, so don’t turn up in trainers and jeans! It’s huge – so once inside keep walking straight through the building till you reach the café terrace area leading into the gardens. For the steep price of a drink, you can stroll through the extensive gardens, where you’ll also find another small café selling ice creams and pastries. We had a buffet lunch at the poolside cafe, which was frustrating as we were not permitted to swim – for that privilege you have to buy a day-pass. Check their website for current prices which seem to change by season. There’s also a Spa pass but you can get a more authentic Hammam experience elsewhere for a fraction of the price. 

There are so many wonderful Riads to discover at a good range of prices. I’m  recommending just one, Dar El Mudal. I met Gloria, its owner, in Kolkata, India, before she and her late husband, the artist Norman Douglas Hutchinson, settled in Marrakesh. The decor reflects their life-long and eclectic interest in beautiful works of art and furnishings and has many wonderful images (many of Gloria) painted by Norman. It has four air-conditioned double bedrooms available for adults only, each with its own bathroom.

Why would you want to stay there? Gloria is a gracious and delightful host. If you’ve had enough of tagine or couscous she may, for a fee, offer you an Indian meal using the locally available spices. We even ate home-made kulfi (Indian ice cream). She will help you organise a visit to an authentic Hammam where you are unlikely to see other tourists. Be prepared to be scrubbed and pummeled and showered as clean as you’ve ever been and hang out with the locals, who choose to go through this ritual on a regular basis. Men and women are kept apart.

In my opinion an excursion from Marrakesh to the Kasbah du Toubkal is not to be missed, despite the cost which is midrange, ie pricey for Morocco. The location is spectacular, at the foot of the highest peak in North Africa, and the cheapest option is to take a Berber Salon for four. If you are a couple, then paying the full whack is still worth every penny. Stay at least two nights and if you have the time and funds, enjoy trekking up to the comfortable Azzaden Lodge too.  It’s a challenging mostly uphill six-hour walk (though you can take a taxi back if desperate!) but thoroughly worth it for the views and the experience of passing through traditional mountain villages. You will stop half way up to eat a freshly cooked feast and take a rest before completing the hike. If you don’t have the time or funds, then, instead, opt for the complimentary walk offered each day to a number of nearby villages, generally taking a couple of hours or so. The Kasbah has won awards for its approach to responsible tourism and runs a project which contributes towards the education of local girls.

Another rather upmarket experience worth going for if you have limited time but not limited funds is to venture out to La Pause, just 45 minutes from Marrakesh in the Agafay Desert. It’s called ‘a luxury retreat’ – and offers a whole expensive holiday experience with accommodation and activities, I visited only to eat a traditional lunch, which was copious and served in my own tented dining/sitting room. There’s use of a shady new swimming pool and a great short walk to the top of the hill nearby for extensive views back towards the city and over to the Atlas range. If you wander in the other direction towards some prominent sculptures you’ll find a small valley where camels rehydrate at the stream. Lizards of all sizes scuttle by and a variety of birds are accustomed to swooping down to clear up the crumbs. La Pause is not easy to find on your own so you’ll need to arrange a pick up.

La Pause

Top tips

I booked my onward travel by rail, via this website, before I left home. My tickets were delivered a day in advance to my Riad, which saved me hassle and benefitted a local children’s charity!

Finding your way around the souks can be a challenge, particularly in Marrakesh.  If you ask for directions they often offer to accompany you and you end up taking a circuitous route to a completely different location (usually a friend who is hoping to sell you something) and can be expected to tip for the privilege. On the other hand, if you simply ask to be pointed in the right direction, the last few times I was there, you are pointed the completely opposite way.  Solutions: 1. Buy a really good map to the souks. 2. Know ahead of time the general direction you are heading. 3. Remember that some people are still trustworthy and kind and helpful! I found young boys who expect only a few coins very helpful and the older men approve of their entrepreneurial spirit. If all fails, it’s really quite fun and an adventure to get lost in the souks!

Medina Bikes

It used to be said that you can identify a true Marrakechi by his or indeed her bicycle. The city’s streets were once busy with cyclists, but they are now clogged with scooters and cars. To combat this congestion, electric buses were introduced in June 2016 and in November North Africa’s first bike-share scheme was opened here. There are 300 bikes stationed at ten hubs across the city; rental is not cheap enough by local standards (and you need a credit card or smartphone) and more cycle lanes are needed to encourage potential users, but it’s a start.

Palaces in Fès

Fès sees FAR more tourists than Meknes (lots of Germans, a few Asians) – but it still has a pleasantly relaxed feel to it. Naturally we stayed in a riad in the medina with its 9,400 alleys, known as the most complete medieval city in Africa, still with 160,000 Fassis resident here in the old town. It really is very easy to get lost, although after a while you do start to remember some waymarks – and you can always ask someone how to get home (they’ll probably send a boy to show you the way). Most of the medina’s dars (townhouses) are now occupied by multiple families and it’s amazingly diffcult to get agreement to do major repairs or indeed to sell them as a whole – but quite a few have now been bought and done up as delightful guesthouses.

In 2016 there has been a slump in the numbers of tourists visiting Fès, and Morocco as a whole, and so you won’t have to pay much for a lovely room – but this is really hurting the riad owners, their staff and the whole local economy. Meanwhile, accommodation owners have been told their pages will be removed from Booking.com unless they register according to a new grading system which has not yet been drawn up… It will all be sorted out in the end, no doubt.

The newly renovated tanneries

The King, Mohammed VI, has been behind the restoration of many of the medina’s monuments – he was due to reopen the famous stinky tanneries a few weeks after our visit. Also newly refurbished are the Seffarine, Mesbahiya and Sbaiyyine medersas, built in the Merinid period, as well as the Mohammadia medersa, built by King Mohammed V, and the Dar Al Mouaqqit museum room in the minaret of the Al-Karaouine mosque (famous for its water clock) – it’s good to see him putting some of his money into the tourism industry, but I can’t help feeling he might be even richer if he put more in. In fact I gather more of the funding came from UNESCO. There are photos of him everywhere, feasting in food shops, in sports gear in sports shops, and so on; despite being a bit flashy and probably a bit repressive he’s doing a decent job of keeping Morocco safe for tourism, and is also building a huge new centre in Rabat to spread the message of moderate Islam. (It was the present king’s father who loved golf and is responsible for the country’s courses.)

We saw the other sights, of course, notably the Bou Inania medersa, supposedly ‘the most elaborate, extravagant and beautiful of all Merenid monuments’ and ‘close to perfection in every aspect of its construction’. Well, it was very striking, of course, but it’s not possible to go upstairs now and we felt that the stucco needed a good clean.

The palaces of Fès

There are some very grand palaces in Fès, built between the 18th and 20th centuries, but most of these are also now in multiple occupation and have the same problems as the townhouses. The most accessible is Dar Batha (closed on Tuesdays), which has been a museum since 1916 and displays local crafts such as carved wood, carpets and Fès’s distinctive cobalt-blue ceramics, and also has fine Andalusian-style gardens (not Spanish, of course, but Moorish, ie the style developed by the Arabs when they occupied southern Spain) – magical concerts are sometimes held in the gardens.

Others are hidden in the alleys of the Douh, Zerbatana and Ziat districts, east of the Batha, and have a little hand-painted sign or none at all; you’ll have to pay about 25 Dirhams to be shown around each one. This money helps the family survive and perhaps patch the building up a bit, so don’t haggle too hard. The Dar el Glaoui or Glaoui Palace (1 rue Hamia, Douh), now impressively run-down, was built for T’hami El Glaoui (1879-1956), a warlord who allied himself with the French and suppressed all his rivals with their help, becoming Pasha of Marrakesh from 1912 and commonly known as the Lord of the Atlas. It’s becoming known as an off-beat alternative to Dar Batha, due to the abstract painter Abdelkhalek (or Abdou) Boukhars who welcomes visitors to his studio and to some of the ground-floor rooms. (This is not Hassan El Glaoui, a son of T’hami and perhaps Morocco’s best-known figurative painter; he was discovered by Winston Churchill, who persuaded his parents to send him to art school.) Again, the palace complex is now divided between a dozen or so families and is now delightfully delapidated (but if you have a couple of million dollars you might be able to buy it – though you’d need another million or two to restore it to its former glory).

The Glaoui palace

This is the painting by Abdelkhalek Boukhars that Katy bought:

 

Gavin Maxwell’s classic book Lords of the Atlas, about T’hami, is strong on the wild tribal life of the Atlas, but you wouldn’t know that he also had a life in Fès, the then capital of Morocco (and still its spiritual capital). You enter a huge courtyard and glimpse a few stately rooms, decorated with carved and painted woodwork and zellij mosaic tiles, the huge kitchen, and the first modern European-style bathroom in North Africa, still with its original plumbing; but the complex sprawls to the rear with gardens, a cemetery, stables, mills and baths, while roof terraces, if you can gain access, give views across the city.

While T’hami El Glaoui was Pasha of Marrakesh, Si Tayab El Mokri served as Pasha of Casablanca (from 1927 to 1949), and he too built a huge palace in Fès in 1906 (with some 1930s additions). In the southern part of the medina near the Bab Jdid gate, at 1 Rue Hamia, Douh, the Dar El Mokri has a more European feel with Oriental touches. As usual in Moroccan palaces there’s a large courtyard inside the entrance, for parades and grand receptions for dignitaries arriving on horseback (or even on camels); stairs lead to a terrace above, from where you can watch the comings and goings to the informal workshops that now occupy most of the rooms around the courtyard. The family still lives here and is keeping the place in good order; the grand drawing room with its pink walls and white stucco boasts a huge golden cupola and shell-shaped alcoves. The spacious gardens are rather run-down, alas. There’s a good chance that this palace will be refurbished for exhibitions, conferences and other events (and it has already been used as a film location).

The easiest to see, in fact, is the Palais Mnebhi, right on Talaâ Seghira at 15 Rue Souiket Ben Safi, which is now a restaurant catering mainly to tour groups. Built by a minister of war under Sultan Moulay Abd el Aziz, it was home to Maréchal Lyautey, first French résident-général. In addition the Palais Amani, at 12 Derb el Miter, Oued Zhoune, is now a luxury riad, and no doubt there will be accommodation in others too once the tourism business picks up again.

A couple of places to eat

Situated in a beautifully decorated, 250 year-old courtyard house, Cafe Clock is a contemporary cultural hub. Artists, tourists and musicians gather in the library, the terrace, the bar, the red room, the courtyard, and the balcony spaces. You’ll find story telling, music and cooking classes as well as a tiny cinema, where, if you happen to be the only one who shows up, you can watch whichever film you fancy, of those available. The weekly programme is set each Sunday night.

The food will give you a break from more traditional dishes (although these are also available and as vegetarian versions). You can also try their Camel Burger! We ate their delicious Aubergine and Goat’s Cheese Quiche and I recommend the Orange and Almond Sephardic Cake.

Cheeses in the souk

The Ruined Gardennot the easiest place to find, but worth it for the exquisite food! Once a merchant’s house, then a rubbish dump, now exactly as it says, adapted to create an atmospheric restaurant and bread-making school with an outdoor kitchen and lovely open fire inside. It’s opposite the pharmacy at Sidi Ahmed Chowi, 5 or 6 minutes walk downhill from Batha roundabout, and with a little notice they’ll even send someone to meet you there if you are nervous about finding it. We followed a lad of about nine who took us down a number of side alleys.

The Ruined Garden
En route from Fes to Chefchaouen

We took the 11.00 bus (checking in our luggage for 5 drh each), which stopped for a lunch break at the Cafe Boucherie where, if you are on the mark, you can choose a portion of meat at the butchers and then have it grilled next door and ready to eat before departure 30 mins or so later.

Hull – City of Culture 2017, its moment in the spotlight

I went to Hull in the spring of 2016 for no particular reason other than that it was the end-point of a two-day bike ride up from King’s Lynn, but I found it a very genuine and straightforward place with a strong sense of its own identity. It’s still a city where ’everyone knows everyone’, as relatively few people move in or out, and it hasn’t attracted many immigrants (unlike say Boston, which I passed through on my way to Hull). Having said that, while the city centre shops have some individuality, the new shopping centres by the station are as generic as those anywhere else in Britain.

The city was in the throes of preparations for its rôle as Britain’s City of Culture 2017 (hull2017.co.uk), and in places it was virtually impossible to move in the centre, there were so many roadworks (see below). Alas, better cycling facilities seem to have been largely ignored in the pedestrianisation project. The focus seemed to be largely on infrastructure, but the projects are behind schedule. The expansion and refurbishment of the Hull New Theatre (new as in 1939, not 1379 as in my Oxford college) is running a year late, though it should still open at some point in 2017. Likewise, the Ferens Art Gallery closed in mid-2015 for refurbishment – re-opening has slipped from to early January 2017 to simply ‘early 2017’. Pietro Lorenzetti’s Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter (a masterpiece of the Sienese Renaissance, painted c1320 and acquired in 2013) will return to the Ferens after four years of conservation at the National Gallery, and the gallery will also host the 2017 Turner Prize exhibition and ceremony. Luckily, the excellent Hull Truck theatre company will be busy, with a programme including plays by Richard Bean and about the boxer ‘Battling’ Barbara Buttrick, both from Hull. Local musicians to be celebrated include Woody Woodmansey (drummer with Ziggy Stardust’s Spiders From Mars) and ambient music pioneer Basil Kirchin, and of course there’ll be an exhibition on poet Philip Larkin at the University of Hull’s library where he worked for 30 years (the library’s been refurbished, and houses the university’s fine collection of 20th-century British art). No doubt poet Andrew Marvell (born near Hull in 1621) will be remembered. There also be a tribute to film director Anthony Minghella, who studied at the university. No mention of Hull-born Maureen Lipman, alas (she talks the good talk about her love of her native Hull, but may possibly prefer life in North London). Hmmm – maybe they’re best off concentrating on infrastructure improvements.

In the meantime

In the meantime, the large Maritime Museum is strongly recommended – it’s in the city’s former Dock Offices, a triangular landmark built in 1871 and currently an island in a sea of roadworks; to its south is Prince’s Dock and to its north Queen’s Dock, created in 1778, is now Queen’s Gardens. Seafaring and overseas voyaging remain of course an enduring source of fascination to the British – the Ferriby Boats, dating from the Bronze Age (c1800BC) and found in a mudbank a short distance west of present-day Hull, are perhaps Britain’s oldest sea-going vessels. Hull (properly Kingston-upon-Hull) was founded in 1293 by Edward I as a port to supply his army in Scotland; from 1598 to 1869 it was a major whaling port, with ships sailing north towards Spitzbergen and then later to the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay; they hoped to be home each year for Hull Fair in October but risked being caught in ice – in all 66 of 186 ships were lost. The Wilson Line, founded in Hull in 1831, became the world’s largest private shipping line, and the arrival of the railway in 1840 allowed the city to become a major fishing port. In World War II only London suffered more bombing damage than Hull, and although the city was rebuilt in lovely grey concrete it entered a period of steady decline. It does still have scraps of its old town, with evocative street names such as Land of Green Ginger, and Holy Trinity church (mainly 14th-century), and some excellent old-style pubs.  The Humber is notoriously hard to navigate and is still surveyed every two weeks above Hull as five-knot tides cause the sandbanks to shift constantly. Pilots have been employed since 1512, and were made compulsory in 1541; the Spurn Point lighthouse, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, was in use by 1427, with a 90-foot tower built by John Smeaton in 1776 and the present 120-foot tower raised in 1895. There are still three lightships upstream from the Humber Bridge (opened in 1981 and unlikely to ever pay off its construction costs).

Holy Trinity church

Hull is largely bypassed by guidebooks, so I’ll just mention that Hull has more excellent museums, all free, with several in the newly dubbed Museums Quarter, just east by the River Hull, including Wilberforce House, with hard-hitting displays on slavery and its (partial) abolition. The Hull and East Riding Museum and the Streetlife Museum (covering history and transport, respectively) are also well worth a look; The Deep, at the mouth of the Hull, is a huge and family-friendly aquarium. The former Fruit Market by the river is seeing regeneration, with the new Humber Street Gallery, aiming to be a major centre for contemporary art, and the Yorkshire Brewing Company (actually a new microbrewery, but you can’t fault their ambition).

Wilberforce House

Luxembourg – lots of history

Luxembourg was a city I hadn’t visited for close to 40 years – it just doesn’t quite seem to be on the way to anywhere – but it was interesting to see that for Asians in particular it figures as part of their Capitals of Europe tour. And quite right too, it’s an interesting place and not quite like anywhere else. Having said that, the next challenge is to get out of the capital and see something of the rest of the country. There’s a good network of cycle trails and youth hostels, so it’s just a matter of getting organised.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg has a fascinating history, gradually losing territory and becoming more constrained while also becoming more important – in particular Luxembourg City occupied a strategic position above the route from Reims to Trier (particularly important in Roman times). Heavily fortified in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became known as ‘the Gibraltar of the North’, and was fought over many times.

Arriving from the station, Avenue de la Gare is just a busy shopping street, but it ends dramatically at a viaduct (built in 1859-61 and known as the Passerelle) over a deep chasm, with the old town and fort on the far side and a pathetic stream below.  One lane has been taken from the road to provide an excellent segregated cycle track across the bridge.

The Passerelle viaduct

The national and city history museums are both excellent and modern – I can’t see why you’d need to visit both, so go for the national one (the Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art; closed Mondays) which is free, and also has interesting art displays. They both give detailed accounts (mainly in French) of Luxembourg’s history, which I have merged here for your delight, and to ingratiate myself with my old mate David Crowther, who produces the History of England podcasts. There are traces of human habitation here from at least 250,000 years ago; farming and ceramics were introduced by the Rubané culture around 5000 years ago in the early Neolithic period. From around 1800 BC (in the Bronze Age) cassiterite (tin ore) was brought from Brittany or Cornwall, and in the 8th or 7th century BC iron-working began. From the mid-second century BC oppida or villages were established by the Gauls, Celtic people who were good farmers and led comfortable lives here, leaving many archeological remains. The largest prehistoric cemetery found in Gaul (present-day France and to the north) was in Wederath, and mercenaries fought for Carthage against Rome, bringing back Macedonian coins. By 51 BC Julius Caesar’s Roman armies had conquered all of Gaul (all three parts). The oppidum of Titelberg (just north of Luxembourg city) was an important centre of the Civitas Treveroum, with its capital in Treves or present-day Trier, just across the present-day border in Germany, which was briefly one of the four capitals of the Roman Empire – I went there from Luxembourg and will post about it soon.

The Romans built a watchtower on the Bock, the rocky outcrop above the Reims-Trier road just east of the present city centre, and were in charge here until the early 5th century, when the Germanic Franks invaded. A church was built in Echternach in northwestern Luxembourg in about AD 706 by St Willibrod (who was buried there in 739) and by around 800 Echternach had become one of the intellectual and spiritual centres of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

The first record of ‘Lucilinburhuc’ came in about 963 when a certain Siegfried built a wooden tower there; the first church in the town was St Saviour’s in 987 (now St Michael’s, rebuilt in 1687-8), and the first Comes or Count of Luxembourg was Conrad I from c1040 to 1086. In 1086 the Benedictine abbey of Altmünster (where the counts were later buried) was built by the river below the château, followed in the mid-12th century by the church of St Nicholas (demolished in 1778) on the new market place. Countess Ermesinde (1186-1244) is known as the ‘second founder’ of Luxembourg, building a city wall in about 1200 (along the present Rue du Fossé), modifying the château and granting a charter in 1244; monastic orders established themselves here and the first stone houses were built. The county of Luxembourg soon controlled the swathe of territory between the Moselle and the Meuse rivers, south of Liège (see my post for the history of Liège), with an annual fair from 1340. Ermesinde’s great-grandson Henri VII (c1278-1313) became Holy Roman Emperor in 1308, and his son Jean l’Aveugle (John the (partially) Blind, 1296-1346) became King of Bohemia and was known as the ideal of knightly chivalry in his time, fighting in all the major wars of his time and finally being killed fighting the English at the battle of Crécy. Jean’s son Charles IV (1316-78) was later elected Holy Roman Emperor in his turn, and In 1354 the Comté of Luxembourg was promoted to Duché or duchy. At one time there were lots of independent duchies across Europe, and especially Germany, but this is the only one left.

The Bock was rebult in stone and partially destroyed by a Burgundian attack in 1443 before being burnt down in 1509; in 1542-4 the city occupied a strategic position in the wars between the Emperor Charles V (ruling Spain, Austria and the Netherlands) and François I of France, and in 1544 the city was captured by Charles, and his governor Count Pierre-Ernest de Mansfeld (1517-1604) added extensive new fortifications. Luxembourg became a garrison town for the next two centuries, its defences, including 23km of tunnels known as the casemates. In 1659 the area of Thionville, to the south, was ceded to France, and in 1684 Luxembourg itself was captured by Louis XIV’s general, the great military engineer Vauban, who added modern fortifications (1684-5). In 1697 Louis XIV was obliged to hand Luxembourg back to Spain, and in the 1715 partition of the Netherlands it went to the Austrians, who built a third defensive wall; the Schlossbrücke, leading to the Bock, was built in 1735-6 and the Bock was hollowed out into defensive casemates in 1737-46 (see below). However in 1795 Luxembourg was again captured by France (although there was a peasant’s revolt against them in 1798); at the Congress of Vienna, ending the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, it became a Grand Duchy and part of the new German Confederation (successor to the Holy Roman Empire); the eastern part of its territory was ceded to Prussia in 1815 and the Walloon part to Belgium in 1839, when the Grand Duchy’s present borders were established.

The Schlossbrücke and the Bock

Having been under foreign rule since 1443, Luxembourg was now independent again; in 1867 the Treaty of London established Luxembourg’s neutrality (abandoned after the Second World War), as a result of which the Prussian garrison had to withdraw and the fortress (by now covering 180ha) was dismantled – only the Dent Creuse (Hollow Tooth) tower, by the Monté de Clausen, the road leading east towards the youth hostel, was left in a romantically ruinous state; just recently this road has been raised to give space for a visitable archeological crypt below. The entry to the casemates (perhaps the city’s main sight – placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1984) is also on the Bock, a spiral staircase descending into the bowels of earth (although it’s then quite spacious). Also in 1870 the fortress walls and stairs were removed to create the Corniche, dubbed ‘Europe’s most beautiful balcony’, a scenic walkway running along the ramparts above the Alzette valley.

Until 1890 the kings of the Netherlands were also Grand Dukes of Luxembourg, but when Wilhelmina became Queen of the Netherlands she was as a woman unable to succeed in Luxembourg, so Grand Duke Adolphe (1817-1905) of the house of Nassau-Weilburg took over. The Grand Duchy remained poor until the 1880s when a steel industry was established here – the city’s population doubled in the 19th Century, with gas lighting (1843), piped water (1866) and a horse tramway (1875). In 1914-18 and 1940-45 Luxembourg was occupied by German armies; in the First World War the pro-German Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde was unpopular but there was no active resistance, but in 1942 strikes against conscription led to 21 protestors being shot, and by the time the Duchy was liberated in September 1944 792 résistants had died. Liberation was followed by the Battle of the Bulge, mainly in Belgium but crossing into northern Luxembourg.

Luxembourg has played a disproportionately large rôle in the development of the European Union. but being sandwiched between those two perpetual rivals, France and Germany, it was a smart survival strategy. Another benefit from Luxembourg’s location is that many European institutions (such as the European Court of Justice and the European Investment Bank) are based here (in the modern European Quarter, across the valley to the northeast of the city). In 1921 BLEU, the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union was a first step towards the more famous Benelux union of 1944, between Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The European Steel & Coal Community, set up in 1952 and driven by the need to integrate the continent’s steel industries (thereby making a European war impossible), was the first step towards the creation of the Common Market and the EU. Robert Schumann, the French foreign minister (1948-53) and prime minister who is widely lauded as the father of the Council of Europe and the EU, was actually born in Luxembourg in 1886, with German citizenship due to the annexation of Lorraine, his father’s homeland, but in 1918 he became French when Alsace-Lorraine was handed back to France. The current president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is also a Luxemburger.

Nowadays the city’s population is 80,000, with another 50,000 commuting in; about 45% of the Grand Duchy’s 530,000 population is foreign-born, with the main immigrant community being Portuguese. Administration is mainly in French, but the newspapers are mainly in German. People actually speak Letzebuergesch, a Moselle-Franconian dialect of German; apart from the specific words of French origin it’s similar to Siebenbürgisch, the dialect of the Transylvanian Saxons of Romania, about whom I’ve been writing since 1991, not that I understand a word of the dialect.

It’s quite a progressive place: Luxembourg’s prime minister recently became the first European Union Leader to marry his same-sex partner, and the city seems to have been led entirely by mayoresses recently. But, I have to say, I wasn’t impressed by the beer.

Some practicalities

Arriving by train is a bit reminiscent of arriving in Bern (and Truro), with striking views from rail and road viaducts. CFL (Luxembourg State Railways) services are all pretty slow, but they are now investing in some decent modern trains which work through onto the neighbouring countries’ networks – the hourly RE11 service to Koblenz is worked by double-decker CFL trains which I took as far as Trier (it’s cheaper to buy a day return than a single on this route, not that there were any ticket checks). It seem that this service will be extended to Düsseldorf in December 2017, although I’m not really sure why the CFL (Luxembourg Railways) would want its trains used for what is basically a German regional service.

The trains to Koblenz (Germany) and Liège (Belgium) are regional trains with plenty of stops, the hourly service to Brussels is a bit better, but there are much faster connections to France. Direct TGVs run to Paris, taking just over 2 hours via the new high-speed line into Paris Est; in addition ‘Gare Lorraine Express’ buses run from Luxembourg station and the Sud/Howald Park & Ride to the Lorraine TGV station on the high-speed line near Nancy, from where you can catch TGVs to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, Le Mans, Nantes, Rennes and Bordeaux. In July 2016 two daily TGVs were introduced from Luxembourg to Marseille and Montpellier via Metz, Strasbourg, Besançon and Lyon, using the new Rhine-Rhône high-speed line.

Liège 2, museums – fuss and Boverie

Before I reached Liège I heard a lot of fuss about the Grand Curtius, a project to link a group of the city’s museums and to create a strong cultural hub, but I have to say I wasn’t that impressed. The €59 million project opened in 2009 (10am-6pm except Tuesdays; €9; www.grandcurtiusliege.be), but it’s not very well organised, with lots of dead-ends and poor signage, and there’s nothing particularly amazing to see anyway. The bright-red and remarkably tall mansion (built for the merchant Jean de Curte between 1597 and 1610, in Mosan Renaissance style) overlooks the Meuse, but it’s still basically empty (I saw a few grand fireplaces and a temporary show of contemporary art there) and the entrance to the complex is on the far side on Féronstrée – glazed walkways (see below) lead from the ticketing area to the four supposedly unified museums, of archeology, weaponry, decorative arts, and religious art and Mosan art. There’s information in four languages in the introductory section but after that it’s French only.

The Grand Curtius

There is an excellent collection of glasswork, from its origins 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt via medieval stained glass and Bohemian crystal to wonderful Art Nouveau and Deco creations; the weaponry collection includes some very odd-looking modern guns (all composites and electronics) made in nearby Herstal. Incidentally, Herstal is one of the possible birthplaces (c742) of Charlemagne, but I saw no mention of this. We are however promised an exhibition soon on Georges Nagelmackers, born in Liège in 1845, who invented the sleeper carriage in 1867 and developed it into a Europe-wide empire of trains such as the legendary Venice-Orient Express.

Your ticket also includes the Archéoorum (archeoforumdeliege.be), under the Place St-Lambert, where you can poke around among the foundations of Gallo-Roman buildings and the first cathedral; but I’d still say Le Grand Curtius is a great deal of fuss about not very much, and is also overpriced.

Nearby, at Féronstrée 114, the Musée d’Ansembourg (Thurs-Sun 10am-6pm; €5) is in an splendid townhouse, built for a banker in about 1740, that still has its original interiors, with fine plasterwork and wood carving, and a display of furniture, paintings, tapestries, clocks and chandeliers from the period of its construction, all in authentically liégeois style.

Liège-Guillemins station

I was much more impressed by the Boverie (Tues-Fri 9.30am-6pm, Sat/Sun 10am-6pm; en.laboverie.com), a new and expanded incarnation of Liège’s Palais des Beaux Arts (built in 1905 for the Exposition Universelle) that lies on a new axis from Liège-Guillemins (the stunning new station by Santiago Calatrava with its soaring birds-wing roof – see above and below) via a new foot/cycle bridge and the Boverie park (at the southern tip of the Outremeuse island) to the Mediacité centre (designed by Ron Arad, but basically a shopping centre with cinemas in the run-down Longdoz district). Opened in May 2016, the new Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège (BAL) brings together the collections of the former Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, the Musée de l’Art Wallon and the Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, as well as a new space for international touring exhibitions. Visiting the permanent collection costs €5 (free on the first Sunday of each month), while temporary exhibitions cost between €12 and €17. The permanent collection, on the lower level, starts (chronologically speaking) with a portrait by the Köln painter Bartholomäus Bruyn (1493–1555), a fairly average portrait by Anthonis Mor (c1562) of Lambert Lombard, a real Renaissance man who was court painter to Prince-Bishop Érard de la Marck, a still life by Pieter Claesz, portraits of a man and a woman (1669) by Nicolas Maes, a portrait of the sculptor Jean Del Cour (1685) by his brother Jean-Gilles Del Cour and a portrait of Napoleon (1804) by Ingres. From the late 19th century come a Monet of the port of Le Havre, a lovely painting by Alfred Stevens (La Parisienne japonaise, c1873) and Meunier’s big view of the Seraing ironworks (c1880), as well as a Rodin sculpture.

Liège-Guillemins station

In the 20th century it was city policy to build a good contemporary collection, and they had an extraordinary stroke of luck when the Nazis sold off the paintings in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, showing what was to them unacceptably modernist (and Jewish) art – nine paintings were bought at a sale in Luzern in 1939, by Chagall, Gauguin, Kokoschka, Laurencin, Liebermann, Marc, Pascin, Picasso and Ensor (who I could do without, frankly). How they then survived the German occupation is another matter that I haven’t investigated. In fact the city had spent less than a fifth of their available funds, so they also went to Paris to buy Post-impressionist works by Signac, Utrillo, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Guillaumin and Ensor again (but he was Belgian, so hard to avoid, I suppose). You’ll also see Post-impressionist paintings by Derain, Marquet and the Belgian Theo van Rhysselberghe, and also Magritte (another Belgian), Léger, de Stäel, Vasarely, Arp, Tàpies, Ben Nicholson and the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle.

Finally, the Galerie Noire (also on the lower level) displays prints and drawings by Millet, Delacroix, van Gogh, Jean & Jean-Gilles Del Cour, Meunier, Reps, Ensor, Marc, Matisse (a Tête de Jeune Fille from 1947), Sonia Delaunay-Terk and (being Belgium) a selection of comic strips, all in the usual low-light environment.

By the way, there’s a café called Madame Boverie, and the park, with wild rabbits hopping about, is popular for picnics.

Another exciting new project is La Cité Miroir (the last R is placed backwards), a new exhibition centre opened in 2014 in a former municipal swimming pool (a fine modernist building opened in 1939) at Place Xavier Neujean 22 (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm (from 10am in summer), Sat/Sun 10am-6pm (closed Sun in summer), citemiroir.be). The main hall (see below) makes a fine performance space, and usually houses a photo exhibition too, and a couple of permanent exhibitons (€5 each), Plus Jamais Ça! (Never Again!) on the Holocaust, and Lutte, Histoires d’Émancipation on the struggle for a fairer, more equal society.

La Cité Miroir

It’s also worth noting that the opera house (Opéra Royal de Wallonie) has been renovated, the Théâtre de Liège moved into new premises on the Place du 20-Août in 2013, and there’s a good arthouse cinema, the Sauvenière, at Place Xavier-Neujean 12.

Some practicalities

The Tourist Office has moved from Féronstrée 92 to the Halle aux Viandes (the former meat market; daily 9am-5pm, to 6pm June-Sept; liege.be/tourisme) at 13 Quai de la Goffe (though not actually on the quai).

I stayed in the very friendly youth hostel in the cloisters of St Nicholas church (where detective writer Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, went to church as a boy), in the traditionally working-class Outremeuse district, now also busy with immigrants (more African than Arab). There are some nice Art Nouveau apartment buildings here, and, a block east of the hostel, the rather bizarre Tchantchès statue – Tchantchès (from the Flemish for ‘little Jean’, Jantches) is a folkloric figure, derived from a comic puppet who appeared between the acts in the early 19th-century marionnette theatre and is now a symbol of Liège and in particular the Outremeuse district. The bronze statue was erected in 1936, and giant puppets representing him and his gal Nanesse are now mainstays of street parades and festivals here.

The pedestrianised central area known as Le Carré is famed for its lively bars, but I didn’t find it very attractive. There are some nice cafés in cultural centres etc, but they and the few veggie places seem to close quite early, leaving just loud bars and formal restaurants. Opposite the youth hostel, La Cène (Rue Henri de Dinant 17; lacene.be) is a lively bistro, also serving Italian and Lebanese dishes.

On the transport front, a tramway (keskistram.be) is under construction along the left bank of the Meuse, to open in 2018 with luck. The 12.5km line will link the Standard Liège stadium in the west to Liège-Guillemins station and Coronmeuse in the centre, with a short branch to Bressoux station across the Meuse. There are already bus-only lanes in the centre of town, using a tunnel optimistically built for a metro in the 1970s.

The concept of Benelux (the union of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) doesn’t seem to have reached the SNCB, Belgium’s national railways. The ticket machines at Liège-Guillemins (2 of the 3 were out of action anyway) don’t sell tickets to Luxembourg, so you have to queue at the ticket desk – as a Belgian train runs through to Luxembourg every hour this seems bizarre; there’s no real cycle space on these IC trains either. The short hop north from Antwerp to the Netherlands is equally problematic in my experience.

Meknes and Volubilis

Meknes was pleasant, but I didn’t find a lot to say about it, although the Tribunal (former law courts) houses the brand new Musée de Meknes (Museum of Meknes), which we didn’t see – it seems to exhibit local metalwork, textiles, carpets, pottery and jewellery, as well as farming implements and a spectacular suit of armour studded with coral, turquoise and coins. The Dar Jamaï Museum, right on the main Place El Hedim, is a fine 19th-century palace that displays excellent local polychrome ceramics and carpets with striking geometric designs from the Middle Atlas.

Katy says: The  best place to really cool down in Meknes is the Koubba el Khayatine! This is a huge underground vault known as the Ambassadors’ Hall which may once have been a granary or a dungeon for Christian slave labourers.

The Koubba el Khayatine

We often use AirB&B to find interesting local places to stay and can recommend a real gem in Meknes medina. It wasn’t easy to find at first, but we were met outside a nearby mosque by the owners’ daughter who led us to their charming house. Our simple, small but spotless room was on the roof terrace and we were offered a welcome meal of harira soup that evening in the family kitchen. Dominique is French and his wife is Moroccan. They are both helpful and cultured without being in the least obtrusive. We paid £28 for the night for us both, but the price may go up in high season. Despite the very low front door (see photo of Tim) the rest of the building was of normal dimensions! 

We soon took a shared taxi to Moulay Idris, adjacent to the Roman ruins of Volubilis (from the 1st Century BC to the 3rd Century AD). It’s an easy and pleasant 45-minute walk along a back road from Moulay Idriss to Volubilis, and on a Friday (the Islamic day off) there were lots of friendly people going the same way and sitting in the fields. If you want to take a taxi one-way, it’s easier from Moulay Idriss, as there were only grands taxis waiting at the ruins and they were reluctant to only go as far as Moulay Idriss. You could also walk on a higher-level route, but you’d need a decent map. The ruins’ major selling point is the array of mosaic floors, remarkably well preserved by the dry climate – well worth seeing!

The road to Volubilis
A snapshot of the vast ruins of Volubilis

 

Rabat – a good introduction to Morocco, and I hope to this blog

It strikes me that Rabat is quite a good entry point for those new to Morocco, with its small, modern airport that’s clean and user-friendly, its lack of hassle and high-volume tourism, even its modern tram system. It doesn’t have lots of major sights, with a fairly ordinary medina and ville nouvelle – but at its northern extremity the Kasbah des Ouidaïas (see below) is lovely (the only place you’ll find unofficial guides wanting to show you around – easily turned away), with the platforme offering views of the sea and river, and the Andalusian gardens (actually built by the French colonists) a peaceful oasis.

The Kasbah des Ouidaïas

At the city’s southern extremity, beyond the Royal Palace (it should be possible to walk through the grounds, although it didn’t work out for us), the town’s highlight is the Chellah, where a 14th-century medersa (koranic school) and tombs nestle against the Roman forum and baths (still in use in medieval times, it seems) – with a great number of nesting storks, clacking their bills as a courting gambit, or stabbing fiercely at their rivals.

The Chellah

The Archeological Museum, supposedly the most important in Morocco, didn’t really do it for us, I’m sorry to say: the Roman bronzes – supposedly its great treasure – were away for restoration and many other items were on temporary display elsewhere. It does have some lovely Neolithic reliefs and naïf Phoenician grave markers.

The striking new Musée Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – museemohammed6.ma; 10am-6pm, closed Tues) is well funded (by the king) and ambitious, putting on a big Giacometti show earlier in 2016. Definitely worth seeing what’s on.

Some practicalities

Note that Rabat has blue petits taxis and Salé has yellow ones, and they’re not allowed to cross the bridge from one to the other – you need a white grand taxi, or take the tram (there must be a special arrangement for airport taxis). The tramway is exactly the same as you’d find in Metz or Nantes or any similar-sized French city – supposedly too pricey for average Moroccans but actually too full to board at times. The service on the core section (from Salé to the cathedral) is frequent enough but on the branches you can wait 8-10 minutes.

We stayed in Salé, across the river, which was once far more important than Rabat but is now a quiet and relaxing backwater – the only restaurants are at the modern Marina (near the Bab Lamrissa tram stop), a glimpse of Morocco’s middle-class future, where we ate pizza but couldn’t get a beer. However you should make a point of visiting the Medersa of Abou El Hassan, opposite the mosque, which was founded in 1341; you can explore the upper floors, and look down into the courtyard, unlike in the more famous medersas of Meknes and Fes. Like the other great Merenid medersas it’s intricately decorated with carved wood, stucco and zellij (enamelled terracotta tiles set into plaster), echoing a basic pattern in countless variations, as well as bands of calligraphy, mainly Koranic texts.

The Medersa of Abou El Hassan

Liège 1 – history and churches

Liège reminds me a bit of Hull – I doubt if anyone has said that before, but they’re both honest workaday cities, a bit rough at the edges but with hidden jewels. There’s a hodgepodge of architectural styles in Liège, with glimpses of medieval stonework mixed in with later stuff.

At the meeting of three rivers, this site was occupied 100,000 years ago, and the Romans established a settlement on the site of the present Place St Lambert. This became the site of the country residence of the bishop of Maastricht when Bishop Lambert was killed in about 700 (696 or 705 are also possibilities) on what is now Place St Lambert, in front of the present Palais of Justice (close to Liège-Palais station), because he refused to bless the cup of Alpaïde, mistress of Pépin II, Duke of the Franks (and mother of Charles Martel). Lambert was buried in Maastricht but brought back here  in 709 (or 718) by his successor St Hubert; the martyrdom site drew pilgrims and in about 800 the seat of the bishopric of Tongeren-Maastricht was moved here. In 980 the Holy Roman Emperor gave Bishop Notger (972-1008) and his successors full temporal power as prince-bishop, ruling a quarter of present-day Belgium. They implemented a ‘politique de grands travaux’ reminiscent of President Mitterand’s in Paris, building a cathedral, a palace, the churches of St Jean-Baptiste and Sainte-Croix, then after Notger’s death the Collégiale St Barthélemy and the Abbey of St Jacques, and in 1032 an arched bridge across the Meuse.

The Prince-Bishops held power here until 1795, as part of the Holy Roman Empire (although the trade guilds were involved in running the city from the 14th century), with their palace (now the Palais de Justice, with a 16th-century interior court, an 18th-century neo-Classical façade and a 19th-century neo-Gothic west wing) facing the cathedral. Squeezed between warring nations, they established a principle of neutrality from 1492, recognised by the Spanish Netherlands (later Belgium, more or less) in 1654 and the United Provinces (later the Netherlands) in 1673. A month after the fall of the Bastille in Paris, on 18 August 1789, a revolution here overthrew the Prince-Bishop and the area became part of France as the département of the Ourthe from 1795. In this period of evolutionary turmoil the cathedral was demolished (although it took 15 years, block by block). In 1815 Liège became part of the Netherlands and in 1830 part of Belgium, where it remains; the 19th century brought industrialisation (notably glass- and gun-making) and the development of new suburbs on drained land; the dry loop of the river around the old town is still very obvious.

The present cathedral, to the south in the current city centre, was originally the collegiate church of St Paul, founded in the 960s and rebuilt between 1240 and 1439; the belltower was added after 1812, apparently by request of Napoléon Bonaparte – something of a turnaround from the cathedral-demolishing fervour of the earlier French Revolution. Architecturally, it does feel like a real cathedral but without being anything amazing – the main attraction is the Baroque sculptures of Jean Del Cour (1631-1707), born near Liège, who studied with Bernini in Rome and then spent his career working for the church back in Liège. Highlights here are the tortured figures of John the Baptist (1682) and Christ in the Tomb (1696). There’s also striking stained glass installed in 2013-6, with 14 nave windows by Gottfried Honegger (1917-2016) (Zurich) and five in the aisle by the Korean Dominican priest Kim en Joong (b 1940), as well as a window in the south transept dating from 1530. Also worth seeing are a painting of the Descent from the Cross by Gérard Seghers (1591-1651) at the east end of the south aisle, and a mural of the Crucifixion (c1558). And don’t miss the reliquary of St Lambert – his remains were transferred here in 1805 and this huge silver casket was produced in 1896.

Jean del Cour’s Christ in the Tomb (1696)

There’s more fine silverwork and other treasures in the Trésor (2-5pm Tues-Sun, €6; tresordeliege.be), off the cloister, which reopened in 2016 after refurbishment. Perhaps the finest piece there is the reliquary of Saint Lambert, made in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) by the silversmith Hans von Reutlingen in around 1512, which is the largest late-Gothic reliquary-bust remaining in Europe.

Another of the town’s collegiate churches is St Jacques (Mon-Fri 9am-noon, Sat 10am-noon, 3-5.30pm, Sun 10am-noon), founded in 1015 by Notger’s successor, Prince-Bishop Balderic. It still has its Romanesque nave (c1170), but the nave was rebuilt in Flamboyant Gothic style in 1514-38; the choir dates from 1417 below window level and 1514-38 above. Its most striking architectural feature, however, is the porch by which you enter, built in Italian Renaissance-style in 1558-68; the sandstone sculpture of the Coronation of Virgin above the inner door dates from c1390. It’s another cathedral-scale space which makes a fine setting for more of Del Cour’s sculptures, notably a row of saints along the nave columns and a plaster copy of his Immaculate Conception (1692; the original is in the abbey of Floreffe). St-Jacques also boasts some of Belgium’s finest stained-glass, notably the five windows of the apse, completed between 1525 and 1531.

The porch of the church of St Jacques

The Place du Marché, immediately east of the Palais de Justice and squeezed between the huge dome of the church of Saint-André and the Hôtel de Ville (1714-8), is lined with 17th-century houses, most now housing cafés that spill out across the square. In the centre, the column known as Le Perron is the symbol of Liège, with a sculpture of the Three Graces by Del Cour on top (and rather hard to make out).

About 400m further east along Féronstrée is the collegiate church of Saint-Barthélemy (Mon-Sat 10am-noon, 2-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; €2), consecrated in 1015, which is home to one of the masterpieces of Mosan art, a brass font made between 1107 and 1118 for Liège’s parish church of Notre-Dame. Mosan refers to the style of Romanesque art produced between the 11th and 13th centuries in the Meuse valley straddling present-day Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (more or less the diocese of Liège) – this was the heartland of the Carolingian Empire (or Holy Roman Empire), so the style contains more classical and Mediterranean elements than the more familiar Romanesque style of France, Spain and England. It’s seen in metalwork and stone-carving, and also in architecture, enamels and illuminated manuscripts. There’s a useful free video about the font and also the huge restoration (and excavation) of the church in 1999-2006.

There’s more on Liège’s museums and art in my next post.