Two flying visits to Nice

Tim stopped in Nice for a night on his way to Corsica – see below. Oddly enough, Katy was there a week or two later (visiting the same friend) at the end of her trip along the Côte d’Azur.

We were very lucky to benefit from inside knowledge here! Our friend took us to an authentic local family-run restaurant right in the centre, which I would have passed by on the basis of its name – the Restaurant d’Angleterre (on account of its location at 25 Rue d’Angleterre). The food is decidedly traditionally French and there is a small outside terrace (though it’s wise to book ahead for that option: +33 4 93 88 64 49). It offers very reasonably priced two-course (16 euros) and three-course (21 euros) set menus as well as à la carte options.

Our friend also took us to a great traditional café in the Old Town, Les Distilleries Idéales at 24 Rue de la Préfecture. Great atmosphere and plenty of outside seating to watch the crowds.

Apart from these two ‘finds’, and Tim’s endorsement of Nice, the guide books will suffice. To state the obvious – Nice is, well – rather nice.

Tim’s take on Nice

In general I don’t much like the Côte d’Azur, that very congested and expensive strip of coast in southeastern France, populated by people with rather blingy tastes and leathery brown skin, but I will make an exception for Nice. Although it seems bizarre that it’s now France’s fifth largest city, given that nothing is actually made there, it is nevertheless a real city rather than a holiday resort, and there is enough to see and do all year round.

The modern city was built by aristocrats (and there are still lots of right-wingers living off unearned income here) – the British arrived soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with the first Anglican church opening in 1821, and the Russians followed later in the century, Tsar Alexander II visited by train in 1864, as soon as the railway was opened. The Tsarevich Nicholas died here of cerebro-spinal meningitis in 1865 (aged just 21) and a chapel was built in 1867-8, on the exact spot where he died. By the 1890s this was Europe’s premier winter resort, with everyone from Queen Victoria to Nietzsche killing time in the very grand hotels then opening. A typically Russian orthodox cathedral, dedicated to St Nicholas (in memory of the Tsarevich, and funded by Tsar Nicholas II), was opened in 1912, to serve the large number of Russians now resident in Nice. Just five years later, the Russian Revolution meant that many of them were now penniless, counts and dukes driving taxis, for instance, to put food on the table; around the same time the post-Impressionist painters were discovering the light of the south, and Matisse moved to Nice in 1917.

At the airport, Easyjet put all the baggage from several arriving flights onto the same carousel, which is yet another cost-cutting idea from a no-frills airline that I would not have thought of. These flights arrive at Terminal 2, from where you can take a free shuttle to Terminal 1 and then walk a couple of hundred metres north to the main road to catch a city bus for €1.50 (including connections to anywhere in the city) – rather than paying €6 for the airport bus to the railway station. From the end of 2018 (although nobody believes this will happen on time) the second line of the city’s tramway will serve the airport, making the cheaper route to the city rather more visible. The first line used a novel battery system to cross the central Place Masséna without unsightly overhead power lines; the new line is actually going to be underground through the centre, which will make it massively more expensive and complicated. It’s great that the city is trying to move from a traffic-clogged nightmare (like Menton, where I’ll be later this summer) to somewhere with decent public transport (and trams = prestige for most French cities) – though most bus lines still seem to stop running around 9pm.

At the Libération stop on the first tram line, it’s worth mentioning the Gare du Sud, the former terminal of the the Chemin de Fer de Provence – a grand Neoclassical pile opened in 1892, with a train shed by the Eiffel company, this was replaced in 1991 by the drab little Nice CP station immediately to its west. It was intended for demolition, but protests eventually led to its being listed as a historic monument in 2002, and eventually refurbished and re-opened as a public library in 2014. Now an underground car park has been added and the train shed will open in mid-2018 as a shopping centre with cinemas and sports facilities.

The Musée des Beaux Arts is well worth a visit – the displays upstairs are far better than the dull ground floor – there’s a Rodin Kiss at the top of the stairs, a few Renaissance paintings by the likes of Paolo Veneziano, Martín de Soria and Cosimo Rosselli, as well as the 16th-century Anonyme Niçois, a rare sketch by Victor Hugo and Rodin’s bust of Hugo, some manga books by Hokusai and a 16m-long Chinese scroll of boats on the Yellow River (c.1756). The museum’s pride and joy, however, is its Post-Impressionist collection, notably Dufy and van Dongen, as well as Camoin, Kisling, Bonnard, Laurencin, Signac, Jongkind, Marquet and Guillaumin – there’s also the rather weird local symbolist Gustave-Adolphe Mossa (1883-1971), a bit like Ensor and Beardsley (and at times Klimt), but not as good.

The ticket, costing €10, actually gives 24 hours access to all 14 of the Musées de Nice, so I also swiftly visited the Musée Masséna (beautifully restored stately rooms with art and good exhibits on local history) and the Musée Matisse (in a 17th-century villa with a modern basement extension, and just enough art to give a perspective on his long career, though not much that’s really amazing). Up in Cimiez, this sits right between the Roman amphitheatre and the Roman baths, dating from the 3rd century AD when this was Cemenelum, capital of the province of Alpes Maritimae. There’s an archeological museum at the ruins, but I didn’t have time to visit. But if you can manage it you really should see the Tropaeum Alpium, a huge Roman monument that dwarfs the village of La Turbie, about 15km east of Nice; this was built c.6 BC to commemorate the emperor Augustus’s victory over the tribes of the Maritime Alps.

Food and drink

Apart from the Restaurant de l’Angleterre, recommended by Katy (above), it’s worth mentioning that the most traditional niçoise restaurants often have limited opening hours (often Monday-Friday only, some Monday-Friday lunchtimes only!) and don’t take bookings unless you call in when they’re open. Perhaps the best-known (positively boasting of its limitations) is La Merenda at 4 rue Raoul Bosio (Mon-Fri only, no phone, no credit cards) – but the food is superb, based on local dishes such as stockfish (dried cod simmered in tomatoes, onion & garlic), pasta with pistou (what Italians call pesto), ravioli stuffed with chard, tarte à la tomate, or beignets of courgette flowers.

Emilie et ses Cool Kids is a small chain of cafés with two branches in Nice, at 9 rue Alberti (city centre) and 1 rue de la Prefecture (old town) specialising in American-style muffins and bagels – they’re more or less the only places around where you’re welcome to linger for an hour over your laptop and one cup of coffee.

We also tracked down La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice at 14 Ave Villermont, where a very pleasant self-taught brewer from Alsace produces a range of just three standard beers (blonde, blanche, and ambrée) as well as seasonal specials – they’re all bright and clean-tasting, with some unusual notes. You can call in to taste and buy Tues-Fri 17.00-19.00, Sat 10.00-noon & 16.00-19.00. But beware of fake LBAN beer, especially up in Sospel, it seems.

Highlights of a six-day road trip along the Côte d’Azur.

If it’s Sunday it must be Marseille!
Getting there.

Not a lot of people know that one can take a Eurostar all the way from London to the South of France without changing trains!! The 07.15 from St Pancras arrives at Marseille St. Charles at 14.47 local time. I booked this train six months ahead and paid only £57 one way.


The third largest town in France has lots to offer and it’s worth exploring on foot to take in not only the obvious tourist sites but also to see the seedier side which reflects the reality of a port city which is said to have the highest unemployment rate in France and whose youth demonstrates its frustrations virtually everywhere in the form of graffiti as political comment and protest. Street art is tolerated by the locals and some of the artists are well-known and use the wall spaces in rotation, thereby creating a running commentary of the tensions in the city.


We were lucky to arrive on the first Sunday of the month, the very day that all museums in the city are free of charge. So having dropped off our bags, we headed straight out and visited the well-signposted Le Panier (the old quarter) just north from the Old Port and up a steep hill criss-crossed by cobbled streets. Much of it is closed to road traffic from 11.30am onwards, with the exception of the Petit Train which can deliver you there from the Old Port and back for a couple of Euros. It stops at the Vieille Charitée, which was originally a poorhouse built between 1671 and 1749 and is made up of of a three-floored gallery looking over an inner courtyard with the centrepiece of an imposing domed chapel.

It now functions as a museum and cultural centre and I was particularly taken by a mummified cat on display along with its sarcophagus in the Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne!

There’s a café inside the complex but many more on the square just opposite.

We also visited Notre Dame de la Garde.  Built in the 19th century, this Romanesque-Byzantine style basilica is one of Marseille’s top tourist attractions, and it is worth the effort. On the day of our visit we were greeted by hundreds of motorcyclists who attended an outdoor service while we were able to go inside the building undisturbed. The views over the old port and city and beyond are simply wonderful.


After collecting our hire car at the station we drove the twenty miles or so to ‘Aix’, although it would have been entirely possible to travel easily by bus or train.

We stayed at the Hôtel des Augustins, a converted 12th-century convent, which is centrally placed and just off the famous Cours Mirabeau. It was worth paying a bit extra for the convenience, although we did take the cheapest option – a small room at the top of the building. We left our car in an all-night car-park five minutes walk away. Having managed to get there in time to enjoy the market which takes over the town every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we bought some Provençal soaps smelling of Rosemary and Verveine, for just a euro each, though there was ‘un embarrass de choix’ of other aromas. Rather pleased as I saw the same soaps later on in the trip selling for two euros in Nice and four euros in Cassis. I dread to think what they would have cost in over-priced St Tropez.

With time at a premium, we visited the Musée Granet and the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, now housing the Jean Planque collection under the name ‘Granet XXe’, available under one ticket. Highlights include works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Giacometti, Rembrandt, Picasso and Bonnard, to name just a few.

We also saw the exceptionally beautiful Burning Bush Triptych of Nicolas Froment at the Saint Sauveur Cathedral. (I’m not showing my photo as it is so worth seeing fresh.)

Aix is great to stroll around – famed for its fountains and gastronomic delights including a huge range of nougat that can be purchased by the slab.





Next stop was 30 miles back to the coast. We left the car overnight in Des Gorguettes Park & Ride free of charge but had to pay 2.60 euros each for the bus (which runs between 9am and 8pm) into town. Cassis is charming and easily walkable.

It was a windy day so we were able to visit only three of the Calanques by boat due to the rough conditions at sea. These are fjord-like inlets carved into the white limestone which can be found along the ten-mile stretch of coast from Marseilles to Cassis. In 2012, most of them were declared a National Park. Many can be reached only by boat or by hiking in. Some have attractive beaches and are great sheltered swim-spots. (Note to self – a tempting future trip!).

I indulged myself in a genuine (and now quite rare) Bouillabaise at Chez Gilbert, which is a member of the ‘Charter of the Bouillabaisse Marseillaise’. On Quai des Baux, Chez Gilbert (+33 4 4201 7136) is one of only 11 restaurants in France that make their bouillabaisse according to the puritan Marseille charter. What you get in some places is fish added to fish soup which is still delicious but not authentic. The real thing includes rascasse, a bony rockfish which lives in the reefs close to shore. The broth is served first in a soup bowl with slices of bread and rouille (olive oil with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper), then the fish is served separately on a large platter.

We were lucky that the road from Cassis to La Ciotat, known as the Routes des Crêtes et Cap Canaille, was open the next day as the wind had died down. Cap Canaille is the highest sea cliff in France and the route is a mere 9 circuitous miles with often 360-degree views. If it is is closed you can still drive up a mile or so to the telecommunications tower along a rough road which offers similarly stunning vistas. It’s well signposted from the town.

St Tropez

St Tropez was a swizz. None of the real glamour remains, just over-inflated prices. Worth an amble through the pretty village and port but I regretted paying roughly 10 Euros for an Orangina for the dubious privilege of watching other tourists watching me!


Our trip ended in Nice – see the next post.

Corsica – ancient and modern

For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Corsica (and Sardinia), above all to hike in the rugged and remote mountains – and that desire remains. When I did finally get there recently, family constraints meant that we managed one half-hour hike and barely stepped upon the legendary GR20, the trail that runs the length of Corsica’s mountains. We were based half an hour inland from Ajaccio, on the west coast, so there’s a lot of the north (apart from Bastia), east and south I haven’t yet seen.

Bastia (in the north) and Corte (in the centre) are small but reasonably interesting towns, but Ajaccio (in the southwest) has less going for it – the tiny old town is surrounded by a wide belt of big-box shops that generate ridiculous amounts of traffic. A Californian lifestyle is all very well when it refers to climate and outdoor activities, less so when it means a car-dominated sprawl. The smog over the Ajaccio area is very obvious from the hills.

Apart from urban services in Bastia and Ajaccio, there seem to be virtually no buses in Corsica – trains (operated by the Chemin de Fer de la Corse) link Bastia, Calvi, Corte and Ajaccio with reasonable efficiency, but they’re pretty slow (100km/h maximum in theory, and 50 or less on the tight curves of the central mountains) and a bit bouncy too. In fact many visitors come by ferry with motorbikes – there are far fewer cyclists, perhaps because they have a choice of the busy coast road or the hilly interior road, neither with any cycle facilities. In addition to the various ferry routes from France and Italy, there are four airports – the Ajaccio and Bastia airports are about a mile and a half’s easy walk from the railway stations at Ricanto and Lucciana-Olivella respectively (these are request stops – don’t forget to press the button in good time) – there are also buses to both. The other airports are less well served – Calvi, 7km from the town, is only reached by taxi, and Figari, in the far south, has a roughly hourly bus (not Sundays) to Porto-Vecchio and nothing at all to Bonifacio, the port for Sardinia. There are two buses a day (not Sundays) from Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio, with connections to Bonifacio.

Megalithism and more modern history

The most worthwhile sight, for us, was Filitosa, a couple of hours south of Ajaccio, one of Europe’s major megalithic sites – not as huge as Carnac, not as imposing as Stonehenge, not as haunting as some of the stone circles such as Castlerigg or those in Orkney and Shetland, but almost unique because of its sculpted megaliths, standing stones with weapons and human features carved on them. These 2 to 3-metre-tall statue-menhirs were erected around 1500 BC, but then largely overthrown by a mysterious people now known as the Torréens, after the Torre or towers that they built – these are better known as nuraghi in Sardinia (and talayots in the Balearic islands). These people may be the same as the Shardanes or ‘people of the sea’ who are recorded as attacking Pharaonic Egypt in the same period, and who may have given their name to Sardinia.

Whereas at Carnac archeologists were scrupulous in recording which stones have been re-erected, at Filitosa it’s not at all obvious, though it seems clear that the site has been considerably tidied up since it was identified by the landowner in 1946.

After the megalithic period, the Greeks established coastal trading settlements, surviving for five centuries, despite Etruscan and Carthaginian incursions, until the Romans arrived in 238 BC, when the defeat of the Carthaginians in the First Punic War led to Corsica and Sardinia becoming a Roman province. This also marked the start of Roman domination of the Western Mediterranean (although Corsica was not wholly subjugated until 162 BC). From AD 450 regular Vandal raids became an invasion, although the Byzantine Empire ejected the Vandals in 534; Christianity, which first appeared here in the third century, was established in the seventh, and from 758 Corsica was under the control of the Pope, who first entrusted it to the Bishop of Pisa to administer, and then shared its six dioceses between Pisa and Genoa. In 1297 the Pope gave the island to the King of Aragon, then from 1358 it put itself under Genoese protection; from 1530 the Genoese erected 90 towers, many of which still remain, along the coast as a defence against Barbary pirates.

1729 marked the start of 25 years of sporadic uprisings against Genoese rule, and a fascinating series of experiments in democracy, including electing the German adventurer Theodor Neuhoff King in 1736 (he lasted 7 months), an Anglo-Sardinian intervention in 1745-48 followed by French intervention (on behalf of Genoa) from 1748 to 1753, and from 1755 independence under Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), who created Europe’s most democratic constitution, with a National Assembly, a ban on blood vendettas. In 1768 Genoa finally ceded the island to France, which had taken total control, closing down the Assembly and university and banning the Corsican language, by 1769 (also the year in which a certain Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, although he left Corsica when he was nine, and his last visit to Corsica was in 1799). They were briefly evicted in 1794 with the help of the British (mainly Nelson and his naval gunners – it was at Calvi that he lost his eye), and a peculiar Anglo-Corsican kingdom was established with Sir Gilbert Elliot, later (as Lord Minto) governor-general of India, as viceroy. An early Brexit in 1796 let the French take full control, and they’ve been in charge ever since, apart from the Italian/German occupation of 1942-43.

After the French surrender of 1940, Corsica was initially left under the control of Pétain’s Vichy regime, but after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 it was occupied by the Italian army, which failed to control the centre of the island, although there were soon almost 85,000 troops here, against a population of just 220,000. After the Italian surrender of September 1943, 12,000 German troops arrived, but many of the Italian forces sided with the local resistance, and Free French troops began to arrive to join the uprising. The situation was complicated by German and Italian forces retreating from Sardinia to Corsica, but the last German units left from Bastia on 4 October 1943, making Corsica the first part of France to be freed from Axis occupation.

Since the 1970s the generation that protested against the Vietnam war has also demanded independence for Corsica, and there were bombings and shootings for several decades. By the 1990s there was infighting between the various separatist factions, while  the security forces had ever more efficient electronic surveillance, much as in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the assassination of the préfet, effectively the French governor, in 1998 was a major shock, and the central government soon offered limited autonomy in return for a cease-fire. This was blocked by the courts as breaching the principle of national unity, although it was permitted to teach the Corsican language (closer to the Genoese dialect of Italian than to French) in schools. A referendum in 2003 rejected proposals for further autonomy, as Corsicans refused to support the separatist Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC), increasingly entangled with organised crime – finally in June 2014 the FLNC called a ceasefire. Times have changed – on the one hand a tourism boom has shown the economic benefits of sticking with France, but the threat of violence has prevented over-development along the coast,pleasing the Corsicans who are very proud of their island and keen to preserve its beauty. Even if the younger generation is less interested in separatism, there’s still a lot of anti-French graffiti and road sides are pitted with shotgun pellets.

 Bastia, Corte and Ajaccio

Bastia was founded as a strongpoint in about 1378 – its name comes from bastiglia (Genoese for fortress) and has the same derivation as the Bastille in Paris – and the citadel was rebuilt in 1519-21, with ramparts added around the Terra Nova or upper town in 1576-1626 – the lower town or Terra Alta clusters around the little port and is the most picturesque part of the city. The citadel is now home to one of Corsica’s better museums, which explains much of the city’s history, notably its development from the 1830s, fuelled by vast fortunes made in Venezuela and by the production of the quinine-based Cap Corse apéritif from 1894. However there’s nothing on the British siege and capture of Bastia in 1794. There’s also a room of second-rate Italian art donated by Napoléon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch – the bulk of his collection, with some far more interesting works, is in Ajaccio (see below). Bastia is the best base for visiting Cap Corse, the island’s northern promontory, and the Désert des Agriates, but there’s little else of interest here – other than the conning tower of the submarine Casabianca, next to the tourist office – she carried out seven missions from Algeria, bringing agents and weapons in the run-up to the island’s liberation in October 1943 (see above).

The ferry port is immediately north of the centre, with Avis, Hertz and Europcar offices nearby as well as a fairly notional bus station outside the Hotel Riviera, a decent ‘budget’ place to stay (there is nowhere cheap to stay on the island – I’ve no idea why no-one has opened hostels in the major towns).

Corte, the main town in the interior of the island, was capital of Corsica from 1755 to 69. It’s dominated by a dramatic citadel, with the Anthropology Museum of Corsica (opened in 1997) alongside it in a former military hospital. My ancient 1999 Rough Guide does mention the new Museu di a Corsica, but laments that ‘the exhibits – largely run-of-the-mill geological and ethnographic material such as farming implements, traditional costumes and craft tools – fail to measure up to the state-of-the-art design and decor’. You’ll be glad to hear that all traditional costumes and the like have been swept away, and the museum now claims to be aware that laying anything down as a definitive account of ethnography and folklore is impossible, so it offers a more tangential approach. To be honest I’m not sure what’s really gained by this. The focus is on the collecting activities of Père Louis Doazan, from the 1950s on.

One display did catch my attention – Père Doazan visited Corsica’s last transhumant goatherds in the Niolo valley southwest of Corte in 1974, when there were still ten flocks making the two-day (60km) trek over some high passes to spend the summer in the high pastures. The transhumant herders were apparently key to the rural culture of Corsica in the same way as they still are in Romania, which I’m far more familiar with. And in fact I did find that the Col de Vizzavuna, between Corte and Ajaccio, reminded me of Romania, with its extensive beech forests and the rather scrappy parking and snack stalls at the pass. Anyway, I was pleased to see signs at the Col de Vergio (Corsica’s highest road pass at 1478m) for the Sentier de la Transhumance, a hiking trail created in 2007.

From the Col de Vergio we continued west down to the dramatic Gorges de Spelunca, which my geologist brother-in-law said were as good as anything he’s seen in the US, apart from the Grand Canyon (the name does come from the same root as spelunking, the American word for pot-holing – the Latin (from Greek) spelunca, meaning cave or cavern).

We did discover an excellent little restaurant in Corte – A Casa di l’Orsu, at 4 rue Monseigneur Sauveur Casanova (halfway down the steps between the two touristy squares), serves remarkably good authentic Corsican food, and is not expensive at all, with good service.

In Ajaccio the only new feature of interest is the remains of Napoleon’s port (1814), discovered under a car park (in the manner of Richard III) opposite the tourist office. Otherwise, the old town is small and unexciting, the cathedral is Baroque (like every church we saw in Corsica) and unexciting, and the citadel is still occupied by the army, and is small and unexciting. The town does have a proper art museum, however, with the bulk of Cardinal Fesch’s collection (see above) in the Musée Fesch. The highlights are on the top floor, mainly Italian Renaissance art, above all a Giovanni Bellini and a Botticelli, as well as paintings by Nicolo Pisano and Lorenzo di Credi. There’s a fairly standard painting by Cosimo Rosselli, but the portrait of a woman discovered on its rear is stunning for the sense that this is a REAL person. There are also some interesting portraits by Carlo Portelli. From a slightly later period there are two Titians, one by Veronese and his studio, a Lodovico Carracci, two Luca Giordanos, and a big hall of dull altarpieces. Corsican art is hidden in the basement, but the main names are Jean-Baptiste Bassoul (1875-1934) and Lucien Peri (1880-1948), both pretty good (although Peri had a much more modern style). On the ground floor there’s some Napoleoniana on show, including a Canova bust of Fesch. Also in Ajaccio there’s the Maison Bonaparte, a museum in Napoléon Bonaparte’s birthplace – we didn’t visit, partly because we were uncomfortable with the Napoleonic cult. Actually Corsicans aren’t that bothered about him, seeing he left the island as a child – Ajaccio’s Campo dell’Oro airport has now been named after him, but that was controversial.

We did drive out along the coast road to the Parata peninsula, where one of the Genoese watchtowers sits on a lump of gabbro opposite the Îles Sanguinaires, also studded with towers – we saw Corsican finches here, as well as huge piles of a rather odd seaweed (we think) washed up onto the beaches.

Help – can anyone identify this?

We ate in Ajaccio at A Casa Leca, a good little organic restaurant on Rue de l’Assomption, actually a flight of steps off the pedestrianised Rue Cardinal Fesch. They wish you bio appetitu! which is a nice little pun – enjoy your organic meal.

Bangkok – street food still on the streets?

Travelling through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam a couple of months ago, we found plenty of Western backpackers travelling there – just as I did in Thailand a few decades ago. But it seems that now they barely linger in Thailand, above all because it’s got so expensive (likewise Malaysia). It’s in many ways a developed country now, but rather than offering more jobs to Thai people, it seems that most hotels are staffed by Burmese, who are cheaper and appear to speak reasonable English. In fact, because it’s no longer a cheap destination, there are now reports of so-called begpackers, travellers busking, selling handmade bracelets and asking for money to allow them to continue their trip – this is causing some bad feeling and is certainly pretty tasteless behaviour in what is still not a wealthy country.

This being the case, it seems amazing that the government (a military junta which came to power in a coup in 2014, let’s not forget is planning to destroy one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. Not a temple or palace, but the city’s street food culture. Even Singapore, which is far more expensive and definitely a developed country with the appropriate concern for health and hygiene, has food courts and hawker centres everywhere, immensely popular both with locals and tourists. In Bangkok, about 40% of residents eat street food daily, while foreign media such as CNN and Lonely Planet consistently name Bangkok’s street food as the world’s best. The junta seems to be driven largely by a military love of order and tidiness (and the generals presumably eat elsewhere), but it’s also being driven by developers desperate to gentrify the city’s most popular neighbourhoods. Another aspect is that the owners of convenience store franchises (such as 7-Eleven) want independent grocery stores and stalls driven out of business, while restaurants resent competition from stalls that don’t pay rent or tax.

Well, that’s what a flurry of recent articles in the travel pages have been been telling us. Then came a slight correction, as locals reported that in fact the apocalypse had not happened. Some overcrowded pavements have been cleared of stoves and stools, but vendors on private property, such as the forecourts of shops and hotels, can remain in business, as can any mobile food carts; and there are various covered markets anyway. It does seem that in 2016 the city administration evicted nearly 15,000 vendors from 39 public areas, and formerly busy markets such as Saphan Lek, Pak Khlong Talat (the flower market) and the On Nut night market are greatly reduced or have even closed; in April 2017 food stalls were cleared from the busy Thong Lor and Ekkamai Roads, officially known respectively as Sol 55 and 63 off Sukhumvit Road. Supposedly Yaowarat Road (Bangkok’s famous, frenetic Chinatown) and Khao San Road (backpacker central) are next in line for tidying up. In typically Thai style, the authorities have not yet made it clear what they’re up to – there are reports, for instance, that the vendors will be allowed on the footpaths of Yaowarat after 7pm.

It seems that there was a clean-up of corruption after the military takeover, but now the usual bribe-based relationships are being reestablished, so most street stalls will survive as long as they pay off the local cops. There’s no doubt that, even though the Asian Tiger days are gone, the city is gentrifying and developers are seeking to make big profits. Huge air-conditioned malls (very popular with the new middle classes) are springing up everywhere, while the city’s few public green spaces are vanishing. Many of the new malls are in the Sukhumvit Road area, where much of the property is owned by large companies linked to the military and the royal family.

There’s a fairly minor reaction against this, so some newer ‘community malls’ are smaller and actually incorporate some green space, usually on the roof! Rather than full-blast air-con there may be light mist sprays to cool shoppers, or just old-style overhead fans. Many Bangkok residents spend much of their free time in malls, so these newer ones have bars and cafés which put on live music and other events, such as cookery workshops. They even have food courts, which offer a partial solution to the problems faced by the street food scene, but many more are needed across the city. They are unashamedly aimed at the new middle-class Thais and expatriates (in fact security guards keep out the poorer people who just want to cool off for a moment) and don’t have vegetable stalls, pharmacies and other everyday shops needed by local residents – but they do include pizza and Chinese food outlets. These people have maids who do the everyday food shopping, after all. The most striking is probably The Commons, in the expensive upmarket area of Thonglor (near the Thong Lo Skytrain station on Sukhumvit Road); others include K Village, SeenSpace and Rain Hill, all near Sukhumvit Road.

Other alternatives are appearing – when the long-established Soi Sukhumvit 38 food market, in alley (sol) 38 off Sukhumvit Road, closed, many of its traders relocated to a space underneath a nearby apartment block. Nearby, there’s a good food court on the top floor of Terminal 21, at the Asok BTS (Skytrain) station (and near the Sukhumvit MRT station), which is clean and cheap but also very busy at times. There are good reports of the vibrant new Rod Fai night market in Ratchada, which has a bit of a Thai-hipster feel to it, with food served from converted VW vans – but it’s a long way east of the centre, and the Skytrain system (at Soi Srinagarindra 51, Nong Bon, Prawet). There are also some interesting alternative food outlets appearing – for instance Holey, on Sol Sukhumvit 31, produces superb breads, pastries and sandwiches for when you can’t face any more rice.

The big picture

The big picture is that a record 33 million tourists visited Thailand in 2016, and tourism revenues were 18% higher than in 2015 – this was largely thanks to over eight million visitors from China, which is flooding all its neighbouring countries with large numbers of tourists. In 1960 Thailand saw just 81,000 tourists, very wealthy or very adventurous (and often both). Since then there’s been a huge boom in tourism, mainly to the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, and a huge amount of environmental damage, including deforestation, pollution and the loss of natural ecosystems. And a huge and blatant (if illegal) sex industry has also developed.

In 1997, when the Thai economy was near collapse, with mass unemployment and food shortages, the king called for a more balanced and sustainable approach to economic development, which led to moves towards a sustainable tourism policy. More recently, the government has urged the tourism industry (which accounts for nearly 10% of GDP) to focus on attracting ‘quality’ visitors, ie lower numbers of higher-spending visitors who would in theory value Thailand’s natural and cultural treasures more than the mass beach tourists. Maybe something will come of this, but at the moment there are few signs of real change. Over the last twenty years about 60 environmental activists have been murdered while campaigning against industrial pollution, over-development and deforestation, and the police and the junta have not been in any hurry to find those to blame.

I was not particularly surprised to read that the same story is playing itself out in Beijing too. The city’s historic alleyways, the hutongs, are being taken over by modern shops and cafés, most notoriously in the boho-arty area of Nan Luo Gu Xiang which was transformed in the space of a couple of years into a venue for groups of tourists gulping down soft drinks and ice cream, while being told it was a delightfully arty area. But this is happening because the city’s bureaucrats neither know nor care about pleasantly untidy arty quarters but just want the place tidied up and ‘modernised’. What is most striking in Beijing is the speed with which demolitions occur, with no notice apparently being given other than a pile of bricks appearing on the street overnight. Cheap bars, shops and noodle bars are then cleared away and soon there’s another shopping mall, just like the ones in Bangkok and indeed anywhere in the world.

 Getting about

I walked a lot in Bangkok – I was very aware that the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin or Rattanaksosin Island) is actually rather isolated, to the west of the areas served by the Skytrain (BTS) and metro (MRT)  – see Transitbangkok. These serve the slightly newer areas where most of the hotels, restaurants and shops can be found, but the only true tourist sight there is Jim

Thompson’s House (see photo), near the National Stadium station. The Silom Line is shorter but more useful for tourists – running from the southwestern suburbs to Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge, by the river between the Oriental and Shangri-La hotels; the place to catch river boats), Sala Daeng/Silom (near Patpong, with its bars and night market, and Lumphini Park) and Siam (another massive mall), terminating at the National Stadium – while the Sukhumvit Line links the shopping opportunities: from the southeastern suburbs it runs to Asok and Nana (both on Sukhumvit Rd), Chitlom (at the Erawan shrine), Siam (for another mall) and then turns north past the so-called Victory Monument (it wasn’t much of a victory) to end up at Mo Chit, near the weekend market in Chatuchak Park. The Erawan shrine, interestingly, is not Buddhist but Hindu, dedicated to Brahma (Phra Phrom) but with minor shrines to Lakshmi, Trimurti, Ganesh, Indra and Narayana within a stone’s throw, and it’s hugely popular and important to the Thais – a throwback to Southeast Asia’s ancient Hindu history, touched on in my posts on Malaysia and Cambodia.

The MRT metro is a single underground line from the Hua Lamphong railway station, near Chinatown (to the east of the historic centre), to Silom and Lumphini then north via Asok/ Sukhumvit to Phetchaburi (near the Airport Express Link’s Makkasan terminal) to Chatuchak Park and Bang Sue. There are oh so predictable plans (see my post on Tangier for what happens when public transport is run by people who don’t use public transport) to close the central railway station (to allow re-development, of course) and build a new one out at Bang Sue, so that everyone will have to change to the metro or (if with baggage) taxis. Speaking of taxis – they have meters, make sure the driver uses it. And motorcycle taxis can be fun, as long as you’re given a helmet – they certainly beat the jams.

There are buses into the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin), which are cheap and welcoming in their way, but few drivers (or passengers) speak English and all signs, on the buses and the stops, are in Thai only. The best way to get to at least the edge of the historic centre (to visit the Royal Palace and so on) is by boat – there are fast, frequent, cheap and dramatic boats (see above) along the Saen Saeb canal (khlong), parallel to Sukhumvit Road, picking up for instance by Jim Thompson’s House and terminating at the Pha Fah Lilat bridge (‘Pan Farrrr’), near the Golden Mount and Mahakan Fort in the attractive Bang Lamphu district – from here it’s not too much of a hike to the royal palace area. There’s talk of introducing a similar service on the river that surrounds Rattanaksosin Island, from Hua Lamphong (the railway station) to Pha Fah and round to the Phra Sumen fort, but who knows if it’ll ever happen?

There’s a good range of reasonably well-known and tourist-friendly boats along the Chao Phraya river, on the west side of the centre. There are no fewer than 32 ferries across the river (just glorified rafts, really, charging 3 Baht), of which the most useful links Wat Pho with Tha Tien Pier (for the Wat Arun temple); there are river taxis, and there are the frequent river boats. The fastest lines (Green and Yellow) operate Monday to Friday peaks only (every 15 to 30 minutes; 13-30 Baht), so you’ll probably have to take the Orange line (every 5-20min, 0600-1900 daily) which charges a flat 15 Baht, or the local line (Mon-Fri 0600-1830, every 20min; 10-20 Baht), which has no colour coding – they both call at every pier. The Green line heads north as far as Pak Kret pier on Koh Kret island, where you can rent clapped-out bikes and follow the marked cycle loop through banana plantations and sleepy little villages; at the end, have a beer by the river at the excellent Chit Beer microbrewery. The Blue line are tourist boats, which have a guide and stop wherever you want, but don’t offer benefit much otherwise.

In 1983 I used Don Muang airport, by the main rail line north of the city; nowadays there’s the modern Suvanarbhumi (‘soo one a poom’) airport, served by a purpose-built express rail link[link] that almost reaches the Ratchaprarop shopping district but doesn’t actually connect with the Skytrain or metro – but to my surprise I actually found myself catching the A1 bus from Mo Chit BTS station (across the road from the Chatuchak Park MRT station) to Don Muang for my flight out.