The Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale opens with James Bond supposedly in Montenegro (although this was in fact filmed in the Czech Republic in 2006). Not long before, just after the Kosovo war, Rory Stewart (remember him? – once a moderate leadership candidate in the UK’s Conservative Party) was Britain’s diplomatic representative in Montenegro and has been forced to deny ever since that he was a spy. However, Montenegro has now shed its spying-oriented image and become the next great thing in Mediterranean tourism – and yet, the people who are most keen to party and indeed to invest in Montenegro are the Russians…. Very suspicious. In fact, in June 2017 Oleg Smolenkov, an American agent inside the Kremlin, was removed by boat from Tivat, Montenegro, with his wife and children, when the CIA decided that President Trump was quite likely to accidentally betray him.
Montenegro’s president, Milo Djukanovic (or Đukanović), is now the longest-serving leader in Europe, having been in charge for over three decades, longer even than Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Naturally, when someone has run a country for so long, an awful lot of people who want to make money there are keen to pay for a bit of influence, and by now Montenegro is monstrously corrupt. Another interesting recent turn of events came in 2016 when a couple of Russian military intelligence officers were supposedly involved in a plot to replace Djukanovic, then prime minister, with a crony from the pro-Russian opposition (note that Djukanovic was initially pro-Russian, but has pivoted to bring his country to a pro-Western alignment) – this may well have been a set-up orchestrated by Djukanovic, giving him the impetus to get Montenegro into NATO the next year; the country is also now in the Schengen and Euro zones, and a candidate for EU accession.
Somehow Montenegro has managed to become a popular holiday destination for both Russians and Western Europeans – along the coast they are rapidly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, but the mountains of the interior are wild, superb and still largely untouched.
A limited tour of the country
The capital, Podgorica, is small and largely modern, and not particularly interesting – as mentioned here, it rivals Prishtina and Skopje for ugliness. The high point was in fact arriving by train from the north of the country (having crossed by bus from Kosova), on the legendary Belgrade to Bar railway, widely regarded as one of the most dramatic in Europe – it was wet and foggy, but even so the cliffs falling away beneath us were pretty staggering. I went on by train to Bar, on the coast, on my way to Albania, but I can’t say it made a huge impression on me.
I and a gang of friends stayed for a week in Virpazar, at Villa Miela, a British-owned operation which puts on splendid activity holidays, with hiking, kayaking, wine-tasting and big meals. Wine-tasting in the nearby village of Limljani is great, especially by bike – we enjoyed the wines and snacks (€10) at Ilya Klisic’s winery, where you can also visit the church of Sveti Toma, on his property, which slid down the hill and turned 180° degrees after weeks of rain, about 130 years ago.
We also went to Kotor (‘the Montenegrin Dubrovnik’), which is pretty but crowded (even in mid-May – with three cruise ships in the bay) and over-priced. One often hears that the Montenegrin coast is being ruined by runaway development (there seem to be no planning laws at all), but for me the queues of cars along the coast and along the Kotor waterfront (even in mid-May) are worse. There’s nowhere to put a bypass, other than by drilling a very long tunnel through the mountains, so reducing the need to drive seems essential. You might think that bringing tourists in by ship might fill that need, but really it’s just adding to the problem. Tivat airport is very close, so one could just come in with a bike (and/or inflatable kayak) and pootle around the Boka (the Bay of Kotor) and have a very pleasant time without a car.
The usually reliable Wanderlust magazine is blithely promoting Kotor as an uncrowded alternative to Dubrovnik – although Dubrovnik is actually taking action to counter overtourism and Kotor clearly isn’t. (The linked article was written in October 2017, but was still popping up in their e-newsletter in May 2019.) Any fool knows it’s best to go to the Croatian islands, such as Hvar or Korcula, rather than to Dubrovnik or Kotor on the mainland.
From Kotor we drove up an amazing series of hairpins (with a few tricky places to stop and look out over the Boka) and over the coastal mountains to Cetinje, the former capital, which has most of Montenegro’s museums. Being away from the coast, it’s also massively cheaper than places such as Kotor – a beer costs €1.30 here or in Podgorica, and €3 in Kotor, a pizza can be had for €1.50 in Podgorica, or for €5 in Kotor. The National Museum is spread across half a dozen buildings, including two royal palaces (now the Museums of King Nikola and of Petar II Petrović Njegoš) and history, art and ethnographic sections. It was a bit of a flying visit, but the museums are well enough organised, if still a bit stuck in an old mindset. It remains a personal challenge to find a museum in Montenegro or Albania that doesn’t have a collection of weaponry, which shows that some national stereotypes really do hold true.
I was delighted to finally get to Kosova (the Albanian name for Kosovo), partly because it means the number of countries I’ve visited has (roughly) caught up with the number of times I’ve given blood (87 – though I’m sure I’ll get to 100 donations before I get to 100 countries); and this is my hundredth post on this blog. Hurrah!
Having followed the Rebecca West trail around southern Macedonia (it doesn’t actually exist, but I did go to Ohrid and Bitola, inspired by her descriptions in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her epic description of former Yugoslavia (with the exception of Slovenia) – not exactly travel writing as usually understood, but certainly an idiosyncratic literary masterpiece), I returned to Skopje and headed north into Kosova. A modern tollroad is under construction (certainly paid for by the EU or other international bodies), largely on a high viaduct in the Lepenc valley. Prishtina, the capital, has a busy bus station, half an hour’s walk southwest of the centre, with departures at least hourly to Skopje and Tirana (rather fewer to less friendly countries such as Serbia and Montenegro) and two or three an hour to Päje (there seems to always be one waiting in platform 1, just pay €4 on board) – trains do exist but are slow and infrequent.
I was intrigued and amused by an article on the BBC website earlier in 2019, the headline of which asked bluntly ‘Is Kosovo’s capital city the ugliest in Europe?’ – there must have been a diplomatic row, because the headline was changed to ‘Kosovo’s burgeoning capital city’, but the evidence survives in the URL. The author, Deborah Huso, detailed the city’s brutalist architectural horrors and clumsy attempts at statuary but also made it clear that the people are great and the city is fun – and that’s what I found too. Much of the city’s past was swept away under communism and replaced by concrete blocks, but there were also misguided attempts at architectural innovation – the most notorious is the National Library (opened in 1982), with a metal façade and 99 domes. It’s not just random, it’s intended to represent a human brain, and I personally find it not too bad – the interior is actually very restful and seems to echo the domed spaces of the Haghia Sophia and Mimar Sinan’s mosques. If you want ugly kitsch, just stop in Skopje.
One exciting bit of cultural news is that the Manifesta ‘nomadic biennial’ will take place in Prishtina in 2022 – and one of its aims is to help the city’s citizens reclaim the public spaces that have been ‘privatised’ due to unfettered neoliberal economic policies. The mayor is totally behind this, so maybe Prishtina will make a serious effort to rid itself of the ‘ugliest capital’ tag.
Kosova’s population is mostly young and mostly unemployed, so the cafés are busy and the pedestrianised Mother Teresa Boulevard in the city centre is alive with pedestrians at all times, not just for the evening promenade which is traditional in so many Mediterranean and Balkan countries. But on the other hand, Prsihtina’s roads are a traffic-choked mess. Everyone goes everywhere by car because that’s what being free and independent is about; next to nobody cycles on the roads, alas, although you do see a few cyclists on Mother Teresa Boulevard (where cycling is banned, although it’s not enforced – one of the surprising things about Kosova is that one sees almost no police). There are a lot of buses in the city, but they’re caught in the traffic too. Tirana is similar – maybe it’s an Albanian thing – although there’s more cycling in central Tirana.
However, the congested roads and busy cafés are misleading – given the lack of real economic activity it’s clear that this is simply due to all the international development bodies based there which pump cash into the country and give an illusion of real economic expansion. At some point they will leave and Kosova will have to start again, to create some kind of sustainable growth.
On the surface Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, is a bit similar – it doesn’t have quite the same concrete ugliness as Prishtina and the economy seems no stronger, but I did at least get the sense that it was genuinely organic and not simply a bubble produced by outside aid. Like Prishtina, it has just one museum with not a huge amount to see, a fairly short walk north of the railway station.
Pajë or Peć
It’s said that Kosova has three capitals, Prishtina the political and economic centre, Prizhren the cultural centre, and Pajë the outdoors centre. Well, that’s what the people of Pajë say, most Kosovars just talk of the other two, but Pajë, nestled up against the Montenegrin mountains, clearly has a future as a base for active holidays. It has a new zipline, two via ferrata, and ski slopes nearby, but the most exciting development is the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a 192km route which links the mountains of Kosova, Montenegro and Albania. Pajë is also busy with cyclists, and not lycra lads on MTBs but rather old blokes going to the café and about their business. I’d seen this in small-town Macedonia too, so was not too surprised, but it turns out that there used to be a bike factory here, and there is a municipal campaign to boost cycling. The central pedestrian area is open to cyclists, there are some bike stands (I saw none in Prishtina) and there have been awareness campaigns. The aim is to have 20% of the population cycling by 2025 – once a month? once a week? surely not every day. Whatever, there’s a long way to go, but it is clearly already a more liveable place than Prishtina.
Pajë (pronounced Pa-err) was known as Peć (pronounced Petch) when Rebecca West came here; I followed her to the Patriarchate, on the edge of town at the start of the route west to the Rugova gorge and the Montenegrin border (closed to motor vehicles, but hikers and cyclists can cross here). This was the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church from 1253 to 1690; it’s still neat as a pin within its walls, with its honey-coloured church set in lovingly tended gardens. The exquisite Serbo-Byzantine frescoes that were just being revealed when West visited are all clearly visible now, having also been restored in 2006. The family tree of the Nemanja dynasty is by the south door of the fourteenth-century narthex (vestibule), which links the chapels of Sveti Apostolá, built in the mid-thirteenth century (dark, with a fourteenth-century fresco of the Virgin and remarkably adult Child), Sveti Dimitri, built in 1316-24 (better lit, with frescoes from c1345 & 1619-20) and Sveti Bogorodica, built c1330 (with a fine series of the Life of the Virgin). Outside, the little chapel of Sveti Nikola, built in 1337, was closed when I was there, but is less interesting, with frescoes from the 1670s.
This lovely site is one of four Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosova that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It’s important to remember that the religious heart of Serbia lies here in Kosova, with the monastery of Dečani, south of Pajë, almost as important as the Patriarchate – one hears a lot about the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks wiped out the Serbian army and nobility, since when the Serbs have borne a grudge against pretty much the rest of the world, but the religious ties are also key to Serbia being so reluctant to allow Kosova independence or even autonomy. Nowadays Kosova is largely secular, although 95% of the population is technically Muslim and just 1.5% Orthodox; however since independence Wahhabism, the fundamentalist Saudi stream of Islam, has established itself here and a surprising number of Kosovars have fought with Daesh in Syria and elsewhere. Dečani is still guarded by NATO troops, but you just have to show your passport to a policeman to visit the Patriarchate of Peć.
I went to Istanbul and in particular Edirne to revisit the greatest works of Mimar Sinan – Sinan the Architect – who built huge domes and other daring structures at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican. (Begun in 1506, St Peter’s was redesigned from 1547 by Michelangelo (then in his seventies), and completed in 1626; its dome is nine metres wider than that of the Haghia Sophia, completed a thousand years before, but slightly smaller than those of the Pantheon – 1,400 years older! – and Neri and Brunelleschi’s great dome of the duomo of Florence, completed in 1436.)
Sinan was born in about 1489 and it’s worth noting that he was a janissary, ie not Turkish but probably born a Christian, perhaps in Shiroka Luka in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains, and taken away from his parents to join the Ottomans’ elite military force. He became a military engineer and in 1539 was appointed imperial architect, in charge of engineering projects across the Ottoman empire; he’s credited with designing over eighty major mosques, sixty madrasas (religious schools), 32 palaces, 17 hospices over the next half-century, as well as bridges, aqueducts, baths and other structures.
In Istanbul I saw not just his sublime Süleymaniye Mosque (1550-57) but also the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex (1580) and the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace (rebuilt after a fire in 1578, and opened to the public in 2014, with displays on
the food and medicines supplied to the sultan’s court). Sinan alsoadded minarets and external buttress walls to the Haghia Sophia. I seem to have missed the Caferağa Madrasa (1559), just northwest of the Haghia Sophia, and the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque (1572), just north of the Little Haghia Sophia, as well as various others more out of the way – shame on me.
Anyway, I then took a bus to Edirne, three hours west, which is dominated by Sinan’s true masterpiece, the Selimiye Mosque, built for Sultan Selim II in 1564-75. The high point of Ottoman architecture, he claimed that here he has finally achieved his goal of creating a dome larger than that of the Haghia Sophia (built in the sixth century, let’s not forget) – but in fact it’s only half a metre wider (31.28m) and higher (42m). Nevertheless, at the age of 80 (he died in 1588, somewhere around 99 years of age), he finally succeeded in creating a fully unified structure that provides a breathtaking sense of space beneath the seemingly weightless dome, decorated with glorious polychrome Iznik tiles. This is mirrored by the external stacking of volumes and the pencil-like minarets in counterpoint on the four corners.
Edirne was once the city of Hadrian (and is still known as Adrianople to the Greeks), although its present name comes from the Odrysi, the first Thracian ‘nation’, which built its capital Uskudama here. It was the second Ottoman capital, a century before they captured Istanbul, and it remained the sultans’ refuge whenever Istanbul was gripped by plague, and the base for their military campaigns west into Europe. It now stands just east of both the Bulgarian and Greek borders with Turkey and is a major transport hub on the routes from Istanbul to both countries. Bulgarians and Greeks come to Edirne for cheap shopping, while Turks cross to Svilengrad, the first town in Bulgaria, for wine, women and song. I’ve just read Kapka Kassabova’s Border, in which she writes rhapsodically about this, and about the Strandja mountains where Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece meet in a mysterious nexus of spiritual forces. Not quite your normal travel book, but fascinating. I was also thrilled to discover while writing this that it was published in the US by an old schoolfriend of mine – I hope it’s done well for them.
The Selimiye is indeed huge and breathtaking, but it’s hard to photograph internally due to the usual low-hanging chandeliers. Compared to the main mosques in Istanbul there are few tourists (and no barriers or separate entrances for tourists) and it’s delightfully relaxed, with locals chatting on their phones and indeed taking selfies. Incidentally, I was told that a letter left in a bottle by Sinan had been found in the 1990s, giving detailed instructions for repairs to the Selimiye mosque – he supposedly used an equation with no fewer than 13 unknowns in his design work. I visited two other old mosques in the centre of Edirne, which were even more relaxed and peaceful – the Eski Cami (Old Mosque, 1414), and the Üç Şerefeli Cami (‘the mosque of three galleries’, 1447).
Heading south from Edirne you’ll cross two old Ottoman bridges; heading west towards the border (see below) you’ll cross a new bridge over the River Tunca, with the old one (ripe for conversion to a cycleway) immediately south, and fifteenth-century mosques at either end. About a kilometre north, also on the west bank of the Tunca (reached by a bridge built in the 1550s), is the site of the Edirne Sarayi or sultans’ palace; built in 1450-75, it’s in ruins, thanks to an earthquake in 1753 and the wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alongside is the Beyazit II mosque and Darüşşifa or hospital and medical school, built in 1484-88; this was the origin of Trakya (Thrace) University, which has run a good museum of health and medicine there since 1997.
When I arrived from Istanbul at Edirne’s bus station I was surprised to find that the only bus to Plovdiv in Bulgaria left at about 1am and took all night – in fact I now know that there are fairly frequent buses to the drab industrial town of Haskovo, between Svilengrad and Plovdiv, which would have provided a very easy connection. (I also noticed that Bulgarian road signs and distances were all to Sofia, with no mention of intermediate places such as Plovdiv.) In any case, it was a very easy border crossing – there are hourly minibuses from Edirne to Kapikule, which will drop you at the border, and less frequent ones on the far side (walk on and take an ad-hoc path left into Kapitan Andreevo) to Svilengrad, from where you can get a bus to Plovdiv.
Additionally, in June 2019 a new Plovdiv-Edirne train service started running on Saturdays and Sundays only, taking about 4 hours to cover the 180km, including time for border checks – this is slightly faster than the buses manage.
And so to Plovdiv – I came here a couple of times in the 1990s, when I was leading hiking trips in the amazing Bulgarian mountains, and I was keen to return when I heard that it was to be one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2019. However as it turned out I got there a bit early – and with hindsight, the Orthodox Easter weekend was probably not likely to yield a lot of cultural activity anyway. Easter in Kraków in the early 1990s was similar – we’re going to church, never mind the tourists wanting to give us their money. I noted previously that Hull’s preparations to be Britain’s City of Culture 2017 were somewhat delayed, but they did seem more ambitious than Plovdiv’s. Košice seems to have put together a better legacy from being ECC. Anyway, a friend who visited Plovdiv a month or so after me assured me that it was all happening and the year should be a rip-roaring success (José Cura was due to sing Otelo in the Roman Theatre a few days ago, which must have been thrilling).
The Roman theatre remains as stunning as ever, as do the old town’s striking Bulgarian National Revival merchants’ houses, which house some great museums. There’s also an exciting long-term project to unearth the Roman stadium which lies beneath the pedestrianised main shopping street, Knyz Alexander I (or Alexander Battenberg) – built early in the second century AD under Hadrian, it was 240m long by 50m wide and held 30,000 spectators. There’s a 3D movie reconstruction of the stadium (ancient-stadium-plovdiv.eu), and the plan is to open up underground access beneath the H&M shop (yes, every high street is just the same these days…). In a separate project, the whole of the Central Square (a wasteland of communist concrete anyway) has been torn up for relaying and beautification, and the remains of the Roman forum can now be seen and indeed visited (free) on either side of the post office building. The Trakart (ie Thracian Art) NGO has a couple of small new museums displaying stunning recent finds of Thracian and Roman glass and ceramics, plus 160 square metres of Roman mosaic, still where it was created in the third or fourth century.
One hears far too much about the Kapana area, immediately north of the old town, and how it’s the equivalent of Hackney and Brooklyn – it really isn’t, but there are a few traffic-free streets now with some pleasant bars and cafés (some serving macarons, so very on trend). The Cat & Mouse bar (and co-working space) in Kapana stocks over 100 types of bottles beers from Bulgaria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Serbia and the Czech Republic, as well as three of their own draught beers – rather oddly, they started early in 2017 with a blackberry ale, and then followed it with a pale ale and a session IPA. I don’t know which my friend was drinking, but it went down well on a hot day. Another decent local product is the Bavarian-style Hills Beer from the small town of Perushtica, near Plovdiv. I was drinking Stolichno amber pils, from Stara Zagora, which I also found refreshing on a hot day – they make Bock, Weiss and Pils beers as well. Stolichno is now owned by Heineken, but at least I managed to avoid the mass-market Kamenitza, brewed in Plovdiv since 1881 and now owned by Molson Coors.
Next, I had a couple of hours in Sofia, just long enough to ascertain that the promised new Regional History Museum has indeed opened in the former Central Mineral Baths (it was a Monday, it was closed, of course). As in Plovdiv, long-buried Roman remains are being opened up – the crossroads at the city centre are exactly where the centre of Roman Serdica was, and eight streets, a basilica, baths and other large buildings were discovered during construction of a metro station in 2010-12. Beneath the modern streets you can now walk along a stretch of the Decumanus Maximus, still lined with columns and sheltered beneath a modern bubble roof.
My vegan food correspondent (I’m sorry, I’m merely vegetarian) says he was very pleased to discover a city that reminds him of Zürich – ‘no skyscrapers in the centre, nice renovated houses, wide avenues, a great transport system with tramway and metro. The city is not noisy, there is a lot of space, it’s green, and there is a large central pedestrian zone leading to a large park.’ I’m not sure Zürich is the first place that comes to mind for me (no lake, no sky-high prices, no incomprehensible Schweeezerdutsch), but it’s a fair comparison.
He continues, ‘like in Istanbul, there is no real invasion of foreign food concepts or fast food. In all Sofia you can find only three Starbucks and only a few international fast food outlets. Pizza I think is the first choice here, you have more pizza shops than Donald Trump can tweet in a day. Farmer’s is one of the best places for a healthy bite – it serves fresh soups, salads, and sandwiches. I visited a great vegan restaurant called Edgy Veggy, very good food, great team.’ Another friend has recommended the Drekka coffee shop and the Vitamin B craft beer bar, which stocks bottled beers from all over the world as well as Bloody Muddy, from a small brewery in the mountains near Sliven, between Plovdiv and Burgas.
Finally, returning to Mimar Sinan – he left his mark here too, building the relatively small Banya-Bashi mosque, which was originally part of the natural hot baths complex – a plaque gives a date of 1576 but it seems it was already there in 1553.
I’ve been leading hiking groups on the Tour du Mont Blanc for exactly twenty years, and it’s always been a spectacular trip, with a climb of up to 1000m every morning, followed by a similar descent, as we make our way around the whole Mont Blanc massif in (as a rule) an anti-clockwise direction. The first day out of Chamonix, from Bellevue to Les Contamines, has always been busy, with the front of one group getting tangled up in the rear of the one in front and the rear getting tangled up in another coming up behind (not to mention individual hikers and family groups) – but the rest of the circuit has got much, much busier recently.
In the last five years or so, the TMB, already well established as a good hike, has somehow made its way onto half the world’s bucket list, on a par with the Camino de Santiago and the Inca Trail. It’s become much more crowded, and, specifically, much more anglophone, with lots of Americans and Australians, as well as groups from Japan, South Korea and even Malaysia. Sometimes I hear a European language which I just can’t recognise, probably Basque as a rule, given their love of the mountains, though there must be a few hikers from the Baltic states too.
In addition, there’s a new breed of skinny people out and about in the Alps – once upon a time, people who went to the mountains were mostly like me, big and hairy (including the women) and able to carry heavy rucksacks up big hills – but now all these other people – who’ve been occupying themselves with 5Ks and marathons and their PBs for the last decade or two – have started running up and down the mountains with ridiculous ease, wearing skimpy lycra, compression socks and minimal shoes and carrying virtually nothing but water and energy gels. There are lots of so-called ‘trail’ races now, such as Sierre-Zinal, the Mont-Blanc Marathon, and above all the Ultratrail du Mont-Blanc, which pretty much follows the course of the TMB. There simply isn’t enough room for hikers and runners, and mountainbikers too – geography dictates that essentially everyone has to go over the same passes, so even where variants are available elsewhere, everyone is still funnelled together at the pinchpoints. Not surprisingly, there’s very little wildlife to be seen now.
Working for the excellent Wilderness Travel, we do of course have our own cunning ways of avoiding the crowds in a few places. We used the balcony route from La Peule to Ferret long before it was marked on maps or signs – happily, it remains little used and is still lovely. More variants are needed – but not the Fenêtre d’Arpette (between Champex and Trient), which is in very bad condition, and is always a much tougher option than the Bovine route, and, to be honest, less attractive, if more macho. In parts, the path has been widened to allow mule-trekking, which doesn’t seem that popular at the moment, but it also encourages mountain bikers, alas.
Thinking of trail maintenance, I’m not clear how the TMB is managed by the three countries it passes through, and which benefit from the money it brings (see my previous comments on the Cornish Coast Path). It seems that some municipalities send their general maintenance guys out with strimmers and so on, but some stretches are in terrible condition (notably from the Col de Balme to Trient, where poor drainage has left a gully down the middle of the trail). On the other hand, just on the other side of Trient there’s a splendid new footbridge over the main road to the Col de Forclaz, built purely for hikers.
And the Haute Route
I went on to lead a group on the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt (which shares its first two days with the TMB, although in reverse). It’s no more crowded than it used to be, largely because access to the central section is limited by the capacity of the Mont-Fort, Louvie and Prafleuri huts, but also because the Prafleuri hut is temporarily closed (just for a few weeks – due to bedbugs, rumour has it…). But it’s a harder trip, so not a like-for-like alternative to the TMB. Part of the section from Mont-Fort to Prafleuri is now marked in blue (rather than red), to indicate that it’s a difficult trail, although there is a longer alternative path available.
Having seen no large wildlife on the TMB, we saw ibex in the places we’d expect to see them on the Haute Route, but no chamois – but that’s been the story of the last two decades, as we’ve seen fewer and fewer chamois. Likewise, we found edelweiss, but you do need an experienced leader to point it out (on the Haute Route, but not on the TMB).
I was also ‘researching’ wheat beers and noticed a spectrum from west to east, from the French-style bière blanche, refreshing but not that interesting, to the proper Bavarian Weissbier to be had in German-speaking Switzerland, which is properly satisfying. To be fair, many French brewers (even 1664) are producing new wheat beers, but I’m just not convinced. On the wine front, I’ve bravely sampled the Valais (Rhône Valley) wines for many years, but have finally come to the conclusion that French grapes are best (we had lovely bottles of Merlot-Cabernet and Viognier this time) rather than hoping that the local Swiss grape varieties (Humagne, Cornalin, Chasselas) will produce something better than average. Though I will make an exception for Fendant, the quintessential wine to have with raclette or fondu.
Finally, I went up to the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge, also (wrongly) known as the Europabrücke because it’s on the Europaweg, the stunning two-day balcony route up the Mattertal towards Zermatt. Opened in 2017, this is the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, at 494 metres. It’s a 610m climb from the village of Randa, and if you take the southern option (ie an anticlockwise loop) it’s a pretty easy climb of one to two hours. The usual way down, to the north, is a dreadful path, however – particularly slow today due to the large number of overloaded climbers struggling up to the Europahütte. Presumably they missed the sharp right turn as you come up out of the old village of Randa, which confirms my views about most climbers not being that bright – though some do write beautifully. In fact if I did it again, I’d go up and down on the southern path – although the best thing would be to continue (southwards, ideally, for Matterhorn views) on the Europaweg.
I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.
As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.
I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.
A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).
Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.
Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.
Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.
Food and drink
Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)
I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.
Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.
The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).
Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).
Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.
The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.
In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.
[24/6/19 – I’m glad to say that the re-run went very well for İmamoğlu, who took 54% of the vote, despite a barrage of AKP propaganda, and is now established as mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility has definitely cracked, and there’s a sense that even his own party members are looking ahead to national elections and a post-Erdoğan era.]
Rebecca West would be appalled. I spent the first three months of the year reading her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – well, I did do quite a bit of work too, but it really is a monster of a book, over 1,100 pages (originally in two volumes), and one of the great travel books. Actually a large part of it is taken up with musings on the roots of fascism (it was published in 1941), the history of ideas and human nature, but it’s also a detailed account of three journeys through Yugoslavia (except for Slovenia, which she may have seen as too civilised for her tastes). In any case, she makes it clear that Macedonia was her favourite part of Yugoslavia, because of the beautiful souls of the people, largely a side-effect of centuries of mis-government by the Ottoman Turks and brutalisation by anyone else who got a chance, notably the Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians.
It’s a serious book, but there are some very funny bits, notably this description of what she calls ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe’, right in the centre of Skopje – ‘of turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod’. This was the Officers’ Club, embodying the domination of the mainly Serb army, and particularly offensive to the Muslim population as they’d torn down the beautiful fifteenth-century Karlizade or Burmali mosque in 1925 to make room for it. It was badly damaged in the massive earthquake of 1963 and left unrepaired, although after the break-up of
Yugoslavia the city’s Muslims campaigned for the mosque to be rebuilt. In 2013 a Greek company was given permission to rebuild it as a hotel, also providing a new office for the mayor and a wedding hall. As of April 2019 there’s not much sign of progress.
In fact West would be spinning in her grave if she had any idea of the further architectural desecration wrought upon the long-suffering city of Skopje in the last few years – the notorious Skopje 2014 project has seen some of the world’s ugliest and most grandiose buildings constructed along the city centre’s riverfront. Beyond kitsch, beyond surreal, beyond Ceaușescu’s most fevered dreams, they’re simply appalling – I’ll just let my photos below do the talking. One might think they were trying to create a European Las Vegas if there were any casinos, and if Batumi hadn’t got there first. The city was largely flattened in a massive earthquake in 1963 and rebuilt in communist concrete – one can understand a reaction against that, but this was not the way to go.
What’s more they are decorated with and surrounded by an incredible array of statues – they’re not all awful, but their sheer number is exhausting. I thought Bratislava’s riverfront exemplified the Central European love of public statuary, but this is on another level. I hate to think how many hospitals all this could have paid for. Not only that, but the city also has a fleet of red double-decker buses that look like the illicit lovechild of a London Routemaster and a Tonka Truck. And not one but two ‘galleons’ set on concrete blocks in the river. On the other hand, there’s a large traffic-free area and plenty of cycling, so they must be fundamentally good people.
The bazaar area has kept its dignity and its authenticity, and is what most visitors most enjoy here; just above, the Mustapha Pasha mosque (built in 1492) is the most interesting of the city’s mosques. Large chunks of the city’s museums are currently closed awaiting restoration, with just a few rooms displaying a fraction of their collections. It has to be said that the modernist communist architecture of the Museum of Macedonia and the Museum of Contemporary Art actually looks pretty good compared to the monstrosities down by the river, while others are beautifully housed in former baths and markets. The M of M has a propagandist display on how the Macedonians of northern Greece were driven out in the 1940s, and a good ethnology display with a huge array of traditional costumes as well as pots, pans and farming implements, which show that Macedonia is part of the cultural continuum of central Europe that I’m familiar with from working for so many years in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and elsewhere (see my recent post on Bratislava). I also went to the City Museum (with some good Roman relics and a room on the 1963 earthquake), the National Gallery (in fifteenth-century baths that make a great space for temporary shows), the Museum of Contemporary Art (also largely empty – part of the impressive worldwide response to the earthquake was to create this museum and donate a Picasso, a Calder and other art works, but these are not currently on display), and I also popped swiftly into the Mother Teresa Centre (she was born here) – the M of M costs about £1.30, the rest are free. I’m informed that the Archeology Museum has lots of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics and a particularly good collections of ancient coins, all well displayed – but the building is a nightmare.
One plus is that you can find a decent pint in a couple of places, courtesy of Pivnica Temov aka Old Town Brewery, founded in 2009, who now have a couple of outlets, the original slightly ramshackle place at the top of the old town,and a lively bar right on the main Macedonia Square. They do IPA and a double IPA, stout (I think they spell it staut), porter and weissbier, all unfiltered and unpasteurised and using only the four basic ingredients of barley, hops, yeast and water. My limited sampling indicated it was just fine, and the food was good too.
Then I want home by a different way and found a load more laughable statuary jumbled together – it’s too much for anyone to take in.
What’s in a name?
The long-running fight with Greece over the country’s name has finally been resolved, and it is now officially North Macedonia – an admission that South Macedonia exists and is part of Greece (and a small East Macedonia also exists and is part of Bulgaria). Perhaps Upper Macedonia would have been better, along the lines of Upper Hungary, which is now Slovakia. It’s annoyed some nationalists, but really the country couldn’t go on for ever as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The particularly huge statue of Alexander the Great (the second most famous Macedonian after Mother Teresa, and she was ethnically Albanian) is still officially called Warrior on Horseback to avoid ruffling Greek sensibilities (and the national flag was also changed to placate the Greeks).
If you think Bratislava is small and perfectly formed, just wait till you see Trnava, just half an hour away by fast train (once or twice an hour). I’ve added it to the ‘Beyond the City’ chapter of the Bradt City Guide to Bratislava which I’m updating at the moment, as it’s just too nice to miss. Just a short description, but I can go into a bit more detail here. A medieval market town (which owed much of its prosperity to the German settlers who moved here from the early thirteenth century), it was the seat of the Archbishop of Esztergom from 1541, when Hungary south of the Danube was occupied by the Ottoman Turks, until 1820, and of a Jesuit university, which played an influential rôle in the Counter-Reformation, from 1635 to 1777. Most of the city walls survive, as well as churches, synagogues and museums, and the town centre has recently been pedestrianised (the Slovaks do this very well) and is generally spick and span. Although the archbishop returned in 1977 and a new university opened in 1992, it’s nowadays a quiet, largely pedestrianised town (although a PSA Peugeot Citroën car factory opened here in 2006 and FC Spartak Trnava did win the Slovak football championship in 2018).
The central crossroads is marked by the 16th-century town tower (containing the tourist office) and Slovakia’s oldest theatre, opened in 1831; the basilica of St Nicholas (the original cathedral, dating from 1380-1421) is a few hundred metres to the east, with a heavy exterior and a dark interior due to having murals rather than windows on the north side of the choir. A block to the north, the University Church of St John the Baptist (consecrated in 1637, and now the cathedral) is a stunner, though, with a gorgeous Rococo interior of pale apricot, white and gold. The ceiling is spectacular ceiling, and the wooden altar (1640) is just huge, at 20.3m in height. Just south of the cathedral, the town’s Orthodox synagogue now houses an attractive café (open 10.00-22.00 at least, every day); the grander Status Quo synagogue (1887) is now an art gallery.
There are lots of other churches (St Anna, St Jacob, St Joseph, the Assumption, Holy Trinity…), either built in the Baroque style or subsequently modernised into that style when the town was at its ecclesiastical peak, when it was known as ‘Little Rome’ or ‘the Slovak Rome’. I amused to see that the cultural centre calls itself Little Berlin in hommage to Europe’s cultural powerhouse. The church of St Helen, on the way towards the station, is an attractive little place that retains more Gothic features than most of the others. Monasteries and seminaries are also now used for cultural purposes, with the West Slovakian Museum in the Clarist convent (in use by 1239 and rebuilt in Baroque style in the seventeenth century) and its subsidiary branch, the Museum of Book Culture, in the Oláh Seminary (1561). There’s also the Dom Hudby (House of Music, dedicated to the local composer Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský), in a Baroque town-house.
I can’t say much about accommodation (it’s within very easy reach of Bratislava, so there’s no need to stay), but I did notice the Dream and Phoenix hotels which seem pleasant and affordable and are well located on Kapitulská, a largely traffic-free street between the basilica and the museum. There’s certainly a great café and patisserie and a cocktail bar next to the Town Tower; for beer, you could try the Lokal Pub cellar bar at Hlavná 29 in the centre, but you could also head a little way north from the old town to the Sessler brewery.
At the other (eastern) end of the country, Košice is actually Slovakia’s second-largest city, but it still feels like a small town, with almost everything of tourist interest clustered along one long street-cum-square. The cathedral and state theatre stand in the
centre of Hlavná námestie, which continues north for about 800 metres to the massive twin buildings of the East Slovak Museum, and its whole length is lined with Renaissance, Baroque and Secession townhouses and some fine churches – it’s a spectacular sight.
In fact, very little of the two huge museum buildings are in use, and unless they have expansion plans I’d say they should move everything into the western one, which already houses the Košice Treasure, a hoard of coins probably buried in 1682 (when the city was seized by rebels) – they’re mostly Hungarian (naturally) and Dutch, but there’s also a Thracian stater of Lysimachos (323-281 BC, from Tomi, now Constanța in Romania) and a unique Edward IV coin from London. It may sound dull but is very well displayed, with interactive screens, and well worth the visit.
The East Slovak Gallery is also split between two buildings, and again it might make sense to for them to be brought together, although there’s less sense of echoing empty halls. Founded in 1951, in 1979 it was moved to a Baroque townhouse at Alžbetina 22, but in 1985 a terrible fire destroyed 1,030 works of art. There’s still a fine collection of over 700 paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, housed since 1992 in the former County Hall (dating from 1779) at Hlavná námestie 27. Local artists were actually heavily involved in the plein-air landscape painting movement at the end of the nineteenth century, which grew out of the Nagybánya School in what is now Baia Mare, which I’m familiar with from writing the Rough Guide to Romania. Mainly influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage, they combined impressionism and naturalism to create a luminist style (a term usually associated with the Hudson River School, who developed a similarly detailed and serene style of landscape painting). Art Nouveau (or Secessionism) was also important, and then in the 1920s Košice was a major centre of avantgarde art. The building at Alžbetina 22 now houses temporary shows, and is next door to the Löffler Museum, dedicated to the sculptor Vojtech Löffler (1906-90), as well as a collection of self-portraits by local artist and contemporary art shows.
The cutting-edge contemporary art scene is more in evidence at the Kasárne and Tabačka Kulturfabrik cultural complexes, both created for Košice’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2013. There’s also the Kunsthalle, a striking exhibition hall in a former swimming pool (opened in 1962) which was closed in 1992 (they drained the adjacent river to put a road there instead, and then the ground dried out and cracked the base of the pool) and reopened in July 2013 as an art centre. It reminded me of La Cité Miroir in Liège, built as a swimming pool in 1939 and reopened as an art centre in 2014.
For those of us with more traditional tastes, perhaps the prime cultural attraction might actually be the cathedral of St Elizabeth, the largest in Slovakia (it’s routinely described as the most easterly Gothic cathedral in Europe, but that could only be true if Romania and Ukraine were not in Europe – there are fine Gothic cathedrals in Cluj, Sibiu, Alba-Iulia and Lviv, not to mention the Black Church in Brașov). It’s a bit assymetrical outside, but is spectacular inside, with a nave and double aisles plus a transept of the same height and width as the nave, creating a huge central space. Immediately to the south is the slightly older church of St Michael, which served as a cemetery chapel, and to the north is the Urban Tower, rebuilt after the great fire of 1556 in Renaissance style, with a ground-level arcade around it. There are other fine churches along Hlavná (the Franciscan church has a fine Baroque façade), and also several synagogues, of which the large domed Neolog synagogue on Moyzesova, built in 1927, is now home to the city’s orchestra.
One cultural treasure that the people of Košice are largely unaware of is the novelist Sándor Márai (1900-89), who was born here, studied in Germany then settled in Budapest, before fleeing communism to the United States; he translated stories by Franz Kafka for Košice’s Hungarian-language newspapers as early as 1921. He wrote 46 books in Hungarian but was not translated into English until the 1990s, since when Embers (1942) in particular has become recognised as a fine nostalgic portrait of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural late Habsburg Empire. It would be great if he could be properly commemorated in his native town.
As for eating and drinking, the Hostinec Pivovar is perhaps the oldest restaurant in Europe, opened in 1542; it is also now a brewpub, with a wide range of unpasteurised and unfiltered beers, including IPA and stout as well as Czech-style lagers. There’s a fairly meaty menu, as well as pasta and gnocchi. You could also try the Žil Verne (Jules Verne) pub or the Schalkház café. There’s also a Georgian restaurant, Gruzinák, which was closed on a Sunday evening when I went looking for khachapuri. All of these are on Hlavná námestie.
I also visited Pezinok and Modra, small wine-making towns just outside Bratislava – they’re lovely places and already covered in the Bradt guide, but I’m adding a museum in each town.
Although there’s plenty of culture and so on in Dundee (but see below for an update), we were actually there to cycle. First stop was Perth, which might have made a better base if only it had a backpacker’s hostel (there’s a hostel at Perth College which is only open from mid-June until the end of August). It seems a sort of Scottish Truro, with an old-money feel to it and a high-brow cultural profile – in particular at the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre. I was especially struck by the line-up of performers in the Perth Piano Sundays series – the likes of Peter Donohoe, Jeremy Denk, Viktoria Postnikova – nae bad! Just a few days after getting home, a Radio 3 announcer praised the wood-panelled Perth Concert Hall as one of the great spaces for chamber music in the UK. Neither Perth nor Truro is forced by the presence of a university to be cool and relevant. You could argue that Dundee is to Perth as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – a brasher younger sibling that’s trying to cast off an industrial past and become a cultural hub, largely through riverside regeneration – and it’s doing fine, of course, but with a more street/youth profile.
The Perth Museum is fairly small but well presented, covering geology, natural history, prehistory and actual history. Perthshire has a rich store of prehistoric remains, with about 70 stone circles and later henges and hillforts. There’s also the Carpow longboat, about 3000 years old, so not as ancient as the Ferriby Boats. I had no idea that the Romans had made it up here and even started building Rome’s earliest frontier system (before the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls further south in Scotland, and also the Limes Danubianus past Bratislava) along the Gask Ridge southwest from Perth – I must try to retrace it some time.
Nor did I know that William the Conqueror (Billy the Conk, as he’s known on The History of England podcast) came to Forteviot, near Perth, in 1072, when King Malcolm accepted him as his overlord – but he must have had his fingers crossed, because within a decade he was raiding England again. Perth became known as ‘a capital’ of Scotland, due to the royal court frequently staying here and the presence of Scone Abbey, where the King of Scots was crowned, just across the river; like Dundee, it became a Royal Burgh in the early 12th century. After this local history went a bit quiet until the nineteenth century, when the railway arrived and hotels started serving local drinks – Arthur Bell, John Dewar, and Matthew Gloag became known for their whiskies, and Sandemans imported port. In 1819 there were 44 distilleries here, the last closing in 2016. General Accident was founded here in 1885 and had its headquarters here for 113 years – it evolved into Aviva, which is based, inevitably, in London, but reintroduced the General Accident brand in 2013.
There’s also a bit of art here, notably two sculpture rotundas and two big Lawrence portraits and a Raeburn of the fiddler Niel Gow. There was also a temporary show about Margaret Morris (1891-1980), who created modern dance (a la Isadora Duncan) in Britain – she married the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, whose parents were from Perthshire and who regarded the Perthshire Highlands as his spiritual home – many of his works and also her archive are held at the Fergusson Gallery, a former watertower nearby at the corner of Tay St and Marshall Place – this apparently sees few visitors, so there’s talk of relocating the collection.
Incidentally, we did have a scone in Scone, and a cuppa in Cupar.
I’ve been to St Andrews a couple of times before and didn’t linger this time – but I couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of ruined churches, that the golf obsession is under control and largely confined to the west side of town near the Royal & Ancient, and that even though there are plenty of visitors there are quite a lot of cafés (and all the bike shops) which don’t open on a Sunday. It has more museums than I remembered, but the nicely named MUSA (Museum of the University of St Andrews) is closed for a refurb. There also seemed to be rather a lot of visible lesbians around this time, which was definitely not the case in Dundee or Perth (and was news to my friends who studied there a couple of decades ago).
There’s a pleasant cycle route up the coast northeast from Dundee (now that they’ve sorted out the section past the docks) to Broughty Ferry and on (between railway and golf links) to Carnoustie, where I stayed on my last visit. Broughty Ferry is a more salubrious suburb of Dundee, with decent pubs (see below) and cafés, including (since 1897) the excellent Goodfellow & Steven bakery and tea rooms. Broughty Ferry castle was closed for toilet refurbishment when we passed through, but houses a free museum; guarding the mouth of the Tay since 1496, it sticks out like a rotten tooth from far away.
A really good pub takes a bit of finding in Dundee, I’m sorry to say. The Dundonians do like a drink, and there are plenty of pubs in the centre that are always full and noisy, but the main problem is that they’re not interested in live (real) ale – there are rows of gas-pressure dispensers promising IPAs and so on, as well as regular lagers, and frankly they taste much the same – pretty flat. The range of malt whiskies was fairly generic, too. Early in 2018 a real ale pub, the Copper Still, opened in the centre, but by the end of the year it had closed. As you’d expect, the university area, just west of the centre, has some more interesting options, notably the Speedwell, known mainly for its fabulous 1903 interior (there’s an interesting partition with a swinging door between two bar areas) – it has just three well-hidden real ales among a forest of gas dispensers, but the Deuchars was fine and the company was cheery.
Tickety Boo’s, at 51 Commercial St, has a fine interior too, with original stained glass, and is one of the nicest options in the centre, although it’s a bit small and short of seating. Even more than elsewhere, many of the pubs in the centre of Dundee are former banks – there’s the Bank Bar, a former TSB branch at 7 Union St (which usually has four real ales on tap as well as gins and food), not to be confused with the Old Bank Bar at 34 Reform St, The Trades House at 40 Nethergate (with wonderful stained glass and an engraved mirror) or The Counting House at 67 Reform St (once a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, opened in 1856). The last is a Wetherspoons, run by a Europhobic nutter, but it’s attractively restored and has decent enough (and cheap) beers, notably from Stewart’s in Edinburgh. Wetherspoons also run Jolly’s Hotel in Broughty Ferry and the Capital Asset in Perth (neither of which we sampled).
The best option in Broughty Ferry is the Fisherman’s Tavern, which has been in the Good Beer Guide since 1975 (except for 2013, whoops) – like The Trades House, it’s owned by Belhaven, which generally means a better than average pub.
In Perth, the Green Room (good for live music too), the Greyfriars Bar and the Kirkside Bar are the best real ale pubs, but actually the ideal would be to go a little way north to Moulin, a suburb of Pitlochry, where the Moulin Brewery has been building a great reputation since 1995 (Inveralmond isn’t bad either, but they’ve only been going since 1997, so what would they know?). The multinational craft beer monster that is Brewdog (founded in Aberdeen) also has pubs (or ‘bars’) in Dundee and Perth, if that’s your thing. I just noticed yesterday that Brewdog will be opening a pub here in Cambridge soon – good news, if you take the view that any new pub expands the market for real ale and good beer.
As promised at the start – an update on Dundee’s cultural offering – the West Ward Works on Guthrie Street, where the Beano and Dandy annuals were printed, is to be redeveloped into a hub for designers, artists and other creative workers and companies, and will house a comic museum and spaces for live performances and exhibitions.
And it seems that an e-bike sharing scheme will open in July (2019) – presumably using charging stations rather than the dockless model that has become so popular recently for non-electric bike-sharing schemes.
A few years ago I stayed in Carnoustie and went across the Tay Bridge to St Andrews a few times – all I really noticed of Dundee then was the huge oil rigs immediately east of the city centre awaiting repair or decommissioning, and how the city’s waterfront was blighted by dual carriageways and lots of traffic queueing to get onto the bridge. Those remain true, although I also now know just how hard it is for pedestrians and cyclists to get across those roads, despite the efforts to open up the waterfront. I also know that they’re on reclaimed land, and the historic city centre (basically nineteenth- and twentieth-century) is largely intact just inland.
As with so many cities, the docks and railway sidings along the waterfront are being regenerated, which in the case of Dundee means (from west to east) a huge Tesco, some new loft-style apartment blocks, a Premier Inn, Captain Scott’s ship the RRS Discovery in a dry dock, and, best of all, just before the road bridge, the new outpost of London’s V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – see below). This opened in September 2018 and I like many others noticed the publicity and wanted to take a look, but I was also here to cycle with Rob (qv) for a few days, to Perth, St Andrews, Carnoustie and elsewhere. To deal with the V&A first, it’s stunning externally, with a prow jutting out over the Firth of Tay, but also echoing the cliffs of Scotland’s east coast (with a ‘cave’ that you can walk or cycle through) and very striking but functional internally. The permanent display, on the history of Scottish design, is a bit smaller than one might expect but does give a great overview of one of the many things that makes Scotland special. For many people the highlight will be the Oak Room from Miss Cranston’s Tearooms in Glasgow, designed in 1907-8 by the great Charles Rennie Macintosh – I found it surprisingly low and dark, but definitely part of a continuum from Odön Lechner’s delightful Blue Church and other Secession buildings in Bratislava.
There’s a lot more to see, but my eye was caught by the theatrical posters (by John Byrne) and designs (by Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, who produced a stunning (and award-winning) set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I saw just a month or two ago). It’s also interesting that the UK’s video games industry was largely created in Dundee (essentially because Clive Sinclair’s Spectrum ZX was manufactured in the Timex factory from 1982) – Lemmings was released in 1991, and Grand Theft Auto in 1997. In 1997 Abertay University (formerly Dundee Institute of Technology) launched the world’s first degree in computer games design, and there’s been no looking back since. Dundee is also a biotech hub, arising out of the design of ingenious surgical instruments – so I should feel at home, as Cambridge is of course also a silicon and biotech hub. Silicon Fen and Silicon Forth, perhaps.
By sheer coincidence, a day after I got home to Cambridge, I read that a prototype ZX Spectrum (no case or anything fancy like that) has been donated to the city’s Centre for Computing History by John Grant who used it to create the machine’s BASIC code.
The permanent display at the V&A is free, and so is the city’s main museum, the McManus Museum and Art Gallery – this was founded in 1869 as the Albert Institute for Literature, Science and Art, allowing me to refer you both to the V&A in London (see below) but also to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which I wrote about just a week or two back. Actually a lot of places remember Prince Albert, so it’s not the total coincidence it might seem. Anyway, it was closed for a refurb from 2006 to 2009 and is now in fine fettle, with good history displays leading up to the Dundee and the World room, showing off items from around the world collected by missionaries and merchants, and also by two redoubtable lady journalists sent off on a round-the-world trip in 1894 by DC Thomson (yes, the Dundee newspaper company that would later be famous for publishing the Beano and the Dandy), which turned out to be quite a coup for the company. Incidentally, the University of Dundee, not wanting to be outshone by Abertay, launched Masters courses in Comics and Graphic Novels in 2016, despite DC Thomson’s famous refusal to allow access to its archives.
There’s plenty more here, including ‘the best collection of late Victorian Scottish painting’ (displayed in a gallery built in 1889 with cunningly curved walls) – yes, there are various paintings by Rossetti, Millais, Landseer and Sargent, but I was as usual more interested in the slightly earlier portraitists Nasmyth, Raeburn and Ramsay. There are also quite a few paintings by William McTaggart (1835-1910, the so-called ‘Scottish Impressionist’), and a couple by John Maclauchlan Milne (1885-1957) the so-called ‘Dundee Colourist’ – he was a friend of Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell, but there aren’t any works by the Scottish Colourists themselves (bright vibrant painters, somewhere between the Post-Impressionists and Canada’s Group of Seven). Finally, and perhaps not always on show, there’s Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) who was born in St Andrews and kept studios there and in St Ives, giving another link to my recent travels.
Until the V&A docked here, Dundee’s best-known sight was the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, famed for taking Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic, although she was also used for the Australian/New Zealand expedition of 1929-31, led by Douglas Mawson, and spent time in the Canadian Arctic too. I remember her being moored off the Embankment in London in the 1970s when she was flagship of the Royal Naval Reserve – I think I may even have been aboard, as my father was in the navy and also the Deep Sea Scouts (she was used by the Sea Scouts until 1954, definitely before my time). Anyway, we didn’t have time to visit, although a joint ticket with the Verdant Works (a former jute factory) is reasonable value. I did see HMS Unicorn, another wooden ship built in 1824 and at once converted to a floating depot ship – masts were never fitted, and the main deck was roofed over. She was towed from Chatham to Dundee and hasn’t moved since, so she’s in very good condition – but the first impression was so ludicrous that I couldn’t face visiting, even if I’d had time.
I did stick my nose into Dundee Contemporary Arts, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary – it was between exhibitions, but there was a very energetic children’s art day going on and the bar is lively too – definitely recommended. After all this history and culture, and cycling, we needed a drink, of course – but I think I’ll leave that for another post.
In order to contrast and compare properly I popped into the V&A in London a month or two back – the decorative arts are not my thing, so I don’t often go there, but it is a pretty impressive place and has seen a lot of new development recently, such as the Sackler Courtyard (a new entrance from Exhibition Road) and the Photography Centre, displaying some of the vast archives of the V&A and the Royal Photographic Society, as well as some of the earliest cameras. In addition to recent blockbuster shows on David Bowie, Pink Floyd and various fashion icons, the V&A has just staged the major Videogames exhibition, which not exemplifies their urge to be relevant, nay trendy, but is also perfect for transfer to Dundee. The historic collections are in great nick too, in particular the Cast Courts, reopened in November 2018, housing full-size replicas of Michelangelo’s David, Trajan’s Column (important to Romanians and those of us who have written about Romania) and much more. The V&S was notorious for its Saatchi & Saatchi advertising campaign in the 1980s which described it as ‘An ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached’, but the Refreshment Rooms (the first in any museum, opened in 1856) really are amazing, with extravagant tiling and stained glass. The third room was one of William Morris’s first commissions, and one day I may write about visiting the Morris Museum in Walthamstow relatively recently – but probably only if somebody nags me.
I’ve passed through Exeter many times, often changing trains there when I was at school in Dorset (yes, half a century ago), and it’s always been a pleasant cathedral city that’s less obviously industrial and military than Devon’s other city, Plymouth. I stopped off recently, mainly to visit the city’s museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (known as RAMM), which was founded in 1865 to commemorate Prince Albert, who died in 1861 – it was closed from 2007 to 2011 for a major refurb and extension, and was rewarded by winning the Museum of the Year title in 2012. I can’t believe it was that long ago, but finally I’ve gone to take a look. It’s still busy and obviously very popular. There are good history displays covering the Roman settlement of Isca at a ford across the Exe, where a bridge was built from 1190 (the medieval bridge survives, although oddly now on dry land). The Romans also built a port, but rival merchants in Topsham built weirs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to cut Exeter off from the sea; in 1564-66 the first part of the Exeter Canal was built to restore that access, and the city became prosperous, finally expanding beyond the Roman walls. Its peak was in the mid-eighteenth century, when the cloth industry funded the construction of fine Georgian buildings on newly widened streets.
There’s also a Natural History section, with the requisite stuffed elephant and giraffe, a whale skeleton, and much more, partly in the historic display cases, and a large World Cultures section (covering traditional communities everywhere except Europe) where I of course particularly appreciated the items from British Columbia and Alaska, as well as Oceania (including items from Captain Cook’s voyages), Asia, Japan and elsewhere. There’s no permanent art display but they put on temporary shows from the collection (including some excellent Hepworth drawings at the moment).
The area behind the museum has been branded The Museum Quarter – Exeter Phoenix is a pretty substantial and go-ahead arts centre, but behind that there are just some gardens and the remains of the city walls and the castle, founded by William the Conqueror after 1068 but now pretty ruinous.
The city centre reminded me a little of Norwich and York simply because there are so many small churches there, now mostly redundant and in search of new uses, although I think with less success. Dominating them is the cathedral, founded by King Edward the Confessor in 1050; the oldest surviving structures are the two massive Norman towers that now form the transepts, followed by the thirteenth-century Lady Chapel and Chapter House. From around 1360 the rest of the cathedral was rebuilt, and now boasts a fabulous expanse of Gothic vaulting above the nave and choir, and a western front bearing a stunning display of Gothic sculptures. And there’s more – an astronomical clock, the carved minstrels’ gallery, the bishop’s throne.
The excitement of Exeter
The most exciting thing to happen in Exeter in recent years (after the Exeter Blitz of May 1942, when the Luftwaffe pounded the city for an hour and twenty minutes, killing 156 people) was in October 2016 when the Royal Clarence Hotel, facing the cathedral on Cathedral Green, burnt down. Opened in 1769, this was supposedly the first establishment in Britain to use the French word ‘hotel’. There was some controversy about the firefighters’ risk-averse tactics, and then at the end of 2018 rebuilding work stopped due to sticky negotiations between owners and builders, so it seems unlikely to reopen in 2019 as planned. [Indeed, in August 2019, the owner gave up due to high costs and put it up for sale.]
There’s also been the considerable excitement of Exeter Rugby Club’s rapid rise from obscurity (National League 1, until 1997) to winning the English premiership in 2017 and competing in Europe, with five of its players regularly appearing in the England team (OK – Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Harry Williams, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie). Its Sandy Park stadium, opened in 2006, hosted three games in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will see more internationals, notably England vs Italy this very weekend, which attracted a crowd of 10,000, a record for an England Womens’ game.
And then there’s the slowburning drama of FlyBe, based at Exeter airport, which evolved fairly accidentally (it was known as Jersey European from 1979 to 2000) to fly relatively small planes on regional and crosscountry routes where it’s very hard to make any money. After coming perilously close to bankruptcy, it was bought in February 2019 by a consortium of Virgin Atlantic and Stobart Aviation. Ryanair recently announced that from the summer of 2019 they will fly from Exeter to Malaga, Malta and Naples – this shouldn’t undermine FlyBe, I hope.
Less exciting transport stuff
The railway through Exeter is unlikely to be electrified in the next couple of decades, but there are now overhead wires from London Paddington as far as Newbury, and also most of the way to Bristol, and trains from London to Devon and Cornwall are now mostly the new electric-diesel hybrids of Class 802. Back in 1986 the fastest train from London (the Cornish Riviera Limited, of course) was accelerated to reach Exeter in a flat two hours – this was a bit optimistic and it was soon eased off (it currently takes 2hr 7 min). From May 2019 the fastest service will again take a flat two hours, but what’s more important is that from the December 2019 timetable re-cast there will also be regular semi-fast trains from Paddington to Exeter, giving a better service to places such as Pewsey and Castle Cary, and meaning that the fast trains continuing to Plymouth and Penzance won’t have to make these secondary stops. The real improvements, however, are coming between Exeter and Penzance, where the new trains’ power doors are knocking a minute or so off every stop and they also accelerate rather faster between stations.
New electric trains in the London area have allowed older suburban trains to move to Bristol, and even older trains are moving from there to Exeter, allowing the gradual development of a Devon Metro – from December 2019 the local services from Exmouth and Exeter to Paignton will run every half hour, and trains will run regularly every hour from Exeter to Barnstaple.
And I‘ll be pilloried if I don’t mention that Exeter has another London service, to Waterloo, which takes at least an hour longer (stopping at places like Feniton, Axminster, Crewkerne…) but has two plus-points – it calls at Exeter Central, which is actually quite close to the museum, and my Network Card is valid by this route all the way from Waterloo to Exeter, giving a third off regular fares.