The prehistoric caves of southern France

I’ve led a few hiking trips in the Dordogne and Lot valleys over the last two decades, visiting a few painted caves along the way, but recently I helped with another trip that visited six of the area’s most valuable prehistoric caves and two replica caves. Almost every day we were visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, even including the replicas of the Lascaux and Chauvet caves – impressive, but I have to say that the World Heritage List is suffering from clear over-inflation (following this I went to Normandy and Brittany, where both the D-Day beaches and Carnac are candidates for WHL status). To be clear, virtually all caves are prehistoric, but the term ‘prehistoric caves’ refers to those that have relics of prehistoric cultures, and especially the rock paintings and engravings that make this area so amazing for anyone who’s interested in ancient cultures.

 We moved from west to east, and from the newest site to the oldest. Archeologists have laid out a grid of prehistoric cultures, defined mainly by their increasingly sophisticated techniques for making flint tools, and named after the various sites where they were first identified. The oldest ones are Neanderthal, the more recent ones Homo sapiens (including Cro-Magnon man) – but the distinction between Neanderthal and sapiens is less and less important, and it’s by no means clear that they are even separate species (in any case both are descended from Homo heidelbergensis). It’s now clear that they interbred – about 20% of their DNA is shared, and everyone of us nowadays has up to 4% of Neanderthal DNA in our genome. Neanderthals had a larger brain than us, they buried their dead carefully and looked after their sick and elderly; they had big babies (so perhaps a longer gestation period than us), and fair skin and blond or red hair. Over 160,000 years ago, Neanderthals developed the Levallois technique of making multiple flint blades from one piece of stone, which required an abstract conception of a series of tools being within that flint, and possibly required language too. And the Mousterian culture (from 160,000 to 40,000 years ago), named after the Le Moustier rock shelters 10km northeast of Les Eyzies, is associated with Neanderthal man here but with Homo sapiens in North Africa and the Middle East. After this, about 40,000 years ago (50,000 years ago in Africa), there was an evolutionary Great Leap Forward, when suddenly humans started to make large amounts of tools in specialised shapes, using bone as well as stone, as well as multi-part weapons, twine nets and sewn clothing, as well as cave art, sculptures and musical instruments. Just as the megafauna worldwide vanished when Homo sapiens arrived, so too the Neanderthals disappeared – but it’s too easy to say they were killed, they were clearly out-competed and to some extent at least absorbed. In fact the last Neanderthals apparently survived in Gibraltar until as recently as 28,000 years ago (yes, that site is also a candidate for the World Heritage List).

 People also talk of Ice Age art, as the last major glaciation lasted from about 110,000 to 10,000 years ago (with the last maximum from about 24,000 to 12,000 years ago) – but don’t think that there were glaciers in this area, it was in fact mostly open steppe-tundra, like most of western and central Europe and Eurasia (although most of Britain, Scandinavia and the Alps were under ice). Many of the caves were later blocked by mudslides and rockfalls, after the climate changed, which preserved them from climatic or human interference until the end of the nineteenth century. Nowadays it’s a lush green area with winding rivers (the Dordogne and Vézère) and limestone cliffs with many caves and even more rock overhangs that served as shelters.

 Lascaux

We started with Lascaux, which was painted by Homo sapiens about 15,000 years ago, during the Magdalenian period – this was the first cave to be closed to the public (due to algae and calcite deposits appearing, as the climate inside the cave was changed by human visitors) and replaced by a replica. When Lascaux-2 opened a couple of hundred metres away in 1983, it was greeted as an astonishing technical feat and was very busy for much of the year; however, in 2016 a new high-tech interpretation centre known as Lascaux-4 opened down on the edge of the village of Montignac (Lascaux-3 is a touring exhibition, launched in 2012), incorporating a far more detailed and complete replica. Almost all visitors now go there, but we’ve stuck with Lascaux-2, now blissfully peaceful, where the excellent guides can give you their full attention. Fittingly, it is now itself a historical monument. The paintings really are amazing, in a distinctive style that show horses and bison with small heads, short legs and curved bellies; there are also some squares or grids in an abstract pattern that clearly had some meaning.

 Les Eyzies, the Font de Gaume and nearby

 We moved on to Les Eyzies, a village that is known as the Capital of Prehistory – indeed, it’s home to the Musée National de Préhistoire, which has excellent coverage – one tends just to think in terms of cave art, but there’s a huge amount of other material here, such as flint blades and fat female figures, although the texts are only in French.

 You can also visit the adjacent Abri Pataud (Pataud Shelter, an overhanging rock which sheltered more than forty groups of wandering reindeer hunters between 35,000 and 20,000 years ago, with a carving of an ibex on the ceiling), and the Abri Cro-Magnon (Magnon’s Hole Shelter), near the station, where the first clearly modern human remains (buried around 28,000 years ago) were found in 1868 by workers building the railway.

 On the eastern edge of town is the fabulous Font de Gaume, the only cave in France with polychrome paintings that is still open to the public; only 78 people are allowed in per day and you can’t book ahead (apart from a small quota for groups) – you really do have to get up early and queue at the ticket office from about 07.00 (it opens at 09.30). There are benches with numbered seats outside, so you know where you are in the queue, And you can’t buy tickets for someone else – everyone has to be there at the time of purchase.

 From the ticket office it’s a 400-metre walk to the entry, where a medieval building used to stand (you can still see the square holes where beams were fixed); there were originally paintings from right inside the entry but these did not survive. Beyond what were two narrow passages (now widened and with the floor lowered) you’ll come to the first paintings – in all there are 200 here, mostly created around 14,000 years ago in the Magdalenian period, of bison, horses, mammoths and reindeer, as well as one woolly rhino and one wolf (you won’t see all of these on the tour).

 The Font de Gaume may actually be connected to the Combarelles  cave – they’re just a couple of kilometres apart, and were discovered a mere four days apart, in 1901 (the caves were known before then, of course, but the art was not). Visitor numbers are severely limited here too, with just 42 people allowed in per day (buy your tickets at the Font de Gaume). Unusually, it’s known for its engravings, which are in fact not carved into the rock itself but into the fine layer of silt covering it – but this does not prevent them from being just as artistically impressive. The tour covers about 400 metres over 45 minutes, with about 600 engravings created in two phases, perhaps 40,000 and 12,000 years ago; there are no mammoths here, and some are hybrids and some have human faces.

 It’s just a couple of kilometres further to Bernifal, the first of the private caves, which is reached by a ten-minute walk through hornbeam woods; you need to phone (33 674 963043) to talk to the owner and book a visit – he only speaks French, and likewise the tour will be in French. There are over a hundred engravings and paintings here, including horses, bison, mammoths and ibex, created about 12,000 years ago.

 A little way east of Combarelles is the Cap Blanc rock shelter, where there’s a sculpted frieze of horses that uses the natural contours of the rock to stunning effect. There’s a lifesize horse in the centre with two others on either side in mirror image, then a pair of bison were probably added later (there’s a new theory that the bison were carved first, but this seems unlikely). The carvings were covered in sediment until they were discovered in 1909, when the lower part was unfortunately destroyed by pickaxe-wielding labourers. A young woman was buried in front of the frieze about 14,000 years ago, around the time the carvings were created – some people imagine she was one of the artists, but that’s probably romantic wishful thinking (she’s now in the Field Museum in Chicago). It’s also run by the state and with tickets sold at the Font de Gaume – but 210 visitors are allowed per day and it can actually be booked in advance.

 Just across the valley, there’s also the Grotte de Commarque, under the château of the same name, which has carvings possibly by the same artist; it’s not open, but there’s a 3D film at the château, which is worth visiting in its own right.

 The Grotte de Rouffignac, about 10km north of Les Eyzies as the crow flies (further by road), is privately owned, and and has a high wide entrance, so that its existence has always been known; the first 700 metres of the top level (of three) were not suitable for cave art, but electric trains now clank along to take visitors to the paintings, from the Magdalenian period (12,000 to 14,000 years ago) when mammoths and woolly rhinos grazed the freezing steppes outside. After another 300 metres you’ll reach the Great Ceiling, with images of 66 animals above a sinkhole which seems to have been some kind of sanctum or holy of holies, with one of the very few images of a human profile hidden in it. The animals here are perfectly proportioned (well, the ibex less than the horses and other animals), unlike the stylised images of the Lascaux style; it’s thought that two or three artists worked at the same time, having crept a kilometre deep into the cave, let’s not forget. The mammoths are outlined in black, using manganese oxide powder, while the mammoths are engraved by the artists’ fingers in the thin later of clay covering the rock. You also see hollows dug out by cave bears to hibernate in, and scratches made by their claws, though it’s not sure whether they were wielded by the bears themselves or by humans.

 On our way east from the Dordogne, we stopped at Cougnac, where there are two adjacent privately-run caves – first you’ll visit one to see a fine display of stalactites and stalagmites (you’re actually allowed to take photos here, unlike all the painted caves), and then you’ll be taken to the second, 300 metres away, via a wine cellar under a farmhouse. Like so many of these caves, it was blocked by a mud-slide and preserved in suspended animation for thousands of years. It’s just a hundred metres to the paintings of mammoths, ibex and three giant elk (25,000 to 30,000 years old), many making use of the natural shapes of the cave wall to bulk out the animals’ contours. My colleague Annie says this is her favourite of the caves, and it’s easy to see why – far from the tourist hordes, it’s full of interest and variety, with for instance one realistic mammoth and some abstract ones; two men, or perhaps wolves, being speared, multiple colours (charcoal, manganese oxide and ochre), including ochre colouring on columns that frame the image of an ibex, and the possibility that stalactites were played like a xylophone.

 On previous trips, about twenty years ago, I vaguely remember taking clients to La Roque Saint Christophe, a rock shelter in a cliff across the Vézère river from Le Moustier. This sheltered both Neanderthals (c50,000 years ago) and Cro-Magnon people (c25,000 years ago), and was then a medieval troglodyte settlement until it was destroyed in 1588, in the Wars of Religion.

 I’ve also visited the cave of Pech Merle, to the south at Cabrerets in the Lot département, half an hour east of Cahors, which is another of the rare painted caves that are still open to the public in limited numbers. Stretching up to one and half kilometres from the entrance are paintings from the Gravettian period (about 25,000 years ago), and other paintings and engravings that may have been created in the Magdalenian (about 16,000 years ago). In addition to mammoth, reindeer and bovids, it’s known for its striking spotted horses, for handprints, and for the footprints of a teenage boy, almost a kilometre from the entrance.

 And finally

To the east of the Massif Central, arriving in the Rhône valley, the Grotte Chauvet (more correctly but rarely known as the Grotte du Vallon Pont d’Arc, because Jean-Marie Chauvet was just one of the group of discoverers) holds some of the finest and most important examples of cave art – it was discovered fairly recently, in 1994, and was never opened to the general public. Instead, there’s a new tourist site two kilometres away (known as Grotte Chauvet 2), opened in 2015, with an excellent replica and other interactive displays, café and shop. The replica is ten times the size of Lascaux-4 and is highly accurate except that the floor is smooth and level, unpainted sections have been omitted and there’s a guard-rail as well as an audio system that allows several groups to follow each other through – some people can forget that they’re in a facsimile, but I certainly couldn’t.

 The discoverers had to make their way through a virtual river of cave bear bones two metres deep (the remains of at least two hundred bears) to find first red marks on the walls and then animal paintings. The thin layer of clay on the walls was mostly removed to allow painting, but there are finger-etchings in clay in some places. The paintings are twice as old as those at Lascaux, mostly by Cro-Magnon people 36,000 years ago (in the Aurignacian period), with some more 28,000 years ago (in the Gravettian period), and perhaps earlier as well, and there’s a very different bestiary of at least thirteen animal types, as well as humans and a sort of half-human half-bull. Lions were important in cave art, but not for some reason the cave bears (we can probably assume that the painters did not enter in winter when the bears were here); the only prehistoric paintings of a cave panther and an owl are here, as well as positive and negative handprints in ochre, of men, women and children. About five hundred of the 940 images are abstract or unidentifiable.

 All in all, the artistry in these caves is consistently amazing, but I got a bit tired of people saying ‘they were as good as Picasso!’ (In the caves the people come and go, talking of Picasso and Michelangelo). As it happens, I went to a Picasso exhibition in Avignon the day after visiting the Grotte Chauvet and – I’m sorry – there’s no comparison. Like the cave painters he was a great natural draughtsman, but he was also full of new ideas, constantly reinventing himself (while also paying homage to his artistic inheritance), and changed the course of modern art several times.

By the way, absolutely no photography is allowed in any of the caves (even the replicas), so here are a few copies from postcards of Lascaux. Not great, but that’s all you’re getting.

Food and drink

I also managed to eat some superb meals – it’s a very meaty culture (duck, foie gras…), but with a bit of warning they’ll produce great vegetarian meals. In Les Ezyies we had no less than six great meals at the Hôtel Les Glycines and a really good dinner at Le Centenaire, while the Hôtel Cro-Magnon serves good classic French food for a slightly lower cost. In Sarlat, L’Adresse was fantastic and I gather that Gueule et Gozier is at the same level (the owner is Filipino, so there’s creative use of Asian spices); L’Entrepôte was not bad.

 This was classically-based cuisine, but in Avignon on-trend things such as poke bowls and ceviche were on offer, and crumble popped up regularly too – not what we’d call a crumble in Britain, but rather a patch of crumb topping on a dish.

As for wine… I think I said enough (for now) at the end of my Avignon post.

Corfu

Having followed the tracks of Rebecca West through Macedonia, Kosova and Montenegro, I was keen to follow Edward Lear through Albania and to Corfu, which was his winter base from 1860 to 1864 (in which year it ceased to be a British protectorate). He wrote that ‘no other spot on earth can be fuller of beauty and of variety of beauty’. I’ve always found Greece rather too arid for my tastes and the light too bright and harsh on the eyes – and I’ve found it remarkably cold in November too. But Corfu (in May) turned out to be very different – it was indeed beautiful, and the interior was remarkably wild and incredibly densely vegetated. It definitely rains a bit here. I was particularly impressed by the many aged and incredibly twisted olive trees, perhaps dating from the seventeenth century when the island’s Venetian rulers encouraged the inhabitants to cultivate them. We didn’t really frequent any beaches, but the coast seems to be developed only where it’s accessible, often with cliffs in between.

I arrived by hydrofoil from Sarandë in Albania (a very pleasant hour’s hop), but most people find themselves in Corfu airport’s tiny arrivals hall, where half the arrivals are directed to buses to the south of the island for the mass-market beer-and-chips resorts and half rent cars to go to villas in the north (including my family). There are also some backpackers who walk (or cycle, or take a bus) the 2km to Corfu Town; and rumour has it that some Greeks arrive by plane, but the domestic arrivals are off to one side. We also saw between one and four cruise ships in harbour every day.

It’s a great place for tourism, largely because the Corfiots are so nice, but also because of the variety of experiences on offer. In addition to lazing on the beach and in town, you can rent all kinds of boats and boards, or bikes, scooters and quad bikes to cruise around the island. In the interior you’ll glimpse a few sturdy British (and maybe German) hikers, some tackling the Ionian Trail, which runs for 200km the length of the island (and the other Ionian islands to the south), passing through all its ecosystems and traversing Mount Pantokrator (Ruler of All), the island’s highest peak at 911 metres. It’s best to walk from south to north, as the island gets steadily hillier and more beautiful, and you’ll have the sun at your back rather than in your eyes, as a rule.

In addition, because Corfu and the other Cycladic islands had such a different history to the rest of Greece – ruled by the Byzantines and Angevins, Venice, France, Britain, even briefly by Russia (1799-1807), but never by the Ottomans – there’s plenty of historic interest. The area of the Old Fortress, to the east of the present Corfu Town, was occupied from the mid-sixth century BC, but the Greek settlement of Chersoupolis grew up on the Kanoni peninsula, just south of town (and immediately east of the airport), and already in the fifth century BC Korkyra was one of the three great naval powers of Greece, along with Athens and Corinth. Various temples have been found in this area, now known as Kanoni, and more ancient remains are being discovered. Don’t miss the Archeological Museum, in a fine modern building just south of the centre, which has a good display of Greek remains (and relatively little from the Roman period); nor the Museum of Asian Art, in the grand Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George, built in 1819-24 to be the residence of the (British) Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. The museum is surprisingly serious and professional; but many people will miss the two staircases up to the Central Asian section (with good coverage of ikat from Uzbekistan and more on Japan). There’s a combined ticket to Corfu Town’s museums, which also include the Old Fortress with its mainly Venetian fortifications.

Corfu Town itself has a genuine old town between the port and the rear of the Liston, a neoclassical arcade of posh shops and pavement cafés that was designed in 1807 by Mathieu de Lesseps (father of Ferdinand, who built the Suez Canal) and supposedly modelled on the rue de Rivoli in Paris. In the heart of the old town, the Town Hall stands on Guilford Street, named after Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford (son of Lord North, the British prime minister who lost the American colonies), who was himself the first British Governor of Ceylon (1798-1805). He made his first trip to Greece in 1791 and lived there from 1810 to 1813 and in Corfu from 1824. He was an exaggerated philhellene, who wore classical costume and converted to the Greek Orthodox religion; in 1824 he established the Ionian Academy, the first university on Greek soil. I recently found myself on Guilford Street in London, which turns out to be named after Lord North.

Outside the one and only real town, it’s worth visiting Mon Repos, birthplace of Phil the Greek aka the Duke of Edinburgh, with the remains of a couple of Greek temples nearby on the Kanoni peninsula, and the Achelleion, further south, a triumph of bad taste (mainly Kaiser Wilhelm II’s). It was actually built in 1890 for the Habsburg Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sisi, to escape memories of the suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, at Mayerling; after her own murder it was bought by Kaiser Bill (whose sister Sophia was Queen of Greece) and filled with kitschy art which is worth wondering over, while the gardens offer views over half the island. There aren’t many other sights outside Corfu Town – the Shell Museum at Benitses has closed.

Never mind Lear, you say, what about the Durrells? I did skim through Gerald’s Corfu books and learnt a lot about the wildlife that could be seen then (there won’t be so much of it now), but the actual settings are a bit confused – they were based in the northeastern corner of the island, where the posh people (Rothschilds and the like) have their villas now, and lived in a succession of rented houses. Various holiday villas claim to be ‘the Durrells’ home’, but they were indeed a shiftless bohemian lot who didn’t stay anywhere for all that long.

As for Larry, it turns out he was already married and living elsewhere, although Gerry writes as if he was still in the bosom of the family (and totally excludes the wife, with whom he did not get on).

And although Rebecca West didn’t include Corfu in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, it plays a part as the place where the Serbian army, driven out of their homeland by the invading Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian armies, found refuge in November 2015 after a desperate retreat through Albania – at least 200,000 men died in the snowy mountains, and perhaps 30,000 more died of flu during the cold wet winter that followed. A fascinating tale that is little known nowadays. Their headquarters were on the island of Vidos, a couple of kilometres north of the harbour of Corfu Town – there are persistent rumours of a tunnel linking them, but I don’t think there’s any factual base to them.

Practicalities

I’m not offering any recommendations for places to stay or eat (as we, like many others, rented a villa and self-catered to a certain extent), but I have a few general thoughts. I was surprised to see huge piles of rubbish that had apparently been there since the previous year; in addition there was plenty of grass growing between the paving stones – Sarandë in Albania was far more kempt than Corfu, surprising as that may seem.

The roads are also bad, and the driving a bit chaotic – the Corfiots really don’t like keeping to urban speed limits and double-parking is normal; and if you let someone pull out of a side road five cars will rush through, usually in parallel. I’m the last person to suggest building roads, as a rule, but some kind of bypass for Corfu Town is needed unless they can sort out its traffic problem – but in fact it’s due to the free unregulated provision of car parking, which could easily be sorted out.

We did enjoy Corfu Beer‘s products, in particular the Corfu Red (they also do an IPA, dark bitter, Weissbier and lager) – refreshing but a bit pricey, we thought.

Now that’s what I call a Greek salad

Albania – a real alternative

Although there’s been a lot of media hot air about Montenegro in recent years, Albania is currently more interesting, and it’s become a great destination for slightly more enterprising backpackers. I passed through fairly quickly, with less than a week to spare between staying with friends in Montenegro and with family in Corfu, and would love to come again when the weather permits me to spend time in the mountains (it rained every day in mid-May). So I went from north to south fairly close to the coast, from Shkodër to Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster, finishing at the port of Sarandë – all interesting towns with plenty of history. The country was, not surprisingly, green and fertile, but I didn’t see many of the mushroom-like pillboxes (tiny bunkers) that one heard so much about a couple of decades back – an indicator of how time passes. Now Albania seems much like the other southern Balkan countries, if a little poorer and thus more ‘authentic’.

 There’s now little sign of the strong folk culture that I found in places like Transylvania in the early 1990s and was probably going strong here at the same time. Albania’s been through some turmoil, not just its peculiarly warped form of communism (from 1945 to 1990) but then the pyramid-savings scams that brought the country to its knees in 1997 and unleashed a particularly anarchic uprising, with over 2,000 killed and UN peacekeepers sent in to restore order. Tribal feuds that it was assumed were finished and done for raised their ugly heads again, and the place seemed like an utterly failed state – I’d recently read about the build-up to this in Robert Carver’s fascinating The Accursed Mountains (1998) (and briefly in Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules; 1995). Another brief rebellion broke out in 1998 after the assassination of opposition leader Azem Hajdari. Nowadays the main towns feel perfectly safe and welcoming, and I certainly never felt I needed to wear a moneybelt or not go out after dark.

 Having said that, there are more tourists than I expected – not on a Kotor-like scale(though cruise ships seem to be arriving), but there’s a steady flow of backpackers staying in hostels (and there are quite a few of those in all the tourist centres) as well as coach parties in hotels. The main roads are decent, and the main towns are only a couple of hours apart; there are also very slow (but spectacularly cheap) trains between Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Vlorë and Elbasan – see below for more on Tirana’s stations.

 Northern Albania – Shkodër
Rozafa castle

I was first in Shkodër, gateway from Montenegro (by the routes from Podgorica and from Ulcinj on the coast) – it’s a very pleasant place without a huge amount to see, although I was taken by the quantity of cyclists, mostly managing to keep an umbrella upright and still stop and steer safely. The Rozafa castle is 3km south (a local bus shuttles along the main road) and gives great views after a stiff little climb, but there’s really nothing to see inside. In the town centre there’s a fairly poor history museum, in an attractive nineteenth-century building. The going rate for museums is 150-200 Lek (GBP 1-1.40) – there’s a new Photography Museum which charges 700 Lek, which I didn’t visit. Nor did I get to the Site of Witness and Memory on Edith Durham (southeast of the centre), in the former Security Police headquarters – now a memorial to the victims of communist terror. Otherwise there are a couple of Roman Catholic churches built in the 1890s and the English-style clock tower, dating from 1868.

 Tirana

From there I took a slow bus (lots of picking up and setting down) to Tirana, which as expected is largely a mess of communist concrete, but with many redeeming features. I was pleased to find a small new herb and wild flower garden on the central Skanderbeg Square – this is now a wide gently domed plaza above a car park, but I was also pleased to see plenty of cyclists crossing it. Unfortunately the main arteries to the bus stations and out of the city are horribly traffic-choked and not fit for cycling. Architecturally, the city is known for a few Italian Fascist-style buildings, such as the national bank, and for its programme of making unattractive concrete blocks more attractive by painting them – I was led to expect lurid graffiti art, but saw only pastel Italian tones – but I didn’t get everywhere. The ‘Tirana 2030’ project aims to return a bit more nature to the cityscape, and will with luck be nothing like the crass Skopje 2014 project.

 Unfortunately Tirana’s railway station was closed in 2013 and replaced with a multi-carriageway road to rearrange the city’s traffic jams, with trains moved Ryanair-style to Vorë, 16km away; from 2015 trains made it as far as Kashar, an industrial area about 7km northwest of the centre along the Durrës highway. A new bus and train interchange is supposedly to be built in Laprakë, a bit closer to the centre, but as successive governments have been happy to let the railway system collapse this seems unlikely to happen. In truth, one government signs up to a project and the next starves it of funds and cancels it – in particular, a contract was awarded to GE to build a railway to Tirana’s airport in 2005 and then cancelled, costing the government €14 million. Governments keep on putting modern railway stations in places that can only really be reached by car – see the new TGV line in Morocco, and I gather this has also happened with the new line to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

 The city does have a few decent museums – the national history museum starts well, with good archeological displays with information in English, but then goes downhill upstairs (as it were). There’s good coverage of the kingdom of Illyria, which came into being by the end of the fifth century BC, and under the legendary Queen Teuta covered the whole Croatian coast as well as Albania; the Illyrians produced several Roman emperors (most notable Justinian) but simply vanished from the historical record in the seventh century AD. The coverage of the medieval and modern periods is less good, but there’s some interesting stuff – I’d thought Skanderbeg was a purely local hero, but he (George Kastrioti) turns out to have been an equal of the great John Hunyadi (Iancu de Hunedoara), who I’ve come across many times in Romania – they formed an alliance against the Turks, winning a great victory at Niš in 1443. The Castrati petrol stations are named after him (that’s his helmet in the logo), not after the Italian singers with very high voices.

 Nearby, the Bunk’Art-2 museum is housed in the bunker beneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs, built in 1981-6 (the present entry and exit outside the ministry are recent additions). This was one of the last ‘great works’ of Hoxha’s bunkerisation project, which began in the early 1970s and produced 175,000 bunkers and pillboxes across the country. In 24 rooms, it covers the history of the country’s Gendarmerie and the Sigurimi (Security Police), founded in 1944 as soon as the communists began their takeover (its founder was himself arrested and shot in 1948). Between 1944 and 1991 over 6,000 people were executed and over 30,000 political prisoners were held in labour camps; in addition the Border Forces (established in 1949) killed about 1,000 Albanian citizens attempting to leave their prison of a country. It’s a well-presented museum, and you can scan the AR logo for an augmented reality experience. In the eastern suburbs, the original Bunk’Art 1 (in Hoxha’s atomic bunker) displays a broader view of everyday life under communism.

 Hoxha’s Pyramid (built as his tomb and museum in 1988 and briefly used as a conference centre after 1991) is a sad wreck, and the nearby Bloku area, where the senior communists lived and where the hottest bars and clubs are supposedly located, seemed pretty dull to me.

 Having recently been visiting the shrines of Sufi saints in Uzbekistan, I was interested to see that the Bektashi order of dervishes has its global headquarters in Tirana. Founded in Anatolia in the thirteenth century by Haji Bektash Veli from Bukhara, it was particularly popular with the janissaries (such as Mimar Sinan), elite Ottoman soldiers taken as boys from Christian villages in the Balkans – and somehow it found its way back to this part of the world. You can also visit the House of the Dervish Khorasani, Khorasan also being in Uzbekistan. Albania was of course officially atheist in the communist period and is now of no particular religion – there are Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox believers, and they don’t particularly care. Anyway, you’re welcome to visit their headquarters, just east of the centre, and there’s a small museum beneath the mosque (I also saw Bektashi tombs in Gjirokaster castle – below).

 What’s more, Albania has welcomed 3,000 Iranian dissidents of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq from Iraq (where the pro-Iranian regime regularly allowed military attacks on their camp) to a new settlement, known as Ashraf 3, halfway between Tirana and the coast. It doesn’t get many visitors as yet, but there’s also a museum here, covering a hundred years of shocking struggle for human rights in Iran.

South of Tirana –  Berat, Gjirokaster, Sarandë and Butrint

Heading south from Tirana, I found Berat and Gjirokaster both slightly reminiscent of Plovdiv, with their steep cobbled alleys and Turkish-style merchants’ houses. The historic centre of Berat is about 2.5km from the bus station (walk or take a bus, clearly cast off from Paris or the Netherlands) – start with the view from the bridge over the Osumit River, linking Gorica, the Christian quarter to the south, and Magdalem, the Muslim quarter that rises up row upon row to the hill-top Kalasa citadel. On the main road in Magdalem you’ll find the remains of the eighteenth-century Pasha’s Palace and alongside it the Royal Mosque (originally the Sultan Mosque, built for Beyazit II at the end of the fifteenth century), the Helvetti Tekke (a Sufi prayer hall, rebuilt in 1782) and a nineteenth-century caravanserai and inn for dervishes. The mosques are currently being restored by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which I also noticed at work in Kosova.

 Opposite the Helvetti Tekke I stumbled across the Edward Lear Gallery (not in any tourist literature that I’d seen – it’s free, and open 08.00 to 14.00 except Mondays) – Lear, who was a superb painter and engraver as well as a composer of nonsense poetry, stopped here in 1848 and 1859, and described it as a ‘wonderfully picturesque place’. The gallery has some useful background information on him and one of his paintings, of Mount Tomor, a peak of 2417 metres which was the ancient home of the Illyrian gods and is still the object of a pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption in August. The gallery has four biggish rooms, exhibiting temporary shows by local artists, most titled either ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ – they’re really not too bad. Lear wasn’t the first western European artist to pass through, as a certain William Martin Leake had been here in 1805, and Charles Cockerill in 1813, not to mention the Irish writer Robert Walsh in 1828; more famously, Lord Byron and John Cam Hobhouse passed though in 1808, although their meeting with the local despot Ali Pasha took place in Tepelena (there’s a reference to the ‘glittering minarets of Tepelen’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).

 Above the Pasha’s Palace, alleys lead uphill past the Ethnographic Museum to the citadel. Originally built in the fifth and sixth centuries under the Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Justinian I (though the present walls were erected mainly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), this is still inhabited by several hundred people and there are some pleasant cafés here as well as four churches built between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, plus the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, on the slope outside the walls.

 Gjirokaster, as you’d expect from the name (from the same Latin root as Chester, Worcester, Gloucester etc etc), is all about the castle, although you can also visit some fine Ottoman townhouses. Inhabited by the fourth century BC, the first walls were built in the sixth century and what you see now was built mainly by the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks, who captured it in 1417. Ali Pasha (see above) was backed by the British government at the time, which explains the British cannon on display. Once inside the castle, you can go along an avenue of artillery to reach the very dated Arms Museum, which inevitably also covers the struggles of the Partisans against the Nazis. Rather more interesting is the newish (2012) Museum of Gjirokaster, which opened at 10.00, an hour late, but never mind – it covers local history from 20,000 years ago to 2005, when the city, its houses crumbling due to emigration, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as well as brief mentions of local bats and vultures, and the isopolyphonic songs of southern Albania, also protected by UNESCO (on the intangible cultural heritage list) – iso refers to the drone part of these four-part songs. Outside on the ramparts you’ll see an American T33 jet which crash-landed at Rinas in 1957 (photos taken in 1988 show it in rather better condition than today), but there’s also an interesting story about a Dakota that came down near Elbasan in 1943 with 26 nurses and medics on board – after attempts to fly them out under the Germans’ noses failed they were eventually marched 800 miles (clearly not in a straight line) to the coast for evacuation to Italy.

 There are almost no old buildings in Sarandë (although there are a couple of derelict warehouses near the port that could be repurposed), but the sprawl of fairly low-rise apartment blocks is not unpleasant, mainly because of its setting and the pleasant people strolling on the promenade and running the hotels and restaurants. Nor is it traffic-choked because, unlike Kotor, it has several parallel roads. Nevertheless, there seem to be no controls on the spread of new buildings up the hills and along the coast, and it’s a comfort that the fabulous classical ruins of Butrint are a safe distance away (19km south, to be precise).

 Butrint is fantastic – the hourly bus from Sarandë terminates near the entrance, where a small ferry crosses the outlet from Butrint lagoon to a couple of small villages that have grown up on silt banks that have built up since the city was founded, possibly in the aftermath of the Trojan War (Virgil has Aeneas stopping here) and certainly by the twelfth century BC. The Greek settlement became Roman, then Byzantine and then Venetian, and there are remains from all these phases; the sixth-century baptistery and basilica are particularly impressive, but it’s a shame that the almost intact mosaic of the baptistery is almost always kept under sand, due to the frequency of flooding here. One could well make a case for replacing it with a modern replica and moving it to the decent little museum under the Venetian fort. On the other hand, it was fun watching turtles swimming in the Greek theatre. In fact the whole area is a national park, and I saw a large slowworm or something like it not far from the tourist loop.

Durrës and Elbasan are commonly agreed to be dumps; Paul Theroux’s account of arriving in Durrës in 1994, on a ferry full of stolen cars, is a superb account of a totally failed country, although it obviously has improved since.

Practicalities

I stayed in hostels, which can now be found in all the country’s major towns and which offer the best way of getting information as well as a cheery welcome and a good breakfast. The ones I stayed in in Shkodër and Tirana are both in older houses that survived amid concrete blocks right in the city centres. This was even more true of Berat, where the Berat Backpackers  hostel was in a lovely old house in the Gorica quarter looking across the river to Magdalem (both on the World Heritage List) and the Kala or Citadel. The hostel was known as Scotty’s, having been founded in 2009 by an Englishman (a Geordie, to be exact) – bizarrely, he’d sold it the day before I arrived (although a manager had run it for him for the last couple of years), to the owner of another hostel, a very likeable local chap who seems very capable and speaks excellent English. In Gjirokaster the Dutch-run Stone City Hostel was even better, and rightly won a 2019 Hoscar award – it’s another old house, with spacious common area, squeaky-clean washroom, and superb breakfast – how it is that wholegrain bread is available I don’t know, but homemade fig jam is a constant in this area. But do say if you don’t want your fried egg solid. Finally, my hostel in Sarandë was clean and spacious, with one of the most hospitable owners you could ask for, and just a minute or so from the ferry terminal. I enjoyed the hostels on this whole trip from Istanbul to Albania – it’s a region which seems to attract interesting travellers, not just people looking for cheap beer and ticking off a few compulsory sights. Even so, there are far too many who just hole up on their bunks watching films on their phones (and slowing down the internet for everyone else) – call that travel? And a lot of young people who wouldn’t smoke at home seem go mad when travelling here – something I noticed in Vietnam too.

 In Shköder I ate well at Peja (possibly named after the cultural capital of Kosova), which serves authentic ‘slow food’, but surprisingly fast – I had great eggplant stuffed with apple (from Korça), followed by apple with baklava. I also drank a Puka beer, from Pukë (pronounced Puka), about 30km east of Shkodër, which had a bit of colour and taste to it, unlike all the anaemic lagers available elsewhere in the country. The Korça brewery does produce a dark beer as well as a lager, and I finally sampled that on my last night – pretty tangy and refreshing. In Gjirokaster I ate at Odaja, which was great – there’s an English menu which was clear about vegetarian (not vegan) dishes, which accounted for about a quarter of the list. I had their famous (at least at the Stone City Hostel) tomato balls, which were basically fritters (I also enjoyed them in Corfu) and qifqi rice balls (a Gjirokaster speciality, rather like arancini); imam bayildi is a sort of Turkish ratatouille, and oshaf is a fig dessert (I also saw snails for sale in Gjirokaster).

The Albanian language

Albanian is an Indo-European language, derived from Illyrian, which looks like nothing else with its double rrs and lls and its ë, and names like Urani Runbo. You won’t learn much (enough people speak some English), but do try to master Faleminderit (thank you). Po and jo (yes and no) are easily confused, but once I’d heard an Kosovar talking to his wife on the phone (po, po, po… po, po, po, like a dove) it became easier. The one word you’ll probably remember, as it’s on signs everywhere, is Shitet (for sale)….  By main roads you’ll see signs for Lavazh (in the Gheg north) or Lavazho (in the Tosk south) – at first I assumed it meant Armenian bread, but it fact it means car-wash – from the French, of course.

Avignon

The Palais des Papes, and a climate protest

I’ve stopped in Avignon a couple of times in the last decade, and it feels like a town I could live in. I see it as a sort of French Edinburgh – both cities are dominated by a large castle and by their country’s most prestigious arts festival; and while Edinburgh is still Scotland’s capital, Avignon was home to the papacy for seventy years in the fourteenth century. I visited the Palais des Papes on both visits, the first time just because it is one of the city’s main sights (the largest Gothic palace, apparently, although it seems more like a fortress), and this time because it was the Journées de Patrimoine open-doors weekend when museums are free or very cheap and I wanted to get to an art show. The art was excellent, but the palace itself was as I remembered it, a succession of empty rooms with some decent views from the rooftops.

I had a busy time, visiting half a dozen museums and other buildings that are usually closed but were open to the public for the weekend. The Petit Palais is one of the city museums, which are free anyway (and closed on Tuesdays); it has a dozen rooms of great Italian art from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. They have a fine Virgin and Child by Veneziano, three or four paintings apiece by Taddeo di Bartolo, Andrea di Bartolo, Lorenzo di Bicci and Giovanni di Paolo (including a good but green-faced St Augustine), and six by Neri di Bicci. As in any good Italian collection, there are a couple of artists that one has never heard of but who turn out to be really rather good – here Zanobbi Strozzi and Bartolomeo Caporali. And there’s a Botticelli room, with a Virgin and Child (1467-70), a Venus with three putti from around the same time, and two tondos by his workshop. Upstairs there are notable works by the Vivarinis (Antonio and Bartolomeo) and the Crivellis (Carlo and Vittore); and the last room on the ground floor displays pieces by Ghirlandaio, Cima da Conegliano, Giovanni Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio (a Sacred Conversation with an amazing background).

The Musée Calvet is also one of the free city museums, with more good art housed in Avignon’s finest aristocratic palace (built in 1753). The newly refurbished religious art rooms feature some interesting works by Simon de Châlons (active in Avignon 1532-62) and a marble relief of the Byzantine Empress St Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) by Mino da Fiesole (c1465-70); upstairs, in addition to the usual fluffy eighteenth-century rubbish, there are some decent portraits and two views of Avignon from the same period and various canvases by members of the Vernet family (and a Corot). Joseph Vernet (1714-89) was born in Avignon and, after spending eighteen years in Rome, became one of the major French landscape painters of the eighteenth century; his son Carle (1758-1836) also went to Rome to study painting but was recalled to France when he wanted to enter a monastery; and his son Horace (1789–1863) was born in the Louvre, where his parents sought refuge from the revolution, and became known for his paintings of battles (including the Crimean War) and the French colonisation of Algeria. At the far end of the long upstairs gallery are some seascapes by Joseph Vernet without frames, which were recovered from Germany after World War II.

The main downstairs galleries display lots of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, notably by Manet, Sisley, Bonnard, Laure Garcin, Dufy, Utrillo, Vlaminck, and five by Soutine; less-known but interesting artists include Auguste Chabaud (who studied in Avignon), Albert Gleizes (who died near Avignon) and Pierre Ambrogiani. There’s also a bust of the poet Paul Claudel by his sister Camille Claudel, known as Rodin’s muse – I confess, it hadn’t occurred to me that they were connected. Finally, as you head for the shop and exit, there’s a room of Flemish, Dutch and German Gothic art, with bits attributed to the Brueghels, as well as a lovely nocturnal landscape by Aert van der Neer, as well as Pieter Bout and Simon de Vos.

There are also two fine private galleries, both in historic town-houses; the Collection Lambert has changing displays of cutting-edge contemporary art in two well-converted hôtels, and the Musée Angladon, in the Hôtel de Massilian, has a fine collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, by Manet, Sisley, Redon, Daumier, Degas, Cézanne, Vuillard, van Gogh, Foujita, Modigliani, and Derain (a painting and a bronze owl). They also have some Picasso sketches, and there was a temporary Picasso show too – I now know that his mould-shattering Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was named after a brothel on the Carrer d’Avinyó (ie Avignon Street) in Barcelona, and was known as Le Bordel d’Avignon until it was first publicly exhibited in 1916. More random exhibits include works by Lawrence and Diaz de la Peña, some Dutch art including Corneille de Lyon (Dutch but working in Lyon), sketches by Joseph Vernet, and a Chinese room.

The Palais du Roure – not uniike a Cambridge college.

I also popped into the Musée Lapidaire in the former church of the Jesuit College, the Grenier a Sel (1756), the Palais du Roure (1469), the Mediatheque in the Palais of Cardinal Ceccano (c1340), the Chapelle de l’Oratoire (1714-50), the Chapelle Saint-Louis (1611), the Collégiale St Agricole (1322) and the Hôtel de Ville (1846-52). A busy day!

Some practicalities – transport

Never mind the bridge – I was more interested in the little free ferry just upstream that shuttles pedestrians and cyclists across the Rhône – it turns out that it only goes to the île de la Barthelasse, Europe’s largest river island, and the main branch, the Grand Rhône, is on the far side. The island measures five miles long by two miles wide and makes a nice destination for a leisurely pootle on bikes.

Meanwhile, the city’s new tram system (replacing one closed in 1932) was being tested prior to reopening [on 19 October 2019] – the first line covers 5km (with ten stops) from the city centre to the Saint-Chamand park-and-ride site near Avignon Sud railway station – this is not the Avignon TGV station, also in the south of the city, which I’ve always found to be totally clogged up with mis-parked cars and in need of a good bus or tram link. SNCF trains do occasionally shuttle between the central and TGV stations, but that’s an apology for removing most fast trains from the central station (immediately outside the walls, in fact) rather than providing full connectivity for local residents.

Avignon is well placed for excursions to Nimes, Orange and Arles, all reached by regular fast trains and known for their wonderful Roman theatres and the like; I’ve also enjoyed several visits to the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, one of the world’s biggest and best – I enjoy the photojournalism strand more than the more arty work. Arles is also of course known for its van Gogh connections.

Food and wine

My favourite wines in the world come from just outside Avignon – Châteauneuf du Pape, of course, and Vacqueyras, Gigondas, St Joseph, Lirac, Beumes-de-Venise…  All reds, I thought, but the first time I had a white Châteauneuf du Pape just blew my mind – it was sooo good and I had no idea it even existed. This time we had a white Crozes-Hermitage, from much further north up the Rhône valley, and it was pretty good too. We’d spent the first night of the trip in St-Emilion, near Bordeaux, and one way or another drank quite a bit of claret (as no-one actually called it) – very good, but I’ll always prefer the Rhône wines. Just a matter of taste.

Perhaps the best food in town is at La Mirande, a restaurant-with-rooms at 4 Place de l’Amirande, tucked away behind the Palais des Papes, but I also heard good things about Hiely Lucullus, at 5 rue de la Republique, which combines Provençal and Peruvian influences, and Porteña, 50 place des Corps Saints, which serves great Argentine empanadas. I assume it’s coincidence that they both have a South American bent. Place des Corps Saints is known for restaurants, cafés, and bakeries such as Maison Violette. Nearby is L’Explo, Avignon’s craft beer centre – not real ale, note, and they had oddities such as Dark IPA and IPA Lager, leading me to assume that the local brewers don’t really know what they’re doing. Still, I found a decent pint.

Montenegro – head for the hills!

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.

A quiet corner of Kotor

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.

 

Silly costumes no.1 – Life of Brian gear is required to hide kayaking gear at this nunnery.
Silly costumes no.2 – a blanket cult after getting soaked in a storm.
Silly costumes no.3 – kayaking.
I don’t always travel alone – this gang came up Mt. Rumija with me.
We’re good people, we rescue stranded tortoises, but only after taking selfies with them first.

A tale of several capital cities – Prishtina, Podgorica and Pajë

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.

Out of Turkey and through Bulgaria – Edirne, Plovdiv and Sofia

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.

The Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

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 dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque – on four huge pillars, buttressed by half-domes

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.

The Selimiye Mosque, Edirne
The dome of the Selimiye Mosque – supported by eight columns

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.

Moving on

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.

Roman remains and the Banya-Bashi mosque, Sofia

Why the Tour du Mont Blanc should not be on your bucket list

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.

The French word for mountain running races is ‘trail’

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.

Montain bikers getting tangled up with Japanese and American hikers
Mountain biker getting more than he bargained for on the Col de Seigne

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).

 And also

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.

 

Istanbul – almost in Turkey

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.

French-built trams passing putside the Sublime Porte

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.)

Transport update

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).

Political shenanigans

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.]  

Skopje – beyond surreal

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 Museum of Macedonia

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.

It’s said that Pristina is Europe’s ugliest capital – it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to Skopje.

Time for a beer

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).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Archeological Museum
The Public Prosecutor and Financial Police
Statues on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Let’s squeeze in some more statues
Statues on the National Theatre
A ‘galleon’ and another view of the Officers’ Club
The ‘Warrior on Horseback’