Exeter – so much excitement

I’ve passed through Exeter many times, often changing trains there when I was at school in Dorset (yes, half a century ago), and it’s always been a pleasant cathedral city that’s less obviously industrial and military than Devon’s other city, Plymouth. I stopped off recently, mainly to visit the city’s museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (known as RAMM), which was founded in 1865 to commemorate Prince Albert, who died in 1861 – it was closed from 2007 to 2011 for a major refurb and extension, and was rewarded by winning the Museum of the Year title in 2012. I can’t believe it was that long ago, but finally I’ve gone to take a look. It’s still busy and obviously very popular. There are good history displays covering the Roman settlement of Isca at a ford across the Exe, where a bridge was built from 1190 (the medieval bridge survives, although oddly now on dry land). The Romans also built a port, but rival merchants in Topsham built weirs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to cut Exeter off from the sea; in 1564-66 the first part of the Exeter Canal was built to restore that access, and the city became prosperous, finally expanding beyond the Roman walls. Its peak was in the mid-eighteenth century, when the cloth industry funded the construction of fine Georgian buildings on newly widened streets.

There’s also a Natural History section, with the requisite stuffed elephant and giraffe, a whale skeleton, and much more, partly in the historic display cases, and a large World Cultures section (covering traditional communities everywhere except Europe) where I of course particularly appreciated the items from British Columbia and Alaska, as well as Oceania (including items from Captain Cook’s voyages), Asia, Japan and elsewhere. There’s no permanent art display but they put on temporary shows from the collection (including some excellent Hepworth drawings at the moment).

The area behind the museum has been branded The Museum QuarterExeter Phoenix is a pretty substantial and go-ahead arts centre, but behind that there are just some gardens and the remains of the city walls and the castle, founded by William the Conqueror after 1068 but now pretty ruinous.

The city centre reminded me a little of Norwich and York simply because there are so many small churches there, now mostly redundant and in search of new uses, although I think with less success. Dominating them is the cathedral, founded by King Edward the Confessor in 1050; the oldest surviving structures are the two massive Norman towers that now form the transepts, followed by the thirteenth-century Lady Chapel and Chapter House. From around 1360 the rest of the cathedral was rebuilt, and now boasts a fabulous expanse of Gothic vaulting above the nave and choir, and a western front bearing a stunning display of Gothic sculptures. And there’s more – an astronomical clock, the carved minstrels’ gallery, the bishop’s throne.

The west front of the cathedral, with the Royal Clarence Hotel in the distance
The excitement of Exeter

The most exciting thing to happen in Exeter in recent years (after the Exeter Blitz of May 1942, when the Luftwaffe pounded the city for an hour and twenty minutes, killing 156 people) was in October 2016 when the Royal Clarence Hotel, facing the cathedral on Cathedral Green, burnt down. Opened in 1769, this was supposedly the first establishment in Britain to use the French word ‘hotel’. There was some controversy about the firefighters’ risk-averse tactics, and then at the end of 2018 rebuilding work stopped due to sticky negotiations between owners and builders, so it seems unlikely to reopen in 2019 as planned.

The Royal Clarence Hotel (in March 2019)

There’s also been the considerable excitement of Exeter Rugby Club’s rapid rise from obscurity (National League 1, until 1997) to winning the English premiership in 2017 and competing in Europe, with five of its players regularly appearing in the England team (OK – Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Harry Williams, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie). Its Sandy Park stadium, opened in 2006, hosted three games in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will see more internationals, notably England vs Italy this very weekend, which attracted a crowd of 10,000, a record for an England Womens’ game.

And then there’s the slowburning drama of FlyBe, based at Exeter airport, which evolved fairly accidentally (it was known as Jersey European from 1979 to 2000) to fly relatively small planes on regional and crosscountry routes where it’s very hard to make any money. After coming perilously close to bankruptcy, it was bought in February 2019 by a consortium of Virgin Atlantic and Stobart Aviation. Ryanair recently announced that from the summer of 2019 they will fly from Exeter to Malaga, Malta and Naples – this shouldn’t  undermine FlyBe, I hope.

 Less exciting transport stuff

The railway through Exeter is unlikely to be electrified in the next couple of decades, but there are now overhead wires from London Paddington as far as Newbury, and also most of the way to Bristol, and trains from London to Devon and Cornwall are now mostly the new electric-diesel hybrids of Class 802. Back in 1986 the fastest train from London (the Cornish Riviera Limited, of course) was accelerated to reach Exeter in a flat two hours – this was a bit optimistic and it was soon eased off (it currently takes 2hr 7 min). From May 2019 the fastest service will again take a flat two hours, but what’s more important is that from the December 2019 timetable re-cast there will also be regular semi-fast trains from Paddington to Exeter, giving a better service to places such as Pewsey and Castle Cary, and meaning that the fast trains continuing to Plymouth and Penzance won’t have to make these secondary stops. The real improvements, however, are coming between Exeter and Penzance, where the new trains’ power doors are knocking a minute or so off every stop and they also accelerate rather faster between stations.

New electric trains in the London area have allowed older suburban trains to move to Bristol, and even older trains are moving from there to Exeter, allowing the gradual development of a Devon Metro – from December 2019 the local services from Exmouth and Exeter to Paignton will run every half hour, and trains will run regularly every hour from Exeter to Barnstaple.

And I‘ll be pilloried if I don’t mention that Exeter has another London service, to Waterloo, which takes at least an hour longer (stopping at places like Feniton, Axminster, Crewkerne…) but has two plus-points – it calls at Exeter Central, which is actually quite close to the museum, and my Network Card is valid by this route all the way from Waterloo to Exeter, giving a third off regular fares.

Come on, Exeter! – it’s 2019 and the museum reopened in 2011…

Bratislava – small but perfectly formed

It was a joy to spend the best part of two weeks in Bratislava, updating the Bradt City Guide – I was first here in 1986, and I vaguely remember that the old town was small but perfectly formed and I loved it. Then in the ‘90s I stopped occasionally when I was travelling to Romania by train – back in the days when publishers could afford to humour me rather than just making me buy the cheapest flight (this was before the days of really cheap airlines, of course). Anyway, the last time I’d been here was in 2003, since when it has seen some changes, but it’s still wonderful. For one thing, it’s exactly the right size – you can walk across the old town in ten minutes, but it’s packed with historic buildings, museums and galleries, not to mention fine cafés, pubs and restaurants.

I’m sure that I had to speak German (and a few Slovak words) when I was here before, but now it’s so easy, everyone under say 30, including almost all bar and restaurant staff, speaks English. In fact I can understand a lot of the signs and notices here, as so many words are common to other Slav languages (above all ‘pivo’ or beer).

Traditionally this end of Slovakia was known for wine-making, and they also drank fairly standard Czech-style Pilsner beers (when I was in the Tatra mountains in the ‘90s we drank Zlaty Bazant or Golden Pheasant – perfectly refreshing, and it was nice to have one now just for old times’ sake) – but now they’ve really branched out, with microbreweries producing wheatbeers, porters, stouts and IPAs. Thankfully, because they already had some knowledge of beer, they didn’t rush into the very heavily hopped American IPAs but make very pleasant balanced pints. I also went out of the city to the wine-making villages of Pezinok and Modra where they mainly grow standard German grape varieties (although new Slovak strains have also been developed) – the Riesling is drier than the German equivalent, I think, but they seem to prefer their reds semi-sweet, in the Russian style – this was what everyone had to drink in Georgia until they revolutionised their wine industry. I dare say I’ll take a bottle or two home.

Also on the drinks front, they’re crazy for coffee, which I am not – horrible bitter stuff. But there are lovely cafés, some in the Kaffee und Küchen tradition and some more modern, including co-working places and art spaces. I noticed oddities such as the selfiecchino and the rooiboos cappuccino – I leave you to decide if they’re worth sampling. But the hot chocolate is amazing – real stand-your-spoon-up stuff.

Of course Slovak food is traditionally heavy on the meat (and dumplings), and there’s no shortage of Original Slovak Restaurants on the couple of streets of the old town where the stag parties congregate – but there’s now also a very strong alternative food culture, pushing a great variety of cuisines and stressing local and seasonal produce. I was thrilled to discover the new Saturday market at the Stará Tržnica or Old Market, with lots of happy people buying all kinds of food products as well as crafty stuff; they also have a Street Food Park there once a month from Tuesday to Friday, where I picked up a falafel wrap for lunch – ok, it was staffed by just about the only Slovaks I saw with hipster beards and tattoos but still, it was great. It’s also a very vegetarian-friendly city now, and it was over a week before I resorted to my first pizza (and that wasn’t because I’d run out of other options). Open sandwiches are a trend at the moment, working very well with lovely Slovak cream cheese (Urban Bistro do a great one), and I also enjoyed Krumpla (on Obchodna, which is a very good street to look for food from around the world, especially Asia), which is reinventing the humble jacket potato – served with a swirl of balsamic by cool staff and costing double what you’d expect for a basic JP.

I don’t know whether it’s a legacy of Habsburg times or of communism, but the food industry is very preoccupied with weights and measures, telling you exactly what weight each dish on the menu is, and also listing all possible allergens; every shop, café and restaurant has to display its opening hours on the front door, it seems, which certainly makes a guidebook writer’s job easier! Another thing to be grateful for if visually impaired is the requirement for markers (a black triangle on a yellow circle) on steps.

At street level it feels like most European cities – there are quite a lot of cars but not a lot of congestion, as plenty of people use public transport (trams, buses and trolley-buses) and a reasonable number now cycle – hardly at Dutch/Danish levels, but it’s catching on. There’s a new bike-sharing system (Slovnaft Bajk) which seems fairly popular even though they haven’t at all got the knack yet of moving bikes around to have them where they’re needed (eg at the station in the morning when the commuters arrive). The Stary Most or Old Bridge, Bratislava’s first fixed bridge across the Danube (as opposed to pontoons; opened in 1891) was more or less derelict until the EU paid for it to be rebuilt, reopening in 2016 – it now carries only trams, cycles and pedestrians, and of course reminded me of the Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Oregon, which opened in 2015 – there was quite a fuss at the time about building a US$135 million bridge that was specifically not for cars or trucks. For some reason the trams only go a couple of stops beyond the river and then stop, not very close to connecting buses.

Once upon a time those trams rattled along all the way from Vienna to Bratislava (about 55km), and bourgeois Frauen used to come here just for Kaffee und Kuchen at places like Cafe Mayer, which is still there on Old Town Square. This reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor who of course did the same journey on foot (actually he got a lift to the edge of Vienna, but we won’t begrudge him that), stopping at the Roman ruins of Carnuntum – I thought of getting a bus there from Bratislava and walking back across the border, but alas the site is closed in winter. Likewise the Roman site of Gerulata, just south of Bratislava, although I did get a photo through the fence. I did manage to walk to Austria via the Bridge of Freedom, a new international cycle bridge across the Morava (March) river not far north of the famous castle of Devín.

So all kinds of things have changed for the better – but the odd exhibition on ethnography, and the paintings of Jan Hála and the like, reminded me that I caught the very end of traditional folk culture in the region – above all in Maramureș and other parts of Transylvania, but also in the hillier parts of Slovakia. That’s pretty much gone now, but I do feel incredibly privileged to have seen as much as I did – and to have shared in people’s lives, even if only to a tiny extent. Of course, if you go further east, there are still people living traditional lifestyles, such as the transhumance from Tusheti in Georgia that I mentioned here.

Sandwiched between Hungary and Poland, Slovakia has been infected by the same kind of nasty populist politics, but that comes mainly from the rural areas, whereas as far as I can see Bratislava remains a civilised place. Which is not to say that the Roma are particularly well treated here, but it’s better than in the east of the country.

Most of the travellers I met in the hostels were complaining about the blogs that urged them to rush between Berlin and Budapest via Prague and Vienna, saying that Bratislava was dull, but you won’t find any of that big-cities-only nonsense here (although I admit I have gone into Berlin’s museums and galleries in some depth) – Bratislava is exactly the kind of place people should be stopping in to understand the new Europe. But it’s even better to get to smaller places towards the mountains – I had great views of the High Tatras, thick with snow (serious nostalgia!) from the train from Bratislava and Trnava to Kosice, but I didn’t have time to stop – but I will post soon on those two towns.

Kapitulska street – central but still very quiet
The Primate’s Palace and the Old Town Hall

Sark – the simple life

It’s no surprise that, as a long-time cycling campaigner, my favourite of the Channel islands is Sark, where the only motor vehicles are a few tractors, but there’s more to it than that. People who choose to live on Sark (and almost everyone does make a positive choice, given the multitude of opportunities to leave the island, from school onwards) are all committed to its relaxed lifestyle where everyone has time to talk (often in the middle of the road) and to pursue slightly offbeat interests – I came across enthusiasts for astronomy (the island became Europe’s first Dark Sky Community, in 2011), sustainable agriculture, and sloe vodka and gin. Happily, someone has also set up a microbrewery.

Archeology is another local enthusiasm – it’s often said that Sark was uninhabited until Helier de Carteret arrived from Jersey to settle here in 1565, but it’s now clear, thanks to the work of Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe (the great expert on the prehistoric Atlantic world and the Celts) and fellow Oxford archeologists who have been working here for 15 years, that Neolithic farmers were here by 5,000 BC. The first settlers would have been hunter-gatherers but farming would have been introduced by about 4000BC, and sheep were raised from around 1500BC. The finds remain on the island and can be seen in the Heritage Room (open on weekdays from 11.00 to 13.00), next to the Sark Visitor Centre.

La Coupée, Sark

The painter and writer Mervyn Peake lived here for a couple of years from 1933 and likewise from 1946, pretty much exemplifying the island lifestyle. As a young artist in the 1930s he was known for painting naked (or wearing just a sombrero) on the cliffs; when he returned after the war he had a young family and rented the house previously occupied by the commanding officer of the German occupation force. The broadcaster Kate Humble is someone else who was partly formed by childhood summers on Sark.

It seems to work, as the island’s permanent population is a self-sustaining 500 to 600, with just enough incomers to replace those leaving for study and work elsewhere. It’s the world’s newest democracy (subject to correction), with the seigneur’s feudal powers replaced in 2008 by a semi-democratic system. The seigneur still owns the island (holding it as a fief from the Crown), but Christopher Beaumont, who inherited the job from his father in 2016, is a modern-minded chap (previously an officer in the Royal Engineers) who is restoring his house, the Seigneurie, and backing other projects for sustainable development of the island. However this was apparently not democratic enough for the twin Barclay brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph and various lucrative property interests in London, who own the island of Brecqhou, just off Sark, and built themselves a château where I picture them stroking white cats while chuckling at their dastardly plans for world domination. They tried growing grapes for wine, which failed as the soil is too acidic, and proposed a funicular from the harbour and other ‘improvements’ which weren’t really wanted; then when their candidates were not elected in the new democratic elections they closed both their hotels on Sark in pique, instantly reducing visitor numbers by about 40%. However, the two other hotels on Sark, Stocks and La Sablonnerie, are both superb, and there are some B&Bs and self-catering options too. The French ferry company Manche-Îles, which links Sark with Jersey and the French mainland, also had engine trouble on one of its boats for much of 2018, providing a further hit to the economy.

Sark

Of the other islands, Herm is a little like Sark, with an even smaller population (just 60-65) and no cars, but it’s really just a hotel business with a small island attached, more like Tresco in the Scillies. Like the Île de Bréhat in Brittany and Padstow in Cornwall, both of which I visit most years with hiking groups, the ferries have different landing spots depending on the state of the tide. It was settled in Neolithic times, by Saints Tugual and Magloire in the 560s, and again by Norman monks in the tenth century. Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney all have their own charms but they’re much bigger and more populous, and maybe I’ll write about them separately some time.

Herm

CART – the Campaign for Real Tea

I’m currently updating the Bradt guide to Uzbekistan, and while I was there (in October 2018) I drank little but green tea (the beer was awful) and really developed a bit of a habit. I brought some back with me (grown in Sri Lanka!) but it was impossible to keep the habit up – black tea (with milk) is just my default and I seem unable to change that. And I can’t stand coffee.

The Renegades tea plantation

However, I was very happy recently to see the sixth edition of my Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia hot off the press, and also to receive my first batch of tea from a plantation in Georgia that I helped to crowdfund. The Renegades, an unlikely bunch of Balts (five youngsters from Latvia and Estonia) were seized by an urge to revitalise Georgia’s moribund tea industry and have now released their first harvest. I received a case with six different blends, both green and black, and each packet has far more information thanyou’d get on a standard wine bottle label – eg two leaves and a bud are plucked together, withered for 17 hours, rolled for 45 minutes, oxidised for 25 hours at 35° C, roasted for 25 minutes at 150° C, and finally dried for 20 minutes at 120° C. They also come with brewing suggestions, and are personally signed! It tastes great (I was amazed by how much the leaves swell up in the pot).

Having previously gone on a bit about beer and CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, I feel it’s time to join the Campaign for Real Tea. Which doesn’t actually exist, but maybe the Renegade story is the start of a movement, coupled with the recent news that modern teabags are actually a form of single-use plastic, which of course we all hate, just like those throwaway cups. It’s not enough just to encourage people to rediscover the joy of tea, it’s also necessary to do it right. Firstly, no teabags – get a pot and use loose tea! Or  a cunning little one-cup strainer like my sister uses.

Secondly, make sure the tea meets the water when the latter is actually just off the boil – the moment you cross the Channel from Britain to France or Belgium you’re confronted with waiters serving you a cup of hottish water and a teabag nowhere near the said water, and they are all totally unaware that the coloured water produced when the tea does finally meet the water is definitely not tea. For green tea, I gather that the water has to boil but doesn’t need to be quite as hot as for black tea – some people seem to hold the kettle high above them and pour in the manner of a fancy cocktail mixologist, to let the water cool just that little bit more.

The tea bucket (from Prince Charles’s country place)

Some people think I drink huge quantities of tea, but I don’t, I just drink a couple of bucketfuls twice a day – I seem able to down quite a lot while it’s still warm, while others sit and wait. Strangely, the same thing applies to beer – my first pint goes down pretty quickly, but after that I drink at the same pace as everyone else (well, almost). And I never go to cafés if I can help it and I don’t get on a train and instantly think ‘Must get a tea’ (train travel is far too enjoyable to seek a distraction activity anyway).

Rather bizarrely, I happen to have in front of me (no idea how I came by it) a print-out of British Standard 6008:1980, Method for Preparation of a liquor of tea for use in sensory tests – isn’t it great to know that tax revenue has been spent on researching the precise and perfect procedure for making tea? You need 2 grammes of tea per 100ml of water (to an accuracy of +/-2%), and it should brew for six minutes, which is far longer than I ever manage to wait. I could go off and write half a book while waiting. Milk is not essential, but can accentuate differences in flavour and colour, it seems. If desired, it should be poured first, to avoid scalding the milk), which is contrary to what most tea aficionados recommend, and the tea liquor should be at 65 to 80° C (a surprisingly broad range). The milk should be ‘free from any off-flavour’, which also seems a rather unscientific criterion.

Incidentally, I recently read that a quarter of the population are ‘thermal tasters’, who experience cold as sour and warm as sweet – I don’t think that applies to me. But I am accused of having an asbestos tongue. I remember when I was writing my guide to Uruguay noting that cancers of the mouth may be linked to drinking very hot maté (the herbal tea that everyone drinks there), but I drink black tea with milk (and I let green tea cool to the same sort of temperature), so I don’t think I’m at risk. I don’t like maté because it’s so bitter (or else it has to be served with so much sugar), which may indicate that I’m not a thermal taster.

But for those who do want their beverages at exactly the right temperature some new products are available. The Ember is sold in Apple stores (from £80) and is of course linked to an app on your phone to tell you when to take out your teabag (yuk). The Glowstone mug is a crowdfunded British venture, so I feel better about it, and it will keep a drink at the correct temperature for an hour – but it costs £129! I really think this may all have gone too far.

A friend (who will receive CART membership card 0002) recently visited the village of Shree Antu in Ilam, Nepal (just across the border from Darjeeling in India), to stay in community homestays (see this also) and learn all about tea. It sounds great! While researching the Uzbekistan book, I also came across this blog and this one by people who are travelling the world and reporting on the tea and coffee they consume along the way. Amazing how focussed people can be in this blogging lark.  And now there’s a book too, The Life of Tea: a journey to the World’s Finest Teas by Timothy d’Offay (illustrated by Michael Freeman), published in 2018 – I trust they’ll follow it up with The Life of Pie….

Overtourism, coming soon to Georgia and Uzbekistan?

There’s been a lot of talk recently of the problems of ‘overtourism’, with vigorous protests in places like Barcelona and Venice against the hordes who flood in, cause residential accommodation to be converted into Airbnb lets and hostels, get drunk and generally behave disgracefully, forgetting that their destination is somebody’s home, not just a playground. It’s particularly galling in the month that Tourism Concern, the UK charity that has done so much to bring this issue to public awareness, ceased operations (who knows how long their website will remain live?). I supported TC as a member for the best part of twenty years, but membership revenue was never enough to keep it going and in these hard times grants have also dried up. With any luck the issue now has enough traction with journalists and opinion-formers for it to remain in the public eye.

Just to recap – since 1995, the number of tourists worldwide has more than doubled, from 550 million to 1.3 billion in 2017, according to the World Bank. International tourist arrivals increased by 7% in 2017 and are expected to continue growing at 4-5% pa. This boom is driven above all by the growth of the global middle class, currently standing at around 3.7 billion, and growing by another 160 million annually (above all in China and India, of course), as well as by the preference of young people now to consume experiences rather than things. It’s fuelled by cheap air travel and cheap cruise holidays, which dump thousands of people at a time in one place, and by social media – there now seems to be a very consumerist attitude to travel, which doesn’t actually happen until it’s been Instagrammed. There’s no doubt that tourism in general is a force for good, in terms of education and international understanding, and in economic terms (it accounts for 10% of world GDP), so no-one wants it to go away altogether, but many destinations are being overwhelmed, while there’s potential to shift some of the load to nearby alternatives.

Another game-changer has been the growth of AirBnB, which has created a lucrative new market for itself (gross sales of US$14.4bn in 2016) and for home owners. It’s getting a lot of criticism too, for undermining the hotel industry and driving down wages, for disrupting local housing markets and changing the characters of neighbourhoods, and above all for avoiding taxes, and enabling renters to avoid taxes. Little by little, cities across the world are requiring AirBnB properties to be registered so that they can only be rented out for limited periods and taxes can be levied. This has happened in Barcelona, where a new mayor was elected specifically on a platform of cracking down on illegal short-term rentals, in Portugal, where Lisbon and Porto suddenly became Europe’s coolest destinations and property prices rocketed, and in Amsterdam, where the tax on budget hotels, widely seen as swamping the city centre, is also being raised by 20%. Elsewhere, tourist taxes are being increased, as are entry charges – Angkor Wat almost doubled its just before we got there last year – and in Thailand and the Philippines overloaded islands and beaches (including THAT one where they filmed The Beach) are simply being closed. Mustang in Nepal is opening up to tourists but with a fee of US$500 per person.

I live in Cambridge (UK), where tourist numbers have grown by two million in just three years, from 5.4 million in 2013 to 7.6 million in 2016 – and there’s a general perception that they mostly get off their buses for an hour or two, clutter up King’s Parade and spend virtually no money. Cambridge is notorious for having almost no hotels anywhere near the centre, so in a way it’s not surprising – but many problems are also being reported with AirBnB properties too. It’s interesting that we are also dealing with a newly identified problem labelled as ‘over-studentification’ – with full-time student numbers in the UK up 660,000 in the last 20 years there is high demand for student HMOs (houses in multiple occupation), which has caused some communities to be virtually obliterated. In response new accommodation blocks have been built and suddenly the areas that had been taken over by HMOs are abandoned. Doesn’t everything move absurdly fast in today’s world?

However, I’m now in Uzbekistan, a country that is interested in developing its tourism industry – and with Silk Route cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva as key attractions, there’s obviously plenty of potential. To their credit, the government is looking at the rather headlong growth of tourism in Georgia (which of course is covered by my Bradt guidebook and some blog posts), where visitor numbers rose from 2.8 million in 2011 to nearly 7 million in 2017, and the infrastructure has been struggling to keep up – what’s more, there’s a real fear that Tbilisi in particular has lost a little of what made it special, and – more importantly – there’s the beginning of a backlash from residents. I don’t altogether miss the times in the 1990s when there was absolutely no street lighting in the city so that even where there were signs with street names you couldn’t see them, and in any case you had to worry a bit more about being bopped on the head with a steel bar – but still the city is less ‘authentic’ (whatever that means) than when I first knew it. Outside Tbilisi and a few well-known spots, things have changed less.

In Uzbekistan there’s pressure to abolish the visa system altogether (as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and indeed Georgia and Armenia), but the government seems to be taking it one step at a time, starting with an e-visa system for most of the developed Western countries. Having said that, they did just abolish visas for French tourists a week before the president went on a state visit to France… As I said in my previous post, I’d much rather they abolished the registration system, which is pretty pointless now it’s legal to stay with Uzbeks in their homes, and they don’t bother looking at the registration slips when you leave the country.

New hotels are being built, and I was very impressed by those in central Bukhara, where modern buildings blend beautifully with their historic settings. In Samarkand they’re being much more gung-ho with their new constructions, alas. The Uzbek railways are seeing a huge amount of investment, with Spanish high-speed trains running from Tashkent to Samarkand, Shakrisabz, Bukhara and perhaps in 2019 to Khiva, as well as a new line to the Fergana region. Booking tickets is still a bit tricky, especially as some of the longer-distance trains don’t run daily, and when they’re full they’re full – there are no tickets for standing passengers. There are more ATMs than a few years ago, although they do tend to be hidden away in hotel lobbies – and this is still very much a cash economy, with little opportunity to let your card take the strain. They very much need to improve internet access, and happily I hear that Korean technology is to be brought in to do that.

Nurata from Alexander the Great’s fortress
Nurata – a new park separated by a wall from housing where actual human beings live.

There is one rather worrying thing, however, which is that the authorities are rather too keen to demolish their old towns to create park-like promenades to lead tourists from one ancient mausoleum or madrassa to the next – maybe one day these will look natural and lived-in, but at the moment one is just aware of a huge loss of context and authenticity. That said, I’m told that residents are perfectly happy to be transferred to modern housing in the suburbs. Shakhrisabz is the most notorious example of this (there’s a photo here), but even tiny Nurata now has a rather sterile park between the mosque and a grand new hotel (which it did need). In Samarkand a main road north from the Registan has been nicely pedestrianised, but the neighbouring Jewish quarter was actually walled off (there’s a photo at the end of this post). The Gur-i-Amir, the lovely mausoleum of Timur in Samarkand, was left horribly isolated and shorn of its urban context when the surrounding houses were replaced by a park. Construction is also under way on Tashkent City and Samarkand City, two glitzy new developments of skyscraper hotels and business centres, and during the presidential visit to France mentioned above, the French company Bouygues was given a contract to build a new hotel complex on the edge of Bukhara.

I hope we won’t be looking at Uzbekistan in a few years saying ‘it used to be so great, but now it’s ruined’. There’s a lot to be said for going slowly.

PS the main station in Tashkent is to be refurbished, so they’ve built the new Tashkent Yuzhniy (South) station (below) – international trains still use the main station (which is handier because it’s on the metro) while most domestic trains use the South station. The high-speed Afrosiab trains are currently using the main station but are, I gather, set to switch to the South station. Check your tickets carefully, as nobody bothers to tell you where you need to be, and the trains only call at one even when they pass through the other.

PS Barcelona is still vigorously promoting itself as a destination – this was at the World Travel Market in November 2018.

 

Two Uzbekistans

I’ve come to the opinion that there are really two Uzbekistans – yes, there are two Frances, two Italys, two Britains – or probably more in these fractured Brexit days – two anywheres, but bear with me. The main cities and tourist sites, above all Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, are now places that visitors can reach by high-speed trains or frequent flights, where they can find ATMs, good hotels, hostels and restaurants and where they can speak English or German with guides or even an increasing number of ordinary people in the streets. Restaurants and buses have prices posted and you can just get on with your stuff. These are pleasant and relaxing places to be – I’ll say it again, the Uzbeks (and I include the Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkomens and others living in Uzbekistan) are some of the nicest people I’ve come across, really enjoying the way their country is opening up to the world.

Then there are the smaller towns and villages which are not yet surfing this wave. Here you need to speak Russian (or Uzbek, Tajik etc) to get much done, and you also have to accept that the internet is barely functional and that nothing here has any fixed value, except train fares – but for pretty much everything else there’s a haggling culture which means that no-one will tell you an actual fixed price for anything. That’s just the way it is, the Uzbeks are some of the nicest people around but as a tourist in these less touristy places you will end up paying far more than the locals do for just about everything. I don’t mind a ‘tourist tax’ (or non-Russian-speaker tax) of 10 or 20 per cent, and I don’t agree with the UNESCO policy against charging foreigners more at places like Angkor Wat – but it’s ironic that any Uzbeks who found themselves there would have to pay the pretty steep foreign tourist rate, as would any Cambodians visiting the Registan in Samarkand. But I don’t want to pay three or four times what I ‘should’ pay every time, and I really find it odd living in a world where almost nothing has a fixed value. Especially when I’m supposed to be telling my dear readers what the cost of things is.

To be marginally more specific, I’m in Termez, the crossing point from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, and thus the southernmost point in Uzbekistan. The night train from Samarkand was cancelled (find out at 22.30, get given your money back and told to go into town to find a bed – but the point of the night train is that you won’t need a hotel) so I came the next day in a shared taxi. The night train back was full, so I’m killing another night in a hotel and will waste most of another day in shared taxis. I spent today visiting the ruins of the earlier incarnations of Termez (it was founded by Alexander the Great, and was an important military and commercial stop on the Silk Route until Genghiz wiped it out), and I intended to do this by using the marshrutka (minibus) routes detailed in the book what I am updating. Unfortunately, the route numbers have all changed, so firstly, after a while by the road, I got bundled into a car which took me to the Hakkim al Termezi mausoleum, and the driver massively shortchanged me. Fine, I did my business there and was able to get a marshrutka back (with a quarter-hour hiccup at a check-point, but that’s another story and certainly nothing to do with me, I wasn’t the person who didn’t have ID), and I only paid a bit over the odds. Then I went out to the Sultan Saodat mausoleum, and happily had exactly the right change to pay exactly what I saw everybody else paying. I lugged my rucksack to a couple of other sites but then had to get the same marshrutka line back – this time I didn’t have the right change and so got given back a few thousand Som less than I should have been (I thought I’d get off at the end of the line to have a bit of time to sort things out, but he was actually taking someone further on, they’re helpful that way; anyway, he may have been charging me for my baggage or something). All in all, it’s only a matter of a few dollars over the whole day, but I just find it a bit wearing. Actually, it’s also strange that time has no fixed value either – mostly life is pretty relaxed here, with plenty of time to chat, but occasionally someone (usually a driver) will be in a tearing hurry.

You can actually learn more about Old Termez by visiting the fine Archeological Museum in New Termez than by schlepping out to the ruins – this was one of the main centres of Buddhism in what is now Uzbekistan, and I was hopeful of finding some examples of Gandharan sculpture, which you may recall I was thrilled to find in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore. It seems that the Buddhist culture here was heavily influenced by Gandhara (the Khyber Pass was an important part of the Silk Route) but there’s nothing that comes close to the pure beauty of classic Gandharan Buddhist sculpture.

I kept reading that Termez was the launchpad for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while I was under the impression that it wasn’t an invasion, but rather ‘fraternal support’ for the embattled communist regime there. Well… it was a bit of both, it seems. In April 1978 a left-wing coup overthrew the democratic government, and two communist parties formed a coalition in order to govern the country. In December 1979 the Soviets sent in 30,000 troops over the ironically named Friendship Bridge, just outside Termez, in order to support one of the communist parties and overthrow the president, who was the leader of the other one.

Shakrisabz, with the Ak Serai in the distance.

Actually, there is one place that lies in between the two Uzbekistan – Shakrisabz is a small town without much tourist infrastructure, but then there’s no need to stay the night as it’s an easy day trip from Samarkand (over a pretty spectacular mountain pass). This is another place where the old town has been swept away to create a rather sterile new park linking the town’s tourist sights, from the Dor at-Tilyavat mosque in the south to the massive remains of Timur’s Ak Serai palace about a kilometre to the north.
In general, though, you can take your choice – the ‘new’ Uzbekistan where tourism is easy, or the old one where you have to work that much harder, but with the compensation of knowing that you’re away from the tourist crowds. Of course, with a guide you can cross the boundary, to see Termez and its surroundings for instance, but in a sense you’re still in the bubble of the new Uzbekistan. When I got to the Fergana Valley, at the end of my tour of Uzbekistan, I was given a car and driver by a local tourism company (the excellent DOCA Tours), which you might think was the perfect way to visit this pretty untouristed part of the country – but I had to use Russian to communicate with the driver, so it didn’t really solve my problem. It was only in the wonderful Margilan silk factory (hardly a factory, as pretty much everything is still done by hand) and the potteries of Rishtan that I was able to relax and speak English.

PS After four weeks away I returned to Tashkent and realised that there are actually three Uzbekistans – because the capital feels nothing like the rest of the country. It actually seemed like a Russian city to me, although half the population is no longer ethnically Russian as it was in Soviet times. It’s maybe 20% Russian now, but the contrast with the rest of the country is so strong that it seems more. Women’s skirts are about a foot shorter than in the rest of the country (kudos to the wife of the British ambassador for strutting hers with more style than any of the locals), there are couples kissing, even the odd alcoholic passed out under a tree, all more Russian than Uzbek.

A Tale of Three Cities

Uzbekistan’s three great Silk Road cities are Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (although the cities of the Fergana Valley were also important crossroads); they’re all different, and I’m not sure which one I preferred. I was intrigued by the different patterns of historical decay and restoration in the three cities.

In Samarkand the Registan was left to decay under the Soviets (one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg madrassa collapsing in the 1920s) and the surrounding area was cleared in the 1960s to build four-storey apartment blocks. In 1967 the regional headquarters of the Communist Party was built on the former citadel, then another medieval quarter was demolished and the sixteenth-century Mirzo baths were replaced by a big restaurant. All of Timur’s fabulous gardens have also vanished.  The Registan did see massive restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, and the remains of the Bibi Khanum mosque were rebuilt; across the road, the dome of the Bibi Khanum mausoleum is also totally new. In 1996 the houses around the Gur-i-Amir, the lovely mausoleum of Timur, were cleared and the quiet backwater that reminded Wilfred Blunt of an English cathedral close was replaced with a sterile park. The nearby Aksaray mausoleum has also been rather over-restored, by the look of it. German experts have been working in Samarkand since 1991 and have fixed the problems caused by poor restoration and heavy rain at the Tilla Kari madrasa (religious college) in the Registan, and are now turning their attention to the fifteenth-century Ishratkhana mausoleum, a little-known architectural jewel a kilometre or so south of the centre, so one can hope that this will be subtler work than elsewhere.

The Gur-i-Amir, mausoleum of Amir Timur

 

The latest problem is that private developers are demolishing houses to build hotels and apartment blocks, notably in the Tsarist quarter immediately west of the historic centre – this is also supposedly protected by UNESCO and the demolitions are clearly illegal, but the local government is if anything encouraging them.

In Bukhara, far more of the medieval city centre has been preserved than in Samarkand, although it has been opened up, and supposedly tidied up, by clearing many of the buildings between the main sights. The Soviets left the city to decay, and demolished all but three of the fifty-odd covered trading domes, so that it became unbearably hot to get around the city in summer and the population largely decamped to modern suburbs (in fact, Bukhara was one of the first cities to develop suburbs, as a result of the Arab conquest of 709, so this was history repeating itself). Fitzroy Maclean came here in 1938 and then in 1958, when he noted that it had been tidied up almost beyond recognition, with the ancient walls and gates mostly swept away and boulevards driven through the maze of narrow, winding streets, and was clearly set to become a tourist centre. Geoffrey Moorhouse made the same observation, also noting that the unrestored domes were topped by storks’ nests but that the storks (the national bird) had not been seen since nearby wetlands had been drained. There’s been a lot more restoration recently, unfortunately involving laughable plastic storks on rooftops, and it’s also been a bit gung-ho at times – in 2017 a wrong-headed decision was taken to lower the roads to their medieval level, destroying many archeological remains in the process, and causing part of a madrasa’s façade to collapse.

Sympathetic architecture in Bukhara

On the other hand, I was impressed by the new hotels which fit in very well with the traditional style – and some of them really do deserve their ‘boutique’ tag. Some of the city’s many disused madrasas are being re-used as hotels, restaurants and museums, but there are many more if you fancy investing.

The same is true of Khiva, the smallest of the three, which was largely abandoned when Urgench, 30km to the north, was chosen for industrial development. It was effectively a museum city by 1999, with the feeling of a ghost town – although it’s ironic that many of its madrasas and minarets were actually built in the early twentieth century. Now it’s buzzing with tourists, at least in spring and autumn, although it’s far too hot to visit in summer and too cold in winter. There are three hotels in converted madrassas (one in the old town and two outside) – they lend themselves really well to this recycling, with their monastic cells around a pleasant courtyard.

 More on Khiva

In Khiva, I went to see the new train station (they’ve built a branch from Urgench, and now need to electrify it to extend the Afrosiyob high-speed trains here – sometime in 2019, I believe) which is about a kilometre east of the old town – and there’s a great traffic-free boulevard which will be lined with hotels and shopping complexes. I’m assured that this was an area of markets, not housing, and that a new bazaar is under construction nearby.

The new boulevard from Khiva station towards the old city

 

The Bradt guide to Uzbekistan gives a good account of the city’s amazing array of mosques, mausoleums and minarets – but it doesn’t really say much about its museums. There’s a 100,000 som (USD12) ticket that covers all 15 of the old town’s museums, but most of those museums are of very limited interest – so I’ll have to give some guidance. Still, it’s reasonable value if you visit a few of them. In the new town, the Nurillabay Palace has just been restored and reopened – it was only built at the start of the twentieth century, and there are a couple of galleries of below-average art. The only exhibit of interest is of historic photographs of Khiva under the khanate. For this they charge 50,000 som (USD6) – more than twice as much as any other museum or monument I’ve visited in Uzbekistan, apart from the Registan in Samarkand, which costs 30,000 som and is worth every one.

I did say in my previous post that there’s been a move towards abolishing separate charges for photography in museums, but I then noticed that this was less the case in Bukhara – happily, Khiva fell into line with the trend I’d spotted elsewhere – phew.

The current edition of the Bradt guide also issues a heart-felt plea for a restaurant – any restaurant – in Khiva to stay open out of season, and I’m happy to report that their prayers have been answered, and several places will be open all winter. This is despite the bone-crunching cold that people can already feel on its way – tourists are still enjoying mid-October sun, but the locals are huddled in their wonderful padded ikat jackets. I think I may have to buy one.

Uzbekistan – moving ahead, but not too fast

I’ve been in Uzbekistan for a week now, and I can say that while the people and the sights are wonderful, there’s going to be a lot more work than I expected to produce a third edition of the Bradt travel guide. That’s partly because it’s proved very hard to tie up what the maps in the book say and the vérité on the ground, together with lots of changes to street names (and transliteration issues too), but it’s also due to the way that Uzbekistan is changing and opening up, in particular for tourism.

Islam Karimov, the strong man who kept hold of power after the Soviet Union broke up, and created a very effective police state, died in September 2016 and was replaced in a very fake election by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who had been prime minister since 2003. It was assumed that he would maintain the same very tough political system, and that talk of reform shouldn’t be taken too seriously – but once he had retired Rustam Inoyatov, who had been Karimov’s secret police head for 23 years, at the end of January 2018, it has become clear that the reforms are for real. Uzbek society and economy are opening up, human rights activists are returning from exile, and serious efforts are being made to develop tourism, which has obvious potential to be a gold mine, given that the great Silk Route cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are all in Uzbekistan.

The Registan, Samarkand – everyone wants to come here.

It used to be necessary to get a Letter of Invitation from a helpful tour company in order to obtain a visa – this is no longer needed. In July 2018 an e-visa system was introduced (though it’s still rather confusing, in my experience), and citizens of some nations don’t need a visa at all. In September visa-free travel was extended to French citizens, a few days ahead of a visit by Mirziyoyev to Paris. There’s talk of following Georgia and Kyrgysztan in abolishing visas for virtually all countries, but at the moment the official view is that tourism to Georgia has probably developed faster then the infrastructure can cope with (the secret police are perhaps still capable of putting a spanner in the works as well) – as the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia (six editions now!) and various blog posts, I have a lot of sympathy with that view. One thing they have done is to introduce Spanish high-speed trains from Tashkent to Samarkand, Bukhara and Shakrisabz. In fact what I want is to see them abolish the Soviet system of registration (where the police have to be informed where you’re staying every night, and you have to keep the paper slips to prove it). It’s a damn pain, and when they’re talking of making it easier for people to stay with Uzbek friends and to go hiking and camping, this makes life complicated. It seems that immigration officers don’t check when you leave the country now (I haven’t tested this yet), but hotels use an online system which throws a conniption if there are unexplained gaps in your record.

A fancy new hotel in Tashkent, opening in a few weeks.

Lots of other things are getting easier – tourists can buy an Uzbek SIM for just a couple of dollars, there still aren’t many ATMs but the number is increasing (they’re mostly in top-end hotels), and the currency has been allowed to float, wiping out the black market, or rather letting everyone change at the true rate (but you do still have to haggle eg for taxis). Online booking, eg for trains and planes, is possible and of course Booking.com and Hostelworld.com have become the obvious way for independent travellers to book accommodation. More and more people, in hotels, hostels, restaurants and elsewhere speak English and German. The number of places where you can’t take photos is far smaller than it was, and in particular you can take photos in Tashkent’s gorgeous Metro. In fact there used to be passport checks to enter the metro – there are still plenty of police with metal-detector wands there, but they never bother tourists, and hardly anyone else, as far as I can see. Museum tickets used to be very cheap, with a swingeing extra charge to use a camera, but now the tickets costs slightly more – still just two or three dollars – and photography is included. I’ve noticed in the last five years or so that the world’s art galleries have accepted that everyone has a phone now and have stopped preventing photography except for special exhibitions and specific loans.

On the down side (but this began in Soviet times), there’s been some rather over-enthusiastic restoration of historical monuments, while others are still in a tumbledown state. New pedestrian boulevards have been smashed through old towns to link tourist sights (the three Ms – mosques, madrassas and mausoleums), and it’s particularly shocking that some of the remaining old quarters have been walled off so the tourists can’t accidentally get lost. This is particularly so when it’s the old Jewish quarter that has been walled off.

Amazing – a wall between Samarkand’s Jewish quarter and the tourist area.

Namur (the hilly bit of Belgium)

I don’t want to say much about Namur, but as capital of Wallonia (the French-speaking half of Belgium) since 1986 it might one day be capital of an independent state! It’s still a fairly small town and not that attractive, but it’s dominated by the citadel that’s set high on the hill between the Meuse and Sambre rivers, which is an unmissable detour (as the Michelin guide might say). It has been under refurbishment since 2012, but the museum at the Visitor Centre in the Terra Nova barracks block gives an excellent overview of the linked history of the town and citadel ever since they were a mangrove swamp more or less on the equator 340 million years ago. A small Roman settlement developed into a trading settlement which was increasingly prosperous from the tenth century until the local count was forced to sell it to Burgundy in 1421. The town, ruled by Spain then Austria, lost much of its importance, even while its citadel became a major strategic point – its fortifications were built up in the 15th and 16th centuries, then the Terra Nova sector was added in 1631-75, followed by the Fort d’Orange in 1690-1, trying to secure the citadel’s one weak point, along the ridge between the rivers. Even so, the citadel was captured by the French in 1692, and Louis XIV’s great military engineer Vauban improved its defences, adding lots of tunnels which are a major tourist attraction today. It reminded me of Luxembourg, where there are 23km of casemates to be visited.

Namur citadel, beyond the Parlement de Wallonie (red) – there’s now a foot/cycle bridge across the river in the foreground.

In 1696 it was recaptured by the forces of the Grand Alliance; until 1792 the town was Austrian but a treaty gave the Netherlands the right to hold various fortifications towards the French border. After the French Revolution Namur became part of Napoleon’s empire, then part of the Netherlands and then, after its secession in 1830, Belgium. Incidentally, Marshal Blucher came through with his Prussian army on the way to Waterloo (which is just south of Brussels, of course) and a few days later Marshal de Grouchy came through in the opposite direction, trying to reach safety after the French defeat. The citadel was gradually demilitarised (but a ring of nine concrete forts was built around the city in 1888) and a road known as the Route Merveilleuse was built up to the citadel in 1904 – trams made it all the way up, now replaced by buses, and from 1957 to 1997 there was a small cable car too. There’s an open-air theatre, various restaurants and an amusement park, but the main attraction is the view.

An ‘intervention’ by a visiting artist at the Musée Félicien Rops

The other thing to catch my attention was the Musée Félicien Rops, dedicated to the Namur-born decadent artist who was a great friend of Baudelaire and produced illustrations for books by him and the symbolist poets who came later, such as Mallarmé, Verlaine and Barbey d’Aurevilly. He struck me as similar to Toulouse-Lautrec, in that he didn’t leave a great legacy of traditional paintings but just by producing posters and engravings established a reputation that survives (to a lesser extent) to this day. He was particularly good at caricatures and at depicting women (not only naked ones, although many of them were). He had a suitably decadent life himself, loving two Parisian sisters and having a child by each. The museum has well-presented displays that make a good case for him without overstating his importance.

You’re also likely to hear of the Treasure of Oignies, wonderful thirteenth-century goldsmithery (with particularly good filigree work that reminds me of Georgia) from the priory of Oignies near Charleroi, now the pride of Namur’s Museum of Ancient Arts (known as TreM.a), housed in an attractive eighteenth-century townhouse. Other exhibits include fine Mosan enamels (as mentioned in my first post on Liège) and an unusual but attractive panel of Christ Awaiting Death, painted in the sixteenth century.

The Tour Saint-Jacques, constructed in 1388, became a belfry in 1746 and is on the World Heritage List – see my post on Tournai.

On the beer front, Namur is known for Blanche de Namur, from the Brasserie du Bocq, a wheat beer that is good but somehow failed to thrill me, and La Houppe, from the Brasserie de l’Echasse, a coppery-blond beer that I found lovely, with citrus notes and a fine balance of three different hops – it’s dry-hopped, with the third set of hops added during secondary fermentation, and given a long period to mature, allowing it to be unfiltered.

A quick look at Tournai

I didn’t plan to write about Tournai but it’s definitely worth a few paragraphs, especially as it’s so easy to get to – it’s in Belgium, of course, but under half an hour from Lille, which is just an hour and a half from London by Eurostar (and can also be reached by TGV and Thalys trains from all over western Europe). The small Roman town of Tornacum later became the capital of Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty and thus of what is now France – and so Tournai claims to be the oldest city in Belgium. Ruled by its bishops, it became very prosperous in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but was then fought over by many countries, being ruled by the English, Spanish and Austrians at various times. It suffered terribly in the world wars but is now part of a prosperous cross-border metropolis centred on Lille.

Its main landmark is the cathedral of Notre-Dame, which is a very odd-looking building, with a central tower above the crossing and four taller towers clustered around it in the four angles of the transepts – they’re all different, clearly showing the transition from the Romanesque style to Gothic. If the nave and chancel didn’t exist the transepts, 67 metres in length, would still form a large church (though 90 degrees out of line, of course). The current building was begun around 1140, but work began in the next century to make it bigger and full of light, along the lines of the new Gothic cathedrals in the Île de France, requiring huge flying buttresses. Interestingly, it was also the model for the church of Our Lady in Brugge (Bruges), where I was the next day.

Belfry (front), cathedral and scaffolding (rear)

The cathedral was badly damaged by a tornado, of all things, in 1999 and is now undergoing major refurbishment; scaffolding was erected in the transept in 2013, supposedly for a period of five years, but it looks as if it’ll be there for a bit longer, with plenty more outside. There are other churches that are worth visiting, such as St-Quentin and St-Jacques.

Just north of the cathedral is a very solid belfry, one of 55 across northern France and Belgium that are inscribed as a group on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (as – separately – is the Notre-Dame cathedral) – built between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, they’re important as symbols of civic power, a third pole between the church and the lord’s castle. This one, built in 1188 and raised and strengthened in 1294, is the oldest in Belgium. I’d seen the one in Amiens, with a twelfth century base and an eighteenth-century top, the previous day (as well as the modernist Tour Perret by the railway station), and in the next couple of days I was to see the Belforts in Brugge and Gent (both high, and reminiscent of the campaniles in Florence and Siena), as well as in Namur, Mons (the only Baroque belfry in Belgium), and the Deco one in Charleroi (1936; also on the World Heritage List). And a week later in Dinan, I saw their fifteenth-century horloge, which played a similar rôle as the town’s third pole of power (there are just three left in Brittany, in Dinan, Fougeres and Concarneau). I’m really not sure that the group of 55 belfries hang together as a group, but it makes more sense in conjunction with UNESCO’s listing of Belgium’s carillon culture on its register of intangible cultural heritage in 2014 – time and again, in Belgium and in to a certain extent in the Netherlands, one hears bells playing a pretty simple tune that people seem to think is a significant expression of their culture. Personally, I was more impressed by the number of people playing pianos in stations and elsewhere – yes, public pianos are quite common elsewhere, but they seem particularly well used here, and the standard is pretty high too. In 2016 UNESCO added Belgium’s beer culture to the register of intangible cultural heritage, which seems far more worthwhile to me.

The medieval walls included the Pont des Trous, built across the Scheldt in about 1329 – the central arch was destroyed in 1940 and rebuilt after the war with a wider span to allow the many big barges to pass more easily. Not far north is a circular tower built for Henry VIII (yes, Tournai was held by the English from 1513 to 1519), which is currently covered in scaffolding but did remind me of his castles at Pendennis and St Mawes. I was also struck by the grim three- and four-storey Romanesque houses, built at the end of the twelfth century, in the St Brice quarter.

On the art front, Tournai was the birthplace, in 1399 or 1400, of one of my favourite artists, Rogier van der Weyden – there’s a lovely Virgin and Child by him (well, the child is less lovely) in the Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as a Holy Family by one of his followers or students. The display standards are not great, but the museum does also have works by Pieter Brueghel father and son, Jordaens, van Goyen and Mabuse, and from the nineteenth century Courbet, Manet, Monet, Alfred Stevens (Belgian, by the way) and a poor Seurat; there’s also an ink drawing by van Gogh and a couple of Toulouse-Lautrec sketches. Speaking of Belgians, there are also some nice pieces by Guillaume van Strydonck (1861-1937) and Félicien Rops (1833-98) and a dozen by James Ensor (1860-1949) – not especially weird by his standards, and so not actually that interesting. He’s really not one of my favourite artists, but I do quite enjoy Rops, especially after visiting the Musée Rops in Namur a week or two later.

Practicalities

I stayed in the excellent HI hostel, right next to the art museum; and I greatly enjoyed the first of quite a few Belgian beers that I was to sample over the next week – see my previous post. This was an amber beer from the St Martin abbey brewery, now known as Brunehaut, and as the first it lingered in my mind as a special experience. Other great beers are available locally, such as Cazeau, Dubuisson and Dupont, and to show that I’m not obsessive I also very much enjoyed the Eva Cosy tearooms and Un Thé Sous Le Figuier, an unpretentious little restaurant. I’d like to linger a little longer next time!