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.

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!

Belgium – it’s not just beer and bikes

(but that’s a good start, say Rob and Nigel). We were an odd trio of cyclists, me on a fairly heavy town bike rented in Bruges, Rob (who’s previously featured in accounts of cycling in Taiwan and Yorkshire) on his folder and Nigel on a carbon-fibre Audax bike that he’d have liked to sleep with at night, but it worked very well – partly because the infrastructure is so good and there’s a positive Dutch-style cycling culture. This meant that even where the cycle tracks weren’t perfect we could still feel safe and keep rolling along because we were confident that drivers would give way, in a way that they certainly wouldn’t in the UK. The infrastructure felt like a slightly cheaper version of the Dutch gold standard, ie even the best segregated tracks were only three metres wide, not enough for cyclists to overtake in each direction simultaneously. Watch out for the Omleiding signs – if they say that a cycle route is closed for construction and you should follow a diversion, just do it – there really won’t be a way for cyclists to sneak past.

 

Renting a bike worked fine for a trip involving 50-60km a day at most, and that largely along wide canal towpaths and the like. It was a sit-up-and-beg (or sit-up-and-look-around) bike with seven gears that I called my momentum machine – pretty good in a straight line but not particularly manoeuvrable (similar to the Vélib bikes I rode in Paris a few days later); it was better on the all-too-common cobbles than the folder, but still not comfortable. Apparently (according to an article Rob once wrote), Dutch-style sit-up-and-beg bikes are great for women for certain anatomical reasons, but I don’t know why men would bother with them. There’s no denying the women look great, though, as they sail past with legs fully extended. My bike didn’t feel as if it had a long-distance saddle (or maybe I just don’t have a long-distance bottom), but I’d be happy to rent one for a week again – you should bring your own panniers, as in Taiwan (probably a good rule anywhere), and a U-lock.

We went from Brugge (the local name for Bruges…) to Gent (the local name for Ghent or Gand), Antwerp, Mechelen and Leuven, over three easy days of cycling, and it was delightful, following canals and railway lines, with windmills, grebes and storks, lots of grannies on e-bikes whizzing past us and other elderly couples pottering along slowly on their elderly bikes. The excellent new routes alongside the railways to the southwest and south of Antwerp are branded Fietsostrada, as in autostrada (F4 and F1 respectively) – in Britain we might call it a Bikebahn. There wasn’t much time for museums and art, so I filled in a few gaps when I returned my bike (by train – €5 for a bike ticket) to Brugge.

Luckily there was plenty of time for beer, with the odd lunchtime/afternoon refresher, and more detailed research in the evenings. Everything you’ve heard about Belgian beer is (probably) true – there’s an amazing variety, and it’s all stronger than we’re used to in Britain. You’ll be given a beer menu organised by type and/or region, but the first page will probably list a few draught options (van’t vat), which will be the local mainstays. If you want a refreshing pils after a warm days cycling (and yes, we did drink Stella Artois, though only within a kilometre or so of its brewery in Leuven) it will be cheap, but the more interesting beers cost a bit more, at about €4 for a 33cl bottle. Interestingly, there seems to be no link between alcoholic strength and price.

The easiest option tended to be a blond, ie a pale ale but with more strength and character than in Britain (ie they don’t just throw in lots of hops); other choices are amber, red, brown, wheat beers and the famous Belgian fruit beers. Some are abbey or Trappist beers, which should be fuller and smoother, but there’s no guarantee of that. Then there are the real local specialities, lambic and gueuze – lambic is made using only natural windborne yeasts just southwest of Brussels, and it’s remarkably sour, so it may have fruit added, be matured in the barrel for up to three years, or be blended to produce a gueuze.

Every beer is served in its own specific marked glass – although the system fell apart on our very last drink together, when Rob’s exotic peach beer came with a bog-standard Chimay glass.

Likewise, everything you’ve heard about Brugge being full of tourists and Gent being the undiscovered but more authentic and exciting alternative is true – we were all blown away by the canals and towers of Gent, and by the feeling that it was a real working city rather than just a tourist honey-pot.

Museum refurbs

In the cathedral of St Bavo in Gent the wonderful and very important (in terms of the development of northern European art) altarpiece of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is being restored panel by panel, but the missing ones have been replaced by photographs that are so good you really wouldn’t know (and the bottom left-hand panel, the Just Judges, is in any case a reproduction, the original having been stolen in 1934). At the Fine Arts Museum you can watch the restoration work through a glass screen – it’s just been announced, having removed layers of paint added in earlier ‘restorations’, that the lamb has a much sterner expression than was thought (in addition a 1951 restoration effort had left it looking as if it had four ears). In June 2020 a new visitor centre will open to show it off properly.

Various big museum projects will be coming to fruition in 2019, it seems. In Brugge the Gruuthusemuseum is closed for renovation until May 2019 and in Antwerp the Fine Arts Museum is closed while they build new galleries in the central courtyard – it looks as if it’ll reopen in 2019, but until then many of their treasures are visible in other venues across the city. In Leuven the Treasury in the chancel of St Peter’s church, famous for its two paintings by Dietric Bouts and a copy of Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, is closed until September 2019 – but the treasures are on view in the chapels off the nave. In addition, the Caermersklooster or former Carmelite monastery in Gent will open in January 2019 as the Kunsthal Gent, run by local art groups.

On the other hand, a new city museum opened in 2018 in Mechelen, in the Hof van Busleyden, once home of Hiëronymus van Busleyden, a friend of Erasmus. It tells the town’s history from the Burgundian period, when it was pretty much the capital of northern Europe, to the present day, and also displays art and shows how the law was applied to art between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

 

On the cycling front, the Wielermuseum or Cycling Museum in Roeselar has just reopened, after a three-year closure, as Koers, which means Race – not really what we do, but still it might be interesting.

Rouen in renewal (also Amiens)

I visited Rouen as a teenager and hadn’t stopped there since (although I did change trains) – crazy, as it’s so close to England and is so attractive! And I do go to Caen and Bayeux in Lower Normandy most years. I remember it as very half-timbered, but really I had no idea, there are half-timbered buildings everywhere (not just in the centre but well into the suburbs, and in the heart of the modern hospital complex) – and not just black and white but a whole palette of colours. I also particularly remember the Danse Macabre, in the Aître Saint Maclou – which is just as well, as it’s being refurbished until 2020. It’s generally possible (Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00) to stand in the middle of the courtyard (yes, half-timbered), but there’s nothing to be seen as it’s all safely wrapped up. It was built in 1526-30 to expand the cemetery of the church of St Maclou, and was decorated with wooden sculptures of the dance of death, inspired by the plague epidemics that swept across Europe so often at the time; in turn they are said to inspired the rattling bones in Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre and also in the Fossils movement of his Carnival of the Animals.

The porch of the Saint-Maclou church, Rouen

Rouen has at least three fantastic churches, close together in the heart of the old town, but only the cathedral actually functions as a church, the others being decently maintained by the state and opened three to five days a week. In the case of St Maclou, open only Saturday to Monday, it’s not tragic, as the porch is a triumph of Flamboyant Gothic stonework, with carved wooden doors in Renaissance style, that can be enjoyed at any time. Just to the north, the Abbey of St-Ouen was founded in the eighth century, on the burial site of the saint, bishop of Rouen from 641 to 684, but most of it was demolished after the Revolution, except for the monks’ dormitory which was incorporated in the new Hôtel de Ville – there are now gardens to the east on the site of the abbey and a grand square to the west. The church (daily except Monday and Friday) was rebuilt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and is huge and bare, and houses the great organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll’s last masterpiece – it features in many recordings of organ music, but to be honest it didn’t exactly seem to fill the acoustic when I heard it. The seats in the nave are the wrong way round, facing the organ at the west end, although it makes no difference to the musical experience.

Rouen cathedral

Finally, the cathedral is one of the great Gothic masterpieces, mostly built in the thirteenth century, although the great western façade dates from the twelfth century. The metal spire (which briefly made it the world’s tallest building) was added in 1876 – this is now rusty, and is being restored between 2016 and 2023 (it took a year just to install the scaffolding and workers’ facilities etc). The cathedral was badly damaged in Word War II and didn’t reopen until 1956 – during the rebuilding the remains of the earlier church, dating from c.1000, were found; this is where St Olaf was baptised in 1014, a year before returning to become king of Norway and effectively create a new nation. You won’t need reminding that Normandy was created by Norsemen, and you can still see the odd Viking on the streets of Rouen and Caen. Several Dukes of Normandy are buried in the cathedral, most notably the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion (see this post for the rest of him), the great crusader who moonlighted as King of England from 1189, as well as his older brother (and perpetual adversary) Henry the Young King, who was crowned King of England in 1170 and ruled on behalf of his father but died six months before him.

There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, who was burnt to death in Rouen by the English in 1431 – you’ll see other memories of here here, notably the Historial Jeanne d’Arc in the north side of the cathedral, where you can enjoy a multimedia ‘retrial’ of this supposed heretic. I also remember the striking modernist church of St Jeanne d’Arc in the Vieux Marché, which I saw as a teenager but didn’t get back to this time.

There’s a huge amount of urban renewal and beautification (€30 million’s worth) under way from 2016 to 2023, much of it linked to the construction of the new metro line T4 (due to open in 2019) and the refurbishment of the existing underground section of line T1 (1.7km long, opened in 1994, and totally closed for July and August of 2018). The metro connects with bus rapid transit lines which use tram-style articulated buses that have traffic-free routes through the centre marked with dotted white lines to allow the Optiguide system to bring them as close as possible to the platforms. Other projects, bringing greenery and pedestrianisation, are focussing on three areas, Seine-Cathédrale (south from the cathedral to the river), Quartier des Musées (towards the station, containing most of the city’s museums) and Vieux Marché (just west of the centre). Square Verdrel (laid out in 1862, with a cascade and statues), has already been refurbished, and there’s a huge Calder mobile presently sitting between it and the Musée des Beaux Arts, although I’m not sure if it’s a permanent fixture or not.

Urban renewal, Rouen
Fine Arts in Rouen

The Musée des Beaux Arts is very good, with a large and reasonably varied collection but minimal captions with no dates (but with a few errors, eg a painting of the first modern investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 is dated 1891/2) – there’s far more information on the frames than the art. It starts with some anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine paintings, as well as Giampetrino, Perugino and a terracotta by (Luca, presumably) Della Robbia. There’s a nice anonymous portrait of Henri III of France, looking just like an Elizabethan dandy, with designer stubble and a huge pearl in his ear, and a lovely Roman marble statue of Omphale, Then there’s plenty of Flemish art, including Jan Claesz, Jan Massys, Gerard David (a lovely The Virgin among the Virgins), Gerard Ter Borch, Thomas de Keyser, Jan Steen, van Dyck, Nicolas Berchem, and four pieces by Jan van Goyen. Later Italian art includes Palma Il Giovane and Lavinia Fontana, and then upstairs a couple by Guercino, Luca Giordano (a Good Samaritan with the victim of robbery looking like a dead Christ), Veronese’s Saint Barnabas and another by Veronese and his  studio, and Caravaggio’s superb Flagellation of Christ flanked by a great Rubens (The Adoration of the Shepherds). From Spain there’s a de Ribera and Velasquez’s Democritus (a very Spanish-looking chap with a globe).

French art is dominated, naturally, by locally born painters, such as Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824), Jean Restout (1692-1768), Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine (1751-1824), who all painted dull academic works, and Joseph-Desiré Court (1796-1865), a rather more interesting portrait painter. Every one of them was born here, moved to Paris and died there, but that’s normal in France. There are also three paintings by Nicolas Poussin (born in Les Andelys in 1594), but the greatest of the Rouen-born painters, without a doubt, is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – there’s a roomful of his paintings plus a sculpture of a nymph and a satyr with his hand where it definitely shouldn’t be. You’ll also see an Érard fortepiano and harp, commemorating François-Adrien Boieldieu, an opera composer known as ‘the French Mozart’, who was born in Rouen in 1775.

The impressionist galleries are what most people come for, with several paintings by Monet, including one of his famous thirty versions of the west façade of the cathedral (1892-3), two by Pissarro, nine by Sisley (always my mother’s favourite, and one of mine too), two by Renoir (probably my least favourite artist), and also Guillaumin, Jongkind, Caillebotte and Gustave Moreau. There were half a dozen decent Rouen-born Impressionists too, but oddly, later painters tended to be born in Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, rather than in Rouen – above all Raoul Dufy (born 1877), as well as Othon Friesz (1879) and Jean Dubuffet (1901).

Finally, back near the entrance hall, there are two fine paintings by Modigliani (not female nudes but portraits of men with their clothes on) plus various works by the Duchamp/Villon brothers, born nearby in Blainville-Crevon in the 1870s and 1880s – the oldest was the Cubist painter Jacques Villon, the next was Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor who was like a big clumsy version of Henri Gaudier-Brezska (whose work is well represented in Kettle’s Yard back home in Cambridge) and the third was Marcel Duchamp, founder of Dadaism. Why they used both surnames I don’t know; but they also had a younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, also a painter, about whom I know nothing.

More tramways and trains – Caen and Amiens

I came to Rouen from Caen where, oddly enough, the city centre is also in disarray due to construction of a modern rapid transit system (mentioned here). From Rouen I went to Amiens, which has one of the biggest and very best Gothic cathedrals – but of course you knew that already. But you probably didn’t know that the Musée de Picardie is closed for refurbishment until the autumn of 2019. Instead I was very happy to visit the house of Jules Verne. Some urban improvements are happening here too, with segregated bus-only routes being created.

The house of Jules Verne, Amiens

I mentioned in my previous post on Normandy that the region was taking charge of its rail services and that there’s now a fairly intensive Paris-Caen intercity service with regional connections from Caen to Cherbourg, rather than regular Paris-Cherbourg trains; the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre service has evolved slightly differently, with semi-fast trains from Paris to Rouen, stopping at all kinds of places you’ve never heard of, and intercity trains that run non-stop to Rouen and then on to Yvetôt and Le Havre. I came from Caen to Rouen on a non-stop train – nice for me, but it seems bizarre not to stop at Lisieux at least.

Meanwhile, the SNCF has almost stopped printing timetable leaflets and there are no timetable posters in the stations – apparently everyone has to be digital now, which sounds much like the banks closing branches in Cornwall (see here) ‘due to changing public demand’. People seem to be coping, but I suspect it’s putting some occasional travellers off (or maybe they’re wasting their lives away holding on the phone).

In addition Rouen airport is expanding its activities (with new services to Lyon and Bastia), Flixbus coach services come here, and an increasing number of cruise ships are making their way up the Seine (not the huge ones, thankfully, but still bringing 20,000 passengers in 2017). There’s a cycle route from Rouen downstream to Le Havre and in 2020 this will be extended to Paris – I was already thinking of a trip linking the many Impressionist sights along the Seine (not just Monet’s garden at Giverny), so maybe I’ll wait till this is open.

Art in West Yorkshire – it’s all about sculpture – and triangles

Historically, Wakefield was known as the key corner of the Rhubarb Triangle (Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU in 2010), but nowadays it is also being marketed as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, as two of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century sculptors were born in the area, Henry Moore in Castleford (in the rhubarb triangle) in 1898 and Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield itself in 1903. I recently visited all three corners, the others being at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (just outside Wakefield) and at Leeds Art Gallery (incorporating the Henry Moore Institute). In Wakefield, the city’s art gallery (originally founded in 1923) moved in 2011 to new premises and now calls itself The Hepworth – it achieved a huge impact and was Museum of the Year in 2017.  Rising out of the River Calder by an unimpressive weir, and looking across at the less attractive environs of Wakefield Kirkgate station, the museum, designed by David Chipperfield (whose fine work I’ve come across across the world, from Berlin and Essen to Anchorage), has a fairly anonymous exterior but good exhibition spaces. The collection features a good range of early-twentieth-century English artists such as Spencer Gore, Roger Fry, Ben Nicholson and William Scott. There’s a room dedicated to Moore (including the intriguingly Hepworth-like Stringed Figure and Bird Basket (both dating from 1939) and several rooms on Hepworth, with plenty of background on her working techniques. Of course, she moved to St Ives (Cornwall) in 1939 (with Ben Nicholson), where her studio, now managed by the Tate, is a popular attraction.

From medieval times Wakefield was a prosperous centre of the wool trade, establishing itself as a inland port on the Calder, and from the nineteenth coal mining was important too; Wakefield gained a cathedral in 1888, and was capital of the West Riding of Yorkshire from 1889 until 1986. However the coal pits closed and the city was increasingly overshadowed by Leeds, now firmly established as the regional capital, and the diocese of Wakefield was dissolved in 2014, to put the final stamp on the process of decline. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the cathedral, in reality a parish church that gained cathedral status in 1888 but seems not to have lost it when the diocese was dissolved. An extension was added in 1905 by John Loughborough Pearson, who also built Truro cathedral, and the high altar was added by his son Frank.

Another medieval highlight is Wakefield Bridge, near the Hepworth, with its Chantry Chapel, both built between 1342 and 1356 – the chapel is now one of just four surviving bridge chapels in England, and oddly enough I cycled past one of the others, in St Ives (Cambridgeshire) just a month or two back. This is close to the rather optimistic Wakefield Waterfront, a few warehouses being revitalised near The Hepworth, where a Riverside Garden is also being developed.

Near Westgate station, a rather more dynamic area than that around Kirkgate, a modern library opened in 2012, and The Art House took over the old library on Drury Lane, offering fully accessible studio space and an exhibition hall; however The Orangery, right by the station, has closed.

Although it’s busier than Beverley, which I visited a few days later, the area still bears the scars of the pit closures – but I’ve seen some great stories about the fight against obesity here, in children and others, and schools are busy setting up wild gardens, along the lines of those I saw in Todmorden (and in Liège).

I don’t want to say much about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – it’s wonderful, with lots of sculptures (what else) by all the big names (Moore above all) dotted around some lovely parkland, as well as a few temporary indoor exhibitions, and it seems to me that it’s best to call in from time to time and see a bit of it, rather than trying to see everything in one go.

In the big city, the Leeds Art Gallery also specialises (after the Rodin and the Calder by the entry) in twentieth-century British art, including Auerbach, Bomberg, Matthew Smith (two rather good paintings), William Roberts, Wyndham-Lewis, Gertler, Lowry, Brangwyn, Sutherland, Clausen, Orpen, Lavery, Sickert, Wadsworth, Paul Nash, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Bacon, Blake, and Lubaina Hamid (who is suddenly everywhere after winning the 2017 Turner Prize). There are also a couple of artists that I’m more familiar with through their Cornish connections, Atkinson Grimshaw and W Scott Tuke (born in York in 1858, and the founder of the Newlyn School – though most of his paintings are of Falmouth Harbour). There are also half a dozen paintings by Jacob Kramer (1892-1962), born in Russia but regarded as a key figure in the Leeds collection – although I don’t think he really cuts it on the broader stage. Some foreign artists are represented, such as Vuillard, Derain, Gaudier-Breszka, Diego Rivera and Naum Gabo, as well as four paintings by Jack Yeats (brother of the more famous William Butler) – he was really very talented, but these are not his best.

But of course, the sculpture is the important thing here, and the LAG and the next-door Henry Moore Institute (you can walk through from one to the other) have built up one of the world’s strongest collections of sculpture, covering the last two centuries but especially strong between the years 1945 and 1965. Sculpture’s not altogether my thing, but I noted the pieces by Epstein (Maternity, created in 1910 for the British Medical Association building), Hepworth, Canova (his last version of Venus, 1817-20), Lynn Chadwick, Pasmore, Paolozzi, Mary Martin and Richard Long.

Terracotta students?

The LAG’s former sculpture court (originally the city library’s main reading room) was renovated in 2007 and is now the Tiled Hall Café, of note both for the lovely décor (yes, tiles do feature) and for its food.

I do still plan to write about York at some point, but I should say here that what sculpture is to West Yorkshire, ceramics are to York – well, there’s no triangle, but the Centre of Ceramic Art at the York Art Gallery is a real centre of excellence.

It never produced the greatest beer, but the Tetley Brewery has been a Leeds icon for two hundred years – when they finished brewing just south of the city centre, their grand Deco headquarters block was reopened with great fanfare as a cultural centre, The Tetley – there’s not actually a lot happening there as yet, but it has a pleasant bar and restaurant, serving pub grub such as Tetley’s ale and beef stew, what else. There are some far funkier community-driven arts spaces here, such as Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton, the Brudenell Social Club and Hyde Park Book Club) (yes, really), both to the northwest of the centre and putting on a lot of live bands as well as other events.

There are some other good museums here, such as the Thackray Medical Museum (far more fun than you might think) and the Leeds City Museum, which gives a great overview of its development from near-total obscurity (Leeds may be on the site of the Roman settlement of Campodinum, later a minor residence of King Edwin of Northumbria) to developing as a town in the seventeenth century followed by mass industrialisation in the nineteenth century. It was the monks of Kirkstall Abbey, established just three miles to the west in 1152-82, who created the local textile industry, but the wool was processed in rural homes until around 1800, when factories began to take over. Leeds had been connected to Hull and Europe by the Aire & Calder Navigation since 1700, but in 1818 the Leeds and Liverpool Canal connected it to the Atlantic and the rest of world. The Middleton Railway, opened as a horse waggonway bringing coal in to Leeds, became in 1812 the world’s first railway to use commercially successful steam locomotives (it’s now a volunteer-run heritage railway), and the Railway Foundry, opened in Hunslet in 1838, was the first to produce a standard range of steam engines (notably the Jenny Lind class), rather than each railway building its own. A prosperous manufacturing centre, Leeds also became known for its grand shopping arcades (still pulling them in), and as the birthplace of Marks and Spencer (as the ‘Penny Bazaar’ stall in Kirkgate Market) in 1884. The museum also galleries dealing with Life on Earth and Ancient Worlds (Egyptian, Greek and Roman), as well as one of the Leeds Clocks made by John Harrison (born in Foulby near Wakefield in 1693).

The ruins of Kirkstall Abbey are worth a visit (and have a new railway station), as is Temple Newsam House. I also like the look of Thwaite Mills, on an island in the Aire & Calder Navigation; less than three miles east, where there are two waterwheels over two hundred years old and the Georgian Thwaite House, restored to its 1940s condition – opening hours are fairly limited outside local school holidays, but I hope the place will gather momentum.

A few foody places

The area between the Aire and Calder Navigation and the new south entrance to the station is a lively regeneration area, with canalside cafés and hipster bars under the railway arches – the most striking way to reach it is by the virtually traffic-free roads under the railway that cross the long-hidden river, its arches and tunnels artfully lit in changing colours. The Kirkgate area is more genuinely hip, with places like Crowd of Favours (a food-focussed pub, but it serves food only to 19.00 on Sundays, by which time they’re worn out after serving Sunday ‘lunch’ all day – a trend I don’t really agree with) and Wapentake, a rather amazing combo of café, bar and artisan bakery, with lots of vegetarian/vegan options (they serve brunch from 07.30 (10.00 at weekends) to 16.00 and the main menu from noon to 21.00 (19.00 Sun/Mon), which works a bit better for me). I also like the look of Knave’s Kitchen, a vegan junk food stall (lots of seitan and tofu) near the Corn Exchange (built in 1861-3, an amazing space with a very striking roof that now houses speciality shops). Of course there are hundreds more eating and drinking options in Leeds, especially in the student areas north of the centre.

Transport (briefly)

Leeds station is now amazingly busy, and can be quite a bottleneck. The TransPennine rail axis is one of Britain’s busiest commuting and leisure routes, and has not been well served by a policy of cramming in lots of three-car trains (between Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York) rather than accepting the need to just double the length of the trains (and the platforms). Electrification has been cancelled, but a few longer bi-mode and diesel locomotive-hauled trains are to be introduced from 2019.

Beverley and around – minsters, priories, pubs and three Saint Johns

I do like Beverley – it’s your classic East Yorkshire market town, not as posh as Malton in the foodie stakes but with some lovely cafés and restaurants and particularly characterful pubs. The town’s Great Charter was granted in 1359, when it was perhaps the tenth-largest town in England (or at least one of the twelve largest, depending on your source), due to the wool trade, what else – it had a complicated system of self-government, with two Keepers or aldermen chosen each year from a court of eighteen, but reverted in 1573 to a more normal mayor and corporation system. It also boasts not one but two fine churches that would be larger and grander than many towns’ parish churches.

There’s the Minster, of course, almost a mini-cathedral built between 1220 and 1425, which has no fewer than three chapels dedicated to the fallen members of the East Yorkshire Regiment as well as plenty of other military memorials dotted around the church. There are also fine fourteenth-century stone carvings of musicians in the north aisle and 68 misericord seats in the choir (more than any other church in England, and some very amusing), dating from 1520; near the altar is a rough stone seat dating from the eighth century, which might have been a bishop’s throne.

At the other end of the town centre is the equally striking St Mary’s church, which was built in no fewer than fifteen phases between 1120 and about 1524 (although flying buttresses had to be added by Augustus Pugin and his son in 1853 to keep the south porch in place). In the northeastern corner is St Michael’s chapel, a Gothic masterpiece dating from 1325-45 (with priest’s rooms above), where you’ll see a carving of a rabbit dressed as a pilgrim which is said to be the origin of Tenniel’s White Rabbit illustration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The great west window, dating from the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century, is supposedly reminiscent of that of King’s College, Cambridge, where of course I occasionally go to concerts or evensong – but it’s a little-known fact that the west window of King’s actually dates only from 1879.

Interestingly, in 1188 the town and the Minster were hit by a disastrous fire, and sometime soon after 1213 the Minster’s central tower collapsed (and was rebuilt by 1270); likewise in 1520 the central tower of St Mary’s collapsed (and was rebuilt by 1530).

The town’s other historical building that’s worth a visit is the Guildhall, now the local history museum – bought by the town in 1501, it was rebuilt in 1762 to create a courtroom with a lovely stucco ceiling by Giuseppe Cortese, and the present facade was added in 1832 – medieval timbers were revealed at one end of the courtroom when it was refurbished in the 1980s. You should also find your way to The Treasure House, a modern combined  library and museum incorporating a bit of tourist information, a tower with views over the town, and a bridge to the Art Gallery, which proudly displays paintings by Fred Elwell (1870-1958), a well-loved Beverley artist whose depictions of local scenes are definitely worth a look.

This area has lots of other fine large churches, due to the wealth of wool produced here in medieval times – by chance, cycling towards the Roman road out of the seaside resort of Bridlington, I came across Bridlington Priory, which used to be absolutely immense and is still huge, even with only its west end standing. Founded in 1113, it was dissolved in 1537 and stripped of its treasures for the king; the central tower transepts and chancel were demolished (with some of the stone used to repair the town’s harbour) – the west towers were added only in 1874 to give the church its present more balanced appearance. The much-loved Prior John died of the plague in 1379 and was canonised in 1401 as St John of Bridlington – he is easily confused with the more famous St John of Beverley, Bishop of York, who retired to a small hermitage near his birthplace and died there in 721. To add to the confusion, there’s also St John Fisher, born in Beverley in 1469 and executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for upholding the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy and refusing to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Hull Minster

From Beverley it’s an easy hour’s cycle ride down to Hull, which I wrote about in the run-up to its stint as Britain’s City of Culture – that went very well, and delivered many good results for the city. The Ferens Gallery is looking great, and although they insist it was nothing to do with the City of Culture, Holy Trinity Church (built c.1300) has had a thorough refurb and was promoted to Minster status in May 2017 – happily, it can still claim to be the largest parish church by area in Britain. Thanks to regeneration funding, it now has mod cons such as underfloor heating, so events such as beer festivals are being held in this rather amazing space! I also cycled past Selby Abbey but couldn’t get in due to a wedding – oddly enough, its central tower also collapsed, in 1690, and was rebuilt. And of course there’s the amazing York Minster, the grandest cathedral in northern England, where my ‘god-brother’ (my mother’s godson) sings in the choir – I’ve briefly mentioned York before but will try to get around to a full post at some point.

It’s also worth mentioning, especially for those of you with kids, that most of these churches house oak furniture by Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson (1876–1955), who developed a trademark of carving a small mouse (obviously) on most of his work.

 Pubs in Beverley

Beverley’s pubs should really be listed above with the town’s historic buildings – no fewer than 17 of them are Grade II-listed, and the White Horse (universally known as Nellie’s) is a wonderful period piece with its gas lighting and wonky floors (no, you’re not that drunk) – a seventeenth-century coaching inn, it was enlarged in the mid-nineteenth century, and owned by Samuel Smiths since 1976, so of course their standard bitter costs just £2 a pint! From a beer-drinker’s perspective, the most interesting are The Chequers, Yorkshire’s first micropub (so no lager, no spirits, just interesting beers from small mainly local brewers) and the Monk’s Walk, another seventeenth-century inn that stresses its old-fashioned no-TV-no-canned-music credentials, but there are plenty of others – the Sun Inn claims to be the oldest in town, closely followed by the Lord Nelson, while the Cornerhouse is worth a visit as a Black Sheep pub. At the upper end of the scale, the Beverley Arms Hotel has been bought by the Daniel Thwaites brewery and refurbished, and reopened in July 2018 – in the 1770s Mary Wollstonecraft was taught in a house on this site, and in 1868 Anthony Trollope based himself here for a parliamentary election in 1868 (annulled due to corruption, as expected – in this notoriously corrupt constituency, all the Liberals could hope for was to push the Conservatives to more outrageous bribery than usual and then expose this, but in this case the borough was actually disenfranchised) – his novel Ralph the Heir was based on his unhappy experience here.

Trains and beds

On the transport front, I was impressed by the rail service – there are generally two trains a hour from Hull to Bridlington (via Beverley), some to/from places such as Sheffield. However there’s a thinner service on from Bridlington to Scarborough – with the development of an hourly TransPennine axis from Liverpool to Scarborough (via Manchester, Leeds and York), the line south from Scarborough has become something of a poor relation. There’s also a daily train from Beverley to London and back.

Finally, I’ve posted before about the disfunctional Youth Hostels Association – I stayed at the delightful Beverley Friary hostel, where the notice below was posted outside the front door. It was totally false, there were plenty of beds, what they didn’t have was a volunteer warden. There were two members of staff who could check in the few of us who had booked well in advance, but no more than that. Their wages were certainly not covered by what we paid, so no wonder the YHA is in trouble.

PS I now know that the same thing happens in Belgium, where the staff at the Mons youth hostel cleared off at 20.45, although there were definitely still beds available.