West Cambridge – Villenviertel or Bicycle Suburb?

I haven’t been able to travel far, of course, during the Covid-19 lockdown, but I have been able to get out on my bike every day, and I’m very aware that I live in a very attractive area. We have the Paradise Nature Reserve and Grantchester Meadows (too crowded at the moment, alas), but we also have lots of beautiful buildings on what are currently very quiet streets. Obviously Cambridge University and the colleges are architectural patrons of distinction and over the centuries have built many fine edifices – but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I was looking at my Pevsner (The Buildings of England – Cambridgeshire, the 1970 second edition), which caught my attention with its reference (on p.255) to ‘The Villenviertel of Cambridge’. It’s a distinctly Germanic concept; I can’t really think of any other English city with a ‘Villa Quarter’, but the western Berlin suburbs of Wannsee, Grunewald and Dahlem are defined by their lakeside villas (it’s a little-known fact that there are lakes in West Cambridge, but they are totally surrounded by houses and visible only from the air for most of us). Vienna and other cities also have their villa quarters, but in Britain by and large we had Metroland.

 Thinking about this, I came across this paper: ‘West Cambridge 1870–1914: building the bicycle suburb’ by Philomena Guillebaud (Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society XCVI), about the transformation of this same area from farmland to a ‘gentry housing’ area. ‘Bicycle suburb’ is an equally odd concept, given that the whole of Cambridge is a bicycle city now, and that this area is easily close enough to the city centre to walk. But it did mean that pretty grand houses could be built without stables (which would later have become garages) and that domestic staff did not have to live in if they could easily cycle to work – a hint at a social revolution there, perhaps.

 Effectively, the history of West Cambridge begins only in the 1870s when fields were enclosed and largely ended up in the hands of St John’s and a couple of other colleges; plots were then allocated for the construction of Newnham and Selwyn Colleges and Ridley Hall (from 1875, 1879 and 1877 respectively), and then for housing development. It’s widely believed that this was driven by the end of the requirement for college fellows to be bachelors, in 1877, but this was really just one factor. From the start of the twentieth century colleges were themselves building grand buildings on Grange Road to house students and staff, eventually followed by the university library and further colleges.

 Most of the houses were designed by London architects such as MH Baillie Scott, ES Prior, and then slightly later Edmund Kett, AW Rose and AL Champneys, who are still remembered as among the best architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The dominant style is probably Arts and Crafts, although there are plenty of Jacobean, Baroque and Georgian features too.

 Pevsner describes his Villenviertal as lying around Grange Road and Madingley Road, but, looking at the detail (pp. 241 and 255-6) the area described stretches from Millington Road in the south to Storey’s Way in the north. Since Pevsner’s time, Madingley Road has become a busy main road into the city and most remaining houses now have dense high hedges to cut themselves off; but over the years I’ve delivered leaflets along Grange Road and I’ve always been aware of some very fine buildings there. My favourite is no.11, known as Upton House, which was built in 1912 to designs by Algernon Winter Rose; it’s one of a quite a few Grade II-listed houses in the area, and I found that English Heritage’s web pages not only give useful information about individual listed buildings, but also cite others which give ‘group value’ – in this case nos. 4 (1898, by Baillie Scott), 5 & 7 (c.1893, by Edmund Kett). It’s also hard to miss nos. 60 and 62, both built by Champneys in 1906 as student accommodation for Trinity College, and no. 71 (1911, by AB Mitchell), with a plaque marking it as the home of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1861-1947), awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1929.

60 Grange Road
62 Grange Road

 

 

71 Grange Road

 

31 Grange Road

Personally I quite like 31 Grange Rd, described in passing as Victorian, but to me it seems a throwback to the Georgian style, with its bowed frontage.

 On the north side of Madingley Road, Storey’s Way is named after Storey’s Charity (now the Edward Storey Foundation), named after a Cambridge bookseller who died in 1692 or 1693 and left money to buy land in order to fund almshouses for the poor (it’s still active). It runs between Churchill, Trinity Hall and Fitzwilliam Colleges, splendid ensembles of twentieth-century architecture but beyond my remit here; more to the point are the lovely Arts and Crafts houses and gardens, several by Baillie Scott, that were built in the golden age before the First World War (the Rupert Brooke years). The first to catch my eye was no. 76 (1913, by Arthur Hamilton Moberly), which has a blue plaque in honour of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who died there in 1951 – a month or two back, on an earlier lockdown cycle ride, I found his grave not far away in the Ascension Burial Ground. Just north is Atholl Lodge, built in 1931, and now the Fitzwilliam College’s Masters Lodge; it’s not particularly highly rated but makes a nice statement with its distinctive corner turret on a bend in the road. It’s followed by several Baillie Scott houses, of which no.48, just before the next bend in the road, seems almost perfect to me. I have a newspaper article from 2016, when it was for sale – internally it’s apparently open-plan like a medieval hall, with the latches and window fittings etc all designed by Baillie Scott to fit his concept of the ’ideal home’ (similar to the ideas of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland).

 At the other end of Grange Road, Millington Road is a private road, with anachronistic gas lights, that was developed slightly later – there are seven fine houses by HC Hughes, notably no.11 (1922), as well as a classic example (no.26 – designed by Marshall Sisson in 1931) of the kind of flat-roofed Modernism that Pevsner had grown up with in Germany. While I was cycling around thinking about this piece, I came across a similar (but more Corbusieresque) example which I thought he’d missed – but of course he hadn’t (9 Wilberforce Road), although he doesn’t give a date or any other details. According to other sources, it was designed by Dora Cosens in 1937 – she was a student of Checkley at the university’s School of Architecture, then married (Thomas Hardy was at her wedding – he began as an architect, after all) and gave up architecture.

 Pevsner then mentions Barton Court ‘on the other side of Barton Road’, terrace houses (we’d probably call them maisonettes now) by Dry Halasz Dixon Partnership (1966-9) – as far as I can tell, this is now called Archway Court, and is on the same side of Barton Road as Millington Road.

 Just west is Grantchester Road  in the second edition, Pevsner added Nos. 2 & 2A and described them as ‘among the best recent houses in Cambridge’. They were designed in 1963-4 by Colin St John Wilson, who taught architecture at Cambridge and went on to design the British Library. Pevsner described its ‘cast-stone blocks of a pure white’ which unfortunately now look like grubby breeze-blocks – it may be wonderful in its use of internal space, but externally it really hasn’t dated well. Enough said.

What we’re building these days, alas… what the Americans would call a McMansion at 95 Barton Road
There’s good stuff on the other side of Cambridge too – 23 Queen Edith’s Way
25 Millington Road
23 Storeys Way

 

More thoughts on travel and Covid-19

Across the world countries are moving towards ending their lockdowns and returning to something closer to normal life – even the UK, which is in no fit state, is inching in that direction. Although international travel remains virtually impossible for at least another month, the ways in which countries are beginning to open up for their citizens and residents do give some clues to what the new normal will look like.

 Museums and art galleries are reopening in cities like Berlin, Zurich and Antwerp, but it’s clear that the experience will be very constrained and lacking the freedom that we have taken for granted. After booking online (or possibly making a contactless payment, which is of course key to the new normal), you’ll have a timed entry slot before using hand sanitiser and donning a face mask, then following a one-way system, with the doors jammed open so no-one has to touch them, and you won’t be allowed to linger in front of works that especially speak to you. All at a distance of at least 1.5m metres from other people – in Britain we seem to be specifying two metres, which is probably wiser but may be even less practicable than the rest of the farrago. There’ll be no maps or leaflets, no audio guides, and no groups of school kids or tourists (at last, a positive!).

 China is leading the way in developing more sophisticated new systems, but only for those already resident in the country – you apparently now walk through temperature scanners all the time, to enter the metro or shopping centres, and barely notice them, much like metal detectors. People also have a ‘health pass’ on their mobile phones with a QR code that links to their name and ID number and gives a red or green reading depending on whether they’ve been in proximity with an infected person; if it’s red, they can’t go into shops and restaurants for 14 days. If you do get into a restaurant, there’s mass sanitising, and widely spaced tables, of course, with no more than three people (oddly) at each. So some kind of going out is possible – but as you may know, I have an interest (both emotional and financial) in British pubs, and their future looks far more complicated, until we have effective widespread vaccination. With restricted numbers and table service only, it’s hard to see how they can either be much fun or indeed survive financially.

 The most difficult aspect of travel, and the last to resume, will be long-haul intercontinental flying – quite apart from needing to allow four hours to check in and get through the airport, what with all the social distancing, facial recognition and contactless temperature checking and sanitation (of passengers and luggage) that will be required (and probably no lounges, no carry-on luggage, no inflight mags and no in-flight catering either) there will also need to be a system of immunity passports, perhaps requiring blood tests at the airport itself. Even then if you arrive with a raised temperature you risk being sent back, or at best quarantined for two weeks – just in time for your flight home. And the air fares will have to be higher, to cope with extra sanitation requirements (and the increased time needed to clean planes between flights) and the lower seating densities. But airlines have billions of [insert unit of currency] worth of planes doing nothing, so are desperate to start flying one way or another.

 Travel within a continent or region should be a bit less complicated, probably with less onerous health requirements – free travel zones are planned between Australia and New Zealand; Vietnam and Thailand; and between the three Baltic states, and new quarantine laws won’t apply to travel between Britain and France, or Britain and Ireland. One might expect the same to apply eventually between the United States and Canada (but not Mexico, I fear).

 However the easiest option for most of us and for quite a while will be domestic travel – even without the hassle of airports, visas and test certificates, I won’t want to be getting on a plane any time soon, as someone who picks up a bug whenever he flies anyway. Trains are also confined spaces with dry air which helps the transmission of viruses, but you’re less likely to find them fully occupied, apart from peak-hour commuter services into major cities. Really, the most stress-free option will be cycling and camping, but by and large that will require a train journey to get to the starting point.

 Cities across Europe (which currently doesn’t include British cities, apart from one seafront road in Brighton) are creating ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes with cones and paint – Paris, Berlin and Milan are leading the way, with hundreds of kilometres of safe new routes. This is to deal with two issues – first, that people don’t want to be on buses and trains at the moment and so are likely to use cars when they go back to work, unless they can be persuaded to cycle, and secondly that people are trying to walk but there just isn’t space to keep a safe distance from other people on the pavements (what with the queues outside shops as well) so there needs to be space to step into the carriageway. Shared-use paths, where cyclists are encouraged to use the footways too, make things far worse, so the more that cyclists can be persuaded to use the carriageway the better. Here in Cambridge cyclists are tending to use the carriageway and leave the off-road cycleways and shared-use paths for pedestrians, but that may change as cars return. E-bikes are going to be part of the solution, although the supply chain may dry up for a while – get your orders in now. Electric skateboards and similar monstrosities are also bound to grow in number and will have to be catered for.

Georgia leads the way

Georgia, which has done a great job so far in keeping Covid-19 to a minimum, is now racing to be the first country to open up to international tourism again. I have an interest in Georgia, of course, and my colleague Claire is planning to be there this summer to research a new edition. That will be an interesting experience, to say the least!

 Domestic tourism is to be permitted again from 15 June and international tourism from 1 July, dependent on creating ‘safe corridors’ at the borders and presumably on specific air links, though I don’t know what that will involve. In addition to the mere 10 deaths thus far from Covid-19, the government is also touting its ‘enormous experience’ in quarantining over 19,000 people (in 83 hotels).

 In fact Greece also hopes to open up for tourism on 1 July, although  it’s not at all sure that bars and restaurants will be open – so inclusive resorts, yachts and agrotourism will be fine, but other holidays may be frustrating. Other countries are also beginning to open up, one way or another – mostly for internal travel, with quarantine (14 days, not the full 40 as in Venice when the term was first coined) as a rule for international arrivals. But Austria, for instance, offers two alternatives, allowing visitors to either show a certificate of a negative coronavirus test within the last four days, or pay €190 for an on-the-spot test. Hong Kong Airport has introduced full-body disinfectation booths (nasty chemicals in a confined space? I’m not keen). London’s Heathrow Airport is talking of contactless procedures such as ultraviolet sanitation and thermal screening, which is fact fits perfectly with the British government’s hands-off approach thus far – they are now talking of quarantining arriving passengers, roughly three months too late, while about 18 million people have apparently entered the UK without any form of check. Just one of the reasons why Covid-19 is cutting such a swathe through the British population.

We need to talk about testing

The only solution to this crisis, the only way to get back to anything like a normal life, is the development of a vaccine and its global deployment. It’s not 100% certain that will happen as all, and until it does there will be new outbreaks and new lockdowns, and happy relaxed travel is going to be difficult to achieve. We also need much better antiviral treatments for those infected with the new coronavirus, but that alone won’t solve the problem.

 In the meantime, we have two types of tests. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test looks for genetic traces of the virus and is fairly reliable but only detects a current infection; it’s a robotic process which is already carried out on a huge scale by drug discovery companies, so it’s been easy to ramp up for the new coronavirus. On the other hand, antibody or serological tests pick up evidence of someone having been previously exposed to the virus as well, but produce a lot of both false negatives and false positives (due to similarities to other coronaviruses such as the common cold). There’s a huge number of new testing kits being produced for this new virus, and testing the test kits is in itself a huge challenge. The British government went ahead and bought four million fingerprick testing kits from China, at a cost of £16 million, before finding they weren’t good enough. The best options at the moment will require a blood sample and lab analysis, which will be much slower and more expensive. One great unknown is whether having been infected gives some kind of immunity, and for how long, which might allow governments to issue, and accept, ‘immunity passports’. It’s possible that you need to be seriously affected to achieve any kind of immunity while those who’ve been slightly unwell or indeed asymptomatic will not ‘benefit’ at all. In any case, don’t expect immunity passports any time soon, so quarantine is going to be required for travel to many countries.

 Just to be clear, this is not a disease that you want to risk catching. It’s becoming clear that the virus can affect not only the lungs but pretty much any of our organs, including the nervous system; many people who survive it will be left with chronic kidney and heart problems and never return to normal lives. It’s possible to die from a cytokine storm, when the immune system doesn’t recognise what it’s fighting and goes into overdrive. What’s more, the virus can disappear while the system goes on struggling for a month or more, so that some people need hospitalisation even though they test negative for the virus. Stay home, stay safe remains the best advice.

The one about Covid-19

I’m now a month in to the (first?) Covid-19 lockdown, and maybe it’s time to think a bit about the future, specifically the future of travel. So many questions, so many unknown variables… but it won’t be how it was, that’s certain.

 The most important factor is that even when we move away from lockdown, as some countries are beginning to do, this pandemic won’t be finished until we have a vaccine (or some other treatment) available to just about everybody in the world, and that is going to take a couple of years.

 And I personally feel that even when we can reliably test and treat people, it will still be asking for trouble to get on a plane – as someone who usually picks up at least a sniffle whenever I fly, I’ll be happy to confine my travels to the UK and Europe for a few years at least. At the moment it looks as if the new coronavirus is liable to mutate significantly, and that being infected does not necessarily produce antibodies and lead to immunity – we don’t yet know, but the signs are not great. And it doesn’t just kill by choking the lungs with pus, but attacks other organs too in ways we don’t yet understand. 

 The most current research, published in Science by a team of Harvard epidemiologists and immunologists, suggests we’ll still be social-distancing in some form or other until 2022, and can expect to see new outbreaks of Covid-19 for many years to come. Likewise, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, has just said the coronavirus is not going to go away and we will have to learn to live and work with regular flare-ups of Covid-19. We will want to get out of our homes as soon as possible, but I imagine most trips will initially be to catch up with family and friends around the country.

 Even so, there are billions of dollars worth of planes on the ground doing nothing and there will be huge pressure to get them back to work. Similarly, there are billions of dollars worth of idle cruise ships, but they are even more likely to turn into seething pits of infection so it’s hard to see the cruise industry getting back to what it was. And there are billions of dollars worth of hotels standing empty. With about 10% of global employment in the travel and tourism industry, it’s vital for the world economy to find a way back.

 The era of travelling freely, with no visas required or with visas on arrival for many countries, won’t be coming back in a hurry, and we’ll doubtless need to carry medical certificates and to accept being sent home if our temperature is too high when we reach a new country. We will travel with a new awareness of our own mortality – obviously we’ll shy away from hotspots like Iran, but travel to Asia and Africa as a whole will be greatly reduced, I’m sure – heck, even London (epicentre of the pandemic in the UK) will be seeing less of me, I dare say.

A background of misgovernment

It has to be said that we always knew there would be another pandemic – I thought it would be more like the bubonic plague or Ebola fever, and this is actually perhaps less awful than it might have been. But the point is that we, that is all the countries of the world, should have been better prepared. Not just me, Bill Gates was also telling world leaders to prepare from 2015. Even when it was obvious what was coming our way from China our governments did very little – in the UK, the prime minister didn’t attend any of the first five COBRA meetings (from 24 January), and throughout February the government failed to organise supplies for testing or ventilators. They asked people not to go out, but didn’t actually close the pubs and restaurants for several days (not to mention the Cheltenham Festival and other huge sporting events). It took over three weeks from Sage, the scientific advisory group on emergencies, recommending a lockdown at the end of February to it actually happening. When the government finally had to act, after it was obvious that the Italian health system was being overwhelmed, they flirted with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would effectively cull the weakest and oldest part of the population, before finally buckling down to creating new intensive care wards and testing facilities – although without the follow-up contact tracing which was so crucial in allowing Taiwan and South Korea to keep their death toll so low. The UK government wasn’t even testing people coming out of hospital and going into social care until mid-February, so it’s no surprise that elderly people in care homes were soon dying like flies.

 When there was a chance to join the EU’s schemes for procuring ventilators and protective equipment the British government refused to have anything to do with it, on purely ideological anti-European grounds, choosing instead to make up stories about missed emails and to lie about ordering equipment both from British companies and countries such as Turkey and China. And when every sane voice was saying that the transition period for Britain to finally leave the EU had to be extended beyond the end of 2020, they continued to say this was inconceivable – well, we’ll see how that plays out, but a no-deal departure from the EU will be absolutely terrible for an economy already knocked sideways by Covid-19. The fact that British supermarkets are still out of flour a month after the lockdown began does not bode well for a no-deal Brexit – I know the problem is with the packaging lines, not the supermarkets themselves, but it’s all part of the much-vaunted supply chain.

 As for the USA… President Trump also missed his opportunities to act and then consistently treated the new coronavirus as an opportunity to find new countries and people to blame. Both countries have handled the pandemic particularly badly, but there’s no point my going on about it. Still, there’s a strong sense that just when the world should be acting together, the countries that should be taking the lead are undermining this, most notably Trump’s withholding funds from the World Health Organisation and the UK’s refusing to work with Europe. This applies equally to the global climate crisis, which has been put to one side for the duration of the pandemic – although of course the planet is breathing a little more easily with so few cars, planes and factories belching forth their fumes. Will we return to business as before, or will people want to keep their clean air?

 Obviously co-ordinated global action is also needed on the climate crisis, for instance to levy a worldwide tax on aviation fuel (at the moment no country will act because airlines just say we’ll buy our fuel elsewhere and you’ll lose out) – let’s be clear, air fares were, until the pandemic, at historically low levels and while this is great in terms of seeing the rellies in Australia every year it is totally unsustainable in terms of its environmental impact. Adding a major tax just when businesses are trying to recover from the lockdown is unlikely to get much support, but at least the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the world can pull together to take global action when it needs to.

As for guidebooks

The guidebook industry is perhaps in even worse straits than the airline and hospitality businesses which do, at least, have capital assets such as planes and hotels as backing; travel publishers, however, are paying to store guidebooks that are rapidly going out of date. I work for the Rough Guides and for Bradt Travel Guides, neither of which is able to pay royalties (Bradt had the decency to ask first, Rough Guides just failed to pay) and both may indeed go out of business soon. Lonely Planet has just closed two of its four offices, including its spiritual home in Melbourne, and is also in trouble. I’m working on updating guides to Wales and Georgia (and soon Transylvania), but who knows if I’ll ever be paid? Still, it’s a lockdown, so what else should I be doing? No, don’t answer that.

If you want to support Bradt, and to have some exciting reading to prepare for future travels, please click on this link and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this half-price offer will end, but don’t leave it too long!

PS I also meant to say something about hostels – sleeping in a dorm with unknown companions is going to seem a lot more unattractive in the future.  The big trend in independent hostels recently has been a growth in the number of private rooms (ensuite or not), but for the next few years this is probably going to be the mainstay of their business and they should probably get on with subdividing dorms as fast as they can. Even so, shared washing facilities are going to be a concern and lots of cleaning products will have to be on hand at all times.

Return to Oxford

I’m in lock-down in Cambridge at the moment, but a few months ago I did make a flying visit to the other place, Oxford, where I studied many years ago.

 From the cultural tourism point of view, the most notable developments in Oxford recently have been the reopening of the Ashmolean Museum (in 2009) and of the Weston Library (in 2015). The Ashmolean, of course, is Britain’s oldest museum, founded in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford in 1677 by Elias Ashmole, treasures acquired by him from the gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger. It’s housed in the Cockerell Building (opened in 1845), one wing of which is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the university’s modern languages faculty, where I spent a certain amount of time as a student (as an undergraduate and in my glorious two-term research career). The £61 million revamp by Rick Mather dropped a huge concrete-and-glass box into the courtyard behind the original museum, creating a spectacular lightwell/staircase that provides easy connections to every floor and gallery, plus of course a new rooftop restaurant. The display space has also been doubled in size, allowing bigger and better temporary exhibitions – I’m very keen to see the current Young Rembrandt show, but of course it’s closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  I didn’t spend much time in the New Bodleian Library as a student, and just saw it as a drab pile that I had to pass frequently – built in 1937-40 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Wikipedia sniffily notes that it’s ‘not generally considered his finest work’, although it is listed as a Grade II historic building. It too has been hollowed out behind the original façade in an £80 million pound project to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material and better facilities for readers, including a digital media centre and 2.5km of open-access bookshelves. It also welcomes outside visitors for the first time; a new entrance from Broad St leads to a shop and café and spaces for free temporary exhibitions, which I strongly recommend. Journalists crowed that ‘the dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod’, but it is in fact now called the Weston Library.

 I’ve just seen that the University Museum of Natural History is next in line for a major revamp; in 2014-6 it was closed to fix its leaking roof (comprising over 2,500 Victorian glass tiles), and in 2020 the displays in the main court are being moved out in shifts (allowing the museum to stay open throughout) and reinstalled in new high-tech conservation cabinets. The new displays will, they say, ’address the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment’.

 Not all of Oxford’s museums are doing so well – just last month three paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa were stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Christ Church itself had recently been in the news because cases of fine Burgundy and Pouilly Fumé had been disappearing from the cellar. Hmmmm, I wonder if there could be a connection.

 Architecture old and new

In fact though, every time one returns to Oxford after a few years away, there are plenty of new and converted buildings to catch the attention. At my alma mater, New College, the stylish new Clore Music Studios were completed in January 2019 and the Kimbel Wing (fantastic accommodation for the disabled in the original Morris Garage, where the first Bullnose Morris cars were assembled in 1912) was opened in March 2019 (I’d love to see my nephew living there one day, but that’s another story). More recently, the plans for the new Gradel Quadrangles, which received planning permission in June 2018, were greeted with general approval and even excitement – crammed in behind Savile House, where I lived in my final year, they’ll allow New College to provide rooms for all its students.

 In the future I’d like to wander north of the centre, where there’s all sorts of interesting new architecture, starting with the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, in and around the old Radcliffe Infirmary between the Woodstock Road and Walton Street. The Observatory itself is now the focal point of Green Templeton College, a new graduate college founded in 2008. The former St Luke’s Chapel (built in 1865) is a venue for events, and not to be confused with the Freud café in the former St Paul’s Church on Walton St, built in 1836. There’s new accommodation for Somerville College here, and the Jericho Health Centre and the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the Mathematical Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government (by Herzog & de Meuron) have also opened; the new Humanities Building was granted planning permission in 2010 but has been delayed by funding issues, with construction now expected to begin in 2021 (leaving aside any Covid-19-related complications). I love good modern architecture (and thankfully Oxford and Cambridge can both afford to pay for it), and I especially enjoy projects that fit in new buildings among historic sites like this. A little further north, colleges such as St Anne’s also have similarly striking new buildings to be examined.

 Other small projects caught my eye too, for instance the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre (part of Wadham College), opened in 2012 in the former Blackwell’s Music Shop at the rear of the King’s Arms (I’ll get to pubs later, don’t worry, but the KA is also owned by Wadham). I have no idea what the Oxford Ice Factory building was when I was a student (1978-82) but it now houses the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre opened in 2017 by the Saïd Business School, aiming to build a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs to leave society and the planet in a better state. It too has a nice café, naturally. And just a couple of blocks west, at the corner of Hollybush Row and the new Frideswide Square, the Jam Factory, opened in 2006, is a restaurant-bar-arts centre in the building where the famous ‘Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade was produced from 1903 to 1958. Immediately to the east. ie slightly nearer the city centre, I wandered around what used to be an area of breweries and other industries straddling various side-channels of the Isis (Thames) – not an area I’d ever known before, but there are still traces of the former Lion (Morrell’s) and Eagle Steam Breweries, now incorporated in fairly pricey residential developments. Immediately to the east again, Oxford Castle and the old prison are well known as a fairly upmarket regeneration area, with posh hotels and restaurants.

 Just a few pubs

And so to the pubs – I headed first to the Turf Tavern, which was my local for some years. It’s expanded, now stretching almost all the way back to New College tower, and has got more touristy, with more emphasis on food. It’s still hard to find and still has skull-bashingly low beams though. They claim that both Bob Hawke’s Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds and Bill Clinton’s ‘not inhaling’ marijuana both took place here in the 1960s; they may be right about Bob Hawke (he was later Australia’s most charismatic prime minister ever), but I’ve met people who knew Clinton at Oxford and the ‘not inhaling’ seemed to take place at private parties. They also make much of the fact that the Harry Potter crew hung out here after filming, which is probably true – some scenes were shot in New College and, for what it’s worth, Emma Watson’s father was a student there with me.

New College cloister – as in some Harry Potter film or other

 

 

 

 

New College Great Quad – as in some Harry Potter film or other

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The KA (see above) is largely unchanged except for the addition of an attractive room with leather sofas next to the back bar (which lost its male-only status just five years before I came up); I found that it’s been a Youngs pub since 1991 – I have no idea what it was in my student days but would be happy to hear any ideas. The White Horse was closed for a mini-refurb over New Year but is probably not greatly changed (there’s not room to do anything much with it); and the Welsh Pony (famously basic when I was there, with amazingly cheap fry-ups) closed as a pub about twenty years ago and is now a generic seedy bar. The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child) and Flamb and Lag (Lamb and Flag) are still there but both indelibly linked to Tolkien and CS Lewis and thus of no interest to me.

 I was intrigued to see that the local Wetherspoons (I wouldn’t drink there either, due to the founder Tim Martin being a berserk Brexiteer who made himself even more unpopular by his reaction to the new coronavirus) is called  The Four Candles – I wasn’t sure why, until someone told me that Ronnie Barker was a pupil at the Oxford High School for Boys, and the pub is now in that building (which was the History Faculty in my day). Or is it the Fork Handles…? If you don’t know the sketch you should look it up at once.

 I didn’t get there, but I was delighted to learn that the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road, which was my own secret pub in my final year, is now fully vegetarian – no idea what the beer is like, but I look forward to visiting as soon as possible. And we used to love going out to rural pubs such as the Plough in Noke (now closed, I believe), the Boat by the canal in Thrupp (great for bar billiards) and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, which a friend visited fairly recently – it’s now community-owned, with good local beers, good-value meals, and a plaque stating that Evelyn Waugh ‘wrote, drank and loved here’  – which I hadn’t known. Apparently Waugh stayed here regularly with a male lover, and then honeymooned there with his first wife (who was also called Evelyn, confusingly; she left him for another man, and I can’t blame her), before spending time here to write books including Vile Bodies.

 From Oxford to Adlestrop

And finally – I’ve just read Oxford by Edward Thomas (of Adlestrop fame), which I can’t particularly recommend, it’s stuffed full of quotations and allusions to show how well educated he was (Hertford College, don’t you know) and the footnotes (in the 2005 Signal edition) don’t explain them all. The introduction stresses his Welshness, even though he’s known as a writer specifically about English countryside and nature, which is of some interest as I’m updating the Rough Guide to Wales at the moment. In fact he writes about a visit by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, now remembered mainly as a train), who ‘for three days read aloud his glorious book to large audiences’. My last blog post was largely about Jan Morris, whose Oxford is a definitive account and a  wonderful read. Thomas does mention pubs and taverns quite a lot, and cycling, and also bonfires, which were very common in the college quads in his day but must have been extinguished quite soon after. In his opinion, the major change in his day from historic times was the advent of organised sport (especially rowing) – fives was the exception, which had been popular but had died out by his time – but it has now been revived, of course. Long country walks, not necessarily to pubs in Noke and Beckley, were also popular.

 Adlestrop, incidentally, where his train stopped unexpectedly on an Edwardian summer’s day, is north of Oxford near Stow-on-the-Wold (which I visit from time to time), in a location now best known for the Daylesford Organic Farm. But my next objective is to finally read Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (published in 1911), another classic Oxford tale which I think will be more fun than Edward Thomas.

A virtual Trieste

Due to the coronavirus lock-down I’ve turned my hand to something more like a book review…

 I joked in the introduction to my Bradt Guide to Dresden that I’d misheard and signed up to write it because I thought they’d said Trieste. Not actually true, because after all, Dresden is stunning and I loved being there and have been badgering them to do an update ever since. And I never got to write about Trieste, in fact I’ve not been there for several decades – but I have been reading Jan Morris’s classic Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.

 Born in 1926, James Morris was just old enough to join the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (the same regiment that occupied Montevideo in 1807, as it happens) at the end of the war and served as a subaltern in the forces occupying Trieste. The city had been liberated by the Yugoslav partisans, with New Zealand troops (and the Lancers in their tanks) arriving two days later – they were led by General Bernard Freyberg VC, whose grand-daughter Annabel I later knew at Oxford, playing Gertrude to Hugh Grant’s Hamlet, with me as production manager. Morris later got one of the greatest scoops of the century, covering the first ascent of Everest, and then James became Jan, and one of our most beloved travel writers (not that she likes the term).

 She said that Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001, would be her last book, although happily that turned out to not quite be the case; she’s also called it her favourite non-fiction book (ie of the ones she’s written herself). It’s also clear that the city is one of her favourite places, with its ‘sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place’. You could just about use the book as a guide to the physical city (as it was twenty years ago, at any rate), but it’s really a metaphysical investigation into the nature of a city that was essentially created in the eighteenth century as a highly multicultural outpost of the Austrian empire and is only accidentally part of Italy today. It’s also a meditation on nostalgia, ageing (after over five decades of visiting Trieste) and her lifelong sense of self-exile.

 She pays particular attention to the city’s literary strengths, concentrating on James Joyce, who did much of his best work here, and Italo Svevo, taken as a pseudonym by Hector Schmitz to express his joint Italian and Swabian background – The Confessions of Zeno and As a Man Grows Older are both firmly set in a very recognisable Trieste (I haven’t read either, I confess). Robert Musil is mentioned several times (and I did once read his three-volume magnum opus The Man Without Qualities), but without going in to so much detail. And Richard Burton (the translator of The Arabian Nights, not the Welsh actor) is examined too, although he fails to light my fire.

 Morris mentions Morpurgo as a quintessentially Triestino name, but was clearly writing too soon to be aware of the name’s current literary significance – War Horse was published as a novel back in 1982, but took off as a phenomenon only after the play opened in 2007. It’s an Ashkenazi Jewish name (which Michael Morpurgo acquired from his stepfather), and I also find it odd that Morris never mentions Trieste’s admittedly small Sephardic population.

 I was also assuming that Morris had totally missed Rainer Maria Rilke’s connection with Trieste – his greatest work, The Duino Elegies, was conceived at the castle of Duino, just up the coast – but no, he gets a passing mention in the penultimate chapter. Morris often mentions the bora, the wild north wind that frequently buffets Trieste, and it was while walking on the cliffs in a bora that Rilke claimed to hear a voice calling to him with the first line of the first Elegy, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?’) – which vaguely reminded me of how Morris refers several times to that moment when a conversation falls silent (often at ten to the hour, it seems), allegedly when an angel passes overhead. Anyway, I assume Morris just doesn’t much like Rilke – he was a sort of Austrian equivalent of TS Eliot, but without any of the humour.

 I’d already read Last Letters from Hav (1985), Morris’s one novel, which she thought was ‘about an entirely imaginary Levantine city’ but found that ‘between every line Trieste was lurking’. It’s not a masterpiece, and doesn’t add much to our understanding of Trieste. Thanks to Covid-19, I’ve had time to look at it again, and at a couple of other books that describe Trieste. They certainly agree about the faint melancholy and sense of displacement that pervade the city.

 Claudio Magris is another Trieste author referred to in TATMON – his great book Danube, which I’ve referred to when writing about Romania and Bratislava, was published in 1986 (and in English in 1988), but the rather slimmer set of essays published as Microcosms appeared in 1997 and in English in 1999, just in time for Morris to refer to them. The first essay is about the life of the Caffè San Marco and the last about the Public Garden, both mentioned by Morris. One discovery is the poet Juan Octavio Prenz, born in Argentina in 1932, who lived in Trieste from 1979 until his death in 2019 and was a typical example of the multicultural Triestino beloved of Morris, as well as of Musil and Magris.

 Last year I also read Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules, published in 1995 and mentioned by Morris – passing through on his tour around the Mediterranean, his take on Trieste was similar to hers and that of other writers, although he paid a bit more attention to the food and the women, in addition to Joyce, Svevo and Burton.

 Morris mentions Abbazia (now Opatija), just down the coast, but misses a trick by not noting that Nabokov described (in Speak, Memory) going there as a child in 1904, when it seemed like a haunted version of Menton. And it seems odd, given what a major cultural totem the eponymous fizz now is in Britain, not to mention that Prosecco is just 8km north of Trieste, and less than 1km inland from Archduke Maximilian’s castle of Miramar, which Morris knows well. The populace of Prosecco is over 90% Slovene, calling it Prosek, and most of the wine is now produced 100km away to the northwest.

Last tram to Opcina

Of course, this wouldn’t be Unraveltravel without a mention of public transport –  wrapping up the book in the summer of 2000, Morris mentions ‘tracks laid for a magnetic tram service’, which I found a bit baffling – maybe she meant the tram up to Opicina (see below) which has electromagnetic emergency brakes as well as rheostatic and air brakes? But no, it turns out that an experimental bus (not a tram), powered by magnetic induction from rails laid in one of the city’s busiest streets, ran briefly in 2000 but fell foul of a new city government and was soon abandoned.

 Opicina (Opčine in Slovenian) is the main crossing point to Slovenia, but the  connections are notoriously awful. It’s up on the Karst, the limestone plateau that similar formations around the world are named after, and direct trains from Venice to Ljubljana stay up there rather than dropping down to Trieste and crawling back up again. The link from Piazza Oberdan in Trieste is a fascinating tram-funicular hybrid, with automated cable-hauled tractors giving a boost on the steepest section; this terminates in the centre of Opicina village, 1.2km short of the railway station (an extension was opened in 1906 but closed in 1938). In any case this has been out of action since a collision in 2016, with a replacement bus service, although it will supposedly reopen early in 2020. Fingers crossed!

Help us to help you

And finally – as I said, half the world is currently shut down due to the new coronavirus and Covid-19. Lots of people and businesses are in trouble, but one of the worst affected is the travel industry. I do most of my writing for Bradt Travel Guides, which is the only major British travel publisher to still be wholly independent. It’s a company that has always tried to make travel work for the greater good, not just helping tourists have a good time, but encouraging education (in both directions) and trying to boost tourism in smaller, off-beat destinations rather than the obvious honeypots (and I’m proud to have played a small part in this). The Slow Guides series, focussing on community involvement and active/sustainable travel, is particularly welcome. To get through the lean times, and to encourage people to start thinking of what they might do afterwards, they’re now offering a 50% discount on all books (so, as they say, a guidebook will cost less than a luxury pack of loo roll).

 Click here and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this offer will end, but don’t leave it too long! And yes, there is a Bradt guide to Trieste and its surrounding province.

Updating Wales, especially Anglesey

I managed to get in two trips to Wales (north and south) just before the coronavirus pandemic really struck – but the new edition of the Rough Guide to Wales has now been put off anyway, so at last I have time to write the odd blog post.

 I do love Wales, but I admit I began with some rather dull towns – Newport, Wrexham and Mold. Newport (Pembrokeshire) is in my half of the book (and is lovely), but Newport (Monmouthshire) is not – I spent a few hours there between trains because I’d been given a first-class ticket on what people still call The Gerald (Y Gerallt), but is now officially the Premier Service. It’s a train that runs from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning and returns in the evening, without too many stops, and provides complementary meals for first-class passengers. It’s subsidised by the Welsh government to persuade business travellers not to drive (or fly from RAF Valley), and to bind the rather separate north and south halves of Wales together. In fact it’s the only train run by Transport for Wales that has first class at all. It also offers perhaps the best on-train dining experience left on Britain’s railways. 

 The train is named for Geraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales, a medieval churchman who travelled around Wales and wrote the first descriptions of the country. Anyway, there was a lot of flooding at the time, including at Shrewsbury, and when I left home in the morning it looked as the train would get to Hereford and we’d be put on a bus to Shrewsbury – but in fact the level of the River Severn dropped sufficiently for the train to run as normal. The two stewards only joined the train at Hereford, and started taking orders before we had left the station, so I was able to have a full three-course meal, finishing just five minutes before I got off at Wrexham. It was a great experience.

 In Newport, I enjoyed the museum and art gallery (with single works by Ceri Richards, Stanley Spencer, LS Lowry, Stanhope Forbes, Julian Trevelyan, Michael Rothenstein, Alfred Munnings, Laura Knight, Kyffin Williams, August John, Frank Brangwyn, William Scott, Peter Blake, and an 18th-century piece attributed to Loutherbourg). The cathedral is an overgrown parish church, as one would expect, but attractive enough with its Norman arch and font.

 I don’t think I discovered anything new in Wrexham or Mold. Well, yes and no – positive efforts are under way to revive Wrexham’s markets, and I did discover some good beers from Wrexham, although not when I was actually there – Border and Big Hand both produce some very pleasant ales, and Wrexham Lager is an interesting oddity. The Wrexham Lager Beer Company Limited was Britain’s first lager brewery, founded in 1881 by two German immigrants, but after World War II it was taken over by Ind Coope, then Allied Breweries, then Carlsberg-Tetley, who closed it down in 2002; the rights to the name were bought by local businessmen, and the company was revived in 2011. I haven’t tasted the beer myself but I wouldn’t altogether object in the right setting – I usually run a mile from tasteless British lager, but on a hot summer’s day after cycling in Germany or indeed the Czech Republic the real stuff can be very refreshing.

 The rest of Northeastern Wales (from Wrexham to Bala and Denbigh) was familiar enough, but then I moved on to a chapter of the Rough Guide that I haven’t tackled before, covering the north coast and Anglesey. I’ve cycled along the north coast, but I was surprised by a few new things, for instance the outburst of gentrification in Colwyn Bay, which comprises precisely one street, Penrhyn Road – here you’ll find Haus (a hipster café and brunch spot), the Flat White café, The Bay Hop (a shopfront-style alehouse that’s the local CAMRA branch’s perpetual Pub of the Year) and Virgilio’s Portuguese grill all in a row. Across the road are Sheldon’s Bar & Bistro and Briggs & Co, purveyors of fine wines & coffee (and of craft beer, though without a proper hand pump to be seen).

 In Llandudno I was keen to visit Mostyn (formerly Oriel Mostyn Gallery, in an awkward bilingual version), which used to be run by a friend of mine – there wasn’t much on, but I was very impressed by the internal remodelling and extension that he orchestrated.

 In Anglesey I’d only taken the train direct to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Dublin, so I was very much looking forward to my two days there, and it did not disappoint. The northwestern coast, in particular, is very scenic, and there’s a great variety of Neolithic tombs and Iron Age hut circles reminiscent of Chysauster, one field away from my sister’s in Cornwall. Having said that, I expected more of Beaumaris Castle – it was never completed and is not in fact as impressive as Caernarfon or Conwy, both of which I’ve visited in the last couple of years. However I did enjoy Beaumaris Gaol, which has been taken over (along with the Courthouse) by the town council and seems to be enjoying an infusion of fresh energy – I was given a whistlestop tour by a volunteer guide in Victorian costume and stick-on sideburns who was full of great stories. I’d heard that the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait (from Menai Bridge to Beaumaris) was a hotspot of fancy foodie spots aimed at the affluent folk of southern Manchester/northern Cheshire (and a hotspot of so-called adventure sports such as riding in very fast boats), but Menai Bridge itself turned out to be pretty drab, and you have to book a long time ahead to get into the best restaurants; Beaumaris is far more attractive and would make a nicer weekend destination; on the other hand it’s further from the lovely beaches at Newborough Warren, a key part of the package for many visitors.

 In the centre of the island is its other moderately attractive town, Llangefni (Holyhead is of no interest except as a place to leave by ferry) – on the edge of town is Oriel Ynys Môn, the island’s main museum and art gallery, which has a comprehensive overview of its history and excellent art exhibitions too. (I looked for the Oriel Tegfryn gallery in Menai Bridge too, but that has closed.)

 I also remember Llangefni as birthplace of Hugh Hughes, the ‘award-winning emerging Welsh artist’, actually the alter ego of Shôn Dale-Jones, artistic director of the touring theatre company Hoipolloi. It’s brilliantly deadpan comedy – see here for photos, videos and droll stories.

 My geologist brother-in-law had told me about Parys Mountain, which was memorable because in its forty-year boom period it wiped out our copper mining industry in Cornwall, but I wasn’t prepared for the scale of its multicoloured post-industrial moonscape, which is now traversed by a two-and-a-half mile trail. In fact the whole of Anglesey is now covered by the UNESCO-recognised GeoMon geopark, with information panels in many places of geological interest, mainly on the coast.

 At Plas Newydd (the one on the Menai Strait, not the one in Llangollen), the National Trust is undertaking a two-year (at least) project to replace the 1930s wiring and plumbing (with attached asbestos), following a potentially disastrous flood in 2011. They’re keeping the house open as much as possible, and are going to great lengths to explain what’s going on and incorporate it in the visit – the Behind the Stage displays are well done, but it’s a shame that a lot of interesting paintings are hidden in the dark. So I’ll have to rewrite this section of the Rough Guide for this edition, and revert more or less to the original text for the next one. Oh well.

 There’s not a lot new to say about Southwest Wales, especially as I just did a quick sprint around before going home to hunker down for the duration of the pan[dem]ic, however long that turns out to be. Our long-term favourite restaurant in St David’s (Cwtch*) has closed, the Carmarthenshire Museum at Abergwili, just outside Carmarthen, has closed for a year to have its roof fixed and a general refurb, and the Shire Hall in Llandeilo is also being done up to be a community/heritage/visitor centre from the autumn of 2020 – I would anticipate some delay to that in present circumstances.

The one about Brexit

Well, the time has come to talk of Brexit, there’s no avoiding it. It’s clearly madness, the result of a massively flawed referendum, and a readymade disaster (see below), but I don’t altogether blame the people who voted for it. I blame the rightwing ideologues who treat politics as a game that doesn’t affect real people, I blame the media moguls who spread the lies (the front page of the Daily Mail carried fantasies about a flood of immigrants Every.Single.Day in the run-up to the referendum), and I blame our MPs, almost all of whom have shown themselves to be spineless and lacking integrity. Of course I blame David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson, and have no idea why anyone would vote for them – it was Tory austerity that broke Britain, not Europe. Any admiration I once felt for Jeremy Corbyn long since flew out of the window. And I blame Vladimir Putin, who is undoubtedly waging a cyber-war against liberal democracy and international groupings such as the EU.

 The people who voted to leave, however, had their reasons – like many of those who voted for Trump and Le Pen and Bolsonaro and other populist leaders, they were protesting about the changes in the world economy that have worked well enough for me and many others but have left them stranded. This has to be tackled, as many commentators and politicians are saying, but I go further back in time than most of them in tracing the causes of the problems – I date them from the 1980s when we started exporting our industrial and manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere, and replaced them with call centres and video games development.

 Virtually everyone I know voted to remain – I live in Cambridge which has benefitted hugely from foreign talent, and where the university stands to lose at least a fifth of its research income as well as many talented researchers. Almost the only Leave voter among my friends is ex-military, and the military still have the concept of sovereignty (they took an oath to defend it, after all), which means nothing to me – sure, the Queen is a national treasure, but I wouldn’t go to war to defend her divine right. Personally, I don’t care who governs me – City, County, Country, Continent – as long as they do it efficiently, and at the moment they don’t. The dysfunctional divide between Cambridge City Council (Labour/Lib Dem-voting), Cambridgeshire County Council and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (both run by rural Tories) is one of the reasons our roads, for instance, are falling apart – but British politics have been dominated for far too long by short-term thinking and penny-pinching tax-cutting that has not only given us ten years of awful austerity but also a longer tradition of poorly constructed infrastructure that cuts corners and soon falls apart at the edges. No, I want to be governed the way the Dutch and the Danes are governed, with their long-term sustainable thinking, and their great public transport and cycling infrastructure. This probably requires proportional representation and coalition government, but the British seem wedded to their two-party confrontational system of politics, in which a new government first of all undoes whatever the previous gang achieved. We have a centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, which I have supported all my adult life and which had no fewer than 57 MPs in 2010 (including the excellent Julian Huppert here in Cambridge), but which has since been virtually wiped out. There are specific Cameron-coalition-related reasons for that, but in the big picture it does seem to indicate a reluctance to think beyond a two-party dichotomy. And to get back to Brexit, both parties have failed – in particular, we need a Loyal Opposition, which has been totally missing in action.

 Why is Brexit a disaster? Yes, there’s the economic side, cutting ourselves off from a huge market and entrusting our future to the tender mercies of the US and China instead, but it has also unleashed torrents of xenophobia and misogynistic bullying – this began with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and the Windrush scandal, and the government and the Tory press have done nothing at all to rein it in, not even when an MP was murdered. Social media is massively to blame as well, and Mark Zuckerberg is actively avoiding doing anything to tackle the problem – and Putin’s troll farms are exploiting this for all they’re worth. (See the sainted Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk, if you haven’t already – www.ted.com/talks/carole_cadwalladr_facebook_s_role_in_brexit_and_the_threat_to_democracy?language=en)

 Hearing of someone who grew up in a white working-class culture and is now the only white person on the street, you don’t have to be a racist to understand how hard it is to lose your culture and be surrounded by others you don’t understand. But why controlling migration from around the world should require leaving a European customs union and seriously damaging our economy I fail to understand… I’m a believer in the European project, which should make it easier, not harder, to deal with multiple cultures – not just new migrants, but also eg Scotland, Catalunya, the Basque lands, Hungarian Transylvanians etc. Whereas Northern Ireland has been sold down the creek and the Scots are being dragged into a situation they certainly didn’t vote for.

 After a month in the Balkans in mid-2019, I can say that I am very proud of what the EU is doing there to support prosperity, stability and democracy, and it’s money well spent to avoid future conflicts. People who want to leave the EU because of this kind of spending and to axe the foreign aid budget are ridiculously selfish and short-sighted.

 I do hope that the Brexiteers actually get on and try to make it work, but they’ll probably go on blaming the EU and anyone who disagrees with them for undermining the project. Or perhaps they will shut up when they see what their brave new world of trading with the Faroe Islands and New Zealand and eating chlorinated chicken while the NHS is ripped apart is really like. I dare say we will eventually rejoin the EU, but certainly not on the advantageous terms we’ve enjoyed until now, with all our opt-outs and rebates.

 So there you have it in a nutshell – and if any post deserves the ‘unravelling’ category on Unraveltravel.org, this is it – although in fact we originally meant it to mean something more like unwinding.

Uruguay – canyon and coast

While I’ve written two previous editions of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay and gone to just about every town and sight of any significance, there was one that had eluded me – the Quebrada de los Cuervos, a small national park in the northeast of the country. It’s not a huge canyon, but it’s known for preserving dense (if very low) subtropical forest of a kind that’s mostly only found across the border in Brazil. It’s been protected for a long time, but I was surprised to find that the loop path really is pretty rough – rocky and with steep climbs and descents – and definitely not for everyone. Still, it’s well organised, with maps, signs and rangers leading walks, and it’s easy to get to the main viewpoint without tackling the rough path. I saw a few lagartos (halfway between a lizard and an iguana) and plenty of the vultures that give the place its name (cuervo or crow being the local name for a vulture); there were plenty of other birds about, but I didn’t actually set eye on them. I also found a nice new guesthouse in the area that I didn’t know about, so it was worth the detour.

To get here, I’d spent ten days making my way along the coast from Montevideo to the Brazilian border – it’s well known that Uruguay has fantastic beaches while northern Argentina has none, and as you move north they become emptier and emptier until you find vast swathes of totally empty sand. I hiked from Cabo Polonio to Barra de Valizas and Aguas Dulces and only passed a couple of other people, as well as quite a few dead seals, a turtle shell, a dead penguin and a live but very tired and confused one.

 There are considerable differences between the various beach resorts which take a bit of pinning down (they’re not entirely fixed, either – La Paloma used to be overrun with partying youngsters in high season, but they are now moving on). One thing that is common is for a resort to be on a headland, with a Brava (Wild) and Mansa (Calm) side, with surfers on one and families on the other. It’s also worth mentioning that, as you go further northeast towards Brazil, that there are many lagoons and other wetlands that are a haven for birds and a heaven for birdwatchers (the western fringe of the country, along the Río Uruguay, is similar, and indeed the whole country offers wonderful birding).

 Close to Montevideo, the beach settlements have largely been absorbed by the city; the first that really has its own identity is Atlántida, an hour from the capital, which has a couple of strange buildings (one in the shape of an eagle’s head, another like an ocean liner) and is strongly identified with candombe drumming at Carnaval season.

 

 After this, there’s a slight gap until you reach Piriápolis in Maldonado department – this was laid out on alchemical principles by the rather odd Francisco Piria (there’s more on him in the book, obviously) and in the 1920s boasted the largest hotel in South America. It all fell apart somewhat after Piria’s death and is now a fairly quiet family-oriented resort; you can visit the ‘castles’ of Piria and his disciple Humberto Pittamiglio and hike up Cerro Pan de Azúcar for great views (especially if you continue upwards inside the giant concrete cross).

 The heart of Uruguay’s holiday territory is the Punta del Este area, which is where things get complicated. Punta itself is a mini-Miami with lots of tower blocks, which is packed with Argentines in January; there’s a high-octane blingy vibe, with amazingly expensive fashion shops and restaurants. It’s very much a see-and-be-seen, conspicuous expenditure locale. Sensible people stay elsewhere, for instance in the arty suburbs of La Barra and Manantiales, and the real big spenders stay in luxury villas further along the coast (but still drive into Punta at midnight for dinner and dancing). The end of this strip is the former fishing village of José Ignacio, which is where those Argentines who are truly wealthy and don’t need to show off about it gather – everyone can hang out on the beach and everyone is the same in shorts and flip-flops. Even so, there are some legendary restaurants hidden in the pine-forests nearby, where you dine by candlelight wrapped in blankets.

 It should also be said Ruta 10, the main road along the coast, is discontinuous, so to continue northeastwards you have to go inland and take Ruta 9 into Rocha department. South of the city of Rocha is La Paloma, a spacious, purpose-built resort that was very popular with students and school-leavers for a while – up to 20,000 would come for New Year and early January, a dozen or more renting a house together but sleeping very little, with huge discos raving away until the morning – until the authorities forced the discos to move further from the centre and the party animals began to go elsewhere (Punta del Diablo, below, for one). It’s still growing fast, now spreading several kilometres into the forest to the west.

 Just a few kilometres to the northeast, its little sister La Pedrera is a place that I just love, for some reason that I can’t put my finger on – I’m not at all a beach person, but there’s something elemental and Cornish about the Atlantic weather, and it’s very close to nature, with lots of noisy birds, and lagartos (like mini-iguanas) popping out of the undergrowth. And here, and in José Ignacio and Punta del Diablo, minimalist white-cube houses are being built in the dunes which I find very attractive (they also sit well with the Deco houses which are quite common in Uruguay).  It’s a bohemian arty sort of place which is famed for its carnaval parade.

 Continuing northeast, there are miles and miles of empty beaches (with a few tentative attempts at development) until you reach the legendary Cabo Polonio. There’s no road or mains services here (other than power for the lighthouse) – you arrive on the back of a four-wheel-drive truck, and there are a few generators and solar panels, which nowadays even provide a few hours of wi-fi in some hostels. The lighthouse is surrounded by a rag-tag sprawl of squatters’ shacks, basically, some of which are now hostels and guesthouses, and there are cafés serving fresh seafood and seaweed fritters, but the idea is just to hang out on empty beaches, strum a guitar and smoke some weed when it gets dark, and feel the stresses and strains of urban life melt away. In other words, it’s not for everyone.

 From here I walked onwards along the (reasonably firm, and totally empty) beaches to Barra de Valizas (reached by a short ferry ride, costing £1) and Aguas Dulces, two small beach villages that are reached by road and mains electricity and so don’t have the allure of Cabo Polonio. Nevertheless, Barra de Valizas in particular is very popular with creative types from Montevideo.

 There’s another great swathe of emptiness before you reach Punta del Diablo, a little fishing village that’s become another chic resort for those with money, as well as for die-hard surfers. It’s popular with Brazilians and other foreigners, so the season starts in November, whereas purely Uruguayan/Argentine resorts see no action until late December. In fact it was generally very hard, updating a guidebook in late November, to tell which bars and restaurants would actually open again – but not here.

Practicalities

 I was also tracking the opening times for post and phone offices, which are more limited than they used to be, in particular with post offices no longer opening on Saturdays – if this is the only effect of economic slow-down they are indeed fortunate, compared to the decade of ever more vicious cuts we’ve endured in Britain. We now have a broken country and the results that we have seen from that – a bit superficial, I know, but if Brexit ever really does happen I’ll write more about this.

In my post on the last edition of the Bradt guide to Uruguay, I mentioned that a new bus terminal had appeared in Paysandú (it’s clearly under the same management as the one in Salto, with the same excellent website and departure screens, for instance). The one planned for Tacuarembó hasn’t been built, but the current one is fine for now. It turns out that there is a project for the main town of each department to have a terminal, rather than scattered offices, so others have appeared in Rocha, Chuy (another town in Rocha department, as it happens) and Trinidad, and one is under construction in Treinta y Tres, although it’s not sure that that one will open in 2020. They’re pretty decent, mostly with wifi and free toilets, and thankfully they have avoided the problem I’ve mentioned before with new high-speed railway stations that are so far from the centre that you lose all the time gained on the train just in getting to and from the stations. These are all a 15 to 20-minute walk from the centre, which isn’t too bad.

 Another change is that zoos, which imprisoned large raptors and animals in tiny cages, are being not just modernised but reformed as Bio Parques, with larger enclosures housing species that don’t seem to suffer so much in captivity – ñandues (the South American ostrich), capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), geese and ducks and so on – they’re very popular family destinations and are definitely an improvement on the previous situation.

Updating Uruguay again

I’m now researching the fourth edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay, and I’ve just left Montevideo after a week in the city (also visiting a few adjacent towns and wineries) – I’ve always liked it, but as soon as I arrived I could see that it’s improved in various ways, there’s craft beer all over the place, there are recycling bins, there’s a bike-sharing system and lots of new bike lanes [and outside Montevideo, lots of new wind turbines]. Marijuana is also now legal, but in fact it’s much less visible (smellable) than in Vancouver and many cities on the West Coast of the US. And WhatsApp is compulsory, which is a bloody pain if you have big fat fingers like me. I do have it on my laptop now, but the phone still has to be connected.

 And the Uruguayans have suddenly (in the six years since I was last here) become the most-tattooed people on earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 I was immensely impressed when I first came here, ten years ago, by a coffeetable book on the traditional boliches of Montevideo (Boliches montevideanos, Bares y Cafés en la memoria de la ciudad – now out of print, alas), bars that were originally shops and still play an important rôle in their communities. I listed quite a few in the Bradt guide, and most are still more or less viable, although many now open only in the evenings – opening hours are tricky here, as many city centre restaurants open for lunch only. In fact Café Gourmand, a superb American-French brunch spot, only opens Friday to Sunday, but they spend several days more on cooking and baking, as well as sourcing local supplies.

 There’s actually been a gastronomic revolution in the last couple of years, especially in the barrios of Ciudad Vieja and Cordón – this has been driven by markets as well as restaurants and cafés, with the Mercado Agricola, the Mercado Ferrando and now most recently the Mercado del Inmigrante (formerly the Mercado de la Abundancia) all transformed into gastronomic hubs, with delis, craft-beer bars, artisan coffee outets, and restaurants offering sushi, poke, felafel, you name it, as well as local specialities such as chivitos.

 Meanwhile, at the end of a dead-end street, behind an anonymous housefront (ok there is a sign), I found one of Montevideo’s first microbreweries, Shelter – a lovely friendly place with good beer and pizza, and surprisingly, a live podcast being recorded on gangster/noir films, with clips (no idea how that worked on the podcast) of Le Samurai and The Big Lebowski…. My Red Oak, a red ale matured in oak barrels, was fantastic – to be honest it’s more effective than oaking a wine. Mostly though, I have to stress that this craft beer is in no way ‘real ale’, it’s not live beer served by handpump or gravity, but something that tastes a bit pasteurised.

 Otherwise, I didn’t expect to find many new tourist sights in Montevideo, but I did come across the Holocaust Memorial while cycling along the Rambla (the busy 22km-long waterfront path) – it’s impressive, a long wall (symbolising the Jewish people), broken in two, where you cross by the Bridge of Doubt to leave by the Stairs of Hope. Then, as I arrived in Piriápolis, the small beach resort that was my first stop after leaving Montevideo, I saw a sign to the Castillo Pittamiglio and remembered that I’d vaguely heard about it last time I was here but not had time to follow it up. This time, I was able to get back to visit it, and while in no way a major destination, it’s quite fun to see – built in 1956, it’s like a Lego castle, almost two-dimensional, but with space inside for some interesting displays on the alchemical symbolism behind both Piria’s and Pittamiglio’s construction projects. I could go into detail, but it’s easier to read up on them all in the book.

 So, two surfer dudes decide to leave the city and create a boutique hotel by the beach – and you know what? it worked. There’s clearly some family money involved (I met both sets of parents on consecutive days) but Casa Flor is absolutely delightful, a little haven from the craziness of summers in Punta del Este, the beach resort just to the west. It was Karen Higgs (from Wales, living in Montevideo for a couple of decades and publishing all kinds of great tourist information at Guru’guay) who hooked me up with Juan and Alfonso, and she also sent me to Soledad at Chacrita del Sur (she’s very keen for me to use the hashtag #chacritadelsur), in the wine country just north of the capital – for years I’ve been banging on about how strange it is that there’s no accommodation at the wineries and people have to drive out from Montevideo, and now here it is, a delightful spot for a leisurely visit to some amazing wineries. As at the Castillo Pittamiglio and Casa Flor, I really appreciated the birdlife – there are just so many birds here, not particularly afraid of humans and busy getting on with their birdy lives – such a contrast to our sad denuded northern climes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am trying to use a credit card more consistently to pay for food and accommodation – it’s really most gratifying to see that foreign cards are automatically recognised and the VAT is deducted. A very practical way to encourage tourism. I usually have a huge stash of US dollars in cash and just change them, but the VAT savings are too good to miss.

 Tomorrow (Sunday 24 November 2019, for those visiting from the future) the second round of Uruguay’s presidential election will take place – it looks as if the centre-right will take over from the leftist Frente Amplio alliance after three five-year terms (although probably without an overall majority), and it’s probably about time. Bad things tend to happen when parties stay in power for too long – New Labour started well but ended up taking us to war in Iraq, and as for the present mob of Conservatives supposedly running the UK, words fail me. But luckily we too have elections in a few weeks.

The prehistoric caves of southern France

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

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

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

 Lascaux

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

 Les Eyzies, the Font de Gaume and nearby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 And finally

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

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

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

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

Food and drink

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

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

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