Istanbul – almost in Turkey

I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.

French-built trams passing putside the Sublime Porte

As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).

Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.

Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.

Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.

Food and drink

Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)

Transport update

I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.

Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.

The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).

Political shenanigans

Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).

Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.

The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.

In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.

[24/6/19 – I’m glad to say that the re-run went very well for İmamoğlu, who took 54% of the vote, despite a barrage of AKP propaganda, and  is now established as mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility has definitely cracked, and there’s a sense that even his own party members are looking ahead to national elections and a post-Erdoğan era.]  

Skopje – beyond surreal

Rebecca West would be appalled. I spent the first three months of the year reading her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – well, I did do quite a bit of work too, but it really is a monster of a book, over 1,100 pages (originally in two volumes), and one of the great travel books. Actually a large part of it is taken up with musings on the roots of fascism (it was published in 1941), the history of ideas and human nature, but it’s also a detailed account of three journeys through Yugoslavia (except for Slovenia, which she may have seen as too civilised for her tastes). In any case, she makes it clear that Macedonia was her favourite part of Yugoslavia, because of the beautiful souls of the people, largely a side-effect of centuries of mis-government by the Ottoman Turks and brutalisation by anyone else who got a chance, notably the Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians.

It’s a serious book, but there are some very funny bits, notably this description of what she calls ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe’, right in the centre of Skopje – ‘of turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod’. This was the Officers’ Club, embodying the domination of the mainly Serb army, and particularly offensive to the Muslim population as they’d torn down the beautiful fifteenth-century Karlizade or Burmali mosque in 1925 to make room for it. It was badly damaged in the massive earthquake of 1963 and left unrepaired, although after the break-up of

Yugoslavia the city’s Muslims campaigned for the mosque to be rebuilt. In 2013 a Greek company was given permission to rebuild it as a hotel, also providing a new office for the mayor and a wedding hall. As of April 2019 there’s not much sign of progress.

In fact West would be spinning in her grave if she had any idea of the further architectural desecration wrought upon the long-suffering city of Skopje in the last few years – the notorious Skopje 2014 project has seen some of the world’s ugliest and most grandiose buildings constructed along the city centre’s riverfront. Beyond kitsch, beyond surreal, beyond Ceaușescu’s most fevered dreams, they’re simply appalling – I’ll just let my photos below do the talking. One might think they were trying to create a European Las Vegas if there were any casinos, and if Batumi hadn’t got there first. The city was largely flattened in a massive earthquake in 1963 and rebuilt in communist concrete – one can understand a reaction against that, but this was not the way to go.

What’s more they are decorated with and surrounded by an incredible array of statues – they’re not all awful, but their sheer number is exhausting. I thought Bratislava’s riverfront exemplified the Central European love of public statuary, but this is on another level. I hate to think how many hospitals all this could have paid for. Not only that, but the city also has a fleet of red double-decker buses that look like the illicit lovechild of a London Routemaster and a Tonka Truck. And not one but two ‘galleons’ set on concrete blocks in the river. On the other hand, there’s a large traffic-free area and plenty of cycling, so they must be fundamentally good people.

The Museum of Macedonia

The bazaar area has kept its dignity and its authenticity, and is what most visitors most enjoy here; just above, the Mustapha Pasha mosque (built in 1492) is the most interesting of the city’s mosques. Large chunks of the city’s museums are currently closed awaiting restoration, with just a few rooms displaying a fraction of their collections. It has to be said that the modernist communist architecture of the Museum of Macedonia and the Museum of Contemporary Art actually looks pretty good compared to the monstrosities down by the river, while others are beautifully housed in former baths and markets. The M of M has a propagandist display on how the Macedonians of northern Greece were driven out in the 1940s, and a good ethnology display with a huge array of traditional costumes as well as pots, pans and farming implements, which show that Macedonia is part of the cultural continuum of central Europe that I’m familiar with from working for so many years in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and elsewhere (see my recent post on Bratislava). I also went to the City Museum (with some good Roman relics and a room on the 1963 earthquake), the National Gallery (in fifteenth-century baths that make a great space for temporary shows), the Museum of Contemporary Art (also largely empty – part of the impressive worldwide response to the earthquake was to create this museum and donate a Picasso, a Calder and other art works, but these are not currently on display), and I also popped swiftly into the Mother Teresa Centre (she was born here) – the M of M costs about £1.30, the rest are free. I’m informed that the Archeology Museum has lots of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics and a particularly good collections of ancient coins, all well displayed – but the building is a nightmare.

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

Time for a beer

One plus is that you can find a decent pint in a couple of places, courtesy of Pivnica Temov aka Old Town Brewery, founded in 2009, who now have a couple of outlets, the original slightly ramshackle place at the top of the old town,and a lively bar right on the main Macedonia Square. They do IPA and a double IPA, stout (I think they spell it staut), porter and weissbier, all unfiltered and unpasteurised and using only the four basic ingredients of barley, hops, yeast and water. My limited sampling indicated it was just fine, and the food was good too.

Then I want home by a different way and found a load more laughable statuary jumbled together – it’s too much for anyone to take in.

What’s in a name?

The long-running fight with Greece over the country’s name has finally been resolved, and it is now officially North Macedonia – an admission that South Macedonia exists and is part of Greece (and a small East Macedonia also exists and is part of Bulgaria). Perhaps Upper Macedonia would have been better, along the lines of Upper Hungary, which is now Slovakia. It’s annoyed some nationalists, but really the country couldn’t go on for ever as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The particularly huge statue of Alexander the Great (the second most famous Macedonian after Mother Teresa, and she was ethnically Albanian) is still officially called Warrior on Horseback to avoid ruffling Greek sensibilities (and the national flag was also changed to placate the Greeks).

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

Small-town Slovakia – Trnava and Kosice

If you think Bratislava is small and perfectly formed, just wait till you see Trnava, just half an hour away by fast train (once or twice an hour). I’ve added it to the ‘Beyond the City’ chapter of the Bradt City Guide to Bratislava which I’m updating at the moment, as it’s just too nice to miss. Just a short description, but I can go into a bit more detail here. A medieval market town (which owed much of its prosperity to the German settlers who moved here from the early thirteenth century), it was the seat of the Archbishop of Esztergom from 1541, when Hungary south of the Danube was occupied by the Ottoman Turks, until 1820, and of a Jesuit university, which played an influential rôle in the Counter-Reformation, from 1635 to 1777. Most of the city walls survive, as well as churches, synagogues and museums, and the town centre has recently been pedestrianised (the Slovaks do this very well) and is generally spick and span. Although the archbishop returned in 1977 and a new university opened in 1992, it’s nowadays a quiet, largely pedestrianised town (although a PSA Peugeot Citroën car factory opened here in 2006 and FC Spartak Trnava did win the Slovak football championship in 2018).

The central crossroads is marked by the 16th-century town tower (containing the tourist office) and Slovakia’s oldest theatre, opened in 1831; the basilica of St Nicholas (the original cathedral, dating from 1380-1421) is a few hundred metres to the east, with a heavy exterior and a dark interior due to having murals rather than windows on the north side of the choir. A block to the north, the University Church of St John the Baptist (consecrated in 1637, and now the cathedral) is a stunner, though, with a gorgeous Rococo interior of pale apricot, white and gold. The ceiling is spectacular ceiling, and the wooden altar (1640) is just huge, at 20.3m in height. Just south of the cathedral, the town’s Orthodox synagogue now houses an attractive café (open 10.00-22.00 at least, every day); the grander Status Quo synagogue (1887) is now an art gallery.

There are lots of other churches (St Anna, St Jacob, St Joseph, the Assumption, Holy Trinity…), either built in the Baroque style or subsequently modernised into that style when the town was at its ecclesiastical peak, when it was known as ‘Little Rome’ or ‘the Slovak Rome’. I amused to see that the cultural centre calls itself Little Berlin in hommage to Europe’s cultural powerhouse. The church of St Helen, on the way towards the station, is an attractive little place that retains more Gothic features than most of the others. Monasteries and seminaries are also now used for cultural purposes, with the West Slovakian Museum in the Clarist convent (in use by 1239 and rebuilt in Baroque style in the seventeenth century) and its subsidiary branch, the Museum of Book Culture, in the Oláh Seminary (1561). There’s also the Dom Hudby (House of Music, dedicated to the local composer Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský), in a Baroque town-house.

I can’t say much about accommodation (it’s within very easy reach of Bratislava, so there’s no need to stay), but I did notice the Dream and Phoenix hotels which seem pleasant and affordable and are well located on Kapitulská, a largely traffic-free street between the basilica and the museum. There’s certainly a great café and patisserie and a cocktail bar next to the Town Tower; for beer, you could try the Lokal Pub cellar bar at Hlavná 29 in the centre, but you could also head a little way north from the old town to the Sessler brewery.

Košice

At the other (eastern) end of the country, Košice is actually Slovakia’s second-largest city, but it still feels like a small town, with almost everything of tourist interest clustered along one long street-cum-square. The cathedral and state theatre stand in the

centre of Hlavná námestie, which continues north for about 800 metres to the massive twin buildings of the East Slovak Museum, and its whole length is lined with Renaissance, Baroque and Secession townhouses and some fine churches – it’s a spectacular sight.

In fact, very little of the two huge museum buildings are in use, and unless they have expansion plans I’d say they should move everything into the western one, which already houses the Košice Treasure, a hoard of coins probably buried in 1682 (when the city was seized by rebels) – they’re mostly Hungarian (naturally) and Dutch, but there’s also a Thracian stater of Lysimachos (323-281 BC, from Tomi, now Constanța in Romania) and a unique Edward IV coin from London. It may sound dull but is very well displayed, with interactive screens, and well worth the visit.

The East Slovak Gallery is also split between two buildings, and again it might make sense to for them to be brought together, although there’s less sense of echoing empty halls. Founded in 1951, in 1979 it was moved to a Baroque townhouse at Alžbetina 22, but in 1985 a terrible fire destroyed 1,030 works of art. There’s still a fine collection of over 700 paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, housed since 1992 in the former County Hall (dating from 1779) at Hlavná námestie 27. Local artists were actually heavily involved in the plein-air landscape painting movement at the end of the nineteenth century, which grew out of the Nagybánya School in what is now Baia Mare, which I’m familiar with from writing the Rough Guide to Romania. Mainly influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage, they combined impressionism and naturalism to create a luminist style (a term usually associated with the Hudson River School, who developed a similarly detailed and serene style of landscape painting). Art Nouveau (or Secessionism) was also important, and then in the 1920s Košice was a major centre of avantgarde art. The building at Alžbetina 22 now houses temporary shows, and is next door to the Löffler Museum, dedicated to the sculptor Vojtech Löffler (1906-90), as well as a collection of self-portraits by local artist and contemporary art shows.

The cutting-edge contemporary art scene is more in evidence at the Kasárne and Tabačka Kulturfabrik cultural complexes, both created for Košice’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2013. There’s also the Kunsthalle, a striking exhibition hall in a former swimming pool (opened in 1962) which was closed in 1992 (they drained the adjacent river to put a road there instead, and then the ground dried out and cracked the base of the pool) and reopened in July 2013 as an art centre. It reminded me of La Cité Miroir in Liège, built as a swimming pool in 1939 and reopened as an art centre in 2014.

For those of us with more traditional tastes, perhaps the prime cultural attraction might actually be the cathedral of St Elizabeth, the largest in Slovakia (it’s routinely described as the most easterly Gothic cathedral in Europe, but that could only be true if Romania and Ukraine were not in Europe – there are fine Gothic cathedrals in Cluj, Sibiu, Alba-Iulia and Lviv, not to mention the Black Church in Brașov). It’s a bit assymetrical outside, but is spectacular inside, with a nave and double aisles plus a transept of the same height and width as the nave, creating a huge central space. Immediately to the south is the slightly older church of St Michael, which served as a cemetery chapel, and to the north is the Urban Tower, rebuilt after the great fire of 1556 in Renaissance style, with a ground-level arcade around it. There are other fine churches along Hlavná (the Franciscan church has a fine Baroque façade), and also several synagogues, of which the large domed Neolog synagogue on Moyzesova, built in 1927, is now home to the city’s orchestra.

One cultural treasure that the people of Košice are largely unaware of is the novelist Sándor Márai (1900-89), who was born here, studied in Germany then settled in Budapest, before fleeing communism to the United States; he translated stories by Franz Kafka for Košice’s Hungarian-language newspapers as early as 1921. He wrote 46 books in Hungarian but was not translated into English until the 1990s, since when Embers (1942) in particular has become recognised as a fine nostalgic portrait of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural late Habsburg Empire. It would be great if he could be properly commemorated in his native town.

As for eating and drinking, the Hostinec Pivovar is perhaps the oldest restaurant in Europe, opened in 1542; it is also now a brewpub, with a wide range of unpasteurised and unfiltered beers, including IPA and stout as well as Czech-style lagers. There’s a fairly meaty menu, as well as pasta and gnocchi. You could also try the Žil Verne (Jules Verne) pub or the Schalkház café. There’s also a Georgian restaurant, Gruzinák, which was closed on a Sunday evening when I went looking for khachapuri. All of these are on Hlavná námestie.

I also visited Pezinok and Modra, small wine-making towns just outside Bratislava – they’re lovely places and already covered in the Bradt guide, but I’m adding a museum in each town.

Dundee, Perth and around

 

Although there’s plenty of culture and so on in Dundee (but see below for an update), we were actually there to cycle. First stop was Perth, which might have made a better base if only it had a backpacker’s hostel (there’s a hostel at Perth College which is only open from mid-June until the end of August). It seems a sort of Scottish Truro, with an old-money feel to it and a high-brow cultural profile – in particular at the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre. I was especially struck by the line-up of performers in the Perth Piano Sundays series – the likes of Peter Donohoe, Jeremy Denk, Viktoria Postnikova – nae bad! Just a few days after getting home, a Radio 3 announcer praised the wood-panelled Perth Concert Hall as one of the great spaces for chamber music in the UK. Neither Perth nor Truro is forced by the presence of a university to be cool and relevant. You could argue that Dundee is to Perth as Glasgow is to Edinburgh – a brasher younger sibling that’s trying to cast off an industrial past and become a cultural hub, largely through riverside regeneration – and it’s doing fine, of course, but with a more street/youth profile.

The Perth Museum is fairly small but well presented, covering geology, natural history, prehistory and actual history. Perthshire has a rich store of prehistoric remains, with about 70 stone circles and later henges and hillforts. There’s also the Carpow longboat, about 3000 years old, so not as ancient as the Ferriby Boats. I had no idea that the Romans had made it up here and even started building Rome’s earliest frontier system (before the Antonine and Hadrian’s Walls further south in Scotland, and also the Limes Danubianus past Bratislava) along the Gask Ridge southwest from Perth – I must try to retrace it some time.

Nor did I know that William the Conqueror (Billy the Conk, as he’s known on The History of England podcast) came to Forteviot, near Perth, in 1072, when King Malcolm accepted him as his overlord – but he must have had his fingers crossed, because within a decade he was raiding England again. Perth became known as ‘a capital’ of Scotland, due to the royal court frequently staying here and the presence of Scone Abbey, where the King of Scots was crowned, just across the river; like Dundee, it became a Royal Burgh in the early 12th century. After this local history went a bit quiet until the nineteenth century, when the railway arrived and hotels started serving local drinks – Arthur Bell, John Dewar, and Matthew Gloag became known for their whiskies, and Sandemans imported port. In 1819 there were 44 distilleries here, the last closing in 2016. General Accident was founded here in 1885 and had its headquarters here for 113 years – it evolved into Aviva, which is based, inevitably, in London, but reintroduced the General Accident brand in 2013.

There’s also a bit of art here, notably two sculpture rotundas and two big Lawrence portraits and a Raeburn of the fiddler Niel Gow. There was also a temporary show about Margaret Morris (1891-1980), who created modern dance (a la Isadora Duncan) in Britain – she married the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, whose parents were from Perthshire and who regarded the Perthshire Highlands as his spiritual home – many of his works and also her archive are held at the Fergusson Gallery, a former watertower nearby at the corner of Tay St and Marshall Place – this apparently sees few visitors, so there’s talk of relocating the collection.

Incidentally, we did have a scone in Scone, and a cuppa in Cupar.

Saint Andrews

I’ve been to St Andrews a couple of times before and didn’t linger this time – but I couldn’t help noticing that there are a lot of ruined churches, that the golf obsession is under control and largely confined to the west side of town near the Royal & Ancient, and that even though there are plenty of visitors there are quite a lot of cafés (and all the bike shops) which don’t open on a Sunday. It has more museums than I remembered, but the nicely named MUSA (Museum of the University of St Andrews) is closed for a refurb. There also seemed to be rather a lot of visible lesbians around this time, which was definitely not the case in Dundee or Perth (and was news to my friends who studied there a couple of decades ago).

Broughty Ferry

There’s a pleasant cycle route up the coast northeast from Dundee (now that they’ve sorted out the section past the docks) to Broughty Ferry and on (between railway and golf links) to Carnoustie, where I stayed on my last visit. Broughty Ferry is a more salubrious suburb of Dundee, with decent pubs (see below) and cafés, including (since 1897) the excellent Goodfellow & Steven bakery and tea rooms. Broughty Ferry castle was closed for toilet refurbishment when we passed through, but houses a free museum; guarding the mouth of the Tay since 1496, it sticks out like a rotten tooth from far away.

Problematic pubs

A really good pub takes a bit of finding in Dundee, I’m sorry to say. The Dundonians do like a drink, and there are plenty of pubs in the centre that are always full and noisy, but the main problem is that they’re not interested in live (real) ale – there are rows of gas-pressure dispensers promising IPAs and so on, as well as regular lagers, and frankly they taste much the same – pretty flat. The range of malt whiskies was fairly generic, too. Early in 2018 a real ale pub, the Copper Still, opened in the centre, but by the end of the year it had closed. As you’d expect, the university area, just west of the centre, has some more interesting options, notably the Speedwell, known mainly for its fabulous 1903 interior (there’s an interesting partition with a swinging door between two bar areas) – it has just three well-hidden real ales among a forest of gas dispensers, but the Deuchars was fine and the company was cheery.

Tickety Boo’s, at 51 Commercial St, has a fine interior too, with original stained glass, and is one of the nicest options in the centre, although it’s a bit small and short of seating. Even more than elsewhere, many of the pubs in the centre of Dundee are former banks – there’s the Bank Bar, a former TSB branch at 7 Union St (which usually has four real ales on tap as well as gins and food), not to be confused with the Old Bank Bar at 34 Reform St, The Trades House at 40 Nethergate (with wonderful stained glass and an engraved mirror) or The Counting House at 67 Reform St (once a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, opened in 1856). The last is a Wetherspoons, run by a Europhobic nutter, but it’s attractively restored and has decent enough (and cheap) beers, notably from Stewart’s in Edinburgh. Wetherspoons also run Jolly’s Hotel in Broughty Ferry and the Capital Asset in Perth (neither of which we sampled).

The best option in Broughty Ferry is the Fisherman’s Tavern, which has been in the Good Beer Guide since 1975 (except for 2013, whoops) – like The Trades House, it’s owned by Belhaven, which generally means a better than average pub.

In Perth, the Green Room (good for live music too), the Greyfriars Bar and the Kirkside Bar are the best real ale pubs, but actually the ideal would be to go a little way north to Moulin, a suburb of Pitlochry, where the Moulin Brewery has been building a great reputation since 1995 (Inveralmond isn’t bad either, but they’ve only been going since 1997, so what would they know?). The multinational craft beer monster that is Brewdog (founded in Aberdeen) also has pubs (or ‘bars’) in Dundee and Perth, if that’s your thing. I just noticed yesterday that Brewdog will be opening a pub here in Cambridge soon – good news, if you take the view that any new pub expands the market for real ale and good beer.

Update

As promised at the start – an update on Dundee’s cultural offering – the West Ward Works on Guthrie Street, where the Beano and Dandy annuals were printed, is to be redeveloped into a hub for designers, artists and other creative workers and companies, and will house a comic museum and spaces for live performances and exhibitions.
And it seems that an e-bike sharing scheme will open in July (2019) – presumably using charging stations rather than the dockless model that has become so popular recently for non-electric bike-sharing schemes.

Dundee – a tale of two V&As

A few years ago I stayed in Carnoustie and went across the Tay Bridge to St Andrews a few times – all I really noticed of Dundee then was the huge oil rigs immediately east of the city centre awaiting repair or decommissioning, and how the city’s waterfront was blighted by dual carriageways and lots of traffic queueing to get onto the bridge. Those remain true, although I also now know just how hard it is for pedestrians and cyclists to get across those roads, despite the efforts to open up the waterfront. I also know that they’re on reclaimed land, and the historic city centre (basically nineteenth- and twentieth-century) is largely intact just inland.

As with so many cities, the docks and railway sidings along the waterfront are being regenerated, which in the case of Dundee means (from west to east) a huge Tesco, some new loft-style apartment blocks, a Premier Inn, Captain Scott’s ship the RRS Discovery in a dry dock, and, best of all, just before the road bridge, the new outpost of London’s V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – see below). This opened in September 2018 and I like many others noticed the publicity and wanted to take a look, but I was also here to cycle with Rob (qv) for a few days, to Perth, St Andrews, Carnoustie and elsewhere. To deal with the V&A first, it’s stunning externally, with a prow jutting out over the Firth of Tay, but also echoing the cliffs of Scotland’s east coast (with a ‘cave’ that you can walk or cycle through) and very striking but functional internally. The permanent display, on the history of Scottish design, is a bit smaller than one might expect but does give a great overview of one of the many things that makes Scotland special. For many people the highlight will be the Oak Room from Miss Cranston’s Tearooms in Glasgow, designed in 1907-8 by the great Charles Rennie Macintosh – I found it surprisingly low and dark, but definitely part of a continuum from Odön Lechner’s delightful Blue Church and other Secession buildings in Bratislava.

There’s a lot more to see, but my eye was caught by the theatrical posters (by John Byrne) and designs (by Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, who produced a stunning (and award-winning) set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I saw just a month or two ago). It’s also interesting that the UK’s video games industry was largely created in Dundee (essentially because Clive Sinclair’s Spectrum ZX was manufactured in the Timex factory from 1982) – Lemmings was released in 1991, and Grand Theft Auto in 1997. In 1997 Abertay University (formerly Dundee Institute of Technology) launched the world’s first degree in computer games design, and there’s been no looking back since. Dundee is also a biotech hub, arising out of the design of ingenious surgical instruments – so I should feel at home, as Cambridge is of course also a silicon and biotech hub. Silicon Fen and Silicon Forth, perhaps.

By sheer coincidence, a day after I got home to Cambridge, I read that a prototype ZX Spectrum (no case or anything fancy like that) has been donated to the city’s Centre for Computing History by John Grant who used it to create the machine’s BASIC code.

The permanent display at the V&A is free, and so is the city’s main museum, the McManus Museum and Art Gallery – this was founded in 1869 as the Albert Institute for Literature, Science and Art, allowing me to refer you both to the V&A in London (see below) but also to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, which I wrote about just a week or two back. Actually a lot of places remember Prince Albert, so it’s not the total coincidence it might seem. Anyway, it was closed for a refurb from 2006 to 2009 and is now in fine fettle, with good history displays leading up to the Dundee and the World room, showing off items from around the world collected by missionaries and merchants, and also by two redoubtable lady journalists sent off on a round-the-world trip in 1894 by DC Thomson (yes, the Dundee newspaper company that would later be famous for publishing the Beano and the Dandy), which turned out to be quite a coup for the company. Incidentally, the University of Dundee, not wanting to be outshone by Abertay, launched Masters courses in Comics and Graphic Novels in 2016, despite DC Thomson’s famous refusal to allow access to its archives.

There’s plenty more here, including ‘the best collection of late Victorian Scottish painting’ (displayed in a gallery built in 1889 with cunningly curved walls) – yes, there are various paintings by Rossetti, Millais, Landseer and Sargent, but I was as usual more interested in the slightly earlier portraitists Nasmyth, Raeburn and Ramsay. There are also quite a few paintings by William McTaggart (1835-1910, the so-called ‘Scottish Impressionist’), and a couple by John Maclauchlan Milne (1885-1957) the so-called ‘Dundee Colourist’ – he was a friend of Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell, but there aren’t any works by the Scottish Colourists themselves (bright vibrant painters, somewhere between the Post-Impressionists and Canada’s Group of Seven). Finally, and perhaps not always on show, there’s Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) who was born in St Andrews and kept studios there and in St Ives, giving another link to my recent travels.

Until the V&A docked here, Dundee’s best-known sight was the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, famed for taking Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic, although she was also used for the Australian/New Zealand expedition of 1929-31, led by Douglas Mawson, and spent time in the Canadian Arctic too. I remember her being moored off the Embankment in London in the 1970s when she was flagship of the Royal Naval Reserve – I think I may even have been aboard, as my father was in the navy and also the Deep Sea Scouts (she was used by the Sea Scouts until 1954, definitely before my time). Anyway, we didn’t have time to visit, although a joint ticket with the Verdant Works (a former jute factory) is reasonable value. I did see HMS Unicorn, another wooden ship built in 1824 and at once converted to a floating depot ship – masts were never fitted, and the main deck was roofed over. She was towed from Chatham to Dundee and hasn’t moved since, so she’s in very good condition – but the first impression was so ludicrous that I couldn’t face visiting, even if I’d had time.

I did stick my nose into Dundee Contemporary Arts, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary – it was between exhibitions, but there was a very energetic children’s art day going on and the bar is lively too – definitely recommended. After all this history and culture, and cycling, we needed a drink, of course – but I think I’ll leave that for another post.

In order to contrast and compare properly I popped into the V&A in London a month or two back – the decorative arts are not my thing, so I don’t often go there, but it is a pretty impressive place and has seen a lot of new development recently, such as the Sackler Courtyard (a new entrance from Exhibition Road) and the Photography Centre, displaying some of the vast archives of the V&A and the Royal Photographic Society, as well as some of the earliest cameras. In addition to recent blockbuster shows on David Bowie, Pink Floyd and various fashion icons, the V&A has just staged the major Videogames exhibition, which not exemplifies their urge to be relevant, nay trendy, but is also perfect for transfer to Dundee. The historic collections are in great nick too, in particular the Cast Courts, reopened in November 2018, housing full-size replicas of Michelangelo’s David, Trajan’s Column (important to Romanians and those of us who have written about Romania) and much more. The V&S was notorious for its Saatchi & Saatchi advertising campaign in the 1980s which described it as ‘An ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached’, but the Refreshment Rooms (the first in any museum, opened in 1856) really are amazing, with extravagant tiling and stained glass. The third room was one of William Morris’s first commissions, and one day I may write about visiting the Morris Museum in Walthamstow relatively recently – but probably only if somebody nags me.

Exeter – so much excitement

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Royal Clarence Hotel (in March 2019)

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

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

 Less exciting transport stuff

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

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

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

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

Bratislava – small but perfectly formed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sark – the simple life

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

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

La Coupée, Sark

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

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

Sark

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

Herm

CART – the Campaign for Real Tea

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

The Renegades tea plantation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overtourism, coming soon to Georgia and Uzbekistan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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