Uzbekistan’s three great Silk Road cities are Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva (although the cities of the Fergana Valley were also important crossroads); they’re all different, and I’m not sure which one I preferred. I was intrigued by the different patterns of historical decay and restoration in the three cities.
In Samarkand the Registan was left to decay under the Soviets (one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg madrassa collapsing in the 1920s) and the surrounding area was cleared in the 1960s to build four-storey apartment blocks. In 1967 the regional headquarters of the Communist Party was built on the former citadel, then another medieval quarter was demolished and the sixteenth-century Mirzo baths were replaced by a big restaurant. All of Timur’s fabulous gardens have also vanished. The Registan did see massive restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, and the remains of the Bibi Khanum mosque were rebuilt; across the road, the dome of the Bibi Khanum mausoleum is also totally new. In 1996 the houses around the Gur-i-Amir, the lovely mausoleum of Timur, were cleared and the quiet backwater that reminded Wilfred Blunt of an English cathedral close was replaced with a sterile park. The nearby Aksaray mausoleum has also been rather over-restored, by the look of it. German experts have been working in Samarkand since 1991 and have fixed the problems caused by poor restoration and heavy rain at the Tilla Kari madrasa (religious college) in the Registan, and are now turning their attention to the fifteenth-century Ishratkhana mausoleum, a little-known architectural jewel a kilometre or so south of the centre, so one can hope that this will be subtler work than elsewhere.
The latest problem is that private developers are demolishing houses to build hotels and apartment blocks, notably in the Tsarist quarter immediately west of the historic centre – this is also supposedly protected by UNESCO and the demolitions are clearly illegal, but the local government is if anything encouraging them.
In Bukhara, far more of the medieval city centre has been preserved than in Samarkand, although it has been opened up, and supposedly tidied up, by clearing many of the buildings between the main sights. The Soviets left the city to decay, and demolished all but three of the fifty-odd covered trading domes, so that it became unbearably hot to get around the city in summer and the population largely decamped to modern suburbs (in fact, Bukhara was one of the first cities to develop suburbs, as a result of the Arab conquest of 709, so this was history repeating itself). Fitzroy Maclean came here in 1938 and then in 1958, when he noted that it had been tidied up almost beyond recognition, with the ancient walls and gates mostly swept away and boulevards driven through the maze of narrow, winding streets, and was clearly set to become a tourist centre. Geoffrey Moorhouse made the same observation, also noting that the unrestored domes were topped by storks’ nests but that the storks (the national bird) had not been seen since nearby wetlands had been drained. There’s been a lot more restoration recently, unfortunately involving laughable plastic storks on rooftops, and it’s also been a bit gung-ho at times – in 2017 a wrong-headed decision was taken to lower the roads to their medieval level, destroying many archeological remains in the process, and causing part of a madrasa’s façade to collapse.
On the other hand, I was impressed by the new hotels which fit in very well with the traditional style – and some of them really do deserve their ‘boutique’ tag. Some of the city’s many disused madrasas are being re-used as hotels, restaurants and museums, but there are many more if you fancy investing.
The same is true of Khiva, the smallest of the three, which was largely abandoned when Urgench, 30km to the north, was chosen for industrial development. It was effectively a museum city by 1999, with the feeling of a ghost town – although it’s ironic that many of its madrasas and minarets were actually built in the early twentieth century. Now it’s buzzing with tourists, at least in spring and autumn, although it’s far too hot to visit in summer and too cold in winter. There are three hotels in converted madrassas (one in the old town and two outside) – they lend themselves really well to this recycling, with their monastic cells around a pleasant courtyard.
More on Khiva
In Khiva, I went to see the new train station (they’ve built a branch from Urgench, and now need to electrify it to extend the Afrosiyob high-speed trains here – sometime in 2019, I believe) which is about a kilometre east of the old town – and there’s a great traffic-free boulevard which will be lined with hotels and shopping complexes. I’m assured that this was an area of markets, not housing, and that a new bazaar is under construction nearby.
The Bradt guide to Uzbekistan gives a good account of the city’s amazing array of mosques, mausoleums and minarets – but it doesn’t really say much about its museums. There’s a 100,000 som (USD12) ticket that covers all 15 of the old town’s museums, but most of those museums are of very limited interest – so I’ll have to give some guidance. Still, it’s reasonable value if you visit a few of them. In the new town, the Nurillabay Palace has just been restored and reopened – it was only built at the start of the twentieth century, and there are a couple of galleries of below-average art. The only exhibit of interest is of historic photographs of Khiva under the khanate. For this they charge 50,000 som (USD6) – more than twice as much as any other museum or monument I’ve visited in Uzbekistan, apart from the Registan in Samarkand, which costs 30,000 som and is worth every one.
I did say in my previous post that there’s been a move towards abolishing separate charges for photography in museums, but I then noticed that this was less the case in Bukhara – happily, Khiva fell into line with the trend I’d spotted elsewhere – phew.
The current edition of the Bradt guide also issues a heart-felt plea for a restaurant – any restaurant – in Khiva to stay open out of season, and I’m happy to report that their prayers have been answered, and several places will be open all winter. This is despite the bone-crunching cold that people can already feel on its way – tourists are still enjoying mid-October sun, but the locals are huddled in their wonderful padded ikat jackets. I think I may have to buy one.
So – what possessed me to undertake Walking the Welsh Coast Path? The honest answer is that I simply don’t know. It somehow caught my imagination, billed as the first complete coastal path of an entire country in the world. I wanted to do it. Then I said I would and I did – or to be precise – I have half done it – Chepstow to Cardigan from March 13th to April 23rd 2017. The rest to be completed in 2018. For the purposes of this blog I’ve pulled out the highs and lows and added a few retrospective musings.
I planned to walk every day apart from Mother’s Day.I’d bought a book about walking the WCP – but it went from North to South and having decided to do it the other way round, it was not that useful. I knew I had six weeks at my disposal and when I sat down to work out the mileage I realised I’d only get round halfway in the time available. I did make use of a blog by Charles Hawes who meticulously logged his route clockwise round the WCP a few years ago. If you want to know the minutiae of each day’s twists and turns I recommend you look there! I also made a Facebook group of all my friends who like walking and/or live near to the route and invited them to join me or give me a bed to sleep in. The response was gratifying and generous.
Small rucksack. 2 prs of kwik-dry walking trousers Kwik-dry long sleeved walking top 2 T-shirts (only wore one) 4 pairs of walking socks 7 prs knicks 2 bras Pair of lightweight silk thermal long johns and top Warm fleece Sunhat Beanie Showerproof jacket Lightweight rainproof plastic poncho (used only twice) Walking pole
I didn’t take a map but followed the cleverly designed ‘Conch’ symbol of the WCP, which morphs into a dragon’s tail.
After a few weeks I bought an ankle support and also a tubigrip for my right knee which troubled me more or less constantly. I was knocked off my bike some years ago and badly twisted my knee. Physio had seemed to sort it out but I hadn’t asked much of my knee in the intervening time and the weakness revealed itself fairly quickly. The walking pole helped a lot to relieve the stress, particularly going down hill.
I knew I was heading towards spectacular coastal scenery in the Gower and Pembrokeshire beyond, but in the early days my only highs were places with baths where I could have a good long soak to let my muscles relax – Sue’s hot tub with the added bonus of prosecco just about takes place as my top high in the early days!! And anywhere with food. I was able to eat anything – ANYTHING I wanted and walk it off the next day!
It’s been years since I could eat chocolate and chips and cake without thought and not worry about weight. I lost half a stone, perhaps I built some muscle and strangely, my appetite regulated itself such that I still feel full more quickly since having completed the walk and have stopped overeating. Long may it last….
The first real high, location-wise, was Merthyr Mawr en route from Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (Day 7). It’s a delightful estate village that boasts several thatched roofed cottages (and a substantial domestic pig in a garden) a charming 19th-century church and medieval cross, and is surrounded by a host of Neolithic remains. The path leads through woodland and on to a vast array of sand dunes – the second highest in Europe it seems, yet practically unknown. I then walked along the beach all the way to the seedy amusement arcades of Porthcawl which had a peculiar charm of their own.
For the first nine days I averaged 13 miles a day, so the next high was a mere six-mile amble from Swansea to the Mumbles (Day 9) and a dinky village to explore full of coffee shops and independent retailers. The walk from Mumbles the next day to my cousin’s flat at Caswell Bay was also a breeze compared to the previous week and the scenery began to beguile me. The Gower lived up to its reputation. The route is varied with short sharp inclines and descents, through woodland and dunes, along fabulous beaches and substantial cliffs and with far-reaching views.
Also plenty of watering holes like the Three Cliffs Café at Pennard Stores (Day 11), which I’m told can get super busy in the summer.
The views from the Worm’s Head Hotel at Rhosilli (Day 12) are unrivalled too and the perfect place to watch the sunset.
There’s also an Old Rectory on the beach which is the National Trust’s most popular holiday cottage.
The six-mile stroll from St Clears to Laugharne (Day 22) was pretty and perfect for someone who may not like serious walking! It also ends at Dylan Thomas’ picturesque Boathouse where there’s a lovely café with sandwiches, cake and excellent coffee. And a small museum worth a look.
I also loved the section from Laugharne to Amroth (Day 23) despite an early stretch on the road. Lots of ups and downs but on lovely grassy paths which made a welcome change from muddy gullies. The path officially routes inland at Amroth beach but I saw the tide was out and decided to walk along the beautiful sands. Downside was that I had to cross a shallow river running across the sand to the sea. As it was the end of my day I got a bit gung-ho and simply strode boldly across it, without worrying about wet feet for the remainder of the day, but hadn’t reckoned on slipping. I fell lock, stock & barrel into the freezing water and to get myself up I had to roll over thereby completely immersing myself!
No-one on the beach took the slightest bit of notice of me, so having stood up again, I felt lucky that the sun was shining brightly as I dripped my way up the slipway to the nearest park bench where I brazenly stripped off to my underwear in front of an elderly couple ensconced in their car and looking out to sea as they munched their sandwiches. I didn’t dare make eye contact with them as I pulled a bag of dry clothes out of a plastic bag in the sopping rucksack and proceeded to dress as quickly as my damp body would let me. I was shivering by now, so made my way to a nearby pub which had a double-sided open fire where I was allowed to both dry my clothes and warm my body. Strangely, I suddenly didn’t fancy the two-mile walk to my bed and ordered a taxi. Was told to wait ninety minutes, so settled in for a drink and when time was up the taxi driver called and said he’d be another hour. So another drink was ordered..but they didn’t serve food..oh well! I fell asleep that night well and truly sozzled. But after all, I was celebrating having reached the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, a well-established route, sections of which I already knew and was delighted to revisit. The conch symbol was often absent in this section and replaced by an acorn, the symbol of the much older and better established PCP.
Stackpole Quay and Estate (Day 27) are also worth a mention and perfect for a day’s outing especially with children. The National Trust do a great job maintaining this stunning location and run an excellent café at the Quay. Stackpole’s historic designed landscape is Grade I-listed, full of surprises and a tranquil contrast to the rugged coast. I passed through the Estate to St Govan’s, another lovely village with a pub and tea room. The next day, walking through to St Govan’s Chapel (Day 28) was also a delight as I passed along one of this coast’s most beautiful beaches at Barafundle, which was entirely deserted that morning.
The chapel is a small medieval church tightly tucked between the cliffs at the water’s edge. The day I visited a marriage proposal was taking place – not the first I suspect. A more romantic spot would be hard to find! I wasn’t so keen on the drone filming the event….
The ‘sheep incident’ was definitely one of the strangest things to occur along the WCP
It was a lovely day for the Freshwater West to Angle leg. (Day 31). It started with an egg sandwich slathered in laver bread (seaweed) butter from the fabulous mobile Cafe Môrwhich serves a variety of delectable Welsh-based treats including a vegan burger. We began walking through the dunes and then three sharp inclines and descents, passing lots of small inlets & bays. At the third one, having stopped for a brief rest, I saw the most peculiar sight. A sheep, seemingly stranded, perched on a large rock which had sheer sides from all angles, on the very rocky beach. Very much alive. No idea how she got there. I didn’t call the coastguard till half an hour later when I picked up a weak signal on my phone. They thought I was bonkers but I persisted sensibly and after sending them a geo-located photograph, they were convinced and said they’d notify the local farmers.
A few days later I received the following satisfying message! “The RSPCA responded to our call and attended the scene with the farmer of the land. They recovered the sheep and discovered it had gone down to the rocks to give birth so now has a lamb. Although the sheep is back on dry land at this time, the farmer has informed us that it is very fond of this location on the rocks and has been recovered several times without injury.”
Arriving, eating and staying at the Druidstone Hotel (Day 34) is always a highlight and did not fail to impress on this occasion. It stands at the sea edge above St Bride’s Bay and offers a range of accommodation from camping in the summer, a tiny eco-lodge, bunk rooms (I had the cheapest at £60 for two) right through to exec-type suites and everything in-between, including self-catering cottages. Even if you never stay – do go there for a drink in the basement bar or the terrace with its fabulous view over the sea and sands below.
The next night was also a culinary high – we dined at the Cwtch* in St David’s, the smallest cathedral city in Britain. Between us we ate lobster, rabbit and turbot. NB: Cwtch is Welsh for a loving safe place in a room or in people’s hearts.
Pwll Deri Youth Hostel (Day 38) is probably in the most spectacular location of any hostel in the UK. I walked alone from Abermawr and the scenery was majestic. The path eventually disappeared as I scrambled up and over the craggy Carn Ogof from where I spotted my destination in the distance perched on the side of the cliff.
I was very glad to have booked a room to myself and after watching the sunset from my bedroom window I had an early night.
I was proud of myself this once as I heard from the volunteer wardens the next day that since they’d been there, I was the only one who had actually come in and out of the hostel on foot. Everyone else was touring by car.
Early on I discovered official coast path signs reading “What! No Coast?” – they constitute what I came to call the Welsh Coast Path Con. Basically the WCP is a work in progress and it needs more work. For one reason or another the path is routed inland more often than one would hope and frequently through unattractive industrial areas, tediously lengthy outskirts of towns or along busy dual carriageways. So I took a decision early on to only ‘walk the coast’. After all, that was what I signed up for – right? So whenever I came to a shitty bit or an estuary where I was routed inland one side and then out to the coast the other, if the path was not in view of the water, I took a bus or cab or hitched to the bridge to walk to the other side. (For the record, this happened five times.)
Many of the lows came from the workings of my mind! There were plenty of days when I simply did not ‘feel like’ walking. And I did it anyway. Then there were the times I wanted to stop walking because I was tired or bored or lonely or in pain or…well, there was always a reason! Once I’d started, I found one strategy for keeping going was to count to ten over and over again. Usually after a few minutes or so, I’d get through the resistance. It was important though to recognise when it really wasn’t wise to go on. One morning I woke up with a fever, felt shivery and a bit dizzy and was expecting company the next day. After two hours of struggle I hitched a lift with a couple of potato farmers to the nearest village and asked at the lovely Marloes Village Store, Café and Post Office if I could settle in for a few hours, explaining that I was under the weather. They were super friendly and accommodating and produced great coffee and a baked potato for me even though it wasn’t on the menu. I spent four hours there resting and catching up on emails and doing the cryptic crossword. I felt disappointed because Marloes Head is one of the finest stretches of Pembrokeshire coast. Still, I can look forward to going back to complete it.
There was a sadness to the day I walked with David Gardner from Trefin to Pwll Deri (Day 38), as a couple of holiday makers were dashing around the area trying to find their elderly terrier Fido who had gone missing on the Coast Path the day before. I heard, a few days later, that he had been found and retrieved from the rocks below but had not survived. Dogs really need to be kept on the lead in this environment not only for their own safety, as there are loads of tempting rabbit and badger holes near the cliff edge, but also to protect the sheep which roam freely and at this time of year have vulnerable small lambs.
People have asked me lots of questions, some of which may have been answered already.
To the question “what did you learn’? I say that I learned that I have grit. I suspected as much but had never really tested myself. Now, on the other hand, I am acquainted with some serious walkers, including my beloved Tim Burford, and I’m sure they must be bemused by the outpouring of encouragement and respect and support and praise given to me on Facebook for something which to them may seem rather common-place and unremarkable. But for me, it was hard. And I came to the conclusion that while I enjoy walking for a day or so at a time … or even a tad longer, I am not at heart a real walker. I’d imagined that by the end of the 41 days I’d be feeling fitter and full of enjoyment of the terrain and scenery. The truth is I felt exhausted and franky blasé about ‘another nice view’ and dreaded the long hours (often seven a day) of putting one foot in front of the other. I learned that I can keep myself company with pleasure but that I like a regular dose of other people and mercifully, that is what I got.
So you might think I regret it. Not at all. My mind has an interesting trick of remembering the good times more than the bad ones. I’m grateful for that. So will I complete the walk? Absolutely! In 2018 I intend to walk from Chester to Cardigan anti-clockwise this time, to ring the changes, and will have the sea to my right for a change! And I’m not going to do it all in one go. I’ll do a week or so at a time and factor in rest days. And I hope people will join me too.
I’ve been asked “What did you think about?” Well, it’s no different to any other day except that more often I found myself thinking about the discomforts. The best strategy then was to focus on the sensations of being present beyond the aches and pains. The light, the colour, the wind, the sun, the sounds. I used all my senses to embrace the whole experience rather than focus on the bits of misery. I didn’t make any momentous decisions nor receive any great moments of enlightenment. But then, I hadn’t set out to.
Some people wondered “Why didn’t you get sponsored?”. That’s an easy one…I wanted to be free and not beholden to anyone. Nevertheless, a couple of people have said they’d like to sponsor me retrospectively and I’d be delighted if they donate to any charity of their choice. Thanks!!
My top walks
Below I’ve listed my top walks and then the ones I do not consider at all worthwhile unless you too are going to complete the whole route for whatever reason! In no particular order.
1. Ogmore by Sea to Porthcawl (7 miles) described above.
2. Caswell Bay to Oxwich (8 miles) Wild spring flowers in abundance – the route is varied with lots of ups and downs, far-ranging coastal views, wooded valleys and a long section through the dunes. Three Cliffs Bay is stunning and if you get there at the right time of day you can cross the river on the stepping stones. Then there are lovely marshes at the end.
3. Oxwich to Rhossili (11 miles) Shaded woodland hugging the coast emerges onto a broad close-cropped grassy path overhung by majestic stone outcrops with a great view of the Worm’s Head. Lots of remote beaches and fab rock formations. 4. Llansteffan to St Clears (12 miles) Varied terrain starting at the very end of the beach at Llansteffan. With an incoming tide we only just managed to reach the steps up in time. Wonderful, truly coastal, path along a well-maintained track with views back to the Worm’s Head and to Tenby ahead. We had a section through National Trust land with more great views over the Taf estuary towards Laugharne and up to St Clears. Then into a huge field where we stopped at a conveniently positioned fallen tree and ate our lunch at leisure marvelling at the lack of road between ourselves and the river and no people or boats to be seen for miles. We proceded past a goose farm where the farmer chatted to us about the strange types who follow the Coast Path. One died on in the bog, another was found wandering around talking to himself and was admitted to hospital. He advised us re avoiding said bog and said we were welcome to picnic by the nearby quarry with the locals in the summer. We hugged the edge of the field which was badly littered as it was also the high tide mark and then were taken into a lovely wood carpeted with celandine.
5. The whole section from Stackpole East to St Govan’s Chapel is superb. 6. St Bride’s Bay to Druidstone (8 miles) with lunch at the pub at Little Haven. 7. Solva to Whitesands Bay (13 miles) includes St Non’s chapel and Porthclais harbor with its National Trust kiosk selling yummy cakes. St Justinian’s has a section where the water looks like a boiling cauldron, the water being whipped up by the combo of tide, wind and current over the rocks known locally as the Bitches! 8. Whitesands Bay to Porthgain (12 miles) Varied terrain with some bigger climbs as the rocks and cliffs become larger and more dramatic. There’s an ice-cream van at Abereiddy and some lime-kiln remains to shelter for a nap! 9. Porthgain to Pwll Deri (8 miles), as described above.
10. Fishguard to Poppit Sands (29 miles) My old stomping ground as a young mother. Includes the wonderful Dinas Head, the Sailor’s Safety at Pwllgwaelod for fresh seafood, Cwm yr Eglwys – one of the prettiest beaches with rock pools and a ruined church, the stunning estuary at the Parrog in Newport and the Witches’ Cauldron, a spectacular blow hole near Ceibwr Bay. Finally, Poppit Sands with its dunes and lovely café and the EU-funded Poppit Rocket bus which ferries walkers back along the coast.
My worst walks
1. Chepstow to Redwick (16 miles) lots of walking along the levee and two detours over the M4 to avoid firing ranges.
2. Redwick to Newport (15 miles) Too many deviations inland off the coast, going round private properties, and lots more repetitive levee culminating in industrial terrain with power stations.
3. Newport to Cardiff (13 miles) Uninspiring back streets of Newport leading back to the levee. 4. Barry to Llantwit Major (14 miles) Too many miles walking inland again and then an unreasonably long bit along the edge of a muddy turnip field.
5. Angle to Pembroke (9 miles) Whilst Angle is very pretty the main body of the walk involves one prolonged view of the Milford Haven Refinery on the other side of the estuary.
There was also a significant amount of path on tarmacked country roads. No pit stops or nice places to rest either.
I decided to use miles as although they are longer, somehow in my mind, the fact that there were fewer of them helped me psychologically. Go figure! I needed all the help I could get and help I did indeed get both in the form of friends who joined me for as little as an hour to those who walked with me for days and, in one case, a week!!
407.7 miles completed between 13 March and 23 April 2017. 9.94 miles average day’s walk.
18/41 nights in B&Bs 3/41 AirB&B 2/41 in Youth Hostels 18/41 with friends
Fauna seen: Marsh Harrier (Oxwich Marsh) Red Kite, Pied wagtail, Egret and Grey Heron (Rhossili) Pheasant & Red Admirals, Brown Fritillary (Laugharne) Peregrine Falcon & Choughs (Trefin)
Georgia and Josh & friends in Cardiff who distracted me from my aches & pains for an evening and gave me and Joe a bed each to sleep in.
Cressida Leigh in Swansea who popped down to my hotel at very short notice so I didn’t dine alone.
Andrew, and Debbie who laid on a feast and brought me wine in the bath and whose dogs treated me to a foot lick massage, all this and in the ‘posh end of Barry’ no less (as informed by FB geolocation services!).
Sue Wright in Llantwit Major where I spent two nights which had absolutely nothing to do with prosecco in the hot tub each evening, Sue’s fabulous cooking and the lifts to and fro. It had everything to do with an enduring friendship!
Diana Benjamin, my cousin, who brought Mum down to stay in her Gower flat so I could take her out for Mother’s Day lunch and who also accommodated me on the sofa.
Janice Williams who scooped Karen and me out of the rain and took us back to her lovely farmhouse near Carmarthen.
Sara & Squidge in Martletwy – thanks to Squidge for the fine dining and chauffeur services..much appreciated from a man with clearly many other things to keep him busy!
Selena and Roger for trusting me with Llanteg for a night.
Sophie and David Wellan who gave me and Peter such comfy places to sleep.
Imogen and Stephen Castle who gave me a key to their home and included me into their family routine for three days including Stephen’s gig.
Stuart and AnneFreeman who waited up, cooked for me and put me in front of a cosy fire.
Charley and Seb Garman who had us to stay with their easy & fine hospitality, despite having a number of pressing things to attend to. And to Tanya for cake and lasagne.
Lesley & Peter Fletcher who welcomed us so warmly at their swanky Pavilion café at Penrallt Ceibwr.
Robby Coles who linked up with us at Castlemartin and provided his freshly baked bread and cheese sandwiches for lunch.
Thanks to those who accompanied me:
Joe Smithfor getting me going and keeping me motivated for the first four hard long days in an uninspiring landscape and drizzly, grey weather.
Selena Vane who popped up unexpectedly in Barry and walked a bit before inviting me over to her future mother-in-law’s for tea.
Andrew Derrick who stoically walked with me through a longish day of mizzle and kept my spirits up before catching a train home. And on my last evening caught fresh sea-bass for dinner. Yum!
Sue Wrightwho managed to fall over in deep wet mud within half an hour of joining me and instead of turning round, rolled in the wet grass to clean up (a bit) and gamely continued for a further few hours!
Karen Bellfrom Cornwall who came for a week! Great & cheerful company through the most drizzly and trying days.
Sara Lloyd-Morriswho walked and talked with me more than once and brought with her gin and freshly smoked salmon amongst other culinary delights.
Freddie Rileywho accompanied me to Laugharne where we had a picnic, courtesy of Robbie Coles, below the castle with the family, to celebrate Josh’s birthday.
Tim Burford who came for breakfast with me at Dylan Thomas’ old watering hole and joined me for Dylan’s Birthday Walk (as part of his research for the Rough Guide to Wales) and also linked up at Castlemartin military range a month or so later.
Sophie Wellanfor bringing Sky the dog, great chats and setting a pace when I was flagging
ImogenClarke who walked out of her comfort zone to get me on my way.
Julian Peckwho came all the way from Cambridge (and thanks to Katherine Ireson for graciously ‘lending’ him to me for two days). And Marc Bailey (also from Cambridge) for jolly company and not complaining about my snoring in the bottom bunk. And for lending me his rucksack.
Stuart Freeman who did a few hours with me over a couple of days and took me up a beautiful sweeping valley parallel to the coast before turning back across the mountain for home.
Al Brunker & Sara-Jane who joined us on the walk to the Druidstone – AND walked all the way back. Respect!! Oh yes, and who also provided home-baked fruitcake.
David Gardner for great conversation and his expertise in identifying birdlife.
Last but not least Peter Knight who with patience and good cheer accommodated my flagging energy and found the joy in each day.
The first place I went to research a guidebook was Romania, in the spring of 1991, and after writing two editions of the Bradt Hiking Guide I continued as author of the Rough Guide to Romania, still somehow trundling along with new editions to this day.
My first professional contact with the Rough Guides was when I went to Portugal in 1992 with a second-hand copy of the guide and sent back detailed notes, which they found useful enough to offer me a free book for my next trip – so when I went to Morocco at the end of 1992 I sent in a good load of information on Marrakech and hiking in the Anti-Atlas. When I returned to Morocco in March 2016 I took that 1993 4th edition (we also took a 2013 Footprint Dream Trip guide which was quite adequate for current info), and I was reminded how very good the RGs were in those days. My notes from that first Morocco trip led to my working on the RG to Romania, a satisfying experience at first as the country transformed itself (with countless detours and delays) from a post-communist mess into a more modern mess, but an experience that became depressing as each edition was cut, cut, cut – just as the tourist offer was expanding in volume and variety. The Morocco book had a particularly good Contexts section at the rear with extracts from literature by Moroccans and about Morocco – the sort of thing that’s ideal for long bus rides, but long since lost from guidebooks. For the most recent (7th) edition of Romania, researched in late 2015 and published in 2016, we had to endure a re-design of the text, breaking it up with extra headings so that – suprise surprise! – more information had to be cut (while finding space for all the new URLs, more detailed opening hours, both English and Romanian names for all museums etc). Hard and tedious work – and it was quite a shock to return to the 1993 Morocco guide, and then a month later the 1997 RG to Tuscany & Umbria, to see how much information and added insight they were able to give – even if we couldn’t really see the difference between the zellig designs in the various medersas, it was good to know about it.
To give a bit more detail, the text has been broken up into app-friendly nuggets – each given its own heading, followed by a line with practical details (often just a two-word street address) – then the name is repeated (in English and Romanian) in the text below. So on the one hand there’s pointless repetition, and on the other any nugget that doesn’t reach about 30 words has to be either puffed up with flannel or cut. Likewise, hotel and restaurant/café listings have to be 30 words, or be cut – passing mentions in running text are now banned. The upshot is that the redesign – which we were promised would actually save space – actually needs more space, and leads to the text being cut ruthlessly. Of course, as always in this image-hungry world, there are lots of glossy photos. And this is a book that has been trimmed in all the preceding editions – there was no fat left to lose, while there was lots of new material, especially in Transylvania. Space could be saved by using single instead of double quotation marks, by writing eg p.154-5 and 1946-7 instead of p.154-55 and 1946-47 etc (that adds up over the length of a book), but the design is sacrosanct. The Rough Guides have always taken a much more mechanistic and formulaic approach than other publishers I’ve worked with, but this time there really was almost no wiggle room.
The official view was that the redesign would actually save space, but there would also be ‘counterbalancing cuts’, though I have no idea what these were: ‘To achieve the desired extent in other titles, we’ve depended on the counterbalancing cuts mentioned in synopses, in tandem with the slight shrinkage naturally brought about by the redesign’.
I hate this not simply because valuable information is being lost, but because it’s a shift towards a more metropolitan style of tourism where people rush from one honeypot to another in search of third-wave coffee. The redesign did seem to work for Wales, but the thing about Maramureş and Transylvania is that it’s all about the villages, and often there isn’t a single specific sight. If we have to delete every place that doesn’t have the requisite number of cappuccino outlets it ends up like every other guide to towns and other tourist hotspots. Now we can’t even write ‘the road from A to B passes through C, where there’s a nice church and a couple of guesthouses, and a lovely unrushed rural lifestyle.’ – now it all has to be pumped up into full listings, or cut. So people’s livelihoods in sustainable, community-based businesses are jeopardised, and the tourist experience just gets duller.
Rough Guides (now part of Penguin-Random House) is progressively buying out authors’ copyrights, so that we now receive a fee rather than royalties. This shouldn’t have changed our status, but increasingly the payments department in particular is treating authors on a level with suppliers of office toilet paper, in a faceless bureaucratic maze where we’re threatened with non-payment if we don’t use exactly the right format for our invoices – and I was sent just one copy of the finished book until I demanded a second (an oversight, apparently). Authors are no longer expected to check the proofs – but thank goodness I did see them for indexing, as there were quite a few errors still in the text, given the last-minute rush after the lengthy to-and-fro trying to decide what really had to be cut. The fact that the layout and cartography are now done in Delhi didn’t help.
Given the general atmosphere of doom and gloom in guidebook publishing since the 2008 crash and the rise of smartphone apps to replace dead-tree guidebooks, we were a bit surprised that a new edition of Romania was commissioned at all, and there was never much chance of getting space for all the new tourism developments in the country – so I may have been unreasonable in trying so desperately to fit all the new stuff in while not hacking out too much existing text. No-one is as dedicated as me to going through text word by word (several times) to make it as tight as possible, but it was never going to work.
Anyway – the upshot of a process in which each edition looks prettier but contains less useful information is that over 80 villages were cut from this latest edition. From the Transylvania chapter these are: Moeciu, Fundata, Cloaşterf, Sâmbata Monastery, Cisnădioara, Răşinari, Săcel, Miercurea Sibiului, Slimnic, Ocna Sibiului, Sebeş (actually a fairly significant town), Lăzarea, Brâncoveneşti, Hodac and Gurghiu, Cernat de Jos, Zalánpatak, Băile Homorod, Vlăhiţa, Stejărişu, Buru, Ocoliş, Bucium Poieni, Beliş, Călata, Călăţele, Mănăstireni, Fildu de Sus, Hida, Cizer, Leşu, Beclean, Coşbuc, Năsăud and the whole of the Someş Mare valley (Sângeorz-Bai, Rodna and Şanţ) and the Bârgău valley (Livezele, Josenii Bârgăului, Prundu Bârgăului, Tiha Bârgăului and the Tihuţa Pass). But we’ve added the delightful villages of Richiş, Moşna and Alma Vii.
Now I’m not saying that some of these places didn’t need to make way for newer ones, or in a general process of streamlining, but I do want to make the information available in the somewhat more elastic space of the internet. I’m posting a selection of accounts of Transylvanian villages in this post – some updated, some not, and all shorn of their context. I’ll come to the rest of Romania in another post.