Cycling both ways across Yorkshire

So this is it, the Staycation Summer. The hordes that are usually drinking and vomiting by the Mediterranean are not risking quarantine and so are having their holidays in Cornwall and the Lake District instead (following their much publicised visits to Brighton and Bournemouth beaches, with associated anti-social behaviour and total absence of social distancing). I’m in Cornwall now and I was in Cumbria last week, and it is definitely not what local residents want or are used to.

 My first real trip after the Covid-19 lockdown was with my bike to Yorkshire and Cumbria – I’ve written about them before , and definitely plan to focus on York itself before too long. It was fun, but fundamentally I miss my old life. It’s all very well cycling from town to town, but I want to see something interesting when I get there. A few churches at least are now open around Cambridge, but not so many up here, and there are very few museums or stately homes open. How am I meant to gather information with which to confuse or amaze you? So when I do find something open, I don’t care how pricey it is, I’m in, even though in fact various parts are closed because they don’t fit in to a socially distanced one-way system or pandemic staffing levels. And I can’t breathe in my mask and my glasses are steamed up. And don’t get me started on pubs which insist on ordering via a QR reader rather than just saying ‘Two pints, please’ and waving a card at a contactless reader.

 One surprise was how few establishments are taking Track and Trace details – I know the whole system is discredited, but still, it’s hardly a big deal to give a name and phone number. Another oddity of the lockdown has been its environmental impact – it seemed great at first, as skies and rivers cleared and cars vanished from the roads to be replaced by hordes of cyclists, joggers and walkers (those poor dogs, dragged out three or four times a day). But then it became clear that throwaway culture was the big winner, with deliveries and takeaways leaving huge amounts of waste, not to mention the mind-boggling amounts of single-use plastic PPE being dumped by the NHS and care homes. But I hadn’t realised until I went on this trip how hard it has become to recycle waste when you’re out and about – home collections still work, but in many towns the street bins seem to have gone.

Doncaster to Tadcaster and Lancaster

Anyway, I took a train to Doncaster and then cycled a branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail (a typical Sustrans route – going great distances on poor surfaces (former railway lines, even a former airfield) to avoid traffic, although in this case without the unnecessary hills they sometimes give us as well) to Snaith, where there’s an attractive priory that I’d never heard of, and Selby, where I knew there was an attractive abbey, and then the Solar System Greenway. On the original Selby-York alignment of the London-Edinburgh railway (where Mallard and the Deltics may have got up to a dizzying 100mph), this is indeed a scale model of the solar system, starting with the Voyager probe and the outer planets, about 2.5km apart, and ending up with the inner planets, about 250m apart, and the sun by the York ring-road. I’ve seen a few of these in my time, including on an alp above St Luc in Switzerland, and in Barrow, Alaska, but they’re always good, illustrating how very lonely the outer reaches of the solar system are.

 From the edge of York  I turned west through quiet lanes to Tadcaster, a Roman town near the crossing of the Great North Road (Ermine Street, now the A1) and the Leeds to York road (the Roman road from Chester to Bridlington, now the A64), that is now known as home to the Sam Smith’s and John Smith’s breweries.

 Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery claims to be Yorkshire’s Oldest Brewery, Established 1758, but the truth is slightly more tangled – in 1847 John Smith bought an existing brewery, founded in 1758, but then moved to new premises next door and left the old brewery to his nephew Samuel, who founded Samuel Smith’s Brewery in 1886. Sam’s is still independent and is known in Britain for selling decent beers in its own pubs at a remarkably low price (about double what it used to be, but still good value) and in the USA as the inspiration for early craft brewers such as Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island. Unusually, they produce only one real or cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, as well as a range of keg and bottled beers, and all their beers are vegan except for OBB and Yorkshire Stingo, a rich treacly beer matured for at least a year in oak casks and then bottled. I was intrigued by the name because the Blue Anchor in my home town of Helston in Cornwall, a pub-brewery which has been active continuously since the fifteenth century, calls its beer Spingo. This is a traditionally sweet Cornish bitter, while it turns out that Yorkshire Stingo refers to a stronger ale.

 You can enjoy a good pint of OBB at the Angel and White Horse in the centre of Tadcaster, which is not only the brewery tap but also home to their fine grey shire horses, who deliver beer to local pubs five days a week – you can look in to the stables across the courtyard.

 On the western edge of town, the much larger John Smith’s Brewery (now owned by Heineken UK) mass-produces a gassy bitter, as well as Amstel and Kronenbourg lagers. Enough said.

 From Taddie I cycled on quiet lanes to the edge of Leeds (a great city which I’ve written about before) then followed their new Cycle Superhighway 2 to the city centre and switched to the Aire Valley Greenway, ie the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. In the western outskirts I stopped at Kirkstall Abbey – founded in 1152, this was one of the great Cistercian abbeys that became rich on the wool trade (see the Suffolk wool churches in my last post, and indeed Kendal in my next post), along with Jervaulx (which I visited a week later – see below), Rievaulx and Fountains. Kirkstall is now ruined and there’s not much to see, but it’s at the heart of a popular park. I’d have revisited the David Hockney Gallery in Salt’s Mill in Saltaire if it had been open, but alas no; so I cycled past Bingley’s Two-Rise and Five-Rise Locks to Keighley and then struggled (it was the UK’s hottest August day for 17 years) up the hill to Haworth.

 Usually Haworth is swamped by Brönte fans and purveyors of romantic Brönte souvenirs, but the Parsonage Museum is closed, so they’re all staying away. In their absence, I could see that it’s quite attractive and not really that different from Hebden Bridge, with its Haworth Wholefoods, its Haworth Steam Brewery, its book and vinyl shops – but because it’s not on a main-line railway it doesn’t have the same potential for commuting into Leeds and Manchester. It has some decent pubs too, and as I cycled on I saw some more that looked pretty decent on the wuthering heights to the west.

Wensleydale

I spent the next six nights in Lancaster and Cumbria – see my next post – and then returned to Yorkshire, taking the wonderfully scenic Settle and Carlisle railway line to Ribblehead. It’s known for the 24-arch viaduct, opened in 1874 as part of the last major railway to be built in Britain, but this wild and remote moorland was crossed long ago by Roman roads, some of which my friend Rob (with whom I cycled in Belgium, Taiwan and other places) is very keen on as cycle routes. His account of this Wensleydale ride is here. I was due to meet him in Hawes, down at the head of Wensleydale, which I thought would be a swift belt downhill but turned out to be quite a slog. I have visited the Wensleydale Creamery, famed for the eponymous cheese, but not this time. Eventually we got going, through Askrigg (where the pub apparently played a rôle in the James Herriott TV programmes) to Aysgarth, where Rob was amazed that as a proud Yorkshireman he’d had no idea the falls were so spectacular (we caught them after a reasonable amount of rain) – the River Ure drops over three separate sets of limestone slabs over almost a mile and the tea-coloured water puts on a pretty lively show.

Cycling journalist at work – Rob at Aysgarth Falls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Our next stop was Wensley, after which the dale of the Ure is named, although no-one really knows why – see below. It’s a tiny village, with an impressive little Grade-1 listed church that’s usually open – it’s not used for worship but is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Built circa 1240, it’s as notable for its furnishings as for its architecture, notably the Scrope family pew, a grand piece of seventeenth-century woodwork with at the back a sixteenth-century carved screen brought from Easby Abbey when it was dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1927 whitewash was removed from the walls, revealing fourteenth-century paintings of Jacob and Esau. Nice wildlife churchyard, too.

 I knew Middleham Castle as Richard III’s base, but I have no idea why the village would now be twinned with Agincourt. In fact Middleham was a bit of a surprise – not only is it ‘the Newmarket of the North’, with lots of racehorse trainers here, but it also seems to be evolving into a bit of a foodie/boutique hotel destination, with various pubs serving good food (including the Blue Lion in East Witton, the next village we passed), one of which, the White Swan, transformed itself into The Wensleydale Hotel in 2019. Just to the east we were able to divert onto the footpath through Jervaulx Abbey, the only one of Yorkshire’s great Cistercian abbeys that is privately owned, with an honesty box to pay for admission (Paypal also welcome). It seems like an attractive garden (and tearooms) with an ace abbey attached, as there are few of the detailed information panels you might be looking for.

 The next stop was Masham, which shares a similar brewing history to Tadcaster, with a well-known brewery, Theakston’s, founded in 1827, and the breakaway Black Sheep Brewery, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston, who left the family firm in 1988 after its takeover by Scottish & Newcastle. In fact the four other Theakston brothers bought back control of the business in 2004, and its website proudly proclaims it as an independent brewery, although in fact Heineken UK (successor to S&N) still owns 28% of the shares. Their Old Peculier is a really special beer, a strong old ale that’s dark, rich and smooth. Black Sheep Best Bitter, meanwhile, has been a huge success, spreading across Britain and indeed usually on tap in my local in Cambridge. I enjoyed visiting the Black Sheep Brewery over two decades ago and hoped to repeat the experience, but paying with a contactless card was far too simple for them – so we ended up getting our pints of Black Sheep at a pub-hotel on the town’s square, which rather bizarrely turned out to be owned by Greene King, the East Anglian regional brewers that I’ve moaned about before.

 Then we passed through West Tanfield, where the fifteenth-century Marmion Tower (Grade I-listed and managed by English Heritage) stands almost up against the thirteenth-century church (which houses some fine old tombs) – the tower is just a shell, but you can still go up to the first floor for views through the oriel window.

 

Virtually traffic-free lanes took us via Wath to Ripon for our overnight stop – it’s a small historic market town, whoops sorry, city, where the main sight is the cathedral. Built in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, it only became a cathedral in 1836 when the Diocese of Ripon was created, and Ripon therefore became a city – but in 2014 the diocese became part of the new Diocese of Leeds, with three co-cathedrals, here, in Wakefield and in Bradford (but not Leeds). The ways of the Church of England are indeed mysterious.  The Early English west front, raised in 1220, is a highlight, but overall I found the furnishings more interesting than the architecture, notably the misericords in the choir, carved between 1489 and 1494, and the wooden hand sticking out above them from the base of the organ, used to beat time for the choir. This summer there are also some 10,000 paper angels hanging in a net high in the nave, in the very striking A Wing and a Prayer installation.

 Ripon’s Market Square is spacious and attractive, with an eighteenth-century obelisk, perhaps by Nicholas Hawksmoor, in the centre, and some fine buildings such as the Town Hall, built in 1799 by James Wyatt, and the half-timbered Wakeman’s House, built by about 1600. The Wakeman was (until 1604) the predecessor of the mayor, and can be confused with the Hornblower, who traditionally blows a blast on a horn at 9pm every night at each corner of the obelisk. There are in fact currently three hornblowers (one female) with four historic horns to choose from, and during the pandemic the tradition has been maintained by one of them at home – there’s no public notification of who or where to avoid public gatherings, of course. Otherwise, Ripon has a three-fold museum complex that might be interesting, but as it was just an overnight stop we couldn’t visit; but we did enjoy good Italian food (and wine) at Prima as well as grabbing breakfast pastries at Thomas the Baker.

 From Ripon it’s not far to Boroughbridge, an historic coaching stop on the Great North Road, which shows signs of possibly rediscovering its foodie vocation with attractive shops and cafés. First we saw the Devil’s Arrows, three large standing stones that are part of a ritual landscape that stretches to the three Thornborough Henges, back near Masham, sometimes referred to as the Stonehenge of the North. In the almost conjoined village of Aldborough we visited the few paltry remains of a Romano-British township where a couple of mosaics are preserved in their original locations, but they are unimpressive compared to ones I’ve seen in the last few years in places like Trier, Istanbul, Plovdiv , Butrint and even St Albans.

 From here there was nothing much to detain us on our ride to York – we were still following the Ure, but it’s rich farming country rather than a dale. But Rob needed to show me the Ousegill Burn, a very minor stream about 2km long, and vent his disgust at the geographical quirk that means that the Ure (having absorbed the Swale, though both are in fact pretty equal-sized rivers) suddenly becomes known as the Ouse after the confluence with this little stream. Ouse was the Celtic word for ‘water’ (just as Avon was the Celtic word for ‘river’), so there are various rivers called Ouse (and Avon) across Britain – but it seems obvious to Rob, and I can’t disagree, that Jorvik, the Viking name for York, derives from the Ure (never mind the orthodoxy that it derives from the Saxon Eoforwic, thought to mean wild boar settlement, or Eofer’s trading place). And Jervaulx is an old French form of Ure Valley. So there are in fact two mysteries, why the dale is named after Wensley rather than the Ure, and why the river through York is called the Ouse rather the Ure. The Ure can definitely feel hard done by.

 After crossing the Aldwark toll bridge (free for bikes, and busy with cyclists on the coast-to-coast Way of the Roses) it was nice to pass through the grounds of the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall (still closed, though the gardens, café and restaurant are open) before the pleasant riverside ride into York, for a refreshing pint and a train home.

Rough coverage

As a Rough Guides author, I was of course carrying the Yorkshire guide – which turned out to have no coverage of Selby, Tadcaster or indeed Ilkley, but eight pages on Rotherham and seven on Doncaster – is this because the author perhaps lives between them on the southernmost edge of Yorkshire (ie almost in London), or is it a metropolitan obsession with post-industrial re-invention?

Updating Wales, especially Anglesey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corfu

Having followed the tracks of Rebecca West through Macedonia, Kosova and Montenegro, I was keen to follow Edward Lear through Albania and to Corfu, which was his winter base from 1860 to 1864 (in which year it ceased to be a British protectorate). He wrote that ‘no other spot on earth can be fuller of beauty and of variety of beauty’. I’ve always found Greece rather too arid for my tastes and the light too bright and harsh on the eyes – and I’ve found it remarkably cold in November too. But Corfu (in May) turned out to be very different – it was indeed beautiful, and the interior was remarkably wild and incredibly densely vegetated. It definitely rains a bit here. I was particularly impressed by the many aged and incredibly twisted olive trees, perhaps dating from the seventeenth century when the island’s Venetian rulers encouraged the inhabitants to cultivate them. We didn’t really frequent any beaches, but the coast seems to be developed only where it’s accessible, often with cliffs in between.

I arrived by hydrofoil from Sarandë in Albania (a very pleasant hour’s hop), but most people find themselves in Corfu airport’s tiny arrivals hall, where half the arrivals are directed to buses to the south of the island for the mass-market beer-and-chips resorts and half rent cars to go to villas in the north (including my family). There are also some backpackers who walk (or cycle, or take a bus) the 2km to Corfu Town; and rumour has it that some Greeks arrive by plane, but the domestic arrivals are off to one side. We also saw between one and four cruise ships in harbour every day.

It’s a great place for tourism, largely because the Corfiots are so nice, but also because of the variety of experiences on offer. In addition to lazing on the beach and in town, you can rent all kinds of boats and boards, or bikes, scooters and quad bikes to cruise around the island. In the interior you’ll glimpse a few sturdy British (and maybe German) hikers, some tackling the Ionian Trail, which runs for 200km the length of the island (and the other Ionian islands to the south), passing through all its ecosystems and traversing Mount Pantokrator (Ruler of All), the island’s highest peak at 911 metres. It’s best to walk from south to north, as the island gets steadily hillier and more beautiful, and you’ll have the sun at your back rather than in your eyes, as a rule.

In addition, because Corfu and the other Cycladic islands had such a different history to the rest of Greece – ruled by the Byzantines and Angevins, Venice, France, Britain, even briefly by Russia (1799-1807), but never by the Ottomans – there’s plenty of historic interest. The area of the Old Fortress, to the east of the present Corfu Town, was occupied from the mid-sixth century BC, but the Greek settlement of Chersoupolis grew up on the Kanoni peninsula, just south of town (and immediately east of the airport), and already in the fifth century BC Korkyra was one of the three great naval powers of Greece, along with Athens and Corinth. Various temples have been found in this area, now known as Kanoni, and more ancient remains are being discovered. Don’t miss the Archeological Museum, in a fine modern building just south of the centre, which has a good display of Greek remains (and relatively little from the Roman period); nor the Museum of Asian Art, in the grand Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George, built in 1819-24 to be the residence of the (British) Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. The museum is surprisingly serious and professional; but many people will miss the two staircases up to the Central Asian section (with good coverage of ikat from Uzbekistan and more on Japan). There’s a combined ticket to Corfu Town’s museums, which also include the Old Fortress with its mainly Venetian fortifications.

Corfu Town itself has a genuine old town between the port and the rear of the Liston, a neoclassical arcade of posh shops and pavement cafés that was designed in 1807 by Mathieu de Lesseps (father of Ferdinand, who built the Suez Canal) and supposedly modelled on the rue de Rivoli in Paris. In the heart of the old town, the Town Hall stands on Guilford Street, named after Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford (son of Lord North, the British prime minister who lost the American colonies), who was himself the first British Governor of Ceylon (1798-1805). He made his first trip to Greece in 1791 and lived there from 1810 to 1813 and in Corfu from 1824. He was an exaggerated philhellene, who wore classical costume and converted to the Greek Orthodox religion; in 1824 he established the Ionian Academy, the first university on Greek soil. I recently found myself on Guilford Street in London, which turns out to be named after Lord North.

Outside the one and only real town, it’s worth visiting Mon Repos, birthplace of Phil the Greek aka the Duke of Edinburgh, with the remains of a couple of Greek temples nearby on the Kanoni peninsula, and the Achelleion, further south, a triumph of bad taste (mainly Kaiser Wilhelm II’s). It was actually built in 1890 for the Habsburg Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sisi, to escape memories of the suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, at Mayerling; after her own murder it was bought by Kaiser Bill (whose sister Sophia was Queen of Greece) and filled with kitschy art which is worth wondering over, while the gardens offer views over half the island. There aren’t many other sights outside Corfu Town – the Shell Museum at Benitses has closed.

Never mind Lear, you say, what about the Durrells? I did skim through Gerald’s Corfu books and learnt a lot about the wildlife that could be seen then (there won’t be so much of it now), but the actual settings are a bit confused – they were based in the northeastern corner of the island, where the posh people (Rothschilds and the like) have their villas now, and lived in a succession of rented houses. Various holiday villas claim to be ‘the Durrells’ home’, but they were indeed a shiftless bohemian lot who didn’t stay anywhere for all that long.

As for Larry, it turns out he was already married and living elsewhere, although Gerry writes as if he was still in the bosom of the family (and totally excludes the wife, with whom he did not get on).

And although Rebecca West didn’t include Corfu in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, it plays a part as the place where the Serbian army, driven out of their homeland by the invading Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian armies, found refuge in November 2015 after a desperate retreat through Albania – at least 200,000 men died in the snowy mountains, and perhaps 30,000 more died of flu during the cold wet winter that followed. A fascinating tale that is little known nowadays. Their headquarters were on the island of Vidos, a couple of kilometres north of the harbour of Corfu Town – there are persistent rumours of a tunnel linking them, but I don’t think there’s any factual base to them.

Practicalities

I’m not offering any recommendations for places to stay or eat (as we, like many others, rented a villa and self-catered to a certain extent), but I have a few general thoughts. I was surprised to see huge piles of rubbish that had apparently been there since the previous year; in addition there was plenty of grass growing between the paving stones – Sarandë in Albania was far more kempt than Corfu, surprising as that may seem.

The roads are also bad, and the driving a bit chaotic – the Corfiots really don’t like keeping to urban speed limits and double-parking is normal; and if you let someone pull out of a side road five cars will rush through, usually in parallel. I’m the last person to suggest building roads, as a rule, but some kind of bypass for Corfu Town is needed unless they can sort out its traffic problem – but in fact it’s due to the free unregulated provision of car parking, which could easily be sorted out.

We did enjoy Corfu Beer‘s products, in particular the Corfu Red (they also do an IPA, dark bitter, Weissbier and lager) – refreshing but a bit pricey, we thought.

Now that’s what I call a Greek salad

Albania – a real alternative

Although there’s been a lot of media hot air about Montenegro in recent years, Albania is currently more interesting, and it’s become a great destination for slightly more enterprising backpackers. I passed through fairly quickly, with less than a week to spare between staying with friends in Montenegro and with family in Corfu, and would love to come again when the weather permits me to spend time in the mountains (it rained every day in mid-May). So I went from north to south fairly close to the coast, from Shkodër to Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster, finishing at the port of Sarandë – all interesting towns with plenty of history. The country was, not surprisingly, green and fertile, but I didn’t see many of the mushroom-like pillboxes (tiny bunkers) that one heard so much about a couple of decades back – an indicator of how time passes. Now Albania seems much like the other southern Balkan countries, if a little poorer and thus more ‘authentic’.

 There’s now little sign of the strong folk culture that I found in places like Transylvania in the early 1990s and was probably going strong here at the same time. Albania’s been through some turmoil, not just its peculiarly warped form of communism (from 1945 to 1990) but then the pyramid-savings scams that brought the country to its knees in 1997 and unleashed a particularly anarchic uprising, with over 2,000 killed and UN peacekeepers sent in to restore order. Tribal feuds that it was assumed were finished and done for raised their ugly heads again, and the place seemed like an utterly failed state – I’d recently read about the build-up to this in Robert Carver’s fascinating The Accursed Mountains (1998) (and briefly in Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules; 1995). Another brief rebellion broke out in 1998 after the assassination of opposition leader Azem Hajdari. Nowadays the main towns feel perfectly safe and welcoming, and I certainly never felt I needed to wear a moneybelt or not go out after dark.

 Having said that, there are more tourists than I expected – not on a Kotor-like scale(though cruise ships seem to be arriving), but there’s a steady flow of backpackers staying in hostels (and there are quite a few of those in all the tourist centres) as well as coach parties in hotels. The main roads are decent, and the main towns are only a couple of hours apart; there are also very slow (but spectacularly cheap) trains between Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Vlorë and Elbasan – see below for more on Tirana’s stations.

 Northern Albania – Shkodër
Rozafa castle

I was first in Shkodër, gateway from Montenegro (by the routes from Podgorica and from Ulcinj on the coast) – it’s a very pleasant place without a huge amount to see, although I was taken by the quantity of cyclists, mostly managing to keep an umbrella upright and still stop and steer safely. The Rozafa castle is 3km south (a local bus shuttles along the main road) and gives great views after a stiff little climb, but there’s really nothing to see inside. In the town centre there’s a fairly poor history museum, in an attractive nineteenth-century building. The going rate for museums is 150-200 Lek (GBP 1-1.40) – there’s a new Photography Museum which charges 700 Lek, which I didn’t visit. Nor did I get to the Site of Witness and Memory on Edith Durham (southeast of the centre), in the former Security Police headquarters – now a memorial to the victims of communist terror. Otherwise there are a couple of Roman Catholic churches built in the 1890s and the English-style clock tower, dating from 1868.

 Tirana

From there I took a slow bus (lots of picking up and setting down) to Tirana, which as expected is largely a mess of communist concrete, but with many redeeming features. I was pleased to find a small new herb and wild flower garden on the central Skanderbeg Square – this is now a wide gently domed plaza above a car park, but I was also pleased to see plenty of cyclists crossing it. Unfortunately the main arteries to the bus stations and out of the city are horribly traffic-choked and not fit for cycling. Architecturally, the city is known for a few Italian Fascist-style buildings, such as the national bank, and for its programme of making unattractive concrete blocks more attractive by painting them – I was led to expect lurid graffiti art, but saw only pastel Italian tones – but I didn’t get everywhere. The ‘Tirana 2030’ project aims to return a bit more nature to the cityscape, and will with luck be nothing like the crass Skopje 2014 project.

 Unfortunately Tirana’s railway station was closed in 2013 and replaced with a multi-carriageway road to rearrange the city’s traffic jams, with trains moved Ryanair-style to Vorë, 16km away; from 2015 trains made it as far as Kashar, an industrial area about 7km northwest of the centre along the Durrës highway. A new bus and train interchange is supposedly to be built in Laprakë, a bit closer to the centre, but as successive governments have been happy to let the railway system collapse this seems unlikely to happen. In truth, one government signs up to a project and the next starves it of funds and cancels it – in particular, a contract was awarded to GE to build a railway to Tirana’s airport in 2005 and then cancelled, costing the government €14 million. Governments keep on putting modern railway stations in places that can only really be reached by car – see the new TGV line in Morocco, and I gather this has also happened with the new line to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

 The city does have a few decent museums – the national history museum starts well, with good archeological displays with information in English, but then goes downhill upstairs (as it were). There’s good coverage of the kingdom of Illyria, which came into being by the end of the fifth century BC, and under the legendary Queen Teuta covered the whole Croatian coast as well as Albania; the Illyrians produced several Roman emperors (most notable Justinian) but simply vanished from the historical record in the seventh century AD. The coverage of the medieval and modern periods is less good, but there’s some interesting stuff – I’d thought Skanderbeg was a purely local hero, but he (George Kastrioti) turns out to have been an equal of the great John Hunyadi (Iancu de Hunedoara), who I’ve come across many times in Romania – they formed an alliance against the Turks, winning a great victory at Niš in 1443. The Castrati petrol stations are named after him (that’s his helmet in the logo), not after the Italian singers with very high voices.

 Nearby, the Bunk’Art-2 museum is housed in the bunker beneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs, built in 1981-6 (the present entry and exit outside the ministry are recent additions). This was one of the last ‘great works’ of Hoxha’s bunkerisation project, which began in the early 1970s and produced 175,000 bunkers and pillboxes across the country. In 24 rooms, it covers the history of the country’s Gendarmerie and the Sigurimi (Security Police), founded in 1944 as soon as the communists began their takeover (its founder was himself arrested and shot in 1948). Between 1944 and 1991 over 6,000 people were executed and over 30,000 political prisoners were held in labour camps; in addition the Border Forces (established in 1949) killed about 1,000 Albanian citizens attempting to leave their prison of a country. It’s a well-presented museum, and you can scan the AR logo for an augmented reality experience. In the eastern suburbs, the original Bunk’Art 1 (in Hoxha’s atomic bunker) displays a broader view of everyday life under communism.

 Hoxha’s Pyramid (built as his tomb and museum in 1988 and briefly used as a conference centre after 1991) is a sad wreck, and the nearby Bloku area, where the senior communists lived and where the hottest bars and clubs are supposedly located, seemed pretty dull to me.

 Having recently been visiting the shrines of Sufi saints in Uzbekistan, I was interested to see that the Bektashi order of dervishes has its global headquarters in Tirana. Founded in Anatolia in the thirteenth century by Haji Bektash Veli from Bukhara, it was particularly popular with the janissaries (such as Mimar Sinan), elite Ottoman soldiers taken as boys from Christian villages in the Balkans – and somehow it found its way back to this part of the world. You can also visit the House of the Dervish Khorasani, Khorasan also being in Uzbekistan. Albania was of course officially atheist in the communist period and is now of no particular religion – there are Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox believers, and they don’t particularly care. Anyway, you’re welcome to visit their headquarters, just east of the centre, and there’s a small museum beneath the mosque (I also saw Bektashi tombs in Gjirokaster castle – below).

 What’s more, Albania has welcomed 3,000 Iranian dissidents of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq from Iraq (where the pro-Iranian regime regularly allowed military attacks on their camp) to a new settlement, known as Ashraf 3, halfway between Tirana and the coast. It doesn’t get many visitors as yet, but there’s also a museum here, covering a hundred years of shocking struggle for human rights in Iran.

South of Tirana –  Berat, Gjirokaster, Sarandë and Butrint

Heading south from Tirana, I found Berat and Gjirokaster both slightly reminiscent of Plovdiv, with their steep cobbled alleys and Turkish-style merchants’ houses. The historic centre of Berat is about 2.5km from the bus station (walk or take a bus, clearly cast off from Paris or the Netherlands) – start with the view from the bridge over the Osumit River, linking Gorica, the Christian quarter to the south, and Magdalem, the Muslim quarter that rises up row upon row to the hill-top Kalasa citadel. On the main road in Magdalem you’ll find the remains of the eighteenth-century Pasha’s Palace and alongside it the Royal Mosque (originally the Sultan Mosque, built for Beyazit II at the end of the fifteenth century), the Helvetti Tekke (a Sufi prayer hall, rebuilt in 1782) and a nineteenth-century caravanserai and inn for dervishes. The mosques are currently being restored by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which I also noticed at work in Kosova.

 Opposite the Helvetti Tekke I stumbled across the Edward Lear Gallery (not in any tourist literature that I’d seen – it’s free, and open 08.00 to 14.00 except Mondays) – Lear, who was a superb painter and engraver as well as a composer of nonsense poetry, stopped here in 1848 and 1859, and described it as a ‘wonderfully picturesque place’. The gallery has some useful background information on him and one of his paintings, of Mount Tomor, a peak of 2417 metres which was the ancient home of the Illyrian gods and is still the object of a pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption in August. The gallery has four biggish rooms, exhibiting temporary shows by local artists, most titled either ‘portrait’ or ‘landscape’ – they’re really not too bad. Lear wasn’t the first western European artist to pass through, as a certain William Martin Leake had been here in 1805, and Charles Cockerill in 1813, not to mention the Irish writer Robert Walsh in 1828; more famously, Lord Byron and John Cam Hobhouse passed though in 1808, although their meeting with the local despot Ali Pasha took place in Tepelena (there’s a reference to the ‘glittering minarets of Tepelen’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).

 Above the Pasha’s Palace, alleys lead uphill past the Ethnographic Museum to the citadel. Originally built in the fifth and sixth centuries under the Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Justinian I (though the present walls were erected mainly in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), this is still inhabited by several hundred people and there are some pleasant cafés here as well as four churches built between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, plus the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, on the slope outside the walls.

 Gjirokaster, as you’d expect from the name (from the same Latin root as Chester, Worcester, Gloucester etc etc), is all about the castle, although you can also visit some fine Ottoman townhouses. Inhabited by the fourth century BC, the first walls were built in the sixth century and what you see now was built mainly by the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks, who captured it in 1417. Ali Pasha (see above) was backed by the British government at the time, which explains the British cannon on display. Once inside the castle, you can go along an avenue of artillery to reach the very dated Arms Museum, which inevitably also covers the struggles of the Partisans against the Nazis. Rather more interesting is the newish (2012) Museum of Gjirokaster, which opened at 10.00, an hour late, but never mind – it covers local history from 20,000 years ago to 2005, when the city, its houses crumbling due to emigration, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as well as brief mentions of local bats and vultures, and the isopolyphonic songs of southern Albania, also protected by UNESCO (on the intangible cultural heritage list) – iso refers to the drone part of these four-part songs. Outside on the ramparts you’ll see an American T33 jet which crash-landed at Rinas in 1957 (photos taken in 1988 show it in rather better condition than today), but there’s also an interesting story about a Dakota that came down near Elbasan in 1943 with 26 nurses and medics on board – after attempts to fly them out under the Germans’ noses failed they were eventually marched 800 miles (clearly not in a straight line) to the coast for evacuation to Italy.

 There are almost no old buildings in Sarandë (although there are a couple of derelict warehouses near the port that could be repurposed), but the sprawl of fairly low-rise apartment blocks is not unpleasant, mainly because of its setting and the pleasant people strolling on the promenade and running the hotels and restaurants. Nor is it traffic-choked because, unlike Kotor, it has several parallel roads. Nevertheless, there seem to be no controls on the spread of new buildings up the hills and along the coast, and it’s a comfort that the fabulous classical ruins of Butrint are a safe distance away (19km south, to be precise).

 Butrint is fantastic – the hourly bus from Sarandë terminates near the entrance, where a small ferry crosses the outlet from Butrint lagoon to a couple of small villages that have grown up on silt banks that have built up since the city was founded, possibly in the aftermath of the Trojan War (Virgil has Aeneas stopping here) and certainly by the twelfth century BC. The Greek settlement became Roman, then Byzantine and then Venetian, and there are remains from all these phases; the sixth-century baptistery and basilica are particularly impressive, but it’s a shame that the almost intact mosaic of the baptistery is almost always kept under sand, due to the frequency of flooding here. One could well make a case for replacing it with a modern replica and moving it to the decent little museum under the Venetian fort. On the other hand, it was fun watching turtles swimming in the Greek theatre. In fact the whole area is a national park, and I saw a large slowworm or something like it not far from the tourist loop.

Durrës and Elbasan are commonly agreed to be dumps; Paul Theroux’s account of arriving in Durrës in 1994, on a ferry full of stolen cars, is a superb account of a totally failed country, although it obviously has improved since.

Practicalities

I stayed in hostels, which can now be found in all the country’s major towns and which offer the best way of getting information as well as a cheery welcome and a good breakfast. The ones I stayed in in Shkodër and Tirana are both in older houses that survived amid concrete blocks right in the city centres. This was even more true of Berat, where the Berat Backpackers  hostel was in a lovely old house in the Gorica quarter looking across the river to Magdalem (both on the World Heritage List) and the Kala or Citadel. The hostel was known as Scotty’s, having been founded in 2009 by an Englishman (a Geordie, to be exact) – bizarrely, he’d sold it the day before I arrived (although a manager had run it for him for the last couple of years), to the owner of another hostel, a very likeable local chap who seems very capable and speaks excellent English. In Gjirokaster the Dutch-run Stone City Hostel was even better, and rightly won a 2019 Hoscar award – it’s another old house, with spacious common area, squeaky-clean washroom, and superb breakfast – how it is that wholegrain bread is available I don’t know, but homemade fig jam is a constant in this area. But do say if you don’t want your fried egg solid. Finally, my hostel in Sarandë was clean and spacious, with one of the most hospitable owners you could ask for, and just a minute or so from the ferry terminal. I enjoyed the hostels on this whole trip from Istanbul to Albania – it’s a region which seems to attract interesting travellers, not just people looking for cheap beer and ticking off a few compulsory sights. Even so, there are far too many who just hole up on their bunks watching films on their phones (and slowing down the internet for everyone else) – call that travel? And a lot of young people who wouldn’t smoke at home seem go mad when travelling here – something I noticed in Vietnam too.

 In Shköder I ate well at Peja (possibly named after the cultural capital of Kosova), which serves authentic ‘slow food’, but surprisingly fast – I had great eggplant stuffed with apple (from Korça), followed by apple with baklava. I also drank a Puka beer, from Pukë (pronounced Puka), about 30km east of Shkodër, which had a bit of colour and taste to it, unlike all the anaemic lagers available elsewhere in the country. The Korça brewery does produce a dark beer as well as a lager, and I finally sampled that on my last night – pretty tangy and refreshing. In Gjirokaster I ate at Odaja, which was great – there’s an English menu which was clear about vegetarian (not vegan) dishes, which accounted for about a quarter of the list. I had their famous (at least at the Stone City Hostel) tomato balls, which were basically fritters (I also enjoyed them in Corfu) and qifqi rice balls (a Gjirokaster speciality, rather like arancini); imam bayildi is a sort of Turkish ratatouille, and oshaf is a fig dessert (I also saw snails for sale in Gjirokaster).

The Albanian language

Albanian is an Indo-European language, derived from Illyrian, which looks like nothing else with its double rrs and lls and its ë, and names like Urani Runbo. You won’t learn much (enough people speak some English), but do try to master Faleminderit (thank you). Po and jo (yes and no) are easily confused, but once I’d heard an Kosovar talking to his wife on the phone (po, po, po… po, po, po, like a dove) it became easier. The one word you’ll probably remember, as it’s on signs everywhere, is Shitet (for sale)….  By main roads you’ll see signs for Lavazh (in the Gheg north) or Lavazho (in the Tosk south) – at first I assumed it meant Armenian bread, but it fact it means car-wash – from the French, of course.

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’

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.

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 than you’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….

Namur (the hilly bit of Belgium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quick look at Tournai

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

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

Belfry (front), cathedral and scaffolding (rear)

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

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

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

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

Practicalities

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