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!

Belgium – it’s not just beer and bikes

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Museum refurbs

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

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

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

 

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

Norwich – not just an amazing cathedral

Norwich is a lovely city, once the second largest in England, which had a huge number of both pubs and churches, many of which survive – though not all are used for their original purpose. It also has one of the great Gothic cathedrals, which is just as described in the guidebooks and needs no help from me.

The town is dominated by the keep of the Norman castle, one of the finest and most unspoiled remaining (only that of Falaise is comparable) – although the façade of Bath stone was in fact added in 1834-9. It became the city’s museum and art gallery in 1894 (following the museum in Nottingham Castle, opened in 1878) – nowadays the keep is a striking but under-used three-storey space, and the galleries are arranged around the Rotunda, created in 1969 by filling in a courtyard. Over the next two years a major project will reinstate the floor inside the keep and recreate the Great Hall (see below for more on the museum). Until then the basement and Prison Stories gallery are closed.

The city has an interesting history that’s relevant to our own times – it became wealthy and populous through trading with continental Europe, but was also the site of the first blood libel in 1144, when the Jewish community (French-speaking, and closely linked to the Norman rulers) was accused of killing a boy in what was alleged to be a ritual murder. From Norwich this evil notion spread across Europe and has been commonly rolled out in outbreaks of antisemitism.

Rather more uplifting is the story of Julian of Norwich (c1342–c1416), a nun who had mystical visions and whose Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman (yep, Julian, not Julia). In about 1414 she was visited by another female mystic, Margery Kempe (c1373 – after 1438)  from Kings Lynn, who dictated The Book of Margery Kempe, possibly the first autobiography in the English language, telling of her many pilgrimages as well as her mystical conversations with God.

Norwich also received many Protestant refugees from the Low Countries, known as the Strangers, who revitalised the city’s weaving industry with modern know-how, and introduced printing and brewing with hops (until then, English beer was just a safer alternative to water). They also brought canaries with them, hence the nickname of the city’s football team. Alas, the city, already badly hit by the Black Death, lost a third of its population to plague in 1579, including many of the Strangers, but they were reinforced by Huguenots, exiled from France, and the city was effectively tri-lingual (English, French and Dutch) for some time.

Dutch influence in Norwich

Even in the eighteenth century the city had not expanded beyond its medieval walls. It did grow to around 37,000 by 1800, but other cities were growing much faster. However, the Norwich School of Artists (a club more than a teaching establishment), founded in 1803, was the first such body outside London, and benefitted from the area’s historic links with the Netherlands (and the similarity in their landscapes) – many of the local nobs owned paintings by the great Dutch artists. Their fresh realism was striking, but the finest of the Norwich artists, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) became increasingly impressionist and indeed Turneresque (alas, he was forgotten by the time of his death, and there were no obituaries). In 1814 Colman’s of Norwich was founded and its mustard is still England’s best known – Jeremiah James Colman (1830–98) bought many paintings by the Norwich School’s leading artists, and donated them to the Norwich Castle Museum.

As well as the Norwich School, the museum has odd works by Jacob van Ruisdael, Hobbema, Aert van der Neer and Gainsborough, as well as a Hogarth of a drunken friend vomiting (painted at the wife’s request), a big double portrait by Zoffany and Gilpin of a couple with horses, a Van Loo of Horatio Walpole (younger brother of Sir Robert and a Norfolk MP for 54 years), a David Roberts of Jerusalem and a Burne-Jones Annunciation. There’s also a limited amount of twentieth-century art, notably pieces by Gwen John, Marie Laurencin, Bridget Riley, Maggi Hambling, Sandra Blow, Ana Maria Pacheco and Mary Potter. For some reason the art galleries are also home to Nelson’s hat from the Battle of the Nile and a Spanish admiral’s sword captured at the Battle of Cape St Vincent- there’s no doubt that he was very aware of his image and indeed took care to promote his brand as far as possible.

Other galleries cover natural history, decorative arts, and history, from ancient Egypt via the Snettisham Treasure, Boudica and the Iceni, Roman settlements such as Venta Icenorum (now Caistor St Edmund, three and a half miles south of Norwich) and the Saxon and Viking invasions, to the arrival of the Normans and the foundation of Norwich. It seems to end there, except that, like most of the city museums I’ve visited recently, the local regimental museum has been incorporated, covering the twentieth-century campaigns of what is now the Royal Anglian Regiment. I was interested to learn of the regimental almshouses built in Norwich and Kings Lynn after both world wars, which are still in use.

The huge Market Place is the heart of the city’s commercial core – unusually, it’s filled by a tightly-packed grid of semi-permanent booths, many serving food, and almost all seemingly claiming to be ‘bohemian’ – it’s obvious that anything that claims to be bohemian cannot actually be so. Anyway, it’s dominated by the massive City Hall, a classic Deco block completed in 1938, and on the south side by the church of St Peter Mancroft, the largest of the 32 medieval churches within the city’s walls – it’s known for its superb Perpendicular architecture and 15th-century stained glass (above all in the east window), and also as the burial place of Sir Thomas Browne, who was a doctor in Norwich from 1637 until his death in 1682 and is occasionally remembered as the author of some remarkably polymathic books in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose. The most obviously relevant to Norwich is Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial, a meditation on death, burial practices and the ephemerality of fame, inspired by the discovery in Norfolk of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels. Browne was perhaps the favourite author of another adopted Norfolk writer, WG Sebald, who taught at the University of East Anglia until his death in a car-crash in 2001.

On the north side of the Market Place, the Guildhall (1407-24) was the seat of the city’s civic bodies until the City Hall was built; it looks a bit like a church, with its flint-coated walls. In the maze of largely pedestrianised streets behind the Guildhall are other medieval buildings, such as St Andrew’s Hall, completed in 1449 as the nave of the Blackfriars’ church and used as a public hall ever since the Reformation, and the fifteenth-century church of St John Maddermarket, now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust and open three days a week, its interior crowded with monuments, Georgian woodwork and Victorian stained glass. Almost as central is the Strangers’ Hall, with its Tudor Great Hall atop a fourteenth-century undercroft – its name comes from the immigrants who were put up there in the sixteenth century. The magnificent staircase and its window and the Walnut Room were added in 1627; it’s now a museum of domestic history, open two to four days a week. Finally, the Dragon Hall, a medieval trading hall built in 1427-30 and known for its spectacular crown-post wooden roof, is now home (the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust having been wound up in 2015) to the National Centre for Writing, but is open roughly monthly for volunteer-led tours. Known as Writer’s Centre Norwich until its relaunch this year, this led the drive for Norwich to become England’s first UNESCO City of Literature in 2012, and now supports both writers and readers in many ways. Of course Norwich’s contemporary literary fame is based on the University of East Anglia’s creative writing courses, established by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson back in 1970.

Speaking of the university, do not fail to make the pilgrimage out west to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a superb building (built by Norman Foster in 1976, one of the best of the high-tech buildings of that period) housing a simply amazing collection in which art from British Columbia and Alaska, Ecuador, Egypt, Mesoamaerica, the Cook Islands and the Marquesas and Africa (for instance) is displayed alongside paintings by Soutine, Modigliani, Giacometti, Moore, Degas and above all Picasso and Bacon, as well as a few oddities by the likes of Zoran Mušič, Edmund de Waal and Mark Gertler. Labels tell of a ‘production place’ rather than a nationality, putting all the artefacts on a level playing field.

And finally… the pubs

There’s only one pub that you have to visit in Norwich – no, I’ll rephrase that, there’s only one pub in Norwich that I own a share in, but it is a goodie. The White Lion has real ales from Milton and elsewhere, but it’s even better as a cider pub, with 19 varieties available when I was last in, and it just feels like a great local pub. It’s just north of the river from the centre, in the area where most of the Strangers settled – known as ‘Over-the-Water’, this is still a slightly odd area, within the walls but still semi-detached from the main part of the city. Nine of its seventeen churches still stand – it’s remarkable that so many of them have been taken over by theatrical or musical groups.

I’ve also enjoyed visiting the King’s Head, which has at least a dozen real ales on tap (and mild is always available, but keg isn’t), and the Vine, right in the centre, which is the city’s smallest pub and serves good beers and better Thai food. For something totally different, the Belgian Monk offers a wide range of, yes, Belgian beers and food (mussels and all that) – it’s more restaurant than pub, but still, pretty authentic and not bad value.

As you’ll recall from my post on Cambridge’s pubs, the dominant breweries in East Anglia are Greene King and Adnams, but there are a couple of smaller ones in the Norwich area. Lacons in Yarmouth was founded in 1760 and closed in 1968; it reopened in 2013, with the original yeast strain retrieved from deep-freeze in the Norwich-based National Collection of Yeast Cultures. I’ve also enjoyed the Weizen (wheat beer) from the Grain Brewery, not in the Isle of Grain but a few miles south of Norwich.

‘My’ pubs in Cambridge

I’ve lived in Cambridge for just over twenty years now, and before that ten miles outside the city – I just washed up here because it’s where my last salaried job was. But I was cycling down Marylebone High Street in London one day in about 1999 when a fellow travel writer (working as a cycle courier) saw me, did a swift U-turn, and told me that he was moving to Cambridge because he had identified it as the best place to start a brewery. He then destroyed my electric drill constructing said brewery, but that’s another story. Richard turned out to be a very good brewer and a better businessman, so when in 2001 he suggested investing in a new pub company I was willing. That too was very successful – our first three pubs, in Peterborough and London, have since been profitably disposed of, and we had to wait ten years to see a dividend, but since then it’s ticked over very nicely. We now have three pubs in Cambridge plus the White Lion in Norwich (another city I’ll be writing about before too long).

The first of our Cambridge pubs to open, in 2010, was the Devonshire Arms, which used to be a Jamaican dive, with a massive sound system, sticky floors and no beer other than White Stripe – at that stage we pretty much did all the remodelling ourselves, and the amount needed here was massive! But it’s been a very popular and lively pub ever since reopening (although the clientele has got a bit more alternative) – definitely a real ale venue (mainly Milton ales, of course, but plenty of others too, as well as real cider, a Moravian lager, wines and malt whiskies), but there’s decent food (notably pizza). It’s in the so-called ‘beer quarter’ on either side of Mill Road, with other great pubs such as the Cambridge Blue, Kingston Arms, Alexandra Arms and the Live And let Live, as well as the Salisbury Arms (see below), which is a bit more towards the station.

The Dev was followed by the Haymakers in 2013 and the Queen Edith (the only pub that’s anywhere near the huge hospital complex…) in 2015, both of which have a similar offering.
Actually, I’ve been prompted to finally write this post in part by reading Brew Britannia by Boak and Bailey, which I mentioned in my previous post on Penzance – I wasn’t aware that Cambridge had played such a rôle in the real ale revival, with its first beer festival in 1972 and then annually from 1974 (when they offered 25 beers, including Schumacher Alt from Düsseldorf). I was at the 2018 festival a week or two ago, and I couldn’t begin to count the number of beers on offer, or the number of people attending. It turns out in the book that the Salisbury Arms was one of the first pubs to be run by CAMRA’s business arm, opening in 1976 – it has long since been spun off, and is now a very successful Pizzas Pots and Pints pub (along with the Carpenters Arms on Victoria Road and a few others in neighbouring towns) – this is a new brand developed by the Charles Wells brewery in Bedford, who also own my local, the Red Bull on Barton Road (which does good pizza too, with a very popular two-for-one deal on Mondays). I find it interesting that there are several new mini-chains of largely food-led pubs, such as the City Pub Group (Cambridge Brew House, the Mill, the Old Bicycle Shop, the Waterman and the Petersfield, all pretty decent). The Old Crown in Girton has just re-opened and is along the same lines (though a bit posher) – it’s owned by Greene King, the dominant regional brewery, but is now run by Stuart Inns, who also manage a select number of other posh pubs across East Anglia, such as the Greyhound in Lavenham and the Swan in Long Melford.

Greene King is unpopular, owing to its grasping way of doing business (driving competitors out of business) and the way it squeezes its pub managers and landlords; Suffolk’s splendid Adnams brewery only has one pub in Cambridge, the Castle Inn, which is very popular with all those who have sworn to avoid Greene King. The days when GK otherwise had a quasi-monopoly of Cambridge’s pubs have long gone – in addition to the Milton pubs, there are other Charles Wells places, such as the Elm Tree, which does an amazing line in Belgian beers (with a huge folder of tasting notes to help you choose). In fact the Elm Tree has been leased by Charles Wells to B&T, a smaller brewery in Shefford, Bedfordshire, but it usually has a beer or two from Charles Wells or Young’s (a historic London brewer), which merged in 2006.

The Elm Tree is very close to the Free Press, in an area called the Kite which was once expected to be cleared and replaced by a massive shopping centre; both pubs closed for a while. but the area survived and gentrified and the pubs are both very popular. The Free Press was for a long time Cambridge’s only non-smoking pub (and the best place to find mild), and I regarded it as my local when I was actually living ten miles south of the city. Again, it’s more food-oriented than it used to be, as its URL reveals, but that’s ok. (Actually, now-Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett cooked here way back before I ever came in.)

The other current trend in pub ownership is for them to be closed by the big pub companies and then re-opened in a community buy-out – this is usually because a village is about to lose its last pub (having already lost its shop, post office and bus service) and comes together to save it. Therefore this hasn’t happened in Cambridge itself, but it does apply to the Ancient Shepherds in Fen Ditton, the Hare and Hounds in Harlton and the Green Man in Thriplow, for instance. All well worth supporting.

Other Cambridge pubs worthy of note are the Maypole (known for its great range of beers and for its very affordable cocktails – the only true city-centre pub mentioned here, although the Champion of the Thames is a fine traditional boozer too), the Portland Arms (known for live for music) and the Punter, which doesn’t offer a huge choice of beer but does good food in a pleasant setting, as well as the Blue Ball, the nicest pub in Grantchester and the nearest to Cambridge (my ‘other local’ in a way), which didn’t do food under its previous, rather grumpy, ownership but now offers a few decent dishes. I wanted to like the Thirsty Biergarten, a summer pop-up in a churchyard, but over-priced pasteurised ‘craft beers’ and a food van are really not my thing, though young people seem to like it. Nor am I interested in NOVI, which used to be the Fountain Inn and now is a trendy modern venue serving espresso, craft beer and cocktails. Two pubs have just opened at Cambridge’s main station (yes, we have two stations now, and with luck a third in a few years), but I’m not too bothered. It’s not that I’m dead set against craft beer and keykeg as such, but I can’t see why they cost 20-25% more than cask ale, or why people pay those prices.

2for1 pizza and a pint at the Red Bull, Barton Road (whoops, all gone!)
No comment needed

Penzance

Penzance is, of course, the westernmost town in England and thus the commercial centre of Penwith, the far west of Cornwall – while St Ives is the tourism centre. My sister lived for quite a few years in a lovely Georgian villa in Penzance which is now available on AirBnB, so I used to spend quite a bit of time there. After a rough recession when many shops closed, the town is now seeing a bit of a renaissance, with a well-established artistic community being joined by some excellent food outlets, most notably seafood restaurants such as Shore and Harris’s and just west in Newlyn the Tolcarne Inn. There are some lovely delis, cafés and pubs too. Falmouth, which I wrote about recently, now has a branch of Rick Stein’s Padstow seafood empire, but without a university Penzance is not going to see the rapid gentrification that has recently hit Falmouth, alas.

Apart from restaurants and the county council’s shocking decision to close the heliport (a vital link to the Scilly Isles) in 2012 so the town could have another big supermarket, the most exciting thing to happen in Penzance in years has been the rebirth of the Jubilee Pool – saved by being freed from the dead hand of the county council. Opened in 1935 (the year of George V’s Silver Jubilee), it’s a classic Art Deco lido or salt-water pool, with a triangular pool set against gentle curves and Cubist changing rooms. It was badly damaged in the storms of early 2014 and then more or less abandoned by the county council; however a community group raised funds to restore it and it reopened in 2016 to a chorus of acclaim. The café, relaunched as a social enterprise in 2017, is doing well, and now opens on Friday evenings to serve pizza as well as the usual daytime offering. The big news in 2018 is that they’re drilling to find geothermal water, in order to have a naturally warm pool as well as the ‘brisk’ sea-water.

Community groups are also behind much of the town’s artistic activity (so far from London, the Cornish are used to having to do things for themselves), in particular the revival of its pagan festivals. On December 21 last year the ancient Montol festival celebrated its tenth anniversary (yes, I know…), but the midsummer bonfire festival, Golowan, has taken place annually since, oh, 1991. Actually this was a longstanding tradition that was closed down in the 1890s by the town council for the usual bureaucratic reasons of risk and inadequate insurance. In fact they’re both wonderful events, very lively with locals and not tourists (and nothing like the mobs at the bonfires in Lewes).

Not a pub, alas – this is the Egyptian House.
Drinking in Penzance

I was prompted to finally write this post (which has been brewing for a while…) after being given a copy of Brew Britannia, an excellent account of the recovery of real ale in Britain, by (Jessica) Boak and (Ray) Bailey, a pseudonymous pair who I knew from their fabulous blog about drinking in every pub in Penzance. They have done very well and are now known as ‘the beer blogger’s beer bloggers’ and, alas, have moved to Bristol. But the book is great! (even if they barely mention the Blue Anchor in Helston, 20 minutes from Penzance, which has been brewing its own beer for 600 years or more, and where I passed much of the misspent portion of my youth.) And they don’t really have a bad word to say about any of Penzance’s pubs.

My local here has always been the Crown, because it’s handy and friendly and because they brew their own (not at the pub, in fact just around the corner from where my sister now lives); sometimes they do a decent quiz too. Just down the hill is the Lamp and Whistle, a pleasant but slightly odd place – I went in once and they didn’t have any beer on at all, and even normally they prefer so-called craft beers (on gas) rather than proper hand-pumped real ale. But they certainly do like their Belgian beers and Polish vodkas (and the like).  There are other good pubs, such as the Yacht Inn, a striking Deco treasure near the Jubilee Pool, the Alexandra, with a good selection of beers from smaller Cornish breweries, and the Admiral Benbow, which I actually remember above all for its banana splits when I was a kid. Outside Penzance, the Star Inn in Crowlas also brews its own (Potion No.9 is a great golden session beer), and the White Hart in Ludgvan is a splendid gastro-pub (with plenty of vegetarian options).

Of course the Ginaissance is a big deal here too, with local distillers such as Caspyn Gin, St Ives Gin (producing Cornwall’s first cold-compound gin, flavoured with local gorse flowers) and Curio in Mullion, a little further away, making fabulous quadruple-distilled gins flavoured with rock samphire and other local botanicals.

Railway improvements

And finally… I was told that there was no need for my usual coverage of public transport because ‘the railway ends at Penzance and that’s that’. Well, actually… there are some interesting changes coming this year. Penzance was of course the western terminal of the Great Western Railway’s main line, served since 1904 by the legendary Cornish Riviera Express, which reduced the journey time from nine hours to seven when it was introduced; it is currently timetabled to take just over five hours. The train starts off quickly from London’s Paddington station on the most modern railway in Britain, recently rebuilt for Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) services and electrification to Bristol and Cardiff, but after a 125mph sprint to the splendid new station at Reading it turns off onto a less impressive route which gradually gets twistier and slower; there’s a maximum speed of 110mph, then 100, then just 60 over the southern fringes of Dartmoor and not much faster on through Cornwall (but with more frequent stops, so that you lose the will to live west of Truro). In addition, the signalling on the line through Cornwall is ancient and spaced out in long sections, which has made it impossible to schedule a regular hourly service. However, resignalling in 2018 will allow a consistent ten-minute headway along the main line and let two trains an hour run in each direction.

In addition to the London trains (every couple of hours) and Cross-Country trains to Bristol, Birmingham and beyond (generally northbound in the morning, returning in the afternoon), there are local multiple-unit trains to Plymouth and Exeter. As the long-serving High Speed Trains on the London run are replaced by new bi-mode trains in 2018, they are to be re-formed into so-called GTI trains, with two power cars and just three passenger carriages, to give a huge boost to the local services.

In Penzance station, look up at the row of huge paintings hanging on the south side – they’re by Kurt Jackson, West Cornwall’s finest (and now, alas, most expensive) painter, who does amazing things with landscapes, incorporating words and grit and even feathers in his paint. He’s recently opened a gallery in St Just, which really is virtually the last village in England, a windswept place out on the cliffs between Cape Cornwall and Land’s End.