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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.]
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 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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
(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.
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 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.
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.