I’ve been in Uzbekistan for a week now, and I can say that while the people and the sights are wonderful, there’s going to be a lot more work than I expected to produce a third edition of the Bradt travel guide. That’s partly because it’s proved very hard to tie up what the maps in the book say and the vérité on the ground, together with lots of changes to street names (and transliteration issues too), but it’s also due to the way that Uzbekistan is changing and opening up, in particular for tourism.
Islam Karimov, the strong man who kept hold of power after the Soviet Union broke up, and created a very effective police state, died in September 2016 and was replaced in a very fake election by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who had been prime minister since 2003. It was assumed that he would maintain the same very tough political system, and that talk of reform shouldn’t be taken too seriously – but once he had retired Rustam Inoyatov, who had been Karimov’s secret police head for 23 years, at the end of January 2018, it has become clear that the reforms are for real. Uzbek society and economy are opening up, human rights activists are returning from exile, and serious efforts are being made to develop tourism, which has obvious potential to be a gold mine, given that the great Silk Route cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are all in Uzbekistan.
It used to be necessary to get a Letter of Invitation from a helpful tour company in order to obtain a visa – this is no longer needed. In July 2018 an e-visa system was introduced (though it’s still rather confusing, in my experience), and citizens of some nations don’t need a visa at all. In September visa-free travel was extended to French citizens, a few days ahead of a visit by Mirziyoyev to Paris. There’s talk of following Georgia and Kyrgysztan in abolishing visas for virtually all countries, but at the moment the official view is that tourism to Georgia has probably developed faster then the infrastructure can cope with (the secret police are perhaps still capable of putting a spanner in the works as well) – as the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Georgia (six editions now!) and various blog posts, I have a lot of sympathy with that view. One thing they have done is to introduce Spanish high-speed trains from Tashkent to Samarkand, Bukhara and Shakrisabz. In fact what I want is to see them abolish the Soviet system of registration (where the police have to be informed where you’re staying every night, and you have to keep the paper slips to prove it). It’s a damn pain, and when they’re talking of making it easier for people to stay with Uzbek friends and to go hiking and camping, this makes life complicated. It seems that immigration officers don’t check when you leave the country now (I haven’t tested this yet), but hotels use an online system which throws a conniption if there are unexplained gaps in your record.
Lots of other things are getting easier – tourists can buy an Uzbek SIM for just a couple of dollars, there still aren’t many ATMs but the number is increasing (they’re mostly in top-end hotels), and the currency has been allowed to float, wiping out the black market, or rather letting everyone change at the true rate (but you do still have to haggle eg for taxis). Online booking, eg for trains and planes, is possible and of course Booking.com and Hostelworld.com have become the obvious way for independent travellers to book accommodation. More and more people, in hotels, hostels, restaurants and elsewhere speak English and German. The number of places where you can’t take photos is far smaller than it was, and in particular you can take photos in Tashkent’s gorgeous Metro. In fact there used to be passport checks to enter the metro – there are still plenty of police with metal-detector wands there, but they never bother tourists, and hardly anyone else, as far as I can see. Museum tickets used to be very cheap, with a swingeing extra charge to use a camera, but now the tickets costs slightly more – still just two or three dollars – and photography is included. I’ve noticed in the last five years or so that the world’s art galleries have accepted that everyone has a phone now and have stopped preventing photography except for special exhibitions and specific loans.
On the down side (but this began in Soviet times), there’s been some rather over-enthusiastic restoration of historical monuments, while others are still in a tumbledown state. New pedestrian boulevards have been smashed through old towns to link tourist sights (the three Ms – mosques, madrassas and mausoleums), and it’s particularly shocking that some of the remaining old quarters have been walled off so the tourists can’t accidentally get lost. This is particularly so when it’s the old Jewish quarter that has been walled off.
I visited Rouen as a teenager and hadn’t stopped there since (although I did change trains) – crazy, as it’s so close to England and is so attractive! And I do go to Caen and Bayeux in Lower Normandy most years. I remember it as very half-timbered, but really I had no idea, there are half-timbered buildings everywhere (not just in the centre but well into the suburbs, and in the heart of the modern hospital complex) – and not just black and white but a whole palette of colours. I also particularly remember the Danse Macabre, in the Aître Saint Maclou – which is just as well, as it’s being refurbished until 2020. It’s generally possible (Mon-Fri 09.00-17.00) to stand in the middle of the courtyard (yes, half-timbered), but there’s nothing to be seen as it’s all safely wrapped up. It was built in 1526-30 to expand the cemetery of the church of St Maclou, and was decorated with wooden sculptures of the dance of death, inspired by the plague epidemics that swept across Europe so often at the time; in turn they are said to inspired the rattling bones in Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre and also in the Fossils movement of his Carnival of the Animals.
Rouen has at least three fantastic churches, close together in the heart of the old town, but only the cathedral actually functions as a church, the others being decently maintained by the state and opened three to five days a week. In the case of St Maclou, open only Saturday to Monday, it’s not tragic, as the porch is a triumph of Flamboyant Gothic stonework, with carved wooden doors in Renaissance style, that can be enjoyed at any time. Just to the north, the Abbey of St-Ouen was founded in the eighth century, on the burial site of the saint, bishop of Rouen from 641 to 684, but most of it was demolished after the Revolution, except for the monks’ dormitory which was incorporated in the new Hôtel de Ville – there are now gardens to the east on the site of the abbey and a grand square to the west. The church (daily except Monday and Friday) was rebuilt in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and is huge and bare, and houses the great organ-builder Cavaillé-Coll’s last masterpiece – it features in many recordings of organ music, but to be honest it didn’t exactly seem to fill the acoustic when I heard it. The seats in the nave are the wrong way round, facing the organ at the west end, although it makes no difference to the musical experience.
Finally, the cathedral is one of the great Gothic masterpieces, mostly built in the thirteenth century, although the great western façade dates from the twelfth century. The metal spire (which briefly made it the world’s tallest building) was added in 1876 – this is now rusty, and is being restored between 2016 and 2023 (it took a year just to install the scaffolding and workers’ facilities etc). The cathedral was badly damaged in Word War II and didn’t reopen until 1956 – during the rebuilding the remains of the earlier church, dating from c.1000, were found; this is where St Olaf was baptised in 1014, a year before returning to become king of Norway and effectively create a new nation. You won’t need reminding that Normandy was created by Norsemen, and you can still see the odd Viking on the streets of Rouen and Caen. Several Dukes of Normandy are buried in the cathedral, most notably the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion (see this post for the rest of him), the great crusader who moonlighted as King of England from 1189, as well as his older brother (and perpetual adversary) Henry the Young King, who was crowned King of England in 1170 and ruled on behalf of his father but died six months before him.
There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc, who was burnt to death in Rouen by the English in 1431 – you’ll see other memories of here here, notably the Historial Jeanne d’Arc in the north side of the cathedral, where you can enjoy a multimedia ‘retrial’ of this supposed heretic. I also remember the striking modernist church of St Jeanne d’Arc in the Vieux Marché, which I saw as a teenager but didn’t get back to this time.
There’s a huge amount of urban renewal and beautification (€30 million’s worth) under way from 2016 to 2023, much of it linked to the construction of the new metro line T4 (due to open in 2019) and the refurbishment of the existing underground section of line T1 (1.7km long, opened in 1994, and totally closed for July and August of 2018). The metro connects with bus rapid transit lines which use tram-style articulated buses that have traffic-free routes through the centre marked with dotted white lines to allow the Optiguide system to bring them as close as possible to the platforms. Other projects, bringing greenery and pedestrianisation, are focussing on three areas, Seine-Cathédrale (south from the cathedral to the river), Quartier des Musées (towards the station, containing most of the city’s museums) and Vieux Marché (just west of the centre). Square Verdrel (laid out in 1862, with a cascade and statues), has already been refurbished, and there’s a huge Calder mobile presently sitting between it and the Musée des Beaux Arts, although I’m not sure if it’s a permanent fixture or not.
Fine Arts in Rouen
The Musée des Beaux Arts is very good, with a large and reasonably varied collection but minimal captions with no dates (but with a few errors, eg a painting of the first modern investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 is dated 1891/2) – there’s far more information on the frames than the art. It starts with some anonymous fourteenth-century Florentine paintings, as well as Giampetrino, Perugino and a terracotta by (Luca, presumably) Della Robbia. There’s a nice anonymous portrait of Henri III of France, looking just like an Elizabethan dandy, with designer stubble and a huge pearl in his ear, and a lovely Roman marble statue of Omphale, Then there’s plenty of Flemish art, including Jan Claesz, Jan Massys, Gerard David (a lovely The Virgin among the Virgins), Gerard Ter Borch, Thomas de Keyser, Jan Steen, van Dyck, Nicolas Berchem, and four pieces by Jan van Goyen. Later Italian art includes Palma Il Giovane and Lavinia Fontana, and then upstairs a couple by Guercino, Luca Giordano (a Good Samaritan with the victim of robbery looking like a dead Christ), Veronese’s Saint Barnabas and another by Veronese and his studio, and Caravaggio’s superb Flagellation of Christ flanked by a great Rubens (The Adoration of the Shepherds). From Spain there’s a de Ribera and Velasquez’s Democritus (a very Spanish-looking chap with a globe).
French art is dominated, naturally, by locally born painters, such as Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717), Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824), Jean Restout (1692-1768), Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine (1751-1824), who all painted dull academic works, and Joseph-Desiré Court (1796-1865), a rather more interesting portrait painter. Every one of them was born here, moved to Paris and died there, but that’s normal in France. There are also three paintings by Nicolas Poussin (born in Les Andelys in 1594), but the greatest of the Rouen-born painters, without a doubt, is Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) – there’s a roomful of his paintings plus a sculpture of a nymph and a satyr with his hand where it definitely shouldn’t be. You’ll also see an Érard fortepiano and harp, commemorating François-Adrien Boieldieu, an opera composer known as ‘the French Mozart’, who was born in Rouen in 1775.
The impressionist galleries are what most people come for, with several paintings by Monet, including one of his famous thirty versions of the west façade of the cathedral (1892-3), two by Pissarro, nine by Sisley (always my mother’s favourite, and one of mine too), two by Renoir (probably my least favourite artist), and also Guillaumin, Jongkind, Caillebotte and Gustave Moreau. There were half a dozen decent Rouen-born Impressionists too, but oddly, later painters tended to be born in Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, rather than in Rouen – above all Raoul Dufy (born 1877), as well as Othon Friesz (1879) and Jean Dubuffet (1901).
Finally, back near the entrance hall, there are two fine paintings by Modigliani (not female nudes but portraits of men with their clothes on) plus various works by the Duchamp/Villon brothers, born nearby in Blainville-Crevon in the 1870s and 1880s – the oldest was the Cubist painter Jacques Villon, the next was Raymond Duchamp-Villon, a sculptor who was like a big clumsy version of Henri Gaudier-Brezska (whose work is well represented in Kettle’s Yard back home in Cambridge) and the third was Marcel Duchamp, founder of Dadaism. Why they used both surnames I don’t know; but they also had a younger sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, also a painter, about whom I know nothing.
More tramways and trains – Caen and Amiens
I came to Rouen from Caen where, oddly enough, the city centre is also in disarray due to construction of a modern rapid transit system (mentioned here). From Rouen I went to Amiens, which has one of the biggest and very best Gothic cathedrals – but of course you knew that already. But you probably didn’t know that the Musée de Picardie is closed for refurbishment until the autumn of 2019. Instead I was very happy to visit the house of Jules Verne. Some urban improvements are happening here too, with segregated bus-only routes being created.
I mentioned in my previous post on Normandy that the region was taking charge of its rail services and that there’s now a fairly intensive Paris-Caen intercity service with regional connections from Caen to Cherbourg, rather than regular Paris-Cherbourg trains; the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre service has evolved slightly differently, with semi-fast trains from Paris to Rouen, stopping at all kinds of places you’ve never heard of, and intercity trains that run non-stop to Rouen and then on to Yvetôt and Le Havre. I came from Caen to Rouen on a non-stop train – nice for me, but it seems bizarre not to stop at Lisieux at least.
Meanwhile, the SNCF has almost stopped printing timetable leaflets and there are no timetable posters in the stations – apparently everyone has to be digital now, which sounds much like the banks closing branches in Cornwall (see here) ‘due to changing public demand’. People seem to be coping, but I suspect it’s putting some occasional travellers off (or maybe they’re wasting their lives away holding on the phone).
In addition Rouen airport is expanding its activities (with new services to Lyon and Bastia), Flixbus coach services come here, and an increasing number of cruise ships are making their way up the Seine (not the huge ones, thankfully, but still bringing 20,000 passengers in 2017). There’s a cycle route from Rouen downstream to Le Havre and in 2020 this will be extended to Paris – I was already thinking of a trip linking the many Impressionist sights along the Seine (not just Monet’s garden at Giverny), so maybe I’ll wait till this is open.
Historically, Wakefield was known as the key corner of the Rhubarb Triangle (Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU in 2010), but nowadays it is also being marketed as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, as two of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century sculptors were born in the area, Henry Moore in Castleford (in the rhubarb triangle) in 1898 and Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield itself in 1903. I recently visited all three corners, the others being at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (just outside Wakefield) and at Leeds Art Gallery (incorporating the Henry Moore Institute). In Wakefield, the city’s art gallery (originally founded in 1923) moved in 2011 to new premises and now calls itself The Hepworth – it achieved a huge impact and was Museum of the Year in 2017. Rising out of the River Calder by an unimpressive weir, and looking across at the less attractive environs of Wakefield Kirkgate station, the museum, designed by David Chipperfield (whose fine work I’ve come across across the world, from Berlin and Essen to Anchorage), has a fairly anonymous exterior but good exhibition spaces. The collection features a good range of early-twentieth-century English artists such as Spencer Gore, Roger Fry, Ben Nicholson and William Scott. There’s a room dedicated to Moore (including the intriguingly Hepworth-like Stringed Figure and Bird Basket (both dating from 1939) and several rooms on Hepworth, with plenty of background on her working techniques. Of course, she moved to St Ives (Cornwall) in 1939 (with Ben Nicholson), where her studio, now managed by the Tate, is a popular attraction.
From medieval times Wakefield was a prosperous centre of the wool trade, establishing itself as a inland port on the Calder, and from the nineteenth coal mining was important too; Wakefield gained a cathedral in 1888, and was capital of the West Riding of Yorkshire from 1889 until 1986. However the coal pits closed and the city was increasingly overshadowed by Leeds, now firmly established as the regional capital, and the diocese of Wakefield was dissolved in 2014, to put the final stamp on the process of decline. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the cathedral, in reality a parish church that gained cathedral status in 1888 but seems not to have lost it when the diocese was dissolved. An extension was added in 1905 by John Loughborough Pearson, who also built Truro cathedral, and the high altar was added by his son Frank.
Another medieval highlight is Wakefield Bridge, near the Hepworth, with its Chantry Chapel, both built between 1342 and 1356 – the chapel is now one of just four surviving bridge chapels in England, and oddly enough I cycled past one of the others, in St Ives (Cambridgeshire) just a month or two back. This is close to the rather optimistic Wakefield Waterfront, a few warehouses being revitalised near The Hepworth, where a Riverside Garden is also being developed.
Near Westgate station, a rather more dynamic area than that around Kirkgate, a modern library opened in 2012, and The Art House took over the old library on Drury Lane, offering fully accessible studio space and an exhibition hall; however The Orangery, right by the station, has closed.
Although it’s busier than Beverley, which I visited a few days later, the area still bears the scars of the pit closures – but I’ve seen some great stories about the fight against obesity here, in children and others, and schools are busy setting up wild gardens, along the lines of those I saw in Todmorden (and in Liège).
I don’t want to say much about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – it’s wonderful, with lots of sculptures (what else) by all the big names (Moore above all) dotted around some lovely parkland, as well as a few temporary indoor exhibitions, and it seems to me that it’s best to call in from time to time and see a bit of it, rather than trying to see everything in one go.
In the big city, the Leeds Art Gallery also specialises (after the Rodin and the Calder by the entry) in twentieth-century British art, including Auerbach, Bomberg, Matthew Smith (two rather good paintings), William Roberts, Wyndham-Lewis, Gertler, Lowry, Brangwyn, Sutherland, Clausen, Orpen, Lavery, Sickert, Wadsworth, Paul Nash, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Bacon, Blake, and Lubaina Hamid (who is suddenly everywhere after winning the 2017 Turner Prize). There are also a couple of artists that I’m more familiar with through their Cornish connections, Atkinson Grimshaw and W Scott Tuke (born in York in 1858, and the founder of the Newlyn School – though most of his paintings are of Falmouth Harbour). There are also half a dozen paintings by Jacob Kramer (1892-1962), born in Russia but regarded as a key figure in the Leeds collection – although I don’t think he really cuts it on the broader stage. Some foreign artists are represented, such as Vuillard, Derain, Gaudier-Breszka, Diego Rivera and Naum Gabo, as well as four paintings by Jack Yeats (brother of the more famous William Butler) – he was really very talented, but these are not his best.
But of course, the sculpture is the important thing here, and the LAG and the next-door Henry Moore Institute (you can walk through from one to the other) have built up one of the world’s strongest collections of sculpture, covering the last two centuries but especially strong between the years 1945 and 1965. Sculpture’s not altogether my thing, but I noted the pieces by Epstein (Maternity, created in 1910 for the British Medical Association building), Hepworth, Canova (his last version of Venus, 1817-20), Lynn Chadwick, Pasmore, Paolozzi, Mary Martin and Richard Long.
The LAG’s former sculpture court (originally the city library’s main reading room) was renovated in 2007 and is now the Tiled Hall Café, of note both for the lovely décor (yes, tiles do feature) and for its food.
I do still plan to write about York at some point, but I should say here that what sculpture is to West Yorkshire, ceramics are to York – well, there’s no triangle, but the Centre of Ceramic Art at the York Art Gallery is a real centre of excellence.
It never produced the greatest beer, but the Tetley Brewery has been a Leeds icon for two hundred years – when they finished brewing just south of the city centre, their grand Deco headquarters block was reopened with great fanfare as a cultural centre, The Tetley – there’s not actually a lot happening there as yet, but it has a pleasant bar and restaurant, serving pub grub such as Tetley’s ale and beef stew, what else. There are some far funkier community-driven arts spaces here, such as Seven Arts in Chapel Allerton, the Brudenell Social Club and Hyde Park Book Club) (yes, really), both to the northwest of the centre and putting on a lot of live bands as well as other events.
There are some other good museums here, such as the Thackray Medical Museum (far more fun than you might think) and the Leeds City Museum, which gives a great overview of its development from near-total obscurity (Leeds may be on the site of the Roman settlement of Campodinum, later a minor residence of King Edwin of Northumbria) to developing as a town in the seventeenth century followed by mass industrialisation in the nineteenth century. It was the monks of Kirkstall Abbey, established just three miles to the west in 1152-82, who created the local textile industry, but the wool was processed in rural homes until around 1800, when factories began to take over. Leeds had been connected to Hull and Europe by the Aire & Calder Navigation since 1700, but in 1818 the Leeds and Liverpool Canal connected it to the Atlantic and the rest of world. The Middleton Railway, opened as a horse waggonway bringing coal in to Leeds, became in 1812 the world’s first railway to use commercially successful steam locomotives (it’s now a volunteer-run heritage railway), and the Railway Foundry, opened in Hunslet in 1838, was the first to produce a standard range of steam engines (notably the Jenny Lind class), rather than each railway building its own. A prosperous manufacturing centre, Leeds also became known for its grand shopping arcades (still pulling them in), and as the birthplace of Marks and Spencer (as the ‘Penny Bazaar’ stall in Kirkgate Market) in 1884. The museum also galleries dealing with Life on Earth and Ancient Worlds (Egyptian, Greek and Roman), as well as one of the Leeds Clocks made by John Harrison (born in Foulby near Wakefield in 1693).
The ruins of Kirkstall Abbey are worth a visit (and have a new railway station), as is Temple Newsam House. I also like the look of Thwaite Mills, on an island in the Aire & Calder Navigation; less than three miles east, where there are two waterwheels over two hundred years old and the Georgian Thwaite House, restored to its 1940s condition – opening hours are fairly limited outside local school holidays, but I hope the place will gather momentum.
A few foody places
The area between the Aire and Calder Navigation and the new south entrance to the station is a lively regeneration area, with canalside cafés and hipster bars under the railway arches – the most striking way to reach it is by the virtually traffic-free roads under the railway that cross the long-hidden river, its arches and tunnels artfully lit in changing colours. The Kirkgate area is more genuinely hip, with places like Crowd of Favours (a food-focussed pub, but it serves food only to 19.00 on Sundays, by which time they’re worn out after serving Sunday ‘lunch’ all day – a trend I don’t really agree with) and Wapentake, a rather amazing combo of café, bar and artisan bakery, with lots of vegetarian/vegan options (they serve brunch from 07.30 (10.00 at weekends) to 16.00 and the main menu from noon to 21.00 (19.00 Sun/Mon), which works a bit better for me). I also like the look of Knave’s Kitchen, a vegan junk food stall (lots of seitan and tofu) near the Corn Exchange (built in 1861-3, an amazing space with a very striking roof that now houses speciality shops). Of course there are hundreds more eating and drinking options in Leeds, especially in the student areas north of the centre.
Leeds station is now amazingly busy, and can be quite a bottleneck. The TransPennine rail axis is one of Britain’s busiest commuting and leisure routes, and has not been well served by a policy of cramming in lots of three-car trains (between Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and York) rather than accepting the need to just double the length of the trains (and the platforms). Electrification has been cancelled, but a few longer bi-mode and diesel locomotive-hauled trains are to be introduced from 2019.
I do like Beverley – it’s your classic East Yorkshire market town, not as posh as Malton in the foodie stakes but with some lovely cafés and restaurants and particularly characterful pubs. The town’s Great Charter was granted in 1359, when it was perhaps the tenth-largest town in England (or at least one of the twelve largest, depending on your source), due to the wool trade, what else – it had a complicated system of self-government, with two Keepers or aldermen chosen each year from a court of eighteen, but reverted in 1573 to a more normal mayor and corporation system. It also boasts not one but two fine churches that would be larger and grander than many towns’ parish churches.
There’s the Minster, of course, almost a mini-cathedral built between 1220 and 1425, which has no fewer than three chapels dedicated to the fallen members of the East Yorkshire Regiment as well as plenty of other military memorials dotted around the church. There are also fine fourteenth-century stone carvings of musicians in the north aisle and 68 misericord seats in the choir (more than any other church in England, and some very amusing), dating from 1520; near the altar is a rough stone seat dating from the eighth century, which might have been a bishop’s throne.
At the other end of the town centre is the equally striking St Mary’s church, which was built in no fewer than fifteen phases between 1120 and about 1524 (although flying buttresses had to be added by Augustus Pugin and his son in 1853 to keep the south porch in place). In the northeastern corner is St Michael’s chapel, a Gothic masterpiece dating from 1325-45 (with priest’s rooms above), where you’ll see a carving of a rabbit dressed as a pilgrim which is said to be the origin of Tenniel’s White Rabbit illustration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The great west window, dating from the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century, is supposedly reminiscent of that of King’s College, Cambridge, where of course I occasionally go to concerts or evensong – but it’s a little-known fact that the west window of King’s actually dates only from 1879.
Interestingly, in 1188 the town and the Minster were hit by a disastrous fire, and sometime soon after 1213 the Minster’s central tower collapsed (and was rebuilt by 1270); likewise in 1520 the central tower of St Mary’s collapsed (and was rebuilt by 1530).
The town’s other historical building that’s worth a visit is the Guildhall, now the local history museum – bought by the town in 1501, it was rebuilt in 1762 to create a courtroom with a lovely stucco ceiling by Giuseppe Cortese, and the present facade was added in 1832 – medieval timbers were revealed at one end of the courtroom when it was refurbished in the 1980s. You should also find your way to The Treasure House, a modern combined library and museum incorporating a bit of tourist information, a tower with views over the town, and a bridge to the Art Gallery, which proudly displays paintings by Fred Elwell (1870-1958), a well-loved Beverley artist whose depictions of local scenes are definitely worth a look.
This area has lots of other fine large churches, due to the wealth of wool produced here in medieval times – by chance, cycling towards the Roman road out of the seaside resort of Bridlington, I came across Bridlington Priory, which used to be absolutely immense and is still huge, even with only its west end standing. Founded in 1113, it was dissolved in 1537 and stripped of its treasures for the king; the central tower transepts and chancel were demolished (with some of the stone used to repair the town’s harbour) – the west towers were added only in 1874 to give the church its present more balanced appearance. The much-loved Prior John died of the plague in 1379 and was canonised in 1401 as St John of Bridlington – he is easily confused with the more famous St John of Beverley, Bishop of York, who retired to a small hermitage near his birthplace and died there in 721. To add to the confusion, there’s also St John Fisher, born in Beverley in 1469 and executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for upholding the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy and refusing to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England.
From Beverley it’s an easy hour’s cycle ride down to Hull, which I wrote about in the run-up to its stint as Britain’s City of Culture – that went very well, and delivered many good results for the city. The Ferens Gallery is looking great, and although they insist it was nothing to do with the City of Culture, Holy Trinity Church (built c.1300) has had a thorough refurb and was promoted to Minster status in May 2017 – happily, it can still claim to be the largest parish church by area in Britain. Thanks to regeneration funding, it now has mod cons such as underfloor heating, so events such as beer festivals are being held in this rather amazing space! I also cycled past Selby Abbey but couldn’t get in due to a wedding – oddly enough, its central tower also collapsed, in 1690, and was rebuilt. And of course there’s the amazing York Minster, the grandest cathedral in northern England, where my ‘god-brother’ (my mother’s godson) sings in the choir – I’ve briefly mentioned York before but will try to get around to a full post at some point.
It’s also worth mentioning, especially for those of you with kids, that most of these churches house oak furniture by Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson (1876–1955), who developed a trademark of carving a small mouse (obviously) on most of his work.
Pubs in Beverley
Beverley’s pubs should really be listed above with the town’s historic buildings – no fewer than 17 of them are Grade II-listed, and the White Horse (universally known as Nellie’s) is a wonderful period piece with its gas lighting and wonky floors (no, you’re not that drunk) – a seventeenth-century coaching inn, it was enlarged in the mid-nineteenth century, and owned by Samuel Smiths since 1976, so of course their standard bitter costs just £2 a pint! From a beer-drinker’s perspective, the most interesting are The Chequers, Yorkshire’s first micropub (so no lager, no spirits, just interesting beers from small mainly local brewers) and the Monk’s Walk, another seventeenth-century inn that stresses its old-fashioned no-TV-no-canned-music credentials, but there are plenty of others – the Sun Inn claims to be the oldest in town, closely followed by the Lord Nelson, while the Cornerhouse is worth a visit as a Black Sheep pub. At the upper end of the scale, the Beverley Arms Hotel has been bought by the Daniel Thwaites brewery and refurbished, and reopened in July 2018 – in the 1770s Mary Wollstonecraft was taught in a house on this site, and in 1868 Anthony Trollope based himself here for a parliamentary election in 1868 (annulled due to corruption, as expected – in this notoriously corrupt constituency, all the Liberals could hope for was to push the Conservatives to more outrageous bribery than usual and then expose this, but in this case the borough was actually disenfranchised) – his novel Ralph the Heir was based on his unhappy experience here.
Trains and beds
On the transport front, I was impressed by the rail service – there are generally two trains a hour from Hull to Bridlington (via Beverley), some to/from places such as Sheffield. However there’s a thinner service on from Bridlington to Scarborough – with the development of an hourly TransPennine axis from Liverpool to Scarborough (via Manchester, Leeds and York), the line south from Scarborough has become something of a poor relation. There’s also a daily train from Beverley to London and back.
Finally, I’ve posted before about the disfunctional Youth Hostels Association – I stayed at the delightful Beverley Friary hostel, where the notice below was posted outside the front door. It was totally false, there were plenty of beds, what they didn’t have was a volunteer warden. There were two members of staff who could check in the few of us who had booked well in advance, but no more than that. Their wages were certainly not covered by what we paid, so no wonder the YHA is in trouble.
I first came to Boston almost 40 years ago, then again the best part of a decade ago, when I simply walked from the North Station to the South Station – so it was good to stop over for a couple of nights and have a proper look around. In particular I wanted to visit a friend at MIT and to visit the new Harvard Art Museums (where a scheme by Renzo Piano in 2014 united the previously separate Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler Museums). This post will mainly be about Boston’s museums and public transport (so what’s new?).
Boston is often thought of as the most colonial of American cities (though I’d say that Philadelphia – and indeed Québec City – run it close), and also as a hard city full of boozey Irish, but nowadays it’s stuffed with high-powered academic – Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern, UMass etc – and medical institutes – Mass Gen, Brigham & Women’s, Boston Children’s, Boston Medical Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute etc, which seem to be competing with each other for massive philanthropic gifts. It’s not Silicon Valley but it’s just as impressive. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were both Harvard drop-outs, of course.
If the downtown area, between the North and South stations, is the equivalent of the City of London, with skyscraper banks, historic buildings and a chaotic streetplan, then Copley Square and beyond is Kensington – more regular, with parks and museums – and between them Chinatown and Theatreland are like Soho, along with Boston Common, in some ways equivalent to Hyde Park. Crossing the Charles River from downtown Boston to Cambridge (Massachusetts – not the Cambridge I live in) you come first to MIT, which turned out to be rather older than I thought, dating from 1861. Originally in Back Bay, the reclaimed land on the Boston side of the river, it moved to Cambridge in 1916. It’s always been renowned, but it’s its computer-based research that has really boosted it into the stratosphere, with the AI Lab (since 1959, amazingly) and the Media Lab (founded in 1985) leading the way. The MIT Museum doesn’t cover the whole story but homes in on specific projects such as COG and Haptics (both aspects of advanced robotics); it also holds the collection of the New York Museum of Holography (which closed in 1992), but I was struck especially by a map of Boston in 1630, with a shoreline scarily close to a projection for 2100, ie with the reclaimed areas re-reclaimed by a rising sea. There’s also a hotch-potch of high-tech new buildings here, by architects such as Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, IM Pei and Frank Gehry.
Continuing along Mass Ave (Massachusetts Avenue, of course) you come to Harvard Square and the little-known university of the same name, founded in 1636 and now consistently ranked as the world’s best – it’s also the best funded, with an endowment of US$34.5 billion, so deserving students study for free. It’s also increasingly expanding into Allston, just across the Charles River to the south. I’ll add my thoughts on the Harvard Art Museums at the end, I think, but I do recommend them. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is pretty amazing too.
In Fenway, beyond Copley Square and Northeastern University are the Museum of Fine Arts (which I didn’t revisit, it requires at least half a day – but I did see their famous Cézanne portrait of his wife in London anyway a few weeks later) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which I hadn’t visited before. It has some wonderful works of art, but I found it a bit annoying – dark, without captions (there are information sheets for each room) and cluttered with decorative arts trinkets and minor works of art that give a sense of Europe having been plundered by the new American tycoons. It also has an expensive but fairly pointless new extension. Gardner did have good taste, though, and was a friend of Whistler and Henry James, and especially of John Singer Sargent – there’s plenty of his work here (and at Harvard), not just portraits but also some landscapes. Oddly enough, it turns out that Sargent is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, which I mentioned in my last post.
The MFA opened the new Art of the Americas Wing in 2010 and the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011; they’ve just been given two more collections of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and announced a US$24m project to create more galleries and a Conservation Center. No doubt I’ll get there next time I pass through. One other art museum that was recommended to me was the Institute of Contemporary Art, which had a prestigious history as the Boston offshoot of New York’s MOMA and has greatly expanded its activities since moving to its striking new waterfront building in the Seaport in 2006. This summer (2018) the ICA will open the Watershed, a free summer-only satellite in a former copper pipe factory in the East Boston Shipyard, which will be reached by boat from near the ICA.
Boston’s Irish and liberal-intellectual traditions come together in a left-leaning political tradition, and above all in the person of John F Kennedy, whose presidential library and museum (another striking waterfront building, this one by IM Pei) opened in 1979 a couple of miles south of the city centre (there’s a free shuttle bus from the JFK/UMass station on the Red Line). The museum is of course well presented and offers plenty of insights even if you think you know about JFK already. Of course he had a privileged upbringing, touring Europe and helping out at the US embassy in Paris while his father was ambassador in London, but while his father was tolerant of Hitler JFK took both the Nazi and Soviet threats very seriously. He’d grown up in and on the water and was on the Harvard swim team, so when his motor torpedo boat was rammed and sunk in the Pacific he was able to swim over three miles towing an injured crewman with his life-jacket strap between his teeth; he then led his crew from island to island for six days before meeting two natives in a canoe who took a message carved on a coconut (which is here in the museum) to get help. He came home with malaria and a bad back and, although he had been thinking of teaching as a career, went into politics in place of his older brother who had died when his bomber exploded over Suffolk. As president he remained focussed to a surprising degree on foreign affairs (the Civil Rights agenda was managed by his brother Bobby, the Attorney-General). Wisely, I think, the museum doesn’t touch upon JFK’s assassination. I was reminded how we feared for Obama when he was first elected – there was no need, as it turned out, but with hindsight we can see how thoroughly he fitted the JFK mould of seeking office in order to serve and make the world a better place, and his successor rather less so.
Public Transport and the youth hostel
Boston’s public transport system, run by the MBTA (known as the T), is a bit of a mess – yes, it looks good on paper, or on a map, with subway and ‘commuter rail’ lines covering a wide area, but timetabling and ticketing are very poor, and the trains are old and unattractive. The subway provides a decent all-day service, but the overground trains basically run into the city in the mornings and out in the afternoons (although other American cities are far more extreme cases) with virtually no service in the evenings or at weekends. Modern cities need frequent services all day every day, and not just to the central business district. They also need a fare system that encourages multiple trips and off-peak travel – in Boston a single ticket costs $2.25-2..75 and a day pass costs a stonking $12, which is basically telling people they’re not wanted beyond the basic commute. A day pass should cost little more than two singles. As so often in the US, ticket machines don’t accept non-American cards, but they did take my dollar bills, which isn’t always the case. But this is the city that spent $14.6 billion (almost double the budget) on the Big Dig, a project from 1991 to 2006 to put I-93, the Interstate highway through the heart of Boston, into a tunnel, and didn’t even manage to put a cycleway on top where the highway used to be. Instead there’s a dual carriageway and a linear park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, with a path and signs telling cyclists to use the on-road lanes. Yes, painted lines are good enough to protect cyclists here. That does absolutely nothing to get people out of their cars. I’m not even sure the authorities want to – maybe the Democrat machine here is like Old Labour in the UK and hasn’t quite embraced alternative ways of getting around yet.
At least it’s easy to get to the airport – in addition to the free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station, there’s also the relatively new Silver Line bus (SL1) through the new tunnel from South Station (which charges a standard subway fare), and the Airport Shuttle from Copley Square, clearly aimed at tourists (but payment can only be made by credit card so that it’ll end up costing close to US$9 for foreigners once bank fees are added in).
I stayed at the HI hostel which is clean, central, friendly and well organised, and fairly sustainability-minded – except that it was over-heated. Like all hostels nowadays, people don’t talk, they just spend their time on their laptop or phone.
The Harvard Art Museums
As seems to be the way nowadays, Renzo Piano’s transformation of the Harvard Art Museums involved turning an open courtyard into a glass-roofed atrium, with de rigueur café, as well as adding a new wing to the east, on Prescott St. Oddly, as my very last post was about the Lightbox Gallery in Woking (England), he added a ‘lightbox gallery’ at the top, looking down into the atrium, with exhibits exploring the intersections of art and technology (the whole collection is digitised, and you can use an interactive floorplan on your phone). To me it seems very successful, and the displays are certainly wonderful.
Start in room 1220 on the ground floor with the Wertheim Collection, Impressionist and PostImpressionist works donated on condition they’re displayed together in one room – there are pieces by Manet (a fine self-portrait), Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat, Maillol, Rousseau, and three Blue period Picassos. In general the museum’s captions are excellent, but I was taken aback by the claim that Pissarro was Danish – it turns out he was born to French parents in the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands) but there was nothing Danish about him. This seems odd because as a rule in the US it doesn’t matter where an artist was born, if they ever reached the US they’re instantly listed as American.
In the next rooms are four more Picassos, paintings by the likes of Braque, Feininger, Metzinger, Severini, Léger, Klee, de Kooning and O’Keeffe, three sculptures by Brâncusi and others by Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage (all British). Then there’s Miró, Orozco, Siqueiros, Grosz, an early Liechtenstein (1953), Guston, Dubuffet, Calder (a combined mobile and stabile), Pollock, Rothko, Gorky, Stella, Nevelson, Albers, Ellsworth Kelley, Serra, Rauschenberg, Beuys, Nam June Paik, Baselitz, Ruscha, Neumann, Gordon Matta-Clark, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Kosuth and Rachel Whiteread – a pretty solid coverage of twentieth-century American art, with a few outsiders. Also on the ground floor is a great collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German art (see my post on Berlin’s museums), plus a few Scandinavians, from Franz von Stuck through Corinth, Liebermann, Munch, Klimt, Pechstein, Heckel, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Nolde, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rotluff, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Klee, Ernst, Grosz, Beckmann (his Self-portrait in a Tuxedo, 1927), Kandinsky, Münter, Johannes Malzahn, von Jawlensky and Marc, to a bronze relief by Käthe Kollwitz and a chair by Marcel Breuer. Finally on the ground floor are three rooms of early Chinese and Buddha sculptures, including two sixth-century Buddhas and two from Gandhara, as well as Neolithic jades, bronzes and Tang figures.
After taking the lift up to the Lightbox I went down to the third-floor gallery, where there are ancient treasures such as Assyrian and Persian reliefs (don’t miss Ahuramazda in the Winged Disk, 486-460 BC), superb Greek ceramics (including the ‘Berlin Painter’, who I missed when I was actually in Berlin), Roman glass and sculptures, Greco-Roman funerary portraits, Palmyran funerary heads and Egyptian bronzes, ceramics and (from the Byzantine period) tapestry.
The largely European displays on the second floor have a good selection from the early Italian Renaissance (but much less from the later Renaissance), with Bernardo Daddi, Taddeo di Bartolo, Cosme Tura, Matteo di Giovanni, Fra Angelico, both Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, Simone Martini, the workshop of Botticelli (there are lots here by ‘workshop of’, ‘after’, or anonymous ‘ Master of …’ – but they’re all very good), the circle of Giovanni Bellini, Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo Lotto, Tintoretto and the Master of the Fogg Pieta (c1330). From Northern Europe there’s a portrait of Luther by the older Cranach, then in the 17th- to 19th-century galleries works by Rubens, Jacob van Ruisdael, van Goyen, Philips Wouwermann, David Teniers II and Rembrandt, then Ribera, Orazio Gentileschi, Canaletto, Tiepolo and Guardi, and a swathe of French art by Poussin, Fragonard, Boucher, Greuze, David, lots by Ingres (including a self-portrait), Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, Corot, Moreau, Chassériau, Redon, Monet, Cézanne, and Renoir (not fluffy soft-focus ones like on the ground floor – am I the only person who hates those?). There are also works by the American Mary Cassatt and the Belgian Alfred Stevens, both based in Paris, and three by Degas of New Orleans, where he visited family in 1872-3.
The American section starts with portraits by John Singleton Copley (of John Adams), Gilbert Stuart (of John Quincey Adams) and Charles Willson Peale (of George Washington in 1784), as well as his niece Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-85). Copley was the leading portrait painter in colonial Boston but moved to to London to escape the revolutionary turmoil – there are also three excellent big portraits by him of members of the Boylston family, and I couldn’t help noting that Copley and Boylston are both now Boston subway stops. There’s also a portrait of Washington (c1795-6) by Stuart, who painted a series of iconic portraits of the first president and, with his daughters, 130 copies of them – but this is one of the best. There are also works by Eakins, Bierstadt, Sargent (a landscape of the Simplon), Whistler, Winslow Homer and photos by Stieglitz, and British artists such as Lawrence (of the Persian ambassador to the court of George III), Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti, Watts, Bonington and Burne-Jones, and photos by Eadweard Muybridge.
And finally, there’s more Asian art, with Islamic ceramics, Indian stone-carvings and paintings, Japanese scrolls and screen, Chinese ceramics and scholar’s rocks (a fascinating discovery), plus murals from the Dunhuang temples. All in all, the HAM is not as comprehensive as the MFA, but the twentieth-century collection in particular is excellent.
The small town of Saumur, on the Loire between Tours and Angers, is just outside the area of the most famous and most visited French châteaux, but there are some attractive ones in the area, including the dramatic castle looming over the town itself. It also has other attractions, notably its wineries (this is apparently France’s third largest wine-making area, although obviously Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Côtes du Rhône and various other areas come to mind first) and its equestrian attractions.
The area is characterised by its light yellow limestone, known as tuffeau (this is not what we call tuff in English, let alone tufa), which was quarried out of the hillsides along the Loire; there are now over 1,000km of tunnels in these hills, many of which are used as wine cellars and also for growing mushrooms (nothing exotic, alas, just your standard champignons de Paris). There are also troglodytic dwellings in the cliff-faces along the river. This rock gives its unique taste to Saumur’s wines – its speciality is sparkling wines, mainly white but also rosé and even red (not recommended), but they also make a pleasant light still red, mainly from Cabernet Franc grapes. We went tasting at Veuve Amiot, in the suburb of St Hilaire-St Florent, walkable from Saumur or served by the local Agglobus service – they do free tours (including in English) and tastings, while others in the area all charge (though only about €2). I’m never going to greatly enjoy sparkling wines, but it was a good experience.
I last visited Saumur on a family holiday in the 1970s, and I vaguely remember seeing the Cadre Noir horse-riding display then. We went again, having acquired another horse-mad family member, and it’s still impressive – I mean, how on earth do the riders communicate to the horses which fancy piece of footwork they want next? Saumur’s equestrian culture (there are lots of other stables, riding schools and saddle-makers dotted around outside the town) derives from the army’s cavalry school being established here in 1766 – the army fights in tanks now, but they still have a lot of horses here. We also wandered into the army’s stables, on the west edge of the town – our host happened to be a fairly senior officer, but it’s definitely not a secure area in any case. You might be turned away, but you’re not going to be shot at. But in fact we were taken aback by the amount of gunfire we heard – military horses have to be accustomed to it, after all.
The two main churches of Saumur, St-Pierre and Notre-Dame de Nantilly, are largely Romanesque, and bare and cold, but in summer they have 15th- and 16th-century tapestries on their walls. I also looked in to the church of St Nicolas, which is Gothic, but with very kitschy twentieth-century mosaics, and the very Classical pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame des Ardilliers. It’s not far east to the abbey of Fontevraud, supposedly Europe’s largest monastic complex, and resting place of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard Lionheart. It’s another cold bare Romanesque church, but it has been well restored in recent years and also houses some quite interesting temporary art displays, devised specifically for the setting by artists who’ve had a residency there. There are also displays on the period from 1804 to 1985 when the abbey served as a prison. I well remember visiting the spectacular kitchens, but these are closed for restoration – thoroughly recommended when they’re open again. A local bus from Saumur comes out here two or three times a day (Monday to Friday).
As for châteaux, we visited Brézé, which I’d never heard of – and it turns out it hasn’t been open long. In the 15th century Gilles de Maillé-Brézé was Grand Master of the Hunt to René, Duke of Anjou (later Count of Provence and King of Naples), and a successor married the sister of Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Cardinal de Richelieu; from 1701 to 1830 the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé were continuously Grand Masters of Ceremonies to the kings of France. Oddly, in 1959 the last of the family married a descendant of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was Richelieu’s equivalent under Louis XIV, and it’s the Colbert family who opened the place to visitors in 1998. With that pedigree it’s actually a bit surprising that the place isn’t grander – rebuilt in the 16th century, it has an attractive Renaissance exterior, but the interior was decorated in a fairly tawdry NeoGothic style in the 1830s. The private apartments, still furnished in Renaissance style, are open only for guided tours.
The château itself was founded in 1063, but in fact there’s an even older underground complex, the Roche de Brézé, beneath it and on the far side of the 15m-deep douve or dry moat. There are several kilometres of defensive tunnels and stores, as well as a kitchen and even a silkworm farm; there’s a large winery and cellar down there as well now. Well worth poking around.
In the interests of fairness and balance, I also visited Tours, an historic city which was effectively capital of France from 1444 to 1527, after Louis XI established himself in a château in what are now the city’s western suburbs. Touraine is famed as ‘the Garden of France’ (and they apparently speak the purest French here), but compared to tranquil Saumur, Tours seems like a big city, with traffic and Asian tourists and far more obese people (there didn’t seem to be any in Saumur – it must be all that horse-riding). There’s one modern tram line (and a new one being planned); like the one in Nice it uses overhead wires only outside the historic centre. Tours has a château, of course, or at least two medieval towers with an 18th-century barracks building between them, which is used for temporary art exhibitions. On the far side of the cathedral (known for its wonderful 13th- to 15th-century stained glass) the former bishops’ palace houses the Musée des Beaux Arts, the city’s permanent art collection. It’s not great but has a few fine paintings among the acres of 18th-century blandness – there’s a lovely Virgin by the studio of Albrecht Bouts (a copy of a work by his father Dirk Bouts), a Rubens, a Rembrandt (very early and of dubious authenticity), a Corot, a Monet and an unusual charcoal by Vuillard, as well as early Greek ceramics, Roman busts, and 15th-century English alabaster carvings. There are a few impressive sculptures by Marcel Gaumont (born in Tours in 1880) and Jo Davidson, an American who died in Tours in 1952. There are also large abstracts by Olivier Debré (1920-99) – see below.
Finally you can descend to some newly restored ground-floor rooms where the Octave Linet collection of Italian primitives went on display in May 2017. There’s some genuinely good stuff here, by Lodovico Veneziano, Antonio Vivarini, Bicci di Lorenzo, Niccolo di Tommaso and Giovanni di Paulo, and then the Mantegna room, with two paintings from his altarpiece for the church of St Zeno in Verona and Degas’ study of Mantegna’s Crucifixion, as well as a Moroni portrait and Cardinal Richelieu’s copy (probably the first) of Caravaggio’s Holy Family with John the Baptist (the original is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York).
The old town of Tours is a short distance west of the château/cathedral area, with half-timbered squares and the remains of medieval churches (the basilica of St Martin, over his tomb, was built in 1878-1902, but the towers of the medieval complex are still standing). In the cloister of the church of St Julien the Musée du Compagnonnage displays thousands of masterpieces – literally – the works produced by members of guilds to be accepted as masters of their craft. Fascinating stuff. This area is being redeveloped, including the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, a new space opened in 2017 to display for contemporary art, including the work of Olivier Debré – a respected figurative painter, he switched to abstract art during World War II (when he also won the Croix de Guerre fighting with the Résistance) and became known for his large and very brightly coloured works, while his brother became prime minister. He was very much a Parisian, but the family had a country house in Touraine, where he loved to paint.
One might expect the Orléans-Tours-Angers-Nantes axis (ie following the lower Loire) to have an hourly service of express trains linking them (and Blois and Saumur) as well as local stopping trains – but no, there’s just a train every three or four hours. Saumur and points west are in the historic province of Anjou, now part of the Pays de la Loire region, while Touraine is part of the Centre-Val de Loire region. I’ve written before about the regionalisation of public transport in France, which is fine, but there really has to be a way to provide proper links between the regions. I can also report that the TER (Train Express Régional) systems are still a bit of a mess. Some surprisingly important stations don’t yet have ticket machines, for instance Chamonix, St Gervais, Sallanches and even Dieppe – you can collect internet tickets from the ticket offices, but only when they’re open. Arriving at Dieppe from an overnight ferry, I was a bit taken aback by this, but the office did open in plenty of time. Compostage, or time-stamping your ticket as you go onto the platform, is a French tradition, but it’s got slightly complicated of late – e-tickets don’t need to be stamped, but other tickets that are only valid for a specific train still do for some reason.
The tendency in France is always to provide fast links with Paris, and that’s the case here too – the high-speed line to Bordeaux passes close to Tours and some of the older TGV trains are now used to link the central station with Paris Montparnasse in just over an hour (without any food and drink service); older trains still come here from Paris Austerlitz via Orléans, but they take twice as long, despite running at 200km/h. Note that, in order to get to the Metro’s Line 4 to reach the Gare de Nord you literally have to walk 700 metres at Montparnasse (there’s a travelator, but it’s not working) – and from March 12 to June 12 (2018) Line 4 trains will not be stopping at the Gare du Nord anyway (and Châtelet is also closed). Ticketing is primitive too, as visitors still have to queue to buy paper tickets from machines – none of this contactless/smart card malarkey!
Saumur itself can be reached from Paris by taking a TGV to either Tours or Angers and changing there; the Pays de la Loire region does also operate some pretty nice buses from Le Mans via Saumur to La Roche sur Yon.
Public transport in France is supposedly set to be revolutionised by modern coach companies competing with the state railways now that they’ve lost the protection of their monopoly on long-distance travel. The truth is that OuiBus was set up by the state railway company to compete with… the state railways – and more importantly to block other potential competitors. Nevertheless the excellent FlixBus, already well established in Germany, and Isilines have appeared here (not to mention the BlaBlaCar car-sharing scheme). The TGV trains, a worldwide icon of Frenchness, are now for some reason being marketed as InOui, which means ‘unheard of’ but is dangerously close to ‘ennui’ or boredom. That may not work too well for them.
There are other oddities about the way they run the railways in France – it’s announced that a stop will be say four minutes long as the train approaches a station, and that timetabled four-minute stop will always be at least four minutes long even if the train is running late and ready to leave after two or three minutes. I put this down to the power of the unions to obstruct common sense, but this can also be helpful in the case of the all-too-common rail strikes. These are beautifully choreographed so that just a few trains a day run on major lines, notably the odd TGV to Paris – at least twice I’ve been caught by a strike on the far side of the country when I’ve needed to get home to Britain, but I’ve always found a way to get there.
Under an hour southwest of Seattle, Tacoma is a relatively drab place, dominated by its huge container port, by the I-5 freeway and by heavy military jets taking off and landing, but it does have its attractions and a proud, if short, history. The Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma, not Seattle, as the western terminal of its transcontinental line, which opened in 1883 (the first transcontinental line had reached Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1869, and the Canadian Pacific route to Vancouver opened in 1886), even though it’s further from the open sea. In fact, if Seattle continues to develop as it is doing, the two cities will join up within a few decades, enveloping Sea-Tac Airport.
Tacoma’s main current claim to fame is the excellent Museum of Glass, created by celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly (born in Tacoma in 1941) and designed by the splendid Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson – you can see some of Chihuly’s perhaps overblown, but very imaginative and colourful, works on the Bridge of Glass, leading across the railway to the museum. In fact Washington state, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest, have been very important in the development of modern glass art, and there are lots of galleries in Seattle too, including Chihuly Garden & Glass and Pilchuck Seattle, a gallery linked to the Pilchuck Glass School, 50 miles north of Seattle – both were co-founded by Chihuly.
On the town side of the Bridge of Glass are the former Union Station (1911, now a courthouse), which has some of his larger works on display, and the Washington State History Museum, designed to match the former station. This gives an impressive overview of the state’s history in a suitably non-Seattlecentric way, from the first native cultures to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post at Fort Nisqually (yes, this could have been part of Canada), the arrival of the railways and modern industrial development. On the other (north) side of the former station is the Tacoma Art Museum, which of course has more glass by Chihuly plus European and (western) American paintings and a striking collection of Japanese woodblock prints.
Buses from Seattle and further afield, and Sounder and Amtrak trains, halt near the Tacoma Dome, a largely wooden concert/sports arena on the southern edge of the city, from where the Tacoma Link streetcar runs into downtown – this is currently free, with fares paid by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (an industry grouping). However an extension is under construction, which will loop around to the left past the main hospital, and when this opens in 2022 fares will be charged. Currently Amtrak uses a station a couple of hundred yards away from the Dome, but a second platform at the Freighthouse Square station (used by Sounder commuter services to Seattle) should have been ready by the end of 2017, allowing Amtrak to move here. However it’s running late so in January 2018 I caught my train at the old station to take the slow coastal route past Point Defiance Park (the second largest urban park in the US, containing a replica of Fort Nisqually, not on its original site) and the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (rebuilt after it famously twisted itself apart in 1940); the freight line from the Sounder station has been fettled for 80mph running and Amtrak trains will go this way as soon as the new station opens. However the new route was launched in December 2017 with a publicity run that went horribly wrong, via the new station – the driver (engineer, as they say in the US) seems to have forgotten about the 30mph curves where the new line swerves across the I-5 freeway and the train left the tracks, killing three passengers. Amtrak is having a bad run of accidents at the moment, even as train travel is becoming ever safer elsewhere in the world; at the end of January 2018 a truck driver was killed by a train which, bizarrely, was carrying most of the Republican members of Congress (not known for their generosity to Amtrak) to a retreat, and four days later two Amtrak crewmen died when their train took the wrong track and hit a freight train. And then a few days later the entire Baltimore metro was closed to allow emergency repairs. Maintenance and lack of infrastructure are crucial, of course, but because Amtrak’s lines, outside the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, are owned by freight companies there’s been a huge reluctance to install the PTC (Positive Train Control) system which would prevent most of these accidents. It’s hardly new technology, and it definitely works.
Having posted about Tbilisi, I should say that I’m now in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city, a pleasure resort on the Black Sea. It is totally unlike Tbilisi in most ways, although it does share some of its problems with traffic congestion and pollution – whereas English has become Tbilisi’s second language, here it’s Russian (and Turkish), and the city has much less of a European feel to it. Whereas visitors to Tbilisi come mostly for culture (including food and wine!), they come to Batumi for the casinos (not the beach, which is stoney and polluted). President Saakashvili (see my Tbilisi post), in his mad rush to boost the Georgian economy as fast as possible, decided that Batumi should become the Las Vegas of the Black Sea, and brought in major hotel and casino chains with massive tax breaks. He encouraged a surreal mishmash of exuberant architecture that (like Las Vegas) is definitely worth a flying visit at least. I’m not going to write a lot, but I will post some photos of these buildings below (loosely, from north to south).
While the over-the-top kitschy exuberance of Batumi’s new buildings still thrills, or at least provokes giggles, I do sense that the project has gone ever so slightly off the boil since Saakashvili left office (and the country – he moved to Ukraine to become governor of Odessa, but then fell out with the political establishment there and is currently stateless). The Chinese pagoda no longer houses a Chinese restaurant, the windmill restaurant is no longer Dutch-themed, the Tower Brewery no longer brews its own beer – they all now serve fairly basic Georgian food for holidaymakers. And the Chacha Fountain no longer flows with chacha (Georgian grappa) once a week (in fact it allegedly only worked once, as in one time only).
There are also hints of juicy scandal associated with Donald Trump, which I don’t think will make it into the book. In 2012 the future US president met Georgia’s President Saakashvili in Batumi to launch a Trump Tower project here – Trump was only going to sell his name rather than actually investing in the project, but it was a typical piece of grandstanding aimed at helping Saakashvili’s UNM party in upcoming elections. However in August 2017 a long investigative article in the New Yorker by Adam Davidson suggested there might be rather more to it, as part of a murky network of money-laundering and tax avoidance. It might, or might not, play a significant rôle in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s election campaign – it would also be pretty poor PR for Georgia, even though Saakashvili is long gone from the country. The Georgian developer, Silk Road Group, still hopes to build the tower – at one point they talked of calling it T Tower, so that Trump’s name could be attached after he leaves the presidency, but now it’s more likely to be called the Silk Road Tower.
Donald Trump Junior’s notorious June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York City, when he hoped to buy Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton, was also attended by Irakli Kaveladze, a Moscow-based Georgian businessman representing the Russian oligarch who set up the meeting. Kaveladze has been accused by congressional investigators of a scheme to launder US$1.4 billion of largely Russian money through US banks (he denies the allegations and says he attended the meeting as a translator). I don’t think there’s any connection with Georgian-born New York property developer Tamir Sapir, who built a hotel-condo block that became Trump Soho after The Donald bought an 18% share of the project in 2005.
I remember walking past the site for the Trump Tower in Punta del Este, Uruguay, as well, but it seems that one really is being built and will be finished in 2018.
As for practical news, I’ll just say that trains are becoming a better and better alternative to marshrutka minibuses, especially for the Tbilisi-Batumi journey – you can take a sleeper, or a fast day train operated by double-deck electric-multiple-units (which were ordered from the Swiss company Stadler for Moscow’s airport express, but when the rouble lost value they couldn’t afford the whole fleet, and Georgia and Azerbaijan got together to make an offer that Stadler couldn’t refuse). Personally I don’t think marshrutka drivers are actually suicidal, but after four weeks travelling around Georgia I’m finding the marshrutka experience (the death-defying overtaking, in particular, as well as all the waiting around) just a bit wearying, and so I thoroughly recommend train travel instead.
A new station called Batumi Central opened out of the blue just as we were going to print with the last edition – we couldn’t cover it properly because the book would have needed re-indexing, but it got mentioned. It’s not at all central, being at least 2km north of town, but is still more convenient than the previous terminus at Makhindjauri (and it’s served by the same buses, which is handy).
People often ask why the trains don’t call at Kutaisi, Georgia’s third city, which is just off the main line, and I suggest getting off at the small station of Rioni, just south of the city, where taxis await. In fact by the summer of 2018 there will be a new 2-kilometre loop to a station at Kutaisi Airport (Georgia’s booming low-cost hub), where all trains will apparently stop. This isn’t so close to Kutaisi itself, but coming from Batumi it will be a handy place to change to a bus or taxi into the city.
Just a few notes from my recent trip to western Normandy and eastern Brittany – a well-worn trail for me, with its highlights at Mont St Michel and Carnac. In particular, we were immensely privileged to be taken up through one of the flying buttresses to the roof level of the Abbey of Mont St Michel – something that’s only possible with a private guide that you’ve been working with for some years! So I’m afraid I can’t tell you who to contact.
The Mémorial de Caen now includes galleries on the weapons of the Cold War and Berlin in the Cold War – you might expect it just to deal with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, but it now covers everything from the causes of Word War II in the Versailles Treaties of 1918-19 up to its consequences in the 1950s and 1960s. Also new in 2017 is a Résistance & Collaboration gallery and a new film on the Battle of Normandy (in French and English versions). There are lots of small private museums in the villages near in D-Day beaches, which have their own quirky individual charm, with lots of recovered artefacts, but none offers anything like the detail and context of the Mémorial de Caen. It’s not cheap though, at almost €20 (€51 for a family pass). Over to the west, the Utah Beach Museum reopened in 2011; originally in a German bunker, it now has a state-of-the-art building for its displays, including a B-26 Marauder bomber in a custom-built hangar. But the landings on Utah Beach (and Gold, Sword and Juno) were relatively straightforward – Omaha will always be the main focus of attention.
It’s worth mentioning that the city of Caen is planning to change from its unique and unreliable guided trolleybus system to a standard LRT tramway – the single central rail will be replaced by two running rails, so there will be construction chaos for quite a while once they get started.
It opened in 2006, but I hadn’t come across the Mémorial des Reporters in Bayeux before – in a lovely park-like setting near the British Cemetery (rue de Verdun, off Bd Fabien Ware), it remembers the more than 2000 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1944 with a gravestone for each year. It’s getting more dangerous to be a war reporter – in 2015 110 were killed, at least 67 of them deliberately targeted because of their work, according to Reporters sans Frontieres. Across the road from the British Cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, a classical portico bearing the names of 1,808 men of the Commonwealth and Empire who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Above is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land’.
Also in Bayeux, the new Villa Lara is a great hotel, with large stylish roosm and great service – although the first wi-fi log-in is unnecessarily complicated (and it’s not very fast); and every time you leave your bedroom it seems someone comes in and puts a sticker on the loose end of the loo roll – a bizarre obsession! But it’s great that they were able to get permission for a new building right in the centre of town (hidden away just off the main Rue St-Jean), and that they did such a good job. It’s not at all cheap, though. L’Angle St Laurent at 4 rue des Bouchers seems to still be the best restaurant in town – always fabulous. Down towards the Baie du Mont St Michel, the Auberge de Carolles is also much improved under its new management (though well out of the way for most tourists). I also have a new favourite crêperie in Dinan, Art-Bilig at 8 rue Ste-Claire – small, friendly and efficient, serving up excellent savoury brown galettes and white dessert crêpes, with local cider, of course.
Speaking of restaurants – I don’t know whether this was coincidence, but in many places where I’d asked for a set menu for our group I was given a choice of cabillaud ou canard (cod or duck) – last year (2016) every menu in Britain seemed to offer arancini as starters (or they appeared as amuses-bouches while we were studying the menus), this year wild mushroom is everywhere – but that’s the UK, and I don’t expect that kind of faddiness in France, where chefs have the confidence to just do what they feel they do best, and the public expect that. But I can’t help wondering just what ‘wild’ mushrooms really are – I’m sure they’re not all authentically foraged from the fields.
In Brittany, Léhon, 2km south of Dinan, reminded me a bit of Todmorden, with Incredible Edible-style plantings (which I also saw in Liège) – but rather than being a community-based free food scheme, these are educational (and very decorative) displays of the sorts of medicinal and edible plants that would have been grown by medieval monks. There’s always been a beautiful display in the cloister of the simple largely twelfth-century abbey, but now it’s expanded out onto the streets; the abbey garden is also open now, with newly planted apple trees (rare local varieties, I imagine) and bug hotels. It leads down to the river and the simple bridge, blown up by the Germans in 1944 (the blast also shattered the abbey’s stained glass) and rebuilt. Léhon is an older crossing point of the Rance, superseded by Dinan, just downstream, from the eleventh century, and now it’s just a quiet little village, overlooked by the remains of its castle – the towpath between Léhon and Dinan, closed by rockfall for at least half a dozen years, has now reopened and makes for a lovely walk or cycle ride.
This interest in recreating monastic herb gardens is not new in France, and in fact I saw similar gardens at Fort La Latte and Poul-Fétan (where the whole village has been restored to its pre-industrial form). A little further west near Planguenoual, Herbarius is a garden of medicinal and edible plants that runs educational activities and grows plants to sell, aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the medieval ecosystem.
Rennes and the railways
Rennes is a large, unattractive and basically un-Breton sort of city now – although there are some lovely half-timbered buildings, and the modern Musée de Bretagne is excellent. When the new high-speed line from La Mans to Rennes opens in July 2017, with 20 trains a day bringing passengers from Paris in as little as 1hr 25min, they will be greeted by a building site. Work began in 2015 to build a second metro line and to create the shiney new EuroRennes interchange – both the main Place de la Gare, to the north, and the Parvis Sud, the convenient and less well-known southern entry, will be a mess until 2020, and the redevelopment of the area won’t be fully completed until 2027. But more importantly (it seems) the new shops in the station will open in 2018.
In the west of Brittany, Brest and Quimper will each have 9 TGVs a day reaching Paris in 3hr 15min; Lorient has an entirely new station, which opened in May 2017 (also part of a local regeneration scheme). It’s all being promoted as Bretagne Grande-Vitesse, aiming to provide faster, more frequent and better integrated rail transport across the region. It’s worth mentioning that the Sud-Europe-Atlantique high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux will also open on July 2, bringing Paris-Bordeaux journeys down by 75 minutes to just over two hours (London to Bordeaux will take under six hours, with a change of train in Lille or Paris). And France’s TGV services will all then be branded as inOui (a pun on inouï, meaning unheard of or amazing).
Meanwhile, in 2020 Normandy will introduce its fleet of new double-deck trains (les Trains Normands) – paid for by the central government as part of the process of transferring unprofitable long-distance services from the SNCF to the regions (which already run local train and bus services under the TER (Transport Express Régional) brand. Normandy will now take responsibility for services from Paris to Caen/Cherbourg, Rouen/Le Havre, Trouville-Deauville, Granville and Serquigny, and from Caen to Le Mans and Tours, with the usual objective of boosting frequencies, speeds and connections.
If that all sounds like good news, I found I was unable to collect my ticket (booked online) as usual from the ticket machines at Rennes station – I was told the system had changed and now I was expected to print it myself, or have it on a phone. Luckily I was able to find wifi (the usual SNCF station wifi was down, perhaps because of the construction works) and download the ticket. Still, this seems unnecessarily obstructive.
I took the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (15km north of Caen) and back – an excellent service, and there’s usually a direct bus connection from the port to Caen station. However on Sundays the service is poor – arriving late in the evening there’s no connection (and the one taxi loaded up and left, so I hitched into town just as it got dark), and returning on a public holiday (ie the Sunday timetable) the last bus to Ouistreham (not to the ferry terminal, but near enough) is at 1814 – the ferry leaves at 2300, so there’s plenty of time for dinner, and plenty of decent places to eat just south of the ferry terminal.