Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

A blog & photos from Ukraine

Arriving in Kiev was travel like it used to be – instant disorientation! Chaotic immigration queues with the odd skirmish due to lack of clarity as to exactly which queue you’re in; all the men looking like they are about to head butt you and the women like…..well, you know…..; no-one smiling; signs in Cyrillic script you can’t read; arrival forms (seemingly made out of toilet paper) where you have to guess what some of the sections are for, then aggressive immigration officers sending you back to re-do them unable to tell you exactly where you’ve gone wrong (I escaped this; years of travel seemed to be paying off) …..oh bliss! I’d forgotten what a dull uniform world we’d become.

After working out that domestic flights went from a different terminal and fighting off endless taxi touts walking the 100 yards in drizzle to the much smaller terminal, I discovered that check-in didn’t open for another 2 hours, so I ensconced myself with a good book, but found the people-watching so much more interesting. I eventually arrived in Lviv (say it exactly as it looks) in time for bed, so it was morning before I knew if the whim of tagging this Western Ukraine city to a visit to the capital was wise.

I came across Lviv when I was researching a future trip to Kosovo and it was wise! The entire old town, where my lovely ‘boutique’ hotel is situated, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and you can easily see why. The main square has terraced rows on four sides of a uniformity determined (by accident) by an ancient tax that encouraged people to limit house width to three windows. The architectural styles are classical, renaissance and baroque, with a touch of gothic and art nouveau and they’re in a multitude of colours, but somehow they sit there in harmony with one another. The City Hall occupies the centre, fountains with statues of Diana, Neptune, Adonis and Aphrodite the four corners, and all the streets are cobbled. Around this square is a grid of similarly cobbled streets with more diverse architecture, yet a pleasing symmetry.

There’s an ethnic mix that brings a whole range of churches which I saw on Easter Saturday when I visited five of them. At the Dominican Church, the Greek Catholics now occupy a baroque gem; the ladies were just completing their Easter flower arrangements using only white flowers, stopping to take a proud snap. In the tiny gorgeously atmospheric Church of the Assumption, the Ukrainian Autocephalous brothers were busying themselves with prayers and icon kissing; the modern stained glass windows here were pink and blue pastels and somehow they perfectly complemented the older dark reds and golds. The Easter mass was in full flow at the Russian Orthodox St Georges Cathedral with a heavenly ladies choir counterpointing the chanting of an unusually large number of priests and attendants and more icon kissing! Back with the Greek Catholics at the Bernadine cathedral, they were lining up outside with baskets of goodies which the priest was blessing. Inside it was such a riot of gold baroque that you needed sunglasses. Finally, at the Latin Cathedral, the Polish Catholics were lined up with their baskets along the aisle, the priest this time blessing them with water from his palm. The Easter market on one side of the main square, with a giant decorated egg made from twigs, was final proof that I’d arrived at a rather special time. In the evening, the purpose of the baskets was revealed as people walked to their homes or relatives with their baskets covered in embroidered cloths and filled with flowers, greenery and eggs.

On Easter Sunday, a gloriously sunny day, I walked and walked and saw so much extraordinary architecture I almost overdosed. There were three more churches to be seen, but I had to avoid service times as they were so popular they were overflowing. The Armenian Cathedral was another one with an extraordinary atmosphere with frescos on every wall, beautifully painted domes and a wooden carved ceiling with gold trimming. St Georges Cathedral (a different one, this one Greek Catholic!) required a walk up the hill, from where there were good views. It was Rococo-a-go-go inside and out, all white, yellow and gold. People in their Sunday best were making an Easter pilgrimage here. I thought the Church of the Transfiguration was bound to be a disappointment after this, but I gasped as I entered this brightly coloured gem, unusual pastel colours again, this time alongside much gold. They certainly won the flower arranging award – 25 white arrangements, two for each station of the cross and one centre piece surrounding the icon laid out for kissing! The city was much busier today – families dressed up and strolling – and the Easter fair was doing a roaring trade. 

I adored Lviv; when there are direct flights from West European cities, they’ll be coming here as much as Budapest and Prague – get here before then! The wake-up call for the flight to Kiev was obscenely early, but it helped maximise the time at my second destination. My heart sank as we drove into Kiev on a holiday Monday through what seemed to be miles and miles of grey tower blocks and smokestacks. Soon, though, the golden domes appeared to lift the spirit. It’s a striking combination of said golden domes, highly decorated and colourful late 19th / early 20th century buildings, more austere grand Stalinist architecture and mostly ugly modern buildings. There’s a huge river, but most of Kiev is high above it, with forest along most of it, so you hardly ever see it. The shape and the hills in particular, make it difficult to orientate yourself, and because it’s so much bigger, the lack of readable street names doesn’t help. My heart sank again when the entrance to my ‘B&B Hotel’ was an imposing metal door down an alleyway. When I eventually got in (having got them out of bed!) it was a rather pleasant surprise, provided you like yellow – it’s the Sunflower B&B Hotel and absolutely everything follows the theme; curtains, crockery and tissue boxes (branding is all, even here, it seems) and the location just off the main square is terrific. Enterprising owner Tatiana has effectively turned one floor of an apartment block into a 5-room B&B with 24-hour manning and continental breakfast in your room!

Ukraine is a big country (geographically the biggest in Europe and with 50m people) that can’t make its mind up whether to retain dependency on Russia or reach out to the EU.  Joining NATO was punished by Russia turning the gas off, then a hefty price increase, so I guess it’s a bit of a no-win for them. The recent election resulted (marginally) in a switch to facing East and you get a strong sense of a Soviet mentality struggling to change. Kiev is nowhere near as visitor friendly as Lviv, and this seems to be more of the Russian influence than the size of the city (3m people). Little other than Russian is spoken, it’s very difficult to navigate and even when you think you’ve found your destination, you’re never really certain. The attitude to ‘Western’ tourists is at best cautious and at worst rude. What stared as a thrilling return to proper travel soon became frustrating, though I eventually mastered the metro by applying Uzbek rules – work out the number of stops to and after your destination and the first and last symbols of your stop and the final stop. It doesn’t help when you have to change trains or exit the system at an intersection though; here it’s a process of trial and error, in one case choosing the exit from 5 possible options!

The highlights of Kiev are mostly churches, which seem to be colour-coded! I started at the green and gold St. Sophia’s with a mere 19 domes and 8 half-domes! Inside it’s completely covered in frescos which are notable not for their beauty as much as their scale. The floors have extraordinary metal tiles and the place has a great atmosphere. The compound, entered through an arch in the huge bell tower, houses many other buildings, most turned into museums. The modern blue and gold St. Mikhayil’s seemed rather tacky in comparison, though an Easter mass was in full swing so there was much to captivate – priests with crowns, priests assisting members of the congregation in the customary icon kissing and enough candles being bought and lit to keep the church coffers full. The green & gold-domed St. Andrei’s is perched precariously on a hill and is the smallest of the major churches. It looks like it’s about to fall down; they’re shoring up the foundations as we speak. Finally St. Vladimir’s yellow, blue & gold with gold stars! Here, the frescos were both plentiful and beautiful. A service was going on again, with a variation on icon kissing – blessed with a cross to the forehead and on top of the head!

Visiting museums can be trying. I tried to visit the Michael Bugalov Museum (co-incidentally, I’m going to see an adaptation of The White Guard at the National Theatre on Monday and he wrote it here!) but a rather officious woman said it was only groups in Russian today. I think she missed the irony of this, and my attempts at ‘he’s the hottest ticket in London, you now’ and ‘with a welcome like this, you’ve got as much chance of joining the EU as I have becoming President of Russia’ seemed to fall on deaf ears. More welcoming was the Museum of One Street that cleverly and originally tells the story of the various inhabitants, businesses and events associated with the street from ancient times to the last half of the 20th Century. The women at the Museum of Russian Art were unbelievably rude and the collection was rather dull and appallingly shown. I got lost trying to find the National Gallery of Art and having found it discovered it was closed on Tuesdays (it was supposed to be closed on Fridays), though I did go back and it proved to be a pleasant surprise, particularly the late 19th / early 20th Ukrainian art. The Bohdan & Varvara Khanenko collection was closed for room cleaning on the afternoon of the first Wednesday in the month; it only opened this morning after its 2-day break! I persisted there too and it was well worth it; an extraordinary personal collection of oriental and West European paintings, furniture and objects in a lovely mansion. More successful museum visits included the Second World War Museum / Memorial. It was austere and very Soviet, built into the base of a giant statue of ‘the nation’s mother’ that I nicknamed Titanium Tatiana (a sort of Statue of (not) Liberty). I was escorted alone in a diagonal escalator and up some steep stairs into the statue to see the view, but there was a delay as we couldn’t move the door bolt and had to send for re-enforcements.  I wondered why no-one else was prepared to pay the £3. The Chernobyl Museum was surprisingly frank, covering the attempted cover-ups in full and with an audio guide the first fully accessible museum for foreigners. It was a cross between an art installation, an exhibition and a memorial and it all became a bit too much to take in.

In Independence Square, home of the orange revolution, freedom has delivered everything you’d expect – your children can ride a donkey or a toy car and you can dress up and be photographed in a fairy coach or next to a man in a lion costume; delicious! The only evidence of the revolution is graffiti outside the post office, now covered in perspex to preserve it. Inside, the post office is a gorgeous space with stained glass, grand light fittings and ornate iron signage but I got told off for taking photos – in a post office!

A trip to the edge of town proved delightful – wandering around the peaceful monastery compounds of Lower and Upper Lavra. It’s a maze of nine churches, two bell towers and many other buildings. At today’s service, you could line up to whisper with a priest who put his embroidered mantle over your head; I think it was a sort of confession, in which case it wasn’t very private! The 1000 year-old caves under the churches contain the bodies of important religious men with many shrines. I didn’t buy a candle, not realising it was to see rather than to pray for someone, so it was a scary claustrophobic experience. I skipped the far caves because they were apparently only 6 foot high and 2 foot wide and despite my diet somewhat challenging.

I got the best seat in the house (£16.50!) for a ballet of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the gorgeous Opera House with Cherubino in pink breeches and an orange wig, a male ‘dame’ as Marcelina and a ‘he’s behind you’ moment – panto! I’m amazed no-one thought of it before; the edited score lends itself to comic ballet perfectly. The dancing and playing were both very good indeed.

Kiev was a challenge after tourist-friendly Lviv. I don’t regret going, but I had to earn my experiences. It still feels very ‘Soviet’ and I suspect the struggle will continue longer than the 19 years it has already. This country has been occupied by Vikings, Russians, Mongols, Poles, Germans and even Lithuanians (are you listening, Vida?!) and there is an extent to which they have lost their Ukrainian identity – apparently, they had to rush to learn the language on ‘independence’ in 1991 and a lot of them don’t speak it today. With hindsight, I stayed a day too long (flights dictated either 3.5 or 2.5 days), though if I left a day earlier, I’d probably be saying I needed more time! Next stop Macedonia in May…..

Photo link follows…..

Read Full Post »

My love affair with Spain continues. This is my 15th trip and I’ve now been to 14 of Spain’s 15 mainland provinces. This short visit to Northern Spain came mostly from a desire to see three of the four buildings by one of my architectural heroes, Antonio Gaudi, that aren’t in or near Barcelona. After researching it, a few more interesting ideas came up and, with a lot of Iberia miles burning a hole in my pocket, a 5–day trip beckoned.

I flew to Santander and picked up a brand new Toyota Yaris (I didn’t demand a safer car, Sian) that within an hour was less than new, having disagreed with the narrow cobbled streets of my first destination, Santillana del Mar, whilst trying to find the hotel. I thanked my lucky stars that I’d taken the unusual step of buying out the E675 excess for E50 thinking it was a bit, well, excessive. Perhaps the Yaris was grumpy that Santillana isn’t del Mar at all – it’s nowhere near the sea; funny bunch these Cantabrians.

A lovely place it is though – farms actually on the edge of the town where the animals return at the end of a grasing day, the aforementioned cobbled streets, lovely 15th to 17th century stone houses with balconies and original (huge) family crests in stone. I stayed on the main square in an 18th century noble’s house, which is now a Parador (government run hotels mostly in old buildings full of character – and staffed by civil servants with the customer service stills you expect of civil servants) and wandered around the town early evening and early morning before taking the long way to Leon, my second destination.

This proved to be a spectacular drive, starting along the Cantabrian coast via the lovely seaside towns of Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera. I then climbed through the deep river gorge of Desfiladero de la Hermida to the picturesque market town of Potes, cut by a deep river with houses hanging onto the hillsides and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, where the market was indeed in action. From here it was an ear-popping climb through the snow line to the San Gloria pass at 5280 ft. By now I was beginning to think I might have made a mistake – there were no other cars on the road, the snow on both sides was occasionally encroaching onto the road, the temperature dropped to 0°C and snow started falling – but I hung on in there (didn’t really have much option by now) and was soon descending to better and safer driving conditions. The next phase was along reservoirs with spectacular views of the permanently snow-capped Picos de Europa, a mountain range of three mastiffs of jagged peaks rising from the Atlantic Ocean, separated by two river gorges of which today’s was one. The lowlands prior to Leon were a bit tame after all of this, but I was glad the drive was coming to an end. That’s how to turn a 150-mile journey into a 6.5-hour adventure.

Finding the Parador in Leon proved very difficult; I drove around the city a few times before I came across an enormous monastery with a stunning Renaissance façade and noticed the ‘Parador’ sign; it took a while for my jaw to close. I have stayed in some great hotels, but this one immediately entered the top ten. It was originally built 900 years ago as a hostel for the pilgrims on the road to St James, though the present building dates from the 16th century with additions up to the 18th century. It has a two-story baronial staircase that redefines ‘baronial’, sublime cloisters and an en suite 500-year old church with amazing carved choir stalls – spectacular! The (affordable) rooms are in an annex that doesn’t live up to the public areas, but it’s a gem nonetheless and I got my first ‘old man’ perk (well, not counting the free coffee at Clapham Picture House, but that was both a mistake and an insult); a 30% reduction beautifully categorized as the ‘golden years’ discount.

My first impressions of Leon, based on the drive in, were disappointing but in the morning when I headed into the old town on foot, these were quickly turned around. The first Gaudi building beckoned, an early work showing characteristics that were to be developed later, now used as the offices of a bank. It’s a stone gothic rectangular structure with turrets, wrought iron, much stained glass and a stylized statue of St. George slaying the dragon over the door. I sneaked inside to see the stained glass as it should be seen, but was thrown out by the security guard who was clearly used to such transgressions, trying to placate me with a leaflet in English (shame on you Caja Espana; may your bonuses shrivel and disappear forever!).

On to the enormous Cathedral, whose main claim to fame are 125 spectacular stained glass windows on a Chartres scale (you couldn’t take them all in, so I had to buy the ‘catalogue’) and the Basilica of San Isidro which houses the tombs of more than 20 kings and queens (Leon was once the most powerful kingdom in the Iberian peninsular) in a room whose vaulted ceiling is covered in frescos, a wonderful treasury with a small number of beautifully restored and well displayed items and a library where the ancient books and manuscripts hadn’t got the same attention and looked to be in a state of terminal decline. Back at the Parador, I visited the en suite museum in the church, one room of which was a riot of stunning 16th century sculpture and plasterwork.

I took the fast toll road to Astorga for the second Gaudi building and only passed / was passed by three cars in the 30 mile journey; I realised why when I had to pay £4 for said 30 miles! However it was worth it, because Gaudi’s Bishops Palace was wonderful; a four-story fairytale fantasy turreted stone structure with vaulted ceilings on each floor, stained glass-a-go-go, ceramic decoration and lots of nooks and crannies. Many of the shapes, motifs and colours that were later to become trademarks were being tried out here (including one which he either stole from Charles Rennie Mackintosh or CRM stole from him). Unlike the bankers, the Bishops allowed you in (for a small fee) but wouldn’t allow photos (may you be hounded by snapping paparazzi!). Whilst in Astorga I took in the Cathedral, but it was a bit tame after Leon’s.

The plan was to return to Santillana through the mountains by a different route, but when I awoke to drizzle and heavy clouds, I was in two minds. I decided to continue with the plan; another good decision! The (mostly) new route to Riano was more interesting than the one from Riano, though once I left the Oviedo road I hardly saw a car or person – most of the towns, mid-morning, seemed like ghost towns. Why? With no wind at all, the reflections of the mountains in the reservoirs around Riano were perfect and quite disorientating. The mountain crossing was much gentler this way, with the pass 1000 feet less at 4250 feet, the temperature didn’t drop below 5°C and it wasn’t snowing! The clouds were high, so the views were spectacular; a full 180° from the Ponton pass. The Desfiladero de los Beyos river gorge (aren’t these names lovely?), though shorter than the other route, was narrower and windier and I saw much more of it (when I wasn’t concentrating on the narrow road and double bends). Before we reached the end we had to contend with a crushed lorry blocking the road; the local police clearly thought I was a wimp slowly navigating the space they had created (which bigger vehicles had sailed through) but they hadn’t scraped their Yaris 3 days ago! The mountain journey ended at Cangas de Onis where there was a beautiful Roman bridge with three arches. Another lovely journey.

Back in Santillana, the last full day was spent catching up with the local sights. I started at the pre-historic caves of Altamira just a couple of kms up the road, where the rock paintings are 12,000 to 15,000 years old. Like Lascaux in the Dordogne, the cave itself is now closed to the public to preserve it and a replica has been created. This, and the excellent museum with everything in English as well as Spanish, exceeded expectations; I was enthralled. Back in Santillana, the collegiate church of Santa Juliana had some wonderful cloisters with intricately carved capitals.

The final Gaudi building beckoned – a working restaurant in Comillas and the plan was to have lunch there. I’d tried emailing in advance but didn’t receive a response. The reason became obvious when I arrived to a sign saying it had ‘permanently closed for holidays on 28th December’?! I managed to get a good exterior view but that was it (may your dishes burn to a cinder, El Capricho – if you ever reopen!). Apparently, though he designed it, he didn’t come north to supervise its building, yet it’s the most obviously Gaudi, very like Casa Vincens in Barcelona. My consolation prize was a tour of Palacio Sobrellano by another Catalan modernist. It was lovely and I’m puzzled why the guidebooks ignore it. I was the only visitor, the guide spoke slowly and even I was impressed at how much I understood (her illustrated tale of how they protected the Queens’ modesty when she bathed in the sea was priceless). The Gaudi connection became clear here. The palace was the home of the Marquis of Comillas who married the daughter of Gaudi’s Catalan patron, Guell. I loved Comillas and ended with a some ‘raciones’ in the bar of a very loud lady from the south whose Bellota ham, croquettas and welcome was lovely but would have benefitted from added ear plugs!

This is a long blog for a short trip, which says something about how much I enjoyed it. Here are rather a lot of photos for a short trip too…..

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Northern Spain, March 2010

Read Full Post »

A weekend in Leuven

I’ve had a love affair with Flanders since I visited Antwerp a while back. Subsequent visits to Bruges, Ghent, Ostende & the coast and a visit on business to Mechelen last November consolidated it. 

It’s seeped in merchant history much like the guilds of the City of London and was home to one of the great artistic movements of history. The architecture is varied, but there is an emphasis on gothic and classical. 

Leuven is a university city, much like Cambridge, with colleges around every corner and university life fully integrated in the city. It’s great to walk around (though there are a lot of cobbles to ‘massage’ the soles of your feet!) and unlike Cambridge, you are welcome to wander into the college courtyards. 

The grandest buildings are the 15th century gothic City Hall covered with statues, the 20th century classical University Library built as a commemoration of the first world war but ironically needing to be rebuilt after damage in the second world war, and St Peter’s church which dominates the Grote Markt, the focal point of the town. 

Last November they opened a new museum which they somewhat coolly called ‘M’ which takes the former College of Savoy and bolts on a faux Greek temple and a modern structure to great effect. The permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and restored rooms is small but beautiful. 

It’s a lovely little city and only 2.5 hours away from London by train. Here’s a link to some photos. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Leuven Jan 2010
Leuven Jan 2010
Dec 31, 2001
by Gareth
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »

This was the second Sideways wine weekend of 2009; this time to Piedmont, Italy – home of Barolo and Barbaresco – and I used the opportunity to tag on a couple of days in Turin, a new city for me.

It’s proximity to France, but perhaps more importantly it’s history as the home of the Dukes of  Savoy, gives TURIN a hybrid Italian-French look and feel – colonnaded boulevards and huge piazzas with a combination of Romanesque, medieval and classical architecture. It’s a lovely city to explore on foot and the autumn weather was perfect for this.

The Palazzo Real is a grand affair, befitting a capital city, with a maze of opulent rooms and extensive grounds. It sits on one edge of Piazza Reale which adjoins Piazza Castello; this really is the heart of monumental Turin. The state apartments are a mixed bag with some badly in need of restoration. The armoury is a spectacular space, though it’s difficult to get excited about its content unless you’re turned on by a lot of swords! The high spot though is its long narrow Library, still in use as an archive.

The heart of working Turin is Piazza San Carlo, a vast rectangular colonnaded space with two churches at one end. The cafes around the collonade bring it to life and it’s en route to lots of places so it’s forever populated by people on the move or stopping to rest. The streets which lead to the square are populated by Turin’s finest shops; being born without the shopping gene, I gave those a miss.

Turin contains the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt (more impressive than Berlin or London) and they are housed in their own museum. It really is a stunning collection, particularly the statuary – two big rooms of them – but there’s also the complete contents of several tombs, lots of mummies and a spectacular Book of the Dead.

Most cities have a curiosity and here it’s a 19th century brick tower called the Mole Antonelliana (the tallest in its day) originally built as a synagogue and now housing a 21st century cinema museum. A free-standing glass elevator rises to a roof terrace from which the 360 degree view is spectacular (though on the day I went, the haze rather limited it). The museum is badly signed and curated so it’s hard to get the most out of it, but the building and the view (and a rather good antipasti buffet in the cafe!) make it a must.

Parco del Valentino, along the River Po, looked gorgeous in the autumn colours. It houses a medieval village and castle built for an 1884 exhibition; it’s a folly, but the craftsmanship of the day means it’s now a beautifully imagined antique theme park!

Add a few churches – particularly the riots of baroquery at Santuario della Consolata in Romanesque Turin and San Lorenzo in Piazza Reale – and GAM, a disappointing modern & contemporary art gallery, and you have a very enjoyable couple of days exploration.

Our PIEDMONT WINE WEEKEND started with a truffle hunt! The ease with which the dog found the truffles made us a bit suspicious, but if they were planted they were certainly well covered up! The manic way the dog behaves suggested to me she must be addicted to truffles (and she gets to eat the small ones) so I wasn’t sure what I thought about it all. It was white truffle season (the more expensive ones) and they were retailing at £5000 per kilo (ten times black truffles at a mere £500) so there’s clearly a rather good living to be made here. When we entered the shop, the smell was intense and overpowering. We tasted more than 10 truffle products – its fascinating how many uses they have – but I can’t say I entirely appreciated the taste or understood the value placed on it.

Piedmont is primarily known for three grape varieties – Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – which make the renowned wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Our first wine tasting was at the wonderfully named Conterno Fantino (www.conternofantino.it), a family winery on a hilltop overlooking Monforte, one of the 11 villages that comprise the Barolo DOC. The son showed us around the winery and mother led the tasting – until Dad turned up looking like he’d had a rather good and rather long lunch and proceeded to add a few more wines including a 99 Barolo Sori Ginestra and a preview of the 06 vintage! I love these family run businesses – they aren’t the most slick and you may find better wines elsewhere, but there’s a real sense of individuality, preserving tradition, innovation and living their passion.

Our hotel for two nights was Albergo Cantine Ascheri in Bra (www.ascherihotel.it), a modern 28-room 3-story hotel with en suite winery hidden in a courtyard on the outskirts of Bra. Winery owner Matteo Ascheri showed us around his sparkling modern facilities with a very compelling and lucid account of the history, tradition and modernisation of the Barolo region. After a ten wine tasting earlier at Conterno Fantino, this was a more modest four wine tasting in a lovely purpose-built tasting room in the cellars of the winery / hotel which was followed by dinner in their restaurant; this is a new breed of winemaker who sees the added value of providing dining and accommodation.

Our visit to the lovely hilltop village of Barberesco was a pilgrimage to meet the godfather of Italian wine, Angleo Gaja (www.gajawines.com). A larger-than-life character, he showed us around his impressive cellars and renovated castle and talked almost non-stop for 90 minutes. Though it was clearly an honour, he did bang on a lot in a rather pompous fashion! He left the tasting to his daughter and the five wines we tasted were spectacular, but I soon realised that they were so expensive I may never taste them again!

After a simple but delicious lunch in the village, we headed to the vineyards of Bruno Giacosa (www.brunogiacosa.it) on the hills overlooking Serralunga where the autumn colours took your breath away; a riot of reds, yellows, browns and greens. The tasting of six wines back at their premises included a sparkling white and our first white made with the local Arneis grape. It was another good selection which proved Piedmont holds its own as a region of fantastic reds; I think I’m about to enter my Barolo period…..

Here are some photos….. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Nov 1, 2009
by Gareth
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »


Well, it was a surreal start to the festival. I turned up at the appointed time at the Mercure Hotel for a ‘show’ by a Belgian company who had wowed last year. There were 4 others. We stood in a row, then a screen rose to reveal five others who proceeded to change places until they each chose one of us to lead away to a cubicle. Here we were asked personal questions and engaged in what can best be described as ‘speed dating’. After 10 or 15 minutes, we were led to a circle of chairs where the five ‘actors’ proceeded to share aspects of these private conversations in what seemed like group therapy. The fact that three of my fellow audience members were known to me (though we didn’t know each other) – a London fringe theatre director (who was so opinionated pre-show that I took an instant dislike to her), the theatre-director-of-the-moment and his literary collaborator – was a bit disconcerting. At the time, my view of Internal was ‘so what?’ but I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The day continued to amaze with a production of Faust in a vast shed performed by 100 Romanians. This was the main festival like it was in its hey day, putting on things only festivals can. After over an hour of stunning visual spectacle we left our seats and joined Faust in hell where there was fire, ladies copulating with pigs, dead babies being eaten, fireworks and all manner of hellishness. Back in our seats and the story concluded with Faust’s salvation. Thrilling stuff.

SATURDAY was a day of one-person shows that started with Carol Anne Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife about the women behind men of history / mythology / fiction like Eurydice, Mrs Medusa, Queen Kong (!) and Mrs Darwin  (plus a reversal in the Cray Sisters and an infamous women in Myra Hindley). They were performed superbly by Linda Marlowe and were often very funny and always entertaining. Even an unscheduled 30-minute stop for a sick audience member to be taken away by ambulance didn’t put her off (though it raised questions about the lack of first aiders in a 6-space venue!). In Morcambe, Bob Golding gives an extraordinary performance telling Eric’s life story (with Ernie played by a ventriloquist’s dummy). It was nostalgic, funny and at times deeply moving and I adored it. Eccentric Welsh comic storyteller Hugh Hughes’ show 360 wasn’t as good as his previous shows Floating (about the day when Anglesey floated off into the Atlantic!) and the Story of a Rabbit, but he’s still a one-off. The success of each show depends on the audience and ours had a few too many puzzled souls who probably thought they were going to see a stand-up and couldn’t really ‘go with the flow’.

I opted out of the audio play in headphones whilst walking through the Botanic Garden on SUNDAY morning as it was raining; instead I went to a fascinating exhibition – Spain – that combined Spanish masters like Zubaran, Murillo, El Greco and Goya with British artist ‘visitor’ impressions of Spain. There was a stunning homage to Velasquez by Millais, the only David Robert’s non-Middle East paintings I’ve ever seen, a chilling Spanish Civil War painting from Wyndham Lewis and the best El Greco’s ever! At Home With Holly was a great idea that turned out to be a big mistake. A ‘comedienne’ entertaining you in her flat, except she wasn’t at all funny and covered this up with faux eccentricity which was rather embarrassing. If I could have found a way of sneaking out (one audience member feigned illness!) I would have. There were two stunts (I think) involving an audience member texting and a visit from Health & Safely but I’m afraid they didn’t save the day. Sunday ended with a stunning recital by the world’s greatest baritone, Bryn Terfel. In a largely British programme the Schumann songs seemed out of place, but the Vaughan Williams and Finzi songs were wonderful and the closing Celtic section was a populist move that worked well. He also told a couple of great jokes!

MONDAY at noon saw us in the Barony Bar with a G&T watching Charles Bukowski’s bar room tales unfold in Grid Iron’s Barflies. The small cast were terrific, the live piano accompaniment did much to create the right atmosphere and the close proximity (within drink spilling distance!) fully engaged you with the characters. They moved from funny to sad (watching people get drunk can be so depressing) and in the end you felt you had peeped into the souls of these people and experienced a combination of empathy and revulsion. The Creole Choir from Cuba had a shaky start but it didn’t take long before their African rhythms to take you hostage. They tried to tell the story of the journey from Africa to Haiti and on to Cuba and you certainly heard the music acquire Latin rhythms as the show went on. In the end their infectious enthusiasm and charm enveloped you and you left smiling. Tondal’s Vision is a combination of (mostly medieval) polyphonic music put together by a small Croatian group of female singers to tell the tale of the brief period between life and death of the knight Tondal. It sounded beautiful but the monotony wore you down to the point where you couldn’t wait for it to end. What could have been a 20-30 minute gem became an 80-minute sentence.

TUESDAY started with our first proper Traverse play (The Traverse is one of Britain’s best theatres – on a par with the Almeida and Donmar in London), Orphans. The story of a brother and sister orphaned when their parents died in a fire and the effect of this on their lives, it had a dark brooding atmosphere and lots of twists, playwright Dennis Kelly’s trademarks. Beautifully performed and staged, I found it captivating. The Comedian’s Company was set up a few years back to stage plays largely cast from stand-ups. They had hits with Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Killer Joe but this year’s offering, The School for Scandal – a restoration comedy – was poorly received. I think the critics rather missed the point. It was in effect a panto, which took a lot of licence with Sheriden’s play, ad-libbing and over-acting and generally larking about. I thought it was good fun. It was worth the ticket price for a turn by Lionel Blair and black comedian Stephen K Amos in a frock coat and a powdered wig. Comedian Phil Nichol tried something different this year with an alter ego poet / singer in white suit accompanied by a pianist and double bass player. His fans seemed to find this hard to swallow, but despite it’s overly manic pace and delivery I thought it was intriguing, very rude and often very funny. The day ended with an extraordinary light and sound journey called Power Plant through the greenhouses of the Royal Botanic Garden. Some 22 artists each created pieces, from windpipes with flame jets to illuminated lily ponds to bright kaleidoscopic discs with whirring sounds. Gorgeous.

A late start on WEDNESDAY with Al Murray re-creating his alter ego The Pub Landlord’s 1996 Perrier Award winning show. I love his populist Saturday night ITV show and this had all the features of audience engagement, faux xenophobia and pub character parody. It was very funny indeed. This was followed by The Hotel, created by comedian Mark Watson, where a large New Town house has been turned into a hotel with restaurant, wellness centre, cabaret bar, business centre etc. It was bit hit-and-miss; I loved assessing job applicants in the Board Room (well, I would, wouldn’t I) and thought the Wellness Centre, Chill Out Room (with live guru!) and Cabaret Bar (with Ronnie Golden, no less) worked well, but the Processing Centre, TV Lounge and other parts worked less well and I couldn’t get into the restaurant (only after I left did I think no-one might have got into the restaurant and this was part of the joke?). I was convinced Holly from Sunday afternoon was the masseuse (she gave me a funny look) but maybe I’m being paranoid! Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria was performed by seven singers, seven instrumentalists and five puppeteers (Handspring, the company behind War Horse at the National). As much as I admired it, it didn’t really engage me – though it’s fair to say the uncomfortable seats, heat and noisy neighbour didn’t help  – and didn’t seem to tell the story particularly well. It divided the group – Jeff thought it was the highlight of the festival! The day ended back at the Traverse for a highly original show called Accidental Nostalgia which started as a Neuroscience lecture and went on to become one woman’s journey through her past to find the truth about her father’s death. At first I thought it was going to be one of those pretentious avante garde NYC pieces like the Wooster Group but it actually turned out to be enthralling. It had the most wonderful country-rock score sung and played live by a terrific four-piece band and the most innovative projections and other visuals tricks.

THURSDAY, our last day, started brilliantly back at the Traverse. Midsummer, a play with songs, is a real departure for playwright David Greig – a feelgood romantic comedy. It tells the story of a mad weekend, but what makes it a cut above the rest is clever structure, weaving back and forth and in and out with lots of clever tricks; a real treat. We followed it with a Traverse production for the main festival, The Last Witch, about – guess what? – the last witch burned in Scotland. The first half was really slow, but it picked up in the second. I think the lack of rehearsal and previews has resulted in a play that frankly isn’t ready; shame. We ended with Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert whose first 20 minutes were brilliant, but the rest of the hour was a bit patchy. He said burning smells behind the stage distracted him, but we couldn’t smell them from the third row!

Well, that’s another year – apart from Art, an above-average festival, with more variety than usual and lots of quirky one-off things, mostly successful. I’m now chilling out on the Isle of Mull off Scotland’s west coast. It’s chilly and cloudy with a lot of showers, but the seafood’s great! Until 2010 (accommodation already booked!)…..

Read Full Post »

This was a weekend organised by someone we met on the South American wine tour back in February 2008 – three days in Languedoc-Roussillon in South West France, staying at Vinécole near Limoux and accompanied by The Observer’s wine writer and master of wine Tim Atkin. The region’s co-operatives are in decline and new (often foreign) wine-makers have moved in to set up more modern wineries and introduce new practices aiming at higher quality wines and things are changing fast. Whites and roses predominate over reds and there’s a huge variety of grapes including grenache, syrah, cabernet franc, macabeo, mourvedre, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, pinot blanc, muscat and mauzac.

Vinécole (www.vinecole.com) is a new venture by master of wine and former Safeway wine buyer Matthew Stubbs and Emma Kershaw, who brings both a training and gastronomic background. It’s adjacent to the Domaine Gayda winery with a converted old house containing four gites sleeping up to 20 people and a brasserie, poolside BBQ and training room. We stayed 2 nights in the accommodation, which has been nicely renovated and decorated – comfortable with lots of character.

After a lovely lunch, we visited Château Rives-Blanques (www.rives-blanques.com) in nearby Cépie, which was taken over 10 years ago by a Dutch-Irish couple, Jan and Caryl Panman. At the end of a walk in their vineyard they surprised us with an open-air tasting of Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling white wine whose history pre-dates champagne and is alleged to be the inspiration for it. They were a lovely couple, clearly living their passion, preserving traditions but improving wine quality at the same time.

Neighbouring Domaine Gayda (www.domainegayda.com) is a modern winery owned by South African and British businessmen along the lines of lots I visited in South America and northern Spain, but with an enthusiastic young French wine-maker called Vincente. We’d had a very good gastronomic dinner there on the first evening and we went back in the morning for a fascinating tasting of 5 single vineyard syrah’s direct from the same oak barrels so that the only differences were age, soil, altitude and (micro) climate. We took our two favourites, with some grenache and mourvedre from the barrel, and experimented with blending back at Vinécole. It would be too boastful to mention who was in the team that won with a blend we called Chateau Margot after our tour organiser!

Lunch was a fantastic seven courses each matched with different wines from which I learnt a lot about matching; with a lot of surprises including whites that went really well with cheeses (I’m a real red-with-cheese traditionalist!). It was a struggle to find the energy for a visit to our third winery – Domaine Begude (www.domainebegude.com) – back in Cépie in the afternoon, but I’m glad I did because the hilltop setting was simply stunning. Here James Kinglake, a former city trader, had ‘opted out’ and spent his bonuses on a winery where chardonnay predominates. His approach was much more business focused than Jan and Carol but he was interesting and enthusiastic and his wines were good.

Here we met a new driver, Alison from Tooting!, who owned the minibus company when she wasn’t being a DJ on the local community radio station or engaged in a variety of pursuits including African dancing and was highly entertaining company. The following day she and Matthew took us on a spectacular drive through deep gorges to Maury in Roussillon for our first French-owned winery, La Préceptorie (we weren’t given brochures, tasting notes or contact details, which is a revealing contrast in marketing with the invaders!). We had a lovely welcome by the owner and export manager and a tasting in the vineyard. The setting was again stunning, this time with mountains towering above the vineyards on all sides. The trip ended with lunch in and a wander around Maury.

This was a real treat – a region of France new to me, learning things about wine blending and food matching, and some great food and wine. If you’re interested, Margot is repeating the trip in June – www.sidewayswinetours.co.uk. The link below will take you to some photos.


You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Weekend – May 2009
Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Weekend – May 2009
May 11, 2009
by Gareth
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »

‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Before I went I would have said ‘Why Not?’ After the visit, I can report lots of good reasons for visiting this welcoming and interesting city with lovely buildings, canals and green spaces.


I landed on my feet accommodation-wise at one of the best examples of the ‘boutique’ hotel in a nice part of town with bars, restaurants and excellent public transport (www.mozaic.nl). The rooms are spotless, stylish and comfortable and the (entirely female) staff couldn’t be more helpful. Though the exchange rate makes you wants to make you say ‘how much?’ to everything, the restaurants were very good; the highlight being a family-run Italian where you get what the lady of the house thought as best when she went shopping that day (though there’s a limited choice). It was a superb 4 courses, as good as any meal I’ve had in Italy, for 38 Euros.


The Dutch are very direct but they’re also very welcoming and tolerant. When I sat in 1st Class on the train in error the guard said, in perfect English, ‘never mind, don’t move, you’ll know next time’. My pre-booked tour of the parliament was in Dutch but they gave be a transcript in English, a simultaneous translation of the video and often stopped to ask if I had any questions. There were some sort of carnival celebrations while I was there and on my last evening there was a little bottle of wine and a bowl of Pringles in my room with a note ‘just in case you missed the carnival, have a drink on the house’. How thoughtful is that?!


The Parliament visit was very interesting, but the tour of the Peace Palace (home of the arbitration and mediation courts, but not the war crimes tribunals) was spectacular with sensational stained glass, silk wall coverings, paintings, ceramics, carved & painted ceilings and marble floors from all over the world. Such a beautiful building.


Art was another highlight, with the modern art museum proving particularly good. I’m not sure I liked the way the permanent collection was curated, with film and video in each room showing 20th Century events alongside the art, but there were a couple of special exhibitions – one showcasing a German artist called Christian Schad I’ve little knowledge of and another featuring artistic couples (O’Keefe / Stieglitz, Khalo/ Riviera etc.). The collection of Dutch art at the Maurithuis had its moments – Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ and Rubens’ ‘Old Woman & A Boy With Candles’ – but a lot of mediocrity. The artistic highlight though was the Escher Museum; the most comprehensive collection of his work anywhere, in a palace with kitsch modern chandeliers. Talking of kitsch, I mustn’t forget Madurodam which is a miniature replica of most of Holland including cities, ports, airports and forests!


I made the mistake of choosing Sunday for a side trip to Delft which meant that you couldn’t visit it’s greatest attractions – The Old and New Churches. Still, it was a pretty town of canals just like you expect in Holland!


The Hague is a perfect weekend city which I would thoroughly recommend.

Read Full Post »

I’ve got to like avoiding the excesses of a British Christmas and this was the 8th escape in the last nine years; the third to Italy. After a very busy two months, the sleep, fresh air and walking were particularly welcome (not that the food and drink were exactly unwelcome!).

I’d only been to Florence once before, something over 30 years ago, and hadn’t really liked it. This has proved a bit puzzling over the years, as so many friends have returned raving about it, so a 2nd visit seemed to be in order. I still stick to my view of the city as a city (though it didn’t help that last time I arrived straight from Venice!), but this time I appreciated what it contained.

We started with the architecture and statuary of Piazza della Signora, most notably a wonderful Neptune, a scary Perseus and The Rape of the Sabine Women (three intertwined bodies carved from a single piece of marble). These were eventually surpassed by Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and by the sheer number of statues in the Bargello, but they’re out there where statues are supposed to be.

The highlights in a feast of frescos were in the priory cells at San Marco (though rather too many crucifixions and Madonna’s for my taste), in the Capella Brancacci hidden away south of the Arno, and in the Cappella Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The Medici’s were an extraordinary dynasty, a huge influence on Florence, great benefactors of the arts and apparently selected as royalty by the citizens themselves. Of course, this was accompanied by larger-than-life egos which means their crest appears absolutely everywhere and they turn up as ‘guests’ in works of art – looking modest whilst making it clear it was their cash what made it!

A side trip to Sienna brought us snow; atmospheric rather than restrictive. The Duomo is simply stunning and the frescos in it’s Libreria Piccolomini and a 13th century carved marble pulpit took my breath away, but there was also much pleasure to be gained from wandering the small streets and gasping at the scale of the Piazza del Campo.

Christmas lunch was at a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city – peccorino souffle, tiny ravioli floating in a capon consommé, roasted capon and chocolate cake washed down with copious quantities of prosecco and chianti – followed by a visit to the nearby San Miniatto del Monte to cleanse the soul and a long and much needed walk back to the hotel to cleans the body.

Though I enjoyed Christmas in Palermo and Rome more, I was glad I returned to Florence and those frescos and statues are now embedded in the memory.

Here’s a link to a small selection of photos:

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Florence Christmas 2008
Florence Christmas 2008
Dec 22, 2008
by Gareth
If you are having problems viewing this email, copy and paste the following into your browser:
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »

I enjoyed the February South American wine tour so much that here I am doing the same in Spain in October! This one is accompanied by wine writer Andrew Williams who hails from Pontypridd, 3 miles over the mountain from my home village of Abertridwr, and takes in 12 wineries in 7 wine regions (DO’s) in northern Spain. The most distinctive grape of these regions is tempranillo but there’s also viura, graciano, verdejo and more. The DO’s dictate percentages of grape varieties and minimum times in barrels and bottles for the Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva classification, but some wineries are beginning to opt out of this in order to be free to make what they want .

Before we’d even arrived at our first hotel, we stopped off at Palacio de Bornos in the wine region of Rueda (www.palaciodebornos.com) to taste their whites, mostly made with the Verdejo grape unique to the region. These were a very pleasant surprise and those like me, bored with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, might like to try them. Waitrose / Ocado have a verdejo/viura blend from this winery for £7. Here they were storing some wine in green jars in the open air, defying all wine-making rules.

Our first base was Zamora, the most westerly point on the trip, where we stayed at the Parador, a 15th Century nobleman’s home built around a central courtyard. Zamora is a small walled city on the River Duero with a large modern urban sprawl. The old town was very lived-in and un-touristy.

Our next visit was to the wine region of Toro, known for big reds made with tempranillo grapes. At Farina (www.bodegasfarina.com), after a tour of the winery, we tasted an ambitious 9 wines; a broader range than expected which included a white, a rose and a couple of dessert wines. The consensus was ‘mediocre’ but I rather liked them. I’m clearly less discerning and more easily pleased!

From here we headed to Dehesa la Granja (www.dehesalagranja.com) for a tasting over a very long, very tasty but very filling lunch. This is within the new DO of Zamora and is the 4th winery of someone who built an empire on the strength of one rave review from US writer Robert Parker. He’s renovated a deserted winery with an extraordinary underground ‘city’. His wines were good, but dreadfully over-priced – but who can blame him if American ‘sheep’ are prepared to pay 58 euros a bottle for what Parker described as ‘Spain’s Petrus’.

We moved on to the Ribera del Duero DO for a visit to Legaris (www.legaris.com), one of the new generation of investor-backed ventures which to my mind are a bit like wine factories – good wines, but without any distinctiveness or personality; a little like Lapostelle which I visited in Chile. It was a striking piece of modern architecture, though there didn’t seem to be anyone working there (apart from the lady who showed us around)! The tapas lunch was good though.

We managed a sight-seeing stop in Burgos en route to Rioja which was a treat. Burgos has a spectacular and enormous cathedral, within a lovely old town, which has been beautifully renovated and it was good to fit in some sightseeing between the food and wine.

Our second base was Haro on the northern edge of the Rioja region and our most northerly point on the trip. As a lover of Rioja, I began salivating as we approached! Out hotel was a 14th century monastery with a 21st century design makeover that worked wonderfully. Our first visit was virtually next-door at Muga (www.bodegasmuga.com) an old family firm with an excellent selection of wines. These got most people’s votes as the best of the trip. this was the only winery making (some of) their own barrels.

One of my personal favourite visits followed, at a gorgeous hillside estate called Remelluri (www.remelluri.com). This was the antidote to Legaris; lots of tradition, little hype and an over-excited winemaker who spoke so fast the translator could hardly keep up – and a wonderful lunch washed down with some great Reservas!

We were invited to dinner at Marques de Caseres (www.marquesdecaceres.com), a large producer with a big presence in the UK. Their Marketing Director turned out to be a lady from Glasgow and she laid on a great dinner with 8 surprising, cleverly selected accompanying wines. We even had a cheese tasting with a semi-sweet to accompany a blue cheese that knocked your socks off (the cheese, not the wine).

Before we left Rioja we visited Baron de Ley (www.barondeley.com) whose winery was built alongside a ruin of a monastery, which they used their first 10 years profits to renovate beautifully but hardly use. They were harvesting so we were able to see the full range of activities including grape selection and de-stalking. They’re aiming at the quality mass market (Mr Parker’s fan club) and as a result some of their wines didn’t seem like Rioja at all. A bit of a disappointment.

We now crossed into our 5th wine region, Navarra, and straight to another highlight at Senorio de Arizano (www.bodegaschivite.com) where architect Rafael Moneo has built a striking new winery wrapped around an old church, tower and house alongside a river surrounded buy 350 hectares of vines. They produced a great lunch with 4 accompanying wines in a lovely dining room with great views of the winery and vineyard.

Our third base was Tudela, our most easterly point and very much a working town whose run-down old quarter is slowly being renovated. The main square was colonnaded on two sides with balconies with crests suggesting it once housed bullfights. From here we visited two wineries. The first was Ochao (www.bodegasochoa.com), a family affair where the winemaking has passed from generation to generation and is currently in the hands of the charming 20-something daughter. This is the first winemaker we visited where the UK was their No.1 market, which just goes to show that we’ve got good taste and an eye for value.

The next visit was by far the most eccentric. Guelbenzu (www.guelbenzu.es) began making wines in 1851 but lapsed and re-stared some 25-30 years ago. The winery we visited was a run-down pink house in the heart of the village; you expected to bump into a Young Mr Grace anytime. They’d opted out of the DO so that they could break all the rules. Most of their wines were blends and I wasn’t too keen; when we got to the 8th it was all a bit of a blur anyway. The rest of the group raved – out-of-synch with the more discerning again! We followed this with a tapas lunch with even more wine; a siesta was the only option after that.

Our final visit was to the up-and-coming region of Calatayud where they mostly use the garnacha grape variety. We were told that the winery at Bodegas del Jalon (www.castillodemaluenda.com) was ugly so they brought 6 wines to a local restaurant for a tasting – followed by lunch, of course! These were amongst the best we’d had and it was a fitting end to the tour. Well not really the end, as we headed to Siguenza to spend our last night at the 12th century castle at the top of this lovely town that is now a parador. I visited here 2.5 years ago, but we didn’t stay, so though it was the only part of the trip where I was re-tracing my steps, it was a treat.

The wines on this trip illustrated how much Spanish wine has moved up the quality scale and how distinctive they can be. My worry is that as they try to satisfy the international market by increasing the use of international grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, they will lose this distinctiveness. Let’s hope not – until then, lets enjoy them!

After tasting 76 wines there was just enough time for 4 hours in Madrid to catch some art; in this case the Reina Sofia Museum. The contemporary art collection may be the worst in Europe, the 20th Century modern art is rather dominated by the Spanish (like Miro), but the Picasso’s, and Guernica in particular, made the visit worthwhile (well, and the lunch in their new restaurant washed down with a rueda verdejo to take me full circle!).

There’s a link to some photos below.

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: SpainishWineTour2008
Oct 13, 2008
by Gareth
If you are having problems viewing this email, copy and paste the following into your browser:
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »

Bosnia Hertzogvina…..rather trips off the tongue…..conjours up Eurovisions…..

I almost cancelled this trip after BA stranded me in Belgrade in April and changed the Sarajevo flights from daily to twice per week meaning a 5 or 7 night stay rather then the planned 4. Well I’m so glad I didn’t as it has been a quite extraordinary five days…..
My penthouse (attic!) at the ’boutique’ hotel (
www.hotelmichele.ba) is great – central location, masses of space, beautifully furnished with antiques and the owners are welcoming and helpful. The city is situated on a small river in a valley surrounded by mountains. The white stones of the graveyards scattered over the mountainsides are a constant reminder of the recent turbulent history. A walk along the main street is like walking back in time from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Ottoman Empire, from Europe to the Middle East. It feels more like a town than a city but there is much to see and do – mosques, churches, Ottoman houses, museums and galleries – and its very high on the moochability scale. 


It’s a very cultured city with music, art and film being particularly popular. I always try and see contemporary art wherever I go and here I was particularly taken with the unique way they curated the collection at the National Gallery. I was very puzzled as it didn’t seem to be by period, style, school or artist – then I realised it was by colour, each room filled with paintings of similar colour! A first, I think.
You can’t really escape the war, and you shouldn’t. Any building over 13 years old is covered in bullet and mortar holes. Many buildings have yet to be re-built. Two places in particular bring it home to you. The first is the Histroy Museum, where a whole floor is given over to the people’s perspective of a seige which lasted almost 4 years. The improvised cooking devices and balcony vegetable gardens say everything you need to know. At the Tunnel Museum, you see first hand how the resistance, badly let down by the UN (as always, it seems) dug a tunnel 800m under the airport which for years became the only lifeline for people and supplies – 12 million movements of people which kept the city alive whilst the rest of the world watched the genocide and ethnic cleansing by the Serbs, determined to replace Yougoslavia with a Greater Serbia. They had even created a track and improvised stretchers and chairs to transport the old and injured through the tunnel. I was lucky to be there at the same time as some French UN soldiers so I benefited from a talk by the son of the man whose house was the tunnel entrance.
One of the advantages of staying 5 days was the opportunity to travel out of the city. I was determined to get to a remote village called Lukomir, but there was no public transport and no travel company would take me…..then the son of the hotel owner fixed it for me. I was a little concerned when a woman of a certain age (mine!) with a Fiat Uno turned up. Then she told me she’d never been there herself. When she asked directions the first time I began to wonder if this was a good idea. By the sixth request for directions I was convinced we wouldn’t make it. Then I remembered the number of landmines still buried in these mountains…..The seventh request was to a couple of policemen who had a photocopied map which ended before the area in question and who themselves had no idea…..but they did have a radio and some directions were provided by the observation tower high up in the mountains. We got lost once more but we met a man in a 4WD from the Highways Dept who said ‘follow me’. Of course, we couldn’t keep up with him but by now there was only one dirt track so we persisted for 12 km and struck gold. Lukomir is extraordinary – a village still operating on medieval lines, as remote as anywhere I’ve been in Europe, perched on the edge of a deep canyon. We were adopted by a lovely old lady who provided thick Bosnian coffee and a loo and later a lunch of potato & onion pie and yogurt she’d made that morning. The only other visitors to the village that day were a couple of people from National Geographic TV researching a documentary. There was also a student from Ottowa University living there temporarily whilst he writes his book on the local ethno-biology (whatever that is!). It was an amazing experience – the mountain scenery and the untouched life of the village- a highlight in a lifetime of travelling.
My second trip was less eventful – but still very worthwhile. I took the train through the mountains to Mostar. Once you had worked out how to live with BH Railways smoking policy (All Smoking) for 2 x 2.25 hours, the journey was spectacular. Half of the trip is through tunnels and somehow the excitement of exiting a tunnel to another, different view was better than continuous scenery. Mostar was badly bombed by the Croats, which I find difficult to fathom as they themselves were on the receving end (with BH and Kosova) of Serb agression. Amongst other things, the magnificent Ottoman bridge was destroyed. It has been beautifully restored by Turkey, which is rather appropriate, and the old town has a new life. It is a lovely place though again you can’t get away from the war. The cemetary in the centre of town was almost exclusively occupied by the graves of people who died between 1992 and 1995, most of them teenagers or in their 20s. Its impossible not to be moved.
Back in Sarajevo, Joan Baez returned to a wondeful welcome (she was airlifted in during the war) to sing her songs of peace at a free open air concert as part of the July Festival where there are free concerts almost daily. A touching encore of Imagine seemed to say it all.
I have been as moved by this visit as I was in Tibet and Ethiopia, but through the tears it somehow leaves you filled with hope. This is proper travelling…..
…..and here are some photos to accompany my words…..


You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Bosnia July 2008
Bosnia July 2008
by Gareth
If you are having problems viewing this email, copy and paste the following into your browser:
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »