Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Tourist versus Traveller

I've always maintained that a tourist is someone who knows what they're going to see - a traveller is someone who pokes about, looks down blind alleys, follows false trails, and occasionally finds something.

But I found another definition in Malcolm Bradbury's novel 'Doctor Criminale'.

"There are no travellers now, only tourists. A traveller comes to see a reality that is there already. A tourist comes only to see a reality invented for him, in which he conspires."

Tourism is a big industry - and it's  an industry which has falsification at its heart. We see what we're meant to see. We see what we're *allowed* to see.

Perhaps that's why the moments when we break through that barrier are so rewarding. When we find another human being we can talk to as chance acquaintances, not as tourist-and-provider - when the relationship stops being economic and becomes friendship.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Spitalfields gutted

I had the opportunity to visit Spitalfields again last week.

When I lived in London I used to love the old market building, and the Sunday morning market that thrived in its innards. There was an organic farm from Suffolk that would sell you a side of meat, or a small steak; old vinyl and 1930s Penguin books overflowed from shops on to the pavement, and there were stalls selling crystals, bread, junk (or antiques, depending on your view), old bikes, Thai spices.

The shell of the building is still there. And some of the places I remember are still there, like the Spitz - great cafe, great venue for acoustic music. But almost all the innards of the market have been ripped out and replaced with smooth-skinned modern blocks.

Lots of trendy shops. Lots of apartments for City boys. And no life at all.

Look at Brick Lane - just a couple of hundred metres away but completely different.  Buildings of all ages from the early eighteenth century onwards sit cheek by jowl; the huge bulk of the old Truman brewery, the narrow, thin Georgian houses, odd juts of Victorian neo-Gothic and 1960s brick.

But above all Brick Lane still has life; the Indian restaurants, small shops, the two Beigel shops. It's teeming, busy. That, I'm afraid, is what Spitalfields has lost.

Statues of strangeness

I saw a neat blog post recently on Gadling about a Serbian village that's put up a statue of

That's strange, but it's not the strangest statue I've ever seen. After all, Vilnius used to have a statue of Frank Zappa opposite the cathedral. (The statue's still in Vilnius, but it's been moved to a less high profile location, which is a pity.)

There's a Subirachs statue of a submarine near the Casa de les Punxes in Barcelona. That's not very strange but it's one of my all time favourites. I find Subirachs a very interesting artist - on one level his art is very approachable, with strong narrative drive, and then on the other he builds into it an incredible complexity of different references.

Barcelona has other statues that are slightly offbeat. There's a huge fat tom-cat in the Rambla near Sant-Pau de Camp, and I have no idea what he's doing there (apart from setting a bad example to those owners who won't get their cats snipped).

Rome has its own brand of strange statuary, the 'talking statues' which used to be covered in political satires. Pasquino, near Piazza Navona, still talks. There's a little man with a barrel near the Via del Corso, 'Madama Lucrezia' in Piazza Venezia (I wonder if she got her name because it rhymed?), and 'Abate Luigi' (probably a Roman emperor!) near Sant'Andrea della Valle.

London, I'm afraid, is a disaster. Nothing weird at all that I know off. Though there is a very nice Elizabeth Frink near Liverpool Street Station, in the Broadgate office complex, and another just off Piccadilly. Most of London's other statues are either boring, or pompous, or both.This might have changed - I've been intrigued and at times impressed by the statues put up on the 'spare' plinth in Trafalgar Square. Marc Quinn's 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' addressed two areas of life we never see in public sculpture - pregnancy and disability - and it had a fine dignity. Rachel Whiteread's abstract monument created a hollow and rather disturbing focus for the square, its white vacancy making a strong statement against the busy, highly figurative work of the rest of the area.

We're shortly to get a new sculpture, Thomas Schutte's 'Hotel for the Birds'. I'm looking forward to seeing its garish red and yellow perspex lattice take on the respectability of the square.

The Fourth Plinth project website notes "What pigeons will do to the material is not quite clear."

Thursday, 15 February 2007

One of those moments!

I was in London yesterday. At Fulham Broadway station I passed a girl who was handing outThe London Paper.

The masthead of the paper is purple and all the distributors are  dressed up in rather fetching purple outfits.

But what really caught my attention was her purple eyeshadow.

'Matching eyeshadow?' I asked.

She grinned. 'Yes'.

No need to say more -we'd shared one of those moments.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Regeneration glitz

Regeneration efforts have changed Brityain's cityscape indelibly.

Perhaps, as yet, the adventurous design of retail and office space hasn't been echoed in any greater ambition from housebuilders, who still seem to be putting up the 'little boxes made of ticky-tacky' that Malvina Reynolds complained about.

But none the less they have raised the bar from the anonymous concrete blocks of the 60s and 70s.

I was reminded of this when I received a catalogue from Merrell Publishers in the post. They publish some splendid books on architecture - and the modern architecture of Britain is a speciality.

I just wish the people putting up little brick houses (just like the ones I drew when I was at primary school with a door in the middle and two windows each side, but now without chimneypots) would take a look at these books and exercise their imagination!

Put a cork in it

The cork oak dominates the countryside in Extramadura. Huge, twisted old trees stamp their character on the landscape.

This isn't a forest like the marching pines of the Lake District. It's open grassland scattered with huge trees. Fine hunting for the eagles and rare Iberian lynx, two of the species which depend on this open landscape.

Sometimes you'll pass a dark pond half hidden behind a hedge. Even if you can't see it you can hear the frogs - not one at a time, but huge colonies of them keeping up a continuous sonorous croak.

This apparently wild landscape, though, depends on human intervention. The cork oaks are stripped of their bark periodically for cork, and that's what sustains the agriculture of the region.

Unfortunately wine producers are increasing their use of plastic stoppers. Not only are these non-biodegradable - whereas cork, of course, degrades naturally in a few years; without demand for cork, farmers will have to turn to other crops, and most are looking at eucalyptus - an ecological disaster.

Besides, the cork oak plantations need to be managed sustainably. Currently, planting of young trees is way below what's required to ensure the future health of this unique landscape.

Intrigued? Concerned? Want to do something about it? Realcork tells you more.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Epitaphs - window on the world

You go into a church. A little village church, anywhere in England. It's not full of art works, it's architecturally undistinguished - a mishmash of styles added over the ages, from the norman door to the Victorian vestry with its quirky chimney pot. It's any little church, not interesting at all, really.

Until you start reading the walls. Because I can almost guarantee that the walls will be covered in monuments. And while the tombstones in the pavement often just carry a name and a date, those on the walls tell a story.

Sometimes it's the story that the dead man wanted to tell about himself. In high flown language, with an oratorical flourish. Sometimes the contrast between the reality and the poetic words is so great it makes you smile. One tomb which praises the sunny temperament and charitable tendencies of the deceased is topped by the bust of a grim, tight-faced miser.

Then there's the clever epitaph. Christopher Wren, I think, has the best, in St Paul's, the cathedral he built; Si monumentum requiris, circumspice - if you need a monument, look around you.

Other epitaphs make us laugh with their bluntly unvarnished approach to life and death. You'd expect a witty poet to come up with a good one, and John Gay, buried in Westminster Abbey, doesn't disappoint:

Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once and now I know it.

My favourite was always old As-I-Am in Norwich cathedral, a friendly skeleton who poetically announced:

All you that do this place pass by

Remember death for you must dye.
As you are now even so was I.
And as I am so that you be.
Thomas Gooding here do staye
Waiting for Gods judgement daye.

But sometimes, epitaphs open up our eyes to a lost world. I remember visiting a little church in Herefordshire. Down a tree-lined avenue past the church you could just see the manor house; many of the tombs in the church belonged to the family who had lived there.

Then I realised how many of them dated from the early nineteenth century. I did a little drawing out the family tree in the back of my notebook, and four or five of them were brothers. None of them had died in England. One had died at sea, in the Navy; one in India, where he was a colonial administrator; one I think in Egypt.

Imagine England of that time. A country that had just come out of the Napoleonic war, that had begun to thrive on seafaring trade, that sponsored exploration, that had discovered a new world in India and the East. This family, for me, was a window into that world; a world that my history  education had skipped (we went straight from Charles II to Hitler). You could almost write a novel about these brothers - how from this little village, a stereotype English village with its squires living in the mansion and a little church at their gates, they found their destinies in far flung regions of the earth.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Ten top French cathedrals (from

France is well known for its Gothic cathedrals. Indeed the Gothic style was invented in France. But with well over a hundred cathedrals to choose from, France presents a problem for the traveller; which ones to visit? And why?

My top ten cathedrals would include a couple of Romanesque cathedrals, as well as masterpieces of the Gothic style. And I'd want to include a couple in the south, as well as the better known cathedrals of the Ile-de-France.

1. Laon. This lovely early Gothic cathedral would deserve a mention just for its setting, on an isolated hill above the plains of northern France. The thirteenth century architect Villard de Honnecourt called its towers the most beautiful in the world, and it's hard to disagree. The unknown master who built this cathedral achieved a magnificent effect with these transparent towers, and the interior of the church is a magnificently simple piece of early Gothic, almost completely unchanged since its original construction. At the top of the towers, you can still see the statues of the oxen, honoured for their hard work in pulling the stone for the building up the hill.

2. Albi. This cathedral makes it on the list for its amazing exterior. Built entirely in brick, with huge buttresses and round turrets, it seems to be more a fortress than a church. Indeed it's been claimed to be the biggest brick building in the world. Go inside, though, and you find yourself in a beautifully decorated interior with a delicate stone screen closing the choir, and Italian renaissance frescoes on the vault.

3. Chartres. How could you have a list of French cathedrals and not include Chartres? Rebuilt after a fire gutted the earlier cathedral, Chartres was probably the most influential work of the developed Gothic style. Its portals are a treasurehouse of statues, almost an encyclopedia of medieval life and religion. Its original stained glass windows survive, casting their strongly coloured light on the interior whenever the sun shines. And the whole cathedral is a masterpiece of construction. Its unmistakable, mismatched towers can be seen from far across the cornlands of the Beauce.

4. Autun, in Burgundy, is not well known, but it's a gorgeous Romanesque building which allies ambitious size with delicate style. The Burgundian builders took many of their forms from Roman ruins – fluted columns and classical capitals – but it's the cathedral's height which most impresses. Fine sculptures by Gislebertus, including the famous 'Eve', decorate the portal and many capitals – and the originals can be seen close up in one of the tower rooms.

5. Bourges. This cathedral was built at about the same time as Chartres but it's a much more radical design, with a vast single space – no transepts or crossing tower. The immensely high nave is flanked by an inner aisle with its own three-storey elevation, almost as if an existing church had been cut in two and a new, higher, nave dropped into the space. As if this architectural daring weren't enough, the original windows of the choir and ambulatory form one of the most complete sets of early glass in Europe.

6. Beauvais. Beethoven and Schubert had their unfinished symphonies, and France has an unfinished cathedral. Beauvais' builders wanted it to be the highest cathedral in France, but they were too daring and not cautious enough. After the choir, then the tower, collapsed, the money ran out, and the nave was never built. But what's left is still amazing – nearly four hundred years' worth of building work.

7. Le Puy. The entrance to the Romanesque cathedral is one of the most impressive pieces of townscape in France; a flight of steps ascends through huge arch at the west end, coming up inside the nave. The multi-coloured stonework of both cathedral and cloister recalls Mozarabic work – and indeed the Saracens did get as far as Le Puy – mixed with Byzantine influences. There is nothing else quite like Le Puy.

8. Rouen. This cathedral gets a vote for the daintiest, lightest, facade of all; it's like lace, with transparent parapets and gables that seem to be cut out of paper. Monet painted it numerous times, attracted by its flamboyant late Gothic architecture.

9. Reims. This is the church where coronations were always held, so it occupies a special place in French history. Its enigmatically smiling angels are celebrated; less well known is the unique carving on the inside of the west front. Tall, graceful, and transparent, it's a fine work of High Gothic.

10. Nice. Now this is a bit different. It's not Romanesque, it's not Gothic, and it's not French. It's a Russian Orthodox cathedral of truly impressive flamboyance, modelled on the churches of Moscow with its onion domes and colourful ornamentation. Many wealthy Russians emigrated to the south of France or took holidays here, and the cathedral was built for them in 1912.

I must admit I have left many lovely cathedrals out of the equation. The Romanesque, domed churches of Cahors and Angouleme; the fine Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Noyon, Soissons and Sens. Then there's the modern Evry cathedral, with its strange swirly spiral shape and trees growing on top, or the immense, strange neo-Byzantine cathedral of Marseille (with its Romanesque predecessor still standing in its shadow).

I'm courting controversy, too, by leaving out Notre Dame, Paris. But I really don't think it's in the top flight of French cathedrals. It lost many of its monuments in the Revolution, and it's been restored and messed around with over the centuries. It's pretty dark inside, too. Still, if you only have time for a stop in Paris, it's worth the visit.



Article on castles of Europe (from

Everybody has their own dream castle. For some it's the Disney castles with its turrets and spires; for others, a ruined stone tower standing on a mountain peak, or a brick gatehouse reflected in the still waters of a moat.

And castles are everywhere. Sometimes it seems you can hardly move without falling over one.

But there are a select few castles that just can't be missed. From the early keeps of the eleventh century to the romantic decadence of the nineteenth, each century seems to have one or two castles that sum up the spirit of the age.

 Let's start with Castel del Monte in the deep south of Italy. It's unforgettable and completely unique; a stark octagon, its pristine geometry contrasting with the wild landscape around it. The mixture of classical detailing, Gothic construction and even Islamic elements reflects the multicultural world of Frederick II's Sicily and Apulia in the 1240s, when it was built. Even having lost most of its original decoration, it still impresses with its clear formal construction and precise detail.

Castel del Monte may in fact have been a hunting lodge rather than a fortress, but Caernarvon Castle was clearly created to meet a military requirement. It was one of a number of castles built by Edward I in the 1280s to consolidate his conquests in Wales. With four separate accommodation towers, and concentric walls that defend not just the castle but the whole town of Caernarvon, it's an impressive building. The setting – on a narrow spur of land between two rivers flowing into the sea – is magnificent. And it makes an unmistakable political statement. It was a home for the new (English) Prince of Wales – ruler of a conquered nation.

Carcassonne in southern France is for many people the quintessential French castle. In fact, it owes its many little spires to nineteenth century restorer Viollet-le-Duc – they're not original. But even if it's not as authentic a medieval castle as it feels, its double curtain walls, dominant hilltop position, and fifty-three separate towers have an undeniable grandeur. It even has a cathedral inside the walls. Less well known is its northern French twin, Pierrefonds – also restored by Viollet-le-Duc.

Spain had its own building traditions, which drew as much from Moorish culture as they did from common European archetypes. Brick rather than stone is the usual construction material, and it's spun out into delicate parapets, or stepped into jagged battlements. Coca is one of the most ornate, with a huge inner tower and two rings of walls. But perhaps the most impressive is PeƱafiel, with its tall rectangular keep and long thin wall which follows the contours of the narrow ridge on which it sits.

Nuremberg castle is actually three separate castles – one part belonged to the Emperor, one to the Burggrave, and one to the city itself. Founded in 1050, it was added to over more than 500 years, in half timber as well as stone and brick. This is truly an imperial castle, in both size and richness; it even includes a two-storey chapel, the 'Doppelkapelle', in which the emperor could attend mass on the upper storey while the commoner attended below.

Nuremberg is luxurious – a castle for living well. The castle of the Teutonic Knights at Malbork, in Poland - originally Marienburg, the Virgin's fortress – is, by comparison, a military machine. It was built to defend the borders of Christendom against the pagan tribes of the north. Building started in the 13th century, but over centuries it was extended outwards from the original kernel, with a huge curtain wall and extensive moats linked to the Nogat river. There are other Polish castles – but this is the grandmother of them all.

Most castles have been added to over the ages and Heidelberg is no exception. Its red sandstone bulk dominates the city from its wooded hill. A quintessential medieval outline, you might think – but in fact its most characteristic architecture is in Renaissance style, added by the Prince Electors of Heidelberg in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sumptuous ornament and fine classical details betray the fact that the castle was no longer an effective military stronghold, but rather a fine setting for a luxurious palace.

Leeds Castle in Kent shows the same shift from fortress to palace. The original twelfth century castle was a real fort; but when Henry VIII took it over, he transformed it into the fairytale it is now, with huge oriel windows projecting over the lake, and fancy parapets instead of rough battlements. Although the lake was originally a defence, now it forms a romantic setting; priorities have changed.

Castles more or less died out in the sixteenth century. Different, new kinds of fortification were needed once artillery, rather than hand to hand fighting, decided the outcome of wars. But in the nineteenth century, as writers and artists rediscovered the appeal of the Gothic, there was a new interest in castles. Most architects restricted themselves, like Viollet-le-Duc, to restoring old castles. But in just a few cases, they built new ones.

Neuschwanstein in southern Germany is the essence of castleness, distilled and made into a single building. Ludwig II of Bavaria chose the site for its picturesque appeal, on a precipitous gorge with views towards lakes and forests. But its form comes from the imagination; the whole design was based partly on stage sets for Wagner operas. What we see is like a dream of the middle ages – without any of the day to day requirements that a real castle had to fulfil. And what a marvellous dream it is.

If you visited all of these castles you'd have a good idea of what a castle ought to be. But be warned; castles are like chocolate – highly addictive. You'll end up visiting more of them and no doubt you'll end up with a personal favourite.

Mine? Simple. Not one of these great fortresses or palaces, but – a tiny castle in the deep south-west of France; Larresingle. Its simple houses built into the curtain wall, its red tiled roofs glowing against the deep green of woods and fields, make it more of a village than a castle. It's on the pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela, and it still feels very much the way it would have to a medieval pilgrim.

Good walks

I was thinking about what defines a good walk.

I've done a few in my time - Le Puy to Santiago, the Pennine Way, Offa's Dyke - but there are just a few memorable days. Days that I look back on with a real feeling of contentment. And I mean the entire day, not just one episode or one sight.

So, what do they have in common?

Number one; a sense of shape.

From Pitigliano to Sovana is a marvellous walk. You ascend from Pitigliano on an ancient Etruscan via cava, a road carved deeply into the tufa cliffs. It's dank, shady, and the road is full of last year's fallen leaves.

Then you come to the plateau; a high, wide expanse of grass and meadow flowers. You can still see cart ruts graven in the limestone.

And then another via cava takes you into Sovana, a charming small town with Etruscan relics and a Romanesque cathedral. Then you can walk back, the wonderful shape of the walk from one valley to the other, in time for a dinner of wild boar dumplings and a bottle of the sharp white wine of Pitigliano.

That's what I mean by shape. Walking a ridge, or walking a valley, or a perfect circle.

Another perfect day: Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. The same shape; up and up and up, till you almost give up, and then a wide open plateau and finally, the downward path. And you've passed the Pyrenees. You were in France, you're now in Spain. Put that together with winter snow and the silence of the peaks, and it's unforgettable.

Another one: the Pennine Way from Middleton in Teesdale to Dufton. You head out of Middleton and you're in the wilds almost at once. You scramble up a waterfall; across some boggy moorland; and then suddenly you're staring down a v-shaped gash in the rock to the sunlit plains of the Eden Valley, hundreds of feet below, and the horizon seems to extend to the edge of the world.  And then down into Dufton. Again, the day has a shape to it; a slow ascent to sublimity, then down again to comfort and charm.

Another day very like that one on the coast to coast, over Nine Standards Rigg with its weird stone cairns and down, down, down to Kirkby Stephen, a descent that just keeps on going. You had no idea that you were that high.

There aren't actually that many perfect days on a long distance walk. More common are the days with one or two great moments. The day in Burgundy that I started out along a ridge on the lip of a quarry at about six in the morning, and saw the dew on the funnel spiders' webs lit up by the first rays of sun. Once in Spain when I was walking across the meseta and suddenly found a gorge in front of me, and a whole village laid out at my feet.
And we're grateful for those moments, too. After all, it's in the nature of walking that so much of it is just hard graft - and you do want to feel you're earned your pleasure.

Exploration starts at your own front door

Rereading some Iain Sinclair today I was struck by the way he travels in time, travels in experience and emotion, has strange experiences, sees unusual and engaging things - all without leaving London.

We often think of travelling as something we do on holidays. Wrong.

We think of it as "going  somewhere". Wrong - in the strictly geographical sense, anyway.

Sinclair is always "going somewhere" and yet he doesn't go anywhere. The travelling happens in his mind.  It's the way he thinks about and engages what he sees - the street markets, the cemeteries, the boarded up houses, the CCTV cameras. The history that lies beneath. There are subterranean layers to his London - some mythical, some historical, some the layers given by different people's experiences of place.

So when I hear the common complaint that you can't explore any more, because everywhere has been conquered - because Everest is covered in tourists and tin cans, because everywhere has been 'discovered', or turned into a theme park  - I wonder; have they tried exploring where they live?

I think it was Marek Kaminski, the Polish explorer, who was asked by a journalist when he came back from one of his expeditions; "Where are you going next?"

To which he answered; I'm going to walk the beach from Gdynia to Gdansk.

That's twenty kilometres. If you're counting. And he comes from Gdansk.

Try it today. Go out of your front door, but go by a different way.