Saturday, 27 December 2008

There's research, and then there's research

I'm just reading Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, and I have to say I have been horribly disappointed.

First of all, the stock characters. Any woman with overt sexuality is, naturally enough, a villain. I thought we'd maybe got past the madonna/whore syndrome, but apparently not...

Secondly, the little habit of dropping French and Occitan phrases into the dialogue every so often just so zat we know zat the Frrrench characters are Francais, becauzz zey speak like zis. They say hurry up and get a move on, and then leve toi. Or they have little Occitan thought bubbles that say Perilhos! danger!

Strangely enough they never have dialect words for the kind of thing you do have dialect words for, like ouzels, milly-mollers or bishy barnabees - the real, concrete things of the country. (At least get cigales right. They're not cicadas in France.)

But the thing that really made me spit is that when I looked up the book on Amazon, plenty of other people were saying these things but then admitted 'At least she's done her research.'

Well, I don't think so. It's 1209, and a Jew in Beziers refers to 'Your Christian Saint, Francis'. In 1209, Francis had only just started his Order.  He wasn't canonised till 1228 (and died in 1226).

Not difficult to research; it's on Wikipedia. And St Francis isn't exactly obscure.

There are other little glitches. Toulouse Cathedral didn't have a cloister when I was last there...

And Chartres is not, absolutely not, the 'first of the Gothic cathedrals.'

That made me spit. Because I love Laon, which really is the first - the first, purest, most lovely work of the springtime of Gothic. Chartres, together with Bourges, represents the classic Gothic style - a generation later, and much heavier. I love Chartres too; it's my local cathedral when I'm living in France, and I know it well. But it is by no means the first of the great Gothic works of France.

Ah well, having got that off my chest, I ought to see what happens next... at least the research is better than Dan Brown's!

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Pedant? moi?

One of the things that always makes me wonder just how gullible human beings can be is the plethora of Harry Potter and da Vinci Code tours. As far as I'm aware there isn't yet a Lion, Witch and Wardrobe tour of Oxford (though there is a Middle Earth tour of Birmingham) but I'm sure there soon will be.

If you've read the da Vinci Code, be prepared for a shock when you get to know Rome. I spotted quite a few howlers - I know my Roman baroque churches extremely well and I can tell when Dan Brown hasn't done enough research. But for a real in-depth treatment, try Scott's marvellous article "The Dirt on Rome's Earthy Chapel". It came up on Google when I was doing a bit of research for a piece on Rome's skeletons - and it's the most amazing piece. Worth reading, in fact, even if you have no interest at all in the da Vinci code, for its superb explanation of a very complex and interesting work of art, the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Dubai's air-conditioned beach and the nature of postmodern travel

One of the things I've always loved about the Gulf is the skating rinks. You wouldn't think ice hockey stood a snowball's chance in hell of becoming the national sport of Oman, but actually, it wouldn't be that surprising. As for snowboarding... well, Omanis and expats there have a lot of fun duneboarding, so the skills are already there.

But I think Dubai has hit a new level of petro-funded oddity with its air conditioned beach at the Palazzo Versace. The sand will be cooled so that it is not scorching hot to walk on, the swimming pool is refrigerated and there will be huge blowers to waft a gentle breeze along the beach.

Personally my attitude to beaches in the Middle East is a very traditional one. They are there for the benefit of fishers, joggers, and football players, and you either go out for your few kilometres run at dawn or at dusk, when there's a light breeze and the air is cooler. On the beach in the middle of the day? Don't do it.

But there is something really quite decadent about this idea. And it's that absolute decadence that is interesting about the Dubai developments. At a time when the rest of the world is worried about the credit crunch and global warming, we have air-conditioned beaches, huge new hotels, massive housing developments. They defy gravity. They defy common sense. They defy ordinariness.

And they make me think of Jack Vance - a marvellous SF author whose universes include a number of utterly decadent cultures and civilisations (or possibly over-civilisations).

Now I don't really want to go and use an air-conditioned beach. But maybe, just maybe, I want to go and visit Dubai to see a culture that has become so decadent.

Or maybe I want to wait a few years and see what happens in Dubai when gravity finally catches up.

Hmmm, that's interesting. Because I'm thinking about travelling with irony. I'm thinking about travel that is not about seeing amazing things, but about experiencing amazing hubris while also knowing that it is hubris. Travel that is more about attitude than experience perhaps.

Does that make it post-modern travel? I wonder.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Travel in your own back yard

A nice, gently humorous story by Frank Bures in Madison Magazine explores the concepts of psychogeography and travelling in your own back yard.

One of the things I've noticed about people who walk is that they so often see those tiny details that make life interesting. The hawk in Frank's story is one of those - a poetic symbol as well as a real thing.  (One of the delights of British motorways is the way kestrels so often hover over the grass verges; there's something in  a hawk's or an owl's flight that is at the same time purposeful and elegant.)

I'm considering making a pretty big journey soon - India maybe, or Damascus. I hope I'll be able to apply my 'back yard' travel skills - not be fazed by the differences, the big tourist sights, but continue to notice the small details, the little discontinuities.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

More on the curse of popularity

When I blogged about the disturbing way that popularity has become the single criterion by which literary or artistic merit is measured, I didn't have academic journals in mind. But according to the Guardian, a single quantitative measure is now being applied here too - how many people are referring to your work?

So presumably, if more researchers refer to the flat earth theory than to the work of modern physicists, that means the flat earthers are right?

Imagine, if you will, a world in which our traffic laws reflected common practice rather than the Highway Code....

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Lavatorial travel

I couldn't resist this story in the Independent about bogs (loos, bathrooms, little boys' rooms, public lavatorial facilities, necessaria, toilets, rest facilities) with a view. It's priceless!

I recently published a piece  in Norfolk Nips (the local CAMRA newsletter, which I edit) about toilet facilities in Norwich pubs - the writer's view was that the ladies' loos show the pub's real view of its customers. There is certainly something rather wonderful when you visit a pub that is not in any way chi-chi or gastro, but the ladies' turns out to be sparkling clean and even palatial. One I've visited has apple-scented soap and fresh towels, boxes of tissues, and even (not always tho) hand moisturiser - what bliss.   And it also has very decent real ale.

It's a pity that we put toilets into this little ghetto of slightly taboo subjects, like death and sex, because toilets do have a huge impact on the experience of travel.  A five hour train journey in Poland with the toilet locked... one of the nastiest toilets I've ever visited, in a factory in St Petersburg,  the floor swimming with shit,  and no light in the cubicle, so I had to lever myself up to stand on the seat,   and hold the door ajar with one hand while trying  to get my tissues out of my bag with the other... the little chalets on the bridge at Puivert, on the Sentier Cathare (now replaced by a more salubrious range of toilettes  in the mairie), from which your waste product takes a long drop to the river many feet below.

Belgo's in London had a marvellous toilet with a unisex hand-washing facility around a circular fountain, if I remember correctly.  It didn't worry the French or Belgians at all,  but English people wandering in without having been warned about the  unisex nature of the facilities quite often came straight out again looking embarassed and puzzled.

Toilets have even become green. I remember visiting a little place on the Offa's Dyke path that had a composting toilet; so after the toilet paper, you also needed to remember to place a ritual  offering of sawdust down the chute.   And I remember staying at a country B&B once where I was warned that I might see the owners taking a leak in the compost heap, but this wasn't compulsory and I could use the inside toilet if I liked.

Indeed toilets even appear in literature. Martin Amis and Harold Brodkey, feature extended passages on lavatorial subjects. You can practically detect a 'toilet school' of angry young men.

But the locus classicus of the shithouse in literature occurs during the Renaissance.

If you have any feeling for the pleasure of a good lavatory,  you need to read Rabelais' 'Gargantua & Pantagruel', in which the hero rhapsodises about the many excellent (and less excellent) materials he has used for arse-wiping duty, including (if my memory serves) the neck of a goose.

Now I've come across squares of newspaper on a nail, à la Steptoe and Son. I've seen little nozzles in Omani toilets to spray your privates with.   I've used sand (it's a desert thing. the Wahiba sands are full of sand, obviously, and not full of the other thing, otherwise they'd be called the Wahiba Toiletpaper). But not the neck of a goose.

Not yet, anyway...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Travelling at home - reprise

A lovely post on Brave New Traveler encapsulates some of the themes of 'travelling in your own back yard'.

I really like what this writer is saying - that we are all, potentially, immigrants, refugees, displaced persons. The more privileged of  us are displaced through choice, not circumstances - but we can develop our empathy with others through our experience of travel.

Quantity vs quality

I'm getting a bit fed up with sites that list their 'top articles' or 'top buys'  - selected purely by number of clicks.

We say we want individual experiences - to be able to see something unusual, out of the ordinary. Yet we travel to places that are in the press, taking our cue from other travellers. We want to read the best travel writing - yet we somehow believe that it's the file that has been most downloaded that is the best.

It's a real pity, because the Internet, with its potential for one-to-one as well as one-to-many (broadcast) interaction,  is a medium that should be tailormade for special interests. But instead, it's become a prisoner to the mass  - obsessed with the quantity rather than the quality of links, with getting hits instead of developing debate, simplistic voting replacing educated peer review.

Quality sometimes accompanies popularity. The Alhambra, or St Peter's Rome, are popular sights - and at the same time two of the greatest  monuments of art and architecture in Europe. But come on; MacD and Burger King are two of the most popular restaurants in the world. Does that mean they are better quality?

Besides, if you really want to understand the cultures that produced the Alhambra and St Peter's, you need to visit some of the smaller gems too. The Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo, a perfect Arab  throne room tucked away   in a rambling garden off a Granada side street; the church of Sant'Ivo della Sapienza, at the bottom of the long, thin courtyard  of the Pontifical University, or Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte,  a church where the Baroque fascination with death becomes all-encompassing, with little skeletons and skulls hiding everywhere in the architecture.

I've come to detest these '100 things to do before you die' lists. And the parasitic 'things not to do before you die' lists that have started to spring up. The attraction is that of the tick list - 100 great books,   as if once you've read everything in Reader's Digest, that's all you need to know about Western civilisation.

Because in fact your hundred things to do are different from mine. Because we are different people.

Istanbul, for instance, was always high on my list. I have a fascination with cities that keep regenerating themselves, from empire to empire, always changing and yet somehow unchanged. Rome, for me, is a city of endless fascination,  with its  onion-skin layers of history  - the Republic, the Empire, the Papacy, Mussolini's fake-Imperial, the foundations of each regime resting on the ruins of the past. That's why Istanbul appealed, with its layers of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern life.

I like routes with a structure. Pilgrimage routes, trade routes, traditional roads.  The Camino de Santiago, one great road from Le Puy to Santiago, or the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or perhaps, one day, the Silk Road. (When I was younger I loved Elroy Flecker's 'Golden road to Samarkand'.)  For me, there's a spiritual dimension to walking, to the act of placing one foot in front of the other. Writers like Joe Simpson find that spiritual dimension in climbing , in the edge of danger - I find  it  in the inevitability of the dull trudge. Our lists are different - the Eiger or Bridalveil Falls against the Pennine Way and the Via Tolosana.

Besides, we may be looking at the same thing and seeing different aspects.   I want to visit India, soon; and I'm as interested in visiting Bangalore's modern software centres as I am in seeing the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal. It's the intersection of modern and ancient that intrigues me.   And we have different expertisesand experiences to channel our interests -  one of the great delights of Paris, for me, is the fantastic variety of organs, from the  m ulti-manual, hundred-plus-stop Cavaillé Coll monsters to the plangent baroque tones of the organ that François Couperin played. A whole sonorous banquet.

So ignore the top 100 lists. If we all did the same 100 things before we died, the world would be a sad place, full of identikit clones.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Music and architecture

It's taken a long time to convince me that the mathematical appeal of architecture can be as strong as the picturesque.

That may be in part an Anglo-Saxon prejudice. The Gothic still rules in these islands  - crags, castles, cathedrals, a cult of the picturesque, and particularly of the delights of buildings that have been built up over the years, accumulating accretions as they have pinnacles and parapets.

The first time that I visited Florence I was underwhelmed. It's only recently that I've come to appreciate the appeal of Brunelleschi's or Alberti's designs - the geometrical patterns that underlie the scheme, the perfect circles of the Pazzi chapel or the multiple grids of San Lorenzo. The reticence of the great palaces, of the arcaded courtyards, the simplicity and purity of the mouldings,  just wasn't on my  gothic wavelength. Then I came to love the baroque with its wit and theatricality - and still didn't understand the attractions of the Renaissance.

Maybe, too, the fact that every other bank in England put up between 1890 and  1930 seems to be in Florentine Renaissance pastiche style, had something to do with it. I was looking at the Renaissance from the wrong side  - damning it because it looked a bit like the wretched and inadequate copies that I knew.

Now, after twenty years or so, I've been back to Florence again, and this time  I tried looking at the works as if I were an English ecclesiastic of about 1500.  Used to the Perpendicular style with its emphasis on almost i infinit e subdivisions of space into panelling and tracery, and looking at a style that was completely different -  that tried to achieve the perfection of the basic geometrical form, that was about solids rather than planes, circles and grids rather than arches, simplicity rather than multiplication.

It worked.   Brunelleschi seen through these spectacles was assertive, thinking through each geometrical element in turn - circles, grids, arches, domes  (Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, Duomo) ; Alberti, fluent and austere. And I began to appreciate the way that the geometrical proportions underneath the architecture create a sense of harmony and rest - very different from the aspiration of the Gothic or the drama of the Baroque.

It's a feel for the underlying mathematics, too, that distinguishes the music of JS Bach. (One of the things I found distressingly mechanical, at school, was the harmony teaching - rules, rules, rules, so that we could compose 'Palestrina' style  chord progressions. It was so like doing geometry, except that geometry was more enjoyable. Whereas Handel and Vivaldi, more user-friendly contemporaries, create music of great surface appeal, Bach seems to root his music in mathematical progressions.

Sets of variations, the Art of Fugue, the whole edifice of the Well Tempered Keyboard with its  24 keys, show Bach thinking as a mathematician - carrying out processes of change which create new music from a static base.

Now music and architecture are usually kept separate. But a new venture brings them together. The Manchester International Festival has hired Zaha Hadid to create a space within Manchester Art Gallery where Bach's  solo cello, violin and keyboard works will be played during July 2009. The work will attempt to echo  the logic and mathematical rhythm of the music.

I'm intrigued by this concept - a building not just generally 'for music', but for a particular body of musical work. Wagner, famously, wanted to build a wooden theatre by the Rhine for the performance of his Ring cycle, to be burned down at the end of the  tetralogy in a magnificent Goetterdaemmerung. And that's interesting, because this Zaha Hadid work can be seen as a collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) - creating a whole that surpasses the boundaries of individual arts.

(In fact the thing it reminds me of most strongly is the fantastic range of musics and art forms created in Jack Vance's science fiction - attempts to embody a feeling in a perfume,  a musical performance, an organ of torture victims...)

Monday, 29 September 2008

Railway nostalgia

Long railway journeys do have a certain romance to them. Now, another journey joins the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian and the Raj Heritage Train  - the Danube Express.

The Telegraph gives a glowing account of a voyage on this train. It sounds as if the worst extremes of nostalgic snobbery  on the one hand and designer fashion so sharp it will cut itself on the other have been avoided.

And this must be a fascinating journey for its Central European heritage. Decades of cold war - and fervent nationalism immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain - obscured the fact that the area shares a common  background.  (If in doubt, ask any Central European brewer where they buy their equipment from , and what language the manuals are in. Almost certainly German.)

But I have my doubts about whether I'd want to travel this one. First of all the price tag. Over a grand for what is basically a long weekend break? After all, I can get a ticket from Paris to Madrid for just 300 euros. That's not a luxury sleeper - I shared a compartment with five noisy hen party members on my way back to Paris - but the train gets you there just the same.

And secondly, the lack of flexibility. I really wouldn't want to be limited to a few hours in Prague - I'd want to stay a few days.  And while you can do that at the ends of this route, you can't do it in the middle.

I do rather wonder whether this emphasis on luxury trains is blinding us to the fact that railways were invented as a cheap and effective means of mass transport. Yes, I know it's a big world, and there's room for all sorts of transport in it - but you never see the Times or Telegraph talking about taking ordinary trains in India or Africa.

The one I'd want to take, definitely, is the iron train from Zouerat to Nouadhibou, in Mauritania. Not one for the timid - it's cramped, there's a fight to get on, there are no creature comforts, and there's a view of 'nothing', desert all around. (Though regular readers of this blog will know how much I like 'nothing'.)

Monday, 15 September 2008

Heretical Titian

I put in a day's work at the National Gallery this weekend, preparing a free Podtour of the early Italian masters. I finished that survey with an hour to go till I needed to catch my bus - so I played my little game of wandering around and just seeing what caught my eye.

First - Douanier Rousseau's marvellous jungle painting, 'Surprised!' I wonder who it is that is meant to be surprised - the tiger, caught in the vegetation, or ourselves? This is a wonderful painting that you don't appreciate from a small image, because it's full of movement. First of all, over the whole painting is a shimmer, created by diagonal stripes of darker and lighter shade, representing (I suppose) the tropical rain. Then, the  movement of the leaves, the grass, and the striking diagonals of grass and branches counterpointing each other.  And in the middle of this, the tiger, who seems to be going tiptoe on the very points of the grass, suspended in the air, clearly an impossibility.

(I  must have stared at this painting for five minutes. Then I noticed  there was a little painting of sunflowers quite near by.  And then I looked back at the tiger. No competition.)

Another couple of paintings in one of the Impressionist rooms by two artists I had never heard of; Gallen-Kallela and Alfred William Finch. They're both water subjects - a Finnish lake, and a set of breakwaters. They're stunning in the cold colours, the simplicity and austerity of the subjects. There's a Zen like spirituality here, concentration on the essences of things , a meditative feeling.

But the painting I really hadn't expected to love was Titian's Noli me tangere.  I have continually been amazed by Titians - they look like nothing in books; somehow, all the masterpiece exists in the brushwork, in the detail,  the actual incarnation of the idea in oil and varnish. And in an entire room of paintings by different artists, a Titian will often flash at you like a  beacon - it's so alive, so individual, so desirous of being seen.

So it was here. The painting that first attracted my eye was a portrait by Palma Vecchio -  a plump blond woman, just the kind Titian liked, falling out of her bodice, lit dramatically. But though it looked good from a distance, closer to, it seemed blowsy and flabby. Just along the wall, though, was this jewel-like Titian.

It's a stunning work. Slightly dark colours, as so often in Venetian painting, but tinged with turquoise and red, particularly the sky and the stunning velvet of the Magdalen's dress. (They look awfully muted in the jpeg.)

Then something that really doesn't come out in the photo - the incredible brushwork of Christ's loincloth. Here, Titian is at his most painterly; there is transparent material, there are jags of bright white paint creating thick, opaque highlights; there is a vortex of material caught up in  what should realistically be a knot, but is more of a whirlpool. And there is the contrast with the much more staid painting of the loop of mantle that Jesus holds up in between him and Mary Magdalen.

Now when you get these loops and folds in a loincloth on a Spanish Christ, it's usually on the hip. Not here; it's focused on the groin. And then you have a diagonal, starting with Mary's arm, through the two knots. To my heretical mind, Titian has included an overtly sexual meaning in this painting.

Then look at the two trees. One tall tree -  but brown, dark, falling; and behind Magdalen is a wonderful, flourishing bush of bright green. I could read quite a lot into that... if I cared to. Because what for me this painting is all about is not a spiritual meeting, but sexual invitation and refusal. Look at the Magdalen; unusually, though her hair is uncovered, she is quite primly dressed - the focus is all on the wonderful light folds of her chemise, not on a flash of cleavage.  But she takes the risk - she extends her hand forward.

And Christ, for all his nakedness and exposure, is refusing, doubly guarded behind the folds of white fabric. But it's the openness, the invitation, that Titian seems to sympathise with. And while his Christ is shadowed, the Magdalen is lit, is luminous.

You might agree or disagree with this reading. But one thing is sure; there's always more going on in one of Titian's paintings than meets the eye. And there's always more than you will see in a photographic image, however good.


I was in London at the weekend, and decided instead of doing anything purposeful on Saturday, just to walk out along the Thames and see how far we could get. (Canada Water was the answer to that; we did about seven miles, I think.)

And for a bit of it, in Rotherhithe, we went down the steps to the mud and shingle of the foreshore. The air was still, and thick with sandflies.  The sun  baking hot, that English summer we've been waiting for since April...

It's a mucky place. But it's a place for finding unexpected things. No Roman brooches or Anglo-Saxon swords, though the hope is always there (just as you always feel that only a transparent wrinkle in the timelines separates you from actually winning the lottery rather than getting two numbers nearly right...)  So here are our 'finds' - a rich gathering of detritus from centuries of London.

  • Several pieces of 'churchwarden's pipes', mainly from the stem. Bleached white clay.

  • Two supermarket trollies, each one different; one square and spindly, the other rounded and fat.

  • Several pieces of blue and white china, perhaps from willow pattern plates. The glazes differ. Under some, the blue pattern has spread and blurred ; on others the design is still sharp.

  • Too many wheel rims to count.

  • A rib bone.

  • Some kind of animal tooth, turned black and fossil-like by time.

  • A white ceramic stopper from an old style ginger beer bottle, the steel wires that held it rusted fast into the sides.

  • Oyster shells.  More oyster shells. Still more oyster shells.  And a single mussel shell, both halves still held together by the mussel's membraneous hinge.

  • Broken glass - some ancient (the top of an old perfume bottle) and some, from its sharp edges, probably last night's trash.

  • The stem of a dark blue wineglass.

  • The stem of a glass,  in greenish glass, etched and rounded by the water till it looked like something by Henry Moore, and you could only dimly realise its ancient function.

  • Heaps of bricks and other building materials.

  • Old chains.  No boat has anchored here for years and yet the chains still strew the foreshore.

It was an intriguing walk. And I'm glad we took the south bank. Looking across to the Isle of Dogs, we saw capitalism gone mad  - huge glassy blocks, armoured against the outside world. But on the south side of the river, more of the old warehouses and pumphouses have survived; there's a feeling of low-rise friendliness, a feeling that if you go down one of those side streets, you'll find yourself in a perfect Victorian dock.

On our way, we visited the Market Porter, a very fine pub in Southwark. Excellent ales, and friendly service, and FULL PINTS topped up for us without us having to ask.   So here is a blatant plug for this engaging little hostelry.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Maps old and new

I've just written a piece for in-flight magazine Velocity on the way digital mapping is affecting our view of the city. It's interesting - because we can now map in real time, so we can map flows, not just stasis.

That means we can now map, for instance, San Francisco's nightlife - where is everyone going? We can map the city as the sum of its citizens' movements, creating a picture like a long exposure photo of car light trails.

And it may mean  that maps are becoming more specialised. More useful if you are interested in a particular thing  - but perhaps less generally useful. That reflects some of the comments I've heard in media circles about how media are becoming more specialised,  more targeted, and there are fewer and fewer media providing a common agora and common content for everyone. Society is pulling apart, becoming fragmented, and we see that in digital maps as well as in the media.

There's an eloquent piece about maps in the San Francisco Chronicle. I'm not an apologist for ink-on-paper - I was one of the early web heads, on the internet in the days when Compuserve gave you email addresses like (I can still remember mine!), CSS hadn't been invented, and there were no graphics on web pages. But what's alarming is that although digital mapping can do so much, the real repositories of geographical knowledge (Ordnance Survey, the IGN in France) haven't made the transition to digital - and digital mappers aren't producing high quality. Googlemaps is great for navigating a housing estate - and rubbish at showing you trig points or contour lines.

John Flinn points out that the Ordnance Survey map is a repository not just of geographical information, but of history. Barns, village names, field boundaries, different types of woodland reflecting different styles of forestry development, Roman roads and deserted medieval villages. Read a good map and you'll find yourself travelling in time as well as space. (And I had one OS map that really was a Tardis. It was bigger on the inside than the outside, and once unfolded, I could never, ever get it folded back into its cardboard spine...)

I'd love to see some digital mappers incorporating this kind of historical information into their work. In fact, you could quite easily create something like one of my very favourite maps, a marvellous and very detailed map of Roman Britain . Even better, with digital, you could roll over from Roman to early medieval Britain and watch the changes in population distribution,  while seeing the continuity of many of the trade routes over time...

Friday, 15 August 2008

Playing the room

I recently saw an article about an interesting project by David Byrne (of Talking Heads); he'd taken over an old ferry terminal in Manhattan and made it into a huge musical instrument.

Visitors can 'play' the building through an organ keyboard. Air whistling through the building's pipework makes a flute, or an organ; grilles rattle as percussion, metal hammers strike metal sheets and clang or clash.

The building has become a performance. And it's a performance which is interactive, which appeals to the curiosity of the visitor.

I've seen other installations where visitors turn  lights on and off simply by their presence, or start films rolling.  (Of course, they don't get much choice in the matter with such a simple installation.) But treating the whole building as  a work of art that can be recreated by the  visitor is more ambitious.

It's a pity that so much work on building automation is focused on petty quotidian concerns. It's so pedestrian, so limited - turn the fridge on and off, lock the door, heat the house, feed the cat.

But if I had a house I could play like an instrument - or conduct like an orchestra - I'd want to do more than play 'Baa baa black sheep '. I'd want sliding panels to channel the light; different colours  and intensities of light ; I'd want to be able to create a corridor or a larger room by rearranging the walls. I'd want to do more than just play music on hidden speakers - I'd want to move it around the house, so I could start a sound in the hall and let it run upstairs and into the bathroom, or swoosh it around the main room.

And ultimately, there's something wonderful about a building that isn't just a container for art - as a room is when we play music in it - but that creates that art itself. A building that acts,  rather than just being.          That's why we find fountains and wind towers and sun pipes so interesting - because they create the illusion that a building has life, has secrets, is an active participant in our lives rather than a mere box, a construct.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

In praise of silliness

Norwich is full of elephants.

A whole herd of mini elephants has been let loose on the city, each painted with a different topic. There's one on Quayside with waterweed and sticklebacks. One by the Puppet Theatre with vivid geometrical patterns made in electrical tape. One in the Royal Arcade decorated with mirrors, shining like an elephant shaped shard of glitter.

Someone looking at the Quayside elephant said 'This is delightful silliness,' and smiled.

He's right. There is a real value to honest silliness. There's something disarming about these elephants. They make no huge claims - they admit their silliness  - and you have no choice but to love them.

I can think of other examples of this kind of amusement. The porcellino or little boar in Florence. Bernini's elephant at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The joke surprise fountains at Versailles.

If we ever forget to be silly, I think we'll forget to be human.

Because silliness confounds fascism. It rebuts totalitarianism. It argues for liberty and  in particular for the freedom of the imagination. It takes on the totalitarians of fashion and peer group. It defies worthiness, and people who know better than you how you ought to be living your life. It asserts spontaneity, originality, and enjoyment.

If you can't be silly, you don't know the meaning of freedom.

So do something silly this weekend.

Not outrageous. Not contrarian. But just silly.  Like painting an elephant.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Tastes of youth

A piece in the Guardian reflects on our taste for foods of our childhood.

It made me remember that little sweet shop at the bottom of Norwich Cathedral Close, by the kissing gate, where you could get coconut mushrooms, nut clusters, what we called 'jazzies' - white chocolate buttons with hundreds-and-thousands on. (The contrast between the meltingly soft chocolate and the crunchiness of the hundreds-and-thousands was made this sweet work.)

I've seen Dutch postgraduate students at Cambridge fighting for the last spoonful of hagelslag (the Dutch version of hundreds-and-thousands).

Childhood tastes are strong and unchangeable. I've grown to love the fig, but I still hate garibaldi biscuits and fig rolls.

And childhood names are often the best ones. Garibaldi biscuits? - Fly-and-spider slice, more like! We also hated frogspawn (tapiocoa pudding).

All these things define an English childhood. What sweets you had (sherbet fountains, anyone?), what puddings were served up, what kind of biscuits you liked or didn't like.

People I know who grew up in Scotland, or in Yorkshire, or the West Country, got different treats. Here in Norwich we had Caley's chocolate (now revived after some enterprising guys bought the brand), which I always thought was better than  Cadbury's  but not as good as Rowntree's.

Of course, we're being invaded by American brands.  Kelloggs has taken over much of Europe - though not
France, where hardly anyone I know eats cereal for breakfast . (The traditional baguette-and-jam still rules.) Marathon got renamed Snickers, though it remains one of my favourites with its mix of  peanuts and toffee.

But I hope we'll retain these little distinctions. Local brands, local sweets, local names for common things - these are all aspects of our life where one region or town distinguishes itself from another. These little differences  give our lives flavour.

And that, I suspect, is why - to answer the Guardian columnist's question - we are so excited about the biscuits of our childhood.

After all, a single snack was enough to make Proust write a multi-volume masterpiece - though that wasn't a biscuit, it was a cake.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Frying tonight!

Amusing news from Belgium. The chip has now got its own museum - the Frietmuseum on Vlamingstraat, in Bruges.

I like the sound of its proprietor, Eddy Van Belle. In the teeth of an obsession, he opened a museum of Lamps called Lumina Domestica. He's also opened a Chocolate museum (Choco-story, Wijnzakstraat 2).

The chip is definitely not in the same league as chocolate or beer as far as Belgium's gifts to the world are concerned. Not in my book, anyway. But it's a huge part of the country's food heritage. Anywhere you go in Belgium, you'll find a frituur (friterie if you're in Wallonia) - a little shack or tiny shop selling these crisp small fries.

Apparently, the Flemings began cooking chips in the eighteenth century. They used to fry small fish, a bit like whitebait (one of my favourite English recipes) - but when severe frosts meant they couldn't break the ice on the rivers, they fried potatoes instead. The habit stuck.

The Belgian chip is double fried, and that accounts for its crispiness. And it's meant to be fried in beef fat, not oil. (Not really suitable for vegetarians, then.)

Now I can guarantee that 98 percent of people adore Belgian friets. But you never can tell what sauce people will like them with - and there's a big national divide here too.

Brits eat their chips with either tomato sauce or Daddie's or HP (brown) sauce. Or with salt and vinegar.

Belgians typically believe chips are best accompanied by mayonnaise.

But there are other choices. One frituur I visited in Ghent had twelve different sauces, including one with bits of red pepper and chili.

But I will still make my first trip in Bruges the Brugs Beertje. Where you can get one of Belgium's other great products - a huge selection of excellent beers - but, perhaps surprisingly, no chips at all. I'll just have the croque monsieur instead - and intriguingly, in a Flemish speaking bar, that particular snack is still named in French.

Truly, Belgium is a land of surprises - linguistic and culinary.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Packing - a different way

I've seen lots of packing lists on the internet. They all do a lovely job of putting down exactly what you need for particular destinations. They're quantitative. They'll help you squash your possessions into a backpack that will get on the plane without extra luggage charges or hassle.

But I'd like to suggest a different way to tackle your packing. Divide your possessions into necessities, and things that will enhance your travel experience.


I'm hard line on this. When I worked as an investment banker in Eastern Europe I would head out for a two-week tour of duty with just a carry-on daypack. I never got held up by baggage delays and since I was often on the move for most of the two weeks, I didn't have to keep packing and unpacking.

First necessity; paperwork. Passport. Driving licence (if you're going to use it). Insurance details. Phone number for banks and credit cards. Money, cheques, credit cards, etc.

Second necessity, clothing. I've managed a week in Istanbul with one pair of trousers, two shirts and five changes of underwear, and I was perfectly presentable. I *did* take an excellent big pashmina though, which was a shawl when I needed warmth and a headcovering when I wanted to go into a mosque. Find clothes that don't need ironing, that dry quickly, and are not going to show the dirt. (A white suit is fine for Martin Bell, but I bet the BBC pays for his dry cleaning.)

Okay, you might want to have the option of lighter and heavier clothes to deal with different temperatures, particularly if you'll be away for a while. But be sensible. Use layers rather than taking two different wardrobes.

Third necessity, toothbrush, toothpaste, SPF 35 cream (I'm very fair, and burn easily) and soap. A tiny square of towel.

Now, let's think about what could enhance my travel experience.

More clothes? No. Just more to carry, more to think about in the morning, more to pack and unpack. (Okay, this would be different if I enjoyed dining out in posh restaurants; I'm much more likely to be drinking a cup of tea with the market porters in a little han near Tahtakale market, or eating a bowl of soup with nuns in a convent on the Camino de Santiago.)

Oh, maybe a swimsuit. There's nothing like a swim for refreshing tired legs. And it doesn't take much space.

A camera? Yes, certainly - since I'm a photographer as well as a writer. In fact, I prefer to carry two - my regular Pentax SLR, and a little compact for situations where I don't have the time, or don't want to get the SLR out with all the attention it might attract. And lots and lots and lots of media (SD cards). Not forgetting the charger.

A notebook. Absolutely vital for me when I'm working, but even when I'm not, I like to be able to scribble down odd thoughts. Recipes for food I've eaten - I collected a lovely recipe for apple tart from a farm where I stayed in the Montagne Noire in France, and I have a good recipe for fasulye, Turkish bean stew. Oh yes, lots of really good pens.

A laptop? Actually, I rarely bother. Pen and ink is more flexible. I might, if I were going on a much longer trip - and I'd probably get a really tiny one.

Business cards - well, these I do travel with. Because when I meet interesting people I'd like to be remembered, and stay in touch, and this is a good way of doing it. I have cards from with my flickr photos on the back, so they're fun and even a nice little present.

And one very important thing that will really enhance my travel:


Because I can guarantee I will see something that I want. Probably not a tourist souvenir. In Turkey, I bought three zurnas; they are beautifully made instruments, and ear-splittingly loud, and I will learn to play them as soon as I can be quite sure my neighbours have gone out. In Bulgaria, I bought a set of bagpipes and one of the nicest, most soulful whistles I have ever played. In Poland, I passed an art exhibition in a gallery near the Bristol Hotel at eleven o'clock at night - the next morning, I was there at the opening and came back with a huge oil painting. It's still on the wall in my study, and I can see it as I'm writing this.

(Not recommended as a souvenir, by the way, is monosodium glutamate. Someone I know bought quite a lot of it in Hong Kong, as it's a common ingredient in Chinese cooking. Nothing wrong with that; I've bought sumac in the Middle East, paprika in Hungary. Trouble is, monosodium glutamate is a fine white powder...)

Apply these guidelines to your packing and you'll soon be able to resist the temptation of adding another sweater, a 'just in case' pair of formal shoes, whatever. And you'll travel the lighter - and the lighter hearted - for your effort.

Pilgrimage books now available

Regular readers of this blog might like to know I have two books available on

The first covers my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Unlike many pilgrims, who walk only the Spanish section, I walked from Le Puy in the centre of France, crossing the Pyrenees in midwinter. Ultreia! The pilgrimage to Santiago is available as a download or printed book.

The second book is a novel, Walsingham Way, loosely based on the history of the Reformation in England and the great medieval pilgrimage to the Holy House at Walsingham, in Norfolk. I did actually walk from Norwich to Walsingham as part of a historical reenactment a while back, sleeping in barns and churches on a straw stuffed mattress, so I feel I have some inside knowledge here. But the novel tells a rather different story, about a loner on the loose in a country subject to violent change, and the way that travel broadens experience, sometimes in ways the traveller would rather not have it broadened...

Food and travel - French markets

The French market is a microcosm of modern France. From the food on display, you can track France's colonial migrations -  and understand its regionalisms.

For instance on our local market in Ezy-sur-Eure, the inner circle of food is from Normandy. Fine cheeses - Camembert,  Pont l'Eveque, Livarot.  (Only Camembert is widely known outside France.) A predominance of beef, horsemeat (there are still two boucheries chevalines), and above all pork. Lamb and mutton are hardly seen at all - whereas in the south, with its sparse, dry limestone landscape, you'd see far more. And while we have goat's cheese, there's no goat meat available (tough if I want to cook a Caribbean curry). Local cream, rich and thick, and local butter, and of course our alcoholic specialities - cider and calvados, and 'eau de vie de cidre', which sounds complicated but is just 'calvados' that comes from producers outside the eponymous département.

Then there are the regional specialities. There's a Breton stall selling kouign amann, a caramelised, layered pastry concoction. There's a Corsican stall which sells excellent hams and cheeses, including very fine sheep's and goat's milk cheeses and sausages from the wild boar.

And then there are the stalls serving up food from other nations that came under the sway of France. No West African stalls, alas (you'll find those in Paris), but several which sell North African spices and groceries - couscous, preserved lemons, coriander and cardamom and little tubes of wickedly hot harissa paste. And a Vietnamese traiteur from whom you can buy little dim sum like pastries and noodle dishes.

We Brits often excoriate ourselves for having no national cuisine. We're crap at cooking, we say - that's why Indian and Chinese food have been so successful in England. But the success of Indian food has far more to do with the expansion of the British Empire into India and Pakistan - and the failure of the French to expand from their redoubt at Pondicherry - than it does with a failure of local cuisine.

After all, the French still have a strong culinary tradition of their own. But it hasn't stopped Algerian and Vietnamese cooking becoming well known - as well as Chinese good.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

"To have built in heaven high towers"

The tower is a symbol of strength, of power, of ambition. Not for nothing does Milton make his fallen angel Mulciber a tower-builder. A tower isn't just a fortress; it's a statement, a claim to attention.

Look at the late medieval Italian cityscape and you'll see it's full of assertive towers, like the Torre dei Guinigi in Lucca - fortresses for the feuding noble families of the independent city state. San Gimignano and Bologna bristle with towers like spines on a porcupine.

Look at the English Perpendicular church and you'll see the loftiness and aspiration of the tower used for the greater glory of God - and the glory, too, of those wealthy families which contributed to the building work. East Anglia is full of fine flint-built towers, with stone used to pick out the details; and Somerset, another wealthy area in the late middle ages, possesses marvellously ornate stone towers festooned with arcading, niches, turrets and pinnacles.

I thought of all this today when I read about Jean Nouvel's plans for a new tower in La Defense, Paris. The area is currently an office ghetto - busy by day, deserted at night - but there are plans to create more residential and services buildings. All of which could, of course, be done without a tower; but the tower is the icon, the symbol which encapsulates the city-changing ambition of the plan.

La Defense is not actually in Paris. It's in Hauts-de-Seine departement. Any development here will drain residents, jobs and taxes away from central Paris - whose 20 arrondissements are governed by Bertrand Delanoe, mayor of Paris.

So Delanoe has his own plans for a 'mini-Manhattan' of towers to regenerate the poorer east and north areas of central Paris. (Incidentally, are all cities the same - richer on the south and west, poorer on east and north? London certainly fits this schema. So does Berlin, I think - though that might be for different reasons.)

The same effect could surely be gained by high density building six or seven storeys high - which is what gives the centre of 19th century Paris its particular character. But no, it has to be towers - in a strident last burst of phallicism, towers are becoming the twenty-first century city's sine qua non.

But we've seen all this before. Back in the 1960s towers were the thing - and the sleep of reason produced monsters; the Tour Montparnasse, much hated by Parisians, and Centre Point, the greatest white elephant in London. (The French joke about Belgians being stupid, and retail the story of the Belgian terrorist who blew up the Tour Montparnasse - the joke being that if he ever did so, he'd become a French national hero overnight!)

It all reminds me of that 1980s battle between the City of London and Canary Wharf, an unseemly squabble between traditionalists and modernisers that saw petty local interest as more important than the ultimate fture of London as a financial centre. And that battle too saw the aggressive young upstarts building towers - the Cesare Pelli tower at Canary Wharf, at first standing in splendid isolation, then joined by others as the area began to thrive.

And that's the real sadness of towers. The more there are, the less the effect.

There's a place where the M11 comes over the brow of a hill and starts to descend into the Thames Valley, and you used to look ahead and see that one proud tower standing on its own. At dusk, with the lights on inside and a red aircraft warning light twinkling on the top, and the grey of the landscape misty beyond it, it was a view like no other.

And now it's just crowded into a forest of skyscrapers. It's lost what made it special.

"And so the whirliig of time brings about its revenges." Now, it's the City that is building the towers. The Gherkin, the Shard of Glass, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie - towers that have entered the vernacular even before most of them have been built. The traditionalist financiers have turned avant-garde developers, learning from Canary Wharf.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Spirit of exploration

Yesterday, just as the air became dark with evening, I walked down the street, between terraced red brick houses, and heard a blackbird singing.

A song dark and mellifluous, hollow, endless. A song that seems to open on to other worlds. A song that might echo through the centuries.

And I saw him. Just a little black bird, sitting on a terracotta chimney pot, next to the TV arial.

Exploration is like that. Your virgin territory is someone else's back yard. A potent mix of the romantic and the everyday.

I see a little girl leaning out of her window above me in the back streets of Istanbul. She smiles. I smile back.

What do I really see? I think she's cute. She's a travel memory. Something to be put in my notebook, photographed, used, the way I'm using her in this post. But behind that, she has a life, friends, dreams, ambitions; and she's looking at me, a monstrosity on show, a freak European lost in the hillside tenements of Fener, just as I'm looking at her. So we've met, and then again, we haven't; we're both figures in each others' narratives.

And if you're an explorer, you think that through. And then you move on.

You always move on.

The blackbird's song makes me think of travelling. It's a footloose, itchy desire to be somewhere. It's not about taking a vacation, two weeks in Europe, let's see the Leaning Tower and the Changing of the Guard. It's about wanting to be moving. Wanting to open up to new experiences. A certain dissatisfaction that keeps you always moving on - in life and in geography, both.

I have a list of places I want to go. This year I crossed Istanbul of it. I'm hoping to cross off Iceland, too. But I'll never reach the end of the list, however long I live. Or if I do, I'll start a new list; places I want to go back to.

When I walked to Santiago de Compostela, I was always hungry. Explorers always are.

And then exploring is also about finding that one perfect moment that you can't plan for, that just happens, zen-like, miraculous. The green ray seen just once off Formentera as the last sliver of the sun rushes below the horizon. A rushing ice-cold fountain in a square in Spoleto. Alone, in moonlight, in St Mark's Square, flooded by the spring tide. The blackbird singing.

That blackbird could be singing in Herat, perched on a ruined minaret. Or in a rose garden in India.

Or here, in Norwich. But that melancholy, liquid song makes me yearn to be travelling, always moving on.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Turkish street food

One of the things I most enjoyed about Istanbul was the immense variety of fast food and street food. You never need to go to a restaurant in the city - the food will come to you.

In some cases quite literally. If you keep your eyes open in the area around the Grand Bazaar, around lunchtime, you can see waiters dashing across the street, carrying plates loaded with takeaway meals. Almost every courtyard has a little cubbyhole with a chai (tea) maker, and waiters scurry about carrying glasses of tea on little metal trays, or scouting for orders from the market stalls.

"Simit! Simit!" - that cry is almost as typical of Istanbul's noisescape as the call of the muezzin. A sesame seed covered soft bread ring, simit is the commonest of the snacks sold in the streets of the city. Some simit sellers have a sort of spear with the simit stacked on it. Others carry a pile of simit on a tray on their heads. Some have gone for a modern solution - a little barrow on bicycle wheels.

Borek is another of the fast foods. In cafes, you'll see huge wheels of cheese borek, but in the street, you'll find 'cigara borek', little sticks of borek. I actually prefer these - they're crispier and less fatty.

You'll find roasting chestnuts in some places. One guy does a roaring trade near the bus stands at Eminonu. Elsewhere, you can find corn on the cob slowly roasting. Most vendors stick to a single food - but there is one stall near Ayasofya that does both of these.

A sweet tooth is easily satisfied. Fried dough strips soaked in sweet syrup cost a lira (around a dollar). You'll soon learn to suck the syrup as you bite, or risk the syrup running down your chin. Or try gozleme, pancakes with sugar (they come in savoury versions too).

Thirsty? Stop at one of the barrows loaded with oranges, pomegranates, and a stainless steel squeezer, and you can get a glass of juice squeezed while you wait.

Doner kebab and fish sandwiches (balik ekmek, or 'fish bread') are not street food - they're a little higher on the evolutionary ladder. But you can order at a window and take them to eat elsewhere. And like the street food they're cheap; we paid 3 lira on average.

But my best memory of Turkish street food is not from Istanbul - it's from Buyuk Ada, the island we visited on a bright spring day. Right by the ferry pier is an ice cream parlour with an amazingly varied selection of ice cream ('dondurma'). Chestnut icecream, sour cherry ice cream, pistachio, coffee and chocolate chip. Icecream is never cheap in Turkey - we paid more for our icecreams than we did for most meals. But it was well worth it. If you think the Italians know all about ice cream... this parlour certainly is up there together with the one just off the main piazza in Siena,  or the one on the Tiber Island in Rome, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Hide and seek in the museum

There's a report that the Quai Branly museum is playing games with its visitors.

The museum possesses a 'Mayan' crystal skull. Actually, it's a fake - made in Germany, probably, as the quartz it's made of comes from the Alps, not from South America.

As the new Indiana Jones film, which stars one of these crystal skulls, opens, the curators of Quai Branly have decided to hide the skull. It's only about ten centimetres high, so that should be easy.

If visitors want to see the skull, they'll have to follow a treasure hunt through the museum.

I love the elements of play, game, hide-and-seek. Okay, this is really intended for younger visitors - but why should adults be excluded from the ludic elements of life? I shall definitely follow the treasure hunt!

The skull will be on exhibition from May 20th to September this year, and if you can read French there's an interesting pdf about the skull and the exhibition on the Museum website.

Friday, 11 April 2008

The bells! the bells!

I seem to be finding a lot of good things in the Telegraph these days (which, being a Guardian reader by nature, I find a bit of a worry...)

Today there's a video on Big Ben.

Let's make all pedantic negative point first. The photos of bellfounding that you see are obviously from between, say, 1910 and 1930 - they aren't of the original process. I'd prefer it if either correct archival material was used (but I don't think any Victorian artists or engravers ever visited the bell foundry - I'd love to be corrected) or modern footage.

But the thing I really loved was seeing a bellfounder talking about his bells. How you can not just pitch a bell, but also give it a particular voicing - which partials do you want to come out? I do wish this guy would give a real interview - not a sound bite, but ten whole minutes talking about his trade.

And how articulate he is. Look at the overalls and the dirty hands - you might think this is a tongue-tied builder. Not a bit of it.

Anyway, for what it's worth, a nice little video.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

No sense of adventure

A piece in the Telegraph today points out that the British tourist - and I'm pretty sure this goes for other tourists too - is a lazy devil with no sense of adventure.

"This week a survey found that, while we're flying further than ever before, we're being lazier than ever when we get there. Almost half of us fail to leave the hotel compound for the duration of our holiday, and three quarters of us make no attempt to speak the local language (probably just as well)."

The writer makes the point that there is no 'terra incognita' left. There is nowhere to 'explore'.

What a lie.

Exploration starts when you step out of the door - or out of the hotel compound. Exploration starts when you decide to learn Turkish in a week. 'Bir patlican kebap, lutfen'; 'merhaba'; 'gule gule'.  (One aubergine kebab please; hello; goodbye.) It's rubbish but it gets a smile - you made contact.

Exploration starts when you decide to wander down a street just because there might be something at the bottom of it, or when you look up and smile at someone hanging out of their apartment window. Exploration starts when you decide to walk instead of take a taxi from one sight to another, or when you peer over a wall to see what's the other side.

Exploration starts by being curious. By being willing.

Willing to put in the work. Brain work. Leg work.

Now this guy says you're not a 'traveller' rather than a 'tourist' just because you've got a backpack.  And that's true. I am always amazed by the number of backpackers who aren't experiencing foreign culture, they're just meeting other backpackers of their own age who like the same bands and have the same backpacks.

But you're not automatically a 'tourist' just because you go somewhere that other people have been before.

You're a 'tourist' if you let *yourself* be packaged, rather than your holiday.

I hope he enjoys his next beach holiday. But if I just wanted to eat and drink and relax, I'd do it at home. Why spoil a good time by having to fly to get there?

A sense of adventure is not something that depends on virgin territory. You don't have to be Indiana Jones. But you've either got it, or you haven't.

Ten tips for adventure:

  1. Take a good map and learn how to read it. This liberates you from the need for taxis, tour guides, groups - you can go wandering about to see what's there, and still know how to get back on track.

  2. Talk to people as best you can.  All kinds of ways of learning the language - look at the labels in markets to learn the names of basic food; learn the words for local football teams and the words for 'good' and 'bad', you'll get a laugh that way from local football fans who'll be keen to tell you that their team is a good one. Learn hello, goodbye, thankyou, please. And learn 'toilets' - the one word that can really get you out of trouble!

  3. Listen to your instincts. Sometimes you just get a feeling about someone, that they know what you want to find out, and can help. Often, it's right. Play your luck - in Sofia, I found that an old friend of my father's was a bagpipe fan, and we spent a day searching among the music stores for a good djura gaida. I found it! In Istanbul, we found the one man in the market, purely by chance, who could tell us to go to Unkapani to find the best music shops. If you're looking for them, you'll find these people.

  4. Walk, walk, walk. I'm sure I could see more 'sights' if I took more efficient transport routes, but I'd never find all those back streets, those unexpected views.

  5. Get up early. You can have Hagia Sophia or the Alhambra almost to yourself just for ten minutes if you're up good and early. And then the crowds come. Besides, if you're a photographer, early morning light is the best.

  6. This is difficult for some of us, I know it is for me; but be willing to become a 'tourist sight' yourself, for the locals. You are something from outside their world - they're interested.  This can be extremely annoying - but equally, particularly with younger people, it can be a real chance to meet someone and make contact.

  7. Keep your eyes open. One of the most striking things about Rome, for me, is the number of eighteenth century notices prohibiting littering - beautifully carved on fine marble. You'll miss them, though, unless you're looking.

  8. Adventure can be strenuous. Remember to take a day off from time to time, whether that's to go for a country walk, laze about by the seaside or in a park, or pamper yourself in a classy hotel. When I walked the pilgrim's way to Compostela, I came down to Cahors late at night after a long day - and booked into an extremely posh hotel. Then I had a 'rest' day looking around Cahors. It was well worth it - I'm sure I was walking faster the day after!

  9. Read up on where you're going. Before you go and when you're there. Read every information panel that you see (there are particularly good ones, shaped like oars, in Paris - in both English and French.) Maybe you don't need to know all that stuff, but it gives you a context you might not otherwise have. And sometimes you learn some very interesting things - not just about the sights, but about the local attitude to history or building. For instance, did you know that every single Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was a saint, a poet, and a good man, and most of them were also champion wrestlers? At least, that's true if you read the information panels in their mausoleums - which are I think just a little biased!

  10. Take delight in both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the ancient and the modern, the classic and the spontaneous. Be open to new things. That's exploring.

Friday, 4 April 2008

A trip to Scutari

Most people with a few days to spend in Istanbul probably spend most of it in Sultanahmet, the central area. They visit Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, maybe Suleimaniye, and they take a cruise on the Bosphorus. They may go to Galata or Taksim, the modern side of the city. But I wonder how many go to Uskudar.

Uskudar is the old 'Scutari' - known to anyone who's ever had to study the Crimean War or learned about Florence Nightingale. Nowadays it's a bustling area with a fine fish market, and a real antidote to touristy Sultanahmet. Here you can wander along the street, buy yourself a fish sandwich (balik ekmek) for three lira (a bit more than a quid), and no one will try to sell you a carpet.

There's a fine mosque by Sinan, which I have to admit was my original reason for coming here. There's another lovely mosque by the side of the water, and a fine later baroque one with a lovely queen mother's tomb like a birdcage, open to the weather; and an old hamam by Sinan, now a rather aimless and down at heel shopping mall.

But it was the unassuming bustle of the place that really won me over. The fish market, one of the stalls bedecked with a hundred  economy lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling like a bead curtain gone mad; the narrow, thronged streets, full of spice shops and baklava sellers; the way every ferry from Eminonu spewed out a crowd on to the quay. This was real Turkey, not some show put on for tourists - and it was a lively place.

We didn't get as far as the greatest of the mosques, on the hill over Uskudar. Which is a pity - because apparently it's very good, and there's a great view across to the Golden Horn.

But instead, we took the ferry back, and drank black tea, in the same tulip shaped glasses on the same red-bordered saucers you will get everywhere in Istanbul; I wonder if there's a law that tea vendors must all use exactly the same crockery? A surprisingly comfortable way to travel, on the choppy currents between Europe and Asia.

A trip from Europe to Asia, in twenty minutes, for 1 lira 30. You can't do much better than that for an afternoon's travel.

A museum worth spending a penny in

I couldn't believe there was an International Toilet Museum in India. But it's true. (It has a website, so it must be.)

What's even more lovely than the fact of a toilet museum is its immense seriousness. The founder is in earnest when he says the toilet is the sign of civilisation. He has actually put his ideas into practice by funding public toilets around India which can then be used to generate biogas - a highly environmentally friendly idea compared to just going and shitting in a field somewhere.

There's also a lovely quote from an Urdu poet whose subject matter is farting, shitting, and pissing... I think it loses somewhat in translation :-)

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Understanding the mosque

A trip to Istanbul has made me think about the characteristics of the mosque as an architectural form. It's interesting to follow the way Hagia Sophia influenced the mosques in Istanbul - and the many ways in which its invitations were refused by Islamic architects.

First, obviously, the idea of a huge domed space was influential. But this was already present in Seljuk architecture a long time before the Turks became acquainted with the heritage of Constantinople. None the less, there's some evidence that architects such as Mimar Sinan, looking at Hagia Sophia, learned new engineering techniques - specifically, buttressing using exedrae (semidomes) to counter the thrust, the use of turrets to buttress the dome, and the creation of series of cupolas falling away from the main dome which creates the distinctive Ottoman profile - very different from the simple skyline of earlier mosques.

The idea of the dome as representing heaven is common to both the Greek and the Islamic architecture, too.

But now what differs very substantially is the feeling for space. Hagia Sofia is divided up into different zones, only half visible from each other. There's a narthex, an exonarthex, a gallery, whole areas in the corners which seem hidden in some exclusive penumbra, which have no visibility of the central dome. There's even a huge carved marble screen in the south gallery to divide off the Synod's meeting area - and the fact that it is carved in the shape of two fake doors makes it nature as an instrument of closure unmistakable. This is a building made to exclude, to divide, to separate.

By comparison the mosque is a zone of inclusion, with the single exception of the women's gallery. Even when the sultans began to divide themselves off from the remainder of the worshippers, the main architectural feature was the external ramp leading to the sultan's gallery -  inside the mosque the sultan's loge is often discreet and hardly visible, except in the magnificence of its decoration. Most mosques appear to strive for unbroken space - the arcades that screen off the aisles of Hagia Sophia almost never appear.

There's another interesting thing about the mosque. It pretty much has to be square. (There is one oval one, apparently, out near Yedikule, and it's a very late baroque mosque. Also, a private mosque - not founded by a sultan and so perhaps less exposed to objections from the Ulema.) That of course gives the architects all kinds of problems in sticking a dome on top. But it also means that creating a baroque style is difficult, because you have to have a square, which is an anti-baroque, classical form.

Architects got round this in different ways. At Nurosmaniye mosque near the Grand Bazaar, the architect created a horseshoe shaped courtyard. In other mosques, the galleries are used to create a feeling of dynamism within the square. But the real successes of baroque form aren't the mosques - they're the lovely fountains and 'sebils' (waterhouses from which refreshments are served) often placed on the corner of the mosque precinct. Here, the round form let architects play with concave and convex forms - the grilles of the windows, the overhanging eaves of the roof. One of the nicest shadirvans (ablution fountains) is that in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia - and I bet of the thousands of people who visit every day, barely any of them give it a glance. It's lovely, and the delicate grilles are as good as anything in the church.

And that brings me to the last thing I learned about the Ottoman mosque.  You can't see a mosque as just a mosque, because in almost all cases it's the centre of a complex ecosystem a little like the English cathedral close. Suleimaniye for instance was built within a fine precinct wall, with areas both sides where caravans could spend the night with their camels and tents; there's a graveyard with the mausoleums of Suleiman the Magnificent and Haseki Hurrem, better known as Roxelana, his wife; outside the precinct wall are a row of shops (arasta) designed to pay rent to the mosque, so the development was self funding; there are four separate medrese (schools), a sibyan mekteb or primary school, a hamam (bath), a doctorate school of law, a cistern, a hospital, a kitchen (now a restaurant) and a hospice where travellers were entitled to spend three nights free. Even the houses of the professors at two of the medrese have been included as part of the package.

This is the biggest and best planned unit in Istanbul, but even small mosques like Rustempasha Cami are at the heart of a little community. Here, the mosque is built up above a vaulted basement, with shops in it - you take a little twisting stair up between two shops to arrive suddenly in the light, open portico in front of the mosque. To both sides of the mosque, trading hans were built, and the little shadirvan has been tucked away on one side, below. And of course there's the minaret.

Minarets, by the way, were one of the ways of indicating the status of a mosque. A regular mosque had one; foundations by members of the ruling family were entitled to two; some sultans' mosques have four (like Suleimaniye); and Sultanahmet, daringly, has six.

Clive of India's tortoise

Sometimes the past is distant - looking at old ruins, you have to stretch your imagination to reinvest them with significance and life. Sometimes I've been able to do that - at Burgh Castle for instance, a Roman fort stranded in the middle of the Norfolk Broads - but sometimes, all I can see is a tumble of rocks that might be a lost 1970s rockery attempt or a bit of Victorian wall for all I know, and I just can't get any kind of connection with the past.

And sometimes, the past strikes you with great force.

I found out today that Clive of India's tortoise lived till 2006. I'd always thought of Clive as a far-away figure; interesting (he committed suicide after his return to England, no one quite knows why) but not really present as a character in the way that, say, Henry VIII is to generations of English schoolchildren.

But somehow knowing that his tortoise made it into this millennium - that's connected me to him with a little current of electricity.

I wonder what that tortoise had seen over its 250 years of life? I wonder if Clive, back in London, ever thought fondly of it; or was it just forgotten, like the furniture of his old house, the pots and pans in the Indian kitchen? I wonder if it was a happy tortoise... if the concept of happiness is actually applicable to tortoises?

And I wish... I know it's stupid, but I really wish I had seen that tortoise before he died.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Lifetime of a tree

One of the things that amused me in Istanbul was the way the corrugated iron lean-to roof of the Buyuk Yeni Han - a traders' courtyard - has been cut away around a huge tree, so that it looks as if the tree is actually growing through the roof.

Imagine then my delight when I found a picture of the same Han in Godfrey Goodwin's 'History of Ottoman architecture'. And there you can see the same tree, much younger and smaller, with a couple of other saplings now disappeared.

Somehow that tree has now become my tree. I've seen it as a baby, and I feel almost as if I've watched it grow. It's personal.

I've never really been an admirer of those books of old postcard photos - Historic Ilfracombe, Northallerton in the Old Days, whatever. But this single ancient photograph turned out to have a special meaning for me. Perhaps I'll look at those old-postcard books with a bit more sympathy in future.


Monday, 17 March 2008

A marvellous word

I'm off to Istanbul tomorrow, so I've been researching Turkish culture and history.

And I've discovered a lovely word; papučluk. (Pronounced Papuchluk.)

Now that's an intriguing sound. But it's an even more intriguing word. Whether or not the Eskimos have forty words for different types of snow, I know not; but surely only the Turks would have a word meaning specifically a cupboard or cubby hole where you put your slippers.

Well, maybe the Moroccans would have a similar word, though as far as I know, they don't.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The trouble with design

The trouble with design is that you can create a lovely object, but you can't necessarily tell how people are going to use it.

A piece in the Guardian today tells how Oscar Niemayer is distressed by the current state of Brasilia, the new capital he created for Brazil. Designed for a few hundred thousand, it now has to accommodate millions; and the original clear design statement has suffered from the creep of housing estates and shanty towns.

Brasilia is one of those fine modernist conceptions, like Chandigarh or the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, that aims to channel life into a clean, rational design. The problem is that this type of system is non-adaptive; it's difficult to change the design to fit people's lives, and people's lives won't necessarily change to suit the design.

There is a beauty in Brasilia. It's totally planned, self-concious beauty. But it has no room for spontaneity, for the kind of adaptation that individuals make in their surroundings. #

That's where Hundertwasser represents a very different type of modernity, with his idea of a 'window right' - the idea that you should be able to lean out of your window and paint whatever colour you like, as far as your arm can stretch. His buildings are designed for living, not for viewing; for the individual, not the mass or the political or artistic elite.

Now let's look at these themes in the light of modern technology. Hundertwasser's idea is very Internet, very Web 2.0. It's infinitely adaptive and it is planned to be that way. It's possible to extend his architecture, but the extension doesn't have to be an exact copy; the building is a meme. Whereas the Brasilia idea, for all its apparent modernity, aims to be non-adaptive, unchanging, fixed, unadaptable. It is proprietary software, you can't reverse engineer it or develop new extensions or applications. And so, if you can't adapt it and you can't adapt to it, all you can do is destroy it.

I wonder at the fact that the role of the architect doesn't seem to have changed yet. But I wonder if prefabricated building techniques, modular building ideas, and more and more people choosing self-build rather than off the peg, indicate that the conditions for change are there. That the 'Great Architect of the Universe' could become, instead, the systems designer - creating an architecture that would be democratic, that would allow individuals to adapt?

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Two different views of architecture

I've just seen the most lovely little house. The Micro Compact Home, designed by Richard Horden, is a marvellously zen creation - a small space, but light and clear, costing EUR 30,000 or so before installation. It's taken ideas from the Japanese tea house as well as from interiors where compactness is at a premium, such as yachts, and it's used modern technology to create a delightfully spare architecture.

There's already a student village installed in Munich. But most interesting to me were some of the more avant garde projects; for instance, installing MCHs in a spire or 'tree village' around a lift shaft, further developing the theme of lightness and transparence that informs the design. Or the 'Golden Cube' designed as a floating house for the Venetian lagoon (floating houses are one interesting way of adapting to rising sea levels, but what interests me particularly is the way the water is different seen from water level - from a boat or a sandbank).

This tiny, 2.6 cubic metre house wouldn't be easy to live in permanently - though two or three added together might create an interesting, free-form house. (Bedroom, living room, studio...) But it seems exactly right for a low-impact, resitable house in the woods or on the saltmarsh - a sort of Thoreau residence.

A completely different view of architecture comes from the Atelier Van Lieshout with its quirky representational houses. There's a 'Wellness Skull' which contains a sauna, and shoots steam out of its eye sockets, and a house in Belgium modelled on the human digestive system. This is taking organic shapes to their extreme - not a single straight line to be seen anywhere.

The one thing that seems to link the works of both practices is that they clearly believe architecture isn't value-free, ideologically pure. Lieshout refers to sex, power, ideas of gender and of what humans are all about - the architecture reflects humanity. And the Micro Compact Home isn't just a soulless attempt to create a cheap pre-fab, but an idea of creating a modern home that can be impact-free, that can adjust to its environment and be transparent to the world around it.

I don't think I'd want to live in an intestine-house. And I do think I'd like to live in a Golden Cube. But it's refreshing to come across architects who are doing our dreaming for us - which Horden and Lieshout, I think, are doing.
An interview with Antony Gormley in the Guardian takes flight from the usual discussion of human bodies as the sculptor praises the striking nature of our industrial heritage:

'I want people to be excited about cooling towers and megasheds; they're as much part of our history as the rural barn.'

He praises the telecoms masts of Daventry; the brutal beauty of motorways.

It reminds me of an open exhibition at Horace Blue, in Norwich, where I zeroed in straightaway on Duncan Reekie's beautifully saturated photographs of allotment sheds. There's something honest and straightforward in the subject - Reekie clearly loves the mixture of gridlike rectilinearity and brutal functionality with the slightly random or makeshift nature of the sheds, made of old windows or doors, repaired with plastic sacks stretched over a hole, leaning slightly where the frame has given way. But equally, there's a real love of these sheds, a great affection that comes through in the care he has taken to get them exactly framed in the photo, to saturate the colours and bring out the inherent beauty of the subject.

It's intriguing how we tend to accept some aspects of our industrial heritage and reject others. Canals are good; cooling towers bad. Old tower breweries are good; modern warehouses are bad. But as Gormley points out, there's something honest and brutal in all industrial work that ought to speak to us - something that isn't pretty, that isn't concerned with being 'nice' or not offending people, something that is robust.

I'm aware of it myself when I'm taking photos. I recently wrote an article on Muscat, Oman, for an in-flight magazine, and realised that I had no photos of the commercial centres, the malls which are a defining part of modern Muscat - no photos of the Bollywood Chaat, no photos of Sabco or CCC with their lights, their escalators, their dramatic architectural attempts to gain attention. And no photos of the shops in Ruwi with their bright signage. No photos of the stalls in the souk either - just photos of the architecture. And I realised I'd missed something of the nature of Muscat.

Iceland Traverse

Regular readers might remember my desire to walk Iceland, because there's 'nothing there'.

I've been doing a bit of research. And the nothing that's there is, as I suspected, very spectacular nothing. Black volcanic sand desert. Unfettered fierce winds. Huge sheets of water. The kind of nothing that represents an existential challenge.

And it is indeed possible to walk Iceland from sea to sea. Michel Blomgren has done it, north to south, and his excellent video documentary "The Iceland traverse" confirmed me in my aspiration to walk Iceland this summer. Warning! Not for the squeamish! (Blisters.)

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Real versus ersatz experience

An article in the Daily Telegraph asks whether tourists on organised tours are missing the real experience of the places they visit.

The answer has to be yet. Tourists are taken to an 'approved' mall. They miss the 'touts' and 'gypsies' - that is, people who are not approved of by the cruise line.
They miss the street markets. They get a slice of life served up in 45 minutes. They see the city through the windows of a coach.

They see India without poverty.

And there seems to be a slight paranoia encouraged by the cruise line. All the locals are seen as scroungers, touts, thieves. No matter that in fact, like my friendly old ladies in St Petersburg and my beer drinking train driver friends in Milan,  they just want to practise their English and get a feel for the world outside their own boundaries.

So the answer to the question posed in the article header is obviously; yes, you are travelling in a vaccuum. You're letting someone else's views determine your own experience.

Now obviously as a provider of audio tours, I'm in some way imposing my own views  on whoever is taking the tour. I've been subjective in deciding what to see, what to omit; how long to spend on a particular church or artwork; what to say about it.

On one level I embrace that subjectivity. My tours are about art and architecture, about deepening your experience of art, about history, about finding a direct relationship with the past through eyewitness accounts of past events. If you're after a quick tour of clubs in Bangkok, Podtours is not the right medium.

I've just taken on someone to write tours of the WWI and WWII battlefields. And I've done that because he has the same values - he's not a tank buff or a battle statistics nerd, but someone who cares deeply about the real human beings who fought in Flanders fields. And I'm sure his tours will do the same.

On another level, I'm deeply suspicious about the way audio tours can try to replace the reality that you ought to be experiencing for yourself. I don't generally use sound effects - because the audio ought to supplement what you're seeing, not replace it. I like the Independent's travel podcasts a lot, and they use plenty of sounds from a Marrakech souk to traffic noise in Marseille - but  they do something different; they try to bring a place alive when you're not there.

Ultimately, if someone is moved nearly to tears by Caravaggio's martyrdom of St Peter, or experiences a little nirvana looking at the geometry and purity of the Pisa Baptistery, and they turn the audio tour off to explore those feelings on their own - I'm pleased.

Because ultimately, the only real travel is the travel you do alone. The travel you do in your mind. All an audio tour can do is help.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Tube maps redefined

The straight lines and elegance of the London tube maps has often been admired. Clean lines - like Eric Gill's typography and Edwin Lutyens' architecture; simple, manly, clean, all the values of a world fit for heroes (and colonialists).

But we're living in a more rainbow coloured age - one that doesn't necessarily respect logic and manliness, but prefers the right-brain,  the creative, the feminine. We might prefer flow to rules, synthesis to taxonomy. Beck's map is lovely but perhaps it's time for a rethink.

And to my great joy I find someone has been doing that rethinking and come up with a wonderful map that throws its tentacles in wild abandon to the outer rearches of Metroland like some mad outer space sea anemone  looking for David Tennant... Glorious, isn't it? I particularly love the not quite heart shaped finial on the eastern end of the Central Line, and the way the centre of London comes out not as a ring, a doughnut, or a rough rectangle, but as a squashed and wavy irregular form which reminds me of a prehistoric earthwork or a puddle of viscous liquid.

Elsewhere the splendid Max Roberts, designer of this intriguing new map, shows the accurate (in its day) tube map produced by London Transport in the 1930s and 1940s. What I find really lovely about it is that it shows the way the railway lines relate to watercourses, parks and forests - the manmade and the natural in relationship to each other. You never get that idea from the standard tube maps, which see the actual fabric of London and its boroughs as an irrelevance.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Things seen from trains

Because Liverpool Street Station appears to have taken an extended Christmas and New Year break, not reopening on January 2nd like everyone else, I ended up coming home to Norwich via Cambridge instead of on the regular line through Colchester and Ipswich.

Around Waterbeach, I was gazing out of the window when I saw the most amazing derelict farm buildings. At least I think they were derelict, though in East Anglia you never can tell. I thought to myself; those are just the kind of buildings I love photographing. And there and then I promised myself that when the weather gets a little better, I'll go out on the motorbike and try to find that farm...

Later on that same train trip I gazed out at the wilderness of Lakenheath Fen. Lines of trees, punctuated every hundred yards or so by a tree that's fallen, tearing its roots out of the soft peat, lying aslant the rows. The humpy mounds of the dykes that portion off the fen. Reeds swaying in the wind. Two deer in a field, perfectly still when all around them reeds and branches were swaying in the wind.

There's something special about things seen from a train. They come, you perceive them, they are gone. And as soon as they are gone, you want to find them again.

And then there's that little matter of the railway being a world of its own. How can you find these things again? They're not on a road, or if they are, you will have to twist and turn, over and under the railway, across level crossings, finding byways and back roads. Hardly anywhere does the road parallel the railway, so finding these places on a map is difficult; you need to triangulate, to somehow bring the road and footpath and railway worlds into a momentary planetary conjunction. It's a kind of alchemy. The view from a railway window transmutes the base metal of everyday experience into gold.

Once in Austria I saw a roe deer standing on the slope of a steep hill, just at the height of the train window and about five yards from me. It was a moment of strange intimacy; for two seconds I looked straight into its eyes. Then it was gone.

Sometimes, towards Shenfield on the Norwich-London line, I see a train heading along a  lower track  not quite parallel to our own. Sometimes, a train goes underneath our track, or starts to climb up a gradient beside the train I'm on, and then over our heads. Sometimes two trains vie with each other for speed on two parallel tracks, and the race can go on for five or ten minutes, the two trains changing position, one slipping back, the other gaining, then slipping back in its turn, till the tracks diverge and the other train is gone. Once I saw the driver take his cap off, reach across and put it down in the cab.

And most mysterious of all, trains that pass in the night. You see the people inside their little capsule. Brightly lit faces. One man in his City pinstripe suit, asleep. A woman reading a newspaper spread out across the table.

I have never seen another face looking out towards my train.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Interiority - and what you don't see

It's easy to assume that when you've wandered round a city's streets for a few weeks, you know it.

But that's not always the case. It is in England, probably.  We tend to build our houses on to the street, so the frontage is the main aspect.

Even then there are exceptions. Wander down some of the mews in west London, and you get a different feel from the grandiose stuccoed facades on the squares and streets.  This was the built environment of a class-divided society - "the rich man in his mansion, the poor man at his gate," or in this case Milord in his town house and the servants in the attic and out the back in the mews. For some reason I've always felt more at home in the mews.

Edinburgh is quite similar - at least, in the New Town. Fine, tall, uniform, creamy stone Georgian facades on the main street - and hugger mugger single storey garages and sheds and cottages in the alleys at the back. You can walk the whole of the New Town and practically never come out on to the 'parade' streets if you feel so inclined.

But some cultures have much, much less open to view. For instance, you'll never understand St Petersburg unless you go into the courtyards of the big apartment blocks in the centre.

Outside, they're just grey blocks under a greyer sky. And outside, Natasha is just a bundle of warm clothes with a human being buried somewhere in it, struggling against the wind and slushy snow.

Inside, Natasha emerges from her wrappings and becomes a retired art history professor with a graceful presence and a dry sense of humour. And inside, her flat is lined with books and fine porcelain, abstract paintings, and a spotless white carpet makes up for the fact that the snow outside is grey with the dirt of a whole winter.

Russians keep all their best things inside.  Perhaps that's at least partly about living in an unfree society; you keep your thoughts to yourself, and you keep you culture to yourself, and you keep anything that really matters inside your own house.

Southern Spain is like that too. Look at the Great Mosque of Cordoba from the outside and you just see a blank wall, divided by big bulky buttresses, with a few finely decorated doors but otherwise plain. It could be a town wall, a garden wall. It gives you no hint at  all about what's inside.

That's something you find in Arab culture in the Middle East too. Courtyards become the focus of life - they are cool, they are secluded. No one does anything on the open street. Souks are interiors rather than exteriors; the market happens inside a huge building, a huge set of covered ways, rather than in the open.

So in Cordoba, you can't understand the city unless you understand the way it is shot through with greenness, the way the fabric of the city and its streets has a weft thread of courtyards and gardens running through it. There are a couple of patios (courtyards) which are always shown off to visitors, of course, but by the very fact of being shown off in that way they've become open spaces - they've lost their interior feel.

It's little alleyways like the Callejas de la Hoguera which goes past the Islamic University, or the Calleja del Pañuelo, which still preserve that feeling to some extent. With the Callejas de la Hoguera, there's that interconnectedness between public and private space which is a characteristic of Moorish architecture in Spain - you're walking down the alley, then suddenly you're in the garden of a restaurant - is this public or private? a through way or a back garden? You just don't know.

Cordoba has an association devoted to the patios. At Christmas last year, they opened some of the courtyards and performed villancicos (the Spanish equivalent of carols). In May, more of the courtyards are open and there's a competition for the best gardens.

That interiority, that feeling of seclusion, is what finally won me over to Cordoba. It's a difficult city to know - because all its best sights are on the inside.  But it's worth knowing.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Lamenting lost London

I've blogged before about those little losses we suffer when the city around us changes. The eel pie and mash shops, the old cafes, those little places that used to be an unchanging and almost unnoticed part of our world - and then, suddenly, they're gone.

Someone else feels that way. They're using the internet to erect a memorial to the lost places of London - London R.I.P.

One of these days I will have to write a history of the number 76 bus route. Or the 73. And the things that have gone;

  • a stonemasons' yard, which I think was the same firm that used to have a yard next to Cambridge station. Ricketts? was that the name?

  • a house entirely surrounded by corrugated tin fences, mostly boarded up,almost derelict; there was a story that the man who lived in it was digging tunnels under his garden, under the house next door, across the road even... I never knew whether to believe them, but there was definitely something odd about the place.

  • Baring Street Metal, a scrapyard in the middle of Islington.

  • Hackney Wholefoods. Every time I passed it with a friend one or both of us would proudly say it as it has to be said - 'Ackney Olefoods'.

  • One building near Old Street where absolutely every window was blocked with old newspapers piled all the way to the ceiling. It must have been a terrific fire hazard. One of those things you only notice from the top floor of a bus, when your mp3 player's packed up and you forgot to buy the newspaper, and you're staring out of the window, bored, and not quite able to doze.

I'm going back to RIP London now to look for some of my old favourites. It will be nice to see them again - even if not in the real world.