Monday, 30 November 2009

Dubai and the desert of lost dreams

I'm intrigued by what is happening in Dubai at the moment.

On one level, as a former stock market analyst and current property and business journalist,  I'm interested by the politics being played out between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Abu Dhabi is going to end up holding all the cards, and, I suspect, many of the assets.  (For what it's worth, yes, I did see it coming.)

But on another level Dubai fascinates me as a wasteland of broken dreams. Burj el Arab may end up empty (the costs of maintaining it must be considerable; I wonder if in 15 years' time we'll see it demolished, to save on the running cost?) but it's a hugely ambitious piece of architecture. One of the few buildings in Dubai that has real architectural quality, too.

That can't be said of the Palm development. Pictures of the island, with its simplified palm tree design, are everywhere. A palm tree is a wonderful work of texture, its branches elegantly curved, its leaves spiky, its trunk made up of the fractal impressions of fallen branches. The Palm development, on the other hand, has the aesthetic standards of a child's painting - as if it was designed using the round edge of a protractor and the bottom of a milk bottle.

And when I see pictures of the streets, long, and regular, with houses dotted in even succession, each with its own little lawn and its own little beach, I think of 1960s housing estates.  There's no ambition here, no taste, no beauty. And these are houses for millionaires?

Dubai is a mixture of the tasteless and the ambitious, the utterly safe and the highly daring. (The finances, of course, were presented as being safe, but were in fact on the daring edge of totally improvident.)

That has its own fascination, but what will be amazing is to see Dubai in six months' time; decaying already, bristling with unfinished projects, depopulated and sad. It will be the modern version of those ancient mud-brick villages in Oman or Morocco, those Roman ruins in the desert, the ruins of Rievaulx or Fountains.

I wouldn't have wanted to visit, normally. But if I'm travelling out east next year, I'm going to try hard to make the flights work to give me a few days in Dubai - the desert of lost dreams.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Travel by numbers

I don't usually rant on this blog. I reserve my best rants for the pub - usually the front bar of my local at about two in the morning.

But I felt like a little rant today. I am tired of travel-by-numbers journalism. In fact I am tired of anything-by-numbers journalism.

Ten top sights of Cambodia!

Five best landscapes in the world!

Seven things to do in Rome on Wednesday morning if it rains!

48 hours in Mumbai!

100 best films of all time! (Doesn't include a single Kurosawa or Bergman, or Once upon a time in the West, so how good are these 100 best films? Hm?)

Yes, I'm a hypocrite, I write these articles myself sometimes. Editors tell me they are popular.

But what does it do, this 10-best mentality? It reduces travelling to tick-boxes. I've seen the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Capitoline, the Forum, the Lateran, tick, tick, tick, I've seen Rome. (What? and not seen the amazing burning sky mosaics in Santi Cosma e Damiano? the amazing rococo townscape around Sant'Ignazio? the head of Saint John the Baptist - or at least, the one that's not in Amiens or Damascus?)

It implies that if somewhere isn't on the list, then it hasn't 'made it', it's 'failed' as a tourist sight, it isn't important or worth seeing. So all those lovely little discoveries, tiny simple churches or sudden surprising outbursts of fantasy, aren't worthwhile.

It stops you getting the kind of obsession that can transform your life. Tick-list Rome has room for at most three Berninis - St Peter's, the Cornaro chapel, and the Chigi chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo. I've never seen the perfect Sant'Andrea al Quirinale on a 'top ten' list, though it is definitely on mine (as is the creamy perfection of Borromini's Sant'Ivo). My Rome is transfused by little veins of Baroque - I've been tracking down more little Bernini works every trip, and I still have lacunae in my list, because a church was unexpectedly closed, or I didn't have time to get across town. Even a simple tombstone (no, scratch the word 'simple' - nothing Bernini did was ever simple) - even a small tombstone on a pillar is worth my tracking down.

And so when I came to Versailles, through mirrored galleries under golden ceilings, the moment of real splendour was when I saw, suddenly, Bernini's Louis XIV - amid the faked up glories of a hollow regime, a flash of insight, spontaneity, genius. (I'm told Bernini worked directly in marble for this bust, without making a maquette first - typical of the sculptor, and perhaps the reason the work feels so immediate and vivid.)

Ah, spontaneity. That's the other thing missing from the top ten lists. Travel-by-numbers is about 'let's see sunset over Fez from the Merinid tombs. Done'. What it's not about is staying up there, listening to the dusk muezzins starting up like sirens, echoing each other in clusters of notes till the valley rings like a Tibetan singing bowl. What it's not about is meeting a couple of Americans on the way down who tell us the best muezzin they've ever heard is at the Marrakesh bus station, of all places; or walking into 'our' banana juice bar to a great smile from the guy behind the counter, who always poured in too much sugar with his trembling old hands (until we got to like it).

Travel by numbers is the opposite of psychogeography. It's seeing things on the surface, never delving below.

Travel by numbers doesn't have time for reading the landscape, for making comparisons, for learning what's really underneath the culture. (I've just been reading a marvellous book, Houses of God, by Jeannette Mirsky. It has wanderlust-provoking photos of Borobudur, the Parthenon, Angkor Wat, the Kinkaku-ji... but it explains the philosophical underpinnings of the architecture; how the world-mountain idea develops, for instance, through Hindu and then through Buddhist works, or how Buddhism itself changes in nature as it spreads through different countries and cultures.)

Travel by numbers means you never meet anyone. You never really get to know Bernini, or Louis XIV, or the anonymous woodcarver who put pigs dancing to a bagpipe high up in the roof spandrels at Elm church, near Wisbech.

So why is travel by numbers so popular? I wonder. It can be useful; like the catch-all question, 'have I missed anything?' at the end of an interview. It can be a good way to provoke interest in a destination - I read a 'top ten' of Turin recently that made me think I really need to go there.  And of course it's going to be popular with PR people for the various sites, hotels, restaurants that find themselves in the top ten. (Tell me I'm too cynical. But I'm not sure that I am.) I've found the 'top 100 films' features sometimes useful in alerting me to movies that I didn't know about - but then, reading a good film studies book is what I really should have been doing, not messing about with 'top 100' web sites...

It's just that if we let the 'top ten' dominate our view of the world, we're not really travelling. We're just collecting. Ticking boxes. Being consumers. Giving and receiving nothing.

I was tempted to head this piece 'Top ten reasons why top ten lists are evil'. I didn't.


Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A humorous homage

Sometimes you feel you've come incredibly close to an individual when you see a portrait of them, or see the desk where they wrote, or their signature on a historical document.

Sometimes you don't even know who they were, but you feel you know something about them. There's a mason who worked on Sées cathedral some centuries ago whose sense of humour endeared him to me immediately.

On the facade, he's carved the little ornamental dado with a variety of figures. There's a cat and mouse, the cat's body neatly curled up to fit the circular opening in the stonework. There's a series of four-leaf figures - except you realise the one in the middle has strangely been transmogrified into a dragon; you have actually to be looking to see it.

And there's a wonderful owl looking out at you, whose feet grip the sides of the stone opening, so that it's no longer a sculpture in the stone, it's a bird standing on the stone.

Inside the cathedral, there is a well. These sacred water sources always thrill me; there's one in Regensburg cathedral, and a Gallo-Roman well in the crypt of Chartres cathedral; Winchester cathedral's Norman crypt regularly floods, though that is due to a rising water table.

Up till the 19th century, apparently, this well was open. Maybe one of the priests fell down it; anyway, it was decided that the well should be closed off. And this was done rather prettily, with a neo-romanesque cylindrical font. Around its middle runs a fine band of panelling, decorated with abstract figures in the austere Norman tradition. Except for one - set into the stone, so you wouldn't see unless you were looking, is a little owl with huge eyes staring back at you.

I'm sure the carver must have walked past the owl on the facade every day when he came in to work. I'm sure he must have loved the fantasy of those figures as much as I did. And I'm sure that when the bishop told him what to carve, he decided on a little addition of his own, paying humorous homage to the earlier master.

One devout old lady of Sées must still be wondering why I was laughing out loud.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Amazing surprises

I'm not sure that I agree it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but sometimes it happens that while you're headed off to see a particular thing, you find something en route that's much more interesting.

So it was that we were headed off to Sées (old style, Séez: adjective, Sagien) when I noticed a sign by the road for Tillières-sur-Avre - a town with, according to the sign, a 12-16 century church. Oh, I thought, this might be interesting.

And it was. The signs were not encouraging; we encountered a route barrée sign, and the area outside the church was full of diggers, dumps of building materials, and dug-up bits of road. Still, we persevered. The latch stuck; then, jiggled about a bit, lifted.

A nice church, with a wide nave, rather lame Gothic arcade, and wooden roof. Nice. Not worth the detour. A few fragments of glass (which, to my great delight, included an angel playing a tenor shawm with the fontenelle shown, and another playing a soprano or alto with the reed clear to see - you have to be a Renaissance reed player to understand). A bit better than nice.

It wasn't till we got to the east end that we saw the reason this church is signposted. Back in about 1520, Cardinal Le Veneur, of the family which held the seigneurie of the town, decided to improve the church, and vaulted the choir and side chapel in what is possibly the strangest mix of Renaissance and Gothic I have ever seen. Huge, succulent pendant ornaments, square ribs, cherubs and caryatids everywhere, and among all this, the blasons of the Le Veneurs and their relations, resplendent in gold and heraldic colours. Weirdest of all, it's a flat stone ceiling, with ribs that are no more than ornaments dividing it up into compartments; the Gothic design has parted ways with Gothic structure.

It's almost as flamboyant as the little chapel at Rue, in the Somme - but that's more truly Gothic, while this is Renaissance pretending it isn't.

The main road is all nineteenth century houses in that mixture of engineering brick and rubble I particularly dislike. But we were looking for a boulangerie... and then I caught sight of a timber facade. A huge, long facade in half-timber and brick nogging, with the kind of sagging bressumer that only comes with age, and that you feel could tell a hundred stories (though if it did, it would only do so with a great deal of groaning and creaking).

Sées, on the other hand, I found slightly disappointing, in the way second tier French cathedrals have of disappointing you - no interesting old tombs, a lot of damaged sculptures which hint at what they might have been, and everything given a thorough going-over by 19th century restorers (probably under bishop Trégaro, who seems to be everywhere - his chubby face on a funerary monument, looking just as well fed in the east window of the Sacrament Chapel, which he donated, and in a couple of inscriptions too). And then it rained, too, which put a damper on things.

Don't misunderstand me. Sées cathedral is very nice; it just isn't Chartres.

I'm glad we turned off to Tillières.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Two fine cheeses

One of the lovely things about France is that it's so very big - so much bigger than the Blue Guide ever lets on.

For instance; French cheese. Off the top of my head, I can think of: Camembert and Brie of course, Roquefort with its blue veins, Chavignol, Cabécou, Selles-sur-Cher goat's cheese, Saint-Nectaire, Cantal and Comté, Salers, Mont d'Or, Emmenthal, Tomme de Savoie, Reblochon, and Morbier... but everywhere we go, we seem to find a new cheese.

Take for instance Leclerc in Boulogne-sur-Mer, not best known as a tourist haunt. Taking the ferry back from Norwich beer festival to Les Basses Lisieres, we thought we'd get our shopping done at the port instead of waiting till the next day and going to our local supermarket.

Cue the cheese counter. Remember, this is northern France, no longer Normandy, so things are a bit different - lots of ch'ti cheeses. Maroilles, stinky and soft; mimolette, with its grey outside and bright orange inside, a deeply boring cheese at a month old, very interesting indeed once it's aged for a year and a half.

And Vieux Lille. This is a cheese you could wrap several times in clingfilm, put in a zip-lock bag, heat-seal into a plastic box, and lock in a safe, and you'd still be able to smell it at a hundred yards.

I actually couldn't take it. Me, defeated by a cheese! This simply does not happen.

Then my other half suggested the way to cope. You simply use quite a lot of butter on your bread, then add the cheese. The butter seems to damp down the acrid notes of the cheese while bringing out the more rounded flavours. (As usual, the French have not only wonderful food, but all the little tips and tricks on how to use it.)

Then we found a cheese we had never seen before - Pavé de l'Aa. This might not make it into the top ten French classics, but it was a delightful experience; creamy, slightly hard texture, with fresh nutty smell and slightly lemony taste, all within a soft, white-furred, orange rind.

(The Aa by the way is a little river whose name means 'water' in old Dutch, and is renowned as 'the first river in France' - in the dictionary if nowhere else.)


Monday, 31 August 2009

Why breakfast is special

Some things are the same everywhere, or not very different. Some things, on the other hand, change drastically when you cross a border.

Dinner and lunch don't change. Breakfast does.

Breakfast seems to be the single most diverse meal in the world. Each nation defines itself in its breakfast choice.

In France: ah yes, tourists think it's croissants. Nope. Real French breakfast, at home, is baguette, perhaps toasted, with jam, and coffee in a bowl, not a mug. I think the reason it's in a bowl is that perverse people like my significant other can dunk their bread in it... Littl'uns get drinking chocolate instead of coffee.

In the Netherlands: a massive buffet of ham and cheese. Buttermilk, carefully distinct from ordinary milk in its different coloured bottle. (And a cigar... I don't quite understand the Dutch attitude to smoking, but there you go. And in Friesland, you can add a stiff drink to this, as long as it's after nine o'clock in the morning. Maybe that only happens when they're entertaining foreign business journalists.) But buttermilk, ham and cheese everywhere.

Germany: the cheese and ham are there, with slight differences. But you'll also find a lot of yoghurt and mix-it-yourself muesli - not nice soft easy muesli like Alpen or supermarket mixes, but crunchy tough stuff for Alpine wanderers, with whole hazelnuts, chunks of dried fruit, oats stiff as if each flake has been starched and hung up to dry before putting back in the box. And coffee. Lots.

In Japan: hot rice with a raw egg broken on top, which gradually cooks in the rice as you stir it in. Surprisingly nice.

Spain and Italy: still have to find out whether these countries do breakfast. They do coffee, and you might have a pastry (which my supercilious French alter ego regards as vraiment barbare) to soak up some of the bitterness. But breakfast?

Except in those few places where you can still get churros y chocolate. The doughy, fried strips with their crunchy outside and a scattering of sugar crystals ... those are the real thing, but for some reason the Spanish seem to be turning their backs on them.

Morocco has liquid breakfast; beisara, a rich thick pulse soup. I stopped in the market of Fes-el-Djid for some; in a thick green earthenware bowl with a lump taken out of the rim, and with huge mounds of cumin, paprika and salt on the table for scattering on top. (I like it with a huge amount of cumin and very little salt.)

English fry-up; very rare in my life - but I did just have a superb fry-up at Peterborough Beer Festival (one of the staff perks), hence this post. Bacon and sausages, fried potatoes, baked beans, tomatoes (almost always out of a tin, even for quality breakfasts - a stronger but less acid taste), mushrooms, and hash browns. Ah yes, hash browns - an interloper really, but I do like them.

Russia - I have no idea what the typical Russian breakfast is. But I have happy memories of staying in St Pete's and getting brunch that consisted purely of blinis, sour cream, and five kinds of 'caviare' (actually all non-sturgeon derivation, like lumpfish roe, so not quite as decadent as it sounds).

Best of all? Difficult to choose. That big bowl of beisara comes close. So too does a really crisp buttery croissant and a bowl of cafe au lait, milky and bitter at the same time.

But for me, the best of all is scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, on buttered toast.

PS - for pedants, and others who enjoy great words; Aristology, the study of breakfast (by extension, of fine dining), is featured on an excellent blog, World Wide Words.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The landscape changes

Sometimes when we travel we just want to see new things. So we give one day to one city, one day to the next. We walk our linear paths to Santiago, or Canterbury, or up the mountain and down the other side.

And we miss a lot.

I was reminded of this as I ran by the Wensum this morning - back in Norwich after a month and a half travelling.

The sky is leaden though the sun is out, shining palely. The leaves of trees by the river are dark green, and fleshy, heavy, almost sinister. Everything seems heavy, lethargic, and I can feel thunder in the air.

A line of swans passes silently, two adults and five cygnets in their greyish brown fuzz. Their wing feathers are just beginning to grow out white.

Yet two days ago, running at evening, I saw a different world; one in which the low sunlight dappled the path through glowing leaves, and the one streetlamp that always comes on early added its orange-pinkish glow to the scene. A world of luminosity and warmth, so beautiful you could almost cry.

The purple loosestrife is out, tall spikes of garish flowers, swarmed by bees. Ladybirds are everywhere. The first blackberries are ripe (I missed the flowering), and the mulberry tree has spattered the pavement with black. Autumn is coming, this morning; yet two days ago it was still summer.

This is what you miss when you travel too fast. When you walk a street for the second time, you see how it's changed; different light, a different time of day. You get to know it a little.

I know the temptations. The list of 'places I must visit this holiday'. The map that shows the Pennine Way, neatly coloured in as far as I've gone today, and the lure of the uncoloured path - the desperate feeling that you must finish it, you must press on. The desire to stick pins in the map; 'been there'.

And yet resisting this onward pull is what real travel is all about. Instead of forging a path forward, letting yourself sink into the surroundings; staying a few days, finding your footing. Slow down, rest, allow the small things to tell their stories.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Chambord: architecture out of control

The Loire is tourist country par excellence. Every house with a turret or a classic al facade seems to have turned into a must-visit chateau, with a special attraction such as a waxwork museum or a hunting museum or a museum of nineteenth century cutlery (I think I've invented that one, but it certainly might exist), and charging ten euros admission, and absolutely thronged with tourists.

You can get away. Jacques and I wandered the woods behind the chateau of Chenonceaux, alone in the moist warmth with the smell of decomposing leaves and the sound of a desultory breeze in the branches high above. At Beaugency, we found we were the only people in a deserted town, except for the lady in the boulangerie who sold us a baguette, and the artist dozing in front of his 'SPAM ART' exhibition who hailed us from his camp bed.

But for the most part the Loire is fixed up, parcelled out, sold up.

Some of the chateaux are quite pretty. Some are really rather surprising. Some are just plain dull.

But Chambord is something else.

At Chambord, what we see is not in fact a chateau. It's just a hunting lodge. A hunting lodge, mind you, that is bigger than most of the royal chateaux.

Francois I took twenty years to build  it, and then spent fewer than 35 nights there. It's a triumph of architectural splendour over real function.

Its geometry is clear - a square castle with four corner towers, based around a Greek cross plan of axial corridors, with a spiral staircase at the centre. Each quarter of the castle is built in exactly the same plan; each set of apartments is exactly the same (with one exception, the little oratory built on to one of the towers). This should be the triumph of reason.

But it's not. The exact repetition makes it impossible to remember where you are; you get confused, bamboozled. The staircase is a double spiral, and it seems to act as a sort of randomiser - you can never quite remember which arm of the staircase you took, so you're never sure where on any given floor you will come out.

And the place is huge. It's like a giant's castle, the ceilings high, the rooms massive, the walls thick. (Each apartment is completely separate, built into the thickness of the walls.) Francois in the end forsook the central block to move into the more intimate, more usable space he'd had built in one of the flanking wings. You can't imagine it in use; the court only camped here, with folding beds and chairs, and was never in permanent residence.

Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the rooms were subdivided and refurnished - but they don't seem to manage to overcome the brooding bulk of the chateau, its overpowering architecture.

There's something completely out of control here. Architecture has grown like Quatermass; it's created an environment, but not one for living in. Within, it's austere, rigid, classical; on the roof, exuberance breaks out with turrets and lanterns, chimneys, pinnacles. You could imagine yourself in a French Renaissance village up there, with two-storey houses perched on the roof, and the central lantern over the staircase like a perfect circular church tower.

Chenonceau is lovely, but it's human in scale. Blois wears its grandeur on the outside, but inside is an intimate place. But Chambord is like Gormenghast - it's a castle that has sucked all the life out of its inhabitants, and become a living thing itself. And not, I think, a completely benign being.

Friday, 24 July 2009

The unexpected

I'm just reading an intriguing speech by Philip K Dick on the building of science fiction universes. It's replete with a range of references from the Bible to the pre-Socratic philosophers, and one of these in particular caught my attention;

"If one does not expect it, one will not find out the unexpected; it is not to be tracked down and no path leads us to it."

It's a lovely paradox. It's particularly true of travel. Some people go to the most surprising places and never experience the surprise, because they are not open to it.

The 'fat white woman whom nobody loves' doesn't experience the vastness of the desert, but the sand getting in her hair.

I found a most surprising experience last week, in the Loire valley. I'd gone to look at chateaux - I ended up listening to cajun music at a village fete, the Stuffed Tomato Fair in Rilly-sur-Loire, eating salmon-stuffed tomatoes, and admiring the Honda motorcycle lovingly created out of choux pastry by a local patissier.

(Why stuffed tomatoes? Because they grow tomatoes in greenhouses nearby.)

Welcoming the unexpected is about noticing the little signs that tell us there's an adventure down this road. The poster for a local fair, the busker playing a tune you recognise from somewhere, the procession heading down a street (it might be a jazz funeral or a fourteenth July procession, like the one I saw in Blois featuring fifteen fire engines)...

But if you don't expect to find the unexpected, all you'll find is what the guidebook tells you.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Another little brag

Not really so much a brag as just a link to a site that I did some work for a while back - Morocco Gateway.

Tim Evans, who runs the site, gave me a very clear brief - it's aimed at travellers who don't want to do a boring if-this-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-Marrakech escorted trip, but who aren't completely go-it-alone adventurers. 'Safe' adventure, or adventurous tourism, whichever you want to call it. We evolved a number of ideas for itineraries, which I've written up to try to give a feeling for the whole experience of travelling in Morocco - rather than trying to 'sell' any particular destination.

If you click on 'articles' you can find my articles, written with my partner Jacques Combeau who is the real expert. (And also the guy who got hit on by touts all the time - his temper being much more equable than my short fuse!)

Saturday, 20 June 2009


I've just heard that a piece I wrote has been shortlisted for the Bradt/Independent newspaper travel writing prize. That's rather a thrill so I thought heck, let's brag about it on my blog.

The piece is here; it's about one of the strangest towns I've ever visited, from my trip to Morocco earlier this year.

And now back to reality; I have painting to do after having my bedroom redecorated.

Monday, 25 May 2009


I saw visions today.

I think I saw an angel.

A man lying on his back in the grass, and the sunlight caught the grass so that it shone and glittered with gold, like a halo.

Willow trees shimmering like gold leaf, so thin you can move it with your breath.

A pale blue sky with broken clouds that seemed to recede as I ran towards them (though I know, really, it was only an optical illusion caused by my more rapid progress towards a tall chestnut tree).

And last night, coming back home about ten as the sun fell, a pair of paper hot air balloons rising into the sky (itself just that rich purple velvet before full darkness comes), the tealights making them glow richly as they swooped upwards, taking the light breeze to the west.

I'd been wondering today, after reading Tracy Chevalier's Burning bright and blogging about the Blake exhibition at the Tate, how William Blake could see the 'chartered streets' of London as angels.

And now I know.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Colours of English May

The colour of May is white.

Drifts of poplar or willow fuzz on the grass by the river Wensum, like a late snowfall. The white of hawthorn blossom in the hedges, with its heavy smell, like lily scent with an undertone of sex or decaying fish. Cowparsley, with its tight heads of off-white flowers, already a yard high.

The daffodils are gone, their heads drying into faint brown ghosts of flowers. All the vivid colour of March has disappeared, and there are only scatterings of white like confetti at a spring wedding.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Smells of home

The palmeraies of Morocco sometimes remind me a little of the oases of Oman. But one thing is very different; the air. Oman has a dry spiciness that makes my nose prickle; Morocco's air is softer, less pungent.

Few travel writers are much aware of smell. The smell of a latrine, the smell of a good meal, perhaps; but the hints of ozone and salt in sea air, the smell of decaying seaweed on a beach, or the smell of dry earth when the rain hits it - those are so often forgotten.

I was reminded of that out jogging this morning by the Wensum. As I ran over Whitefriars bridge, I smelt soggy cardboard, a smell like that evil glue on old envelopes when you've just licked it, warm and wet, the effluent from the packaging factory. And I realised, for me, that's one of the smells of home.

When I was a child in Ipswich I loved passing the Pauls maltings, for the rich, sweet smell of roasting cereal. It was like breathing in a Christmas pudding. That smell, alas, has been chased out of the docks by commercial development. (A malt floor is an amazing place; hot and wet like a rainforest, with a moist breath that blasts you in the face when you enter, and the fulness of the aroma. You shiver when you come back out, even in the middle of summer.)

You can even smell the weather, and the season; the grassy smell of spring, the heavy, almost rotten smell of hawthorn in a good May. Hints of woodsmoke in the air herald the winter.

And the other smell that lets me know I'm home; warm cat fur...

Monday, 27 April 2009

A baby sister for Chartres cathedral

We didn't mean to find a cathedral. We were only looking for an ATM.  Jacques had run out of money, and we needed a bank.

But as we drove into Gallardon we realised we had found rather more than just a branch of Credit Agricole. A fine Gothic choir and a marvellously high spire, and a strange, huge, relic of upthrust wall crowning the hill, gave this town a striking silhouette against the low spring sun.

As soon as we saw the apse of the cathedral I knew where I'd seen it before. The flying buttresses, simple buttresses like semi-circles drawn with a child's compass; the simple, wide lancet windows, without tracery; it was exactly like Chartres cathedral.

The silhouette of the church is as striking as that of the town. The choir is gloriously high; the spire, at its north west corner, soars up to heaven. But the whole thing seems to be cut short. Then you realise the nave is there, after all, but it's so low its roofline is hardly visible above the houses of the town.

We went in, of course; after all, the church was next to the bank.

Even with that hint of Chartres cathedral I wasn't prepared for what I saw inside. Beyond the long, wide, rather low nave, steps led up towards the glowing light of the choir; the bleached white of fine, porous limestone. It was like a path of revelation; through darkness to light. I had to raise my head to look at the choir; the whole church is laid out on the slope of the hill,  rising and rising again towards the east. It is an amazing place.

Of course, the effect would have been rather different had any of the original stained glass been left in the choir windows. The clear glass floods the apse; it was almost as if the light had become tangible, so strong did it seem.

And a baby sister for Chartres? Well believe it or not, I was right.  It was built around the same time, and even the stone used to build the choir may have come from the same quarry, according to a note in the church.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Noises of home

I had a strange experience in the orchard today. I walked out, in the early evening, and the plum tree blossom was drifting slowly down, and the tree was humming.

It was the bees. When there's a single bee near me, I can hear it; the individual quality of its buzz is clear, as if there's a tiny silence between the infinitesimal moments of sound. It has a definite pitch, a definite texture almost.

But when there are so many bees, their sounds all mingle together into a huge hum, like the aftertone of a peal of bells, or a roomful of Tibetan singing bowls. It was magnificent. The sound of a French orchard in April.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Walls, Walls, Walls

Walls in the West have a bad name. The Berlin Wall, symbol of oppression. Prison walls (Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage). The most frightening thing for many of us is a wall without windows, a room from which you can't see out on to the street.

In the other hand, in Morocco walls seem to be a joy and a delight. In Meknes, Moulay Ismail's great buildings seem to be nothing but walls. Walls around the royal palace, walls around the Dar-el-Kebir. Walls that stride a kilometre without a break. Walls that are by now built into the structure of the city, so that houses are built against them, and streets flank one side, so that sometimes the only time you see the wall is in the tiny gap between two houses when you catch a sudden glimpse of crenellation. The huge open space in front of the Dar el-Kebir is hardly a real square, as it would be in Italy, say; it's just the result of building two huge sets of walls a little apart from each other.  The walls are the point - the space is just what happens once you've built the walls.

Now here's another thing where the idea of Moulay Ismail's Meknes as the Moroccan Versailles breaks down. Nowhere at Versailles are you aware of walls, as such; indeed the front wall of the courtyard is made transparent by railings, and the frontage of the chateau is a deep U that draws you in, not a flat wall that holds you off. You are meant to see the splendour; you are meant to guess at what's inside. And in the gardens, it's the avenue that dominates, the panorama controlled by perspective - you are meant to see all the way to the horizon; walls are banned, as they'd impose an end to the view, implying that the King's dominion was limited and his reign impotent.

But at Meknes the whole point is that you don't see anything of Moulay Ismail's palace. The walls exclude. It's an inward-looking culture; the palace has to be guarded against attack, against impurity, against the quotidian. There are no windows in the walls; who wants to see the chaos of the streets outside? The dirtiness of the gutter?

So the symbol of Moulay Ismail's rule is the blank wall. No windows.  Gates where the ornamentation privileges the flat surfaces of the wall, rather than the arch of the gate. Walls that surround, that blank out the exterior world. There are no vistas, no panoramas, and that may be why so many of these Moroccan walls are determinedly un-picturesque, unphotogenic. The walls at Avila make you want to take pictures; the walls at Meknes don't.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Empty space - the mechouar

One of the things that most surprised me about Morocco was the huge empty spaces. For instance at Fes, the Mechouar (parade ground) in front of the walls, between Fes-el-Bali (old Fes) and Fel-el-Jdid (new Fes); or the Djemaa el Fna, in Marrakech; or the huge expanses of the Place el Hedim, the square containing the Qubba, and the massive area in front of Dar el-Kabir at Meknes.

Moulay Ismail's work at Meknes is said to have been inspired by what he had heard about Versailles, and it's often compared to Versailles. But in fact the comparison is instructive mainly because although Moulay Ismail achieved bigness, he did not achieve greatness. There appears to be be no significance to the walls and spaces he laid out; they do not create axes, do not relate to each other, do not create an organisation of space.

Place el Hedim (admittedly changed since his time) for instance appears to be a huge, regular rectangle laid out in front of the great Bab el-Mansour. But if you look carefully, Bab-el-Mansour is off-centre - it has no relation to the space.

Nor is there any attempt to regularise or articulate the space. The big square in front of the Dar el-Kabir is not given any organisation by the buildings that face on to it - there are no regular arcades, no features that could make it a focused space rather than just an empty area.

The huge long corridor that runs from past the Zaouia in Meknes is nearly a kilometer long (my reckoning, based on pacing it) - yet it runs from one little gate in the wall to a blind corner. It is not an axis; it doesn't go anywhere. In Versailles, an alley like this would be an avenue, leading to a viewpoint, to a focal monument; here, it's just a long dog-leg with nothing at the end.

This is characteristic of the Moroccan city - though I'd hesitate to say it is a characteristic of Arab cityscapes as a whole. Only in the work of Moroccan architects post-colonisation, borrowing from the repertoire of the French-designed villes nouvelles, do you find regular spaces, articulated by the architecture that surrounds them.

The big squares are empty spaces. They come alive, as the name of Djemaa el Fna ('assembly of the dead') suggests, only when people assemble in them. No people, no meaning. No people, no articulation. No people, no need. It's the people who define the space, and not the other way around.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Glimpses of Morocco

Just back from three weeks in Morocco - and it was a fascinating visit, not least in glimpses of a different cityscape.

The European city is a city of open spaces, that don't change their character, that relate to each other logically. Since the Renaissance, there's been a rationality to the way cities are put together.

That logic doesn't happen in Arab cities. Seville, for instance, is the one city I always get lost in, even with the best map I can get.

Arab cities seem to be built around private spaces. The streets are simply the gaps between the buildings. They don't run straight - they run via crooked corners; one street near Dar Si Said, in Marrakech, goes round five right angle bends in less than a hundred yards. Where the map shows them running straight across a grid, in fact you'll find a staggered junction, with a little kink in the street.

The idea of following the 'main street' becomes ludicrous. A main street can simply filter away into tiny passageways leading to the dead ends of a kasbah. It's only wider because it leads from the individual houses to the souk - but it does not go from A to B, so to speak; it simply feeds a drainage system, so that the flood of people going down the street turns into a number of trickles feeding into impasses that contain two or three house doors, and that's all.

And you see the buildings, the real heart of the city, only in glimpses and glances. For instance in Fes, as a non -Muslim, you'll only see the Kairouine mosque or the central Zaouia through gateways, obliquely. You can walk round them and trace their pattern, but you cannot enter; and they are intended to remain private spaces, unlike the western Cathedral with its open parvis, its facade, its spires and towers, or the baroque church which announces itself with a facade that is a piece of public drama.

It's this that marks the mysterious appeal of Moroccan cities. Morocco takes this strand of Arab architecture to its extreme - far more so, say, than Oman. Everything is secrecy and indirection.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Where does it change?

I've taken to using the Norwich-Cambridge-King's Cross rather than Norwich-Liverpool street connectiion recently, since it gets me directly to Eurostar, even if it does take a bit longer. And looking out of the window, I've been wondered; where does Breckland end, and Fenland start? Where does the landscape change?

Breckland is unmistakable. Scots pines stride across the landscape, straggly lines, their branches akimbo, gaunt and angular trees. Heath and furze and huge arable fields give the land its texture; there are dark pine forests, work of the Forestry Commission, and open cornland, patchworking the landscape.

Then coming towards Ely there is the fen. It's not the flatness that always amazes me, though true, it is flat; it's the blackness of the soil. Not dark brown but absolutely black, velvety black like a pint of Guinness or a pair of black suede gloves. It's a hard land, the wind keens everywhere and the air is cold; but the soil is luxury compared to the sand of the Breck. Telegraph poles march across the Fen, but while once they were uniform, neat and pressed, now every other one leans one way or another, out of true, out of line, out of kilter. Lonely houses stand in their tiny patches of green, not pretty cottages but foursquare boxes, four brick walls against the immensity of the sky and the force of the wind.

The train and the river run above the fields, embanked, embattled. This was sea once, and the land doesn't let you forget it. From time to time it floods, and the fields are silvered or mirrored over with the inundation, and you feel as if the train is chugging on an embankment through an inland sea.

But where does it change? I've never managed to work it out. I turn my attention to the newspaper for a bare minute, and the landscape has changed already...

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Gainsborough vs Constable

I visited the National Gallery again to take a good look at the sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian works there. Once I'd done with these - I'll be writing a podtour up in due course - I decided to move along and try to overcome one of my long-term, irrational loathings - Constable.

Now you have to understand that I really ought to like Constable. I'm a Norfolk girl, and I keep being told that Constable is the great artist of the East Anglian landscape.

So: The Hay Wain. (Yes, I know Flatford is on the Essex/Suffolk border and not in Norfolk.)  I looked at it for a good fifteen minutes. And I still hate it.

I just can't get on with Constable's use of paint. He seems to think it's some kind of chocolate sauce or treacle, daubing it all over the canvas. You could read the painting like braille. The heavy white highlights on the water, to me, look like knobs of white paint or putty, not like light on a stream. It just looks muddy. I actually feel less well disposed to the painting now that I've seen it in the flesh than I did before; the churned up surface prevents me actually looking at the subject.

Dispirited, I wandered round the corner and found myself amazed by the luminous poise of Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews. What a gorgeous painting this is! There's a real sense of space; the sitters are on the left, and to the right we see their fields extending into the distance. In the first field, sheaves are neatly stacked; there's a white gate at the end of the field, and beyond this, sheep grazing. This is a working landscape, just like Constable's.

But what I love is the play of light. On Mrs Andrews's satin dress - which is plain, compared to the dresses of many of Gainsborough's other sitters, but on which the play of light makes up for the plainness of the cut. On the tree trunks. On Mr Andrews's rumpled jacket.

And Gainsborough doesn't beautify this remarkably plain couple, with their sulky faces and almost insolently relaxed posture.  There's a storm coming over, too, giving a strangely ruthless edge to the light. But it's not a menacing painting; the slight sense of menace just offsets the poise and elegance.

I've always been told Constable is the greater painter (that may reflect an out of date appreciation, but that's what my art teachers always said). Yet out of these two paintings, the Gainsborough is the one that does it for me.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Les belles Eoliennes - wind turbine tourism

I adore wind turbines.

I know, that's an odd thing to say. Lots of people hate them. Perhaps I'm different because I come from Norfolk, where the people of Swaffham seem to have adopted their turbine as a mascot (and now have a second one).

One of my favourite sights on the motorway up from Rouen to Boulogne is the little turbine farm above the cliffs at Wimereux.  I stopped one night there for a quick stroll to loosen my legs before I drove the final few kilometres to Boulogne for the late ferry, and heard the weird whining of the blades high above.

I'm glad to report that someone else feels the attraction - Patrick Barkham hitched a ride with Centrica, which owns a huge windfarm off the Lincolnshire coast.

Not everyone can get a lift with Centrica, but if you take a boat trip from Yarmouth to see the seals on Scroby sands, you can also visit the windfarm there. There's a small onshore farm not far from Yarmouth, too, at Winterton - an intriguing place with towering sand dunes, England's biggest desert according to some.

And rather nicely, my friends Lesley and Carlos at Norfolk Square brewery have named one of their beers Scroby and given it a highly appropriate pump clip.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

How gentrification destroys the past

In some ways I have nothing against gentrification. I suppose you could have seen me as one of the gentrifiers of Stoke Newington when I moved in, during the 1990s - wealthy enough to buy a house and do it up, which I suppose counted as 'gentry'.

And I have nothing against regeneration, either. But when it's implemented in such a way that it resembles Stalin's forced migrations, rather than trying to improve the existing life of an area, I worry. I worry, for instance, that we're losing a lot of real history and local culture in the East End to the London Olympics - and that those things can never be replaced. The allotments, the mixed housing estates, the refuseniks of the old council flats, are never going to be renewed.

So I was sad to see what is happening to Sulukule, a district of Istanbul by the Theodosian walls. First of all, it's one of those rather downbeat areas where little wooden houses shelter under Byzantine ruins; part of the continuing history of Constantinople, Byzantium, Istanbul.

Secondly, it's where the Roma of Istanbul now live. (Apparently they've already been chased out of Beyoglu and Fener by high rents. Fener isn't exactly swish.) And they are being forcibly evicted, and sent to live in (expensive) flats 40 km out of the city. Presumbly with the rather cynical expectation that they won't be able to pay the rent.

We saw this kind of thing happening in the UK in the 1960s - the destruction of working class communities in favour of idealistic modern housing. Governments find their working class and Romany citizens embarrassing, and the places they live demeaning - so they want to build utopian projects. Not in order to help their citizens, but so the city looks modern. So it impresses the middle classes, the investors, and (perhaps) foreigners who will invest here.

It's sad. Sulukule isn't just any old community either - it's one of the world's oldest Romany communities, and it's the place where most of Istanbul's gypsy music scene happens.

Sign the petition for what it's worth. I was number 3026.

And on a slightly different subject, I was sad to see the demise of Woolworths in the UK. 'Woolies' didn't have a raison d'être any more, it's true - its variety store format was deeply outmoded. It sold CDs and pick'n'mix, and an assortment of other stuff that kept changing and never really included anything you needed.

But it was part of English life. And some of the stores were classics, Art Deco style 1930s buildings which were defiantly modernist in a still very Victorian-Edwardian style high street. There's one in Ilford that looks like something out of Flash Gordon.

I don't miss the smelly vinyl floor and flickering strip lighting of the most recent stores. But I wonder if somewhere, there isn't a Woolies that could be spot listed, or preserved as a sort of Museum-of-Woolies, so we don't entirely lose our heritage?

(Apropos of Woolies, why is it that every time I have a good idea for something to write about, Jonathan Glancey has it first. I'm getting quite fed up...)

Industrial heritage - breweries

Jonathan Glancey has written a nice little piece lamenting the closure of our ancient breweries in the Guardian today.

It certainly has resonance for me... I've seen Greene King close down Ridley's, I've seen Gales' Horndean Brewery, whose honest ugly bulk welcomed me off the motorway every time I drove down to Portsmouth, closed by Fullers, and I've seen old maltings and breweries destroyed all over East Anglia.

Breweries are a bit like railway stations. They're functional buildings that have some very special requirements to meet. The Victorian tower brewery  was a marvellous piece of architecture and engineering combined to make the brewing of huge amounts of beer streamlined and easy.

The 'beerage', immensely wealthy families owning breweries, dignified their industrial buildings with baronial style or Renaissance references. The Cliff Brewery at Ipswich was the home of Tolly Cobbold - apparently it's shortly to house brewing operations again as Earl Soham brewery moves in. (Ironically, it was Ridleys that put this brewery out of action when they acquired Tolly.)  Hook Norton still uses its fine tower brewery - so does Highgate Brewery in Walsall. (Both these breweries offer group tours.)

Nowadays, breweries are less romantic - but need equally specialised buildings. I visited Adnams' new brewery a while back (they don't offer tours to the general public, but local CAMRA organised a visit). While the street frontage is exactly the same as it always was, behind the cobbles and the cottages a sparkling new stainless steel brewery has been erected. It's like something out of James Bond; you open a little eighteenth century door and behind it is the Adnams plan for world domination. I wouldn't have been surprised if the production manager had a white Persian cat sitting on his desk...

Some breweries are still being demolished, which is a crying shame. Others, like the Anchor Brewery in Norwich and the old Trumans and Watneys breweries in the East End, are being refurbished for use as housing or commercial space. But there's nothing quite like a real brewery being used for real brewing...

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Geocaching - 'letterboxing' meets GPS

I always enjoyed orienteering - the mixed challenges of running over rugged terrain together with high speed mapreading and running a compass bearing.

And ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by 'time capsules' and buried treasure. I remember hiding a Horlicks jar in the garden once, filling it with a couple of old penny pieces and a tea-stained bit of paper masquerading as parchment with a treasure map of Ipswich.

Letterboxing on Dartmoor is a pursuit that goes back at least a century, as far as I know - it's a sort of mixture of the two. You go off hiking among the peat bogs and granite tors, and aim to find one of the 'letterboxes', which has a stamp inside it - you stamp your card, or exercise book, to say you passed this way. I've no idea why there aren't letterboxes in the Lake District or on the Yorkshire moors... but there aren't. AFAIK.

Now I've just discovered geocaching, which is basically letterboxing plus technology. Youlook up a cache you want to find on the geocaching site, then you follow your own handheld GPS to find the cache - a hidden container with various goodies in it. The rules are; take anything out, it has to be replaced with another object of similar value. There are 'event caches' - parties or gigs you have to find via GPS; there are multi-stage caches, basically a sort of treasure hunt, where each cache contains a clue to the next. There are 'earth caches' - sites of geological significance.

While geocaching has taken off fastest in the US, there are geocaches all over... I'm going to enjoy looking for some in France. And come to think of it, what could be more fun on a holiday to another country than taking one day to do a bit of geocaching? It would give you an additional interest, show you some places you probably wouldn't see otherwise, and maybe introduce you to local geocachers. What fun!