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.)