Thursday, 9 September 2010

Colours of Norway

I've just been on a business trip to Oslo, and one of my colleagues did the nicest thing possible - he lent me his card for the Oslo free-bike scheme. I spent every spare minute of my five days there zipping around on a bike - which in a very cycle-friendly city was a remarkably pleasant experience - before spending my one free day hiking in Nordmarka.

The thing that most struck me wasn't the price of beer, or the architecture, or even the fact that I was overtaken by a skier. (Yes, Norwegians ski in the middle of summer; obviously some technical adjustments need to be made, such as the addition of wheels on the bottom of your skis.) It was the amazing colours of the landscape, and the variability of the light.

In the morning, there's mist, dew, soft light with a hint of mystery. At midday, the light is cold, pure, strong; the sea shines blue-black, not wine-dark like the Med or turquoise like southern waters, but steely.

Everything is green. Last time I was in London, the grass was burned brown already; but in Oslo, trees and grass were bursting with greenness, a moist-looking, vivid light green that seemed to fizz with life.

In Nordmarka I found the viridian of sphagnum moss in the bogs, almost the colour of a tropical tree-frog, a slightly unhealthy green as if it had been forced or kept in the dark. And also red and pink-and-white mosses. Sunlight in the forest picked out a single fern against the scrubby undergrowth.

Here the rock is grey, pine roots brown, mud black. Birch bark shines palely; the trunks of pines are a light yellowy brown.

Another surprise was the bogginess of much of the terrain. The bones of this country are rock; but when it rains, the precipitation has nowhere to go, so it lurks in the rocky basins, making dark mud, and eventually bog. The rivers and lakes are brown with ironstain or peat residue. Only in the higher pine forests do you find drifts of pine needles, a delight to walk on, and huge ant-hills made out of these needles, like strange burial mounds.

Out on Bygdoy, the quasi-island west of the city centre, are tiny coves of black rock streaked with bright green seaweed. The sand is golden in sun, pale beige under cloudy skies; the sea dark green-blue under sun, grey to black when it's overcast.  Grey fractured rock at Paradisbukta, black whale humps of rock at Hukodden. Hay fields bright green, except one that had just been cut, where the grass was darkening as it wilted (and when I came back the next day, it had been shrink-wrapped in huge white rolls).

The colours of sunset; not the reds and purples I'm used to, but here was fiery orange, and even a green tinge just above the sunset streak. Intense, electric, strange.

And then I came back to a rain-sheeted, grey Norwich.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Spice of the land

Funny how different countries have different spices.

Sometimes it's obvious why. Italy does basil like no other country - because it grows so well. Pesto is the quintessential Italian taste, for me.

But sometimes it seems less easy to explain a local herb or spice preference. Why does Oman love cardamom so much? Yes, Oman had links with southern India where it grew - but why does Oman not like coriander and cumin nearly so much?

In Morocco, ginger and cumin are the big flavours; a completely different balance. (Of course, I shouldn't omit the eye-wateringly hot harissa.)

German friends of mine say Germany is divided by the weisswurst equator - south of it, white sausage, and above it, none. The whole of Europe actually has a spice equator - in the north, caraway and dill - in the south, thyme and oregano. Rye bread isn't the same without caraway. (My grandfather always used to give me a glass of kummel when I visited, and a bottle of the liqueur at Christmas - a delight, as long as you have a taste for it, and so much nicer I always think than the aniseed-based alcohols of the south. Though I have managed to get a bit of a taste for ouzo, I still drink it very much more diluted than most Greeks would consider proper.)

And then of course there is England; the land without spice. It wasn't always that way; I've been looking at a book on medieval cooking, and many of the recipes contain a list of spices that looks very similar to the masala lists in modern Indian dishes. I wonder when we got so bland? Maybe chicken tikka masala becoming the national dish is not so much testament to our multiculturalism as England regaining its historic taste for spice!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Globalisation and the souvenir

Gods know, souvenirs were already pretty tacky. 'Your name in hieroglyphics', or Chinese, or Greek, or Arabic; singing mosques, leather camels, reproduction Venuses de Milo with or without arms, David's genitals or Mona Lisa's smile reproduced in their hundred thousands to immortalise that 'special' moment...

But new heights of tackiness are now being reached, because the souvenirs have nothing to do with the place you've just been.

Experience # 1: Athens. I do like to buy musical instruments if I can, when I'm travelling; and they will be played, too, so I tend to concentrate on wind instruments (though an Estonian kannel did join my collection and is a delight to play). A Bulgarian whistle became one of my favourites very quickly; I have a collection of Turkish zurnas; and having visited the wonderful (and free) music instrument museum in Athens I was keen to get a floyera, or the lovely deep-toned souravli that's played on Crete.

So I'm looking on the stalls of Monastiraki, the more interesting ones towards Thission which haven't yet been commercialised (a 'flea market' selling new Nikes at 'only' EUR 70 is an interesting concept), and I find a tub of little reed flutes. I pick one up. Not all that well made; rough hairy fibres left around the finger holes, and the top very poorly cut, uneven and jagged. Then I notice the label. I have no idea at all what it says; could be anything - 'cheapest you can get', 'kwality brand', 'it's a flute, idiot'. It's in Hindi, anyway.

So much for 'Greek traditional' instrument, which is what the cardboard label propped up against the tub said these were.

Experience # 2:  Paros.

I like shopping in Parikia. It's a laid back place, where two or three butchers' shops still divide up the space on the main street with a bakery as well as the souvenir shops and upmarket jewellers'. You can get good sandals, the jewellery here is pretty good (which it really wasn't on Thira), and you can get the best ice cream in the whole of Greece* at Sulla Luna, down on the waterfront, once you've finished shopping.

But I'm a well travelled geek with an interest in art history and enough of an amateur silversmith to be particularly interested in jewellery. So when I spotted an entire case of  Turkmen work - which I'd been introduced to by an erudite emigré salesman in the great market at Istanbul - I recognised it instantly; heart shaped slabs of silver encasing huge semi-precious stones, warm reds and oranges, gold leaf 'foliage' patterns against the silver background.

At least there was no claim that this was 'traditional Greek', but I wondered; why go all the way to the Cyclades to buy Turkmen work? (And I don't think this was a business run by a local Turkmen emigrant, as had been the case in Istanbul.)

Experience # 3: Istanbul

I'm not an innocent souk-wise. I spent far too long in the Muttrah souk, Oman, to be wet behind the ears when it comes to sourcing of the goods displayed. There are very few souks these days where you'll see the goods being made in the market (though we did see ploughs and spades being made, and tool handles shaved and fitted, at Sefrou and in Oman, and found a man in Rabat who would make handbags or briefcases to our description in two days, in a workshop tucked away behind the main souk street).  One of my regular stops in Muttrah was a lovely shop where I bought a couple of woven Paisley jackets and some nice embroidery - all of which came from Kashmir, as the shopowner told me.

"Nothing to do with Oman. Oman's a hot country, Kashmir it gets very cold, so you see, big arms, big pockets, nice warm coat." He told me a lot more about Kashmir, over the next few glasses of sticky, tepid tea. (Yes, tea, in Oman, the country of cardamom coffee; but not if you're Kashmiri.)

Oman also did a great trade in Baluchi jewellery (and I saw some of that in Thira, so the Baluchi salesmen have made it to the Med); no one in Muttrah was ever dishonest about where their stock came from, though. They were positively proud of Muttrah's status as a cosmopolitan trading centre - in a rather different way from brand-name and designer-gear Dubai.

Imagine my surprise to find exactly the same embroidery for sale in the Sandal Bedesten, at the heart of Istanbul's great bazaar. "Oh yes, it's Turkish," I was told. "Made in Turkey, hand made, very nice traditional pattern. Only in Turkey."

I bought the coat anyway - a marvellous pattern of pink and gold  flowers on a black background, in wool, with a silk lining. It was too good not to buy. And too cheap. But it wasn't Turkish. At least, not unless someone's copying those Kashmiri designs...

We think of globalisation in terms of the big brands - Coke, Pepsi, Big Macs, and if you're going upmarket a bit, Swarowski or Dior or Versace. But globalisation is also changing the nature of the tourist souvenir - it's no longer something you buy to remind you of a place, or to embody the spirit of that place, but something you buy because you're on holiday. Hence the lines of African drums and fetishes in Athens, and Paris, and Rome, and nearly everywhere else I've been recently. Hence the fact that you can buy a 'legalise cannabis' T-shirt in Monastiraki, or Saint-Ouen, or Camden - but not, because thank God some places are sacrosanct, in Meteora. Yes, a souvenir has to be bought because your reason for going on holiday is simply to spend money, isn't it? And by spending money you will make yourself relaxed, and happy. No?

Which is, for me, beside the point. I travel to see places - not to spend money for the sake of spending it. (And dear restaurant touts everywhere, I only eat dinner once every evening. Not twice, not three times. Once. Got it?)

Although it strikes me that in the Turkmen story, there is the beginning of an interesting story about the new diasporas of the Middle East... and that, you know, would be a very interesting tale to tell.

And for my own souvenir? Two shards of pottery picked up on tracks in Thira and Naxos - nice, boring, twentieth century traditional stuff, not antique, not fancy, but with nice deep glaze, which I'm going to set in a silver bezel and use as pendants.


* Best icecream in Greece? Oh yes it is. We had some damn fine ice cream elsewhere on the islands (Andros has a great patisserie with branches in Batsi, Gavrio and Andros town which makes its own icecream; there are some good places in Athens, too) but nothing to match Denise's frozen yoghurt, stracciatella, or particularly the marvellous coconut ice cream which we ate straight out of the ice cream maker.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Two great Greek walks

There are nations that 'get' hiking and nations that don't. The British, the Germans, and about forty percent of Americans do. The Greeks don't.

So don't expect beautifully marked hiking trails (though on Santorini, at least, some trails have been marked out, I couldn't find a map referring to them or any reason why the trail numbers seemed to change every few kilometres, and some of the tracks were in a very poor state).

But the landscape is amazing. And the best way to experience it is still on two feet (or possibly, donkeys and mules being as surefooted and hardworking as they are, on four).

Santorini - the loop from Perissa to Vlihada

We did cheat for the first part of the walk and took a bus along the long, straight, built-up road that leads from Perissa to Emporio. At Emporio, time to head away from the modern centre, up past the huge cathedral, into the heart of the kastro and the ancient village, and then out past the almost pyramidal Ottoman tower to cross the main road and take a small road leading towards the windmills you've already seen high on the ridge opposite the town.

The road curves and jinks as it goes upwards and soon you're walking past the windmills, with marvellous views over the fields to the south and towards the Profitis Ilias summit to the north. Then the way slowly sinks, till you come to the end of the road at a little whitewashed church with views over Vlihada and its harbour.

Here you could give up. We went on, finding scratchy paths through terraces, a painted red dot irregularly marking the way; the path became more and more scrambly till it gave out altogether just before the road, a few hundred metres before Vlihada.

(Now I am not absolutely sure that this is a legitimate hiking trail, though the red paint appears to indicate that it is.  However it's still a nice hike if you simply return down the ridge with the windmills to Emporio, make your way to the coast from there, and hike the coast road to Perissa.)

Vlihada is the 'working' harbour of Santorini - fishing boats rub shoulders with yachts, and there's not a ferry or tour ship in sight. From here, take the road that runs along the coast (there's a steep set of steps taking you up to it from the end of the harbour), somewhat inland to start with. Hike at dusk and you'll see pigeons flying out from the tiny pigeon-houses in the fields to be fed; they're well trained enough to fly back in on their own once they've completed a few wheeling turns in the sky. Once you come to the main road junction, take a right, which leads you to the coast road, and from here it's plain sailing (or walking) into Perissa, past beach bars and restaurants on one side with the black sand and the sea on the other.

For a four-hour walk, this has incredible variety and a selection of marvellous views.

The grand Meteora hike

It would be easy to be disappointed in Meteora. The big tour buses, the crowds of tourists, the postcard sellers and the huge road that cuts through the middle of this once mysterious area. It's difficult to feel the purity of the early ascetics when you're standing in a frescoed church with a buzzing swarm of hot tourists fresh off the coach. Still more difficult to feel the hardness of their lives, the hard toil and privation, when you know you have a souvlaki and ouzo coming...

But Meteora hides some memorable hiking. Start off in Kastraki - a little village we got to know very quickly (including the little ouzeri on the main street, whose owner sings as he serves and even went out for five minutes to fetch the eggs to make our saganaki - 'from the chicken! I wake her up!'). Up the main street, past the church, follow the signs for St George Mandilas (St George of the Handkerchief - a hermitage in a sheer rock face  strewn with Greek flags, football shirts, and somewhere in among all that, probably a hankie or two). Keep going as the road turns to a track, and at the road crossing, turn left to St Nicolas Anapafsas. (In a field on the right you pass the monastery's beehives; wax for candles, and honey for the monks.)

This monastery is worth a visit for the frescoes by Cretan painter Theophanes; the breath of the Italian Renaissance seems to have touched them, with the Giotto-like rounded forms and the individualised faces. In the narthex, hermits in their caves make spoons or pray; aged hermits ride on lions or donkeys or their apostles' shoulders to attend the funeral of St Ephrem.  In the church itself, the key scenes of the New Testament are summed up in tiny jewel-like scenes - the standard Byzantine iconography, but somehow rarified and miniaturised. A peacock, a partridge, fine foliage decorate the chapel, making it seem fresh and alive - far from the solemnity of most of the other Meteora frescoes.

From St Nicholas, carry on down the road for a small way before taking the track on the right. This track will carry you onwards through valleys flanking the Meteora rocks, through pastures where shepherds and their dogs guard flocks of sheep, where the sheep bells ring perpetually, where you can hear water rushing from fountains under the shade of oak trees. Past a couple of farms, their ramshackle corrals empty in midsummer, and finally to the turnoff on the right (firmly barred to traffic) to the hanging monastery of Ypapandi.

Ypapandi is closed; 'for restoration' apparently, though there was no sign of any recent work or access, apart from a single cigarette trodden into the gravel. It's still a majestic presence, its tiny church and monastic buildings ranged along a ledge in the rock. Leafy shade, a place to rest before the route swings back towards Kastraki.

From Ypapandi you can see the 'hero monk' on the bare, round rock to the north. Keep along the track, and it's a ridiculously easy ascent - given the sheer rock faces on three sides - to the statue, with views all around, down to the lowlands and up past Ypapandi to the heart of Meteora. But to continue on the trail, you need to come back about half way to Ypapandi, where a narrow path leads off to the left (as you come back - right if you're still going towards the 'hero' rock), uphill.

From here, follow the little cairns (and add to them, if you're sure you're on the right path), as the path leads towards the Great Transfiguration monastery on the Broad Rock. There are marvellous views of the rocks, of a ruined monastery above Ypapandi, of mountains and valleys. Several times I saw wild tortoises galloping noisily through the undergrowth.  It's only at the last minute that the path becomes indistinct; and any way down will get you to the main road, though the final metre is a scramble, a leap, or an undignified arse-first descent to the road, wherever you do it. (Going the other way, note that the wayside shrine - a little red-painted model chapel on a pillar - indicates one of the main tracks leading upwards.)

(One of the strangest things about the route is that you can't see the Great Transfiguration monastery until you're nearly on top of it. Unlike Varlaam, Roussanou, or St Nikolas Anapafsas, which are visible for miles, the greatest of the monasteries seems to hide itself, from wherever you approach it.)

At this point, turn right to visit the Transfiguration, and then left to visit Varlaam. From Varlaam, you can leave the road once more - take the steps that lead down past the ascent tower of the monastery (to the left as you come out), and from the bottom (the 'works yard') there's a clear path that descends through oak forest, past caves and springs. There are some nasty patches of scrabble where the path has given way, but most of it is easy walking in the shade. Once you come out on to the road you'll probably recognise the track back to Kastraki on the other side - an easy quarter of an hour back to the ouzeri.

It's a long day; we started at eight and finished about half past four, and only visited St Nicholas Anapafsas that day (we'd already seen the other two monasteries). But it's worth it. Not just because if you've done this, you can understand the solitude, the hard life of the hermit, the loneliness of the landscape, and perhaps the slight edge of madness that affects people who live in a vertical world, where there's a steep drop on every side and nothing to hang on to. It's worth it for the sound of the cold springs; for the shade of oak trees; for the dark of narrow valleys and the sun beating down on the black rock under our feet. And for the ouzo we felt we absolutely deserved when we got back to Kastraki.

  • The route from the old area of Kalambaka, near the Byzantine cathedral, to Agios Triadha is also well worth walking - and better maintained than the stretch up to Varlaam. Maps seem to indicate you could loop around to Roussanou and walk back down the other side of the valley. Some covered walking in shade, some fine views, and Agios Triadha - off most of the coach tour itineraries - is a rather fascinating small monastery with an intimacy that the others generally lack.

  • There's also a good hike from Kastraki up past two small churches to the 'Roca', the thin needle-like rock that dominates the area between Kastraki and Kalambaka.

  • I regret not hiking up to Agios Pneuma, the hermitage of the Holy Spirit above Kastraki - there's a great account on walkopedia.  This is a quick hike if you're staying in Kastraki, though effortful.

Despite the helpful man at the Tourist Office in Kalambaka (definitely worth stopping there), and maps handed out by the campsite in Kastraki, we found it difficult to navigate. The Greeks don't get walking. I sometimes wonder whether they 'get' maps, either....

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The thinness of authenticity

Athens is now two cities. There's the huge, glittering, modern city that spreads itself in every valley bottom and plain between the great hills that carve the city.  And then there's the ancient city of Pericles, still visible at least in part - and more visible than it was to previous generations, cleaned of its grime, cleaned of the buildings that used to adhere to its pillars and walls, cleared of inauthentic additions and reconstructions.

From the top of Likavettos hill, the modern city twinkles in the sun. A pair of huge dark canyons run towards the distant cranes and chimneys of Piraeus and the harbour of Faliro. Patches of khaki park with dark cypresses stand out against the dirty white of the city, like Byzantine landscapes in an icon. Look at the street plan; each neighbourhood is built on a grid, rational and self-contained, but since each neighbourhood declared autonomy in planning, where the grids meet it's madness, streets weaving a basket of loose ends and spiky angles with no way from A to B except through Z and back again. A wave of buildings surges up the slopes of Hymettus, only falling back when the line of forest meets them, dark black in the pale haze of summer.

It's not picturesque, this modern city, and it's not lovely. But it's real, and from up on Likavettos, it glitters lazily, and you could almost come to like it. (Besides, if you're a nosy bugger like me, you'll enjoy counting the rooftop swimming pools in Kolonaki, spread out below in lurid turquoise.)

Then there's the city of Perikles; first and foremost the Acropolis, of course, but also the agora, and the roads running out past the cemetery in Keramikos towards Eleusis and Plato's academy.

The Acropolis is being new-built. Huge blocks of stone being recarved, and I don't know whether they're old stone given a once-over, or new stone. (That surprising band of grey across the Erechtheion's north face, the frieze blank grey against the creamy stone of the rest of the building; is that the authentic effect, or a mistake of modern rebuilders?)

In a way, I approve. There's a tiny ivory god in the museum in the Roman agora, made up of 300 or so fragments painstakingly pieced together; an Apollo, turning softly, his flesh round and firm, recognisable now and burnished again (though darkened with age to a rich brown). We remake pots, and sculptures, and inscriptions; why shouldn't we rebuild architecture?

But of course they're not rebuilding Pericles' Athens. They're rebuilding just three of its buildings. They're rebuilding the classical heritage, not the classical era city. So buildings that don't stack up with this classical, Hellenic ideal will be left erased - like the tiny round Roman temple to the east of the Parthenon, a dainty little rotunda that I fear will be left forever ruined. We'll never see the Parthenon the way the ancient Greeks did - surrounded by buildings, by treasuries and smaller temples and tripods and monuments - because we're not to be distracted. (Like the great medieval cathedrals of France, without their parvises and cloisters and bishops' palaces, marooned in space.)

And to rebuild this ideal, many sacrifices need to be made. So, for instance, much of Plaka was bulldozed to recover the site of the Roman Agora. Nineteenth century neo-classical mansions are being neglected, according to some accounts so they can be pulled down to expose better views of the Acropolis. The Turkish past which created Plaka - a rambling neighbourhood of gently curving streets and early nineteenth century houses - is being denied; the history books are being rewritten with a gap in it. Neoclassicism isn't classical enough, and so it too must go. Athens is trying to become a pure city - a city crystallised at one moment of its history - and to do so, it's picking away at everything that doesn't fit the picture.

The trouble with this is that it impoverishes the present. With a few exceptions (Brasilia, perhaps - even Milton Keynes contains within the new city nuggets of past villages and ancient mansions), cities are the creation of centuries - not five-minute stir-fries, but rich stews cooked long and slow, with ingredients added every couple of hundred years. Seeing a neoclassical mansion in Athens, you look across to the Parthenon, and see both the common heritage, and the different way that the neoclassical architect interpreted the canon of taste. It enriches our response to Periclean classicism to see how the nineteenth century interpreted it; to see how in Byzantine capitals, the graceful Corinthian flowers become stylized into spiky chiaroscuro.

I find Athens a city that is losing its richness. It's too clean, too pure. Too much of the past has been rejected and stripped away.

I'm glad I've seen the Parthenon. It is, simply, one of the world's great buildings, and one of the world's great inspirations; and so much huger than you could ever imagine.

But I'm sad that I've seen a city which has been Disneyfied; reduced to a simplicity that denies so much of what a city should be.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The unique nature of greatness

We visited Vernon a few days back. It's quite a nice French town, with some good half-timber houses, a Gothic church, and the Seine flowing past, but nothing special.

The museum isn't anything special either. An exhibition of paintings on the theme of the Seine had a couple of nice Bonnards, but pretty little else; a lot of daubs, a good view of 20th century schools of painting (impressionist, Cubist) and lots of picturesque views that would do for a painting, but really not an inspiring collection.

Then I walked into a room and saw a painting positive glowing. A circular canvas covered in light green water and white waterlilies. The painting seemed to be lit from behind, actually emitting light. The water was moving with that slow, sinister rippling of deep, deep water.

Nothing picturesque about this painting. No self-conscious composition, with the lilies framed by an artfully disposed tree branch or the mossy edge of a pool. Just pure essence of water and waterlilies.

It was a Monet, of course.

Another painting beckoned to me. A headland, fuzzy brown, and a sunset of shimmering pinks and oranges, that seemed to be shining as if the real sun were hidden behind the canvas. The glitter and pulse of the sunlit sea.

I've seen paintings like this - in fact there was one next to it - that dissolve into slabs of palette-knifed colour when you get up close, ruining the effect. But however close I came to this painting, the shimmering was still there; I couldn't see the paint just as paint alone, so strong was the illusion.

Another Monet. Of course.

Now I do play that little game of going into a room in an art gallery and looking round to see what grabs me - and then seeing whether I've found a really good painting or just a flakily noisy one. About eighty percent of the time 'what grabs me' is a genuine masterpiece.

But in Vernon I wasn't playing the game. And those two Monets reached out and stole the show.

That's what great art does.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

An army marches on its stomach

Stretching the dough out till you can almost see through it; till the white floured surface is streaked with dark patches where the earthenware bowl underneath shows through.

Folding it over. And over and over. And over and over again.

And stretching it. Delicate fingers stretched out in a Vulcan salute to push the dough out to the edges. No rolling pin, no flat of the hand, the whole trick of making this dough is in the fingers.

Slapping oil on the sides. More and more oil. I'm surprised how much the dough can take. It starts to glisten; sinister, in a way.

Then you fry eat. Then you eat it. M'semmen, Moroccan pancake.

I'd eaten m'semmen before - it was one of our breakfast staples, together with the thick besara, bean soup. (Mornings in Fez always started with a bowl of besara in the main street of Fes el-Jdid, in a rough brown-glazed earthenware bowl. Sitting at a table in the street, still in the shade of the buildings before the sun was high enough to shine down into the road, I hit the spices hard - crackly crystals of salt, earthy cumin powder, shocking paprika the colour of blood, from the communal bowls. The blast of spice as effective a way of waking up as a double espresso.)

But I hadn't seen how these things were made. Joining the hostess of our B&B in her kitchen, watching her fold and push, fold and push, the m'semmen into its little squares, I realised what patience, what rhythms lie behind much of Moroccan cuisine.

Nobody nowadays makes couscous the old way, rolling tiny grains of paste in their hands and spreading them out to dry. Couscous comes in boxes just as it does in Sainsbury's or Carrefour. But look at a tagine bubbling slowly, or a huge round of harsha coming off the stove, and you realise this is a cuisine made for slow cooking, for long days, for a house where somebody is always around and time passes slowly like the dripping of water.

I learned a lot about Morocco that evening.

Monday, 29 March 2010

A secret at Chartres

I've known Chartres cathedral for five or six years now, visiting it several times a year, in all seasons, early and late. And it still surprises me, from time to time.

It can be just a trick of the light throwing a new accent on to a moulding, or illuminating a window I've not seen so clearly before. It can be a different approach, a slight angle that shows something new.

Yesterday, it was a real secret though.

The North Porch is supported on columns which are ornamented with tiny scenes - David and Goliath, Jubal and his lyre, the Ark of the Covenant. Supporting the columns are lovely plinths carved with fresh springtime leaves; except for one column, which rests on a polygonal foot pierced with little holes. Look inside these holes, and you can see a marvellous bestiary - including this little toad or frog.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Sorry, Belgium

I'm really, really sorry. The ridiculous, posturing Nigel Farage used his status as an MEP last week to launch a tirade of abuse at the EU President, Mr van Rompuy - and at Belgium generally.

I just hope Belgians (whether Fleming or Walloon - but that's a distinction Mr Farage probably doesn't grasp) realise that this view of Belgium is not commonly shared in England.

Coming from Norwich, which in the 15th century was part of a cosmopolitan northern European trading network and in the 16th century accepted a large number of immigrants from the Spanish Netherlands, I feel Belgium is in some ways part of my own culture - the paths of Holland, Belgium and Norfolk have always been linked.

And if Belgium is a 'non-country' because it was for years colonised byv the Spanish, that presumably means India is a non-country - and so is the United States. Heck, the States belonged to three separate owners - France, Britain and Spain - how much more of a non-country can you get?

So: what did the Belgians ever do for us?

  • Frites. The humble chip, in Belgian hands, becomes a gastronomic delight, with a choice of mayonnaise or up to twenty different sauces. For a full meal, just add mussels - moules frites is one of the great classic dishes of the world.

  • Beer. While it's possible to spend your time in Belgium drinking Stella or Jupiler, head for the good beer houses to explore the artisanal traditions of lambic, oud bruin, and saison beers. I particularly like my lambics - beers like Rodenbach Grand Cru and Duchesse de Bourgogne have a sweet-and-sour character and strong flavour that makes them rival a really good pint of porter in my affections.

  • Chocolate. Now I have to tread carefully here because of my French partner who will no doubt tell me that the best chocolate in the world is French. But the Belgians really don't do chocolate badly.

  • Speculoos. Snappy crackly little ginger biscuits with your coffee.

  • Tintin, the boy reporter. I can imagine the world without Tintin - but I can't imagine it without Captain Haddock or Madame Castafiore, or Snowy the little dog (Milou, in French). Hergé's Tintin has afforded generations of children, and adults, immense delight. Belgium is still one of those nations where le BD - bande dessinée, comic, graphic novel - is treated seriously; it has a comics museum, even. And if you haven't discovered the amazingly strange comics, fantastic architectures and perverse worldview of Schuiten & Peeters, you must - Piranesi's prisons updated to the 21st century.

  • Simenon's Maigret, a brooding, intuitive detective who knocks the faux-Belge Poirot into a cocked hat. Excellent, moody books. As for the crimes, they're a bit darker than you find in Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers .

  • Marvellous art nouveau architecture - Brussels is one of the best places in the world to see it. You can mix great Belgian beer with art noov if you visit the Mort Subite brasserie - drink your faro and see yourself reflected into infinity in the huge mirrors.

  • Rubens - a great baroque artist, perhaps the greatest working north of the Alps. Mr Farage really ought to be told that Britain owes this great Belgian painter a debt of thanks for creating the paintings of the Banqueting House in Whitehall - not far from the Houses of Parliament. (Van Dyck, another Belgian, pretty much created the seventeenth-century English portrait school - as well as the preferred royal iconography of Charles I.)

  • Gothic Belgium - you will never see a greater Gothic city than Bruges, with its chivalric culture, its canals, its great churches, its paintings, the quiet alleyways where ivy and wisteria grow, the busy market square, the little fish market under tall trees. If Belgium had only given us Bruges, and nothing else, it would still be memorable.

  • Mr van Rompuy. A politician who writes haiku; and in the proper Japanese tradition, writes them all the time (the ones on his website are this year's; so far, a good handful).  My Flemish isn't good enough to say how good they are, but what I have managed to read, I liked. Maybe what Mr Farage needs is to go off and sit in a Zen garden for a while, and learn to write haiku instead of making speeches.

So thank you, Belgium. An odd country, for sure, but not a 'non-country' by any means.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Cries of the heart

While I was trying to find the clip for Gibbons's 'Cries of London' I found the youtube channel for 'I Fagiolini', a fine group of singers who specialise in Renaissance music.

Their 'Tallis in Wonderland' takes the usual mellifluous world of chordal harmony, the cathedral acoustic which drains the voices of humanity and roughness and creates a sound with the distance and enchantment of singing bowls, and it busts it apart.

This is Renaissance music sung for the passion. Sung for the words, which are somehow things that get forgotten in the big cathedral acoustic. It's Renaissance music close up and personal.

Doubly close up because it uses speakers throughout the audience to distribute the sound. Nothing distanced.

Dynamic music. The singers move, act, speak. They display the characters of the melodic lines and the words they're singing.

Now, would I want to live with this all the time? Maybe not. But when I go back to some of my recordings of Tallis sung in that nice English way, everything absolutely right and exactly in tune with the soaring boy trebles and the chunky chords, and no suspicion at all that Tallis was actually setting (the shock of it!) words that might mean something... I find it rather lacking.

Another revolutionary revision: Allegri's Miserere. I learned to love this piece of music when I was at King's; for me, the Nine Lessons and Carols is kitsch, it's Ash Wednesday that is the musical highlight of the liturgical year. Monumental, a fauxbourdon that's left the ground and found wings, a marvellous mixture of block chord solidity and swooping descant.

Then I discovered A Sei Voci's remix, with baroque ornamentation. You can only do this with a talented singer, of course - with a singer well trained enough to feel their way through the harmonies, to trace a staggering, drunken, swirling path around the notes, creating a gossamer of fleeting suspensions and discords, tiny messe di voce, mordents and apoggiature. Not for boys. (The Sistine castrati had trained for years in the art of ornamentation, of course.)

Here it is without the ornaments.

On a personal note, I've found ornamentation is a never failing delight for the singer. I particularly love singing Handel; for some reason, his melodic patterns seem wired into me, in a way that Vivaldi's or Bach's aren't. (The only other composer I have that deeply intimate relationship with is Reynaldo Hahn.)

But what's purely lovely in singing Handel is the room he gives you for ornamentation. Cadenzas, simple descending cadences that just need to be ornamented, the da capo of an aria as a ground for experimentation, improvisation, spontaneity.

If you have any tendency to control freakery, to a concern with  'the right notes', to freezing up your emotional response to the music, the da capo aria will sort you out. Suddenly you're free, soaring with the wings of pure risk. You know how to do that cadenza, you've sort of worked out a way of approaching it, you know where you started and what pitch you need to find at the end - but you let your voice go, and suddenly it's all a dare, you've let go, hang-gliding way above the figured bass in pure freedom.

And that, for a singer, is sublime.

Street cries

'Agadir-agadir-agadi-i-i-r! Agadir-agadir-agadi-i-i-r!'



This was Meknes bus station. As we approached, the tongues of the ticket salesmen were loosened; like gaudy parrots in their football shirts, two of them seemed to be shouting in a repetitive duet. We could hardly hear the murmur of 'Marrakesh, marrakesh' in the background, coming from the old man in the brown jellaba.

I used to read about the street cries of London without really understanding. 'Who'll buy my sweet lavender'... It didn't ring true. Now I've heard the noise of a Moroccan bus station, I understand what London must have been like in the seventeenth or eighteenth century - a cacophony of shouting, of rhythm, of words yammered out or repeated like the blows of a club.

Orlando Gibbons's 'Cries of London' sounds quaint now, but I wonder if in its day it didn't have the shock value of, say, Stockhausen's Stimmung.

Then the other day I was at Lynn Mart - an amazing event, a full scale funfair in the Tuesday Market Place, overlooked by fine Georgian houses and inns - and I realised that the fairground is the one place street cries can still be heard. Even though some of them - 'Are you rea-dyyy?' and 'Are you brave enough for the Extr-e-e-e-e-me?' - are now recorded in sepulchral furry tones and played on speakers, rather than shouted as they might have been twenty years ago by the barkers.

Street traders still sometimes have a good line in patter. The guy at Brick Lane who used to advise 'Ladies, get a new tool for yer husband!' But it's patter - it's a spiel - not really the same thing as the street cry with its formal, ritual conversion of the word into a thing, a melodic or rhythmic tag.

For days after Meknes, Jacques and I would start up like the two parrot-bus-men; 'Agadir-agadir-agadir', 'Fas-fas-fas-fas' - and then burst out laughing. No one else ever got the joke.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Safari chez soi; the Vallée des Cailles

Sometimes strangeness awaits you through a door you've always passed by on the way to work, a little byway whose name you always knew but that you'd never taken.

We pass through Boncourt every time we drive to Anet. We've known about the Vallé des Cailles - a local nature reserve - for ages, but never bothered to explore. Then last week, the sun finally came out after days of lowering gray skies, and we decided to go for a walk.

The other side of Rouvres, where we've often walked, there are chalk downs with extensive views, long lazy slopes above the valley of the Avre and its villages. Everywhere you see the slate spires of village churches or isolated chapels.

But from the moment we entered the ghost orchard, a raised platform of dead apple trees, barkless and whitened by time, we realised the Vallée des Cailles was different. From the moment we turned a corner, and we could no longer see that acute junction where the road from Bu and the road from Rouvres join, we were in one of those hidden folds of the landscape that seems to take you away from all the places you know - from which you can't hear the noise of the traffic, or see the familiar landmarks.

The Vallée des Cailles is so called from the 'cailles', the flint nodules that are found in the fertile land of the valley bottom. The word might come from 'caillou', a pebble, or from the fact that the stones cluster as thickly as quails (cailles).  In the ploughed land, I found a perfect fossilised sea urchin; when I got it home and cleaned it up, I could see fine details, the base of its spines, even the reticulations of its shell, their impression caught in the hard flint.

As soon as we'd turned the corner from the ghost orchard, we found ourselves walking the fringe of the forest; tall, straight oaks on one side, the fields of the valley bottom on the other. On the whitened slopes of the opposite side of the valley fell the long shadows of the forest trees, bristling grey patterns on the frosted furrows. Below, the bare thistledown on the creepers that edged the fields caught the sunlight, glowing white.

Further up the valley, you enter the forest, with its long, straight forest drives, and sudden steep ascents and descents. Each sector of forest seems different; one part with young coppices, slender branches rising straight up or fanned out gently from a single trunk. Here the light was crisp, the forest opening and welcoming. Later on, older trees darkened the forest floor, their trunks massive, their heads gnarled, and huge brambles reared arches across the path.

It was almost silent in the forest; but whenever we stopped, we could hear rustling around us, little scurries and sudden starts.

Coming back, we took the bottom of the valley; another world entirely it seemed, long and level and open, the ruts in the track filled with icy puddles, the forest black and forbidding on one side, gentle and welcoming on the other.  And yet you couldn't see out of the valley - couldn't see the houses of Boncourt, or the road, or a hill beyond the immediate crest of the slope. It was a perfectly enclosed world, silent with frost in the pale light of winter sun.

Finally, as we were coming back to the village, we saw the first walkers we'd passed all day; two French ladies out with their three tiny terriers, smart little creatures I suppose before they'd started their walk, but now bedraggled, wet, and filthy with mud. The smallest had to be picked up and towelled dry.

I've done a lot of walking around Eure-et-Loir, but this is a special walk. It's not in the guides, it's not on a GR route (though it's an optional extra on the GR22 from Paris to Mont Saint Michel), even the local tourist office won't tell you much about it. But if you're a hiker, and you're anywhere nearby, the Vallée des Cailles is a rather special seven or eight kilometres.

Reaching the Vallée des Cailles: Coming into Boncourt from the direction of Rouvres, take the road that forks back and left about a hundred yards after the village sign. (You can park along here - alternatively, there's a car park in the village opposite the church; park there and walk back, it's not far.) Keep along the track till you find a sign for the 'boucle', a 4 km loop. The walk can easily be extended into the forest, and if you care to walk a much larger circle, you can walk all the way round, through Anet and then back up the Eure valley.

Friday, 1 January 2010

My best souvenirs

Straw donkeys.  Cheap jewellery. Turkish carpets. Models of the Eiffel Tower. All souvenirs I haven't bought - and never wanted to buy.

On the other hand, I do have some marvellous souvenirs, bought or found, which I'll treasure for ever.

  • Three splendidly made zurnas - strident Turkish shawms, in apricot and rosewood. I've made wind instruments myself and I would be proud if I could turn out anything as elegant and well made. We spent a whole afternoon in the shop in Unkapani, Istanbul, trying zurnas, talking music, and drinking apple tea, before I bought these three. I can only play them when the cats are out in the garden...

  • A Bulgarian duct flute which I bought one snowy Saturday morning in Sofia, a city no one likes but where I felt instantly at home. I tried twenty flutes before finding this one, and the guy in shop said 'Ah, dusha' - 'soul'. Yes, I'd found a soul mate. It's quite the opposite of the zurnas - robust, roughly made, but it has integrity, and a marvellous breathy sound that thrills me every time I play it.

  • A little palm leaf book with a frog on top that I bought in an antique shop in Herault when I was walking the 'Via Arletana' to Santiago. I think it's Indonesian. It's nothing to do with the pilgrimage, nothing to do with the south of France. But it was cute, and it was a hot day, and it reminds me of the fountains in Saint Guilhem du Desert, and the wind on the mountains.

  • A pair of black babouches that I bought in Sefrou, Morocco. They're not posh, they cost about five quid, they're the same old black babouches that everyone wears in Morocco. Except, apparently, I'm gender-bending; black is for men. And they're in suede, which I love. I've just had to superglue the soles back together, I've worn them so much.

  • Wooden spoons and spatulas from the Tahtakale market in Istanbul, made in olive with its dark brown patterns in the light yellow wood. I use them most days, feeling the heavy wood against my fingers, so much more satisfying than the furry softwood of spoons made in the west.

  • A huge wooden pestle and mortar we bought in Rabat, which reduces spices to dust in a matter of minutes. So much more fun to use than the electric grinder.

And the one that got away;

  • The singing mosque alarm clock, which plays a muezzin for you every morning, as seen in the souk at Muttrah, Oman. It's tacky. It's tasteless. It cost one rial (about £1.50). I wish I'd bought one.

If I think of my best souvenirs, they're either tiny things that won my heart, or things I'm going to use every day.  And of course because I'm a musician, and enjoy cooking, they're things from a strange place that relate to my interests - that are specifically interesting for me, not necessarily for other tourists.

Of course the best souvenirs, though, are not physical at all. You can get them on the plane whether you have a spare luggage allowance or not. They are memories, photographs, thoughts - the space where your mind opened up as you realised that life could be different, that the crescent moon sits with its horns up in the Middle East, that a city can be built on water, that a muezzin's voice can be a thing of beauty, that Oman smells of cardamom, that emptiness can have as much appeal as the busy texture of city life. The best souvenirs I have are all locked in my mind; and, I was going to say, they'll stay there - but since I'm a writer, they'll probably make it out on to paper or pixels at some point.