Saturday, 27 December 2014

And the trumpets sounded on the other side

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," Keats wrote of autumn, and though by December the French countryside is bereft of fruitfulness, the mist is still here, close and grey and dampening.

At ten to eight in the morning our little group of walkers met by the mairie, under the stumpy pollards and the yellow glare of the streetlight. The forecast was not good; fog, fog, fog. There had been fog on the road driving into the village, so that we had to drive hard up against the verge, following the pale boundary of tarmac and withered grass in the headlights, and the mist seemed to be crystallising above the trees, so that the sky was hidden from us, and the world collapsed into a claustrophobic cocoon of grey.

We were paralysed. Should we set out, and risk motorway fog? Should we choose another walk? What would we do if it got worse? There was checking of forecasts, and checking of GPS, and swapping of mobile phone numbers, and no one was willing to risk saying yes or no. But in the end we went, as the mist lightened. Somewhere, but not here, the sun was shining; here, the mist was glowing, but it never cleared.

At Heurteauville nothing stirred. The bar windows were dusty, the doors firmly shut, a "for sale" notice barely visible in the dull light. The ramp down to the car ferry was empty; we could not see or hear the boat. Eventually, someone found out that we had arrived during the morning break in service. There was nothing to do but sit in the car, or pace the quayside trying to keep warm in the chill damp.

A boat passed. We heard the muffled growl of its engines long before it was visible, and the fog was so thick we couldn't see its whole length, only the blunt, dark prow cleaving the water, and then the long dark line of its side, and then silence, except for the slap of its wake against the concrete landing ramp.

We waited. A single light shone faintly far off, a pallid yellow that stained the white of the fog. I say 'far off'; it felt very distant, but we had no way of telling how far. At last we heard the chug of a motor, and the light divided; a light on the far quay, and a light on the ferry, that angled its way across the current towards us. (And that current was fast, and swirling, and evil.)

We drove through Jumieges, past the two great towers of the ruined abbey barely visible behind high walls; we turned up from the river road into the hills, and parked where a green lane ran off into the forest. Dull red cows turned to look at us, then lowered their heads again to the dank grass.

Mist in a forest is lovely. It turns everything to Japanese calligraphy or sumi-e, with blurred silhouettes and a muted palette of greys and browns, like sepia brushed on to slightly wet paper.

The nearest trees stood dark against the low sun; but further off, the serried trunks faded into grey, and only a sudden blaze of russet bracken enlivened the scene.

In the heart of the forest stands a small chapel, by a junction of grassy ways. Generations of passers-by have cut their initials on the soft chalky stone of the walls; inside, two shelves carried religious statuettes with all the banality of a small collection of garden gnomes or a lifetime's supply of souvenirs from Great Yarmouth. The square stone reservoir close by was almost empty; a single walking boot balanced precariously on its rim.

We came down eventually out of the forest, and on to the road that runs straight as an arrow along the bank of the river, turning back toward where we'd started. The other bank of the Seine was invisible; it was as if we were walking along the edge of the known world. Above us, white chalk cliffs were topped by dark grey trees, dissolving into the mist.

Down in the fields below the cliff, a single tree stood out, its huge limp leaves yellow in the grey. Dogs raced through a field towards us, barking. We'd stuck together in the woods, but now we were strung out along the road, one or two striding out way in front, others dawdling to take pictures, or chatting, or simply trudging along the tarmac. Cars whipped past, headlghts still on at one in the afternoon. In one of the orchards by the road stood a tiny  derelict half-timbered house where a wicked fairy must have lived, surrounded by stunted and lightning-blasted trees and tangles of briar.

A boat passed us, quite invisible in the mist. The sun shone straight ahead of us, diffusing its light through the banks of low cloud and fog. One one side the fields and cliffs and forest, on the other side of the concrete wall with its iron bollards, nothing but the sound of the boat's engines, the wake slapping the shore, a couple of swans in the shallow water. A solitary navigation lamp on its concrete pillar would have made a fine vantage point, had there been anything to see, but the ladder up to the top was missing, and the light was off.

After lunch, in a restaurant just off the main road, in a low, slanted room under heavy oak beams - and a good lunch it was, too - the path headed back up, zigzagging up the cliff through damp ferns and over slushy fallen leaves. The mist was finally beginning to clear; rays of sun slashed through the forest, cold light in our eyes, and suddenly the bracken was aflame with colour. As we came down to the village of Le Mesnil sous Jumieges, the sky cleared, to a deep, clear blue shot through with crinkled contrails and sharp edges of cloud; yet down in the valley, the Seine was still hidden by drifting mists.
In one of the orchards here, a drift of drying, brown apples surrounded a leafless tree; here in Normandy the trees are still ancient, high trees for the most part, not the low-slung trees preferred where mechanical pickers are used, and many of the farms still make traditional cider.

This was an atmospheric day; our risk ofthe morning had turned out well. We strode on, past Saint-Philibert's church, past Agnes Sorel's manor, with its fine Gothic window and a small wellhouse, on through open fields and orchards and past incurious cows and bedraggled horses, and as we did, the day delivered its final surprise, a sunset of
velvety texture and impressive fieriness that glowed like embers under the soft grey roiling of high cloud.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Getting the right kind of traveller

I've just been reading Mike Harding's Footloose in the Himalayas. It's an interesting book, and both livelier and more observant than I'd expected - Harding has a great eye for detail and a feel for the mot juste. (He also knows how to operate a running gag over twenty or thirty pages, which enlivens things no end.)

Meeting local people half way up the road to the Shingo La, he mentions his uneasiness about taking photographs; treating people as 'sights' feels wrong. That leads to thoughts about the difference between travellers and tourists, which, in the end, he puts down to this; the traveller lives with the people he meets, for however long he's there, while the tourist surrounds himself with comfort and privilege. (Of course Harding, though wanting to be a 'traveller', does have certain comforts and privileges, a cook and a ponyman, for instance... but his point is a valid one.)

Mass tourism can be a curse. It puts pressure on local resources, it falsifies human relationships, it poisons everything. It can remodel entire villages as Backpacker Central, where nothing is available but the 'planned experience' and the generic hippy market selling sandalwood incense, Shiva shirts and leggings with elephants on.

Some countries and cities deal with this by a financial bar. Most overt is Bhutan's spending barrier of $200 or more a day. That's meant to discourange "the wrong kind of tourist". Other countries develop only higher-class accommodation, barring anyone who can't afford to stay in a four star hotel for two weeks.

Actually, they haven't necessarily got the right kind of tourist. They've just made sure they make more money out of the ones they get.

Let me suggest another option. Have a special class of visa for long term travellers: a compulsory three month visa. In other words, a visa only for travellers who are going to stay a full three months. (Obviously you'd need get-out clauses for such events as a death in the family, or serious illness.)

That gets rid of all the 'Spring Break' element. It gets rid of most of the package-tour people who only do day trips. The people who are going to spend three months in a single country (okay, with the exception of India, which is half a world in itself) are those who will become a temporary part of the local scene: people who are going to settle in a bit. People who may not be wealthy, but who have time.

People who aren't going to rush from World Heritage Site to World Heritage Site, but are going to spend some time staying in small towns, looking at out-of-the-way temples, doing the little hikes that most people don't bother with. People who are going to learn how to play karrom, or help cook in a Buddhist monastery, or spend six hours on the back of a motorbike to get somewhere they really want to go.

And probably, over those three months, they'll spend about what your $200 a day tourist does in a couple of weeks. But that isn't really the point.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"Destination" hotels

I read a travel piece in one of the Sunday papers recently. It told me all about a destination. The best hotels. The best budget hotels, indeed, except that when I say 'budget' I mean 300 rupees a night (about £3) and they mean £150 and up. The best cafes and bars. The best restaurants. The best shops.

No museums. Nowhere to walk. No gardens, no churches, no monuments, no history. I ended the piece wondering why on earth I would go there. Just for shopping, eating, and drinking coffee? (Even if it was a damn fine cup of coffee...)

The "destination hotel" is perhaps my worst nightmare. Going to a place just in order to sit in a room. Admittedly I've stayed in and used some lovely hotels in my time. One favourite: The Crillon, Paris, for the amazing waiter service; a table of five is served, all the plates covered by silver lids - and hey presto! all at once, all five covers are lifted to expose the magic of the cuisine. A masterclass in how seriously the French take their food. Another: The UN Plaza (as was), New York. Nowhere else have I been able to swim and look down 30 floors on to the gridded streets of the city; surreal, wonderful, and very Manhattan.

But I go somewhere because of its flavour. I go to see the landscape, to see the crowd, to see the history. A recent walk beside the Gironde delivered tiny fossils in the chalk, fishermens' cabins on stilts, a lonely Romanesque church on a headland over the grey waters. Yes, we also stayed in a lovely B&B, but that wasn't the point.

I travel to find surprises. A fossilised leaf in the rock at my feet, just exposed by the low tide. Or in Bangkok, a while ago, a group of graffiti artists working on a commission to jolly up a food kiosk and its alleyway, or ladies cooking the monks' breakfast at a local temple. The hammer dulcimer class I was invited to join in Chiangmai. My first taste of vin de noix in a little hotel in Conques, on the way to Santiago de Compostela (years later, I've found the recipe, and make six litres, religiously, every year). A "destination hotel" doesn't deliver surprises.

So, why destination hotels? How cynical do I want to be? First, because travel sections of newspapers now aim to deliver nice easy experiences that everyone can have. (Well, everyone with a rather large amount of money to spend, anyway.) "Our readers don't want to have their minds opened. They don't want to know about the challenges of farming in the high altitude deserts of Ladakh, or the aesthetics of Japanese calligraphy. They want to know where to spend £500 for a weekend break. They don't want surprises. They want two good meals a day, a nightclub that's edgy, and a room that's guaranteed to be on-trend."

And secondly... because I suppose some people really do want to play it safe.

There is nothing there at all

I'm a great lover of nothing. The wonderful nothing that you get in the middle of the Fens, when all there is to see is the immense sky with its moods, its shifting or scudding clouds, bright blue in the sun, or with the chiaroscuro of a rainstorm's black massif set off by slanting rays of light. Or the nothing of Wahiba Sands, nothing and nothing and nothing but rolling dunes as far as you can see, which from the top of a dune is a long way, and from the bottom, only a hundred yards.

"Move along there now, nothing to see here! nothing to see here!" - as soon as someone says that you instantly think: hang on, there's something interesting here!

All this by way of introduction to a piece of sheer poetry on the Vagabonding blog. The red heart of Australia, where there really is. Nothing. At. All. To. See.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Chambres d'hotes in France

The choice between hotels and bed and breakfast used to be a simple one: hotels were expensive, B&Bs were cheap.

That's not the case any more. On my recent trip in the Auvergne and Pyrenees, I found that prices for chambres d'hote (French B&B) varied from 56 to 90 euros - above what we could have got from some of the cheaper hotels, whether never-refurbished 1950s hotels by the station, or new Ibis Budget and similar chain hotels.

However, we got more for our money. Chambres d'hote almost always include breakfast as part of the bargain; most hotels don't. And while those breakfasts can be cursory - though never, in my experience, less than a big cafetiere full of coffee, hot milk, a big tranche of baguette, butter and jam - they can also be absolutely exceptional. Kudos to Anna at La Talamo in Talmont, on the Gironde, who provided us with the first two autumn figs from the fig tree in the courtyard, a taste of Portuguese ewe's milk cheese with quince paste, four different really marvellous jams, and even an apres-breakfast espresso to pick us up before we started the big drive home.

For the same price level, chambres d'hote offer better and sometimes quirkier furnishings. I've stayed in medieval buildings, including the medieval pilgrims' hostel in Vezelay; mountain cabins with pine everywhere and delightful handmade pomanders; rooms full of antique French furniture, with the handles on desk drawers and the seats of chairs rubbed smooth by generations of hands, and that patina that comes with being loved and used and waxed and polished regularly. By comparison, many hotels at the same budget have furnishings that were all the rage in the 1970s (though I haven't yet found a complete avocado bathroom suite), and haven't been touched since. Or else they offer corporate grey or corporate beige, which may deliver cleanliness on budget but is, if over-indulged in, destructive to the soul.

And we got some memorable visits. A little chambre d'hote at La Sacoume, near Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, included in its charms a friendly rabbit, naughty pony, and laconic donkey, and a landlady who told us more about village life in the Pyrenees than you'd ever have found out from a book. With her delightful menagerie (not to forget the chickens), it was no surprise that she had a picture of the animal-loving Saint Francis of Assisi on the wall. In Saint-Saturnin, we were treated to an impromptu melodeon recital with our breakfast ("I've only really learned one tune," our host apologised, but he had learned it pretty well).

Another advantage; you'll find there's a chambre d'hote in many small villages that don't have a hotel. Getting out for a walk before breakfast you get to see the place before the day-trippers arrive. You get to see the pattern of local life. I remember one stubbly gent carrying, very delicately, a pink-wrapped, ribbon-trailing box of patisseries; a bearded bloke carting a load of baguettes up a steep cobbled street; two old farmers drinking a nip of cognac in the local bar at eight in the morning; an elegant lady on a bicycle with her dog trotting beside, and her basket slung over the handlebars.

The downside? Chambres d'hote service isn't as seamless as you'd expect in a hotel; the owner may have popped out to do some shopping or you may have to stick your head round the garden gate when there's no answer at the front door. You may not get free wifi or a coffee machine. And in quite a lot of places you'll need to speak French, at least to a basic level - though it's surprising how many owners are keen to practise their English. But if you're travelling France on a less than four-star budget, I would recommend staying in chambres d'hote.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The value of a really good guided tour.. and a film: Clermont Ferrand

I generally avoid guided tours. I'd far rather discover a place on my own. And so often, the guided tour turns out to be someone repeating what they've read in Lonely Planet.

But a really good guide? That's different.

We were lucky enough to make it into the cathedral at Clermont-Ferrand half an hour before a free guided tour. Even more fortunate to encounter one of the cathedral staff who was trying to gather together a quorum for the tour. As so often, very few of the many visitors could be bothered to join up, even though it was free. But we did.

The first five minutes were not inspiring. I'd already guessed the west end was Viollet-le-Duc, dated the architecture of the choir, got a rough feel for the architecture. Lots of dates. Lots of dates in French, and I was stumbling because he said quatorze cent quatre vingt neuf instead of mille quatre cent quatre vingt neuf, and my brain flashed up blue screen of death for a second before I worked it out.

But then this distinguished looking gentleman told us to follow him; and it was like going through an attic with someone who could open every box, pull reams of fabric out of the old wardrobes, find the tiny jewel boxes under the old Scrabble boards and Lego sets. Had I noticed the stained glass? - Yes, but I hadn't identified the subjects, which he explained, taking time (and this was important) to make sure that everyone had found the right tiny medallion - two along, three up. You could hear the slight 'ah' as people found it, see the little hint of a smile. (I knew nothing about Saint Austremoine - a distinctively Auvergnat saint, the first bishop of Clermont, whose relics are now at Mozat. I knew about his companion Saint Nectaire, but only, I'm afraid, because of the cheese.)

We learned that the First Crusade was first preached here at Clermont - though not in this church, which is much later. We learned how the black volcanic stone of which the cathedral is made oxidises with time, becoming grey. We were told how the founder of the new work, Bishop Hugues de la Tour, was inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, a marvellous, luminous Rayonnant work in which the stained glass almost seems to elbow out the stonework. And we learned that this church, ancient as it is, had no fewer than three predecessors; the second destroyed by Saracens and Vikings.

Those castle keeps that ornament the stained glass are those of Blanche of Castile; I'd recognised those from Chartres cathedral, where she dedicated one of the great rose windows. What I didn't know was that Louis IX not only donated the windows, but held the wedding of his son Philippe and Isabella of Aragon here - and that there's a nineteenth century stained glass window showing the wedding.

Along the way, several myths were expounded and then demolished. Our guide turned out to be one of those people who doesn't take things on trust. "Some people say," he would start, and would take his genteel but ruthless scalpel to the story. No urban myths, no romantic notions. We would get unvarnished truth.

All this in forty-five leisurely minutes. We weren't rushed; everyone got a good look at the points of interest.We saw how the mouldings of the arches and pillars changed ever so slightly at the point where the original architect, Jean Deschamps, handed over to his son Pierre (that was something I hadn't noticed). We saw fine mural paintings from the fourteenth century.

At the end of the tour, I walked out on to the steps that fall away from the west front to the old streets of Clermont, and looked at the plain of Limagne in the distance. The day was overcast, but the grey light still made me blink, after the dim, awesome spaces of the black cathedral.

I hadn't expected to spend an hour inside the tourist office. But I didn't know about the film.

Let me explain. A little while ago, a visionary mayor, a local film maker, and a few other people had a bright idea. Rather than just writing a brochure showing the five great Auvergnat Romanesque churches (Saint-Saturnin, Saint-Nectaire, Issoire, Orcival, and Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont), they'd make a film about them. And this film would also be provided with a magnificent cinema in the basement of the tourist office, with plush wood and leather benches and a huge door that pivoted softly closed, and a massive screen filling one wall.

We enquired. When was the film showing? Right now. Instantly. Just for the two of us? Well, why not?

And so we were enthroned in splendour, just the two of us, to watch the film.

I was looking forward to enjoying forty-five minutes or so of my favourite game, recognising churches I'd already visited. "That's Bessuéjouls!" - on the pilgrim path to Compostela - "and that's Autun!" - Gislebertus' instantly recognisable carving of the three Magi asleep - "and that's Conques!"

But a few minutes in, it dawned on me that this was actually a very good film, too. For instance, it used illustrations from manuscripts to demonstrate ideas about cosmology, proportion and geometry, and then overlaid them on to photographs of the churches to show how, for instance, the spaces of the choir and transept can be inscribed into a square and a circle, and how that fits ideas about the physical universe (which is square, and in which four is the major number - four elements, four cardinal directions, four humours) and heaven (which is circular, and perfect).

There were cross-sections of the churches, plans, and elevations, showing how the Auvergnat churches are built with quarter-circle vaults over the aisles to take the weight of the stone roofs, and how the central towers are supported by a massive rectangular structure from which the apse and the radiating chapels gradually fall away, giving a distinctive pyramidal massing quite different from Romanesque churches elsewhere.

The camerawork was superb. There were shots of tiny rural chapels, as well as the great abbey churches; there was a sequence of simple shots showing just the texture of the Auvergnat stone used in the building, from rusty red to grimy black Volvic stone, through all the colours of cream and sand and ochre.

In short; you can tour all five of the great churches in two and a half days. Or you can watch the film, in forty-five minutes. Or you can do both; which we did.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

From the mouth of the lion - Saint-Bertrand de Comminges

Some towns, some cathedrals, some palaces, grew over time. They have a lived-in feel. Generations of different patrons, architects, craftspeople, DIYers and repairers, have left their mark on them. They're works of cooperation, of adjustment, of agglomeration and compromise.
Other places are the work of one visionary. Versailles - though its kernel is in fact a Louis XIII hunting lodge, which survives at the centre of the larger, later work like a small jewel set in a much bigger and more exuberant monstrance - can't be seen without the figure of Louis XIV, bestriding the scene in his curly long wig and gold embroidered frock coat. St Petersburg, though many of its buildings are later, has at its heart the great urban plan of its founder, Peter the Great; and quite literally, almost at its geographical centre, his original wooden cabin, predecessor of all the imperial palaces.
The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges is one of those works. Even though the Romanesque cloister and narthex and the Gothic choir were the work of others, it's the work of bishop Jean de Mauleon that gives the church its character - the warmth of the woodwork, the fantasy of the carvers, the richness of the decoration, are all his work. Most choir stalls simply fill a space in the east end of the church - these stalls dominate the cathedral, thrusting out into the nave, leaving pilgrims and parishioners (excluded from the choir in the Middle Ages) almost nowhere to go. They're complemented by the organ - unusually, neither set up in the west end, nor as a 'swallow's nest' hanging from the wall of the nave, but straddling the north-west angle of the nave.
Jean de Mauleon was a bishop brought up in a humanist age, and something of a scholar. The work he commissioned shows that dual nature; there are busts of Dante and the Medicis, and the organ shows the Labours of Hercules, as well as a number of musicians including a fetching little bagpipe player. The busts of the Nine Worthies show the pagan heroes Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar, in the company of Joshua, King David, and Judas Maccabeus, and the Christian heroes Charlemagne, Arthur, and Godfrey of Boulogne. In the stalls, the dorsals show not just prophets and saints, but the Twelve Sibyls, pagan prophetesses (also found in the choir stalls at Auch, which just happens to be where Jean de Mauleon was consecrated bishop).
His humanism shows through too in the triumphal arches which form part of the concept, an appropriate symbol in this ancient Roman town (there are numerous remains of the Roman forum and theatre in the plain below). The entrance to the choir is through one such triumphal arch, and another is shown, facing it, in the east window.
And then there are lions everywhere. There's a wonderful pair of crouching lions in the choir stalls, their haunches curved with tension as they wait to spring, full of suppressed energy. There's a lion painted high above on the stone of the vault. You might think they are just symbols of strength, like the Romanesque lions which flank the entrances to so many Italian cathedrals; or lions of St Mark. But they are also the bad lion, the Mauvais Lion, Mau-Leon, the heraldic badge of Jean de Mauleon. He's put his mark on the woodwork.

There are numerous St Johns, too. There is a lovely young John the Evangelist with his eagle, carved in the round. There is a John the Baptist whose camel skin garment actually shows a camel's head hanging down beside the fringe- a little like figures of Hercules wearing the skin of the lion. Both of them are shown, together with St Bertrand, in marquetry, above the clergy seats in the choir. And there's a John the Baptist on the bishop's throne; with a rampant lion on a shield below, just in case you had missed the allusion.
Again, not unusual to find either or both of the Sainted Johns in a cathedral, though perhaps less usual to find them so prominent in a cathedral that's dedicated (as this one is) to the Virgin. But then think that of course they were both Jean de Mauleon's patron saints, and again you see how the free-spending bishop signed his work to show off his patronage.
By the lion in the vault the initials EHN (for Jehan, the older spelling of the bishop's name) can be seen - easy enough to work out. The initials OAT are a bit more obscure, but his contemporaries would have known; Omnis Amor Tecum, all love be with you - Jean de Mauleon's motto. The OAT logograph is found elsewhere, on the woodwork on the outside of the choir.
It's not ridiculously overt, like the portcullises and roses in King's College Chapel, or the crescent moon symbols of Diane de Poitiers at Anet, or the Sun of the roi soleil at Versailles. It's rather subtle, worked into a rich tapestry of fantasy and symbolism. Saint John the Baptist mixes sociably with the Company of Saints, the Evangelist and his eagle join Mark with his lion (a significant pairing?), and the lions romp with mermaids, wodwoses, nickering horses, and chained pet monkeys.
The most subtle touch is yet to come. Right at the bottom of one of the east windows, and (consequently) almost invisible from inside the choir, is a little kneeling figure of a priest. Almost always, in medieval art, the little kneeling figure is that of a donor, praying to his patron, or to the Virgin, or kneeling in admiration of the whole sacred scene playing out in the window above. Here, in a surprisingly humble position, if my supposition is right, we find Jean de Mauleon himself.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Unexpected delights

The car broke down. Again. The problem a mechanic had incompetently fixed a bit north of Clermont-Ferrand stopped us completely a bit south of Aurillac.

We pulled up, ironically outside a Renault garage that had closed down, called the insurance company, and were told we'd have to wait an hour. We walked into Montsalvy for lunch.

Montsalvy is a sweet little town, once you get through the fortified gate, with a single main street lined by low stone houses. Nothing much in the way of attractions, just an old church, a monks' refectory that now serves as exhibition space, and a few bars and restaurants.

And one marvellous, unexpected delight; a treasury in the local church.

Here were fine liturgical vestments, chalices, monstrances, curiosities. A monstrance with tiny cherubs peeping between sharp shards of sunburst; another with angel-heads in entrail-fat clouds. A crocheted surplice that used to belong to a Colombian priest, and on his death was left to the priest here in Montsalvy who had once worked with him. All displayed in a tall, light, vaulted room, just off the south aisle.

It was a little like the town. Nothing would rate two asterisks in the Blue Guide; no Romanesque candelabras, no priceless medieval textiles or Limoges enamel, no Byzantine ivories. Just a collection of interesting and sometimes beautiful things, which neatly occupied a few minutes while we waited for the mechanic to arrive.

And then we had to go all the way back to Aurillac to get the car fixed, through a horrendous traffic jam in the narrow one way street at the end of which the garage was located. And then we were told it would take a few hours to fix. And then we discovered there was a street theatre festival in Aurillac.

There were white-faced, rouge-cheeked ladies in huge white satin crinolines. Pirates roaming the streets. Jugglers and bubble-blowers, prestidigitators and propagandists. There were Duos Habet, two men in stridently plasticky suits - one lugubrious, one glib - who present magic as a means of mass manipulation and neatly puncture their own mysteries with sardonic cynicism, and there was an incredible Italian clown who spoke a language entirely his own invention and threatened members of the audience with immense streams of cross babbling if they dared to sit in the wrong place, and flirted outrageously and still wordlessly with a woman who took his photograph, and ...more silliness, like this.

And then Jacques' mobile rang, and the car was ready, and we were actually, after the unexpected and uproarious fun of the afternoon, just a little bit annoyed.


Monday, 28 July 2014

Tinta - the character of Iceland

One of the delights of Verdian opera is how each individual opera has its own 'tinta', its own musical and dramatic colour. The mixture of frenetic eroticism and melancholy in Traviata, the savagery and ostinato of Rigoletto, the splendid trumpet tones of Aida.

Force travel into a couple of weeks' summer holiday and all you get is one tune. You visit Iceland and you see a waterfall, a geyser, a rift, in ten-minute slices, and then it's back in the bus. You don't waste any time. It's like listening to Verdi's greatest hits - 'La donna è mobile', 'Va pensiero', 'Caro nome' - but you don't get any of the story, any of the tinta.

Spend a little longer, wander around on your own, resist the packages, and you find something else. The tinta of the country. In this case, Iceland. Stranger than I thought it would be.

  • Icelanders all tell a good story. I suppose the long winter makes them good at storytelling if there's not much else to do. Ten percent of Icelanders are said to have written a book. I was told about the Asbyrgi Heatwave - "if I Google myself, there's my name, and the temperature," the petrol store owner at Asbyrgi told me - about the father who crashed his son's car ("it's meant to be the other way around. So he had to offer me a job in his company to pay for it"), about the outlaw who scrambled up into a cave in Thorsmork and the young partiers who followed ("my father used to go up there, and I think maybe so did my mother, in summer... and I was born in April, so..."). And I suspect, based on the various stories I heard, that Icelanders are far more eccentric than most nationalities. Put another way, they don't seem to have a particularly entrenched concept of 'normal'.
  • Odd museums. Yes, there's a Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (I didn't go). And there are museums dedicated to singular aspects of Icelandic life, such as volcanoes, earthquakes, sheeps, whales, and Icelandic writers no one outside the country has ever heard of. But there are also places like The Nonsense Museum, featuring, for instance, a collection of Police Caps Of The World, and another collection of sugar cubes and sachets. Another sign of Icelander's slight eccentricity. They tend to go their own way. (Come to think of it, that's how the country was founded, by Vikings 'going their own way' instead of staying in a mainland devoid of opportunity; and Icelanders continued to strike out on their own... that's how Greenland and America were discovered.)
  • Icelanders don't let living in a cold country cramp their style. They love swimming, for instance; and though that's partly because they're lucky enough to have geothermally heated water, I found at Nautholsvik beach in Reykjavik that sea swimming is increasingly popular, even though all the water temperature was just 12 degrees and most of the swimmers were sporting insulated slippers to guard against cramp. And they love icecream. If there's ever a north-south war in the country it will be between supporters of the Valdis ice cream parlour (Reykavik) against fans of Brynja (Akureyri). They don't wait for good weather, as we do - I've seen people walking down the street eating ice cream in the rain. A lady in the hot tub at Nautholvsik explained that to me: "If we wait for good weather to eat ice cream, well, then we never get to eat it, and that would be a shame!"
  • Geographically, or geologically, Iceland is a country that hasn't been finished yet. Mountain rocks drip with moss as if they've been doused with lurid green icing, and it's still half liquid. Rivers change course as the whim takes them. River islands ooze with mud, and sometimes seem almost as liquid as the rivers, so that you're not sure whether you're walking, skiing on the slippery mud, or actually swimming - a sort of weird Icelandic hike-triathlon. New islands appear; Surtsey is younger than I am, but a national park ranger told me "it may not last much longer; it's getting smaller all the time," eroded by wind and sea. Vegetation has only a tenuous grip on the soil, rock, sand. I saw a nasty pouting little fumarole spitting petulantly near Landmannalaugur, and I thought to myself, "that's the personality of the landscape". Or one of them, at least.
  • There's not much variety. Native fauna is limited to the Arctic fox; reindeer have been introduced from Norway, Icelandic horses came with the Vikings, and mice are illegal immigrants. Even bird life is limited, despite the fact that Myvatn teems with waterfowl; there are only two native birds of prey (the merlin and the gyrfalcon). Food can be very similar; meat, potatoes, meat and potatoes. Icelandic life seems to be a continual struggle against dullness. Fortunately, that's a struggle that most Icelanders manage quite successfully.
  • On the other hand the country has other inhabitants. Many Icelanders still believe in the hidden people; trolls, elves, Yule spirits. After hiking the country for a while I could see why; you keep seeing rock formations that look just like people, so that the landscape seems inhabited, yet as soon as you turn and look directly at such a thing, it seems to disappear.
  • Colour. A thing that struck me about Iceland is that the colours of the landscape are so garish - incredible vivid green of moss, bright white or ochre mud in the fumaroles, turquoise water, blindingly luminous ice, though these colours are so often shot through with the black of lava or volcanic sand, giving the landscape a sort of melancholy even on a bright day. And then Icelanders like to set their dwellings apart from nature by painting them in a palette of oxblood, skyblue, primrose yellow, with bright white detailing.
  • Humour. Much Icelandic humour seems akin to Norfolk humour - rather dry. There's a lovely graffito in Stöðvarfjorður showing a boat full of fishermen on the end wall of the house harpooning a lively whale on the front wall. What they don't know is that the whale has got its own harpoon gun - and a bright red missile is headed straight for them. In Reykjavik harbour, I climbed the little turf mound called 'Thufa' on its spiral path - and burst out laughing when I realised the little wooden house on top was inhabited by three ugly-looking fish that had been hung up to dry. 
  • Self-reliance. That's another thing that got me - Icelanders aren't good at goodbyes.You can have been chatting for a while, and they'll just get up and go. They're quite self-sufficient. There's not a lot of asking permission or deference or you-go-first kind of politeness. (On the other hand, when you're really in the shit, if you ask for help, you'll get it.) Perhaps it's telling that Iceland's single Nobel Prizewinner, novelist Halldor Laxness, called his best known book 'Independent People' - and as he shows, independence is both a blessing and a curse. You notice it in the townscape, too - even in central Reykjavik, houses have a little fence to cordon them off, and often, a neat garden.
  • Informality. The ranger who took the morning tour of Thingvellir (starts at ten from the church, very highly recommended) told us we couldn't go and knock on the prime minister's door and ask for a cup of coffee, "because he's not there at the moment. But if he was, yes, I have told people to go and ask for a coffee, and he's made them one and had a little chat with them." Icelandic society is less equal than it once was, due to the changes brought about by stock market boom and bust, but no one stands on ceremony. (It's difficult to, I suppose, when there are only 300,000 of you, and you're related to about half the rest of the population.) I was told by one musician not to be surprised if Sigur Ros turned up to a small gig in a bar - that's like Placido Domingo singing 'Knees up Mother Brown' in a pub in London after his Royal Opera stint, except this is Iceland, so it isn't.
 That's a glimpse of Iceland's unique character. Which has a lot to do with landscape. And a lot to do with history. And equally, a lot to do with some quite fascinating people.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Know your city

A recent visit to London reminded me that I wasted twenty years living there and never managed to get as far west as Richmond Park, and though I visited Greenwich many times I never got as far as the Queen's House. It's not just me - most people seriously underuse their own cities, and while they pay good money to fly off somewhere else, don't know what's hidden under their own noses.

There are several ways to wake people up to their surroundings. Several of my friends now look forward to the Heritage Days in September when many wonderful sites not normally open to the public have open days - I took advantage of one to explore the Hanseatic city of King's Lynn, while Norwich opens the Great Hospital, St Mary Coslany (now a huge book warehouse), medieval undercrofts and half-timbered houses. London Open House is another effort well worth attending - I particularly want to get to the Mughal style garden on top of the Ismaili centre in South Kensington.

But you can also play games. A favourite of mine - stemming from the actor's need for superstitions (anything can go wrong on stage, so the more 'lucky knickers', not-mentioning-the-Scottish-play, crossed fingers, black cats, and so on you've got, the more protected you feel) is to walk from A to B (house to theatre) a different way each day. The first three or four days are easy; after that, you have to investigate back doubles, tiny alleyways, cuts through churchyards or parks or courtyards - and before you know where you are, you've found surprises; a thatched house in the middle of the city, a house with viol-players on the door-knockers, a set of tiny steps up what you'd never realised was actually quite a steep hill,  a secondhand shop with a display of old beer bottles in the window.

Go at a different time. Go out late at night instead of in the day to see things differently. Go early in the morning before everyone is up and watch the early deliveries roll in.

Look at the backs of buildings, not the front. In parts of Norwich, that gets you into the old courts, with their half-timbered and brick houses clustered round the courtyard; in New Town Edinburgh it shows you the mews, humble stableyards and cottages tucked in behind the high Georgian houses; in other places you can see how the street frontage preserves an orderly atmosphere, but the back is a higgledy-piggledy mass and mess of lean-tos and extensions.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Best bits of Bangkok

Bangkok is a tough city to love. There's too much of it. It's too difficult to get around. It's too touristy. And it doesn't wake up till eleven o'clock in the morning - even the Dunkin' Donuts near Siam Square doesn't open for breakfast till ten-thirty - which is no good for a morning person, which I tend to be when I'm travelling.

And then many of the things I'd expected to like were rather disappointing. The Chao Mae Tuptim shrine with its phallic offerings is amusing but not very atmospheric. The Chao Praya River is wide and choppy and the waterfront is relatively unspectacular. Chinatown and Little India were tedious. The shopping malls around Siam Square were full of the kind of brands you get in any airport terminal, with price tags to match, and Chatuchak Market was far less interesting than I'd expected (though I did find a wonderful little street of paper merchants, where I got some sweet notebooks and fine marbled paper).

On the other hand....
  • The river taxis out along Khlong Saen Sap are great fun, speeding up the narrow canal and thrusting out a massive foamy wake as they go. Along the canal side an older, single-story, wooden-built Bangkok coexists with the skyscrapers in the background; caged birds hang from the eaves of some houses, roosters strut back yards. You catch glimpses as the boat rushes past. A hundred yards away there's a six-lane road choked with traffic, but you can't even hear it over the noise of boat engine and splashing water. I didn't have time to get to know the klongs of Thonburi... next time, I will.
  • Wat Saket was always going to be a favourite place of mine, given my love of pilgrimage mountains and hilltop sanctuaries, even though this hill is really no more than a slumped and overgrown stupa base (South East Asia Visions has a fascinating view of its previous dilapidated state). It's kitsch and yet charming, the way up screened by high bamboo and jungle creepers, with bodhisattvas posing elegantly in the shrubbery. At the top, you come out to the platform surrounding the golden chedi; and there below lies the whole of Bangkok - a low skyline punctuated to the west by the chedis of Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the other monasteries, and to the east by the skyscrapers of the new city, and right underneath, the geometrically disposed buildings of the Wat Saket monastery. Pilgrims offer money or incense to the many buddhas, or bash the hanging bells and gongs along the way - a temptation I did not resist.
  • I strolled out to Wat Mahathat in the early morning and found the amulet market in full swing. Even better, I found the wholesale market tucked away between the monastery and the river, part of it, I think, actually floating over the river; small shops around long thin courtyards or off shadowy alleyways, and only just opening for business, with that lazy feeling of a shopping district before anything starts happening. The world of the Thai amulet is a fascinating ecosystem, encapsulating everything from mass-market key-ring Buddhas to hand-carved, brass-inlaid willies (Thailand maintains a thriving phallic cult, as at the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine); collectors will inspect old amulets through a loupe (cheap, good jeweller's loupes are an absolute best buy here) and dicker for hours about the quality and price of the one they've got their eye on.
  • Surprisingly, some of the most interesting experiences I had were not far from Khao San Road. You don't have to go far off the main drag to get out of Backpackerville, Arizona and into the Thai existence. Early in the morning, nuns were preparing the monks' breakfasts at Wat Chanasongkram, the roofs of which I could see from my guesthouse; rice from a huge steamer, and stir fried greens, and a single fish split down the middle and splayed out. Inside the temple, a middle-aged man sat to read his newspaper. In Wat Borroniwet, a few minutes' walk further away, the gates were hung with the black and white of mourning, and worshippers filed into the hall where the three-months dead Supreme Patriarch sat within a golden urn, and bowed and prayed in unison; and I was handed a plate of fruit when I came out, and given a cup of sweet cold tea.
My souvenirs this time? Bargain bottles of Pelikan ink from a stationery shop in Chinatown, at a fifth of what they ought to cost, and a couple of Thai school exercise books, bound in stiff card with a dharma wheel printed on the cover. And, rather more expensively, a Thai hammered dulcimer, or khim, which I can now pronounce properly (it's an upward tone, which, Thai being a tonal language, is important), and which I am beginning to play with reasonable proficiency thanks to my friends in Chiang Mai and the wonderful resources of YouTube.

Motorbike freedom... and safety

One of the most important things I did a while back was to get a full motorbike licence. It's given me real freedom on the road. It's given me something else, too: confidence.

You don't need a full licence to rent a bike in many countries. For instance in India, no one is going to check your licence if you rent out a bike. And you can get a moped in Thailand with just your passport. (I don't know whether or not that's legal, but you can do it.)

But with a full licence, I know I can do it anywhere in the European Union, where motorcycling laws are quite tight. I can get an International Driving Licence that shows my motorbike entitlement, and that will work pretty much across the world.

I also know I've been pretty well trained. Emergency stops; check. Swerves: check. Countersteering: check. Which all helps when you're not a great biker, and not a very experienced biker (outside the UK), and you're confronted with the following traffic hazards:
  • Cow in the road. (India)
  • Flock of goats crossing the road. (Pyrenees)
  • Potholes. (England. As well as plenty of other places.)
  • Huge lump of ice falling on to the road. (India.)
  • Twisty mountain roads.
  • The Thai road designers' obsession with U-turns.
  • Crazy traffic .(India, Thailand, Cambodia.)
  • Road made of mud. (Cambodia).
  • Road made of loose gravel and mud. (France.)
  • Kids playing in the road. (All over, including a complete 22 boy cricket match at one place in India.)
So why bike? Why not rent a car? Why not rent a moto with its driver, which in Cambodia - with few road signs and many of its most interesting sights stuck somewhere in the jungle with little or no signage - is definitely a good move?

Quite simply, it's the freedom. Stop when and where you like. Go fast or slow. Take the high road or the low road, or the little lane shaded by high hedges and tall trees. Roads not suitable for cars are open to you. Parking is easier. And you are in the elements, not divided from them by doors and a windscreen. (Besides, in many places, car hire is next to impossible. Less so in Europe, but certainly in Asia and Latin America.)

In particular, the motorbike gets you out into the middle of the country. If you're travelling mainly by bus and train, it's just too easy to get stuck in urban mode, going from city centre to city centre. A motorbike gets you to villages, hamlets, isolated huts, mountain passes, tiny gompas stuck up side valleys. It gets you off the main road. It's the internal combustion equivalent of hiking.

There are the friends you make. Chatting to a biker with a Tamil Nadu registration plate while waiting for a bridge to be rebuilt on the Manali-Leh pass (I wasn't biking that time, but he was, and he had interesting stories to tell me about the ride up to Srinagar and along to Leh). The Sikh guy with his young son in front of him who grinned broadly when I praised his Enfield - "Best bike in the world," he said.

And there's the sheer pleasure of biking. The first time I ever rode a motorbike, I remember taking a series of nice easy curves between green English hedges, and feeling how much I was leaning the bike, and how the tyres were gripping the road, and suddenly realising my grin was wider than my visor. If you see a dirt track as a pleasurable challenge rather than a failure of the road traffic department, you are already on the primrose path that leads to the Khardongla Pass.

Still, hiring a bike is not without its dangers, so here, in the interest of safety, is a bit of advice based on my own experience. Even if you're going to hire a moped without a full licence, I'd recommend getting a good bike school to take you through the basics. (In my view, there are two things you really, really need to get right. One, emergency stop. Two, helmet.)

And you need to do a bit of a teach-in every time you hire a different bike, since in my opinion most bike hire companies don't take you through the bike properly. They rattle off at very high speed, "here's the gear and here's the brake and here's the speedometer and this is the horn", and then they set you loose. Before you ride off, do your own checks.
  •  Check you know how the gears operate. South-East Asian bikes tend to have 'rocker' gears where you use your toes to go up a gear and your heel to go down, as opposed to the UK/Indian style where you use your toes to hook the lever up and down. It takes a bit of practice to change your habits.
  • Just in case... check that the brakes are where you expect they are. Older Enfields have a different configuration from UK bikes, with the front and back brakes on opposite sides of the bike (so you brake diagonally rather than with both brakes on the same side).
  • Before you take the bike out, make sure you've identified some relatively traffic-free, easy streets to put the bike through its paces and get used to where the gears are speed-wise, how forceful the braking is (or isn't),  how noisy the bike is (I've had some that roar even in neutral, others that are totally silent at traffic lights), how sensitive the clutch is, how much acceleration you've got.
  • And get the mirrors set up so you can see the road behind you properly.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Escape from Angkor

It was quarter to ten and I was hating it. Pushed around by Russians taking selfies. Trodden on by someone trying to scramble up a stairway barred with wooden hurdles and no entry signs. Damp and sweaty in the muggy morning heat.

I'm supposed to be enjoying this. Welcome to Angkor Wat.

Angkor is a supreme monument. I can imagine, if you managed to visit it on the right day, at the right time, it might be as mysterious as, say, the Meenakshi temple at Madurai (to which no one ever compares it; all they ever talk about is Notre Dame, the inevitable, inexorable reference). Courts within courts, dim corridors, stairs leading steeply up to darkened shrines where fragmentary Buddhas lurk.

But mystery soon disappears when hundreds of shouting, selfie-ing tourists descend. And then there are the hustlers. The 'buddhist' who shoves incense sticks in tourist's hands and then demands to be paid (this is not religion; this is extortion). The women running out from their food stalls to grab you before the next woman can. The kids whose determination to sell postcards exceeds their mathematical ability.

"You buy my postcard."


"Very cheap."


"Five one dollar."


"Very cheap, for you special price, ten three dollars."

A very special price indeed.

I had to get out. The problem; everywhere is like this. The Bayon, check. Angkor Wat, check. Ta Prohm, check. This was hurting. It was a full-on assault. I researched the internet, read the guidebooks, drew maps in my journal, strategised and planned.

Escape Route 1: ignore the guidebooks. ignore the tourist sights.

I gave up on Angkor. I wandered out to a modern temple instead. Brightly coloured animal figures in the front; a horse and its rider gleamed wetly with acrylic paint, plaster peacocks froze in mid-strut. A solemn father propelled his chubby toddler gently towards the open door. Day-glo murals showed a smiling princely Buddha flying through rainbow skies, while neon clad monks traipsed a Rousseau-esque forest below.

But inside the prayer hall, the rolodex of time shuffled its cards five centuries back; a reclining Buddha smiled, complacent and lipsticky, gold leaf dulled with depth and age, and around it the pavement was warped and sunken with the passage of the years and the slow oozing of subterranean waters.

A longer walk took me to Wat Bo, where dogs snarled and middle aged Khmers played keepy-uppy to keep fit, and among the gold and white painted memorial stupas I disturbed a woman squatting to take a leak. It was as if I'd stepped straight out of twenty-first century Siem Reap, where ATMs compete for business and you can get Erdinger Weissbier or Président camembert in the supermarkets, and into a rural village where nothing had changed much for centuries, and nothing ever would.

I'd really come to see the murals painted in the monastery's main temple. In the near dark of the interior I could make out a few isolated details; what looked like Western gentlemen with striped trousers and pith helmets; an opium smoker; elephants with parasoled howdahs, two soldiers with tricorn hats. A nun came into the temple and lit three incense sticks before the Buddha. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark; the details broadened out, till I could see the whole wall, a patchwork quilt of scenes in different colours - a bright yellow background to one, another royal blue, another in a rich, deep oxblood.

The nun had knelt before the Buddha. The monk who'd been showing a pair of German tourists around came and chatted to me for a while, opening some of the windows for me to photograph the murals. The light was beginning to fade outside, afternoon shading into evening. The nun started chanting; a slow, simple tune, almost like a Lutheran chorale. When the monk's back was turned I slipped a few notes into the donation box, and sat at the back of the temple, not a worshipper exactly but feeling somehow refreshed, made new. The monk was starting to close the windows again. In the fresh dark, the great golden Buddha seemed to glow more intensely.

I looked at my watch. Quarter to six; quarter to sunset. Time to go.

As I left, the monk smiled, a simple and slight smile, and said: "Thank you for the donation."

Escape Route 2: the temples no one visits

I nearly didn't get to Banteay Prei. Everybody kept telling me it was twenty kilometres away. Except that was Banteay Srei. Or there was Banteay Kdei, people visited that.

But no, I knew what I wanted. Banteay Prei and Prasat Prei, little marks on my map that weren't in any of the guidebooks. I shot past the turnoff first time, got to Neak Pean, had to come back; there was a dirt road heading north, almost unsignposted - I saw the road before I found the sign.

Three Cambodian women were sweeping the grounds in front of the temple. A man passed on his bike and shouted out to them. Two children ran along, racing him for a few yards before peeling off into the jungle. But once I stooped to enter the central enclosure through its strangely low gateway, I was alone. Tumbled rock, short grass, a few sticky burrs. Only a delicate apsara regarded me, her eyebrows raised; she'd been looking for centuries, and would carry on looking once I'd gone. I scrambled into dim corridors, the windows low and small; all the doors were tiny, as if this was a monastery built for children. A lintel with curling foliage and praying Buddhas lay slantwise on the ground.

As I came out, a young man with a goatee entered. The first tourist I'd seen since I'd arrived.

I met him several times later that day. I saw almost no one else, except on the roads, where groups in tuktuks puttered from one monument to the next, and the occasional huge coach swooshed by.

On to Ta Nei. The tour buses don't come here; they can't. A tuk-tuk can just get down the sandy, bicycle-rutted track. Or you can bike it, though I ended up pushing my bike rather than riding through the worst of the sand, shaded from the heat by tall jungle trees. Ta Nei is a tiny temple, half overgrown, tree roots working their way between the stones, lichen greening or making grey the orangey sandstone. A bird sang tink, tink, tink, another tonk, tonk like a xylophone; leaves twisted down slowly from the trees, crisped brown by the dry season.

From Ta Nei I tried to get back towards Ta Prohm, but I hadn't reckoned on the rushing rapids that lay in the way. A dam spans the river, but there are steps both sides, narrow and steep, and I had the bike to manage. Thudding music and the chink of beer bottles betrayed a party going on on the other side; within a minute I had two not quite sober local helpers to haul the bike down and up again, and left them with their tuktuks and their girlfriends and an incongruous looking guy in a suit to enjoy the afternoon. I never did find out what the party was about.

At nearly the end of the day I reached the Bayon, ramshackle like a tumbled limestone mountain. Should I go straight back to Siem Reap? More by luck than judgment, and swayed by the grammatical error as well as the foreboding macabre of the title "Deads Gate", I decided to add one more sight to the list, and set off down the dirt track to the east gate of Angkor Thom.

There was a small group of American women there, climbing down from the top of the wall. We chatted for a minute, and then I was alone, alone with the great face of Jayavarman VII looking down at me. The track behind was a tunnel, a canyon carved in the forest; the gate vertiginously high, claustrophobically narrow. Up to the right a narrow path led upwards.

I spent the last quarter of an hour of daylight riding a narrow track on top of a millennium old wall; forty feet below, the waters of the moat, a hundred yards wide, and beyond, the jungle. At times my front tyre was no more than six inches from the edge; overhanging branches whipped at my face; grass encroached on the track. Startled birds crashed up through the trees as I approached; below, I caught a glimpse of an egret flapping lazily across the water, but only a glimpse. I was balanced riskily, on the edge, the sunset dazzling and dancing in my eyes, gloriously alone.

Escape Route 3: get out on the road

This took a leap of faith. I had about 90 percent of the information I wanted. But there were missing links. I didn't have a great map. No one will give you information on buses in Siem Reap, because they all want you to hire a car for the day, at a cost of $100 up. And that's a horrid way to go, because you end up spending six hours travelling for just a couple of hours at the temple, in the middle of the day, when it's too hot, and the light is terrible for photography, and you're already tired from the journey.

First: Banteay Chhmar. Reaching it is a little bit of an adventure (but only a little). You take the Poipet bus and get off on the road past Sisophon. You get a moto to the market. You get a shared taxi to Banteay Chhmar. Cost: $7 for the bus, a buck for the moto, $5-7 for the taxi. If you're lucky, and I was, the moto driver will help find you a taxi. And then a long, bumping, dusty dirt road, swerving past tractors and piles of soil in the middle of the road, the driver jamming the brakes on to avoid the oncoming triple-overtakers or a pothole, squashed up with seven or eight other people, till you get to Banteay Chhmar, long after you've lost all feeling in your legs, and nearly fall over getting out of the taxi.

It's supposed to work like that. But of course, although when I pointed out I was getting out at Sisopon there was a huge commotion - wow, that's not supposed to happen, no one ever does that, why aren't you going to Thailand, what is there in Sisophon? - the driver, and his three mates, actually forgot I was getting off there, so it was only when I realised we were nearly at Poipet and asked one of the three mates that he realised what was up - and yelled aloud, and stepped on the brakes, and pulled my bag out of the luggage and made off across the main road with it, dodging trucks and speeding cars to flag down a bus going in the opposite direction, which did, eventually, get me to Sisopon (and didn't, thank God, forget, and end me up back in Siem Reap two hours later).

Banteay Chhmar is wonderful. You get an inkling when, from the taxi, you see the bridge that spans the moat, its time-worn devas and demons pulling at their tug-of-war stone rope. And immediately, the village feels quite different; no one rushes to sell you anything or point you towards a guest house. You can wander the market undisturbed, grab a couple of beers at one of the shops, stop in at the village tourism office (website) to borrow a map or arrange a moto or just have a chat.

The temple is ruined - and still being ruined. (I was quite shocked to hear archaeologist Olivier Cunin, in a fascinating presentation on reconstructing the temple, show a photograph of quite recent work there - and another showing how a couple of years later, an entire tower had been demolished by the fall of a great tree.) On one side, workers are gradually piecing together the fallen reliefs of the outside gallery; elsewhere, you have to hop the tumbled blocks to find, in one place, a nose, or a single thick curling lip, or an elegant almond shaped eye. In one place I nearly trod on a small Buddha, staring up at me from a fallen lintel. From some of the towers, the serious face of Jayavarman regards you; in one, scattered incense sticks and a packet of matches bore witness that this is still a living temple, though its heartbeat has slowed so far it's hardly audible.

My next plan was to visit Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan Kompong Svay, and Prasat Preah Vihear - bagging three temples in a three-day visit. First, bus to Kompong Thom; that was easy, it's on the route to Phnom Penh. I knew I could hire a moto from Kompong Thom to Preah Khan; but getting to Preah Vihear was the missing link.

Fortunately, as soon as I arrived in Kompong Thom I was met by a friendly English-speaking moto driver, and we worked out a plan; he could get me to the main road past Preah Khan, and flag down a bus or a share taxi going north.

Sambor Prei Kuk has a very different feeling from Angkorian ruins; it feels more Indian, somehow, more intimate, more spontaneous - small brick spires rising in clearings in the forest. Warm brick colours; orange and red. Carvings of temples hanging in the air, of gods too eroded to be identifiable. Sandy tracks through the trees. You can see what Angkor grew out of - the square compounds with their long, low walls, the shape of the spires, the staircase-guarding lions - and yet this is different; lower key, happier.

In the golden light of afternoon, we motored along the Sen river, passing fishermen standing to haul their nets through the water, past sandbanks and low ochre cliffs, to a raft which ferried three motorbikes and four people over the river to a temple built like a boat where fat golden Buddhas crewed the poop deck, and smaller boat-shrines clustered round like a Buddhist armada. Then at last through flat fields to Phnom Santuk on its hill - not high, but visible from everywhere in this flat land of rice paddy and river marsh, where I climbed the eight hundred steps to the top, and a boy monk, a dead bird dangling from one hand, showed me reclining Buddhas under the cliffs' overhang, and chased away the monkeys with gleeful, raucous yells. From a bald dome of rock I looked out to the dusty plain and the slow meanders of the river, misty silver in the near sunset.

You start early in Cambodia if you want to get anywhere; six the next morning saw me already on the pillion, rucksack stowed in the front well of the moped, three shirts one under the other keeping the worst of the morning chill off. Then it was hours of red dirt road, and dust everywhere; my clothes orange with it, my hands sweating orange, my eyelashes crusted with orange sand. Long, straight, level roads, interminable, where as soon as you got up speed, there would be a bridge, with a sudden ramp , two or three inches above the road, that you hit with a bang; or there would be a truck going the other way, raising a cloud  of dust in which the road suddenly disappeared. Or there would be a corner that you hadn't expected, or a herd of cows being taken to graze, and one would suddenly take it into its head to trot in front of us.

Preah Khan is a strange experience.The great bridge is half fallen in, though beaky Garudas still line its sides; the central tower has collapsed, the side towers are partly fallen, the trailing, rambling weeds seem to be taking back the temple. Yet the entrance gopura stands proud, despite the tree that forms one side of the central gate; and apsaras smile knowingly from dark recesses. I was alone with this jigsaw puzzle of randomly scattered stones, and the ghosts of a temple city whose shadow I could dimly see in what was left.

There are smaller temples here, too; one of Jayavarman VII, with his face on one of the towers; I scrambled up on the roof of a half-fallen gallery till I could reach up and nearly touch it, and then lost my nerve, too far from the ground; and a strange small pyramid, guarded by elephants at the corners and graceful apsaras at the gates, where men were sitting playing cards on the terrace at the top, and the waters of the great Baray - three kilometres from end to end - shimmer in the heat.

But there was one temple missing; the Mebon, the temple in the middle of the baray. We set out to find it; down a steep slope, on tiny dirt paths through the woods and through dug fields, turning and twisting on muddy ground that once lay under the waters of the great lake. When the ground started to rise again, I realised we had come to the island; and there, half hidden by immense trees, was a wall, and beyond the wall, the spire of a temple. Huge garuda birds stretched their wings across the side walls; carved elephants sprayed floral waterfalls; moss-covered buddhas or deva figures sat in the shadowed corners. All abandoned, all overgrown, and yet the carving was pristine; a perfect, amazing discovery.

The rest of the day was spent heading north; my driver dropped me off on the main road north, from which it was a $5 taxi ride into Preah Vihear town, where I'd planned to stay, but I was lucky enough to get a further shared taxi to Sra Em, less a town than a sprawl of market stalls and single level houses; and lucky enough to organise a moto for 6 the next morning to get me to the mountain. (Cost of hotel: $5. Cost of meal: $5. Cost of moto: $15 there and back. Cost of a separate moto to get up the mountain: $5. Cost of bribe to get in before official opening time: $5. Cambodia is not all that cheap.)

The Dongrek mountains close off the landscape, a long dark ridge above the plain. The road up is steep, so steep I nearly slide off the back of the motorbike, so steep the engine can hardly cope, even in first gear. The bike rocks and slides as the road gives out, and we cross a slope of bare rock, pitted and cracked. And there's the first of the gopuras, half collapsed, and the great paved way upwards, towards the next gateway, and then the next, and the expanse of dark grey sky on this stormy morning.

Preah Vihear rises from the steep staircase at its foot, all the way up the mountain, the gradient decreasing as it rises; stairs give way to a long, wide paved avenue, and then there are more steps, up through three gates in a low wall that bars the way, dissipating the upwards, longitudinal thrust of the temple plan for a moment, as you go through into a courtyard, with small temple or library wings on each side. Then the path starts again; and on to the third of the gopuras - and then the fourth - and finally, steps rise up to the small courtyard at the top, with low, narrow cloisters around it, and a half-collapsed spired temple rising in the middle. It must be half a kilometre from the bottom to the top - just glance at the plan and you see how strung out Preah Vihear is, that it's the huge staircase and esplanade that give the monument its entire character - yet every time you approach one of the gopuras, that impulse is lost in the horizontality, the expansion of those walls to either side, the courtyards and tiny rooms and corridors that run counter to your movement. It's so different from the neat and tidy mandalas of the Angkor temples, concentric squares within squares; it's long and strung out, and wild, too, with a cold wind blowing.

And then, behind the topmost courtyard, there's a space of bare rock, and a cliff that drops suddenly away, all the way down to the plain, glittering in the early sunlight, hazy in the muggy noon. Turn around, and you can see back to the plains of Thailand, separated by only a few hundred yards from the start of the temple stairs. There's nothing higher than I am, on this prow of stone; the trees below are stunted.

It's an uneasy place, this temple that clings to the mountain slope; along the old pilgrim stairs to the east, there are sandbagged bunkers, and bullet holes pock the walls of the lower gopuras, and signs warn of landmines if you stray from the path. Did pilgrims here always feel so endangered, I wonder, on the exposed, steep  stairway that led up from the jungle, where now, new wooden steps take seven or eight twists of serpentine complexity to go as far as a single straight flight of steep steps did so many centuries ago?

It warms up later. A group of Cambodian tourists arrive, little girls playing grandmother's footsteps on the massive slabs of the path, men in straw hats, a little boy who throws his toy truck at the ground again and again. I can't work out whether he's laughing or screaming. A soldier starts singing, his round face happy. War's not breaking out today, that's for sure.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A rose by any other name

I'm on a Thai train. I think I know where it goes.

But the announcement doesn't help. Krung Thep. Where the hell is that?

It turns out to be Bangkok. Only we call it Bangkok, and the Thais call it Krung Thep, which is the same as Los Angeles - "city of angels". I'm glad that Krung Thep is actually where I wanted to go, even if I didn't know it.

But the past masters of multiple naming are the Khmers. And while there's a good reason for the Bangkok/Krung Thep double naming - Bangkok may have been a local nickname, but was adopted by foreigners, while to the Thais the city has always been Krung Thep, a title it inherited from the kingdom's previous capital at Ayuttaya - I can't find out why on earth some Cambodian towns have as many as four different names.

For instance, Sisophon. This is the jumping-off point for the massive, abandoned Khmer temple of Banteay Chhmar, so it was definitely where I wanted to get off the Poipet bus. Problem; I never saw a single road sign for Sisophon. It's referred to on the road signs as Banteay Meanchey, which it isn't - it happens to be the capital, but Banteay Meanchey, properly speaking, is the province. (Imagine if all the road signs to Birmingham simply said 'West Midlands'.) Its proper name, apparently, is Svay Sisophon, or Serei Saophoan.

That's why I ended up nearly in Poipet before I queried whether the bus driver had missed my stop. And despite the fact that he'd been deeply amazed at the very idea of a foreigner wanting to go to Sisophon at all, he'd completely forgotten to drop me off. Screeching to a halt, he jumped out of the bus, ran across the road, and flagged down a bus coming in the other direction to get me back to the place I thought I was going to. A fairly normal fuck-up for Cambodia.

Then there's Preah Khan, another huge Khmer temple in the middle of jungle -  a fascinating ruin, though unfortunately the central structure collapsed after modern-day tomb-robbers used bulldozers and pneumatic drills to steal most of its sculptures. It's not to be confused with the Preah Khan temple at Angkor. Scholars refer to Preah Khan (the jungle one) as Bakan Svay Rolay; in Siem Reap, to distinguish it from the Angkor temple, it's called Preah Khan Kompong Svay (Kompong Svay being the name of the administative district in which it's found); and locals call it Prasat Bakan, or so I've been told (though my information was from Kompong Thom, a good few hours away by motorbike).

Prasat Preah Vihear isn't easily confused with any other temples, though it has a double name by virtue of its site on the Cambodia/Thai border, the Thais calling it Khao Phra Wiharn. But it is confused with a town 110 kilometres away. Tbeng Meanchey has a perfectly good name of its own, but it's more often known as Preah Vihear. (Like Sisophon, it seems to have taken the name of its province as its own. So there's still more confusion, as you never know whether someone is talking about the town or the province when they say a place is 'in' Preah Vihear.)

So; a warning if you're heading to south-east Asia. Just because is a place is called one thing, doesn't necessarily mean it's not called something else.