Stockholm Syndrome****


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In a world blighted by walls, at last a city blessed with bridges. Copenhagen is a city of fourteen islands, threaded together by a network of bridges

So the water (part lake, part sea) that links them is a very active place. Small craft, large yachts, tourist clippers, dinghies, canoes. You name it. (A long way away from ferocious Viking craft!)

Here’s one beautifully recovered ruin: the Vasa, an early 17th century vessel that sank on its maiden voyage (because they crammed more guns on it than it could balance. Tells you something either about guns or balance)

But marine engines use some of the dirtiest oils. Hmm. Not so eco-Sweden as we’d expect. At least cars are as rare as traffic jams. Instead, you’ll find buses, trams, bicycles…

and these weird electric scooters

Each island (based on our visit of about three!) seems to have its own national character, from the government and historic centre of Gamla Stan to the boring town centre (Norrmalm) to Djurgarden which is one huge museum

And Fjaderholmarna (easily accessible after a 25 minute boat ride) where the Swedes all flock to on a sunny day to inhale their annual limit of vitamin D (and where others can enjoy good food with great views). Swedes seem to come in two sizes: the too many beers for too many years. And goddesses fed on Absolut ambrosia

Even on the mainland you can bump into little beaches like this one. We were in search of lunch and a drink. On a Monday. Spectacular failure.

Easy cruising past the houses that grace the banks of the lake. The Swedish version of social housing. Not.

Copenhagen has a very distinct colour palette. The buildings are pretty much all yellow ochre, with red wooden panels and black roofs. It makes for very easy paint stocking in the shops. It’s indoors where they go wild. Light yellow ochre. Sometimes even white walls. These crazy Swedes

And art is everywhere. Every corner has something that’ll make you stop and wonder just what has this place done to seem to have gotten “it” (the safety, the cleanliness, the nice bars and good food, the social services) so right.

No wonder we’ve got Stockholm syndrome

 

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THE GAMBIA*** Two Worlds to Choose


THE GAMBIA, IN West Africa, is a narrow slab of country that follows the easterly path of the mighty Gambia river for about three hundred miles. Other than its wide Atlantic coast side, it is entirely embraced by Senegal with whom there is an easy flow of people and trade (These artificial borders cannot contain tribal bonds)
It’s the continent’s smallest country, and on a whim my wife and I, madcap young things both, went there.

Was it worth it? Sure. Here are ten good reasons why.

#1
It’s hot
Primarily, it’s February and we live in England (And it’s a lot cheaper than going anywhere else). ‘Nuff said. Temperatures here vary dramatically from a cool 16 in the early mornings, to a searing 35 by early afternoon. Walk slow and carry water!

#2.
Roots

Just under five hundred years ago, in a small, sand blighted town (Albreda) on the North bank of said Gambia river, ever-warring natives stood in awe as a large Portuguese caravel sailed into town. This was in 1526. The Portuguese colony of Brazil had run out of hapless natives to feed into the maw of its new sugar refineries and the captain of the caravel was on a mission to find replacements.

And so, in this cursed village, the Atlantic slave trade began.

It would last for over three hundred years, during which time about ten million Africans passed through sad, blood soaked towns like this, up and down the West Coast of Africa.

About four million died on the route over. But Europe got rich. Yay.

Albreda and its neighboring town, Juffureh were made famous by the wonderful inventiveness of Alex Haley, as the birthplace of one Kunta Kinteh (a claim not borne out by fact).

There’s a little island in the middle of the river where the newly bartered slaves were held, awaiting shipment to the cane, cotton and tobacco fields of the new world. This was St. James Island, proudly renamed Kunta Kinteh Island.

It still boasts the ruins of the small fort with its dank dungeon and corroded cannon. And on the mainland there are the ruins of the first church built in Africa (Catholicism and slavery have always gone hand in hand).

But the visiting tourist needs large dollops of imagination to flesh out the horror of the place. For beyond these scars of history, there are only a scatter of desolate, tired, thatched buildings and a small sparse museum, with a cracked vitrine with rusting chains offering testimony to the Slave trade.

The dreariness of the place is in stark contrast to the hoards of eager, gamboling, smiling children who are everywhere. They are the visible proof of the country’s inane boast as “The Smiling Face of Africa”. Their fate, ironically, would be less fortunate than that of their enslaved ancestors.

Fifty years after independence, the place still remains scarred by its colonial past. The Brits came soon after the Portuguese and they took and took and took, as their Empire ever on the take tended to do, leaving the Gambia a place that’s been well and truly taken. But you can choose to ignore this world and enjoy the warmth of the people and the place and believe in the narrative of the Smiling Face

And on the long slow boat ride back to Banjul (the country’s capital) the gloom was lifted by the sight of pods of dolphins playfully racing our boat.

#3.
It’s safe

We were repeatedly told by everyone here that we’d be safe wherever we went. And we were…never for a moment felt threatened. It meant we could boldly go, at night, to various local bars and restaurants and worry only about finding a taxi. You probably wouldn’t do this in many Caribbean destinations; safer to stay holed up in your tourist prison.

Safe also from dengue carrying mosquitoes or irritating sandflies. The only itch is to have a drink. Safe however doesn’t mean free from harassment. You’re constantly approached by ‘bumsters’: mainly young men who want to know your name, where you’re from and if you could give a “little something” as a donation to their school, community, their whatever.

After a day or so of politeness, the harder edge of “No. goodbye” emerges

#4.
Calypso

No, not the music, it’s a bar/restaurant situated in an area called Cape Point where the tables are ensconced in their own thatched areas, so you can sit idly by its large crocodile pond, mesmerized by the strutting egrets and the swooping terns. The pond seems to have enough fish for everyone, including those terns whose entire days seem to be the repeated pattern of circle and swoop, circle and swoop. The restaurant’s food is neither here nor there, but the choice of booze is great (There’s no government tax on alcohol in Gambia, so it’s cheap to be cheerful)

#5.
Paradise Beach

We’re not big beach people…all that sweaty prostration before the bronzing sun seems more effort than’s worth a tan. But the available beach chairs that front any of the many beach bar/restaurants are free. For a small fee, attendants will erect shady umbrellas and wait-staff are ever at hand for food, drink, maybe other things. GMT here means Gambian Maybe Time. It’s an accurate enough term for the hours of lazy, people-watching delights this long, wide, flat, child-friendly beach offers.

Colourful Gambian women parade up and down selling baskets; turbaned kaftan-wearing men hawk startlingly ugly beach towels; horsemen gallop to and fro offering their steeds to adventurous tourists; little boys parade mobile galleries of cheap craft; mature White women stroll hand in hand with their temporary young Black lovers; and a cool breeze removes any temptation to dip in the grey Atlantic.

#6
Ngala Lodge

The Lodge (where we stayed for some of our trip) is one of the many tourist enclaves where you live in a wonderful gilded bubble of post imperial might. We could be anywhere really. It’s twenty four large, unique suites, each a mini museum of stunning African art. They sit atop a wide expanse of rolling green lawns, criss-crossed by a network of curving cockle shell pathways that lead down some wooden stairs down the rugged cliff, down to the restless sea.

The place has the reputation for offering the best food in The Gambia. It’s probably a justified reputation. But there’s hardly a trace of Gambia in its aggressively European offering. For that you need #7

#7
African Queen
This is a hopping spot on the crowded, touristy, music filled Senegambia strip. It’s THE place to hang out! African Queen is an open air, popular restaurant that’s as lively as its surroundings…with fabulous Gambian food served by friendly waitresses (They offered my wife a ‘companion’ should she grow bored with me. She refused. Whew). As with so many other enterprises, it’s Lebanese owned (The new colonists?). The local food (that we tried) is peanutty, spicy and plentiful. The rice dish – with local variants across West Africa – is jolloff rice. It’s a tomato-ey , herby, peppery small grain dish that’s fulfilling on its own. You can wash it down with hibiscus juice or Baobab punch. (Or crisp, cold, South African Sauvignon blanc).

This area of the country (the Western coast) abounds in restaurants. (Check out Boss Lady for more local fare or Seashells for fish). No starving on this holiday.

#8
Fauna

Gambia’s famous for its birdwatching. In our lodge, though there was no internet, we were surrounded by tweets. They’re over two hundred and ninety species of birds here and even if you’re not a birdwatcher (I’m not), it’s a treat to gently cruise along the oyster rich mangroves of the Gambia and await the homecoming egrets; or stroll through the garrulous bush, alive with bee eaters, darters, turacos, kingfishers, herons, sunbirds, hornbills, gulls and more.

You can also observe the tribal behavior and kinship rituals of the camera heavy bird photographer species, and their bete noirs, the notebook toting, bird type ticking ornithologists . One of this species pointed out to us an osprey, whose white leg-band – observable only through her zillion mm lens – signified its German origin (blue = Scottish; green = you get the picture). Here size really does matter. Even my fancy schmancy Nikon shriveled into Instamatic insignificance when compared with these camera cannons.

This isn’t the place for big game. Beyond birds, and a few crocs, (Green Vervet) monkeys are everywhere. And one morning our lodge was invaded by a large troupe of animated baboons, no doubt pissed off that their heritage route had been ruined by another swimming pool.

#9
Mandina Lodge

Another wealth bubble, this is a birdwatchers’ paradise, popularized by the regular visits of noted ornithologist and TV host, Chris Packham. Our Lodge was a floating cabin, with its own private balcony, moored on a tributary of the Gambia. You awoke, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of birds and splashing fish.

The Englishman who founded it told us it was designed to replicate and celebrate Gambian culture (As usual said culture was nowhere to be found in the almost exclusively European menus). But the tasteful designs seemed more Africa by way of Hollywood. The Gambia as a colonial’s Wakanda. No matter, art always makes ordinary reality far more interesting.

Here each guest is allocated a knowledgeable guide who arranges and accompanies you on your forest walks or (the more interesting) canoe or boat trips. There’s a sunset boat trip, that carries its own portable bar. It takes you up to a small island where just before the sun dips, thousands of egrets return after a long day of doing not very much.

#10
Craft

It’s everywhere. Every small village, every market, every beach has its ramshackle huts with harassed hawkers haggling over the price of their craft. Most of it is terrible: brightly varnished, simplistic wooden masks and animals shapes, mass produced by generations of squatting craftsmen. So many chips off the old blocks. But some of the stalls sold beautiful, intricately carved, ancient Malian ware. The spirit that gave us the Benin bronzes is alive and well. Elsewhere.

And yet, just a few mm deeper than the bonhomie, than the “Smiling Face of Africa”, a shadow lies. The money and the real power still seem to reside in the pockets of the White (and Chinese) community. The high and mighty are still high, still mighty, still White. The poor, still poor, still Black. Nothing’s changed. And there seems to be a growing resentment. The Trini saying goes: “all skin teeth ain’t smile”.

Colonialism may no longer arrive at the end of a bayonet, but it’s certainly here at the end of a bankbook.

 

Glorious Ireland. A Short Visit


SO, MAINLY IT rained; dull, light-absorbing veils of fine, misty rain that would occasionally belch a heavier downpour, spritzing any hope for a glorious view. It was as though the entire world had turned glaucomic. Then again, this was Ireland. And this was late September.
You takes what you gets!

And then, occasionally, announcing the ‘better’ days to come with an unexpected glare of what could be Nabokov’s “brief crack of light”, the curtains would part, and a glorious, glowingly green world of rolling pastures, calm unhurried ports and lolling cows would reveal itself to skeptical eyes. It is not the green of vernal English pastures; this is a green undercoated with bright photons of yellow and blue. The result is a singular kind of luminescence…Irish emerald.

Kinsale, our first stop, is a small pretty village that embraces a crowded armada of yachts. Too small to boast its own cinema (yikes). But large enough for the three book-jammed bookshops and a full blown literary festival. This presence of a literary love spilling out into the hurly-burly of everyday life was something we came to recognize (appreciate?) as quintessentially Irish. All that and a belly-full of tempting restaurants would deny any categorization that Kinsale is a mere tourist seaside resort. (Though from the vantage point of our holiday villa felt it very much like that)

Cinema lacking, notwithstanding, the place is rich in history. Created in 1223, it’s the site of a famous battle (of Kinsale) in 1601. Here, a mongrel army of Spanish and Irish soldiers were defeated by the English. The Spanish went back home to their tapas. And the old Gaelic culture of Ireland died on the battlefield.

But this would not be the first attempt of the Irish to wrest themselves free from their colonizers. Four hundred years later (in 1921) after sporadic battles and never giving in to the English yoke, Ireland was partitioned and became an independent republic.

Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone and mythical heart of Irish eloquence, is not far away. It’s a stunning castle hewn out of a mountain rising into a cloudy sky, framed by a necklace of blossoming flowerbeds and undulating brooks. If you’re prepared to queue for an hour and hang upside down suspended by belts, you can kiss the stone. You don’t need to. Get in to any taxi and experience the ongoing one person stand up (or sit down) routines of endlessly engaging storytellers.

Pubs, penance and palaver. Ireland in four words.

Of the surrounding towns, Clonakilty, birthplace of Michael Collins (commander in chief of the Irish Free State movement) is a pleasant, if forgettable market town. It does have one grand claim to fame though: it’s the home of world famous (they claim) Clonakilty black pudding…which certainly deserves its fame.

It is the even smaller town nearby – Timoleague – that’s more interesting. Here, legend has it, beekeeping and honey had its beginnings in Ireland. But more dramatically, this is the location of the grand, dark, ruined majesty of Timoleague Abbey. Founded in 1240 by Franciscan monks, by 1620, it was a centre of European learning; a hub of visiting philosophers. Twenty years later, Cromwellian soldiers – a rapacious nasty lot – sacked it and burned it down.
It’s not only ignorant ISIS jihadists who, fearing knowledge seek to destroy history.

The centre of the attractive city of Cork, famed for its rebels and its harbour, boasts a magnificent airy local marketplace on one side (the English market) and a fascinating art museum/opera house/theatre on the other. Food and culture. They represent one dimension of the city. But the web of stores that knit these two places together – Boots, WH Smith, Next, Top Shop, Fat Face, Starbucks, H&M etc – are another dimension; they suggest that a hundred years after the victory for independence, England and global businesses have once again colononized the place.

For all it’s attractive architecture (and there’s a gasp inducing cathedral – St. Fin Barre’s – at the far end of town) the heart of the city looks just like any other town made faceless by globalization. It is the little cobbled back streets that give it its soul.
Cork seems poised between a little city that could and a little city that could have been.

The graceful river that threads its way through the town (with the wonderful name, the Lee) is not embraced by the city; it seems more a problem to be overcome (build bridges) than an asset to be celebrated (build boardwalks). But follow it Eastward and the girdles that hem it in soon loosen and at Cobh (pronounced Cove), the river exhales into an expanse of cold clear water flowing toward the sea. It was from here that the Titanic set sail; as did almost three million citizens, bound (mostly unwillingly) for brave new worlds.

It’s a pretty little town easily reached by a short train ride.

After all those martial shadows, nice to arrive at this elegant, humming city of literature. Dublin (from the Viking, “Dyfflin”) is birthplace to Yates, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Goldsmith, Stoker, Swift, O’Keefe, Sheridan. Oh, and Bono too. An entire Eng. Lit. 101 born in a single city. The place simply reeks of culture. It must be the water…and the way they distill it here with hops and barley.

No wonder the city revels in its literary traditions. There are statues, an entire museum dedicated to its writers, murals, landmarks and, it seems, daily celebrations of its gorgeous, mellifluous reinvention of English. How nice it is to bump into a statue of Joyce and not some obscure slave-owning colonial overlord. Trinity College Dublin boasts a library that holds over 200,000 rare manuscripts including the famous Book of Kells, an illustrated bible that dates back to 800ACE. A limited edition copy is yours for a mere £22,000.

This pub-dense city is split down the middle by the River Liffey.

Each side of the divide considers their side best. The choice seems to be between the style and erudition of the South v the polyglot proletarian energy of the North. The genteel v the gritty. Of course, in this island, there are more profound North/South divides. But we won’t go there.

And, to us wandering strangers, apart from the liveliness of the touristy Temple District, there are two landmarks that seem to visualize the South: The rarefied academia of Trinity College Dublin, founded by Elizabeth I (and resolutely Protestant since then) and the hallowed Guinness brewery (attested here by this delightful park: one of the man public spaces donated and created by the Guinness Foundation), an alcoholic shrine to the black stuff

The North felt like a place of transformations: a marsh turned into a village, a church turned into a pub, a maternity hospital turned into a cinema, a cinema turned into a McDonalds, a Street turned into a boulevard…

and best of all for both North and South, a colony turned into a Republic.

 

 

 

A Passage to India


Our last visit to India was up north: Rajasthan…a place overflowing with the palaces and pomp of ancient Mughal might…cheek by jowl with squalor and crushing poverty. Now, this passage to India saw us drift south, from chic Mumbai to the green forests and calm backwaters of Kerala,where there’s obviously poverty; but we never noticed any squalor. This was a region (mainly Christian, run by the Communist Party) that felt vibrant and energized and forward thinking. The people we met were unfailingly charming.

Colonial Spain built churches and universities. Colonial Britain built post offices and railway stations. And what a glorious place this is. Formerly the Victoria Terminus. It was built in 1887 at the heyday of Imperial Raj to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The inside does not live up to the outside

Gateway to India
A beautiful, marvelously nonfunctional piece of architecture built in 1924 as an entranceway fitting the stature of the Viceroys. It simply stands there, not having to justify its existence and daring you not to be awed (at the beautiful folly of it all)


In these concrete troughs, 27 families control all the hotel and hospital washing of Mumbai. Here your clothes are attacked with uncommon vigor (all dirt, stains and smells flee in terror) and then ironed with lead heavy irons heated by burning coconut husks.

 

During its period of maritime adventurism, around the fourteen hundreds, the Chinese (whose navy at the time exceeded 3500 vessels) came to Kochi. They found nothing they could possible want. But left an unique style of fishing. These nets are slowly lowered and the fish easily scooped out. Though when I helped pull up the net, we only netted a few sad specimens, too tired to escape. Later via Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese arrived, and took everything they could. They did however leave the recipe for vindaloo.

 

Cooled by the breezes off the Arabian Sea and shaded by a ceiling of tapestries, this is definitely not London

 

 

Thattekad
Up, away from the coast at the cooler foothills of the Western Ghat, multiple lakes and water holes framed by a dense cover of an unending forest are a great place for birdwatching.


We watched said birds. And even saw an ODKF (come on, we all know that’s the very rare Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher). But the damned birds refused to pose.


This is a common bird that hung out in the tea plantation we stayed in. In this largely dry state, we later learned to ask for booze as “Special Tea” or “Pop Water”

 

The auto equivalent of the Love Boat. No doubt

 

Munnar
From tea to shining tea. These seas of teas are everywhere. Munnar is one of three tea growing regions of India. It’s hilly and cool and where the Brits, tired of looting India, escaped the heat. White tea (absolutely tasteless) we learned is the cure for any ailment you’ve ever had or likely to get. We stocked up.

 

Periyar
The Periyar Tiger reserve is over 950 square kilometres. No tiger has been seen here in living memory. Though occasionally herds of elephant have been sighted. We saw their dung though (trained animal spotters that we are) and lots of jumping monkeys

Alleppey
The so-called Venice of India isn’t quite that, but these comfortable houseboats (called kettuvalloms…and that look like Bilbo Baggins’ river transport) that glide slowly past rice paddies and mango studded trees are a great way to chill out and spend a night. Even better when the driver locates a (barely) cold beer.

Kovalam
The beach destination for reddened, over cooked Europeans. But with a few wonderful restaurants like this one: tables perched on the breezy sea wall, built to separate the shore from the restless waves.

Trivandrum
This tiered edifice is the gopuram or gatehouse tower of Shri Padmanabhaswamy: a fabulously carved, gold plated temple. It encloses a holy sanctuary – forbidden to non Hindus – where, a few years ago, a long sealed vault (guarded by a mythic serpent) was opened. It revealed $1B worth of jewels and diamonds. Forbes feels there are $1T more wealth hidden within its many still sealed chambers. All protected by the serpent. Indiana where are you?

 

Chennai.

Crowded. Noisy. Chaotic.
Another fabulous gopuram, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple with 2000+ carvings tell of Shiva’s anger at Parvati his consort who he turned into a peacock until she learned to worship him as he deserved. He turned his girlfriend into a male animal. Not even Zeus was that mean

 

About 55k south of Chennai are a series of extraordinary rock carved monoliths in Mamallapuram (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). They date from the 7th century, many hewn from single stones. Simply awesome

One of the five Rathas (or temple chariots): a huge monolith dedicated to mythic heroes

The Shore Temple
As it says, it’s (almost) on a beach; built in the 7th century and dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu

 

A few miles north is the Tiger’ Cave: a Magnificent shrine carved into rock…part of an archaeological complex revealed to the world after the tsunami of 2004 that killed 10,000 people.

 

COPENHAGEN*****Compact, cheerful and cultured


THE FIRST THING you notice about Copenhagen, perched on the westernmost tip of Denmark, a -long-stone’s throw from Sweden, is that the pace is different. It’s not that people are any less hurried. It is after all, a major European capital. It’s just that the hurrying people are hurrying on bicycles, many of which propel large boxy containers of grinning kids on their way to school. The bicycles all seem (to my inexperienced eyes) to be solid, practical, usually well-worn vehicles. There seems to be little, if any, flash to the morning’s dash.

And it all seems spectacularly safe: the cycle lanes are wide, clearly marked, raised surfaces that, with typical Danish friendliness, suggest to passing cars they can just piss off…thank you very much. Here bikes rule. Their whirring wheels dictate the rules of the road and the rhythm of the city.

I’ve been to many bike-dense cities: Delhi, Shanghai, Pnom Penh etc. But there’s a frenzy to the rhythm of the bikes there, where every road-crossing venture feels like a challenge to chaos and an open invitation to broken limbs and cracked heads. Not so here. The pace is tempered by a sense of calm and order. People wait for the lights to change before crossing. Only we dumb tourists made so bold as to ignore the politely waiting natives and scamper across empty streets.


Perhaps because it was April and already the long winter hibernation was easing into days that stretched well into the night, everyone was cheerful. Or perhaps that was just my cynical take on a city that simply feels at ease with itself. Denmark is supposed to be the happiest place on earth, despite the cold, despite the long darkness of winter, despite the high taxes. And it feels like it. People weren’t simply polite, they were jolly. In flawless, unaccented English. The bartenders always brought us our chilled wine with warm cheer. So this is what “hygge” feels like! Once, as we sat sipping said wine, we saw a row of carefully balanced bikes clatter to the ground, blown over by a sudden gust of wind. Tough shit? No. Two men passing by stopped, picked them up, carefully steadied them and moved on. Huh? Did we just see that? It’s as though the immediate stop to help is part of Danish muscle memory.

A beautiful city with great food, stunning architecture and…Danes. This must be some sort of high point of what it means to be civilized (or maybe just a clever veneer to mask a well hidden dark side…the side we all know so well from “The Killing”)
Said “beautiful city” is a compact one, easily accessed by the many stops of the S trains (which travel mainly overland) and the Metro (A three day tourist pass costs about £25…nothing’s cheap here; though in five days we were never asked to show our tickets). It is a cultured quilt of contrasting neighborhood characters…from the bucolic residential wealth of Frederiksberg in the east, with its graceful, water-laced heron-rich parks to the bustling, curving cobbled streets of shopper bound, tourist crowded City in the center, to the dark silences of black, blank, secret, private banking Christianhavn in the west, to the youthful vibrancy of Vesterbro in the south.

The way to experience all this is by foot (after all, Stroget is the longest pedestrianized shopping street in Europe… though really not worth the visit). Copenhagen is a delightfully eclectic blend of dark seventeenth century North Renaissance architecture, churches with minaret-high towers, idiosyncratic structures (Borsen, the stock exchange is topped by a sky-piercing tower comprised of the plaited tails of four roaring dragons. Kalessi, where are you?)

reclaimed (and trendified) warehouses with their bearded baristas and cute wine bars; tall, genteel, ornament-free eighteenth century burgher’s homes (the unshowey restraint of the Lutheran sensibility is evident even in the Royal palaces) and pockets of strikingly modern architecture. Though Denmark (when it was twinned with Norway) had scattered colonial outposts, the feel of the city lacks the imperial, slave-funded pomp of places like Brussels.
   

There are parks – and flower shops- everywhere (all of which have their own extensive lake-large ponds) and the entire place, threaded by a network of waterways, is embraced by two wide canals. Some parts -Kastellet, a seventeenth century star shaped fortress surrounded by a moat, the administrative center, Christianborg Slot, and just to the West, Christianshavn – are themselves islands within the city itself. They’re all brushed by the wakes of laden sightseeing boats and monied yachts whose slow flow down the cold canals fed from the Baltic Sea, lend the city a mood of unhurried leisure. Relax. You move too fast. Gotta make the moment last.


In a world bent on building walls, here is a city of bridges.
(Indeed, just by chance, while waiting on the famous Tivoli gardens – one of the world’s most kitsch of places – to open, we wandered into the Town Hall. There, there was an exhibition of “refugee voices”: a hundred refugees were photographed and their stories documented. The exhibition offered viewers synopses of the disasters – wars, persecution, famine – from which they’d fled. Here was a city boasting of and celebrating its moral role in the acceptance of refugees. In a world of Trump, May and LePen, such sentiment seems quaint…unthinkable!)


And if all this isn’t enough, go for the new Danish cuisine (smorrebrod is sooo out!): new flavor combinations of fresh locally sourced ingredients whipped into impossibly light concoctions and topped with a drizzle of greenery that actually add taste and depth instead of a mere flourish of color. These places are expensive. Much cheaper are the bustling, buzzy, food halls and food markets, where pretty much anything from tapas to pizza to sushi (those Danish staples) to, yes, smorrebrod, are, like the wine and beer, readily on tap.


(Or, if drugs are your thing, you can groove on across the Torvegade bridge to the free state of Christiania, a hippy-esque hang out where marijuana dealers openly, and legally, solicit your custom)

So is it the food…or the drugs that make the Danes (and Copenhagen itself was voted happiest city in the world) so damned happy? According to the (no doubt, Marxist) Danes, it’s their welfare state. They’ve made the astonishing link between paying (lots of) taxes and getting in return -free- top notch education, health care, roads, public art, parks and social care. Brilliant. No wonder Neil’s Bohr (who, with Einstein, pretty much invented quantum physics) was Danish.

Now let’s hope the presence  of refugees in their midst doesn’t bring to light the hidden right of Danish noir.

Where we ate and drank (and would recommend):
Spisehuset: it’s a small, intimate restaurant run by the bearded chef/owner and two others. A very friendly place, located in an obscure alley in the old side of the Meatpacking area (Kodbyen). There’s a price fixe menu (300k)…everything’s good. But the desert was just this side of heaven.
Slagtehusgade 5C, Kobenhaven V

Host. A converted many layered corner house; reclaimed timber and eager, super helpful staff. Prixe Fixe (300k or 450k). Features an extraordinary artichoke froth topped with caviar.
Norre Farimagsgade 41.

Brod. Reputed (deservedly) for offering the best (fresh from the oven, delicately, crumblingly delicious) Danish pastries. An absolute breakfast must. Open from 7
Enghave Pl 7

Kanalens. Here there’s a choice between prixe fixe (400k) or a la carte. Superb food and service and an outstanding location (on Christiania) on a finger of water opposite a lovely, moored schooner.
Wilder Plads 2

(This area – Christiania- boasts a number of great looking restaurants: cafe Wilder -where we had excellent Cosmos- is at Wildersgade 56 and just opposite, Sankt Annae 8)

The food markets at Papioren (Paper Island on Christianshavn) and off Norreport S station are “must go” places. Share a table or a counter and join the happy fellow eaters.

Drink:
Granola is by day a breakfast place that, magically transforms itself into a cosy cocktail lounge, offering a tempting range of cocktails.
Vaernedamsvej 5, Frederiksberg

Jo-Jo’s Social: good for a quick mid morning break for bubbly. Landemaerket 7, Kobenhaven C

Stemple: in Vesterbro, if you happen to be staying in this trendy district. Airy, relaxed and friendly
Enghave Pl 2

 

el PORTIL. A brief holiday in Spain


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El Portil

Go West from Seville, a scant 50km from Portugal and you’ll find, wedged up against an endless stretch of a flat sunny beach, a whisper of a town: el Portil. It’s one of the many conurbations dotted along the long bank where the Rio Piedras, barely separated from it by a thin finger of sand, merges into the Bay of Cadiz. The town, like its twins, Nuevo Portil, el Rompido , Isla Christina and dozens more, is not much more than a sprawl of tourist apartments, townhouses and villas bracketed by a golf course at one end and a trace of a town centre at the other.

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There are a few restaurants, a few bars, a few farmacias and a few small supermarkets. When we were there, at the end of September, a few weeks after the season had ended, there were hardly any people. Where do all the restaurant waiters, the chefs, the bartenders, the sellers of trinkets go when the season dies and all the (mainly Spanish) visitors have migrated back to homes and jobs and cares? To some, this end of season silence would be dreary. Where’s the buzz, the bronzed beach-bound bodies (there were still a few casually naked in Fashion Beach), the clatter of tapas in crowded bars? To us, despite the inconvenience of closed restaurants and the often bizarre opening times of supermarkets (Carrefour closed from 2:30-5:30 on a Friday???), the quiet beaches and traffic free roads slumbering under perfect blue skies without a trace of rain, was a treat.

For buzz, further West there’s el Rompido. This is also a mainly tourist town, but there, the draw is it’s large, bustling, marina and its small fishing fleet. There are lighthouses; there’s even a church. Whereas el Portil’s few restaurants are all well away from the water; in el Rompido, they all seem to cling to the beach like barnacles. The one we ate in was, like most of them, crowded, lively, jolly and child-friendly. The cuisine was also tasty but fairly rudimentary. Maybe it’s the season…but I think I can find better Spanish fare in Brixton.
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The big town in the region is Huelva, about 15km away.

Ah, history at last! The origins of this town go back some three thousand years to the Phoenicians. This rich historical vein, along with the Moorish charm you’ll find in the nearby cities of Seville and Cadiz is not immediately apparent, the city having been flattened by an earthquake about two hundred and seventy five years ago. So from the outskirts, it’s a pretty boring looking place: an indifferent lurch of drab industrial buildings. But the charm is still there. The place was once a company town: the main employer was the dread Rio Tinto, the (then) English mining company. The only trace of this element of this past is the Muelle: a long, curving two tiered wooden rail track, now converted into a pleasant boardwalk; it juts out into the wide mouth of the Odiel river, once the main artery of ore-gorged vessels. Now it seems to come from nowhere, and goes nowhere…hopefully not a symbol of the city’s future. The Muelle runs parallel to a long, elegant river walkway that seems to frame an entire side of the place. Here, bars, coffee shops and the gaiety of school outings add a specialness you won’t find in the architecture

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It is in the centre of town, the Plaza de las Monjas, where you’ll find the stronger traces of its Moorish past and where stands an imperious statue of Columbus, the area’s claim to fame. (Just don’t be tempted by its underground car parks, designed I think for pack animals and definitely not for large Renaults, whose wing mirrors do stick out so inconveniently)

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It was near here, just a few kilometers away (in Palos de la Frontera) that Columbus, with his discoverer’s zeal, persuaded Queen Isabella’s confessor Antonio de Marchena to lobby on his behalf. He succeeded with the Spaniards where he’d failed with the Portuguese: to get funding for his wild-eyed voyages. The Spaniards weren’t happy that their smaller neighbour to the West was making all the breakthroughs: first Henry the Navigator had pretty much invented the caravel (finally a boat whose sails allowed you to tack against the wind); then Vasco da Gama and Bartholomew Diaz were making all the exploratory headway. To los Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, Don Crístobal Colón must have seen like a blessing. And It was here in Palos that he built his ships and from here he sailed. In nearby la Rábida, there’s a nicely done reconstruction of the three caravels (so surprisingly tiny) in which he and his hundred sailors crossed the Atlantic and changed history.

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So now we’re back to the bay of Cadiz. Back to August 3, 1492 when the Nina, the Pinta  and the Santa Maria sallied forth to usher in two hundred years of Spanish supremacy…none of which is apparent here in sleepy el Portil.

Only, perhaps,  the memories of greatness linger

 

THE MIRACLE OF TUSCANY*****


 

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WE FIND IT necessary…life-enabling really, to travel to Tuscany as often as time and money can afford. This year, we travelled around the Lucca/Pisa area, snaking along the narrow streets overlooked by the shimmering ancient ochre towns nestled in distant hills and bordered by orchards of silvery olive trees and rolling vine cultivated valleys with their exclamations of green cypruses.

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We began our trip in Montemagno near Calci: a tiny speck of a village perched on the shoulder of a luscious leafy hillside through which a tributary of the Arno tumbled noisily.

After the traffic and pollution and political vitriol of London, this was a first step into what could easily be a distinctly earlier time zone. The road (there was only one) that led to our apartment in Montemagno, made more to accommodate mules, was at a stretch to accommodate our (small-ish) car. There’s a single pizzeria where everyone seems to dine; and a tiny alimentari, tightly packed with a bounty of home made fragioli, dense truffle scented wild boar salumi, jars of exotic Raghus and an enoteca of local wines.

The days ahead held no promise of abstemiousness.

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Across the way, a tenth century church, recently modernized… in the fifteenth century and now a crowded cemetery lorded it over the valley.

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And a few kilometers below us, the well-preserved shell of a monastery, still functioning after eight hundred years, white against the blue sky, was the local tourist draw.

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But this was a place less of ancient wonder, more one of (us) wandering ancients.
Lucca, where we went next, by way of a wedding in San Casciano in Val di Pesa (and a necklace of other pearls: Vicopisano, San Miniato, Greve in Chianti, Pistoia and Montecarlo) is really the place for ancient wonder.

The old heart of the city dates back to the early Roman Empire. It was here that Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassius divvied up their rule of the empire.

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But the ocular proof of Rome hardly exists, apart from the cold foundations of a villa that lie below the floor of the main cathedral. Rather, the densely packed buildings of the town embrace the rise of Christianity from the early medieval period to the late Renaissance.

Your encounter with the city starts with its massive, impregnable wall,

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watched over by the stone lions of Lombardy

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and, never to be left out, the Catholic presence of a pope. It’s so wide two cars (if they were still allowed to drive there) could easily speed along together. Now the wall – all four kilometers of it – is, for the active, a pleasant joggers route; for the rest of us, it’s a place to promenade and peer into the manicured lawns hidden at street level behind their own high walls. At its balustrades, it broadens to accommodate grassy parks with children’s swings and slides. There are benches for the weary and, for the sun-shy, avenues of arched trees provide handy cover.
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From here, up high, you can see, looming over the tiled roofs, over the wall itself, a number of towers, like periscopes, with bells ever ready to alert its citizenry to the call to prayer or outside threat.

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These towers evolved over the years from martial sentinels to erect displays of status. At its peak, there were over a hundred of these slender, crenellated aerial castles. Height was status. In these towers of power, size mattered. Today, the one that stands out most distinctly is that of the Guinigi tower: several mighty oaks top off a rooftop garden – a garden dedicated to rebirth and fertility
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Once you’re within the walls, there are no cars (apart from those of the officials or of the hopelessly lost) So, it’s a walking city.
And everywhere you walk, there are wonders to gawk at: from the stunning little Romanesque churches, built with few windows (an inward facing church, defensive against the memory of a hostile Pagan world)

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to the grand lofty cathedrals and churches that dominate the many squares. DSC_1097

Narrow streets (mainly of fashion shops) meander past the dozens of town piazzas, most with their own churches and clutter of cafes, like urban rivers flowing into cobbled lakes.

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Beyond the city, interspersed amidst the hundreds of wine and olive oil producing frattorias are a ghetto of 17c and 18c villas; palaces really…vast, elegant buildings set like jewels in jasmine-fragrant beds of ornamental gardens, lovingly tendered by an army of serfs. The word is not loosely chosen. Many of these priceless palaces – Villas Reale, Torrigiani, Mansi etc. are still in the hands of their original eighteenth century owners.

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Wars came and went, fortunes rose and fell, the bitter enmities between Lucca and Pisa and Florence dissolved into a united Italy, but the same rich, regal aristocrats remained. To the manor born they were and will forever be…a class way above vulgar distinctions of class.

Just about 20km south of Lucca is the larger, equally stunning town of Pisa, once a powerful Saracen-conquering maritime power and center of silk manufacture. This is of course the home of the famous leaning tower, which is its blessing (who hasn’t heard to the leaning tower of Pisa?) and its curse: Pisa is so much more than a leaning tower.
But what a tower.
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Designed by one Bonanno Pisano, construction was begun in 1173 and finished (like pretty much all the major buildings in the region) two hundred years later. Time moved at a different pace then. You see it (the tower that is, not time) as you enter the city; closer than you’d think; bigger than you’d imagined and leaning over so far, you wonder what invisible hand continues to hold it up. It was from the top of this tower that Pisa’s most famous son – Galileo – dropped off a stone in his ‘discovery’ of gravity. Weirdly enough, when you look at the tower through a camera lens, it seems less tilted than it is, as though the camera is succeeding in correcting what multiple experts had failed to do.

Maybe they’d all thought fixing it would be a Pisa cake.

The tower is part of a complex of glistening eleventh and twelfth century marble buildings – the Plaza of Miracles. At one end is a circular, echoing, vaulted baptistery within whose walls secret curving staircases lead you to a viewers’ balcony above.
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And, sandwiched between this and the Tower is the city’s dominant cathedral – the Duomo Cattedrale Santa Maria Assunta – laid out in the shape of a Latin cross and decorated throughout with tapestries, paintings and bronzes depicting the life of the Christ. Images to learn from and to pray to…visual expressions of the Catholic mythology.
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For most visitors, this is Pisa. And that’s it. A few quick poses ‘holding’ up the tower and they’re back on their buses to Tuscany’s more famous city – Florence.

They’re missing a lot.
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The curving Arno, once the superhighway of its maritime might and flanked by the apartments and palaces of Renaissance big wigs (including a Medici mansion) slices the city in two. On the one side, up one of its web of Medieval alleyways is the Piazza dei Cavalieri, built to celebrate the importance and potency of the grand dukes of Tuscany.

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And on the other side of the Arno sits the comparative simplicity of a tiny densely carved Gothic church – Santa Maria Della Spina – that was reputed to have contained one of the thorns from His crown.
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The two fundamental sides of our universe: Power and religion. Battles and belief. War and God. Money and miracles. Then as now forever twinned like love and marriage.

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That said, here, in this region lies peace, not war. Here is where the calm that descends… among these rolling hills, these ochre walls, these ancient places of worship ever echoing with their bells of communion and susurrations of the Pater Noster, these unlabeled bottles of crisp delicate wines, these flashes of hill conquering cyclists, these limitless Bella vistas…

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