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.
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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
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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.
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(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.
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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
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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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HAVANA. At the edge of history


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HAVANA

IN A REGION where, through indifference or greed, history has been obliterated, here history resides. As though, deprived of trade, discarded by the Russians and demonized by the Americans, history kept them warm. Here, there’s more than a pride in the past, there’s a deep, proud sense of identity that has lead to an embrace, a cherishing of their roots as a nation.

It’s no abstract sense of history. History is very physically here; there’s even an office of the city historian. But more of that later. Let’s start where the city ends: at the Malecón facing the Gulf of Mexico, a hundred miles from Florida.

The Malecón is a long, curving sea wall; an esplanade that embraces five miles of Havana which at high tide, stands up to the relentless blast of the gulf’s thundering Atlantic. Near one end, an ancient, thick walled fortress, the moro, bristling with rust-veined canon faces outward, ever scouring the sea for the threat of incoming galleons. There are none to be seen, and even on the clearest of days when the sea is flat and benign and the eye seems to see forever, what is apparent is what’s not there: maritime activity. It’s noticeably absent. The galleons are long gone. As is everything else. Nowhere are the flotillas of pleasure craft – the yachts and power boats and rowing boats and dinghies – that skim (you could say clutter) the seas of every other Caribbean port.

On the one hand, this lends a layer of peacefulness to the place: the only sounds you hear beyond that of the shushing sea are the salsas of strolling troubadours. On the other hand, there’s a feeling both of emptiness and of dread. As though beyond this wall, no man must venture. For the wall is more than a defense against tidal surges. It is more than a boundary. It is more like a barrier, the place where any longing look north may well be a look of treason. For those hidden watchers nestled in their slit-eyed turrets of the moro now scour not for Spanish galleons but for those who have the temerity to flee. The lingering lovers and ambling paisanos know that one step beyond here will turn them into exiles, illegal refugees from the revolution, from history itself.

So, no point asking “where have all the boats gone?” Those few with licenses are out fishing somewhere over the rainbow; the rest are rotting in Miami ports.

Turn away from the wall to the glorious city of Havana and there’s another kind of peacefulness: it’s the absence of sirens. As any big city resident will attest, the wail of urgent sirens muscling their way through traffic, demanding deference is a noisy aggravation we all have to tolerate. It’s either the sound of crimes foiled and lives saved or just the aural pollution that shouts “what police can do”, as one Reggae singer sang. Here in Havana, this layer of sound does not exist. Are there no crimes that demands urgent action? Has criminal activity been socialized out of its citizenry? And just where are all the police in this police state? Nowhere to be seen. But far away, when you venture out into the countryside, a few vigilant souls guard the city at the scattered police checkpoints dotted along the many empty highways that link the island.

Havana itself is a city of many barrios, each with a distinct character and personality. We stayed in Old Havana and Vedado – where the Marecón ends – a slightly more residential part of the sprawling city. The similarity they both share is that in these two parts of the city, a people proud of its history, is in the process of rebuilding its past. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. So it is in Havana – a world heritage site- where the steady flow of tourist euros (soon tourist dollars) is helping to turn pride into substance. And what is emerging out of the dust and rubble of poverty is a city that, like its people, has survived and managed to overcome fifty years of American embargo.

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As the many billboards proclaim, “Venceremos”: we shall overcome. This is what history looks like.

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And the centre of it all – the old historic centre – has the solid, colonnaded elegance of Colonial Spain (apart from an incongruous mini Parthenon – el Templete – built to celebrate the founding of the city in 1515). Here, streets upon streets of graceful gentility are now carefully curated by their socialist owners. Heavy wooden doors open up to bright airy flower filled courtyards; wrought iron balconies peer down on the cobblestones below; pre-Batista era bars, all boasting of some link to Hemmingway, long and curved and glowing with golden rums, beckon. These charming old buildings, many with metal plaques offering (dull) potted histories of their storied pasts remind you of parts of Polanco in Mexico City. The only difference is that these are (mostly) either government offices or part of the growing tourism infrastructure (hotels, approved restaurants, cultural centers). The uneasy balance between state control and nascent private enterprise hasn’t quite tipped toward private enterprise as yet… so individuality and flair remain subdued beneath the guiding hand of the State and the office of the powerful City Historian.

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The interesting places are the paladares: restaurants and bars owned and run by locals freed from government dictates. We ate at quite a few of these, often quirky, interesting spots: old homes that locals with enough cash (or contacts) had managed to transform into expensive and almost exclusively tourist eateries. At these, the food was good. But by and large, perhaps as a result of chronic shortages, Cuban food sucks. Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans) is the oft-repeated staple, accompanied by dry, tasteless overdone meat and a gratuitous throw of wilted greens. Based on our choices, the comida típica is a dull, unimaginative and tasteless protein delivery mechanism. What a disappointment for a country in a region whose food is such a heady mix of Spanish, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, African and English. In Cuba, it’s just those damned Moors and Christians, two groups that never worked well together.

At least Cuba offers that other combination that works very well together: rum and cigars. The range of rums offered by Havana Club, all aged to golden perfection, is inspiring. Bacardi will fight tooth and nail to keep it out. And the cigars, their wide leaves drying in large cool thatched barns out in the green valleys of places like Viñales are an old fashioned retro delight.

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But what the place lacked in good food, it made up for in music. Musicians abounded. From large sextets of ageing professionals, as old and gnarled as the buildings to trios of young pretty women with perfect teeth and manufactured smiles. The music was everywhere, bubbling out of ancient jalousies, jammin’ on the sidewalks, in near every restaurant (to compensate for the food), on perilous verandahs, and squeezed into narrow spaces between diners and kitchens. Of course most of the music is repetitive (Company Segundo’s break out hit, “Chan Chan” is the Moros y Cristianos of Cuban music) and rehearsed for tourist ears; though I wonder how many of these tourists will see past the annoying familiarity of the love song, “Guantanamera” and know that, ironically, it refers to a woman of Guantanamo. Yes, that Guantanamo.

The old city is fairly compact and manageable. But to get farther beyond, you need public transport. And that is an adventure in itself. We’ve all heard about the fleets of fastidiously maintained 40’s and 50’s cars. But it’s quite a sight to actually see them: all those glistening deSotos and winged Studebakers and Dodges with their shining chrome ornaments. Some of them were quite clearly not roadworthy and managed to move forward held together with nothing more than spit and many a prayer. Others were carefully preserved classics: transportation that was there to transport eager tourists back to a bygone age.

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We took our lives in our hands and went about in a taxi that was nothing more than a three-wheeler motorbike covered with a flimsy shell. But anything that could move worked: taxi bikes were always in demand. These are strange elongated constructs – a mix of rickshaw and bike. We also saw chariots that would not be out of place in “Gladiator” and of course horses which their caballeros still wove between the cars.

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But what of the real Cubans? It’s easy for us who would soon return to a world without shortages – of salt or rice or flour – or brown outs or empty pharmacies or taps that dry to a trickle in the middle of a shower. Easy for us to find this all exotic and charming, but once past the façade of the city rising like a Phoenix, what do the Cubans think? Where do they live? What do they think of these tourists with their seeming limitless cash? The few that we met were engaging and well informed. They were eager about the new rapprochement and were enthused about the hard cash the tourist trade was generating. And as for the many we saw rushing about, their lives seemed stylish and animated; there were no obvious signs of poverty.

We saw less art than we should have done; but what we did see (fleetingly as if through the windows of a speeding train) would not be out of place in the Tate Modern: thoughtful, philosophically dense, challenging works. And there were certainly bookshops aplenty. Perhaps the chronic shortages have simply been shrugged off. Poverty is real, but it’s also a state of mind. It’s when the embargo fully lifts…when the rice companies and the cigarette companies and the big Macs and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ride into town… that perhaps is when the real problems may well begin

Adoration of the Mystic Ghent


Along the reflective Lys

Along the reflective Lys

The historic heart of Ghent is a slender, Medieval girdle, stretching no further than a few roads beyond its embrace of the twin rivers, the Leie or Lys and the Scheldt. It is these two rivers that gave the city its riches, its raison d’etre and its –original- name: Ganda, a Celtic word for confluence. The Leie once brought the thriving wool business to Ghent and made it the largest and richest city of the Middle Ages after Paris. It – the river – now enjoys a less active life in its ripe middle age as it meanders forgetfully through the city, past the magnificent Graslei – the well restored, well loved cluster of sienna brown administrative offices and guild halls, all with their tall crenelated facades, with tops of tapering steps that lead up to nowhere.

The city’s munificence is mirrored, golden in the glassy surface of the river’s loving gaze. It’s as though, in case you hadn’t fully gasped at the city’s preserved elegance, its sense of historic might, the river was there it offer it up to you again – the upside down reflection of what life must have been when burgers with enough wealth to guarantee God’s remission of sins, strutted the teeming boardwalk.

It is along this river with its estuaries and canals, as brief as parentheses, with its stollers’ pathways and it slow tourist craft, offering up its panoramas like film strips viewed through tightly closed windows, that the city’s many faces greet the world. For beyond the pomp of the Graseli, as you pass beneath the beat of its many bridges, the innocuous fronts of shops and restaurants on the main roads conceal river facings that offer the kind of singular charm that you can only get from, say, a silent balcony, with table setting for two, cantilevered onto the tide, steeped in the grace of hosting six hundred years of river-mesmerized diners; or a small boat moored at the base of steps that disappear into a dark tunnel, a labyrinth that steals away from winter.

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Noticeably there are almost no trees in the wintry city. For all its beauty, its umber walls and gold-lit interiors are nowhere graced with green. There must clearly have been an ontological divide: the city was a place of commerce, Catholicism and community in which there was really no place for nature… which (if you wanted it) was found in abundance just without. This city/country combination was probably started in London, where, after the great fire, it slowly recreated itself over the next century or so as a paradise of parks and leafy enclaves. Emperor Napoleon III so admired this side of London (he lived there during ‘the troubles’) that he too re-crafted modern Paris into the city of parks and tree-lined boulevards we all so love.

In Ghent it is the ever-varying light that lifts the brick and tiles of the buildings into warmth and into distinct and changeable personalities. For it is the light that varies the world ahead offering change to the unchanging edifices. At this low tourism time of our visit, this late November time when the weather is mean, cold and dark and the days slip through your fingers like money in this expensive town, one day’s brilliantly bronzed dawn quickly becomes another day’s lingering mist. Eliot’s “yellow fog that runs its back upon the window-panes [and licks] its tongue into the corners of the evening,” finds its place here.

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It was probably on an evening just like this one, when people walked in shadows and all light was atomized into photons of greyness that a couple of monks bundled the twelve large wooden panels of the city’s most famous art-work, the van Eyck brothers’ “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” into a hidden donkey cart. The panels, as heavy as elephants, were wrapped carefully in thick, swaddling cloths, but they must nevertheless have rattled so, as they shook along the street’s uneven cobbles, stealing away from the acquisitive lust of the stalking Nazis, intent upon their fuhrer’s command. Not only did he want the piece for his vast and growing collection of stolen art, but, guided by a small coterie of what can only be described as ‘unique visionaries’, he knew that the richly coded painting contained the secrets that would lead him to the arc of the covenant and thence on to Aryan victory.

Indiana Jones, we’ll never laugh at you again.

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The painting was saved (it had only been stolen eight times before) and is now on view at its host cathedral: the Cathedral of St. Bavo, which, like everything else in this city, has a variety of names. So when you’re searching for it along the church cluttered avenues, St. Bavo is also referred to as Sint-Baafs which morphs into Sint Baafskathedral. It’s large and labyrinthine enough to justify such a scatter of names, as I guess you’d expect of any place begun in 942, and added to for the next five hundred years.

Tucked into a small chapel just near the entrance to the cathedral, past a locked door, protected by a ticket booth that would not be out of place in front of a cheap cinema, stands this so desired treasure.

And what a treasure it is: begun in about 1430 by Hubert van Eyck and finished several years after his death by (the more famous of the two brothers,) Jan, the painting features over a hundred and fourty people: saints, popes, hermits, martyrs, righteous judges, a full angelic choir, not to mention God, Joseph, and Mary; Adam is there along with Eve, coyly hiding their nakedness, Caine and Able are poised for the first homicide, even Jan himself is there on a horse, sneaking a peek at us and buried under a cumbersome turban. Now this amount of people is a big deal. Though panel paintings were generally low in the pecking order compared with the artworks that really mattered to the gentry with the cash: tapestries, illustrated books, bejeweled ornaments and objects, and statues, this one must have cost its sponsors, Joos Vidj and his wife Elisabeth Borluut, a fortune (though a small price to pay for entry into the Pearly gates). This merchant class, mercantile culture appraised its artworks pretty much on the same yardstick they appraised, say cloth. If one was appraised by the yard, the other was appraised by the head. And this one had lots of them. Which may have been why, counseled by a team of academics and theologians so that the opaque world of symbolic references was right, the van Eyck brothers, noted portrait artists, using that radically new technique of oil paints, were selected. For this is essentially a portrait painting of God, along with His greatest hits – the annunciation and the Eucharist.

The painting was executed with such delicacy and care (bridging the perceptual with the conceptual) that the crown at God’s feet (symbolizing that He was king of kings and above all other terrestrial kingdoms) was painted with gold leaf pounded so thinly that van Eyck had to levitate it onto the canvas using the static electricity of a brush he’d rub in his hair.

statue of the van Eyck brothers with groupies

statue of the van Eyck brothers with groupies

It’s all there. Almost. All there but for the praedella – a kind of skirt that would have comprised maybe four more panels and that showed the counterpart to all this glorious redemption: hell. Some over eager priest removed the praedella in about 1540 to clean it. And it’s never been seen since.

Of course all this culture can be tiring; and there’s no city that’s nicer to be tired in than Ghent. Belgium is beer country and bars frequently boast hundreds of choices (which must make stock-keeping a nightmare). Since we’re not big beer folks, there were two bars that leaned in more heavily on cocktails that we visited frequently on our brief four-day visit (which is just about right): Bar Apotheque, where the mixologist concocted us a brew of Triple Sec, lemon syrup, a Campari-type liquor and wine. Soon enough I intend to replicate its magic a casa. The other bar is called Club Reserva, which boasts of being a live jazz bar and which once in the fog of the past, was the location of a woman’s place of refuge. Now it’s just a place of refuge where good drinks are offered to the sound of Billy Holliday.

And they say the best French food is to be found in Belgium. This is probably a nasty rumour spread by the Belgium tourist board (trying to divert our attention from their heinous King Leopold who initiated a slaughter of elephants for their tusks that nowadays would make him a proud man. He it was too who, egging on the slave trade in its twilight, taught the Congolese how to amputate limbs as punishment. Again, today, he’d be a proud man to see what he’s wrought).

I digress. The food is fabulous. Of note: The House of Elliot, a small, cluttered, wildly, ornately camp place that offers so many versions of lobster that if Forrest Gump had gone gay he’d love it. We did. Volta is a little way off the center (about 15 minutes of charm-free walking), and is a refreshingly young, modern, energized, hip place with great food. Call it hip haute. Finally (after all we were only there four days) there was Valentijn, a family run joint, decked out in the excruciatingly bad taste of a themed Valentine’s Day orgy: hearts everywhere, little twee frilly cushions, heart shaped candles etc. No matter. With your eyes closed, and with the soothing service of our amply endowed hostess, the service and food, like so much else in Ghent, were exceptional.

the castle of the Counts.

the castle of the Counts.

An African Safari


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THE FLIGHT FROM London to the Okavango Delta in Botswana is no short hop. It’s eleven hours down to Johannesburg (made easier, despite being in the ignominious rear of the ‘plane, by the genuine – as opposed to professional – charm of some of the flight attendants on SAA). From there, it’s onward for another ninety minutes on a smaller flight to Maun, a way-station somewhere in the middle of Botswana; and from there, on a toy aircraft, barely hovering above the tops of the trees, to our first stop at the Kanana airstrip, a flat piece of dirt, occasionally colonised by baboons.

The first thing you notice as you descend through the clouds and the night into the African dawn, is the colour of the land. For two hours as we flew across the seeming limitlessness of South Africa, the land was as brown as an impala’s hide, patched with tufts of green and embroidered here and there with the glitter of zinc-roofed shanties. The land folds away from you in a blue emptiness; a distant thread of horizon, forever unspooling.

The colour shifts as you veer north toward the wetter regions of the delta – a place where the khaki Kalahari sands are overlaid with a watercolour wash of flat green reeds and shrub, punctuated by ancient grey termite mounds, some as tall as fifteen feet, like the conical hats of giant wizards. These – highest points on the flatness of the land – are surrounded by haphazard clusters of trees, many (because of the season) leafless black fingers praying to an implacably cloudless sky and home to sharp-eyed African Fisher eagles.

This is the Okavango Delta, the final stop of the Okavango river, journeying full, dark and powerful for over nine hundred miles from distant Angola. Here in Botswana’s northern tip, the river fans out into a labyrinth of streams and channels, yielding its fertility into a game-rich oasis, where, exhausted after a journey of five months, it sinks, sighing into the sand.

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Okavango. Kalahari: such rotund syllables, so robust with legend.

We came looking for game, and were richly bonused to discover a vastness of ever changing landscapes – of high, dry, golden grasses flecked with the quick stripes of

grazing zebra, that dissolve into the meandering curves of wide blue, hippo-hiding rivers, feeding canyons of bending papyri and bordered by an undulating filigree of olive green grasslands.

We stayed at three different camps (Kanana, Shindi and Savouti), each about twenty minutes’ flight from the other. But the word, “camps” belie their elegance. These are well furnished, high roofed, breezy mahogany and eucalyptus-timbered lodges where we dined (on a wide variety of well prepared, joyously presented international and local cuisines) and where we (dypsomaniacs all!) repaired to for our lunch-time and evening cocktails. Each camp has about seven or eight chalets, private and well ensconced in curtains of leaves. They are large, stylish, airy places with grand, sleep-welcoming, net embraced double beds crowned by ceiling fans; and African-print curtains that seem to float in the eddies of breeze that drift through them. The chalets all have private porches that overlook panoramas of animal-teeming grasslands.

In our first camp, on our first night, we could hear, late in the pitch blackness of the always starry African night, amidst choirs of frogs, the roars of (we assumed) copulating hippos having tons of fun barely feet away from the electrified protection of our chalet. In our third camp, at Savouti, a warthog – those almost comical-looking creatures, were it not for their nasty upturned tusks – was our closest neighbor, having decided to occupy its own mud spa retreat just outside our front door.

The routines were pretty much the same at all the camps: up early (5-ish) to be ready to head out in small clusters of four or five with a guide in an open Land Rover while the day was still cool and crisp. By midday, after four hours or so driving slowly through the untamed countryside, the sun’s heat becomes too ferocious and enervating to do much more than sink into the cool dark of the lodges and exchange the delta’s hot browns and greens for the chilly welcome of the bars’ Sauvignon Blanc. By about 4, we’d be ready – without too much beating around the bush – to head out again into the still brittle day. At six-ish, we’d stop for Sundowners. Such a good custom.

At this time, as the sun begins to fade and the earth cools, we’d stop at a location primed for prime sunset viewing, to relax with Gin and tonics and canapes. There’s nothing quite like a sun-set Gin and tonic or vodka martini, while awaiting the setting sun somewhere in the magical Kalahari. By this time, the sun, now shorn of its heat becomes a spectacular red disc, leeching its colour into its skirt of clouds.

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But of course, though magnificent the landscapes and sumptuous the lodges, we were here for the animals.

And they did not disappoint. The visceral, existential thrill of seeing your first ever lion, casually sauntering past you or your first ever sighting of a leopard, scratching its head on a tree, or the serried ranks of impala and kudu and roan antelopes peacefully grazing next to the startling whiteness of egrets, like exclamation marks in the commas of green grass, or the memories of thundering elephants, ears flapping, protecting their mini-me offspring or a lumbering hippo, emerging like a phantasm from the brush for his spot in the water, are jolting and breath-taking.

We were there (October) at the procreative season, at the end of the rains, before the wall of summer heat slammed into town, as ‘half’ the animals seemed to be pregnant or protectively baby-sitting.

We saw, in a heronry – guano encrusted forests of reeds thick with screeching herons, storks and ibises – a ghetto of birds spreading their wings, puffing out their throats, cooling themselves, feeding their chicks, ever jostling one another for room in their overcrowded, but water protected world.

Our driver sneaked up on a family of hyena; three cubs, at first gamboling around near to their burrow. And then, as if summoned to the dinner table, suckling from the plentiful supplies of a bored mother.

As we were driving across a dusty plain, we came across one large, don’t-mess-with-me female baboon, who strutted snobbishly past her noisy, quarrelsome troop, small baby clinging dearly to her underside.

Though we only rarely encountered other trucks, the drivers/guides were in regular contact with each other, should there be an important sighting. And so it happened, as we were cruising one morning past a dazzle of tail-swishing zebra, our driver was alerted to a ‘kill’. A pack of wild dogs had apparently just taken down a pregnant impala. And as if shot out of gun, we made for the site with reckless Nascar-speeding abandon, swerving past cross-roads of trees, over undulating highways of flattened bush, through detours of shrubs, their branches like knives slicing at our ducked heads until we arrived just in time.

Just in time to see a huge pack of snarling, slavering, ravenous wild dogs, faces red with dripping blood, savaging the remains of what had been, not twenty minutes ago an impala. In this season of procreation, we saw the alfa mother rip some part of the carcass from her snarling kith and kin to bring it to her excited, snapping, yelping cubs who leapt upon it with a frenzy of carnivorous zeal. We later were told that the special treat she had so maternally brought over to her brood was the fetus of the dead, pregnant impala.

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We sat, awed, hushed by the violence of the activity.

We sat, awed, as we were throughout the trip at our incredible proximity. We were amazed at the extent to which we were simply ignored by the game around us. At our first, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping sighting of a lion, we were stunned as it simply, casually, haughtily strolled past us, a mighty golden presence, a fearless Aslan, not ten feet away. It was as though we were invisible, as though we were all wearing Frodor’s magic ring.

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The lion wasn’t the only animal to treat us with such total indifference, such cool insouciance. We parked and sat silently just outside the leap of a wandering leopard seeking shade to rest up before his night of culinary sport. It regarded us as beneath its contempt and not even worthy of flicking an ear in our direction. At one point, as it lay, softly breathing in the shade, we did see its ears twitch and its head raise languidly to look in the direction, way off in the distance of some grazing steenboks. “He’s probably become aware of an injured animal,” our guide – Tsepho – advised us. That’s one injured steenbok that won’t stay injured for long.

It would appear that far from being seen or even smelt as a threat to the game around us, we fellow-predators (which we learned all have forward facing eyes, as opposed to eyes on either side of the head) were invisible to the animals. The large, eleven seated, open sided Land Rover provided us with extraordinary cover: the animals only saw a large, unthreatening lump; and far from smelling us (all that adrenaline flooding the truck), they only smelled the diesel. It gave new meaning to putting a tiger in your tank.

But of course, for every wandering lion we spotted, every curling, sleeping leopard or prowling cheetah, there must have been dozens no doubt a heart-beat  away, simply invisible to our lines of sight. For these animals seem to inhabit multiple universes, able to slip in and out of them at will. Now you see them, now you don’t. When they wished to do so, they seemed to be able to simply disappear in plain sight, folding back into the grasses, silently, stealthily, these magical, prestidigitory beasts.

Oh the fascination of it all! We’ve all probably seen elephants somewhere – in a zoo maybe? – and we all have a mental image of these large majestic beasts. The joy was in observing them as they went about their own routines: herding up their mates in some unspoken code, to jointly cross the dark forbidding, crocodile dense channels together; or shaking the slender trunk of a palm tree (long robbed of its fruit by chattering monkeys) in search of a quick slug of sweetness; or feeding off the tall miscanthus grasses by curling their mighty trunks to heave out clumps of grassy protein; or digging their own waterholes, which would later be occupied by hippos and which, when the river floods would eventually become new channels branching away from the mainstream.

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And everywhere birds. On the back of a monstrously large, black hippo that crossed in front of our startled driver, slipping out of his universe of bush into his other universe of water, there were several Yellowbilled Oxpeckers happily taking a ride of their tick bearing host. Not far away, just past the ever-present Kingfishers, we heard the drums of some no-doubt obscure Tswana tribe. It turned out to be the mating sound of the tall, stately Kori Bustard. This is quite a boring looking bird, like a small ostrich. However he is able to transform himself into what seems in the distance to be an oddly dressed seventeenth century gentleman. Standing erect and looking around him with proud self- confidence, this bird puffs out its neck feathers (creating the drumming sound), turning them into a Cavalier’s collar, in an elaborate show of courtship. We never saw whether his undoubted sex appeal was able to woo a reluctant and blushing bride.

But enough. This drift of memory has traveled across too many paragraphs. It’s time the page folds on another cinema review…soon.

TRAVELS: Barcelona


DSCN1456BARCELONA HAS MORE than Messi to boast of: Look up, and you’ll see a world of architectural wonders that any other city in the world would be proud to own. Look down and you’ll encounter platters of tapas unmatched anywhere else. It’s a city for gawkers and gourmands.

So, for the next few paragraphs or so, let’s meander aimlessly awhile, see a few sights, sample a few dishes and, probably mix a few metaphors as well. If you’re thinking of visiting this fair place, here are a few highlights you might wish to consider.

This is a port city and perhaps that’s why its many interlocking barrios and winding alleyways don’t really flow from a single gravitational hub. La Rambla, drifting northward from the port area, away from Columbus pointing meaningless at nothing and nowhere in particular, atop his 165ft column, through the Ciutat Vela, the Old City, is probably the closest you’ll get to a centre. It’s essentially a long, tree-lined promenade, fringed by stalls selling trinkets and trash and bounded on both sides by a snarl of traffic. To most people, I would imagine, this would be their first encounter with the city’s tapestry of facades. The area certainly give you an great overall sense of the look of the place. And there are a couple of interesting buildings, such as the Oriente hotel with its curling dragon and swirl of giant ornamental fans – interesting in a bizarre sort of way.

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The high point here though is La Boqueria, one of many markets dotted around the city, and a gawking gourmet’s delight. Here you’ll find produce (oh, everything from chocolate truffles to charcuterie to neatly stacked many-cloured fruit seemingly radiating sunlight, to buffets of freshly prepared legumes redolent of the smells of the Mediterranean, to silvery fresh fish and crab still breathing for release, to succulent hunks of pork and beef and platters of poultry). Interestingly, many of the vendors here are women; not usual for a market.

But even more interesting are the many tapas stalls that call out to us weary travellers. We stopped at Bar Pinotxo. It’s a little sliver of a place run by an engagingly active family and offering some of the more tasty treats you’re likely to find anywhere. We stopped here for a cold Cava (Catalunya’s great gift to the world of sparkling wines) and a dish of thyme infused chick peas.

(As you saunter from taps bar to taps bar as we did, you’ll quickly begin to differentiate those that merely offer the same old clichéd tapas – albondigas (meatballs), anchovies in oil, gambas al ajillo, croquettes filled with a variety offerings, morcilla (or boudin noir), jamon Ibero and goat cheeses – to the really imaginative places. Not that I have anything against these treats mind you… but there’s much better to be had. And starting at Bar Pinotxo sets a bar that’s pretty high.)

As your wander to gawk at the city’s best, there are two areas I’d recommend. The first is the spread out Barri Gotic, where you’ll find the extraordinary Catedral de Santa Eulalia. This place has been around in one form or the other since the tenth century, so, you know, it’s old. But what’s interesting is that when you enter its ancient portals, you enter not so much a church, but it seems like a mini village with its own eco zone (there are several trees inside) and, surprisingly, a gaggle of geese. There are thirteen of them – one for every year the martyred St Eulalia lived. Oh these Christians, how charming they are with their many gods, oops, saints and their marvelous narratives.

This area also boasts Pjtarra Restaurant on Carrer d’Avinyo, 56. This old eatery (it’s over a hundred years old) is a converted clock shop (and there are many of them on the walls) that only opens for lunch (how do they stay in business?). It offered us by far the best meal we had on our trip. I had a very slow roasted leg of goat, its meat succulently falling off the bone, and steeped in a rich red wine sauce. And of course, more cava.

Not that far from this area is a barrio called La Ribera and El Born. This has a few interesting sights to look up at. But this is a place best kept for looking down.

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Carrer Montcada is the place to find the best tapas in town. In particular, El Xampanyet at No. 22 is a tiny bar where we managed, luckily, to find a seat squashed against a corner. From that – great people-watching – vantage point, and with the help of a friendly waitress, we ordered all manner of delights: chorizo stewed in wine, little squares of tender tuna, charred red peppers etc. What’s great here (and with many of these little bodegas) is that the tapas are all there for you to point at, and, well, hope for the best. El Xtampanyet also offers its own sparkling wine – Xtampanol.

Almost opposite you find the larger establishment – Euskal Etxea – another superb tapas bar. Here you don’t even need a friendly assistant. You simply take whatever dishes suit your fancy and, because all the tapas come with a toothpick in them, at the end your bill is simply the addition of the number of toothpicks you’ve chosen. What could be more efficient (assuming of course that everyone stays honest)?

Time to look up.

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By far the most interesting road –visually – is that of Passeig Gracia – from the Passeig to the Diagonal metros. This is the posher part of Barcelona; it’s also in an area called the Eixample (which simply means that unlike the serpentine direction of the streets in the Old City, here there’s some sense of order). This area is a treasure trove of design. The overall look is one of old-monied elegance where low-rise apartments with floor to ceiling shuttered windows offer flashes of bold colour and warmth against their walls of cold stone. The quiet restraint of the classical lines is time and again punctuated by many-storied bow windows, embellished with flounces of tinted glass.

Here and there, suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re likely to encounter some art deco edifice with its shock of self-conscious design, its woodwork seemingly reanimated from its original tree with tendrils that curl wherever fancy takes them.

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Look out too for the towers of some of these buildings. As though their architects couldn’t bear to leave the roofs without one further flourish, these magical towers are like gigantic tulips that have burst into flower just the night before.

More than all this, here you’ll find several buildings designed by the protean Gaudi. Casa Batllo is one of a triumvirate of exuberant Modernista buildings called the Illa de la Discordia. Like everything else Gaudi, these stand apart, in a universe distinctly their own. La Pedrera is his central (domestic) masterpiece. This huge eight-storied apartment block, devoid of straight lines, seem to have been carved out of a single massive boulder. On the roof where (for a small sum) you can wander along its undulating walks and stairs, there are massive heads (hiding chimneys), apparently inspired by Medieval knights, but which could easily be the heads of Easter Island reimagined by Darth Vader.

Gaudi’s world-famous, incomplete masterpiece (he was killed by a tram car while the building was under construction) is of course La Sagrada Familia. This looks like some otherworldly stone octopus that had been sucked from the bowels of the earth, lizards, snakes and other reptiles still clinging to its crenelated sides. And within its strange gnarled exterior exists a different dimension. You’re transported magically to the inside of a balloon where thin white spidery legs seem to defy gravity to give the whole place a sensation of floating. It’s less a house of God, more a portal to heaven itself.

But that’s all about looking up as high as you can look. Let’s end with looking down – to the best paella in town (so many places offer paellas which are really risottos with an afterthought of an unpeeled langoustine). Les Set Portes, near the Waterfront is one of those institutions where it seems everybody who’s anybody has eaten at. At our table there was a plaque boasting that Woddy Allen had eaten there (Charlton Heston had eaten there too. But we’ll forgive them that aberration). I hope Woody had eaten the paella. This version of that rice dish has a flavor that’s deep and complex, with the soccorat giving it a nice dark taste. We had the rich man’s version – which meant that the shrimp had been peeled, and there were generous chunks of saffron rich meats for us to dive into.

And of course, as always there was cava.