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I so much enjoyed island-hopping The Cyclades on an archaeology trip two years ago that I pounced at the chance of doing the same in The Dodecanese. This one also allowed for overnighters in Athens both ways, and also took in Samos, technically not part of this chain, but hey…..

Here’s a link to some photos, well a lot of photos, because that’s what it deserves ………… https://photos.app.goo.gl/eMwTcWA6FgB5A4ex9

You have to sympathise with the Greeks. Let down by their governments and the EU, no sign of ever paying off their debt and refugees still using their island coasts as their entry point to Europe. They deserve our support and I for one was happy to make another small contribution to their economy. The islands seem to be faring better than the mainland, as they get a much higher number of tourists per capita, and tourism is just about the only industry left. Athens is faring better too, as we found on the outward stopover, as the city is still a magnet for tourists around the world, and rightly so. Our visit was specifically to see the new(ish) Acropolis Museum, built next to the hill, housing the artefacts found there and affording views of it, the top floor the footprint of the Parthenon with whatever they have in situ. The entrance to the galleries is like that of the Parthenon; it’s a brilliant building with stunning contents; well worth a stopover.

Samos lies virtually parallel with Athens, just a few hundred metres off the coast of Turkey, an island of just 30,000 people. It’s famous for being the wedding venue of Anthony and Cleopatra, who I’d seen on stage just two weeks before! Amongst it’s surprises is a successful wine industry. It now seems to be favoured by German sun-worshipers, a relatively small number still there at the fag-end of the season. We stayed just outside the old capital, now renamed Pythagoreio after the local mathematician who went global with his theorem, on the south of the island, built on the Greco-Roman ruins whose walls were still visible, the finds in their outstanding archaeological museum. The recent refugee influx was evident in the present capital Vathy, a bigger town on the north coast, rising from the sea and climbing the mountains (we did it in reverse!), with a lovely harbour and another excellent archaeological museum. Near Pythagoreio we were able (me just!) to enter the 2500-year-old 1 km long tunnel which contained an aqueduct to bring spring water from the north of the island; an extraordinary achievement. Nearby the sanctuary of Hera, Zeus’ wife, showcased her cult with the ruins of a temple three times the size of the Parthenon, where 100 oxen were regularly slaughtered in their ceremonies. With a good archaeologist and more than a modicum of imagination, it came alive.

The ferry to Patmos, our second island, was delayed and mostly in the dark, so we could hardly see the islands of Aganothisi and Arki where we stopped, but as the latter had a population of 44, I suspect there wasn’t a lot to see anyway. The Aegean sunset was some recompense. This island has a population of just 3000 and the visit brought a change from archaeology to religious history. At the top of the hill overlooking the main town there was the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, and below this a cave church where St. John is believed to have had his revelation. A service was in progress when we visited, but we were welcomed and it enhanced the visit, even for a non-believer like me! A lovely wander through the hilltop Hora was the icing on the cake of a brief but unexpectedly delightful overnight visit before we continued our archaeological pilgrimage by ferry to Kos, with stops at Leros and Kalymnos.

A much busier island, though still only a population of 30,000, this came as a bit if a shock to the system. We spent the first full day in the town of Kos, built amongst the Greco-Roman ruins, not unlike Pythagoreio, but on a larger scale with Ottoman and 20th century Italian additions. The overgrown agora was hugely atmospheric and the Casa Romana a brilliantly reconstructed Roman home. One of the surprises of this trip has been the revelation (well, to me) that, in addition to Roman occupation, the Italians occupied these island in the 20th century, until after the Second World War in fact. The following day we explored the island, visiting another spectacular early Greek site at Asclepion, a healing centre dedicated to Apollo’s son of the same name. The setting was spectacular and the climb through three terraces gave you a real feeling for the place. At Kefalos a couple of small basilicas had a lovely beach setting with a picturesque off-shore island adding to the charm, and at Antimachia, a ginormous crusader fortress (the Knights of St. John) dominated all around. Our last morning was spent at yet another fine archaeological museum, looking at the finds from the sites we’d visited.

On to Rhodes with stops at Nisyros, Tilos and Chalki, an island I’ve wanted to visit for decades. A much bigger and busier island, pop. 115,000, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with the old walled town of Rhodes and its harbour, a lovely collection of buildings from many historical periods. Walking the entire dry moat – a few kms – was exhausting but satisfying, but not as exhausting as the climb to the LIndos acropolis, but I managed it! The views were more stunning than the ruins, but with a tightly packed white village at the foot of the hill too, visiting is a must, despite the surprisingly large off-season crowds.

When I was last in Athens in 2004, the National Archaeological Museum was closed, to be spruced up for the Olympics, and on my previous visit 24 years before that, I wasn’t so interested in archaeology, so I spent an extra two days there on the way home to see it, and also took in the Byzantine Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art and a return to the Benaki Museum. By the end I was all museumed out, but it had to be done; the National collection is one of the greatest in the world.

The sun shone, the sky was clear and the seas relatively calm. Add in excellent rustic food, a little too much wine and good company and it proved to be a fine trip indeed.

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First, a link to an online photo album https://photos.app.goo.gl/1fUHwvLLBzMuZ4v1A There are lots, but it’s only a quarter of what I took. It’s a very photogenic city where interior photography is welcome!

When I first visited this city forty-two years ago we were amongst the first tourists to the then USSR. The plane was escorted from touchdown, security guards were at the gate and the state Intourist staff did everything in their power to get you on their escorted tours and keep you away from the real Soviet Union. We were in our early 20’s, with more interest in the excitement of being somewhere so different than we were in the heritage of the Tsars to be seen in palaces and museums. We somehow ‘escaped’ to visit the one department store, ride the metro, get cautioned for jaywalking and trade cigarettes for Red Army belts with soldiers. One of the few nods to culture was a visit to the Kirov for the ballet – a three hour depiction of the revolution, in dance!

It was of course then called Leningrad, as it had been for c.50 years. Brezhnev was in power and the cold war was in its 30th year. It’s now 27 years since the demise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire is reborn, with Putin as Tsar and all those oligarchs the new nobility. Other than a dubious democracy and an obsession with security, it’s like any other Western city, where money talks and the infrastructure, hotels, restaurants and shops very much the same. The palaces and museums have been renovated, the churches restored and religion no longer out in the cold, and even the opera house (now the Mariinsky) has a sparkling new bigger brother next door. It’s a totally different place to the one I visited before and unlike China, it links itself to the rest of the world with uncensored international TV news stations and social media like facebook and twitter. Relations with the UK may have been at a new low, but it didn’t really impact our visit. Putin came too, to continue courting the Austrians and to fire the city governor, but apart from the sort of heightened security you get with any such visit, life went on.

The chief reason for returning is that I am now interested in the empire’s heritage – the opulent palaces of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Museum (one of the world’s biggest and greatest, with some 16,500 paintings alone, as well as being the Winter Palace), the now pristine cathedrals and churches like St. Isaacs, St. Nicholas and the more modern but extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, and world class opera and ballet. For a culture vulture like me, it’s a great big toyshop, and it didn’t disappoint, though we did occasionally have to contend with cruise ship visitors and the phenomenon of the onward global march of the Chinese tourists, but early entry to The Hermitage and other special arrangements helped a lot.

Central St. Petersburg is a relatively flat, low-rise city intersected by rivers and canals, though not to the extent of Venice or Amsterdam, on the Gulf of Finland. The whole central area is designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It’s very clean, virtually devoid of litter. With seemingly unrestricted parking, there are parked cars absolutely everywhere. Peter the Great founded it in 1703, bringing in the best of European architecture, art and design. His work was continued by subsequent tzars, most notably Catherine the Great later in the eighteenth century. Apart from its 65 years as Leningrad and ten years as Petrograd, it has retained this name for 240 years, 200 of them as the capital. It’s Russia’s 2nd city with a population of 5 million. The 1905 revolution began here and the storming of the city’s Winter Palace signalled the beginning of the 1917 revolution. The 2.5 year seige during World War II left a deep scar.

Amongst the highlights were the palaces – Winter Palace (The Hermitage), Shuvalov Palace (housing the new Faberge Museum), Menshikov Palace and Yuupov Palace in the city, Peterhof and Catherine & The Great Palace in Pushkin. Perhaps because they have all been renovated relatively recently, everything seems sparklingly new, with the gold leaf positively blinding. The same can be said of the cathedrals and churches, notably St Issac, across the road from our hotel, SS Peter & Paul, St Nicholas Naval Cathedral and the extraordinary Church on Spilled Blood, built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander. The Russian Museum is a brilliant display of 100 years of Russian Art, again in a former palace. I wasn’t sure I was going to like the bling of the Faberge Museum, but I admired the craftmanship and the palace and other contents made it a worthwhile visit. There’s not a lot you can say about the Hermitage except that it is overwhelming, but the palace rooms and the impressionist & post-impressionist collections in particular are unmissable. We got to a lovely ballet at the old Mariinsky and Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman at the new one, so there were arts fixes too. The accompanying photos tell the rest of the story.

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Well, I’m now on the Isle of Bute, a short way off the West coast of Scotland, recuperating after 23 shows and 11 exhibitions in just under 7 days. I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been heading North of the border for this most addictive of festivals, the world’s largest. Here’s a round-up of this year:

The Traverse Theatre has long been my second home, with an unrivalled reputation for both its own productions and first class, innovative visitors and this year was a good one. Based on my trust in them, we’d booked eight shows here before we’d arrived and added the other two following the buzz and the reviews. The hit rate was 80%, with Iseult Golden & David Horan‘s Class and David Ireland‘s Ulster American (whose Cyprus Avenue wowed me recently at the Royal Court) leading the way – both Irish, both three-handers, but from different sides of the border and very different plays. The very thought-provoking Class examines the relationships between teacher and parents, between parents as ex’s and between both and the child. In black comedy Ulster American, a movie star dabbles with fringe theatre on terms unacceptable to the writer. Both had great writing and fine performances in an intimate space.

The onward march of the one-person play saw Corrie’s Julie Hesmondhalgh tell her husband Ian Kershaw’s delightful story in the modestly titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World very engagingly, with people represented by shoes. You know a story works when you can picture its characters. At other times in the same space, Irene Allan was very compelling in David Leddy’s very different one-person thriller Coriolanus Vanishes, with striking lighting adding edginess. Finally, On the Exhale, also in Traverse Two, looked at American gun control through the story of one woman who’s son was a casualty. Both the writing, and Poly Frame‘s performance, we’re very powerful.

Biographical plays were also a feature this year, and the Traverse had two contributions. In What Girls are Made of, Cora Bissett told the story of her short teenage pop career, with rock concert aesthetics. This was also gig theatre – another 2018 feature – and the true story and the form went well together. Nigel Slater’s Toast was just as effective, a lovely growing-up story with food! Sam Newton as the young Nigel was terrific. Biographical work popped up elsewhere, with Grid Iron’s South Bend – OK, but lacking the usual Grid Iron sparkle – and Song of Lunch, a two-hander which should have been a monologue (the actress was wasted) and in a smaller space. Robert Bathurst seemed to be attracting Downton Abbey fans whilst ignoring his more prominent role in Cold Feet in his quirky self-penned programme biography. There was also more gig theatre at the Pleasance with Songlines, a delightful love story with folk music.

Back at the Traverse, Mark Thomas, who has come a long way from stand-up, gave Check Up: Our NHS at 70; factual (rather than verbatim) theatre. I love his passion, even if he is probably preaching to the converted. The other two Traverse offerings were disappointments. Underground Railroad Game was a somewhat heavy-handed piece about slavery which attempted to shock in what felt like a dated away, and for me came over as rather tiresome. Meek was in Handmaid’s Tale territory and I found it rather dull, I’m afraid. It failed to hold my attention at all. Behind the EICC, in the open air, Polish theatre innovators Theatr Biuro Podrozy brought Silence, a show about refugees I saw in an earlier version during LIFT in London, and it’s grown in impact. The freezing wind added atmosphere, as only Edinburgh can. That was my only international theatre and My Left / Right Foot was my only musical. It’s a very un-PC take on the treatment of disability which was way more effective in making the point than a PC one would have been. Performed with great gusto, it was a hoot and a treat.

I saw Showstopper, an improvised musical, a long while ago and it appears to have become a big thing, in the Pleasance’s biggest space, where a full house seemed to lap it up. I’m afraid I found it very stale and overblown. A year for impressionists, with both Rory Bremner & Jan Ravens and Jon Culshaw delivering the laughs. I liked the way Culshaw’s show was structured as an interview by his producer Bill Dare, but it was Jan Raven’s lovely tribute to Victoria Wood which stole both shows. I only saw one stand-up this year, Malawian Daliso Chaponda, but he was excellent, with terrific audience engagement.

The main festival started well with a CBSO concert of rare works by Stravinsky & Ravel, but the highlight was a thrilling interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who appeared to live the work. An attempt at updating John Gay’s The Beggars Opera fell a bit flat, but it had its moments, including the playing of Les Arts Florissants, in costume, and a clever carboard box design. Good fun, but you expect better from Peter Brook‘s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Robert Carsen and William Christie. Midsummer was an updated version of David Greig‘s fringe play with songs about a wild weekend. I have fond memories of seeing the original twice, but it didn’t work quite so well in a bigger space with the addition of the older selves. The final offering was the worst, I’m afraid, with Peter Brook’s The Prisoner, a very slight 70 min piece which left me hungry. Brook’s minimalist pieces are normally adapted from other forms, but this was original, and I suspect that’s the issue. Good performances and design couldn’t make up for weak material.

It looked like it wasn’t going to be a good year for art, and indeed the big Rembrandt show at the SNG was a disappointment – just 15 paintings and a lot of drawings and work by those he influenced. At the SNGMA, though, there were three treats – an excellent Emil Nolde retrospective, the fascinating Reinventing the Old Masters by Raqib Shaw and NOW, an interesting mixed show by six artists. At the City Art Centre, there was a fascinating show by lost artist Edwin G Lucas, who appears to have been buried by the art establishment. At the SNPG, though, the biggest treat of all was the discovery of portraitist Victoria Crowe who also had a lovely non-portrait selling show at the Scottish Gallery. Tacita Dean seems to be everywhere, so it wasn’t a surprise to see her at the Fruitmarket Gallery in a show that was a touch better than those at the NPG and RA in London. It wasn’t such a good year for photography, with mediocre shows at CAC and SNPG, and the annual Edinburgh International Photographic Exhibition finally lost me by putting image manipulation above the eye and skill of the photographer.

It seemed more exhausting writing about it than seeing it all! Until next time……

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The sixty years from 1880 to 1940 were the golden age of design, when artists and architects got together to produce integrated work. Movements like Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and the Vienna Secession and individuals like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Antonio Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright were all within this period. The Bauhaus was too, but it only survived fourteen years, in three locations, with three directors – pursued, persecuted and finally shut down by the Nazi’s. Given that, its influence is extraordinary.

Here are some photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/4Zf9QD5n5P2W6oqD7

Our pilgrimage started where Bauhaus started, in Weimar, a city of just 65,000 people which has historically punched above its weight, with Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche & Liszt amongst its residents, and where the first German democratic constitution, the Weimar Republic, was declared exactly 100 years ago. It’s a charming city, with an eclectic cocktail of buildings, and we started our tour by walking to the place where the movement began, now Bauhaus University, for an excellent guided tour of its two main buildings (by Bauhaus founder and first director Walter Gropius and Henry Van der Velde), by one of its architecture students. Weimar’s other highlight was the Nietzsche Archive – not for the contents, but because it was in a Van der Velde adapted building. Side trips from here took us to the ceramic museum in Burgel, the home of Bauhaus textile weaver Margaretha Reichardt, the cities of Erfurt and Jena and the highlight, Haus Auerbach, a suburban home by Gropius, where we were warmly welcomed by its current owner who has lovingly restored it.

En route to our second base, Chemnitz, two more highlights in Gera – Van der Velde’s beautifully restored Haus Schulenburg and the Museum for Angewandte Kunst, a terrific applied arts collection, most notable for its ceramics and textiles. Our first stop in Chemnitz was the expressionist art at Gunzenhauser Museum, though it turned out to be a 300-work retrospective of one artist, but it was Otto Dix, so the disappointment was somewhat allayed. By the time we got to the vast Chemnitz Public Baths by Fred Otto, we were exhausted, but it took our breathe away. You knew you were in the former East in Chemnitz, which was bigger (250,000 people) and retained a giant statue of the man after whom it was once named, Karl Marx. After saying Hi to Karl and viewing Erich Mendelsohn’s highly original former department store, we headed to the Bauhaus’ second home, Dessau.

Another small city (77,000 people), but more industrial than Weimar, it was the suburbs we headed for, where the Bauhaus impact was huge. From the moment I set eyes on the main building, with it’s iconic vertical name, I was captivated by this mature period in Bauhaus work. In addition to the two school buildings, we visited some ‘masters’ houses’ built for Gropius and his colleagues, his riverside Kornhaus restaurant and the suburban Torten Housing Estate where we could enter three different homes. This was a feast of a day where the the spirit of Bauhaus seemed to join us.

En route to Berlin airport for the flight home, we took in three final buildings – a Gropius Employment Exchange in Dessau with separate doors for each skill / craft (!), his Gaudiesque Einstein Tower on an astrophysics campus high up on a hill overlooking Potsdam and Villa Lemke, a lovely, simple Berlin suburban home by final Bauhaus director Mies van der Rohe, who went on to populate Chicago with much bigger but less pleasing buildings.

They achieved a lot in fourteen years; the Nazi’s put an end to the creativity, but the influence of Bauhaus continues to this day, with people like me immersing myself in their work. My art, design & architecture cup runneth over.

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Starting in Verona, our base for three nights at http://www.duetorrihotels.com and ending on the island of Mozzorbo in the Venice Lagoon, this trip took in the towns of Vicenza, Basano del Grappa and Treviso, with the lovely hill town of Asolo our second base for four nights. Thirteen meals, from simple plates of pasta or asparagus to three at Michelin starred restaurants, were supplemented by visits to prosecco, wine and grappa producers and rice, olive oil and cheese makers. I feel stuffed and pickled.

Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/MRU5fJhtBCnaNCfH9

Verona was the only point of the trip where I was retracing my steps, though only for a morning, as we headed out of town to the lovely winery of http://www.seregoalighieri.it in Valpolicella, the estate of Dante’s family, rice grower http://www.risoferron.com at Isola della Scalla where the 17th century mill was still in use and olive oil producer http://www.oliosalvagno.com At Riso Ferron, chef Stephano showed us how to cook risotto in a rather unique way (that’ll come in handy!) and served up three for us to eat, with a starter including leftover risotto and a dessert which substituted rice flour. Dinners in Verona were at http://www.12apostoli.com, built upon Roman and Mediaeval ruins still visible from the cellar where we had our aperitif, and the rather quirky Michelin starred http://www.ristorantelafontanina.com

Our journey to Asolo was broken in Vicenza, a terrific city with a fine main square, famous for Palladio buildings, including a spectacular 16th century theatre with life-size streets on stage providing ready-made sets – one of the greatest theatres of the many I’ve visited – and our one-and-only art gallery. Here we tried four different baccala (salt cod) dishes for lunch. On to our second base in the lovely hill town of Asolo  – http://www.albergoalsoleasolo.com – whose only downside was that our vehicle couldn’t get within a half-mile of our accommodation – but we discovered the shuttle for our very steep uphill returns.

Sunday saw us worshiping the god of prosecco at http://www.villasandi.it, another Palladian building, a long walk through the cellars and an alfresco tasting in the Cartizze vineyards of Valdobbiadene, where the very best prosecco grapes are grown, followed by an alfresco lunch washed down with local wines. The following day, we climbed 3000 ft (no, not on foot!) to an alpine plateau to visit a small Asiago cheese maker, whose cheeses changed with the seasons and in particular his cows’ food. Back down on the plain, Bassano del Grappa proved to be another lovely town with a Palladio wooden bridge, a lunch of white asparagus (which I didn’t know until then was grown underground) & eggs mashed with olive oil and a grappa tasting, obviously, at http://www.nardini.it A visit to Treviso was a bit of a damp squib. Cities never look good in the rain, but I’m not convinced it would have matched the other visits in the sun. We lunched at http://www.ristorantetonidelspin.com

We ended with two Michelin starred restaurants, http://www.fevaristorante.it in Castelfranco, which I thought was good rather than great, and http://www.venissa.it on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venice Lagoon, a short journey by water taxi from Venice airport from which we were flying home, which lived up to expectations, and more. Here the winery ceased production after the infamous 60’s high tide, but they have begun again, just one hectare producing a few thousand bottles of a very distinctive wine from grapes grown in saline soil giving it a unique mineralogy.

History, food, wine and good company; what’s not to like……

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It’s just over 40 years since I visited Crete, a lovely villa party in Agia Galini on the South coast. I remember visiting Knossos, walking the Samaria Gorge and getting stranded at the bottom and spending the whole night on the veranda after too much retsina. This was a much more grown up Minoan archaeology tour. Can you have too much Minoan archaeology? Well, maybe, but with good weather, fine company and good food & wine…..

Crete is Greece’s largest and most southernmost of its 166 to 227 inhabited islands (no-one appears to have done a proper count, not even the EU, it seems), the fifth largest island in the Med. It’s only 160 miles from Athens, but not much further from the African coast. A very mountainous island, reaching up to 8000ft, it’s long (160 miles) and thin (between 7 and 37 miles). The population is only 600,000 but there way more goats and beehives and 35 million olive trees!

First inhabited 8000 years ago, it’s the origin and home of Europe’s first great civilisation, the Minoans, who lasted for almost two thousand years, pre-dating both the Greeks and Romans by almost a thousand years, and exceeding the longevity of both. British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans is regarded as the godfather of Minoan archaeology, his partial reconstructions controversial, but responsible for ensuring everything stayed where it was found on Crete, unlike just about any other find in the world. There are palaces, towns, villas, cemeteries and museums full of astonishing finds. Lets start with some photos:

https://photos.app.goo.gl/70FvToq1zYE5uHYs2

We based ourselves first in Heraklion, where we visited the wonderful archaeological museum and nearby Knossos, the palace at the centre of the civilisation with Evans’ partial reconstructions, the Phourni Cemetery and the villa at Vathypetro, with finds in the Arhanes Archaeological Museum. We also ventured south to the Minoan town of Gortyn, the palace of Phaestos and the villa at Agia Triada. On our return, the sand-laden Sirocco wind had turned the air orange and deposited a significant chunk of the Sahara on the land. It was a three-day total immersion that I struggled to keep up with, but the boozy late lunches and dinners helped – Crete has an excellent rustic cuisine with goats cheese, olives, salad and vegetables dominant, and decent local plonk.

Our journey East to our second base, Sitia, took in another Minoan palace at Malia and another Minoan town at Gournia, popping into the popular coastal town of Agios Nikolaos for a non-Minoan break. One of the finest days saw us cross the spectacular mountains to the rarely touched East coast for another Minoan Palace at Zakros, close to both the beach and the mountain gorge. There was a treat on the way home, at the hugely atmospheric Toplou monastery, which now only appeared to have a couple of monks. Back in Sitia, on a sleepy Sunday, Greek Independence Day meant site closures but offered a street parade of just about every school, service and association, in costume or uniform, with a randomness and slickness in keeping with a Mediterranean island rather than a European state.

It was a long journey to our third base in the far West, Chania, but we broke it with a visit to Evans’ atmospheric 1906 Villa Ariadne and the lovely Venetian port of Rethymnon; oh, and another of those spectacular late lunches. Chania was our best hotel, the Kydon, right on the edge of the old town, which we explored after a hazy but lovely visit to Greco-Roman ruins, a Byzantine monastery and a Turkish fort at Aptera, a deeply moving visit to the Commonwealth War Graves at Souda Bay and another lovely visit to a Byzantine monastery on the Akrotiri Peninsula.

I did overdose a bit on Minoan ruins, but Evans’ reconstructions and the extraordinary museum exhibits brought the civilisation alive for me. The big revelation was Cretan cuisine, unique in Greece and Europe and appallingly underrated. A busy but lovely trip, and great to revisit after all those other places in-between.

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This was an extension to the Tanzania and Zanzibar trip. It was less than two years since my last visit, and the journey took forever, but boy was it worth it.

Some photos first….https://photos.app.goo.gl/24HkrxGhQciOrxWm2 including most of the building and exhibits at the wonderful new MOCAA!

On the sightseeing front, I spent a lovely sunny day on the tourist trail, to the top of Table Mountain and on harbour and canal cruises, all linked by the open top bus! A couple of museums I’d missed before – the Slave Lodge and eighteenth century Dutch home Koopmans-de-Wet House – were totally eclipsed by a visit to the new museum of contemporary African art, MOCAA (a typical acronym for such places) in its first week; a stunning reinvention of a waterfront silo by our own Thomas Heatherwick, with a world class collection of contemporary art as good as I’ve seen anywhere. Wine featured – no surprise there – with tastings at http://www.kleinezalze.co.za and http://www.lourensford.co.za and a whole day tour to Paarl, Stellenbosch & Franshhoek with a return to http://www.simonsig.co.za and firsts at http://www.glencarlou.co.za , Antonij Rupert (http://www.rupertwines.com) and http://www.annandale.co.za, where a retired Springbok player has the most rustic, least corporate winery with reds to die for.

The two major gastronomic experience were at South Africa’s top two rated restaurants, both extensive tasting menus with wine pairings (well, for me!) with more than a touch of playfulness and theatre. Lunch at http://www.lacolombe.co.za, high up in the Silvermist woods overlooking Table Mountain consisted of seven courses, a visit to the Enchanted Forest and a petit fours taste test, with more than a touch of Heston Bloomenthal about it. I loved it. The Test Kitchen’s Luke Dale-Roberts’ http://www.thetestkitchen.co.za has been reinvented since my last visit two years ago, with a ‘dark room’ of nine snacks from around the world accompanied by four cocktails – sweet, sour, bitter and salty; continuing La Colombe’s theme – then a ‘light room’ sitting at the counter watching the chefs prepare our 10 courses with 7 wine pairings! Both lived up to the hype.

Tapas-style food is very much in vogue and I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Liam Tomalin’s http://www.chefswarehouse.co.za and my first to its sister restaurant, http://www.thalitapas.co.za, with tapas on an Indian theme. Luke Dale-Roberts is at it too, with http://www.thepotluckclub.co.za in an old silo on what is now the 6th floor with night-time views across the docks. All three were excellent, and good value too. The other gastronomic treat was the first, at Terrior (http://www.kleinezalze.co.za/terroir/background) on the Kleine Zalze wine estate, a more traditional three-courser which I enjoyed very much. There is nowhere else in the world where imaginative, high quality food and outstanding wines are so affordable and it was a thrill to immerse myself in it for a third time.

So that’s another trip done. With plenty more to sample and lovely friends to enjoy it all with (try their Airbnb’s https://airbnb.com/rooms/9088391?i=10&ref_device_id=46744834b9964419cff00163edaa70046575cf9f&s=1&user_id=47873682 and https://airbnb.com/rooms/13390632?i=10&ref_device_id=46744834b9964419cff00163edaa70046575cf9f&s=1&user_id=47873682). The only question is…..when is the next visit?

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A rather belated blog and photos from my September trip to Tanzania & Zanzibar (South Africa foodie extension to follow!). Given the delay, maybe you’d like to start with the photos……

https://photos.app.goo.gl/Pbui1z7AitAxmE7o2

Back in Africa for the third consecutive year, this time in Tanzania. It’s ostensibly an archaeological tour – this is where your ancestors came from, peeps – but we had a couple of game drives and plenty of local life too.

Tanzania was created in 1964 by the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, though the latter still has a fair degree of autonomy. Though a member of the Commonwealth, Tanganyika was a British protectorate for only 48 years, formerly German East Africa, until the First World War put paid to that. Zanzibar was a Sultanate, a satellite of Oman. With almost 50m people, it’s relatively populous, but its also relatively poor, currently being raped by China for its mineral resources in exchange for some roads, like much of the rest of Africa. It’s predominantly Christian, though Zanzibar’s 95% muslim. I found the Tanzanians particularly friendly.

The trip started in the commercial (though not administrative) capital of Dar Es Salaam, a large coastal city with little to offer except an exceptional museum with an awesome collection of hominid remains dating back as far as 3m years ago. Though our hotel was out of town on Oyster Bay, it was used extensively by locals, so it was buzzing with local life. A side-trip to Bagomoyo was a dip into 18th century German colonial and French missionary history, then at Kaole further back into the 14th century Arabic settlement, before the much more ancient to come.

I fell in love with Zanzibar, it’s historic Stone Town, and our hotel on the waterfront, the Serena. Forever associated with slave history, it’s a maze of streets and alleyways, rather wild fish and veg markets, visible slave history, a lively Dhow harbour and a couple of Sultan’s palaces, now faded glory, seeped in the history of its most famous princess, Salme. We walked around it three times in different directions, taking in different things each time. Africa meets Arabia.

When we arrived in Irina, we felt we had landed in real Africa. Sadly, the hotel was too! Before we got there we scrambled up a hill to our first rock art site, Igeleke, which was well worth the effort. Irina was also the base for our sojourn to Ismilia, a dry basin which floods during the rainy seasons and is littered with early stone age weapons and implements up to 2.5m years old. The rains and winds have eroded to create pillars which make a fascinating terrain, though the sand is a challenge to walk on. A spectacular location nonetheless.

Our next stop was our first brush with wildlife, in Tangire National Park. Near the swamp, it was like the artistic prehistoric panoramas we’d seen in the National Museum, but live – elephants, wildebeest, zebra and several members of the antelope family in abundance. Elsewhere in the park, animals continued to be plentiful and we also saw giraffe, buffalo, ostrich. warthog, guinea fowl and a distant leopard in a tree. We ended up at a lodge just outside the park which proved to be the best accomodation yet, canvas and wooden en suite cabins on stilts on a hillside with great views, and terrific food.

The three-hour drive south-west to Kolo was our first proper road-trip, an opportunity to soak up roadside village life. Here it was camping rather than last night’s glamping. There was no accomodation nearby, just a campsite without tents & electricity and limited water, so our tents were transported five hours from Arusha and our cook worked wonders cooking with gas. We stopped at a village en route to purchase small lidded buckets to act as improvised chamber pots (too much information?)! We were here for more rock art and the climb to the fascinating black & white paintings was more than repaid. The late afternoon light made for gorgeous views over the landscape. Half of us felt unable to undertake the following morning’s more strenuous hike to the red paintings, chilling out in the camp.

Our second road-trip covered the same ground as the journey there for the first half, then on to Karatu, our base for a sortie into the Ngorongoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge and then to Lake Eysai. This was the last segment of the trip, packed with highlights. Ngorongoro is a crater 25m in diameter teeming with wildlife. In addition to the animals we’d seen in Tangire, we also saw lions, oryx, tree hyrax, baboons, vervet monkeys, a pool packed full of hippos and a whole load of gorgeous birds. It was a magical landscape and a feast of wildlife (well, not literally!).

When I was in Newfoundland exactly one year earlier, I visited a site where the Vikings landed more than 500 years before Columbus , where they had met and traded with native Americans. It was suggested to me that this was the first meeting of the two branches of the human race, which originated here in Tanzania and migrated north, then east and west. This caught my imagination and is one of the reasons I visited Tanzania, to visit the origin of our ancient ancestors. The gorge has uncovered bones and tools / weapons dating back 3m years, and specific evidence of the predecessors of homo sapiens as well as the first humans themselves. Sometimes it’s the significance of a place rather than what’s there, and so it was here. Truly inspirational.

Our final day was spent in the Lake Eysai region, visiting three different peoples, starting with the Hazade tribe, bushmen, modern day hunter-gatherers who sleep under the stars and seem to be high most of the time. We went on the meet the Datonga metal workers, descendants of iron age people, now working with scrap metal. A second Datonga group were pastoralists and here we were made very welcome by the women, perhaps because our guide was one of them. It was a fascinating if controversial day. Some consider these visits like a human zoo, others a symbiotic relationship which contributes to the community through education and other projects. You decide.

When I decided to add a food & wine week in Cape Town, visiting friends Janet & Andrew, I hadn’t researched the journey. It took 24 hours and involved four flights, four road transfers and another night in Dar Es Salaam, but it was worth it. That’s the next instalment……

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Here we are again, for the 30-something year. This time we started with food & wine at Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year, http://www.timberyard.co, where the food was lovely, the wine list too much of a tome and the staff doing cool a touch too much aloof. Still, it’s the food that matters most and here it excelled. On to the first cultural highlight with the Philhamonia and the wonderful Edinburgh Festival Chorus under Peter Pan conductor Andrew Davies for a rare outing of Elgar’s oratorio King Olaf. Unfathomable narrative, but musically exhilarating, with three good soloists to boot. The Usher Hall crowd were a bit too restrained; they should think themselves very lucky indeed.

Our fringe started with a little gem called Jess & Joe at TraverseTwo, a growing up story with a difference, told by the characters acting out what has already happened to them. Lovely writing, beautiful performances and unpredictable. I left welled up, with a warm glow. The first art was Beyond Caravaggio at the Scottish National Gallery which I missed, intentionally because of their dreadful gallery space, at the NG in London. Here in a proper gallery, the handful of Caravaggios are wonderful, but served to show up the rest, those he influenced. On to the Book Fest for a Q&A with Dominic Dromgoole, responsible for two of the most inspirational theatrical events of my lifetime, both in the last five years – Globe to Globe, every Shakespeare play in a different language, and the Hamlet World Tour to every country in the world. Insightful, with some great anecdotes and excellent audience engagement. I queued up to get my book signed and he was just as friendly and engaging one-to-one. More art with True to Life, realistic art from the twenties and thirties, including usual suspects like Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights, but lots new to me. Worth the schlep out to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a place Lothian Transport seems determined to wipe off the map. Then our first comedy, Ed Byrne at Assembly George Square Theatre, who I’ve been drawn to since his recent TV travel programmes with Dara O’Briain but have never seen. Very funny, very engaging, a bit of a lag in the middle, but a treat nonetheless. Late night supper at the delightfully named http://www.angelswithbagpipes.co.uk. where excellent food combined with friendly service to great effect. A lovely first full day.

Sunday started early with something more appropriate for a late night slot, Wild Bore at TraverseOne, which the critics seem to have taken against, unsurprisingly given that they loom large. It’s three women talking out of their, well, arses, mostly quoting vitriolic reviews of their shows and others, but it evolves and changes rather a lot, and I loved the combination of subversiveness, surprise, anarchy and humour. The next show over at Stand Six couldn’t be more of a contrast – that’s the fringe for you – with poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading her work, and multi-brass-and woodwind-instrumentalist John Sampson chipping in. A sombre start with First World War poems, the tone lightened and it became funny and cheeky; a rarger charming hour. I rested before the day’s main event, back at the Usher Hall. Edward Gardner brought his new band, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, along with a cast of soloists to die for led by Stuart Skelton, and they took us all hostage with an extraordinary interpretation of Britten’s operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes. The usually reserved Usher Hall crowd justifiably erupted. I doubt I’ll ever hear it that good again; a highlight in a lifetime of concert-going. Emotionally drained, I needed a drink before I joined the others at http://www.mumbaimansionedinburgh.co.uk where the food was a delicious new spin on Indian cuisine, but the staff rushed and harassed us too much.

With such an extraordinary start, things had to take a bit of a dip and so it was in (full) Day Three. It started well at that Edinburgh institution, the International Photographic Exhibition, though there were a few too many contrived, overly posed shots for my taste. The day’s first theatre saw the normally reliable Paines Plough deliver a mediocre and rather pointless piece called Black Mountain in their mobile Roundabout theatre at Summerhall, about a couple seeking to rescue their relationship when his ex turns up, or does she? A mildly thrilling atmospheric thriller with cardboard performances. As my companion said, it would have been better on the radio. From here, stand-up Dominic Holland at the Voodoo Rooms lifted things significantly with the brilliantly observational, autobiographical humour of a 50–year-old who’s career has been eclipsed by his 21-year-old son. Then back to Summerhall for Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies, a somewhat slight piece about renewing an old friendship, and Skelmersdale!, which never rose to the giddy heights of their Solid Life of Sugar Water in 2015. We ended on a high with another terrific meal at http://www.lovagerestaurant.co.uk Food & wine eclipsed culture on Day Three, but there are three more full days to go……..

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There’s nowhere else like India. A throbbing mass of humanity which is both anarchic (illustrated perfectly on the road, where they ignore every rule going) and deeply spiritual. It dawned on me here why the two most populous nations on Earth have taken divergent approaches to economic growth. Unlike China, this is a democracy, the world’s largest. The economy is spread across more sectors. There is less urbanisation (half as many cities over 1m). Above all, though, they haven’t made a faustian pact for materialism at all costs; India retains its spiritual dimension. 

It’s around twenty years since I was last here and my previous three trips have all been in the north. This one is coast-to-coast in the south, from Chennai (Madras) to Kochi (Cochin) with a solo extension back inland to Bengaluru (Bangalore). I covered three of the southern states, each with a very different character and very different things to see.

Here’s the photos, in case you can’t be arsed to read on. https://goo.gl/photos/EobEQTZKqEezEMNXA

We started in Tamil Nadu, the temple state, and its capital Chennai, the country’s fourth largest city, at nine million people. It doesn’t have a lot for the visitor, but provided an entry and starting point. It’s enormous fort, originally built by the Portuguese but mostly occupied by the British, is full of government buildings – and India does bureaucracy better than just about anyone else – with the first Anglican church outside England sitting incongruously in the middle, fading away before your eyes. Nearby Marina Beach is a long stretch of sand on the Bay of Bengal with fishing boats and people lazing, but when you get close the litter is overwhelming. There’s a catholic church where believers flock to see the relics of Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, and more interestingly for me, an enormous colourful Hindu temple full of people doing unfathomable but fascinating spiritual things.

From here on it was temples-a-g-go starting with Mahabalipuram on the coast, a Unesco world heritage site with monolithic rock temples (each carved out of one piece of stone), a shore temple, some extraordinary bas reliefs beside a cave temple and modern day stonemasons carving for contemporary homes. One of the great things about India is the survival of so many crafts like this. We also encountered rope-makers, tile-makers, potters, weavers and bronze casting. India is such an enterprising country, where people just seem to set up a business at the roadside. If you have a sewing machine, you can just sit by the road, people will bring you clothes to repair and you’ve got yourself a business!

After a chain hotel in Chennai, Pondicherry provided our first boutique hotel in a side street mansion in the Tamil quarter with rooms overlooking two courtyards. You wouldn’t really know it was a French colony until just over 50 years ago if you stayed in the Tamil quarter, but when you cross into the French quarter, you find yourself in wide tree-lined boulevards with French names, a very different architecture, a corniche along the Bay of Bengal (with a cleaner beach) and the odd statue of some Frenchman associated with the colony. If only they’d left the recipe for croissants behind. Out of town we visited Auroville, a very welcoming alternative community struggling to continue since its founders died. 

Another fascinating temple complex in Darasuram en route to our next destination, Thanjivar, where the biggest temple complex yet awaited. Here we had a 48-hour veggie experience and I loved it, though the lack of gin became a bone of contention as it was what I fancied most for my 65th birthday. In the end I took my own and they were too embarrassed to charge for the tonic after I awarded them my Worst Stocked Bar in India prize. They don’t really get meat or alcohol here.

Chettinad is a state within a state where wealthy merchants have dispersed around the world leaving behind enormous mansions and an amazing cuisine, some of which was demonstrated for us before a brilliant banquet at one of the mansions (our hotel) with lots of dishes served on a banana leaf which you could fold up and recycle to the animals. No dishwashers needed here.

Madurai was our second big city, whose only attraction was…..yes, you guessed, it’s enormous colourful temple complex, but well worth the visit for that alone. Whilst inside the heavens opened and we left drenched, wading ankle-deep in the water which had accumulated in a matter of minutes. The Autumn monsoon had failed, but this was some attempt at catch-up.

From here we climbed into the hills, into tea country, and our second state Kerala, a combination of mountains and backwaters. Munnar is surrounded by carefully manicured tea plantations, probably the most beautiful agricultural landscape you will find anywhere in the world. In fact, there wasn’t a lot else there, well apart from tea factories, a tea museum and lots of opportunity to drink and buy tea!

Back down at sea level again for the backwaters of Kerala – a combination of lake, river and canal, a sort or rural Venice. Our lakeside hotel was in gorgeous grounds with each cottage having its own outdoor plunge pool / Jacuzzi. A lazy cruise through along the rivers and backwaters was a real highlight. Nearby Kochi (Cochin) was back to street-life, though we had another lovely hotel delightfully named Fragrant Nature, in the former East India Company building. The Chinese fishing nets on the riverbank were particularly enthralling. Here we dispersed, a sad moment as I’d enjoyed the company of the group and formed new friendships with some.

It was me & driver Ali for the next four days, returning once more to the hills, heading into third state Karnakata, but this time to proper hill stations (like Simla and Darjeeling in the north), based in Coonoor in a 150-year-old priory converted to a hotel at the beginning of the 20th century. They had ginger sponge pudding on the menu (though no custard!). A side trip to Ooty saw some proper colonial hangovers – a botanical garden, boating lake, formal gardens and an Anglican church with a 100% Indian congregation belting out familiar hymns in English. The return to Coonoor on the ‘toy train’ descending 1500 feet in twists and turns capped a lovely day.

The descent from the north took us to a more barren landscape of red earth and scrub in which tigers and panthers hide, and in my case remained hidden. Mysore proved to be a treat, notably for the OTT Maharajah’s palace, but there was also a mountaintop temple complex containing a beautiful 2000-year-old solid gold statue and we managed to get a real close-up view whilst it was waiting for it’s boat ride prior to being paraded for pilgrims at an all-night vigil. The Hindu’s do have the best gods!

Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan may be the most fascinating least known figures in 17th century Indian history and my brilliant local guide brought their story to life in Srirangapatna where the highlight was the summer palace painted with scenes of successful battles, later occupied by Wellington (who didn’t seem offended by the depiction of losses to the French, though later less statesmanlike Brits did’t feel quite the same). We ended at the ghats where all life was on view – bathing, swimming, washing and rituals to mark the dead’s passing to the afterlife. After this, there was only enough time for a whistle-stop tour if Bengaluru (Bangalore)’s public buildings before the last night and early flight home.

You can say what you like about colonialism, and I certainly won’t defend it, but we did leave India with one of the world’s best rail infrastructure, a common language which has facilitated the democracy they love and given them a competitive advantage in global competition and a passion for education. The Portuguese left Catholicism and little else and the French didn’t even leave the recipe for croissants! A lovely trip to a unique country.

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