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Bosnia Hertzogvina…..rather trips off the tongue…..conjours up Eurovisions…..

I almost cancelled this trip after BA stranded me in Belgrade in April and changed the Sarajevo flights from daily to twice per week meaning a 5 or 7 night stay rather then the planned 4. Well I’m so glad I didn’t as it has been a quite extraordinary five days…..
My penthouse (attic!) at the ’boutique’ hotel (
www.hotelmichele.ba) is great – central location, masses of space, beautifully furnished with antiques and the owners are welcoming and helpful. The city is situated on a small river in a valley surrounded by mountains. The white stones of the graveyards scattered over the mountainsides are a constant reminder of the recent turbulent history. A walk along the main street is like walking back in time from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Ottoman Empire, from Europe to the Middle East. It feels more like a town than a city but there is much to see and do – mosques, churches, Ottoman houses, museums and galleries – and its very high on the moochability scale. 


It’s a very cultured city with music, art and film being particularly popular. I always try and see contemporary art wherever I go and here I was particularly taken with the unique way they curated the collection at the National Gallery. I was very puzzled as it didn’t seem to be by period, style, school or artist – then I realised it was by colour, each room filled with paintings of similar colour! A first, I think.
You can’t really escape the war, and you shouldn’t. Any building over 13 years old is covered in bullet and mortar holes. Many buildings have yet to be re-built. Two places in particular bring it home to you. The first is the Histroy Museum, where a whole floor is given over to the people’s perspective of a seige which lasted almost 4 years. The improvised cooking devices and balcony vegetable gardens say everything you need to know. At the Tunnel Museum, you see first hand how the resistance, badly let down by the UN (as always, it seems) dug a tunnel 800m under the airport which for years became the only lifeline for people and supplies – 12 million movements of people which kept the city alive whilst the rest of the world watched the genocide and ethnic cleansing by the Serbs, determined to replace Yougoslavia with a Greater Serbia. They had even created a track and improvised stretchers and chairs to transport the old and injured through the tunnel. I was lucky to be there at the same time as some French UN soldiers so I benefited from a talk by the son of the man whose house was the tunnel entrance.
One of the advantages of staying 5 days was the opportunity to travel out of the city. I was determined to get to a remote village called Lukomir, but there was no public transport and no travel company would take me…..then the son of the hotel owner fixed it for me. I was a little concerned when a woman of a certain age (mine!) with a Fiat Uno turned up. Then she told me she’d never been there herself. When she asked directions the first time I began to wonder if this was a good idea. By the sixth request for directions I was convinced we wouldn’t make it. Then I remembered the number of landmines still buried in these mountains…..The seventh request was to a couple of policemen who had a photocopied map which ended before the area in question and who themselves had no idea…..but they did have a radio and some directions were provided by the observation tower high up in the mountains. We got lost once more but we met a man in a 4WD from the Highways Dept who said ‘follow me’. Of course, we couldn’t keep up with him but by now there was only one dirt track so we persisted for 12 km and struck gold. Lukomir is extraordinary – a village still operating on medieval lines, as remote as anywhere I’ve been in Europe, perched on the edge of a deep canyon. We were adopted by a lovely old lady who provided thick Bosnian coffee and a loo and later a lunch of potato & onion pie and yogurt she’d made that morning. The only other visitors to the village that day were a couple of people from National Geographic TV researching a documentary. There was also a student from Ottowa University living there temporarily whilst he writes his book on the local ethno-biology (whatever that is!). It was an amazing experience – the mountain scenery and the untouched life of the village- a highlight in a lifetime of travelling.
My second trip was less eventful – but still very worthwhile. I took the train through the mountains to Mostar. Once you had worked out how to live with BH Railways smoking policy (All Smoking) for 2 x 2.25 hours, the journey was spectacular. Half of the trip is through tunnels and somehow the excitement of exiting a tunnel to another, different view was better than continuous scenery. Mostar was badly bombed by the Croats, which I find difficult to fathom as they themselves were on the receving end (with BH and Kosova) of Serb agression. Amongst other things, the magnificent Ottoman bridge was destroyed. It has been beautifully restored by Turkey, which is rather appropriate, and the old town has a new life. It is a lovely place though again you can’t get away from the war. The cemetary in the centre of town was almost exclusively occupied by the graves of people who died between 1992 and 1995, most of them teenagers or in their 20s. Its impossible not to be moved.
Back in Sarajevo, Joan Baez returned to a wondeful welcome (she was airlifted in during the war) to sing her songs of peace at a free open air concert as part of the July Festival where there are free concerts almost daily. A touching encore of Imagine seemed to say it all.
I have been as moved by this visit as I was in Tibet and Ethiopia, but through the tears it somehow leaves you filled with hope. This is proper travelling…..
…..and here are some photos to accompany my words…..


You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Bosnia July 2008
Bosnia July 2008
by Gareth
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The Vortex

One of the most un-Coward of Coward plays and way ahead of its time, this 1920’s piece dared to cover issues like adultery (mature ladies with toy boys in fact!) and drug dependency. It isn’t as dark or stylised as the 1989 Philip Prowse production with Rupert Everett and Maria Aitkin, but it is very well staged and performed. Somehow, though, it left me rather cold and seemed like just another night in the West End. I don’t think two intervals between three 30 min acts help the dramatic flow.

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I’ve wanted to see the Tiger Lillies again since Shockheaded Peter zonks ago when their songs absolutely made the show. They are unique and quirky, but this is more of a punk gothic cabaret / concert than a show. Though I enjoyed much of it, they completley destroy their own concept when they descend into childish unsubtle crudeness. It’s a shame, because it’s a great idea which they turn into a lost opportunity.

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The Minotaur

Going to the opera is often like visiting a museum. The same operas are wheeled out – mostly 19th century, sometimes 18th century, occasionally 20th century – which producers try and breath new life into; often failing in a sea of pretentious up-dating. 

I can only recall 4 new operas on the Covent Garden main stage in the 25 years I’ve been going there and only Thomas Ades ‘The Tempest’ and Harrison Birtwhisltle’s ‘Gawain’ were truely successful. Well, here’s a third, also by Birtwhistle. It’s a great story for opera – half man / half beast, born in punishment for infidelity, left in a labyrinth to devour sacrificial innocents in revenge – and it gets a terrific production by Stephen Langridge with highly effective designs from Alison Chitty.

The music is brilliant at conveying the drama, with lots of extra percussion at the sides of the stalls circle, and the masked chorus peering down from the terrrace of what seems like a bullring bring real tension to the scenes of sacrifice. The harpies who descend after the kill are terrifying. John Tomlinson is wonderful as the minotaur.

This is great theatre; I loved it.

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I wish I was fluent in French, so that I could see this play in both languages and find out how much of it is Reza and how much of it is Hampton…. and to see it with a bog standard cast, to see how much of it’s success is writing and how much casting (as was the case with Art)…..and to see it directed by someone else to see how much Matthew Warchus’ brilliant staging makes a difference……Anyway, as it is, four fine actors deliver some great lines perfectly in a clever piece which is great at changing direction on a word and is never predictable – and has more depth than a simple comedy too.


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Let’s start with the good news. Almost all of the performances are very good. Darius Danesh, in particular, is a revelation. John Napier’s use of space (with some re-cycled ideas from Starlight Express) serves the ‘epic’ nature of the show very well (thought the dress circle walkway is underused). I have never been to a musical where the sound is so good you can hear every word (though sometimes not knowing who’s singing them) without being beaten into submission by the volume. Unfortunately, the show just isn’t good enough for all this talent. It’s seems odd to say this, but it feels that by rushing to cram in everything they deliver something that appears slow (and at 3hrs 45mins is way too long). It switches style from melodrama to realism and then they occasionally try to ‘do a Kneehigh’ but can’t pull it off (the birth scene, the child’s death scene…..). Scenes are so short that characters don’t develop and songs are by-and-large mere snatches – when you do get a fully formed song, it aint half bad. The sum of all this is, to borrow from the leading man, you just don’t give a damn about anyone. I have rarely felt so uninvolved or unmoved by anything. How one of the world’s most talented and experienced directors of musicals decided to take the over-ambitious work of a novice straight to one of the highest profile stages in the world is the real mystery. After 14 or so musical hits, I think he’s about to get his first big musical flop

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This is a stunning adaptation of Greek Tragedy framed by South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. There are three superb central performances and one of the most effective chorus’ I’ve ever seen in GT. True drama – gripping, moving, harrowing but ultimately uplifting. Two weeks in a 200 seat theatre is not enough!

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Well here we are back in BA after visiting 13 wineries in Uruguay, Chile and Argentina – more of that later!
There should be signs at the airport announcing ‘Carnivores Only’ and ‘No Tee-totals’ as this city – indeed, these countries – live for red meat and wine. By the time we left for Uruguay, 3 days after we arrived, my body was already re-acting to the dietary changes (well, maybe not the wine!).
It´s 27 years since I was here and it´s mostly unrecognisable or just so long ago I can´t remember. After a severe economic crisis at the beginning of this decade, Argentina seems to be settling down, though it has been over-taken by Chile´s tiger economy. The main sign of what happened is that the banks are all now overseas names like HSBC, Santander etc. plus queues of people outside them on paydays determined to convert their salary into cash – just in case it all happens again.
We decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel; it’s situated in the residential Recoleta neighbourhood and is very comfortable. The first 36 hours were a bit disorientating – we were allowed to check in surprisingly early, the mothers of the disappeared ones had gone by the time we arrived at Plaza de Mayo 15 minutes before they were due to begin their vigil, breakfast arrived 45 mins early…..it was only after a taxi arrived to collect us an hour early did we learn that we were operating our own time zone one hour behind the rest of BA!  
Our 3 days of sightseeing took in Recoleta cemetery (an astonishing  ‘city for the dead’ containing a maze of streets of mausoleums of many architectural styles and sizes), the colourful La Boca quarter (the former port), the Evita museum and some lovely Latin American art at MALBA (the new modern art gallery), the Fine Arts Museum and a gallery in La Boca dedicated to a local artist Quinquela Martin who I fell in love with (thanks, Joanna!). We managed to take in a terrific tango show – so much hair grease and hairspray!, but as sexy as you can get with clothes on – and far too much red meat for our own good before we met the wine tour group at the hydrofoil terminal and headed for Uruguay.

Tango, dog-walkers (students who get paid to walk up to 15 dogs at the same time!)  the mothers of the disappeared ones weekly vigil (I found it deeply moving when I caught it two weeks later) and the personality cult that is Evita completely define Argentina. It is in many ways very European, but these things make it unique.
Uruguay was also re-tracing steps and though the old city of Colonia had stood the test of time, Montevideo – which I fell in love with all those years ago – looked shabby. It´s a small wine producing country, with little exported to Europe, but we had two great and contrasting visits – Uruguay´s largest and ‘flagship´producer Juanico (www.juanico.com) who had the best wines (though still a family business with the 21-year old son in his 6th year of wine-making!) and the Pisano family winery (www.pisanowines.com) which was like visitng your eccentric uncle who got everything out of the cupboard for an impromptu party – the welcome was extraordinary. Their distinctive grape variety is Tannat but there are many more being grown today. In addition to our winery visits, we also had a dinner where we tasted wines from wineries we couldn´t get to during this whistle-stop visit to Uruguay.
Next stop was Santiago de Chile, which has turned into a booming sophisticated city and quite took my breath away. The pre-colombian (before Columbus) art museum was a terrific diversion from wine – wonderful 1500-3000 year old sculptures and pottery with a special exhibition on ‘sex and power!- but we were soon into Chilean wines with a dinner at the Torres Wine Bar (their winery was too far south for our visit) and then on the road to seven very different wineries.
Chile has been known mostly for budget Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but in the last 10-15 years there has been much investment in premium wineries and they are now getting global reputations.Their distinctive grape variety is Carmenere, but there are many more grown, and the distinctive wine-making feature is the big range in temperature from hot days to cool night.
My favourite was Montes (www.monteswines.com) where their values permeated everything from the team-working in the vineyard to the feng shui-ed building. They even played Gregorian chants in their cellar to provide the right atmosphere for the wines to age! They gave us a tour of their magnificent new $6m winery, spectacular wines to taste in a room overlooking the mountain vineyard and a wonderful BBQ, with more wines, in the vineyard which we reached on trailers driven by tractor. If you have a Waitrose near you, buy Montes Alpha Syrah @ 10 pounds and you´ll see what I mean.
Another favoutite was Antiyal (www.antiyal.com), a small boutique winery set up by a wine maker who also works for bigger ‘corporate’ wineries but whose heart is in his organic & bio-dynamic project. His wife prepared an alfresco lunch in their home to accompany our tasting. Again, such magnificent hospitality and lovely people.
My third favourite was De Martino (www.demartino.cl) whose scientific approach and openness to knowledge and learning makes them stand out. Look out for their wines in the UK as they represent great value for money.
We also visited Casa Silva (www.casasilva.cl) who were very hospitable (though I didn´t take to being filmed for Chilean television!) but whose wines were a bit bog standard; Matetic (www.mateticvinyards.com) with another wonderful new winery and some great wines; and Lapostolle (www.casalapostolle.com) which is an absurd attempt by the Grand Marnier family to make French wines in Chile – a brand new winery which felt like a factory, a wine-maker who seemed unhappy with a lack of autonomy (now, why does that sound familiar?) and wines which are over-rated and over-priced.
For the middle weekend we took over the house on the Tarapaca Estate (www.tarapaca.cl) and tasted virtually all of their wines with great lunches and dinners and just chilled the rest of the time. By now the group had really gelled and it was like a house-party at an English country house / Spanish estancia / French chateau (not that I’ve ever experienced any of them!).
The drive over the Andes back to Argentina was spectacular, though with roadworks and lengthy border procedures it took the best part of 12.5 hours. We did of course manage to fit in a lunch overlooking a lake and high peaks with a tasting of Chilean wines we’d missed and an on-bus blind tasting of wines we each bought for the purpose ! 
Argentina has also been developing premium wines; the distinctive feature of this region is that it’s a desert irrigated by the snow melt from the Andes and the distinctive grape variety is Malbec, but again there are many more.  2008 will probably be a poor harvest as they have had unseasonable rain (so buy up 2006 and 2007 while you can!).
Our time in Argentina’s Mendosa wine region was more limited but we managed to take in 4 wineries. My favourite was the small Cassone Family winery (www.familiacassone.com.ar) who produce great Malbec for c. 8 pounds (only available in the UK direct from their distributors – Justinieri and Brooks). They were lovely people who were so proud of their wine and their country and so grateful for our visit and our positive comments.
The architecture at the Catena winery (www.catenawines.com), where Helen and I (and out new friend Margo) made a private visit, was better than the wines. It was built as a Mayan pyramid (why? we’re in Argentina!) and was truely spectacular. The same at Salentein (www.kilkisalentein.com) where they had a great art collection and the buildings were like temples – the wine tasting room tables were like alters! We had been told that hail occasionally damaged crops – then over lunch at Salentein we had the most extraordinary hailstorm! The Zuccardi family’s hospitality was wonderful (www.familiazuccardi.com), Here we had a tour, tasting, dinner and tango !

The tour group were great and our ‘wine guide’ terrific. I learned a lot and despite my pre-tour gung-ho ‘I’m a wine drinker not a taster’ I learned to drink less and enjoy more (I didn’t spit much but I did leave a lot); that there’s no correlation between price, quality and taste (some of my favourites were cheap and some of the expensive ones were disappointing); and that food is as important to the enjoyment of wine is as wine is to the enjoyment of food.

Take a look at my picasa album by following this link:


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