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This is an article from The Observer on 13th July for which I was interviewed. You’ll have to scroll down to para 28 to find my few words of wisdom, but I’ve hightlighted them for you in case you haven’t got time !
IS IT CURTAINS FOR THE CRITICS?
An army of arts bloggers is posting internet reviews on subjects from grand opera to soap opera – instant, global and free. US newspapers have begun to ditch their reviewers as digital alternatives flourish. Could it happen here? On the blog, Jay Rayner asks for your thoughts. Join the conversation
Jay Rayner
Sunday July 13 2008
The Observer

It was a croquette of pig’s head that finally forced me to recognise the threat posed by the blogosphere. It was served at the Westerly, a restaurant in Reigate, Surrey, in April last year. I knew nothing of the place, or its chef, but I had a copy of the menu, and it was full of things I like to eat: Jerusalem artichokes and wild garlic, snails and pigeon and Amalfi lemons. It had the potential to be everything a newspaper restaurant critic dreams of – a genuine find outside London, serving terrific food at a reasonable price.

It was all that and more. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My companion agreed. Simon Majumdar, a one-time publishing executive, is a food blogger. We had met on internet food discussion boards, which he had left behind in favour of his blog, Dos Hermanos, so named because he writes it with his brother, Robin. It is their account of eating out across the world. A restaurant critic needs a companion, and Simon had regularly been mine. We both adored the gazpacho and the rillette, the lamb with its butter-rich mashed potato and the sorbet made with Amalfi lemons. And of course we loved the pig’s head croquette with sauce gribiche, for we are both men with a taste for the cheaper cuts. At the end I asked for a copy of the menu, paid the bill and we went home.

Within two hours of getting back to my desk, Simon’s review was online. He did not explain why he had been there. He did describe it as his best meal of the year so far. My eye strayed to his mention of the pig’s head, with mounting panic: ‘a large disc of head meat fried perfectly in crumbs to a crisp coating which when punctured gave off a steamy aroma of pork’. Spot on. Simon might not have been paid for it, but he is a good writer. And a lot of people would read him. Granted, not as many as read The Observer. Even today, with the cult of the Dos Hermanos blog fully developed, it rarely gets more than 7,000 readers a week.

The problem was that his readers would be opinion formers: not just chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists but other hardcore restaurant goers. And when my review was printed almost three weeks later they would all assume I was the one who had taken my lead from Simon rather than the other way round; that the real finds were being made by the amateurs. The blogger had beaten me into print. I had no choice. I called Simon and asked him to take down his post until my version had appeared. Ever the gentleman, he agreed. From that point on I concluded I could no longer view the blogosphere as source material or even mere displacement activity. Now it was the competition.

It could be worse. At least those of us in Britain who make our living from our opinions are still gainfully employed. Across America it’s a different story. Paid newspaper critics from a number of disciplines are being laid off or redeployed, their judgment deemed superfluous to requirements in the age of the net. Book review pages are becoming increasingly skinny. Television sections are disappearing. In April, Sean Means, the film critic of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, used his blog to publish a roll call of his movie-reviewing colleagues who, since the spring of 2006, were no longer in the opinion business: ‘Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated … Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed … Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off …’ At that point it ran to 28 names across the US media but since then it has stretched inexorably on.

Others soon started taking notice, with both the entertainment industry journal Variety and the Los Angeles Times publishing large pieces on the death of the critic. As Patrick Goldstein put it in the LA Times: ‘Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theatre or other areas of the arts. While economics are clearly at work here – seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics any more – it seems clear we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.’

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. In the movie world two sites are credited with decimating the profession. Ironically, Rotten Tomatoes, founded in August 1998, was designed to give readers access to the opinions of a bunch of critics. If 60 per cent or more of the reviews are good, the film gets a fresh rating; fewer than 60 per cent and it’s rotten. The site became so popular that in 2004 it was bought by IGN Entertainment which, in turn, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (which, as a newspaper publisher, also pays critics). Metacritic, launched in January 2001, also combines reviews but across various media and arts, including films, video games and books. It too became so successful it was bought out, by CNET networks. Since then, blogs, written by unpaid enthusiasts, have proliferated to
 such a degree that in some areas of the arts their writers are being courted by the PR machine.

The old media have, predictably, been outraged. After all, their jobs are on the line. ‘People who make these decisions,’ says Sean Means of the host of sackings, ‘get it into their heads that people who want to read about new movies have lots of places to do so, from fan sites, through blogs to critical aggregators, but they are being short-sighted. The reason people buy newspapers is to hear that particular voice.’ So is he saying that the opinions expressed for free on blogs are not of value? Not necessarily, he says. ‘The truth is, though, that there are very few amateurs who are better than professionals. If you really are good at it you figure out some way to get paid for it. At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion.’

The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London’s Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene’s film reviews and Kenneth Tynan’s first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

‘We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,’ says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, ‘and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.’

But in a globalised world where something posted on the net in Chicago one minute is read in London the next, no trend is ever localised. So how web-savvy are Britain’s crew of professional opinion-peddlers? Are they ready to take on the challenge from the ones who do it for free? There’s only one way to find out: ask them. So we assembled a collection of Britain’s longest-serving and most distinguished paid critics who, between them, have more than two centuries’ experience in telling us what they think, and sought their opinions. It’s what they’re for.

Andrew and Phil have lots of opinions too, and tonight I’m hoping to hear some of them. It is a warm evening in Waterloo and we are at the Young Vic for a preview performance of Berthold Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan, starring Jane Horrocks, a gritty little number full of cement dust, exploitation of the workers, prostitution and discordant, irritatingly Brechtian songs.

Of course, paid newspaper critics do not review productions on previews, but Andrew and Phil – they insist on first names only, to maintain the web-enhanced ‘mystique’ – are not paid by anybody. They write a blog called the West End Whingers, which they set up in June 2006 after sitting through what they regarded as an appalling production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, starring Juliette Lewis. Both middle-aged, long-time theatregoers, they were fed up with each other’s whingeing so, as they explain on the blog, they ‘decided to whinge at the world instead’.

Their reviews, written under one voice, are sharp and irreverent in a mannered, high camp sort of way. Their destruction of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife at the National Theatre, written for the most part as a play about the imagined receipt of the script, is laugh-out-loud funny – and a damn sight more enjoyable than the hand-wringing from some of the paid critics when they held forth over what was agreed to be a sub-standard work by the revered playwright. (‘[Frayn’s] deliberately repeated bits over and over again,’ they imagine National director Nicholas Hytner howling, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have given him a word count. It’s the oldest trick in the book.’)

As we wait for The Good Soul to start I ask them if they feel they have a responsibility to anybody. (As with the no-surnames rule they also insist on being interviewed as one person, while telling you that they have never been a couple.) ‘We’re only here for our own amusement,’ they say. ‘We have no obligation to sit through it on behalf of our readers.’ Walking out of plays is a speciality of the West End Whingers. If they don’t like it, they leave. After all, their tickets aren’t free. They have paid for almost every one, bar those for Swimming With Sharks starring Christian Slater. ‘We didn’t care for it and we said as much. We haven’t been invited back to the West End since.’

Their beautifully described midway departure from an early preview of the epoch-long Gone With The Wind was, according to a number of people in the theatre world, the first sign that all was not well with the musical. So do they think the mainstream critics have a role? ‘Oh yes. Someone has to stay until the curtain to see what happens at the end.’ Would they like to be paid for what they do? ‘I think if we were paid it would mean we would have to play the game, which would be boring.’

They also have no desire to work for a newspaper. ‘Endure the theatre without alcohol? Locate things in the wider discourse? No. we have no aspirations in that direction.’

There is quite a lot of alcohol tonight: before, during and after as the whingers and their entourage – me, other bloggers, a few friends of friends – settle in to enjoy themselves. Their review, when it is posted a couple of days later, seems to reflect a good night out. ‘Horrocks was great and there were many other performances to enjoy, too,’ they wrote. ‘In fact there were oodles of things to write down: great wigs, a lot of cigarette smoking, rain, wonderful props and signage…’ So no, not exactly a first-night crit of the sort Kenneth Tynan might admire. But – whisper it – it did quietly remind me more of the night I’d had than did the professional reviews I would later read.

Which is all well and good, says Charles Spencer, a theatre reviewer for the Daily Telegraph since 1991. But that doesn’t mean we should mistake what the West End Whingers do for criticism. (Which, for the record, they never claim it to be). ‘I don’t think they’re very helpful,’ Spencer says. ‘Mildly entertaining, I suppose, but that brand of camp humour doesn’t do it for me. They’re not really critics. The last thing of theirs I read was them whingeing about squeaky seats at the Old Vic.’ Then again, Spencer admits to being a bit of a web-refusenik. ‘I look at Wikipedia now and then but until a year ago I hadn’t looked at the web at all.’

Indeed it would be easy to portray many of our leading critics as a bunch of silver-backed elders of the tribe, caught on the hop by technological change. Of course, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. Gillian Reynolds, who has been writing superbly about radio since 1967, and for the Telegraph since 1975, admits she has little time for opinions on the web. ‘I just don’t want to hang around with company I don’t value. Life’s too short.’ Clement Crisp, who has been writing about dance for the Financial Times for more than 35 years, and for whom the word ‘venerable’ might have been invented, is succinct about it: ‘I don’t really understand the beastly internet.’

This is not to suggest that Crisp dismisses what bloggers are doing. ‘The people who are writing these reviews are absolutely splendid,’ he says, letting the last word sing for slightly longer than the other nine put together. ‘They are devoted ballet fans. But it has nothing to do with criticism.’ The point, he says, is that the true critic can draw on a well of experience. ‘I started going to the ballet as a child in 1943, and for the next 20 years I saw everything there was – the creation of the great new companies, the arrival of the Russian, the Danes …’ Only then did he begin to write.

Spencer agrees. ‘You’re supplying a service, one with real authority behind it. There is always going to be a need for expert opinion.’

Don’t even mention the need for the democratisation of opinion to Brian Sewell. ‘I do not believe in the democratisation of opinion. I believe in benign authority. And if we undermine the authority of critics then we shall descend into mayhem.’

Our own Philip French, film critic for The Observer for 30 years, is a little more accepting of the challenge from the bloggers. ‘People should have the right to express their opinions. The right to free speech has been extended, but you don’t have to be elitist to say that not all opinion is of equal value. There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. The risk is that bad criticism will drive good criticism out of business by sheer volume.’

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre man for more than 35 years, allows that there is a new accommodation to be made. Then again, he works for the publishers of this newspaper which, historically, has embraced the online world with more enthusiasm than others. He has been forced to join the debate on the web. His first piece for Guardian Unlimited (now guardian.co.uk) was about The Sultan’s Elephant, a public art installation involving a huge mechanical pachyderm striding through London in 2006. ‘I wrote a piece attacking it and got hundreds of comments. They clobbered me. I wasn’t used to getting such a response.’ It was a wake-up call. ‘I was suddenly aware that there was an army of people with opinions as strong as mine. Journalists of my generation have to adapt. And we have to accept that the printed word no longer has aristocratic supremacy.’

Of course, some newspaper critics are living the digital life to the full. Both Mark Shenton, drama critic of the Sunday Express, and Ian Shuttleworth, of the Financial Times, either blog or weigh in on other blogs. Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist of the Evening Standard, has long written a blog for artsjournal.com and is an avid consumer of online opinion. ‘What I see out there is quite a mixture. A lot of it is amateurish in a good sense. But I do miss incisiveness, people delivering real information and knowledge.’ He also counsels his brethren to think twice before wading in to online discussions. ‘One has to be very careful of making any comment. Bloggers are as sensitive as any diva. Criticise them and they will attack you.’

Sometimes they will attack without any encouragement. Gareth James is a freelance management consultant who has been writing reviews at whatsonstage.com for six years. There is, he argues, a shift in power towards the consumer. ‘I simply started disagreeing with the critics,’ he says. ‘They are out of step with the audience and that’s because they do it all the time. Most people go to be entertained. We go to have a good night out.’ Critics, he thinks, go for something else. It’s why he believes they write enthusiastically about the works of Pinter or Chekhov which, for the most part, he can’t abide. ‘That sort of thing is put on for the Michael Billingtons of this world, not for Gareth James.’

It was a similar sense of disconnection that got Lynne Hatwell writing her book blog, Dove Grey Reader. A community nurse with a major reading habit, who lives in the Tamar Valley on the border of Devon and Cornwall, she increasingly felt the books pages of national newspapers had nothing to offer her. ‘I had this feeling there was a literary feast going on in London but that I was not a part of it. I also didn’t feel I was being well served by the bookshops, that I had become a puppet of their three-for-two tables. I wanted to know how you find other stuff.’ Now, according to her ‘what I’m reading’ panel, she is working her way through Trauma by Patrick McGrath, Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich and, er, my latest one. Hell, the woman’s far too influential for me to let that opportunity pass me by.

She declares that she is not a literary critic or reviewer. She writes about what books mean to her. ‘There’s nothing objective about what I’m doing. I used to worry about whether what I felt about a book was the same as anybody else.’ Not any more. ‘I feel a responsibility to myself, to be transparent and honest, but also to the readers because there are some who now compile their reading lists solely from my recommendations.’ Is she posing a challenge to the books pages of national newspapers? ‘Absolutely, and one that was long overdue. For too long it was a closed shop.’

But, she says, the project was personal. In the first year she spent more than £2,000 on books. But publishers set up Google alerts, which mop up any mentions of their titles online. Soon she was receiving emails offering to supply her with details of new publications. She now gets nearly all the catalogues and free review copies of books from most publishers (except, curiously, Virago, which ignores her – but probably won’t after reading this). ‘I’ve realised that I could be used as a marketing tool, and I have to resist that. A fundamental rule is that reading still has to be a pleasure.’ Also, she doesn’t do bad reviews. If it’s on her site it’s because she likes it. ‘It’s about my emotional responses.’

Other sources of critical opinion have risen up online, their creators say, because the old media wasn’t able to handle them. Steve Bennett created chortle.co.uk, an online stand-up comedy fanzine, because there was not enough coverage in the press. ‘Even the mags that dedicated space to comedy didn’t give it much space.’ Everybody did Ricky Gervais on tour. Everybody did Bill Bailey and Lee Evans. Nobody did the smaller names. ‘To do a print version of Chortle would be very expensive whereas an internet start-up is cheap.’

Naturally, comedy publicists take notice of chortle, but it’s in film where the real PR action is. Jam, a digital marketing agency, targets bloggers. For Daniel Noy, an executive with the company, utilising their power is a no-brainer. ‘Bloggers are important because of the way the internet started. It’s a community, which means there’s a community of film fans online.’ The challenge, he argues, is to know how to use them. ‘There’s a wariness about bloggers, a sense that you can’t control them. Personally I don’t think that you should control them. Reactions can be good or bad. It’s a risk you have to take, and that’s the power of real conversation.’

Jam has begun blogger-only screenings, starting with Juno. ‘It helped that Diablo Cody, Juno’s screenwriter, was a blogger.’ But the digital marketers have to be honest. Back in 1999, the Jurassic age in web terms, Warner Brothers wanted to hold a test screening for the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West to build buzz on the net, but was so unsure of the film that it told the invited audience of online critics that they were going to watch The Matrix. The audience was furious and helped create the negativity around it that never dissipated. ‘They posted comments slagging it off and it did very badly.’

So does Noy think newspaper critics are now redundant? Not yet. ‘You can’t deny the readership of newspaper and magazines.’ Chortle’s Bennett agrees. ‘A lot of newspaper critics have got the job because they both know what they are talking about and can write,’ he says. ‘Where as a lot of bloggers may only fill one side of that equation.’

I wondered if my sometime dining companion Simon Majumdar agreed. When his last employer went bust he decided to explore the world’s eating opportunities. He came up with an idea for a book, Eat My Globe, which is out next year. He is now a paid food writer. Does he think the democratisation of opinion is a good thing? ‘You can get as many opinions as there are arseholes. Everyone’s got one. There are some good writers out on the web. Then there are some who shouldn’t be allowed to write an address on the front of an envelope.’

So the professionals still have a role? ‘I like reading you all but I don’t think any of you necessarily know more about food than I do. I read you for entertainment. If you’re not entertaining, however informative you are, there’s no reason for you existing.’ In short, he says, we can claim authority only by being good.

Finally, I alight on the killer question. Simon, would you like my job? ‘If I had the opportunity to take your job away from you,’ he says, ‘yes, I would.’ That is a reassuring vote of confidence in old media. More reassuringly, there isn’t a vacancy. At least for now.

Additional research by Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Katie Toms

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

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I’ve been lucky enough to have a friend trace my ancestry back to the middle of the nineteenth century (I have neither the patience or the organisational skills required) – thank you, Janice! This picked up a few surprises as I never realised that my maternal grandfather (who died before I was born) came from Mid Wales and that branch of the family were farmers, flannel weavers, railway labourers and slate miners from Mid Wales.

I didn’t want to find relatives, but I decided to take a look at the villages and towns where they were all born, married, lived or died so I spent four nights based near Newtown. I visited almost all the places of significance – Llanidloes, Trefeglwys, Newtown, Carno, Llanbrynmair, Darowen, Machynthleth, Pennant, Talyllyn, Abergonolwen, and Dolgellau – and found graveyards full of significant names like Humphreys (my mother’s maiden name), Rowlands, Bennet, and Tibbot. I took the nopportunity of meeting my friend Judith for a nice lunch at Penhellig on the coast, visiting Powis Castle (a magnificent national Trust property and gardens), and seeing a lot of this beautiful countryside.

My base was a magnificent Guest House called The Old Vicarage at Dolfor which had wonderful food and the weather was mostly lovely, so it really was a great experience. I’ve been jokingly calling in ‘getting in touch with my inner Welshness’ after watching a Rob Brydon programme where he coined the phrase. In truth, though, there was something moving about it all.

During my brief visit to Liverpool for Macca at Anfield, I managed to fit in a lot of art. The Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool was terrific, mixing his pictures with art and design pieces from his contemporaries. At the Walker gallery, an interesting exhibition – The Age of Steam – linking together 19th century pictures of steam trains and stations from around the world, plus modern cityscapes (including Liverpool) from Ben Johnson. By train to Crosby to see Anthony Gormley’s cast iron men along the beach, which I’d first seen on the Belgian coast a few years back and I can’t say a second visit added much to the experience. The highlight of the day-of-art was another one of Richard Wilson’s inventive ‘sculptures’ – ‘Turning the Place Over’ – where he has cut a large sphere out of the side of a disused building and mounted it on a rotor. As you look up from the pavement outside Moorfields Station, it completes a 360 turn in just over a minute. 

Back in London it was a lean month for art. Psycho Buildings at the Hayward Gallery was a fascinating collection of installations on the theme of architecture. There’s a boating lake on the roof, a room full of doll’s houses lit like a minature vilage at nightime and an inflatable sphere you can go into or bounce on top of. After a few excuses-for-exhibitions, this is the Hayward back on form. The RA’s Summer Exhibition, with the exception of the room curated by Tracy Emin!, is better than usual and worth a visit. This year it seems very bright and summery and it made me smile.

The annual pilgrimage to Taste of London, where restaurants showcase small portions of their signature dishes surrounded by food and wine related stalls, was my third and it was again fun, if a little expensive. The gang is growing and this year we numbered five.

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Albania – May 2008

There aren’t many countries where you can experience a sweep of over 3000 years of history with the old stuff and new stuff equally fascinating, but Albania is one of them. This is ancient Illyria (a contemporary civilisation of ancient Greece); subsequently a key part of both the Roman and Ottoman empires. Add to that ‘visits’ from the Greeks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Serbians, Bulgarians, Normans and Venetians (amongst others); a 15th century local warlord called Scanderbeg (who wore a helmet with a stag on top!) and an 18th / 19th century one called Ali Pasha; c.50 years of communism as a ‘closed’ country and 7 years of rampant capitalism & anarchy and you have a real cocktail ripe for exploration! Oh, I forgot the 20th century president who crowned himself King Zog….
 
The communist era was dominated by Enver Hoxha who ruled for 41 years until his death in 1985; amongst his many eccentric actions was to encourage the people to build bunkers from which they could fight the people’s war – the result is that the country is littered with between 500,000 and
1 million small concrete ‘pimples’ which have blended into the fields and hills to give Albania a unique landscape.
 
Albania abandoned communism, like the rest of Eastern Europe, in the early 90’s with the ceremonial destruction of the statues of Hoxha. Without strong leadership, it was followed by rampant capitalism, uncontrolled building (a maze of four story buildings built in parks!) and pyramid investment schemes which collapsed. This led to a period of anarchy which required international peace-keepers. It really only settled down 10 years ago and it’s astonishing how far they have come since then. Development is still uncontrolled (including the building of costal hotels on land the developer doesn’t own!), but the economy is growing, there is little sign of poverty or hardship and there’s a strong sense of moving on (c/f Serbia in April!).
 
In theory it’s a muslim country, but you’d never know it – the government official who opened up the mosques for us in Berat was wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Hot Girls, Alcohol + Myself = Good Night’!
 
Tirana is a pleasant sirprise with a nice main square and wide tree-lined boulevards. It’s popular mayor Eddie Rama (an artist and basket-ball player who is in pole position to become PM in the forthcoming elections) decided he needed a quick fix for the sea of grey communist era apartment blocks so he personally created brightly coloured designs and got art students to execute them; the result is a colourful skyscape which is effectively the world’s largest art installation. From our base here we visited costal Duress with it’s Roman ruins and the hilltop citidal city of Kruja which boasts an extraordinary museum devoted to the 15th century warlord Scanderbeg, who gave the Ottomans a run for their money. It was created by Hoxha in an attempt to draw parallels between him and Scanderbeg so that he could reflect in his glory; all references to Hoxha have now been removed and Scanderbeg still towers.
 
Our journey south took us to sites where ancient civilisations have built upon one another so that you may have Illyrian or Hellenic walls, a Roman forum, a Byzantine church and a Venetian castle all in the same place. The sites at Apollonia and Byllis were both terrific, with fascinating archeological ruins set on hills with 360 degree views. The magnificent citadel cities at Berat and Gjirokastra were a mish-mash of churches, houses, castles and fortifications dominating the local landscape.
 
We ended up on the coast at Saranda overlooking Corfu, where my wanderlust started 33 years and 8 months ago on my first visit abroad. It’s a concrete jungle with few redeeming features, but was the base for out final visits including the ancient site of Butrint, beautifuly located between Lake Butrint and the Vivari channel leading into the Ionian Sea.
 
A really fascinating trip. I shall allow the photos to tell the rest of the story….. 

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Albania 2008
Albania 2008
May 28, 2008
by Gareth
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‘Why?’ I hear you ask; well, by the end of it, so was I !

 

In recent years, I’ve been visiting that South East corner of Europe which spent most of the last half of the 20th century hiding behind the iron curtain or fighting each other – Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and later this year Albania and Bosnia – so it seemed time to visit Serbia; it is hosting the 2008 Eurovision Contest after all.

 

Well, it might be nice when it’s finished, but for now it’s either closed or it’s being built / repaired. The people seem stuck in a past where they were the centre of Yugoslavia, an artificial collection of 6 or so republics. They get grumpy (to put it mildly) when others recognise Kosovo as independent and refuse to accept that they have war criminals in their gang. They see themselves as victims and just can’t move on.

 

The highlight of the trip – mostly because it was open – was the Tito memorial & museum. It contains all the gifts he received in his lifetime, so it is a monument to bad taste as well as Tito. The highlight is, without question, the Bolivian witch-doctor costume and mask, a gift from the Yugoslavians of Bolivia (well done, Fernando; I didn’t know you had witch-doctors or Yugoslavians). It was built for queues with a sophisticated one-way pedestrian path system, but I was the only visitor during a ‘peak’ Saturday morning slot and the staff followed me around turning lights on and off. It was so silent I could almost hear the ghosts of pilgrimages past; a lot has happened in the last 20 years and poor old Tito is now ignored.

 

The end of the trip was more exciting as BA decided to leave me stranded by cancelling the return flight after I’d checked in but not telling me (in fact, they still haven’t). I was so determined to get out that I persuaded a taxi to engage in a scary  chase to the airport and  bought myself onto a Serbian flight for £192; BA have offered me £70, to which my response was ‘see you in court’.

 

Anyway, it’s a bit of a dump so for now – keep out!

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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:

http://picasaweb.google.com/peopleplus/SouthAmericanWineTour?authkey=9gwSezZNIeI

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Well, we continued to party in Nicaragua. The Hotel Colonial was quirky, colourful and fun; virtually on the main square in the lovely city of Granada. The active volcano we visited on our last full day was spewing sulpher dioxide which gave me ‘fond’ memories of fruit preparation at Robertson Foods back in the 70’s (preserving strawberries in a 6% solution of SO2) but unfortunately led to severe throat, gum and chest irritation which still lingers 10 days later despite the best efforts of 3 pharmacists.
 
The border crossing into Costa Rica wasn’t as quick as we’d hoped as our plan to bribe ourselves to the front a of a very long queue rather mis-fired (‘justice’ I hear you cry). When we got into CR, the contrast was astonishing. CR has had none of the traumas of its northern neighbours and 50 or so years of relative political stability (and the virtual abolition of its army removing the temptation for coups) has allowed them to concentrate on economic advancement, an excellent health and education system and a very responsible approach to eco-tourism. You notice the difference immediately in houses, cars, clothes etc. This maybe gives it less ‘edge’ than either Guatemala or Nicaragua, but makes for a very welcoming place.
 
Our first stop was Monte Verde. When we left the pan-American highway the countryside could have been Yorkshire, but within 25 miles we were in the cloudforest. Our lodge was very comfortable though with a rather idiosynchratic decor – the owner painted and I alone had 10 of his early works in my room; they resembled the ‘painting-by-numbers’ I did as a child. In the Monte Verde reserve we did two walks, the second of which included 8 suspension bridges over the forest canopy, which was truely spectacular. It was difficult to see smaller birds and animals close up, but we did see some mammels including sloth and two others I can’t remember the names of and you probably wouldn’t know anyway as they are specific to CR. We went to special ‘enclosed’ reserves to see frogs, butterflies & insects and hummingbirds.
 
Our second stop was La Fortuna at the foot of the active Arenal volcano. Our lodge here was in spectacular tropical gardens with the most gorgeous collection of flowers. Our first meal was in a local cafe without a licence, but beer arrived anyway in disguise. This reminded me that I had failed to mention the 36 hour alcohol ban in Guatemala during the election; there the beer and wine came in cups disguised as coffee and tea! We cruised the Penas Blancas river in rubber zodiacs (well, paddled actually – yes, me paddling a dingy!) during which we saw more sloth, iguanas, amazingly disguised bats, lots of birds and a bright emerald lizard which the locals nickname the Jesus Christ lizard (because it can walk on water for short distances!). At one point during the 5-mile ‘cruise’ the heavens opened and it was hard to decide what to concentrate on – staying dry, following the paddling instructions or looking at wildlife. All-in-all, a great experience though.
 
The Arenal volcano erupts every 5 to 20 minutes with ash and lava, but only about 5% of the time can it be seen from the base because of cloud cover, and only then in darkness. Well, we were lucky because it performed for us on our second night – not spectacularly, but we had clear views of lava running down the mountainside. 
  
Panama was an even greater culture shock from CR that CR was from Nicaragua! The American influence is so great that it has lost any of its culture and individuality. About the only reason to visit it seems to be the canal. Panama City is Manhatten on the Pacific, but without a single building of architectural merit – in short, a bit of a dump. There is an ‘old town’ but it is much neglected, unlike Granada and Antigua earlier on in the trip. Traversing the canal from the Pacific to the Carribean / Atlantic, however, made the stop well worthwhile. It isn’t at all what I was expecting – a series of three giant locks rise you c.80 ft from the Pacific to the man-made channels / lake that covers most of its 50 miles, then a series of three locks to take you back down the c.80 feet to the Carribean / Atlantic. It was a terrific experience, particularly the final three locks where our 300-person cruiser shared them with a US navy frigate (the Haliburton!), two tugs and a yacht on its way to London from California (its a very sociable experience – you get to chat to your lock chums). In the adjacent lock was a giant container ship with c.1000 containers on board which had just inches to spare on both sides. They started work on new locks a couple of months ago so that they can take the new generation of ships like the Suez canal. The originals are almost 100 years old and were a truely amazing technological achievement.
 
The thing we didn’t have the time / nerve to do (you choose) was the party bus – US school buses converted into bars / discos so that you could party on the move. To watch them descend en masse and continue on the street was a hoot. Somehow, I don’t think you’d get away with it in the UK – Health & Safety and all that.
 
We left two of the group of six, and the tour manager, behind in Panama and continued to Catagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. My French friends Yves and Frederic were not wrong in their rave reviews of this place. It’s the only walled city in the Americas and many of the 16th – 18th century buildings are still standing despite being the target of (official and unofficial) pirates, including Francis Drake. Its the residential rather than the monumental buildings which make the city – 2-story terraces with balconies decked in flowers and plants, wooden grilled windows, imposing doorways and huge welcoming courtyards.
 
There are of course monumental buildings too – our hotel is a huge 16th century convent hospital, the city walls are extensive and the castle of San Filipe is the most unusual, original and imposing set of defences I have seen anywhere – but its the homes, narrow streets, and welcoming plazas that make it so delightful. You have to get used to expert salesmanship honed on hundreds of cruise ship victims (none mercifully arriving whilst we are here) but my polite brush off has been well developed over the years.
 
We have enough time tomorrow for a city tour of Bogota as there are 8 hours between our arrival there and departure for Madrid / London. It will be fascinating to see how a city of 8m people 8000ft up in the Andes compares with what has gone before on this trip.

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This is the half-way point of a 3-week trip through Central America which started in Guatemala and ends in Panama and is followed by a few days in Cartagena, Colombia.
 
We arrived in Guatemala a few days before the second round of their presidential election. I knew this before I left, but sitting next to a Spanish MEP on the plane (who was visiting as an official ‘observer´) I learned a lot more about the background. The streets were covered with posters and symbols and one got the impression that everyone was engaged with a tight race. The locals had nicknamed the candidates ‘Hard Hand’ and ‘Soft Hand’. On the day of the election we were in a couple of small towns / villages in the North West highlands and the interest seemed less than the bedecked streets suggested. I popped into a polling booth – our guide suggested this was perfectly acceptable and if challenged to claim to be an observer ! – and the staff significantly outnumbered the voters and apathy hang in the air. In the end there was a 52% vote for Colom (Soft Hand) but with only a 40% turnout he has the mandate of only 1m / 20% of the electorate / 8% of the population (there are a lot of young people!).
 
Guatemala is a young democracy (?) after a tortuous 20th century of military dictatorships, civil war, CIA-backed coups and partial colonisation by US fruit companies and more recently evangelists. Somehow, they just get on with it and I think the apparant appathy is just a cynical reaction to everything others have done to them over the years. I´m not sure they yet believe their destiny is in their own hands (if it is – I haven´t spoken to my MEP chum to see if he thinks the elections were fair…..).
 
Our week in Guatemala started in the wonderful colonial city of Antigua. We stayed in in a gorgeous hotel converted from a 16th century convent and just wandered the streets soaking up the atmosphere. Most of the colonial architecture is intact and has not been over-restored. It´s a very cosmopolitan city with lots of language schools and assorted itinerants – in one bar we met a couple of builders from Milton Keynes who were passing through in February but haven´t left yet as they´ve set up a building restoration business (and one of them sings C&W in the bar on Fridays!) plus a high school teacher from NYC who has decided he prefers a portfolio career of bar-tending, publishing an English lanuage magazine for a handful of people and distilling and selling illegal hootch. Antigua was that sort of place.
 
We then went to the North West mountains where we stayed in another gorgeous hotel set in tropical gardens on the shores of Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three volcanoes. I would have found the lake crossings rough but my training in the Scillies in Sept seems to have helped me develop more nerve on water. We visited Santiago Atitlan, across the lake, the highlight of which was being allowed to pay homage to a pagan god to whom the locals offer cigars and alcohol for reasons I still haven´t fathomed. In the mountains we visited the market town of Chicchiscastenango (don´t you love the name?!) which was a riot of colour and commerce.
 
Our final stop in Guatemala was the sub-tropical Peten region to visit three Maya sites (one across the border in Belize) – Tikal, Xunantuncih and Yaxha. Tikal was the most spectacular – a series of pyramid temples in the jungle which you can only see when you come right up to them or if you climb to the top of one of the others. It´s terrfific to wander through the jungle watching spider monkeys swing through the trees and hear howler monkeys´shrieks then come across something as big as a tower block built in stone 1500 years ago without metal implements. When you climb to the top of one of the pyramids (after 4, my thighs gave up) all you see is the tips of the others peeping up above the canopy. They are amongst the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world.
 
The side trip to Belize proived much more that just a visit to another Maya site. The differences were astonishing – it felt like you´d been transported to a Carribean island with its linguistic quirkiness and ethnic mix and a clear British influence. It´s much more stable and affluent than its neighbours with no more natural resources. Discuss.
 
Almost as soon as I set foot in Nicaragua I fell in love with it. We are based in the colonial city of Granada which is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and at the foot of a couple of volcanoes. It´s got a real party feel – colourful buildings, street sellers everywhere, music pervading everything; in fact it feels much like Cuba. What they also have in common is revolution against exploitive regimes and subsequent periods of socialism. Also discuss!
 
Their 20th century history is no less torrid. The dreadful Samosa was followed by a long civil war with the US helpfully arming one side with funds from arms sales to Iran (now how does that sound in 2007!). It appears to be stabilising, but with a huge economic mountain to climb. Again, they seem to just get on with it and party.
 
Yesterday we walked in the cloudforest along the crater rim of Mombacho volcano, wandered the streets of the historic core of the city and cruised amongst the 360 islets close to the shores of the lake. Todays volcano is active, so its lava, sulpher and steam…..
 
More news from Colombia. Don´t go away now!

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Sofia – July 2007

This has proved to be a significantly more fascinating trip than I thought it would be – and a rather pleasant surprise.In fact, almost as soon as I booked it I regretted it. Memories of my trip one year ago to Bucharest were not great; they were about to join the EU and appeared to feel Europe owed them a favour; a sort of giant chip on a national shoulder. Well 12 months on and Bulgaria has also joined the EU and the contrast couldn’t be greater. There’s a sense of hope; a kind of ‘thank god for that, now lets get on with it’.

Russia liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th Century and sort of hang around. What started with liberation ended with occupation. For the first 5 years or so after the wall came down, they struggled to find their way. For the next 10 years they made progress, but not fast enough to satisfy expectations. The EU membership is the key to speeding it all up. What’s surprising is that it doesn’t appear to be all down to an invasion of global business and foreign capital. The engine house is clearly local entrepreneurs setting up bars, restaurants, shops, boutique hotels and art galleries. The only obvious sign of the foreign invasion is the dreaded mobile phone shops on every corner – they have local names, but no doubt they are franchises of Vodafone et al. Mobile phones are also fashion accessories here too.

Hotels and restaurants provide exceptional value. Unless you wanted a faceless global brand, you’d be struggling to spend more than £25 for a good hotel room, £10 for dinner with wine and £5 for lunch with beer! Taxi’s rarely cost more than £3 (even from the airport!). It’s not the most fascinating city in Eastern Europe (no Prague or Budapest) but it’s more interesting than many (Bratislava or Lubijana, for example). There’s enough architectural and historical interest to keep you amused for a long weekend and I’ve discovered another unknown painter – Vladimir Dimitrov-Maistora – who deserves an international presence. There’s communist era grandeur, but also Byzantine churches.

‘Old Sofia’ currently sits comfortable side-by-side with ‘New Sofia’; the best example is the ‘women’s market’ (EU name change no doubt pending) which wouldn’t comply with EU food regulations but provides an outlet for woman from ‘the country’ to sell their fruit, veg and even potted plants! How long this will last, I don’t know – I suspect the women will be squeezed out fairly soon. There’s a lot of ambivalence about the old colonial power, which can be healthy but I found the disrespect showed to the WWII memorial (Russian liberation from the Nazi’s) a little hard to take.

The national character owes a lot to communist era Eastern Europe. They probably wouldn’t like to hear it, but they really are very Russian. My development plan for them would be:

1. Stop smoking so much
2. Reverse the nodding – vertical is yes, horizontal is no
3. Smile more – we’ve come to help you !

That concludes my tour of the EU’s new capitals.

 

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Iceland – June / July 2007

I’m here visiting my friends Johann, Maria, Smari and Vida. I met Johann on a trip to China in 1986 and we subsequently travelled together to Egypt, India & Nepal, and W. Coast USA. I met Smari through Johann and they have both (more recently with their respective wives) made annual cultural / gastronomic visits to London, but this is my first visit here for 7 years (since Johann & Maria’s wedding) and 19 years since my first, which also took in a side trip to Greenland.I continue to be amazed that a country the size of England with the population of Cardiff and just geo-thermal energy and fish as natural resources can sustain the infrastructure it does – an extensive road network, 2 airlines, orchestras, theatres and opera companies and so on – within a relatively inhospitable terrain and climate. But it does…
Iceland is a live geology & geography course with nature at its most raw on full view – volcanic activity of every type, glaciers mountains rivers and waterfalls, a rugged coastline of fjords, and geysers fumaroles and all sorts of geo-thermal phenomena. If it’s nature untamed / untameable by man, it’s probably here.

For this visit we travelled east to a part of the country missed on previous visits. Johann had rented a summerhouse near Eglisstadir, which is 700km from Reykjavik. We took liesurely13.5 hours to get there by the southern route and 13.5 hours to get back by the northern route. It’s easy to do this in the summer, as you never have to worry about getting there before dark, as it’s never dark! In effect, we circumnavigated the island in two days with two days in the East in between.

The southern route took us through volcanic landscapes with geo-thermal activity obvious from the steam seeping out of the ground. Our first stop was at the waterfall at Skogafoss on the southern perimeter of the Myrdals glacier, which seemed spectacular at the time but insignificant after the falls on the return journey. The next stage of the trip skirted the southern perimeter of Vatna glacier, Europe’s largest at 3200 sq miles. The glacier’s ribbons spilled out from between the mountains reaching out to the North Atlantic and at Jokulsarlon breaking up into ice in a lagoon spilling into the ocean. Here we took an amphibious vehicle to cruise amongst the ice-bergs, at one point coming across seals sun-bathing on floating ice. At Hofn we found the Lobster Festival in full swing (there was a bit of a debate over this as I think they are Langoustine rather than Lobsters!) where we gorged on wonderful lobster tails / langoustine grilled in garlic butter washed down with beer. The final stage of the journey was along the southeast fjords with a dinner stop at Djupivogur.

Our summerhouse was a cosy wooden cabin with lovely views, decking along two sides and a hot tub. As there’s next-to-no night time you can still take photos without a flash at midnight. The sun sort of goes down around 11.30pm and sort of rises at 2am but it is never truly dark in between. It’s a very strange experience.

On our first full day in the region, we took a 400km drive to Vopnafjordur across snow-capped mountains with spectacular views of the glacier river valley (now a little dry following a controversial hydro project to provide power for a new aluminium plant). Near Vopnafjordur there was a great folk museum which illustrated rural life through the history of one family still making a living here. A while later we visited the most eccentric coffee shop you can imagine at a farm miles from nowhere, on a glacial plateau, which had been deserted in 1943. A man who was born here recently came back, re-built the farm and created a coffee shop as his retirement project. The balance of this journey through the glacier plateau delivered the most spectacular 360 ° views as you drive through fields of wild flowers amidst high altitude lakes.

Tuesday’s drive was a mere 300 km across the mountains to Borgarfjordur where we could watch Puffin, Eider, Kitewake and Fulmar at close quarters and partake in gorgeous fish stew. This was the home of a famous Icelandic painter called Karval, but they had little of his work on show. Our final visit followed a heated discussion about the status of Iceland during WWII; my hosts referring to it as an ‘occupation’ by the British. To settle this we went to the war museum at Reydarfjordur where the only reference to ‘occupation’ was an ‘own goal’ on a Daily Express wartime map, so I think I won on points (well, I would think that, wouldn’t I).

The return journey on the northern route brought a myriad of differing volcanic landscapes and included stops at the thermal site of Havir (mud pools, fumaroles and lovely mineral colours) and the spectacular waterfalls at Dettifoss and Godafoss. We picnicked at Lake Myvatn, a lake dotted with islands formed by lava and the home of much bird life. From here, it was a much greener landscape of rolling hills, rivers, lakes and fields leading west then south to Reykjavik. In all we covered 2000kms in the 4 days, but it didn’t seem like it, as there was so much to see and lots of stops to take a closer look.

It was lovely to come back. In many ways, I feel I saw more of Iceland than on my much longer first trip. If you like your nature raw and a total lack of population density, you’ll probably love it here (they made me say that…)
 

 

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Tunisia – March 2007

This is a surprising country. It’s more prosperous, more ‘organised’, more

stable and a lot more varied than I expected. The desert south has lots of

different desert landscapes. The north is very green and fetrile, unlike its

neighbours.

 

The stability seems to have its foundations in the actions taken by the

counrty’s first president on independence 51 years ago – establishing a

secular state, abolishing polygomy, equal rights for women and compulsory

and free education. The democracy is dubious, but the counrty is stable (2

presidents in the years since independence, the second for 20 years now),

relatively prosperous and seemingly free and tolerant. Wtih 60 percent of

the population under 20, it remains to be seen if this will be sustained,

but for now it seems safe, tolerant and ‘together’. There are probably more

fundamentalists in Leeds!

 

My first week was spent in the desert south. The starting point was the

hotel ghetto that is Djerba, colonised by French and German tourists with,

during part of our stay, the International Congress of Myology. Despite

scanning the posters summarising various research projects on the way to the

restaurant (carefully avoiding the pictures of various sores and lesions) I

still don’t know what Myology is…..Fortunately, things looked up

considerably when we got into our 4WD vehicles and headed off for the

desert.

 

I never thought there could be so many varieties of desert – white dune

desert, red dune desert, barren moutainous desert, dirt and tangleweed

desert and vast salt ‘seas’. From Tataouine (former centre of the French

foreign legion) we visited cave communities and saw 500-year old 4-story mud

granaries. At Ksar Gilane, we went to the fort at the most south-westerly

point of the Roman empire. Unfortunately the last 2 kms had to be by camel

over the dunes; it’s hard to take in the magic when you’re hanging on for

dear life in a position which eliminates any thoughts you may have of

fathering children! Here we stayed in a ‘tented camp’…..but the tents were

en suite with concrete bases and airconditioning (to heat rather than cool

at this time of year).

 

The journey to the oasis town of Tozeur was magnificent, the last stretch

over the salt ‘sea’ ending at palmeries abundant with dates. Tozeur was a

charming town with houses decorated with cream tiles in a variety of

symmetrical patterns. It was the base for a fun drive through other worldly

landscapes and nerdy visits to Star Wars locations (with the sets still

there – PHOTO OPPORTUNITY!). We ended up at three oases with ghost towns

deserted after the 1969 floods – Chebica, Mides and Tamersa – and they were

magical. Our final stop at Matmata revealed underground troglodyte homes and

even a troglodyte hotel (NERDWATCH! – another Star Wars location).

 

Our base for the second week in the North was Hammamat, a better class of

hotel ghetto altogether. This week was all about archaeology. The

Phoenicians came here from the Middle East many years BC and were followed

by the Romans, the Arabs and the Turks – which makes for an interesting

cocktail. We visited the Punic sight at Kerkouane and Punic / Roman Carthage

(not as over-rated as you suggested, Joanna!), but the highlights were

undoubtedly the Roman cities of Dougga (an extensive site of temples,

theatre, gates, baths and villas set on a steep hill in gorgeous

countryside) and El Jem (a huge theatre and mosaic-rich villas) and the

important Islamic city (ranked number 4!) of Kairouan where one of the

mosques / shrines we visited was very busy with circumcisions; I left fairly

quickly when the man in a white coat smiled at me.

 

Visits to the picturesque blue and white village of Sidi Bou Said and the

medinas (old walled cities) of Hammammat, Sousse and Tunis completed the

itinerary. We got lost in Tunis medina several times and after 2.5 hours we

were fighting to get out through the crowds of locals who proceeded with a

single-minded determination even I couldn’t match. Probably the greatest

memory of this second week will be the mosaics – particularly those in the

Bardo Museum in Tunis and the museum at El Jem. Many are wonderfully

preserved, rich in detail and colour and a joy to view.

 

I have to say I enjoyed the first week most. The small group of 7 gelled

quickly, travel by 4WD was fun, the weather was a little better (in the

second week we got the tail end of Europe’s cold spell) and the variety

greater. The food throughout the trip has been very good with fresh produce

abundant. I’ve rather enjoyed the ‘bric’ – filo pastry filled with potato,

fish and a raw egg then deep fried. I have become addicted to couscous –

lamb or chicken with vegetables and potatoes on a bed of semolina. The new

season oranges are sweet and juicy; strawberries, broad beans and peas are

all in season. There are some lovely wines (a positive outcome of the French

colonial period) to wash this all down with.

 

A fascinating and varied place just 2.5 hours from London.

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