It’s straightforward to call the experience of travel artificial and ungrounded, and to go on about its inauthenticity, to cite the plethora of foolish misunderstandings and incorrect, shallow interpretations with which, from Marco Polo on, travel literature is filled. There … Continue reading
Lyon in transit A cup of coffee (une grande crème): €2.50 ($A3.75)
Mr Ryan saw us safely to Lyon. The ash cloud was still threatening but the airlines had decided that the governments were being unduly cautious and anyway they were losing a fortune. The vapour trials over Rome were proof of that.
It was May Day and things were quiet. We went for a pleasant walk with, in the back of my mind anyway, some interest in what would happen next, just how we would get to La Mastre. We could certainly get to Tain L’Hermitage, but the train to La Mastre which would have been great hadn’t run since 2008 and the bus time tables were clearly about school days even if we knew where the stop was. Taxi. Big bucks, but door to door. Two candidate companies failed but the third came through; and I must say taxis, those much maligned tourist rip-off taxis, provided impeccable service everywhere we used them.
As it was, the train did the right thing, the taxi was waiting exactly as requested and the longish drive along the gorge of the river Doux was a real pleasure. We were heading to La Mastre about 140 kilometres west but mostly south of Lyon in the Region of the Ardèche. This was the starting point for a walk shaped like a figure 8 with a tail. It would normally start from Lecrestet but the Lecrestet hotel people wanted their Mayday holiday.
We chose this walk because we wanted a walk in France, we hadn’t been to the Ardèche before and didn’t know anything about it, and what was offered sounded about the right length (130 k.s, 7 days walking, one rest day) and level of difficulty (I’d say medium, I’ve forgotten what Sherpa said). I didn’t say much about the food in Italy (some unmentioned was sensational; click on the photo to the left), but it’s France and I would be lying if I said we weren’t also attracted by the prospect of quality regional cuisine. The Ardèche A cup of coffee (une grande crème): €1.80 ($A2.70)
We arrived at the Hotel des Negociants in a light drizzle and I strolled downtown looking for some lunch and to see what was what. The meerkat had finally run out of energy and was having a snooze.
Downtown La Mastre on a Sunday morning is a quiet affair. Everyone has been to church and then they’re off to hear the 40-piece town band playing in the square. They weren’t much good but they were extremely well received and looked like they were having a lot of fun which is how I imagine playing in a big band to be. The photo won’t show this but the town was out to listen, yelling out requests not all of which were ignored. The last number included a trombone solo from a 40 year-old gent with slightly over-egged good looks and he played until exhausted, not long, and that was the end. Then off for Sunday lunch.
I sat on the steps of the band shell for a while trying to locate just where I was, something else that can happen to travellers. But I found a boulangerie open and we did well from the result. In the afternoon we strolled around the very quiet town and found where we were supposed to leave from (the auberge ‘The Calm Mother’! See below) and looked at the gorgeous stone houses and gardens.
The 70 year-old woman who runs the H. des N. was not a mamma. She was a Madame with a whip crack tone that had her minions trembling. Her 30 year-old daughter-in-law seemed to be doing most of the work. The daughter-in-law had three children including one who was three months old and a bad sleeper. She did the rooms and the cooking and was a very nice person when she wasn’t exhausted. Her husband seemed to be mainly on child care in so far as he was on anything.
There are parts of rural France that don’t quite appear to be a part of the modern world and the H. des N. was one of them. No computer. Not one. Amazing. That said, we sat down for dinner. Crudités, pintadeau roti avec marrons, tarte Ardèchoise et legumes, followed by les startlingly good fromages et pour M’sieur, une coupe d’Ardèchoise. And it may sound disgusting but I remember also having some quail terrine that night. I’m not going to go on about food all the time. Promise. As may have been inferred, the spécialité regionale is chestnuts.
The rain had gone in the morning and the weather bade fair. This was a long day which included a simple height gain of 960 metres and an aggregate height gain which was heaps more, lots of ups and downs. I hadn’t really wanted to start with the hardest day but there wasn’t much choice and we had had plenty of walking practice in Rome.
The start of the start was a stiff climb of about 600 metres up out of the Doux valley, but the first 10 k.s were simply a delight, charming and seductive. The climb offered excellent views across the valleys to St Etienne in the north, the only minor mishap being Myrna trying to electrocute herself on an electric fence while photographing black pigs.
The track continued as it began with lots of navigation required: so many options, little waymarking and such specificity. ‘Behind the house on the left you will find two options. Take the track which appears to begin as a farm track with three stone piles to the right and then veers left through forest … .’ The notes were generally good but slumped in quality according to the difficulty of the problem.
On the way home in the plane looking at the line-up of recumbent bodies with overfull bellies at an indecipherable time mid air it occurred to me that air travel and walking are profound antitheses. However enjoyable, air travel is the last word in artificial experiences. That’s what suits the frequent flyer. On the other hand, Myrna says you don’t walk for a day, you walk through a day, meaning I hope that you are conscious of the terrain, the weather, the time, the surroundings, the task in a way that no other form of travel matches. It’s all there with you all the time, just er hem you and the track, and off you go. That’s it. You’re not judging your form or effort; you’re just off walking for a day. There isn’t anything else. And if you wanted a day to persuade someone of the delights of walking this was surely it. Narrow tracks soft under foot through chestnut forests, gorgeous long views, sunny warmth, animals, farm houses, rolling hills.The first town was Nozières and the one shop which was open (of three) had bread, cheese, ham and juice — everything you could want in other words. I was wearing a T-shirt and my arms were becoming sun burnt. We were going well and at the foot of the Col de Buisson it was time to eat. As often in a saddle, there was a bit of wind here with a bite to it. An old man and his dogs were gesturing at us from across the way and we gestured back. Later we realised we had come to a tourist attraction, Mini-ville (a bit hard to see but it is at right), something he had probably had a hand in building, but we kept our five euros in our pocket and ploughed on up the Col to a high ridge. This was interesting because the forest had been badly knocked around by storms but also by a bush fire, not something you automatically associate with rural France.It was also interesting because the temperature had dropped ten or so degrees, black clouds were massing in the west, it was spitting and I had left our rain gear with our luggage because I was sure we wouldn’t need it, and the ridge at almost 1300 metres was becoming increasingly exposed.
This is another story about walking. It’s quite easy to muck things up when you’ve got your head down just forging along. You don’t get your map out, forget to read your notes, don’t put your gloves on when you need to (if you’ve got them) and before you know it … etc.
It seemed unlikely that we could make a mistake here because there was only one track, a forest road along the crest of the ridge, but we had to get off it, and according to our notes there was a cairn which signalled a left turn to locate a track which would take us down to another saddle. A cairn. A cairn could be anything. You could kick it over in a small fit of pique. Anyway, we missed it and suddenly found ourselves in a welter of logging tracks none of which were on the map. Below us in the valley was a town which I was sure was Lalouvesc, our destination. I was out by about 90 degrees. We did get off the ridge eventually but it was a five or six k. mistake and as well it was getting quite cold. We found the right road and as sometimes happens — a fair bit really — there’s another hour of walking when you think you should be there. And it’s uphill. And you’re not completely 100 percent exactly sure just where you are.
Lalouvesc is built on the lip of a cliff and seems to have been some sort of staging post/ tourist resort for ‘taking the air’ since at least the mid 16th century. One of the hotels we passed had been there in one form or another since 1538.
That wasn’t our hotel. Ours had fewer stars (a generous one and half), but it did have a bath and after walking 30 k.s a bath is desirable. France has great engineers and several had been at work on the arrangements for getting water into this bath, but unfortunately at cross purposes. A trickle of tepid water was the best it could do until, after some considerable time and largely by chance, I found another button that activated what could be called a flow. Very tired that night and not detained by whatever there was on the television. My notes say: Très froid tonight. And so it turned out to be.
We woke up in good time, pushed the shutters back and it was snowing. Remember the sunburn the day before? Yes. I couldn’t believe it. Snowing. In early June! What would that mean for our progress? While we now had our wet weather gear along with warm clothes I had left our hats and gloves back at La Mastre certain we wouldn’t need them.
We ate petit déjeuner alone but for the cats in a huge dining room looking out at the snow which seemed to be increasing in intensity by the minute, big floaty flakes which largely melted when they hit the ground turning into something more driving and dense. An unseasonal orage, a storm, with winds of up to 140kph. Myrna was not as delighted as she was to become, but completely undaunted.
We geared up and went looking for the entry to the track. This was completely invisible. I was thinking about the intelligibility of: Madame, le chemin a disparu complètement. Nous voudrons voyager à St Bonnet avec les bagages s’il vous plait. But la femme de bon courage made an executive decision that we would follow the D532 to St Bonnet (correct name St Bonnet le Froid; that’s true) which had the advantages at least of secure direction, once we had worked out with certainty that we were correct, and secure footing. The modest disadvantages were walking on tarmac and dodging the (very few) cars and trucks going past. The gentleman we asked for confirmation that we were on the D532 expressed concern for our well being and commented on the storm: extraordinaire. It was eleven k.s in driving snow to St B. le F. and a couple more to the Hotel Fort du Pre.
During that time it snowed in five or more different ways, some more pleasant than others. It hailed for a while too, viciously, and head on, as we passed through another saddle. We were on our way to a health resort famed for its views, but the views had disintegrated with visibility regularly down to 50 metres or so, just northern hemisphere Christmas card versions of pine trees outlined in white and the occasional stone house. This is not a heavily populated area. Myrna loved it; I was a bit cheesed off. But eleven k.s is not very far really, and we reached St Bonnet about lunch time with about 150 or 200 mm of snow on the ground.
A moment of meditation on the way. St Bonnet is not a big town. It has perhaps five shops and several big deal eateries, like the Hotel Fort du Pre, just out of town. But one of those five shops is the Bar des Quatre Vents, and we brushed the snow off our gear and went inside. It was warm, the telly was on the weather channel, the patron was a 30 year-old spunk with a gracious manner and a will to help, and a kitchen that produced excellent food of exactly the type that one might want in those circumstances.
Restored, we ploughed on through the weather until the Fort du Pre loomed out of the fog. This was supposed to be the four-star treat of the walk’s accommodation where we were to spend our rest day. It had a flash dining room to which people came from all over the country to eat, adorned with chef’s hats awards galore by various luminous organizations. The premises had a pool, a sauna, a gym (all of modest scale), provision for massage and various herbal treatments, a table tennis table, a babyfoot table, a dislike of children and noise, thick carpet and nice rooms. Style? French bourgeois to a T: neat, polite, rule-driven, reticent, censorious.
There was a big thermometer on the wall outside and I kept checking, fruitlessly, to see if it would get above zero. The forecast was for warmer and wetter weather, but in the meantime the snow was increasing in intensity. I spent quite some time reading about French grammar and reflecting on my deficiencies and we went down for tea, dinner that is; and what a carry on it was. There’s a big difference between good food and mucked-around-with food and this was the latter, and we were somewhat peculiar randonneurs (walkers/hikers) from Australia disfiguring the perfection of the environs.
We went back to St Bonnet the next day to do some internet (the only public internet place on the whole route in a bookshop and papeterie run by a young man) and to see what was happening in the Bar des QV.
This day the road crews were in having their grands déjeuners: chicken salad, roast pork and mushrooms, tarte tatin and a litre of red wine. 16 euros thanks. Brilliant. Pourquoi pas! Much better than being out in it, and they probably have something like that for lunch every day. It was as good as the previous day and we enjoyed its contrast with the starch of the Fort du Pre. The menu that night: quenelles lyonnaise aux poivrons; cervé d’agneau et pulpe de pomme de terre au fenouil; puding au rhum et raisin, or if you like: stodgy pepper dumplings; slice of lamb, and mashed spud with fennel; plum pudding.
St Bonnet the Cold? I read the explanation quickly but the story goes something like — a traveller found himself caught in the snow, lost and bewildered. Someone, St B., loomed out of the gloom and guided the traveller to comfort tying his donkey up to a suitable post. When the storm had subsided the traveller went to find his donkey and found him dangling in the air tethered to the cross on the top of the local church’s steeple, which can’t have been pleasant for the donkey, and it would seem arguable that these would be sufficient grounds for beatification. I am quite happy to accept that I may have missed some points salient to the story.
I was sure we would be on the road again to get to St Agreve, and that was nearer to 20 k.s. The snow had not relented although when we left at eight in the morning it was cold and foggy but still. (Somewhere on the left is the entry to the track.)
We walked down the busier road to Devesset for a couple of hours without pause and had a cup of coffee in a pub which had a number of early patrons, after which we had our first very modest attempt to get off the main road, onto an alternative road really. But just after lunch the fog lifted and we could see a lake in the distance (a feature of the walk apparently), then, lightening my mood considerably, a green paddock, the first touch of colour in three days, just visible in the pic below.
The ice was cracking off the trees and it was noticeably warmer. We’re not talking sunny here, just the odd break in the clouds, excellent walking weather really, and we shifted back onto the track which was not far from and running more or less parallel to the road. It stayed like that till we got to St Agreve where I gave thanks at the Fontaine des Miracules on the outskirts of town, and we found the excellent and cheerful Auberge des Cevennes where one of the staff had lived in WA for a year and was keen to swap stories. Myrna bought some buttons for a jumper she was knitting for Romany. We carry our domesticities with us.
The next day was another delight. We had come down three or four hundred metres and the climate had changed markedly. There was an excellent boulangerie over the road from the auberge and we stocked up and skipped out of town which kept not wanting to disappear. It’s built around its own little mountain.
This was the beginning of the second loop of the figure 8 and we were to come back to St Agreve, which was a desirable prospect. We had morning tea in a cemetery at Beauvert (lots of places to sit) full of Picots and Chabanals. This again was the ‘as advertised’ version of the walk — birds, smells, wild flowers, silage, stone farm buildings converted into weekenders, deep pasture, lovely long views, rolling open hills. Then we were advised by a sign to deviate and we did, around the lip of a high plateau looking at our several destinations 500 metres below. Magnificent. This track then took us directly to the ruins of Roche Bonne. Better again. What a building it must have been. It’s built around a spire of rock on a very steep face. While ruined now it must have been an astonishing sight in its day. Its day appears to have been around the turn of the 11th century. Un certain Bertrand de Rocha Bonna was granted funds to build it and it changed hands variously for another 300 years ending up with Hugues et Gerenton de La Mastre, a connection. During the religious wars, the castle played a military role, Pons de Rochebonne being one of the principal Catholics of the region. It was taken in 1577 by the Huguenot (protestant) leader, then in 1577 was pillaged and destroyed in 1595. Around 1760, the priest from St Martin de Valamas wrote to his bishop that the castle was entirely destroyed, but the peasants were stealing its stones and something should be done about it. Which is how it remains today, although there are some signs of restoration. It is also close to a waterfall with dramatic character.
It was a long descent to the bottom of the valley, where we found the required abandoned railway line which would take us to St Martin de Valamas. St M. was home to a big retirement village on the flat, but the town itself was a violently steep climb away, 15 minutes of hard exertion, perhaps to keep the oldies fit. It had three cafes all of which were closed because it was the day before yet another French holiday, the staff of the Information Touristique were off for a five-day pont, and the town’s kids’ playground had one small rocker surrounded by metres of rubber matting with one of the sternest signs on the wall one could imagine: ages 2-7 only, adult supervision mandatory, one at a time, all responsibility abjured, well covered in other words.
It mightn’t be a load of laughs as a place to live, but it was very pretty. Mernz thought the cakes we found there were the best we ate while away.
We weren’t at our main destination yet. We had to absorb the fact that the Dogs had just beaten the D.s by four points, information provided by our reliable Hamiltonian football correspondent, and also to find an unsigned, barely described place called Les Chambas (a dialect term, we discovered, for ‘terraced fields’).
We sort of stumbled over it. I thought we’d found it, Myrna wasn’t sure. But I wandered through the garden up to the door and there was a foolscap sheet saying ‘Les Chambas. Bienvenu.’ It was big house, quite stylish in a 1970s sort of way, a B and B we thought. Mine host appeared from somewhere out the back and took us up to our room which appeared to be someone’s bedroom, closets full of clothes, no telly, no bathroom. All a bit spooky.
I’m not that keen on B. and B.s. They seem intimidatingly intimate and after a long walk you just want to fade out at least for a while. But anyway we were there. The dog ran in, pissed on the floor, jumped on the bed and came to visit me in the bath. Dogs, the French: a love affair. We had been advised that aperitifs were at 7.00 and we wandered downstairs, and there were other people there. We had thought we were the only guests, but we weren’t. There were three other couples (who didn’t know each other either) jammed together on two small couches speaking very fast French. The aperitifs were white wine mixed with a local liqueur, chestnut of course, raspberry and something else I missed. I missed a lot. But one of the older ladies took me in hand and we spoke pleasantly slow French and retired for dinner.
The hosts provided dinner for ten, themselves included at the table, most nights of the year. Now that’s not your everyday job. And people came from all over the place to eat with them. Madame la hôtesse spoke French like a machine gun but the others were kind and patient and we found ourselves comfortably included. French manners can also be wonderfully courteous and pleasant. The older couple had come from Lyon for a un voyage de dégustation (food trip, you know, like ours). He was retired, she had an interest in writing. The youngest couple were having a weekend away from their kids, grandparents had stepped in, and he was a swimming instructor with classes of forty (!) from a small place north of St Etienne. At the end of the evening we discovered he spoke good English, the rat, having spent a year in Ireland. But it was a night of great good humour and jollity with phenomenal food.
Should I say? People may start to talk. Chacuterie — pâté and sausage; prosciutto and cantaloupe; finely sliced eggplant and tomato concasse (‘smashed up’ I suppose); pork and a ratatouille that had been slowly cooked for some hours, and that’s the way to do it; cheese; gateau aux marrons (a chestnut sauce on a very thin and large creme brulee). All cooked to perfection. One of the very good nights while we were away.
The next day was just a haul up the dismembered railway line and therefore a long steady climb which was never very far from the contour. What struck me was the number of massive bridges we went over, and the effort and cost that would have gone into building them. It would have been a fortune, an investment for the years, and now just a sandy rocky trail to nowhere for randonneurs. Walking without thinking, we passed some brilliant stone houses with fabulous gardens and were back at St Agreve before we knew it, and spent some time watching the world come and go in the bar happily doing nothing. What a life.
Later that night we borrowed the hotel’s computer and discovered that the ash cloud was back. The airports of Portugal, northern Spain and Italy, all of Germany and southern France were closed. That was significant news. We were due to fly from Marseille to Prague and then to Helsinki for home. We had been away long enough and didn’t want a wrestle with airports and schedules in foreign parts.
I went to bed with that largely in mind. We were due to return to La Mastre, the final leg of the figure 8, back to the pintadeau at the Hotel des Negociants. It was another gorgeous day’s walking, a long steady descent back down to the Doux valley, through orchards and vineyards and for some distance along the still cobbled Roman Voie des Marchands (Merchant’s Way/Road, at right). It rained steadily for a few hours but we had our rain gear. We arrived at Désaignes ready for lunch, and I’ve mentioned our offence to the restaurateur. Il y a une formule m’sieur, la formule de Dimanche. Oui oui oui bien sûr. Bien sûr. Mais nous ne le voudrons pas, s’il vous plait. Seulement café et un sandwich, une baguette peut-être …
We got to La Mastre after an excellent day to request use of the Hotel’s ordinateur (computer) which is when we found there wasn’t one. Old France, the ‘50s, perhaps insular, certainly by definition provincial. Dinner lacked the sparkle of the week before. Perhaps it was the repetition or the competition from Les Chambas or the ash cloud and our incapacity to do anything about it. That night Chelsea beat Wigan 8-0, a lot even for a mismatch and I watched a televisual hagiography of the French soccer club Paris St Germaine. I enjoyed it all but was struck by one of the chants adopted by the wild and aggressive PSG supporters. I can’t remember it exactly but it went something like: We wish to suggest to you that taking all things into account we will win the championship this year. French. It is a polite and highly embroidered language and I was becoming increasingly conscious of how brute my version of it was.
I proposed to my wife that perhaps it might be possible that we think of getting to Helsinki as quickly as possible. Then we might be out of the cloud which seemed to be congregating over central Europe, and Finnair would somehow have to look after us. Helsinki seemed like getting home. She concurred. But first I needed a computer.
It is six kilometres from La Mastre to Lecrestet by road but 15 via the track. I thought the road for a minute, but was very glad we didn’t. It might have been the best day. Lecrestet is normally where you begin so we were going back the ‘wrong way’. It began with a long climb out of town, four hundred metres in two kilometres, that’s steep, but we were up to a series of consistently wonderful views. It was a complex track but we didn’t miss a beat. And there was a computer at La Terrasse, our hotel destination.
Several hours were spent fooling around with tickets and bookings, most of which turned out to be redundant, a waste of time and money as Isaac our travel agent lost no time in assuring me when we finally made contact; and I hadn’t even worked out how to get back to the train at Tain l’Hermitage which was going to take us to Marseille. I was counting on the bus. The timetable assured us that it would be right, an early morning but quite doable. But when I asked our host about this he shook his head. Doesn’t happen. Only two buses a day, both too late to get us to the train. Back to the taxi, and the same excellent service prevailed, which just left the fact that I needed an email from Isaac confirming our changed tickets to Helsinki.
But what a walk! What a pleasure it was. So much to enjoy. Myrna had become impressed with this idea of the ecological balance this region represented: lightly populated, extraordinarily fertile, well watered, prolifically productive of the basics of life —and yet at the same time it had been left behind, abandoned. You could almost forget global warming in the Ardèche in a way that has been impossible in Australia for years. The storm and the snow we experienced had been extraodinaire, unseasonal, unexpected, rare. But the product of the storm was more water on this fertile deep black soil, not a disaster.
I’m sitting in Broome (north-western Australia) in pindan savannah country writing this. It could hardly be more different. The road to Hall’s Creek, all 800 k.s of it, has three or four major rocky outcrops. Apart from that this is dead flat bright red soil country with nothing much growing above a couple of metres. (these are baobabs.) We cross the mighty Fitzroy on the way which at present is only a series of pools. But in the dry, apart from the spring at Hall’s which creates the creek, there is no other non-artesian water in all that distance. ‘Ski Creek’, a water playground just after the wet, is sand. We pass the truck stop at Willare and go through Fitzroy Crossing but there are no other towns and, apart from a few signs leading off to station tracks there are no other signs of human habitation. There’s nothing much to eat for the cattle that wander through the spinifex and amble across the road in the late evening. They need fattening on grain before they can be sold.
The biggest issue here at present is the ruinous impact the 300 billion dollar gas project will have on the physical ecology of James Price Point (and the social ecology of the whole area). It’s another world just so far away. Some questions to which I have no answer. Is it some atavistic memory that makes countryside like the Ardèche so attractive to people like us? Why are its occupants fleeing it in droves for cities and for such a different life style? (Perhaps that answers itself.) The Kimberley could be described as an inhospitable environment, and this is the nicest time of the year and I’ve just been for a swim at Cable Beach, but should anyone besides its traditional owners live here? Tomorrow I will be with whitefellas who would live nowhere else.
A cup of coffee (une grande crème): I’ve forgotten
We’re on the run home. If you’re still reading, you’ve been generous and need never have to think about any of this again.
It was pouring rain as the taxi took us to the train for Marseille which came but was 40 minutes late. It nonetheless seemed like progress. Jean-Paul Sartre had been a guest in our hotel in Marseille during the summer of 1978, and I say almost certainly in our room which was on the top floor with a terrace looking out over the Old Port. Marseille looked like a lot of fun, so interesting, almost not a French city with an amazing mix of people, but I was too tired to exploit it, too sick of trying to speak French and organise unorganisable things. We pottered around a bit, found the food bar in a Galleries Lafayette and prayed that the Marseille airport would be open and that Isaac’s email would arrive.
That email kept not coming, despite phone calls, despite prayers. We found groovy-ville which had a market and a very definite bohemian atmosphere; the streets generally were humming with all sorts of life; the weather was fine and we were settled in J-P.s magnificent pad; but I would say I missed Marseille, just passed it by.
Finally, Isaac’s email arrived, and as it turned out we probably didn’t need it. We got up at 5am — something I have to do again tomorrow and I don’t know how I’ll go; it’s not my favourite — but this morning was lovely. The sun rose during the 30 minute drive to the airport and everything glowed pink. The airport was open, the planes were flying, we spent a minute in Prague and then arrived in Helsinki and the Hotel Glo. By that time I’d read ‘The Guardian’. It was that easy.
It was a tonic, like a smiling welcoming face. Everything was closed because it was Ascension Day but who cared? We slept the sleep of the just in an upgraded room, got up slowly and did a bit of shopping.
Helsinki had changed totally in seven weeks. These pictures are of the same place at the same time of day. The snow banks had disappeared, the flowers were out, not a hint of ice in the bays and the populace had their party face on. The bloke in the Nike shop told us that it was their hottest day (250C) for three years, and whether or not it was true it was obvious that the weather had caused a total rush of blood in the locals. They were out in force stripped to the underwear, drinking beer and lying blissed out in the sun. The Esplanaadi which had been denuded of people when we were there last was packed with thousands of Helsinkians and the mood communicated itself. Finland had also just won the annual world ice hockey championship.
We thought we might go for a swim. After a hot walk we found the pool, and we also found the 100 metre queue which was stationary to get into the pool. I have never seen a queue outside a swimming pool before. Go the Finns.I had another pool marked on the map so we set off to find it. Unlike the other one, it was indoor and while not empty was not crowded and high high quality. We got back to the hotel in time to dress up for the opera — Myrna’s new Save the Queen (Rome) giraffe dress got its first outing — but we were not in time to eat. The opera was Verdi’s ‘Masked Ball’ really well done in a modern hall which was grand but intimate. No Finns in the lead roles, a Russian, a Spaniard, an Italian and a Pole, but it was all good. What we didn’t know was that the smart money had ordered food and drink for the several and long intervals. Still it gave us a chance to look around at what Helsinki offers in terms of class. We checked, and no one else had a Save the Queen dress on. We did lots of enjoyable things next day with a very special mention to the National Art Gallery but the tension was mounting and our final meal at Karl Johan was not a success.
Got on the plane. Came home.
-  We booked it through a British company called Sherpa who for a perfectly reasonable fee, book accommodation for each night and undertake to move luggage from one spot to the next. Dinner and breakfast is included in the cost and you sort out your own lunch, a picnic (usually) or you might be at one of the towns on the way at lunchtime. They also provide maps and track notes.
-  The Huguenots still have a church in La Mastre as elsewhere in the Ardèche. Free Protestants they’re called.
-  A vegetable salad; guinea fowl roasted with chestnuts, spinach tart and green beans; cheese; butterscotch and chestnut ice cream
-  From the lowest point to the highest, in this case La Mastre to peaks on the ridge, 320m above sea level to 1280.
-  Madam, the track has completely disappeared. We’d like to go to St Bonnet with the luggage please.
-  Renowned for its way with produits de terroir (the region, this local area), en particulier les viandes (meats), les poissons (fish) et les champignons (mushies).
-  Without going further east. It’s a big country.
-  They have a couple most weeks. It’s a reason for Andre’s longevity and good health.
-  A way of establishing a long weekend. Holiday on Wednesday? Take Monday and Tuesday off, hence ‘bridge’.
-  Roquefort, St Agur and something local. During the conversation we decided, complicit, that Australia didn’t have any cheese — what can you say? It had already been conceded, not by me, that Australia was the greatest sporting nation in the world. On return, what we were the first two cheeses I saw at our deli in the market? Rochefort and St Agur.
Rome is not concerned exclusively with tourism. Other things go on there.
But on the other hand this is the city which offers you a choice of Caravaggio’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’ (at left, possibly my favourite painting), the Pantheon, the view from steps of the Tempietto, a range of ice creams, the Piazza Navona at night, the staggering foundations and lower orders of the Palace of Justice — you have never seen stonework like this — the clothes shops on the Via del Babuino and the Cola di Rienzo, the track from the Trevi fountain to the Via della Rotonda, the upwards climb inside the cupola of St Peter’s and the relief when you get out into the air, more Berninis and Bellinis than you can poke a stick at with a special mention for ‘Triton’ in the Piazza Barberini, the outcroppings of places to eat in unlikely corners, a chance to look at the actual chains which bound St Peter, buildings which have a layer or a section from each of the last 20 centuries and before, the Laocoon, legitimate confirmation that Brutus looked just like a Deputy Principal/Rotarian, the Pièta, and oh well the Sistine Chapel I suppose, the church of St Louis of the French, the Borghese Gardens, the cats in the Largo Argentina. I like the Spanish steps for functional reasons in their clusters of 16 and their generous treads but they are always covered in people. There’s the Forum, the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, Michelangelo’s designs on the top of the Capitoline Hill, the ‘typewriter’, the Vittoriano with its crazy flying chariots, I love it, gigantism incarnate, a glorious sort of madness.
That’s the beginnings of a list. Henrik Ibsen who probably had no business being there in the first place suggested that it would take him three lifetimes to scratch its surface. It ticks every box in the way no other ‘great’ city does. It has history; it has form.
Yet it’s a snake’s belly of a place. Myrna will disagree. She is a resolved fan without a cell of doubt in her body. Maybe a cell of doubt, in fact maybe a small organ of doubt just below the pancreas. There was, for example, the issue of actually getting the cakes from the display case to the table at D’Agnino, and engaging the attention of the waiter at the same venue was one of the designated labours of Hercules.
The issue is the Romans. If they’d all nick off and let the rest of us just get on with it, it would probably be fine. If Graham and Barbara had been there too, as arranged, to whinge to/with instead of being sequestered in a six and half star hotel in Hong Kong defeated by the ash cloud, catharsis would have been available.
As it was, and without ignoring the possibility that I was better man for it, I left after a week feeling like I’d had a good rub down with 24 grit sandpaper.
Our new accommodation was in the slightly jaded glories of the Veneto at the Hotel Savoy, as it turned out an excellent spot. The Savoy is an easy walk from Termini through the corner of Repubblica down Bissolati and up the hill of the Via Veneto. You’ve seen it in the films. The cabanas outside the grand hotels full of people noodling around, looking for someone famous. We walked past and they didn’t even notice. Extraordinary.
We walked extensively. The day we arrived we appeared at the bottom of the Spanish Steps as though magnetized — there really is nothing very attractive about them except the clusters of 16 — and looked down the Via Condotti. Saturday afternoon shopping and, for me, a vision of hell.
How many shoppers? Thousands, tens of thousands, stupendous, puzzling, tiring. Despite the lure of every name fashion outlet in the world, we veered sideways a block and had a cup of coffee to stock up. I was wearing a sign, quite visible to anyone engaged in commerce, saying: ‘Mug. Make the most of him.’ And they did. I provided the title to our house to some Eastern European Italians for coffee, a piece of cake and some biscotti and we moved on, because if you don’t you’d lose all self respect and have to kill yourself.
And then almost immediately we stumbled into the Church of St Louis of the French and stared open-mouthed at the three Caravaggios there detailing seminal moments of the life of St Matthew. I was more than happy to pay the one euro to keep the light on so we could see them. They are just there on the Corso, like in Swanston Street, except just like they wouldn’t be in Swanston St; and of course they have been there a while — a neat 410 years. Caravaggio’s work is always so strikingly modern. His contemporary relatives are the photo realists except he has insight and a narrative purpose that places his work in a very definite time and place. A bunch of older men were playing Piazzola outside in the Corso — sax, accordian, double bass, violin — with so much joy I rushed to give them what little money I had left.
From there we lurched round a corner into the Collegium with its huge dramatic columns, and around another corner to the piazza in front of the Pantheon looking resplendent at evening, not looking a day over 2000 years old, as comfortable, unique and multitheistic as ever, and thronging with people taking photos. What a building, truly!
The structural coffering in its ceiling is one of the world’s great engineering masterpieces. It is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome and it was 1500 years before anyone approached the same perfection in developing massive curved architectural spaces, and even then it was the Italians — especially Bramante, but Alberti and Palladio with his enormous impact on neo classical building as well, and Michelangelo if only for the cupola of St Peter’s.
Its inscription has the same stark directness as the building: ‘Marcus Agrippa son of Lucius having been consul three times made it’. It is of no concern that it was really Hadrian (if a politician can be truly said to be a builder).
From the Piazza Navona we went and found where we‘d stayed last time near the Campo de’ Fiore and it all looked very much the same. It was dinner time so we sat down at one of the few ristorantes that wasn’t overwhelmed with customers and the waiter questioned our bona fides. Did we really want to eat or just to drink and cause him trouble? It was hot and I wanted a beer. We couldn’t take up space if we just wanted to drink … and so on and possibly on, but we didn’t stay to find out. It’s the big city, any big city. You need stamina. The way home necessitated passing the Trevi fountain.
The next day was hotter, a Sunday, and the schedule was to find shops to buy expensive clothes for a song, visit St Peters &c. Suffice it to say we walked to or past almost everything in the first paragraph. St Peter’s was swarming with queues hundreds of metres long, the particular clothes shop was shut, went the wrong way over the Ponte Palatino and found ourselves in the Circus Maximus … look, just another day.
Our guide book to Rome offered seven walks. Reading through it that night I discovered we had done five and a half of them and walked 22 kilometres.
We had had lunch in Trastevere with ‘The Officiant Guy’ and his family. We didn’t have to; we just did.
‘Chris Robinson is the Officiant Guy in Los Angeles, California. He is a non-denominational wedding minister, an attorney and a notary. He also has other wedding ministers on call to help couples in need of an officiant. The combination makes him a very reliable wedding professional. He officiates wedding ceremonies [not ‘at’ just ‘officiates’, you know, like ‘impacts’] in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Chris is specially authorized by Los Angeles county to issue confidential marriage licenses, which is the kind of marriage license that protects your personal information from the general public. Since he can issue the license on the spot, he helps many people to elope and get married easily. Chris is a calm influence on a hectic wedding which makes him very popular. He is a frequent TV guest because his manner is very smooth and sophisticated. Many people have come up to Chris and asked, “Was that you on TV?” Yes, it was. Chris is a popular choice for celebrity weddings because he is discreet, eloquent and makes everyone at ease.’
His wife wrote that. My wife wouldn’t write that about me.
But not only did she write it, she said it, a lot, and without embarrassment. A process of chopping out space for your identity to fill perhaps, but our interaction was a marketing opportunity. Chris himself is discreet, eloquent and makes everyone at ease; and their kids, who they are home schooling because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cuts to education, are calming influences on otherwise hectic experiences, the older one buried in video games and the twins silently respectful. (When will they break out I wonder and become celebrities?)
Scott Baio, who some but perhaps not many readers will know of, wanted Chris to be in a television series about Chris’s radical and amazing experiences, but when it turned out that these would be scripted he said no. Nice guy. When next you want to be officianted you know where to go.
Sticking with the religious theme, it was clear that we would have to get up early in the morning if we wanted a good run at St Peter’s. And we did. There aren’t too many St Peterses in the world.
It is the church transcendent or the church affluencial or Mammonical or something. But what a good job they’ve done of whatever it was they were trying to do. Once you’ve made it through the metal detectors, actually for some time before, it is instantly and overwhelmingly impressive. When you enter you’re inevitably looking up at the roof of the nave with its rounded shoulders 50 metres above the floor, the very definition of Romanesque style which somehow manages to be both molte grande and personal at the same time. It is this combination of daunting spectacle and warming comfort that makes it so unusual. More of this below. Maybe you can live with, even thrive on, paradoxes of this nature, choose them, shape them, create them even.
I glanced to the right and found myself looking at the Pièta. I’d forgotten it was there. It doesn’t announce itself hidden as it is behind a bullet proof plastic shield in the gloom. It’s not of grandiloquent scale, in fact it is a modest statement of great peace and calm. Nothing is overplayed including the folds in the marble clothing which conventionally provided the sculptors of the day with an opportunity to display their virtuosity. Proportionately the bodies are all out of whack but perfectly internally coherent; and Mary is a 15 year-old girl of very great beauty. When Michelangelo was asked about her age, he told his biographer: ‘Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more so in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?’
The closest statue to the Pièta is of one of the Pope Gregorys, leaning forward over you, black bronze arm raised in either blessing or threat and no amount of fudging can adjust the severity of his features and demeanour. Close to terrifying.
There are literally hundreds of other things over which to ooo and ahh, not least ‘a substantial fragment [in some versions ‘representative’] of the True Cross’ and the spear which pierced Christ’s side which only come out on special occasions. The head of St Andrew which was also there for some centuries has now been restored to the Greek Orthodox clergy at their request. But on the other side of the nave past Bernini’s six storey high baldacchino is Bernini’s last sculpture, the monument to Pope Alexander VII. It has the usual, the man himself in a pose of supplication in the centre flanked by adoring women one of whom is Truth and has her foot on a globe and more precisely on Britain which had at the time been playing up. And it has the unusual. A gilded skeleton is forcing up the folds in a cloth of red marble, hour glass in one hand, so that we have access to a working door, the gates of death, perhaps hell. It’s all a bit literal somehow.
But here we have the beginnings of two ideas of interest: the preoccupation of Christianity with suffering, and the complex relationship of the Catholic church with sex.
Rebecca West writes at length about the former and wonders why, at the same time casting round for alternatives which seem to appear quite readily.
Christianity is distinctive because of its preoccupation with suffering of course. Christ’s suffering provides it with its motive force. Paul’s consequent exegesis and evangelism veered towards the austere, especially for women. For example: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ This is from his letter to Timothy which, if read from a political point of view instead of a religious one, you could place much more effectively. In fact much of Paul’s writing reads like instruction to party branches, which of course is just what it was.
But why so bleak? Why not delight in the world’s possibilities rather than wallow in its depredations? It might be that that was the natural state of the vast majority of the people the Christian church wanted as its adherents for 1500 to 1800 years of its existence. It could be convincing that Christ shared the pain of a peasant’s life, the struggle, the imminence of death, the need for and promise of a better afterlife.
The religious of the Catholic church were expected to join in this process through their vows of celibacy and obedience and in some cases poverty.
We were back in the globalised world of course, so at the bottom of the Veneto hill I could buy today’s ‘Times’ or yesterday’s ‘Guardian’ and I did. If I was in the mood for blabby articulate Englishmen with a deep concern for the environment, political correctness and their own standing in the world I went for the ‘Guardian’. If I wanted some news I read ‘The Times’. So, mostly the Guardian.
One of the first articles I read was a piece of meta-news we’d have to call it, an interview with one of the Boston Globe journalists who had pursued the cases of child sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese in the early years of this century. The seven who were subsequently charged by police and sentenced had been steered around parishes by the Archbishop, Cardinal Law, with warnings but also with deep forgiveness. But there wasn’t just those seven the journalist claimed. He said that he had evidence that 190 priests were implicated in sexual abuse, one in three of all the priests in the archdiocese.
Most of the many churches we went into had their share of putti, naked male children with their willies waggling in the air. One of the features of St Peter’s where just about everyone has their photo taken is at the matching holy water fonts just inside the door. The fonts are flanked by very large putti. The Romanesque curves of the architecture could not be described as anything other than sensual, and this applies to a great deal of the decoration as well.
Sometimes this sensuality is profoundly overt. After several tries we eventually found Santa Maria della Vittoria, the base of the ‘Barefoot Carmelites’, open and had a long look at Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St Theresa’. We also had a look at what was written under it. In St Theresa’s own words —
Our Lord was pleased that I should sometimes have the following vision.
I saw an angel very near me, on my left side, in a corporeal form which is not usual with me; for though angels are often represented to me yet it is without my seeing them, except by that kind of vision of which I have already spoken. But in this vision, our Lord was pleased that I should see an angel in this form. He was not tall but rather little, and very beautiful; his face was so inflamed, that he seemed to be one of those glorious spirits who appear to be all on fire (with divine love).
I saw that he had a long golden dart in his hand, and at the point it seemed to me to be a little fire: I thought he pierced my heart with this dart several times, and in such a manner that it went through my very bowels; and when he drew it out it seemed as though my bowels came with it, and I remained wholly inflamed with a great love of God. The pain thereof was so intense, that it forced deep groans from me; but the sweetness which this extreme pain caused me was so excessive that there was no desiring to be free from it; nor is the soul then content with anything less than God.
This is not a corporeal but a spiritual pain, though the body does not fail to participate a little in it, yea, a great deal. It is so delightful an intercourse between the soul and God that I beseech His goodness to give some taste of it to him who may imagine I do not tell the truth. (Life of St Teresa, Chapter XXIX. St Theresa is the author.)
This is St Theresa of Avila, a Spaniard, founder of the Carmelites who had as one of her watchwords: ‘Lord, either let me suffer or let me die.’ Bernini has taken her at her word. She is lying back in a pool of petit mort. He’s done too much with the folds of cloth, a master artisan run amok, but he doesn’t have the least trouble following her directions.
Here’s an idea, not about religion, but about the early Christian church; and not about a considered plan but about inspired intuition.
Religion must be to some degree an ideology, a system of ideas. If I want to interest people in a new system of ideas, by definition, I can’t offer normality — snugness in front of a fire with enough to eat, a happy family, good friends, work that challenges and interests. I have to reorganise those blocks of convention. If I am ambitious I will do this in the most dramatic form I can. I will need to construct an edifice which turns most of the fundamentals resoundingly on their head.
Celebrate discomfort, redescribe the nature of ecstasy, exalt the renunciation of conventional sexuality, find virtue in pain. Mortify the flesh. Shift the focus from now to tomorrow, in another world.
And these ideas must have enough resonance to make sense as an ideal, if one which is out of reach. And when failure comes as it must, you can try harder or you can develop your own tortured response to living within the wild paradoxes and, probably, enormous confusion generated by these incongruous ideas.
Putti will have begun I imagine as versions of Jesus the child, innocence and purity incarnate, shortly to be joined by an infant John the Baptist. But, after that, joined by anyone or no one in particular until Cupid came along, neither innocent nor pure, and much more recognizable in this role than either of the first two options. Artists would not have been disappointed with these developments. But who was looking at and okaying their formative sketches? Some at least would have been men of the church who were thinking more than just: Ah, putti. Cute.
Cerveteri. A pause for air.
I had an idea about some excursions from Rome. We decided that mid week we would go to Cerveteri about 70 kilometres north west. Signora at the Informazione on the Corso said in short order: not in town, never heard of it, don’t know how to get there, why would you?
However there was digital recourse. According to the instructions posted helpfully on the internet, here’s how you get there. ‘To get to Cerveteri from Rome by public transport, you can take either the train (to Cerveteri-Ladispoli station, then take a local bus) or a COTRAL bus (journey time approximately one hour). The COTRAL buses are probably handier, as they stop right in the centre of town. Buses leave from Lepanto Metro station (Linea A); the bus stops are just above the underground station, and there is a ticket desk below ground. A tip: on the way into and out of Rome, the bus may be stuck for a long time in traffic. If you can avoid this by using metro stations further along the bus route, do.’ Easy. Anyone could do that.
Bright and early we boarded the Metro to Lepanto and scoured the station looking for someone who had any idea of how to get to Cerveteri. Someone could and did sell us tickets which would get us there, but no one was quite sure how.
We searched high and low but no COTRAL buses left from Lepanto. Another ticket lady said Italian for go to the end of the line, the Metro line that is, and try there. I would have probably given up about then but Myrna has steely resolve in such matters. We got on the Metro again and went to the end of the line. I note that there is no difficulty in getting a Metro train to the end of the line even if we did have to buy more tickets. So, we got off at Cornelia and, hoorah, there was an Avviso clientele. Fantastico. Signor, how do we get to Cerveteri? We’re a bit out of town by now and the locals don’t even have to pretend not to understand English. ‘Can’t get there. Never heard of it. This is not a place for leaving by bus.’ ‘Signor, mate, have a look at this mappo here on the wall next to you. That symbol next to Cornelia means ‘bus’ and right there it says COTRAL to Cerveteri. Where’s the stop?’ ‘Ah, Cerveteri. That’s interesting. Didn’t know about that.’ It is clear by now that this was not a well-beaten path and also that we had exhausted the confines of his knowledge.
So we climbed up out of the hole in the ground and looked around, a meerkat accompanied by an old and tired wombat. And there was a bus, a few of them, but they were ACTAF buses, and after the meerkat tried to talk one into taking us to Cerveteri, the driver waved his arm towards down the street saying, azure azure. At this stage the wombat wanted to return to the burrow, but the meerkat scampered down the street and there was a new and different bus station. We engaged an elderly couple in discussion about where they thought they were going and when and how they thought they were going to get there, and they thought a bus might come. It did, and it did go to Ladispoli but may also have gone on to Cerveteri. Half an hour later we boarded a blue bus and it did both, an intriguing route with a wide range of opportunities to look at everything that was in between Rome and Ladispoli.
Where were we going which merited such effort?
We were going to look at a necropolis, an Etruscan city of death. We walked the few kilometres from town to the site, another World Heritage site and were in need of sustenance by the time we got near, although it was a bit hard to tell just where we were. Signage is variable in Italy, and it wasn’t clear that there was any desperation to get pedestrians there. I’d seen these signs to La Tulchulcha, a very odd piece of Italian, and we turned off the narrow main road down a track to see if they provided coffee.
There was shaded terrace which looked like it could have been a restaurant (now signed as ‘Tukulka’, we had entered Etruria) and found Mamma, a real one this time. Mamma didn’t speak English and went to get Pappa who did, a bit. We discussed food. I wanted something piccolo; Myrna wanted some coffee. He threw his arms in the air. What for you want something piccolo, and coffee before a meal. Are you savages? So … what can you do? What can you do? He told us what was on today: a pasta with mushrooms and herbs from the garden beyond the terrace where we were sitting, pork from his pigs (he worked at the airport but ran this mini farm as well. Very hard work!), and wine from his vineyard. The pasta was a bit gluggy, the wine sensational but very heavy, but the pork, the pork … 
The necropolis covers 200 hectares which contains nearly 2000 houses for the dead I will have to say because they are certainly not tombs. I thought for a start that they really were houses they were so well set up. ‘Dwellings’ have been carved out of hundreds of volcanic tumuli, symmetrical bubbles of tuff and lava, mostly 30 or 40 metres across. There are also ‘cubes’ running along roads for the same purpose. These date from 900 to about 300 BC and their contents — carvings, painted decorations, household items — provide much of what is known about the Etruscan civilisation. Many of them are plain with a corridor and chambers with platforms for the dead, but several had been left relatively pristine and the richness of the information they contained was obvious. We were there virtually alone. The necropolis of Cerveteri is not on the beaten path. It was worth the trip, and that’s saying something.
That night we were eating in a bar back in Rome. (As per the internet instructions there had been a traffic jam of sorts on the way home in our blue bus.)
I was interested in watching the European Cup semi-final in company, Internazionale Milan versus Barcelona, or Inter (Italy) vs. Barca (Spain) to the fans. This would be the best game of the tournament. Inter’s Matto got sent off in the fifth minute for next to nothing but then snotted a bloke on his way off which more or less drove a nail into his dismissal from the game. After this Inter put up a wall with nine men and the goalie behind the ball as they say in soccer and it became a shooting gallery but with no targets in sight. An amazing match.
We fell to talking with a German who lived in LA for some of the time now. He’d been a business man, retired 15 years too early he said. When working he had travelled 200 days a year selling medical equipment and now he just went where he wanted, but was clearly bored. He had families in Hanover and LA and made a great fuss over the need for proximity of parent-child relationships during the teenage years. He had recently shipped his 16 year-old daughter from America to Hanover for treatment for some blood disorder. He was in Italy because his 81 year-old mother had breast cancer and she had heard that the best man who you couldn’t see unless you knew someone was in Rome. He had made it his business to know someone and his mother was being treated.
Borders are for the poor, or for those who don’t have them. The rich have never really been interested. They can make their own as they choose. Globalisation is at least a function of increased wealth as much as it is improved technological capacity. Our friend moaned about the fish that he had scoffed just as Inter’s Piqué got a clever goal in the 88th minute to give the game to the Italians who cheered. Another border had been successfully defended.
Rome giveth and Rome taketh away.
There was a Caravaggio exhibition on, a huge collection on a rare scale. ‘Judith and Holofernes’ had been brought in from the Barberini. We thought we got to the queue early. But so did the hundreds of people in front of us and after a motionless couple of hours we gave it away.
Sat in the Borghese gardens, me reading the Guardian and Myrna doing the crossword. Lovely. Sauntered on to the Museo Borghese. You can’t get in these days unless you’ve booked a ticket and a time (! two hours max.) on the internet. Bummer. They had nice coffee which they allowed us to buy. Good. Proceeded to the Galerie Nationale d’Art Moderne which had lots of wonderful things including the sculptures by Mestrovic I’ve mentioned before but also an exhibition of US and European feminist art from the 1970s.
It wasn’t all interesting, but some of it was. The contribution of an American called Martha Wilson was a series of photos of the artist in costume, called ‘A Portfolio of Models’ with text underneath them.
These are the models society holds out to me: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, Lesbian. At one time or another I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit. All that’s left to do is be an artist and point the finger at my own predicament. The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.
A tram went past out the front andwe climbed aboard to see where it would take us. The Risorgimento near the Vatican. Good. Had some lunch. Good. Very expensive. Bad. Bought a Roma C’é, Rome’s ‘Time Out’, to see what was on. Not one version origionale film on in the whole city! What is this joint? Got on a tram again for the same reason as before, and the ride provided a rich slice of Rome — in order: shops, palazzos, elegant houses, six storey older housing, industry, tower blocks, graffiti.
The mix of faces also went from predominantly white to a widely varying mixture. That’s the way it goes. Another tram brought us back to where I thought it might. Tried to get to Trastevere on a different tram to see another of Bernini’s ecstasia. The schedule is wrong, doesn’t go any more. You’re in the wrong place. Bad. A mixed experience eating at D’Agnino. Mixed. Walked past the National Museum and walked in for a rest. And in here were remarkable things in profusion. I will mention only two.
There were a lot of life masks, portraits of people made while they were living by a complex reverse casting process but the result is that you get a precise likeness, not a likeness actually because it is exact. Madame Tussaud’s, but better. That’s the person. All sorts of famous people were in there, but Brutus caught my eye. I swear he looked just like a Deputy Principal who is active in Rotary, a very capable organiser, well meaning but strict, very clean, excellent personal hygiene, upright. That explains a lot.
Even more remarkable was ‘The Boxer’. I was transfixed. After probably having been buried deliberately and carefully for safety several hundreds of years ago, this sculpture was found in 1885 during an excavation of the Quirinal hill just a few hundred metres from where it is on display now. It dates from the first century BC and is a masterpiece of realism suggesting that its maker or makers may have been Greek. He is sitting there, naked, forearms on his knees, looking up and over his shoulder at another invisible presence. His nose is savagely smashed, but this is history, not from this bout. In the same way his ears have been cauliflowered. From the bout just concluded he has deep cuts on his forehead, cheeks and shoulder. There have been copper inlays in these wounds to suggest blood.
He is wearing only hand and forearm protection, leather sleeves from knuckles to elbow tied on with thongs and finished with a collar of fur. Across his knuckles are cæstuses, cases of lead to inflict damage on his opponent. Beyond the injuries, his body is lithe and magnificently muscled, a sort of perfection, but it is his eyeless expression which is so remarkable. It is a combination of exhaustion and the inarticulate sportsman’s non verbal questions: Okay? Everything go all right? How was I?
He has been in a state removed from anything but the contest, and even after its completion he is still somewhere else. This might be qualified with a suggestion of the sublime if short-lived confidence of an experienced winner, a professional. This statue is more than 2000 years old. Some things never change.
The drive to Ciampino airport out the Via Appia Nuova (the ‘new Appian Way’) was interesting, almost Portugese, with high stone walls on either side of a two lane road, glimpses of mansions and country houses through the gates and peeping over the top, and I thought how much I’d like a closer look. We went past and through golf courses, and green areas; it was very early in the morning with little traffic about, the air was sweet, and it looked almost rural.
But I wasn’t sad to be leaving. Rome takes stamina, and while Myrna had got another wind every time she bought a dress, I was still considering how to locate the premises of Rome Sweet Home and raze them. I was also thinking about how on earth we were going to get from Tain L’Hermitage to Lamastre on a Sunday which was also a public holiday, two bags of French cement which would ensure nothing moved.
- dolce e ruvido = sweet and harsh
-  Sunday arvo. What would you expect?
-  ‘She is the greatest website designer. She just picked it up herself and we get more hits than any other officiant in the US.’ The Officiant Guy.
-  It does occur to me consistently that the objets in any room any single room of the Vatican museum — any room up to the advent first World War; things went bad after that; people lost their faith, and religious art went to the dogs — would be enough to provide for the nourishment of the population of a small third world country for at least 12-18 months. Almost literally.
-  Capacity 60,000. Along the floor of the nave starting from the entrance are markers with the comparative lengths of other large world churches, all smaller of course. What did the Ecclesiast say: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’? And here is an interesting case of understatement: ‘The construction of St. Peter’s, in so far as the church itself is concerned, was concluded within a period of 176 years (1450-1626).’
-  Canopy over the altar.
-  Which is very hard to take a photo of as evidenced by a long trawl through the net. The best I found has now been taken down.
-  I have provided a photographic offering but there are dozens of better ones on the net. I am not alone in my prurience. This is clearly a popular subject. Just google ‘Ecstatsy of St Theresa’ and you’ll find them.
-  There are too many examples. Just one. St Dominic had iron rings fastened very tightly round his torso and legs and self-flagellated, a word which is only used in this context, so violently, that he looked like ‘barley in a mortar’ (as in combined with ‘pestle’). However, after this experience he developed stigmata which could be used for healing.
-  After this we went over the road to look at a Hopper exhibition which was a bit of fizzer, lots of filler, and then went to one of the three version originale films in English on in Rome. The rest are dubbed for legal reasons protecting the status of the native language. It was ‘Agora’, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and Christians in blue burlap doing wicked wicked things. Fear not. You’ll never see it. Some kind soul will ensure it is buried deep in an out of the way place. The other v.o. film that was on was Roman Polanski’s new film ‘The Ghost Writer’. An unconvincing story in the end and Pierce Brosnan and Kim Cattrall are in it; but so is Euan McGregor and the photography is worth the price of a ticket. Three stars.
-  There are two bus systems in Rome. COTRAL buses service regional areas. They’re blue.
-  This also happened to us in France while we were walking. A Sunday midday, small town, Désaignes actually, tout le monde est à repas, it had been raining solidly for several hours, we had walked about 15 k.s and we wanted a cup of coffee. And a cup of coffee and a baguette were absolutely not on the menu du jour at the Café des Fontaines. But m’sieur did not throw up his hands in horreur. His face started to rigidify but he quietly suggested he would prepare us a salade of spécialités Ardéchoises which took forever but was edible, and to preserve the niceties of civilisation the coffee came after we had eaten. France. Italy. They differ.
-  Some Americans turned up and Graham will be glad to know mine host had got sick of speaking English and at several points asked me to translate for him. Okay? Good. Right.
-  Standing out from the crowd, I didn’t take my camera into the museum. Our photo of ‘The Boxer’ was taken with Myrna’s camera and only slightly suggests what I’m talking about. A Dutch (I think) blogger did take his in and went berko. Try: http://willyorwonthe.blogspot.com/2008/08/favorite-boxer.html
What do tourists like? They like narrow streets and old buildings and water and an occasional spectacle and easily accessible food and pedestrianisation and big churches and a very high quotient of the picturesque. So. Venice. Tourist heaven or what? The Disneyland of tourism. Except bigger. We’d come to the Show with the whole fortnight crammed into one day along with the Grand Final tucked into a small corner.
Sitting at a coffee shop near the station opposite the beginning of the show bags we watched as wave after wave of people came down the steps of Santa Lucia station, the end of the spike of conventional transport from the mainland which is stuck in the Venetian plum. Wave after wave is not correct. There was no break, just flow without ebb, just masses with wheelie bags and maps because Venice must be one of the few places in the world where there is no shame in looking at a map. Everyone does. This happens not for a day, not for a week, but 365 days a year, in Leap Years 366. The crowds tumble in. The island is not sinking because of artesian wells on the mainland draining the water table or global warming or rising seas or the underscoring of the buildings built on wooden piers cut from the denuded mountains of Slovenia and northern Croatia, it’s the impact and mass of millions of pedestrians!
Like Disneyland the streets are very clean; and like Disneyland, better than Disneyland, it is beautifully designed to cater for the primary level of Maslow’s hierarchy — food and shelter. Any combination, any permutation, any price range, any time, any place.
That’s in the first 500 metres after you get off the train, and it just develops from there. There is no discrimination. It is for the old and for the young. I cannot tell you how many crocs of school kids we saw there, how many hundreds, and despite Venice being the ultimate adventure playground for an eight year-old boy, I couldn’t tell you what they were doing there except having excellent ice creams bought for them by their teachers. I just don’t know. I always saw them in transit. The halt, the lame and the blind are welcome. One of the things that caught my eye in this post-arrival swirl was a lady in a wheelchair with two large suitcases and several smaller bags piled on top of her, I’m sure with her consent, being pushed along by a man pulling another enormous bag. All colours and creeds — I did spot a group of 30 or so burqa clad persons — although the black representatives seemed to be mainly on sunglasses and handbags and probably getting back to the mainland after the custom fell off.
The hotel was where it should have been, down a tiny lane, well-placed, comfortable, funky even. But my list of things to do in Venice was looking lame — short, dull, obvious — badly prepared in other words. We established ourselves in the throng, the human conveyor belt in motion heading towards the Rialto. Hmm the Rialto …, news from … rings a bell. Which of Shakespeare’s plays was set in Venice? Myrna wondered. (Yes she did. But I need to be careful here. I have not kept a clean sheet.) We deviated a little later and came to a piazza that looked like a crèche, had 30 or 40 kids playing, the older ones with water bombs. But there were quite a few of Romany’s age peers. We sat and watched them for half an hour or so absorbed by the delights of chickabiddies growing up and felt a bit nostalgic for North Coburg. It was the day before her second birthday.
That first night in a new place, … it’s never satisfactory. Tired from the travel, don’t know where to eat or what to do, so looking around in slightly dizzied wonder we had some perfunctory spag bol in a too expensive restaurant with a cold wind flicking at us off the canal.
One of the selling points of our hotel (which lost €120,000 worth of business during the ash cloud scare) was that it had a garden. I should think every customer it ever had would ask for a garden room when all the other rooms were bigger and better. But such is the marketing power of the garden. This rather straightforward garden was where we were sitting, gathering strength. The day was bright and delicious. I was writing about St Petersburg which already seemed so antithetical, a lifetime away. Today, I resolved, we were going to go against the tide, challenge the masses and bugger the consequences. We were going to go anti-clockwise, yes you heard it here first, anti-clockwise, in order to attack the Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim gallery. Got our heads round the corner of our lane, watched to make sure no one was looking, ran over the Ferrovia bridge the wrong way and trundled down the fundament of San Simeon the smaller. Suddenly, perhaps obviously, as we strolled we found ourselves in a different city, one where people seemed to live.
For the very few people in the world who don’t know, Venice consists primarily of two islands (six really) in a large coastal lagoon, the Laguna Veneto, which has three entrances to the Golfo di Venezia, the very north of the Adriatic sea. The chief islands are shaped a bit like a yin and yang symbol. They could also be a fist which would suit Venice’s history much better, especially from a Croatian point of view. Its two parts are divided by the Grand Canal and, as everyone in the world does know, the whole shebang is striated irregularly by canals. It might be 2.5 kilometres long and one and a half wide and has about 58,000 permanent inhabitants — schools, a huge hospital, and many thousands of artisans skilled in matters of managing rising damp, damp moving in any direction really. These chaps ply their trade from boats set up exactly as tradesmen’s vans would be, and seem to have access all areas. Beyond that I counted 85 churches on my map, very few of which are working of course; but what would it have been like when they were? What an enterprise, what a workforce, what a grip on the public mind!
The city is divided into six sestieri, areas, suburbs, districts, each with their own style and history. We were wandering our way from Cannaregio, the old Jewish quarter, through to Dorsoduro (‘hard ridge’; see ‘dorsal fin’, ‘durable road’; allora, simple as that) in which rather excitingly there is a substantial street which is not a canal, and it was a happily rewarding maze. As Myrna said: constantly picturesque, constantly rewarding.
We stumbled into the Campo dei Carmini, a lovely quiet square close to the university, tripped over some tickets to a night of operatic performances, and fell headlong into a deli that looked like a deli and had almost Melbourne-class coffee and the violently up market (in quality not price) party pies and mini pizzas and the other attenuated offerings you eat in Venice. Next door was a Leb takeaway. You can’t say ‘Leb’ can you? No. I didn’t think so. Near Eastern, Levantine — an establishment which sold food sourced in its conception from the Levant which could be removed from the store in purpose-designed packaging.
Thus reinforced we muscled our way into the Accademia prepared for ART, and that was more or less what we got. You know you can have enough of pre-Renaissance religious art unless there’s something really … well, you know, lots of gold (Catherine the Great’s favourite colour), or big, or a skeleton clambering in an unexpected location, or someone eating jewellery. That type of thing. I think that’s what the collectors go on. It’s not adequate to just have another St Sebastian dripping with arrows, a task which appears to have drawn the Old Master like [add your own simile, you may begin with ‘flies’ if you wish]. More than enough already.
The Tiepolo that appears in the Canberra National Gallery with the ‘trousers’ or ‘upskirt’ perspective, yes that one right up there in the corner near the roof, the putti are looking down at us, along with the ladies, gentlemen and angels, way up there, yep that’s it; well, there are lots of those. Tiepolo found a market and made a bit of a production line out of them. They are remarkable studies in perspective and when you’re decorating simply everything, they do fill difficult spaces. You can just about hang them on the ceiling, certainly they can go in any top corner as long as the walls are high enough. The Accademia also contains some very fine Bellinis. He has a way with flesh and naturalistic facial expression that is a cut or two above the pack (not however in the same league as Caravaggio). But in a desultory field my blue ribbon went to the Tiepolos.
Peggy Guggenheim must have had money leaking from every pore. [later note: she didn’t. She had plenty but wasn’t one of those Guggenheims; a much more interesting person] How or why she came to Venice to establish herself I have no idea, but she did it in as much style as anyone could have. She set herself up in a new palace on the Grand Canal, prime real estate more or less directly opposite San Marco Square. While we were there, there was something very considerably more modest in the palace line and several canals back going for €15.8 million, but I’m not sure her ‘house’ could be priced at present. (And it’s a gallery now anyway.)
It is modern, less than a 100 years old, in two somehow simultaneously expansive and compact sections divided by a courtyard that I would give most of my right leg for — maybe 40 by 15 metres, flagstones in a herringbone pattern within a two metre high hedge ‘flashed’ with elegant brick walls, two large trees and enormous overhangs of wisteria coming from the glazed balcony. The wing nearer the canal is the primary gallery although there is also a sculpture garden. That wing has a concrete roof which doubles as a terrace where you can sunbake with dogs. There are photos to prove this. All the palaces have entries from the water, but hers has a magnificent statue around three metres high, an abstracted figure on a horse with arms flung wide in welcome, and a glorious monster erection, removable for when the Pope comes to visit. It’s a cracker. Great paintings in the gallery and not too many of them. And, blow me down! About half of the originals of the plates from Mainstreams in Modern Art, a book I learnt more or less by heart in Year 12, are here. There must have been some sort of publishing deal going on. It was wonderful to see so many old friends, so resplendent in the flesh.
Max Ernst was one of Peggy’s husbands. Perhaps establishing the flavour of the relationship, when once asked how many husbands she had had, she replied: Mine or other people’s? And there are 10 or so Ernsts hanging. The better ones appear to be the product of nightmares, full of tortured alien figures backlit by some green and yellow emergency. The worse ones, most, were shockers without verve or whatever inspiriting it is that turns pigment and binder into art.
There might have been challenges, as we say, in Ernst’s life situation, if not in fact actual ‘problems’. Peggy and Max’s circle of intimates included at least Brancusi, Chagall, Kandinsky, Braque, Hans Arp, Calder, Mondrian and Miro. There is a photo of Giorgio de Chirico making soup in their kitchen, an avuncular figure far removed from the ominous quality of his pictures. A better collection of Italian Futurists was on display here than the Galerie Nationale d’Art Moderne in Rome could manage — this is Italy’s distinctive contribution to 20th century art — and here is Max and his work. How does he feel? Is he up to it? Will Peggy decide that his work is worth hanging? In this company? And does she pay him for his paintings? Eeeeeeeeeeee … and what private miracles might he have to perform in their domestic life to keep his self respect in the face of all this competition? Better men than Max Ernst would bend and break in the face of such issues. They were married, but not for very long. [Later note: he managed by being a complete shit to her. I guess that’s one way of doing it.]
A couple of hundred metres further along at the point of the yang, the end of the southern island, a policeman in sunglasses and heavy duty gear (guns, two (2)) stood next to a statue. This presumably is to guard the marble frog dangling from the hand of a naked marble stripling. To stop the tourists from, I think the wildly appropriate term may be, souveniring it. Later in the evening we noted it had been secured in a clear plastic box locked to the pavement. Without knowing, I’ll say bullet proof.
We decided it was time to get with the vaporettos, water buses. They’re everywhere. The traffic on the water is as dense as it would be on the street. There’s water cops and ambulances and trucks and cranes and taxis. But what there wasn’t where we were was a ticket office. (This could be considered as yet another part of the discussion of the incompetence, the cultural innocence, the determined uselessness, of the tourist. There’s plenty more of this.) In a fabulous phrase from old Australia, we got our guts up and while there was no ticket office there were some provision. You will remember that this is THE well-oiled machine. They’re used to idiots. And the public transport system is very highly developed, not least for the workers who go home to the mainland or the cheaper islands every night.
We stood in the appropriate corner with the dunce’s hats on, the deckhand came and took €13 off us and, now respectable, off we choofed straight across the Grand Canal to San Marco. What, 600 metres maybe? Great. But I thought if we just sat tight we could go to wherever there was to go and then the vaporetto would automatically come back taking us to the stop nearest home while we were thanked for our custom. I travel optimistically, full of hope and confidence in the fidelity of the world to my needs and wishes.
And it did indeed take us further. Great. San Zaccaria, Arsenale, Giardini, the Biennale Park, Sant’ Elena, lovely to see it all, and then phhwoot we’re off in the open water. We’re on a glorified ferry; how far can it go?
A pink scrim had been pulled down over the longer distances, and with the grey of the water and the lavender and sun-gilding of the Venetian buildings as they receded it was gorgeous. Mellow. Great. We arrived at the Lido — think, we wouldn’t have gone there otherwise — the strip of sand that divides the lagoon from the sea, and that has given its name to an idea of the beach in British (English really) culture. We were encouraged to get off, if not with any great force. Just a firm wave of the arm.
I saw a sign that indicated ‘Express to Venice’ and got in that morass, because you don’t queue for a vaporetto, you surge towards it as though your life depends on it. You fight the other men and some of the women while your wife runs into the cabin and saves you a seat. It’s culture. It’s tradition. The vaporetto didn’t start pointed in the right direction but there was no reason for that to be discouraging. Boats can turn. I’ve seen them.
This one, however, wasn’t one of the ones that turn. It became evident that we were not on the express to Venice and also that there weren’t many people with backpacks, maps and zip-off drip-dry travel pants on board. We were commuting, to an uncertain destination. But, I reiterate, an exquisite evening, the throb of the motor, the hish of a light wind through the hair, a chance to look round the entirety of the Laguna — who could ask for more? Great. The only slightly nagging doubt was the increasing and substantial distance between us and anything that looked remotely like a port. I was reasonably happy with journey, but Myrna was becoming increasingly interested in destination. Some hours later — nah just mucking around, it wasn’t a tick over 40 minutes, maybe 50 — we arrived at Punta Sabbioni, a flank of one of the entrances to the Adriatic. If I’d looked left with my specs on I may have seen the Croatian uplands. The workers got off, and after being assured by a charming deckhand in his very best English that the boat went back to Venice, we stayed on. €13 for all that. A steal.
That night, the concert: two violins, a harp, a cello, a dancer, two singers and an audience of 15 do opera’s greatest hits in the ineffably beautiful hall of the School of Carmen. I was worried that the singers might be wearing masks which covered their mouths but only the musicians were handicapped in this way. The tenor was an inspired amateur with a harsh upper register and plenty of power, a combination which can be highly problematic. The soprano might have been a retired professional and she’d lost her bottom notes but she could really sing. The size of the crowd made attempts to sing along rather overt, but as the French would say, une soirée très geniale.
The rest of the time in Venice was dominated by further maritime experience of an intentional nature. We went to Burano to look at the painted houses. I wondered to myself how the municipal ordinances go in Burano. ‘Right mate. Too much like the last one. We‘re up to Dulux 820 Pheasant Breath for the trim and 614A Malevolent Orange for the body of the house. You can do the upper storey in Transparent Egg or trade with the Marcianos for Used Lettuce. If you don’t like it, you can take the whole thing to VCAT.’ I can’t see how it would work otherwise. There’d be conformists.
And I must say the Lagoon was not looking any less picturesque.
We got a good look at the mud Venice is built on, and it’s just mud. There is a clay base you can’t see and that’s what these very old petrified piles that provide the foundations for the houses of Venice are resting on. The most thoughtful solution to the sinking problem appears to be to pump water into the mud and make the whole thing float higher. That’s not intuitive.
We got home from Burano in time to walk round the Arsenale and the Hospital to San Marco square, and what a show stopper it is. The campanile is threatening to fall over again as it did in 1902 and attempts are being made currently to straighten it. In addition the narthex and façade of San Marco’s was half-dressed in scaffolding and nylon net safe-T wrap. But what majesty, what power in that square and the loggia surrounding it. Had a glass of champagne costing an unfeasibly large sum of money, and on the strength of it went to eavesdrop on a guy in a Murano glass shop buying a chandelier for €37,000. He was direct about it — why wouldn’t you be — I don’t think he’d spent long thinking about it, wanted a look at the colours available and to know how quickly and how well he could get it home. He wore clothes suitable to the task. A very very white dress shirt open at the neck and hanging out, nicely pressed very black trousers with cowboy boots. His wife was a sea of shades of very expensive grey in floaty new wool. Americans.
This was another occasion when we were impressed by the ability of Americans to create space around themselves. It’s a gift that allows a great deal of cushioning from embarrassment. For several hours on the bus from Villach to Venice the top deck was entertained by the life story of a 19 year-old piano teacher from Maryland whose mother could speak four languages and whose dad was the greatest teacher she had ever known and who adored Paris and couldn’t understand why the object of her attention, Claudio a 20 year-old assistant manager from Padua who didn’t drink, hadn’t been there. Among very many other things, she revealed that in New Zealand they don’t have heating. The issue was that every utterance was followed by this cascading, well it wasn’t a bray, it wasn’t a snigger, but a sort of laughing neigh that said, can you believe it? and was very very loud. After some extensive practice, Myrna managed to master it. That’s another way to make space. The chandelier man did it by having, one presumes, 370 €100 notes in his pocket.
That night we found the place where a selection of the kids on the excursions ate and it was another well-oiled machine, a cafeteria which would have fed, was feeding, several hundred young souls aged 7-18 I’d guess, and a few ringers like us. The food for the masses just appeared, manna/heaven, loaves/fishes. The vast queue heaved forward and each was given in a flash, on a tray, prima pasta, secondo main course, dolce dessert, e una bevanda a drink, just like that. It was a bit noisy but it beat the pants off the restaurant on the canal.
We ambled back to the hotel to a mini catastrophe, very mini really, but it’s the sort of thing that has a very bad effect on me. The mini catastrophe was an email which I could so so easily not have read — if we’d been almost anywhere else I wouldn’t have — announcing the cancellation of our accommodation in Rome, 36 hours before we were due to arrive. We were offered something else but it was rubbish. Romans, said the boys at the Hotel Abbazia shaking their heads. Romans. This left a very unpleasant taste in my mouth.
Before the advent of the internet it would have been a disaster. We would have been completely at their mercy. I spent a night thinking of forms of revenge eventually deciding not to negotiate or do any business with them. Rome Sweet Home. Don’t. (Serves me right for doing business with an enterprise with a name like that.) So several hours the next morning were spent finding alternate accommodation and cleaning up the mess that RSH had left. My deposit still has not been returned.
We thought we might go for yet another boat trip to calm me down. We had conquered the vaporetto system by this time, knew when to run, when to shove, when to fold and when to hold ‘em, and Murano (this is not an alphabetical series of 21 islands with ‘urano’ in their name; that’s all) where Venetian glass is made and sold in great quantities. The trip had the requisite calming effect.
Later we commuted from the Fondamente Nova down the Canale di Cannaregio back to our hotel. It’s a different part of town, more land, fewer canals, newer buildings, post war certainly, looking like government housing and already shabby without the chic of the older buildings. Round Tre Archi I saw a trattoria that Mamma must certainly have been running.
We negotiated our way back later in the evening and I was right. It was so ‘Mamma’s’ it was providing for a closed party, and you can’t get much more Mamma’s than that. In purely functional terms it would even challenge the Mamma at Visovac. But it was a promising area so we wandered south to find a gentleman addressing his mobile phone with considerable force. ‘I will break your fucking back over my fucking knee you fucking toe rag. I will make you so fucking sore you will weep fucking blood.’ Just a short sample although he did cut things off as we came by and took his place back in the bar, eyeing us suspiciously as he did so. He may have been developing script for the next Ray Winstone movie, but the depth of feeling combined with the waft of marijuana floating round a corner suggested a commercial transaction in the field of drugs imperfectly concluded.
As it turned out the real Mamma’s was just another 20 metres or so down the canal so we ducked in. She did us proud with some cannelloni made to her own special recipe by three hand-picked warriors flown in from Cannellon and a pizza fresh-picked off the pizza trees in the back of the shop with an egg à pointe smack bang in the middle. Delicious. We went home to pack.
To the Editor
For reasons of cost, convenience and comfort, there may be advantages in renting an apartment for longer visits to big cities. Here’s one for example that would suit many people’s purposes very well:
http://www.romesweethome.com/apartments-rental/rome/trastevere/trastevere-wonderful-terrace.asp Looks great doesn’t it? All you have to do is book it — as we did, last November, several months before our due arrival — and pay the substantial deposit, and look forward to using it.
But then you might get an e-mail 36 hours before that moment saying that this particular apartment is not available and offering you something else; say, something without a terrace, with a microwave instead of a kitchen and some sort of sleeping platform up a vertical ladder instead of a bedroom. Here, you can look for yourself: http://www.romesweethome.com/apartments-rental/rome/trastevere/Panieri-Loft-Apartment.asp
It’s a few kilometres from where you wanted to stay, but hey, rube. This is Rome.
On further inspection this notification email is clearly a form letter, and I regret to say that this is something that has happened to us before even though the company (in Paris) had the good sense to offer us something that we might have wanted. The rental company has 200 properties. Some are popular; some aren’t. The owners of even rubbish properties want as much occupancy as possible. Let’s mix them up a bit to make sure we keep the owners happy and our list long. So, fair enough. After all the client is offered something else. It’s not illegal; it’s a game.
It is not illegal but it is fraudulent. It is not what you wanted, or in this case where you wanted it, and it was not what was agreed. It relies on the comparatively fragile position of the traveller and, if it is an apartment, quite probably their family, and the by products are disappointment and anxiety. From the customer’s point of view, it’s a scam. People in this business don’t have to be accountable for their behaviour the way those in hotels do.
When this happened I was initially inclined to renegotiate, but then I thought this is just feeding the beast. The only thing to do is to try to put them out of business. Rome Sweet Home, and the like: avoid like the plague.
 An ecological disaster fascinating like our very own Queenstown.
 I should have offered this previously: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs
 Adored grandchild.
 With Croatia almost immediately adjacent. Slovenia has its 15 k.s of coastline intervening.
 Of course. Where else would you be coming from? From a technical point of view it’s interesting to see how this has been handled, a lot of variety. I’d like to know what works best.
 Four years, 1942-46. Maybe the war sustained them and/or limited wider horizons. It may also explain Max’s art.
 Boz Scaggs’ Lido is a person.
 From a non-expert point of view I would say that Burano has a church tower more urgently in need of such attention.
A cup of coffee (cappuccino): €2.50 ($A3.75)
Slovenia deserves its own fair treatment; it’s an interesting place. But I’ve gone on too long.
We were in Ljubljana, its capital, for two nights because of the complicated way you need to go to get from Zagreb to Venice (via Villach in Austria: three train trips and four hours on a bus). We hadn’t been to Slovenia and wanted a look.
The story would be: exhausted the tourist resources on the first afternoon. They had their own interest. A national historical collection of Slovenian art is not just the same as such a thing elsewhere.
Next day we had a walk through the suburbs, ate brilliant burek at a fast food joint where the owner was very surprised to have customers who could only point and smile, found all sorts of things we hadn’t planned on including a bit of the old city which we wouldn’t have known about otherwise, a functioning rather than a decorative bit.
The coffee was good, the sun shone. Myrna ate the best ice cream she has ever had. The hotel had windows that opened, lots of TV channels, and free internet, a garden out the back with a goat in it and lovely helpful young men. We could do washing. Travellers will understand.
It was all capped off by a visit to a restaurant called ‘Manna’ where the meal was performance art.
Two middle-aged guys who just loved everything they did took us in hand and led us through the delights of Slovenian cuisine. The buckwheat dumplings in a mushroom sauce were the best eating. But the best moment came when one of them ‘aired’ the wine glasses by swirling imaginary substances around in them until they had reached the correct state, a condition which could be discerned only by an expert.
The photo of Slovenia will be of a ‘wedding’ couple surrounded by photographers near the castle. Old Ljubljana is built around a dramatic limestone pile which of course has a castle/fort on top of it, Ljubljana’s primary tourist attraction.
This ‘wedding’ is a fake. This is a prac lesson in a VET course for aspirant wedding photographers.
Ljubljana is below in the background. If you want a rest in a benign location … this goes straight onto the short list.
And eat at Manna, Eipprova Ulica 1A.
That night we had food we’d bought at a Konzum; in Lord Rowland’s words, ‘some breads, some meats, some cheeses’ with a warmth of expression and gesture of which few people except Mike are capable. I woke during the night to the sound of vomiting and in the morning we discovered Mike and Dina were thoroughly sick. It was my turn later in the day. My diary for the next day says: ‘Sleeping and vomiting, one day. Karma.’
It was by great good fortune that we were staying with Pero Radovic and were on our own in the hotel.
The excursion to Montenegro went out the door. But beyond that there was no quick or easy way to get back to Zagreb from where we were.
Because of the mountains travel in the Balkans is not easy. The rented van had to go back anyway. Dina had an exam she had to return for. Mike had to get to the airport to come home. Don had to get back to work.
Then Don got sick. That was a gloomy night. What do you do? Say, okay I know you’re vomiting and feel like death etc, but buck up and drive a few hundred kilometres along a winding road? It’s easy to forget how bad nausea and vomiting are, and for we older persons how long it takes for your body to feel right again after their cessation. And it’s easy to forget how tenuous situations you take for granted might turn out to be.
Don, lying to us Captain Oates-like, said he felt better and off we went.
Entering Bosnia wasn’t pleasant for him. He can speak for himself but I would say he was still sick or at least recovering and that he was tired, it had been full on and his hand hadn’t moved from the tiller — but also he was only going to Sarajevo and through Bosnia for the sake of Australian friends.
We drove up the Neretva Valley beginning at the striking irrigation area around Metkovic, water lying either side of orchard and vegetable beds, and for kilometres. It almost looked like some massive hydroponic garden. The valley was beautiful, increasingly dramatic with gorges and the river running very hard through them, although we couldn’t entice Don into agreeing. I didn’t realise it at the time but we were to some degree following the course of the war.
Mostar was next stop. You’ll know the bridge, Stari Most where the city gets its name, ‘old bridge’ (now renamed the Peace Bridge), destroyed in the war and with the help of international aid now rebuilt mostly using the original stones.
‘On 15 June 1992 the HVO [Croatian militia] achieved a great victory in the Bosnian war with the recapture of the eastern bank of the city of Mostar, which for two months had been under Serb control. But the victory in Mostar was the start of a real crisis. Once the Serbs had been driven out, thousands of Muslim civilians began to pour back into the town. They were followed by many Muslim refugees from other towns in Bosnia which had been overrun by the Serbs. The Croats did not like this change in the ethnic balance’. (Tanner)
The flavour of where we were had changed remarkably already.
We’d moved into somewhere very different. The shapes of things had changed, the look of the people, the street smells. We walked onto the bridge which is a thing of great beauty, but from that vantage point you couldn’t ignore how much else had been destroyed and not rebuilt.
We went back for a cup of coffee to what Don assured us was the Croatian side. I would say nonetheless we had cups of tea and Turkish coffee at a Muslim café.
Sarajevo was 80 kilometres further north. The sides of the valley walls steepened, the hills now became snow-capped and the air thicker and dirtier. Sarajevo suffers from severe temperature inversions. The incidence of destroyed housing increased significantly.
Between 1 April 1992 and 30 November 1995 the Bosnian Serb forces, acting under the direction of Radovan Karadzic, led an attack against Sarajevo which placed the city and its surrounds under blockade and subjected it to consistent bombardment and sniper fire.
Without gas, electricity or running water, the inhabitants ventured outside at great risk to their lives. The only way out of the area was through a tunnel 800 meters long under the airport runway. Approximately 10,000 civilian deaths occurred during this time; 56,000 were wounded.
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, who in 2010 appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions and ‘violations of the laws and customs of war’ said publicly: ‘Sarajevo will be a karakazan (a black cauldron) where 300,000 Muslims will die. Europe will be told to go and fuck itself, and not to come back till the job is finished.’
In his opening statements at the trial, Karadzic denied any plans to expel Muslims from Serbia and blamed Western and Muslim States for triggering the Bosnian war. The following day, he denied the occurrence of the crimes for which he is held responsible, including the blockade of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica which he described as ‘myths’.
War zones don’t necessarily look like they do on TV.
Some buildings looked like a giant had clubbed them on the shoulder, and parts of Sarajevo had been thoroughly trashed.
That’s where you see the whole face of large building taken off, rooms with three walls, exposing every bit of intimacy within. Lord knows what Vukovar looks like.
But there wasn’t so much of that here really. And, of course, after 15 years why would there be? But to some degree this seems to have been a small arms war: automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars.
It was at the market where we stopped on the very first day for a cup of tea ten days earlier that I first noticed these spatters of holes, sometimes in a line sometimes not, across the walls of buildings. There might be a black smudge and things that looked like reverse buckets of mud thrown at walls so that some of the entrails of the building were showing.
Could it ever be polite or appropriate polite to say: Hey Don. See those. Are they bullet holes? The correct answer is probably no. But another answer could be: No. Not regular enough. Mortar shrapnel. Not polite, but it started to fascinate me.
We would drive round a corner and there in the crease of a hill or the bottom of a valley would be a clutch of houses two of which didn’t look quite right and you wouldn’t be exactly sure why.
Almost all of the more contemporary houses we saw in the Balkans were built in an identical way — a concrete frame, poured on site, members in section about 250mm by 250mm, filled in with honeycombed terracotta insulating bricks. These bricks are a great material (and ubiquitous in Europe), easy to lay and to break and form, very effective insulation and an excellent base for rendering which, when painted, looks very classy.
But quite often the builder, who would here very often be the owner and/or his mate/s, gets the windows and doors in and leaves it like that. It’s perfectly liveable. You don’t need the render, or the extra storey or the extra wing (which are still open frames). So the difference between an unfinished house and one that has been hit by a mortar shell is not always straightforward.
The roof often doesn’t get blown off and it is by the smudge around the window holes that you can tell that something untoward has happened. I decided that the houses were often blown out rather than up, becoming unliveable rather than destroyed. Also it was far more common to burn them which had the same physical effect. But then there are these lines of holes, dints really, more than you could possibly count; and the big splashes which might or might not pierce a wall.
Agrokor had found us a hotel in Sarajevo but it wasn’t the one we tried to register at. Didn’t matter; they found us some rooms and after eating nothing all day Don was able to retire.
The Hotel Europe was quite grand, hosting an international conference on terrorism, and the people at breakfast were an extraordinary amalgam of bits and pieces from all over the world, and perhaps beyond. The residents did look just a tiny bit like those of the Inter-Galactic Cafe in Star Wars.
Although the older gentlemen’s stomachs were still a bit restless, with Dina leading the way, we ventured out to find something to eat. On the doorstep was the Muslim market, the old city which was not like ‘old cities’ we had seen elsewhere. It’s low for a start, tent height almost, hundreds of small red-tiled roofs, irregular paving, minarets, hemispherical domes, hijabs, beggars, families of beggars, coffee shops, blocks of jewellers and brimming with vitality.
Sarajevo was an important outpost of the Ottoman empire from the 1500s until 1878, a major market town and port of call for travellers. Saray in fact means ‘rest place’ in Arabic. There are suburbs of grand art deco buildings, there are significant churches, there is a bit of everything. Sarajevo would repay far more protracted attention than we were able to give it — an amazing place.
In the market there were two dozen cevabdzinicas within a few hundred metres and in this welter Dina found Zeljo for us. Zeljo is famous, so famous she needed to take a snap and send it to her friends immediately.
Just baked flat bread straight out of the oven filled with small spicey lamb patties and pickles, presumably a cevab. Don’t ask for anything else; they don’t sell it. But, as often with specialisation, they had perfected the art.
I had spent some time and effort trying to get some Bosnian Marks out of a hole in the wall so we could eat, and I paid the guy the equivalent of ten dollars for feeding the four of us and tried to give him a bit extra we’d enjoyed it so much. But no way; he was disgusted. You don’t tip at McDonald’s either I guess.
In the morning we went searching for the place where the lives of Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand intersected.
It didn’t take long; we were staying 50 metres away. It’s a nondescript corner to be the site for the incident which sparked the First World War, but there it was — a narrow if major street running alongside the trickle which is the Miljacka River, crossed by a narrow bridge called the Latin Bridge, then popularly the Princip Bridge and, more latterly, when Gavrilo’s status was changed from hero to terrorist, the Latin Bridge again.
Rebecca is extremely good on what did happen in Sarajevo that day — St Vitus’s Day 1914, the 525th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo and thus, of course, why didn’t you realise it, a holiday. The leader of the plot was ‘a man of undoubted talent but far too picturesque character, Dragutin Dimitriyevitch known as “Apis”, who had for some time been the Head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Serbian General Staff.’
He collected a group of disaffected lads keen to make a name for themselves and fitted them out with bombs, pistols, and prussic acid to take occasioning death if they were caught. (Chabrinovic took his and it didn’t work.)
The commander on the ground was Illic who couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to be involved or not and at one point fled to Brod hundreds of kilometres away. As it was he organised things so that he would take no actual part.
Six others were involved, stationed at various points along Obala Kulina Bana, the street running along the embankment of the Miljacka and the path of the procession.
Basic (say bussitch) didn’t throw his bomb and ran for the station; Chubrilovic, who was supposed to finish things with his revolver after Basic’s bomb had exploded, froze; Popovic did nothing either because in his excitement he had chosen to stand next to a policemen; Chabrinovic threw his bomb but it went high and wide, missed everything and exploded down in the water. Princip heard Chabrinovic’s bomb explode and thought it was all over, so when the royal car went past intact he was stunned and went off to have a cup of coffee. Grabej, the last in line, also heard the explosion and fearing capture moved on.
What happened then?
The Serbs had been actively involved in kicking the Turks out of the Balkan Peninsula and had gained independence as a nation allied with Russia after the Russian-Turkish war of 1878. At the same time, the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Germany as built by Bismarck waiting in the background, was actively seeking influence over the same area, annexing Bosnia and Herzogovina in 1908. So a Serb throws a bomb which kills the next in line to the Austrian throne. The Austro-Hungarians send a letter saying, abase yourself Serbs. Let us run over your justice system and your army etc etc. Reply within 24 hours (initially because of clerical error, 23 hours).
Serbs say, hmm gosh sorry, it was bad, wasn’t it. But we can’t do all the things you want. We’re a sovereign nation. Austro-Hungarians say, right. Youse are gone.
Russia has a treaty with Serbia and is only too happy to mobilise its army because it has deep suspicions about what Germany is up to. Germany gratefully considers this an act of war against its own treaty partner. France is allied with Russia and, with the Germans invading Belgium as the shortest route to Paris, finds it difficult not to honour this treaty. Britain has a written ‘moral obligation’ to come to France’s defence and is concerned about potential threats to the scale of its empire. Where Britain goes, so go her colonies. The Turks wanted at least some of the Balkan Peninsula back. Australians were ordered by British idiots to fight the Turks at Gallipoli. We’re all connected.
Four years and 9,721,937 deaths later …
I wanted to stay longer, but we were on the move.
Don had decided on the scenic route home. His Grade 4 teacher had brought him here on an excursion and he wanted to retrace his steps. There was also some famous cheese to be bought on the way — smoked, salty, to be rolled in bread crumbs and fried like saganaki.
We had our moment with the Bosnian police who thought that Don may have been travelling excessively fast. Don talked and smiled and explained he was driving at exactly the same speed as the driver of the truck in front. Why had we been singled out? It may have been the Croatian number plates.
It was dramatic country. We were up among alpine resorts which always look a bit the same in season or out. I missed taking photos of huge karst cliffs, deep deep valleys and new hydro electricity works. My memory in the main is rolling back and forth as the van hurtled round the curves. We stopped for a pizza and it was Myrna’s turn, finally, to be sick.
In the second stanza of this journey we had climbed up onto a high rolling plain and back two hundred years — tiny landholdings, ploughing with horses, old ladies collecting their bundles of sticks, lots of war damage to houses which had never been much to begin with.
We had entered Republika Srpska and here at least it had the look of grinding poverty.
Banja Luka surprised me with it size. It has a quarter of a million people, about the same number as before the war, but the makeup is different.
It was of Banja Luka that Michael McCurry, US State Department spokesperson, said: ‘We have said for some time that we have credible information that ethnic cleansing is taking place there.’ And from that point ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the world’s vocabulary.
About 6,500 of the 73,000 Croats who lived in Banja Luka prior to the war remain. Nearly all of Banja Luka’s Bosniaks were expelled during the war and all of the city’s 16 mosques were destroyed.
From Banja Luka to Gradiska which figures in so many stories of the war the narrow two-lane road was jam-packed with traffic, houses on either side for much of the way.
We all just wanted to get home to Zagreb at this stage. I was wondering how far we would get before Myrna’s stomach packed up altogether. We couldn’t go any faster and anyway had to get through border control before we crossed the Sava back into Croatia.
This happened, Don regained his grin and composure, the road widened, we got to the freeway, we sizzled along through mechanised, industrialised broad acre farming on carefully graded and irrigated paddocks, and we made it back to the safety of Trnje.
Zagreb trails east-west along the Sava in a shallow, fertile and closely-settled valley. There is much evidence of design in its formation. A map hints at something like a shield with a north-south axis that begins at the Catholic Cathedral (and its more lowly Orthodox counterpart) in the foothills of the larger undulations to the north and is pursued through acres of squares, both cemented and garden, named after heroes of the nation — Jelacic (Dubravko demurs. No hero), Strossmeyer, Tomislav, Radic, with Starcevic slightly asymmetrically placed.
A long row of shops will take you under the station and the rail lines following the contours of the valley to a series of recognisably anonymous buildings, administrative and cultural (the Lisinski Theatre). Cross a six-lane highway, the way to what’s left of Vukovar, and you’re in Trnje.
It contains the Hotel Lisinski, three star, walls of cardboard but clean. It has a blond hostess with some remnants of glamour and not much inclination to provide assistance and a host who is perky and understands his role goes beyond collecting the tariff.
Next door is one of the four café bars in the street. Good service, nice coffee. The female custom here is inclined towards white jeans and heavy makeup, the male clients mostly have sharply-cropped hair, leather or denim jackets and big shoulders. This café bar is full in the mornings, the custom in the others seems tepid. (This may all change in summer. The mornings are sunny but the wind is fresh. I’m not sure where the custom comes from. I can’t tell.)
There is a tobacconist, a grand hole in the wall rather than an emporium, meaning that the two central Zagrebois requirements for life, coffee and smokes, are catered for. There are two tisaks, newspaper/mags kiosks which I never saw patronised, and a lottery shop. The well set up school supplies store is a surprise. I didn’t see any kids. Across the road opposite is a second world shop: cooking utensils, kid’s clothes and cheap things you don’t really need — a 10 kuna (2 dollar) shop.
There is a pizza store which feels no need to advertise itself as such and a ‘market’, a convenience store tucked down in an alley off the street. That’s where I bought the dry biscuits and lemonade required by the invalid and then lay back into one of the Hotel Lisinski’s comfortable beds and watched Croatian television.
A new day: Mike was on his way home departing late in the day. We strolled around the very pleasant inner city of Zagreb. At night we walked up Trnjanska cesta and had another visit to the brisk matrons of the Trnjanska Restoran where we began, again with the sublime lamb.
We were just finishing the padacinka s marmaladan (pancakes with jam, how long had we waited …) when a distinguished-looking Australian gentleman walked into the restoran with a raffish-looking Croat and told us what we knew, a volcano in Iceland had erupted, but they had some additional news as well.
That would be one place to finish, a cliff hanger. No one knows what’s going to happen, or for how long. No one. The whole shebang is closed down. You might be there for good unless you want to swim home. Tenuous. You’re a traveller. You’re on shakey ground.
But there is a better way, more of the flavour of this particular adventure.
I could say that we all spent a day with Don and Mirjana and Katica and Darko at the cottage, and that Don’s beaming smile had returned and that he was at peace with the world, and that Darko had brought an octopus that the boys were going to cook under a bell, and that Katica magicked up some other remarkable dishes while Mirjana sorted out the gardening, and that Don had dug out some of his best wine for us to drink, and that the sun shone, and that we went for walk on a verdant hillside brimming with life, and that we talked about absorbing things with very interesting people who were thoroughly engaged with the world, and that there wasn’t a moment of that day I didn’t enjoy.
Next morning Myrna and I left for Ljubljana on a train completely unaffected by the ash cloud. Mike remained in Zagreb and got home five days later.
 I’d forgotten that the 1984 Winter Olympics were conducted at Sarajevo. Saporro got more votes in the first round but Sarajevo won after Gothenburg was eliminated. The torch was taken by two routes: Dubrobnik — Ljubljana — Zagreb — Sarajevo (the Slovenian, Croatian route), and Dubrobnik — Novi Sad — Belgrade — Sarajevo (the Serbian route). How did Tito manage to keep this place together for so long? I suppose with gambits like this.
 In the first few months of the early Serb incursion into Croatia, 140,000 homes, one-eighth of all the housing stock in Croatia, were destroyed.
 With Russia and satellites in 1878; and with Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria (an unlikely but contiguous grouping) in 1908.
 Rebecca: Zagreb was not a strange city at all. It has the warm and comfortable appearance of a town that has been well aired. People have been living there in physical, if not political, comfort for a thousand years. … It has the endearing characteristic of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large.
 Rebecca agrees with Dubravko: [in 1848, the year of revolutions] ‘Yellachitch [she spells names phonetically] and the Croats [army, 50,000 troops] had saved the Austrian empire. They got exactly nothing for this service except the statue that stands in Zagreb market square.… Instead of giving the Croats the autonomy they demanded they now made them subject to the central government. They freed them from Magyarisation [Hungarian domination] to inflict on them the equal brutality of Germanisation. And then, ultimately, they practised on them the supreme treachery. When the Dual Monarchy [‘Austro-’ and ‘Hungarian’] was framed to placate Hungary, the Croats were handed over to the Hungarians as their chattels. I do not know of a nastier act than this in history.’ But such things seem to have happened to the peoples of the western Balkans much more often than seems strictly necessary.
 A tip from Darko. If you want to cook octopus keep it in the fridge, take it out, put it back in etc. The changes in temperature weaken the external membrane and make it more tender.
A cup of coffee (long macchiato): 6-10 kuna ($A1.20-2.00)
Fifteen degrees of latitude make a big difference. Even before we landed the striking thing about Zagreb was the advent of Spring and the swathes of green. Verdant, both figuratively and literally. Don and Mike were waiting behind the airport glass for us with big cheesy grins and if our luggage had arrived with us it would have been one of the great arrivals. Don carted us off to our hotel and then to the Restoran Trnjanska to meet the folks.
There was a lamb on the table — just look at it — a lamb which during its short but very happy life had only eaten mint and rosemary while lying under an all spice bush when not doing exactly the right sorts of exercises (squats and single leg balances). It hadn’t died (died? So harsh. Passed away) so much as expired gently from inhaling so much floral perfume. With its last expiration it was heard to say, Frleta. I must be taken to Frleta. And so it transpired. It was the black lamb, to be eaten with black wine, and there was Don, the grey falcon. It had happened already. Just as foretold. (And what a lamb! Dripping onto the tastebuds.)
It was a very merry meal as such things are (these very smart Croats were multilingual), and after the second carafe the subject turned to tradition as, indirectly, it often did.
What traditions do Australians have? The criteria were stiff: involving the whole community, clothing, food, activity, maybe a holiday but not necessarily. The church might be playing a role.
Mike manfully proposed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but they didn’t quite seem to work. A bit unfocused, a bit non-nation-specific, and maybe a bit too much thongs and the beach. Then, like the racing man he is, the Melbourne Cup. That caught their fancy. A horse race! Extraordinary. What an interesting country we must come from. I said Anzac Day just to try out the idea, but these were all starting to sound very constructed and of sectional interest only. Nothing like May Day in France where the only people working are muguet sellers (I hope I’ve spelt that correctly, Lily of the Valley) and everyone has a bunch; or the particular style of hens’ night that electrified St Agreve when we were there and involved every female member of the population between 16 and 30 (not a big group, but still). Coming home from Don and Mirjana’s cottage on a Saturday night we saw several big groups in regional costume off for music and dance. At Radovici, which means I suspect ‘town of Radovices’, Mr Radovic showed us his family tree (sans women possibly for reasons of space, actually predilection). This went back to 1568 from memory, and during that time this family and all their first sons called Pero had maintained a presence right there, on that ground.
What sort of wrench must it have been for all those families in similar circumstances from northern Greece (not far from here) and southern Italy (ditto) to come to Australia on the completely invisible and so so far away other side of the world? Current Pero, our host at Cavtat, had a traditional wedding and the photos show that to be no small undertaking. Serbian history has St Vitus’s Day 1389 as a major marking point. Maybe the absence of those traditions provides the new world with a freedom and cultural licence that would otherwise be unobtainable. What did those Italians and Greeks (and Indians, Chinese, Sudanese, Maltese, Hungarians etc ad inf) choose to do when they migrated? The answer is not automatic.
We climbed into the Opel van in the morning and tootled, roared really, down the highway, past very closely settled clusters of houses (more so than in France or Italy). They couldn’t have been working the land; there wasn’t enough land. Don suggested they were families still living together, commuting to the bigger cities or other places for work. Only in the most general terms did I know where I was or where we were going. We found a cup of tea on the periphery of a busy market. Somewhere. Don’s GPS was consistently overridden by help and advice from the locals and after a few false starts we found ourselves at a spring near Otocac (if you care, say ortochack. I haven’t got the right accents on my keyboard and it wouldn’t make any difference for most of us if I did.)
Its splendours were hidden for a time but the more we looked the more spurts there were out of the limestone walls and the more dramatic and complex the geography. And then! The fish. I wasn’t sure the restaurant was a restaurant. Don thought it was, so it became one. Simple.
There was no one else there but a guy appeared in a waiter’s costume. What did we want? What was good? Fish. We’ll have the fish. I don’t know where they came from, maybe out of the stream under our feet ten minutes before, but that’s what they tasted like. I haven’t tasted fish that good, and that’s what the food was like in Don’s Croatia.
That night a shank from what may have been an elephant cooked under a cast iron bell, the next day soft shell oysters and fish at the ‘Captain’s House’, Mike’s enduring memory of his last trip to Croatia, the amazing food at Darko and Katica’s, the bizot night which deserves its own story. But we were going on to Plitvice (say plitvitsa). We got there on evening and already it looked pretty good, although we’d seen nothing. Ate the elephant shank and, with an open window and cool air, slept well.
There were options for the next day, five ‘tours’ carefully constructed by the national park management. This is an organised country. We chose the long and rugged walk which turned out to be neither, and the others something shorter which to all intents and purposes was largely the same.
Our option started good and got better. At Plitvice there is a series of 16 lakes, two big ones and fourteen smaller, all rimmed by travertine, moss and other vegetation, spilling into each other. When we were there the water levels were about as high as they get and we started off on duckboarding through the lakes just out of reach of the water, completely still until it got to the rims where it started into these cascades of ribbons, corded veils. The water doesn’t wear the barriers away but contributes to their growth. This is very young travertine, the material used for the Trevi Fountain and much else in Rome where it is highly prized for its texture. There are hundreds of small waterfalls (slap in Croatian) and several dozen larger ones. But this is water in every imaginable pose, in every conceivable line of beauty. The lakes were Mozartian in their tinkling harmony. It didn’t hurt that it was a sunny and very mellow day. We walked for several hours piling delight on delight — complex, elegant, exquisite, feminine. We had a sit down for a while with a bit of bread and cheese cozened from breakfast and I thought, well that’s it. Don’t care what else I see. That’s enough. A very pleasant boat ride took us through the long lower lake and down to some additional versions of what we’d already seen. We were following our noses, and our noses took us down a track that might or might not have been closed. It was submerged but just for two or three hundred metres with very sharp pieces of limestone under (bare) foot and our sticks were very useful to take a bit of the pressure off. I note this only because there were a number of older local women coming back the other way carrying children on their shoulders apparently unconcerned.
There were larger crowds down this end of the system. Buses had pulled in somewhere with crocs of Japanese improving their strike rate for attendance at World Heritage Areas. One lake, another lake, just variations on the gornja jezera and then, just as I was thinking there was no need for a grand gesture, kazang! The big one. Veliki Slap. Big slap. Big waterfall. Because they were there, we climbed the 560 steps to the top and with a rainbow accent the spectacle looked like the background of a particularly good renaissance portrait. One for the men — massive, simple, direct.
But there was something else. Plitvice, the area, also happens to be the site of one of the first actions of the ‘90s wars. A national park? Why would you choose to promote a war in a national park? The same reason, presumably, you would choose to bombard Dubrovnik, another World Heritage Site. A more salient question is why would you want to promote a war at all?
Croatia is shaped like a bent arm. The forearm is the rocky mountainous Adriatic coast (Dalmatia, ancient home of the Illyrians and dogs of a certain type). It has a constellation of islands, extensions of the karst ridges of the mainland. Dubrovnik is almost at the point of the extended finger, the southernmost point. Croatia’s share of the Pannonian Plain (to the east called Slavonia, but not Slovenia or Slovakia), flat, and rich and lush as a matter of course, is the upper arm. Bosnia and Herzegovina with a population of 4.6 million, just a few more than Croatia, fits uncomfortably in the crook of that arm. Serbia joins at the shoulder. Physically, Serbia is half as big again as each of the other two and has a population of 7.35 million. But these are arbitrary boundaries, historical playthings.
Not so long ago these three countries along with Slovenia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and whatever that bit of Macedonia is calling itself these days were for a time Yugoslavia, the nation of the Southern Slavs. The State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and the Kingdom of Serbia became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 3 October 1929. This amalgamation stumbled along until the Axis powers invaded in 1943 and the arrangement was suspended. German troops occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as part of Serbia and Slovenia, while other parts of the country were occupied by Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy.
From 1941-45, the Ustashe (say ‘youstarshi’) regime (installed with the support of the Italian Fascists as the government of Croatia) killed an uncertain but huge number of people. Two hundred and fifty thousand were expelled, and 200,000 forcible conversions to Catholicism occurred. The victims were predominantly Serbs, but included 37,000 Jews. The communist Partisans (in which Croatians, including Don’s father, played a significant role) and the Royalist, largely Serbian Cetniks (‘Chetniks’) led the fight not just against the Germans but against the Ustashe as well. The Partisans proclaimed a Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the war adjusting the name slightly in 1946 at the war’s conclusion. The dominant Yugoslavian political figure for next 30 years was Joseph Broz, ‘Tito’, communist, Prime Minister and then President from 1943 until his death in 1980. His father was a Croat, his mother a Slovene. The capital of Yugoslavia during this period was Belgrade in the ‘Socialist Republic of Serbia’. Yugoslavia began to dismember itself in 1991 when Slovenia chose an independent path.
This can become confusing. Croats and Serbs speak languages which can be distinguished but only just. Serbs use Cyrillic script; Croats the Latin. (In southern, predominantly Croat, Bosnia the alternative Cyrillic rendering of place names on road signs was frequently blotted out by spray cans.) Serbs tend to be aligned with the Eastern Orthodox church; Croats are more likely to be Catholics. Serbs live in Serbia, B&H and Croatia, though not as many as in the past. Croats live in Croatia, B&H and Serbia, though not as many as in the past. This is the part of the world which provided the term ‘ethnic cleansing’. Some Croats also live in Slovenia with which they share a border (and a script, if not quite a language). Serbs have never been very involved with Slovenia which is one of the several reasons why Milosevic didn’t make much of a fuss when it sought its independence.
Under the ‘Dayton Accord’ with which the formal status of the 1990s wars concluded, Bosnia was divided into two, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the post war creation, Republika Srpska, which has its de facto capital in Banja Luka and which is made up of Serbs (ca. 88%), Bosniaks (ca. 8%) and Croats (ca. 4%). Muslims (‘Bosniaks’) are the largest group in B&H, although Croats are the dominant group in the south. The ‘Muslims’ reflect the strong influence of the Ottoman Empire in this region. They are at the bottom of the pecking order, the fall guys in popular jokes. In Australia their children would be going to Disadvantaged Schools Program schools, except of course in Bosnia they are going to madrassas. To be crass: Croatia, orderly, hard working, ‘Austrian’; Serbia, lively, messy, ‘Turkish’; Bosnia, a wreck.
The first blow of the ‘90s wars might have been a game of soccer in Zagreb between Zagreb Dynamo and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990. A riot erupted between the fans, a 16 year-old died after being stabbed and the Red Star players were lifted out by helicopter. But of more concern to the Zagrebois was the impression that their police were far more violent towards them than the visiting fans. Serbs were significantly over represented in the Zagreb police force at the time and the Yugoslav army was unquestionably directed from Belgrade by Serbs.
This hints at one, perhaps several, of the causes of the wars: in any relatively poor country (for example, communist Yugoslavia) the perception of favouritism in the distribution of jobs is rife. And the redistribution of income from the comparatively wealthy western areas to the less well-off east was not especially popular. The idea that officials, buildings and monuments in Belgrade were soaking up the money made from Dalmatian tourism recurs constantly in public comment recorded in the books I’ve read. But there is also something too about just who is in the police force and the army. It’s a certain ‘class’, who are not doctors and lawyers and academics and businessmen (occupational groups in which Croats were over represented), but who might want to throw their weight around especially with people whose ‘softness’ and ‘airy-fairyness’ they mightn’t respect.
Knin a town in the southern inland Krajina region of Croatia (and not so far from Plitvice) is where things initially came to a head. A large army base was located there headed by someone destined to become famous, Colonel Ratko Mladic. (His antecedent family was wiped out by the Ustashe. Round and round it goes.) Serbs living in this area of Croatia proclaimed the autonomous ‘Republic of Serbian Krajina’, a notion which spread around the crook of the arm to Slunj, Glina and Pakrak.
This all happened before the Serbian uprisings in Bosnia, a separate but related series of wars which included the Bosnian Croat shelling of Mostar to drive out the Serbs and the Bosnian Serb blockade and shelling of Sarajevo. And the destruction of Vukovar. And the slaughter at Srebrenica. And the ethnic cleansing of Krajina, where we were, by the Croats. Tit for tat. Round and round.
Fifteen years or so is not much time to get over a war; and of course some places suffered vastly more than others. One thing I realised while we were there is that the actual experience of war must be very personal and local. Fifty or even 10 kilometres can mean the difference between the devastation of your life and not that much happening to affect you. I already knew that no one wins. Later, in a meditative moment over pizza at Trogir Don remembered how much he had enjoyed some of his times in Belgrade and how fun loving Serbs could be. He also said he thought the breakup of Yugoslavia was in some ways regrettable. What was left was a series of little countries which would always struggle on the wider world stage.
We weren’t in the war, but it was always somewhere in the background of the wonderful time we were having, frankly an essential part of trying to understand where we were. The war was no elephant in these rooms, but never less than a rat in the corner. I asked Don if a Croat could get work if he or she went to Serbia and vice versa. He thought for minute and then said, they’d need a very good story.
We went to the coast to Zadar to see some sea chimes, the motion of the sea driving air through things like organ pipes to produce weird songs. It also had an pleasing old city. We hadn’t seen one of those in Croatia yet, and St Donat’s, a pre-romanesque church dated from the 9th century. It could almost have been Syrian, still standing if inaccessible to the passerby, still round, still startlingly white. A version of dodgem cars was happening round its base. And then to Skradin, not on the coast but very boat-y, on the Krk River and between two large inland bodies of water, the Visovac and Prokljansko lakes.
It was everything that holiday-making tourists would want: small, comfortable, picturesque, so clean it almost seemed like a film set, boats, views. We went in search of the restaurant that Bill Gates ate at, as one would, and after a time discovered that Bill didn’t eat, he drank, and he drank at a cave which provided a very wide range of home-made liqueurs. Mike, Don and I reviewed fig, rose and zuzula (no translation available) and felt them to be satisfactory. But this was only the precursor to a dinner of soup, squid ink risotto, silver bream and bizot.
Now Don was aflame with the prospect of eating bizot. Bizot live at the junction, he explained, of the salt water and the fresh and are rarely available for consumption. His English failed him momentarily as he tried to explain what they were and their significance (huge). Only ever at this place! Very special. Long, thin … sounded a bit like eel. They arrived on the table. They looked a bit like eel. We had some. They tasted a bit like eel. Special of course. The most expensive thing I bought in Croatia.
We sat drinking in the sun in the Krka National Park where a series of karst ridges break the Krk river into yet more amazing rivulets (water-driven mills, handcrafts etc) and we talked a bit about the war. Don was working for the Ministry of the Interior at the time which would offer a particular perspective. But it wasn’t there he became conscious that something was going on. The Frleta family were on holidays at the beach and as usual on the way home they called in on some long-standing and close Serbian friends. Something was clearly up. Don was concerned about this and made efforts to investigate. They were after all old friends. After some prompting they indicated there was a story going round that what happened in 1941 (Ustashe-backed terror targeting Serbs) was going to happen again.
That’s how wars start; not clean declarations or obvious acts, but by establishing a climate where every available insecurity is quivering with vitality and sensitive to the slightest movement in the wind. Those mortal enemies the Ustashe and the Cetniks never fought each other, Don suggested. They just killed and terrorised civilians. Mirjana, Ivan and Dina went to Germany when things heated up, although Zagreb was never truly in the firing line.
The boatman with strong feminist leanings took us through the reeds and across the mirror surface of Lake Visovac. The first port of call was a Franciscan monastery on an island in the middle of the lake. We could visit, and did, a lapidarium, a collection of stones the centrepiece of which was a statue of a Madonna and child by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic which had been shot up by the Serbs. The Krk at and near Visovac seems to have been a front line for the war for a time. The church property of both sides was a particular target.
Besides a tome handwritten in Glagolitic script, the precursor to Cyrillic and a thrill to see, the monastery’s museum had a listing of the destruction and damage to Croatian church property in the area caused by the Serbs and another list with the names of all the Franciscan friars killed by the contemporary ‘Cetniks’. Next to these lists was a very carefully worded message which went along the lines of: We recognise the need for forgiveness as Christians and so on, but the bastards who did these things have not been brought to justice and this must happen.
Turning the other cheek might be the most radical and perhaps most contentious idea in the Bible.
We continued on to Roski Slap. It was okay, but we’d already and recently seen better. We got out and pottered around and as was so often the case Don had a little treat for us. We sat down al fresco and Momma (the Momma to end all Mommas; Mike with his usual keen commercial insight thought she might be valued at €1500 a day so good a Momma was she) provided us with fresh green olives, new cheese, 100 year old prosciutto, bread and local wine, and for some reason in a very competitive field this was one of funniest and happiest meals we had. No idea what we talked about. I just remember spending a lot of time roaring laughing.
We drove along the coast to Trogir. The Tatars stopped at Trogir. The story told in most histories in the same form — there is a first hand account — is that in 1217 the Dalmatian ruler Bela IV was fleeing the Tatars down the Dalmatian coast from one town to another and got to Trogir and together with the local populace climbed inside the city walls and shut the gate.
The Lord Kadan [the Tatar leader] tried several times to see if he could pass on horseback through the city walls but was repelled by the mud between the coast and the island [about 20 metres worth on the landward side]. He sent a nuncio to the town instructing him in what to say. When reaching the gate, the man cried out in Slavonic in a loud voice: ‘This tells you the Lord Kadan, leader of the invincible army has arrived. [True up to that point. They had cut a swathe through northern Europe, cleaned up Hungary and attacked Vienna.] Do not take upon yourself the crime of alien blood but deliver the enemy into our hands so that his punishment shall not fall on your heads and you shall not perish in vain.’
Thomas the Archdeacon, inside the walls at the time, wrote this. Bela had commanded there to be no response to such a challenge, not so much as a whisper. And there wasn’t.
The town slept, fitfully I’m sure, but in the morning the hordes had disappeared. It transpired that that night Kadan had received news of the death of Genghis Khan and they all returned home immediately.
I’m not sure what that means but it tickled our fancy.
Mike may in fact have stood at the gate, still there, delivering the message again and getting the same or similar response. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.
For Rebecca, Trogir is of enormous importance. She devotes two chapters to it: its beauty, its colour (depends on the time of day but I lean towards butterscotch), but mainly the form and import of Master Radovan’s masterpiece, the portal to Trogir cathedral, and the way it explains and exemplifies the Manichaeanism of the time (only 20 years after Kadan went home).
I looked at the portal at night and in the daytime, from afar and in close up photos and of course she’s right, but I can’t necessarily see it. There is a very strong personal style present which is most individual — folk art, we’d call it — and it’s a great piece of craft. But Trogir for me was sitting in the sun in the trg listening to the Mitteleuropa brass band contest with baton twirlers and a compere in spray-on jeans for good measure. An hour of amiable bliss and winner of equal first best music heard on tour. (With hindsight I note that each of the three winners was free.) Myrna points out that this is an example of the attraction of the present (active, live, sensate) over the past. And that will be right.
The coastline to Split was like holiday coasts the world over: rooms to let, fast food shops, houses piled on houses, many houses for sale where people have made the usual second house mistake, possible access to some (of very few) beaches, piers, fish shops, gear shops, ice cream shops. It was quiet, but in summer … Don showed us where he holidayed as a boy and which pier he used to jump off. Another treasure offered. We liked that. Split was riven by a major boat show which seemed to have the effect of thousands of people needing to sit drinking under umbrellas along the strip. Diocletian’s Palace remained unaffected by this and was the best example of a Roman-style agglomerative building we had seen in Croatia and would see outside Rome. But the main thing about Split was that it was the departure point for a four-hour ferry trip to Korcula (korchela).
We got off at Vela Luka on the western end of the island. Leaving Don to administer another lesson in effective shopping for seniors in the wonderfully named Konzum supermarket, I caught the last ten minutes of the Korcula women’s handball final. For those who missed the final score, Vela Luka 11-10 with a goal in the last minute.
Here’s what you can find out on the internet. In the Croatian part of the Adriatic Sea, there are 698 islands and 389 islets (rocks, piles, reefs etc.; uninhabited). Of the 698 islands, only 47 are inhabited in the sense that at least one person lives there fairly permanently. Some sources indicate that Croatia has 66 inhabited islands, which is the number of islands that have had a settlement on them, but 19 of these islands have lost all of their permanent population as a result of the population decline due to insufficient economic activity. Korcula has the second largest population (a bit over 16,000) after Krk (not the river); and, random fact, the US White House is built out of limestone mined on Brac, another of the larger islands.
Darko and Katica talked about this decline and the lack of care and attention to the vines and olive groves on Korcula after we arrived at their house. They had spent the day clearing blackberries and other weeds from family property. They live and work in Zagreb at present, although Katica’s job seems to make her an international person. They plan to spend more time at this property on retirement which, besides a house, has two self-contained units which can be leased. These buildings cling to a very steep hill in the middle of a wonderful productive garden which is tended by Katica’s mum when Katica and Darko aren’t there. The Adriatic is at the bottom of this garden.
Various miracles appeared for dinner. Darko plans to spend more time fishing in the future but for now he had bought some fish and displayed very high level competence barbecuing them, thrashing them with sprigs of rosemary dipped in oil from their own olives. The fish were accompanied by wild asparagus and hard-boiled eggs with the most vivid of yolks and baby broad beans from the garden. Possibly the best meal while we were away. Possibly. Magnificent. Katica whipped up a giant crème caramel out of invisible ingredients for dessert.
We talked about food, about growing and making it, and about how while the quality is still there in the produce of Korcula rising production costs mean that more and more of the fertile and accessible areas of the island were being abandoned. The islands provided a haven for Croats fleeing the mainland in the early ‘90s (as they have in the past), but that is the only time the population count has gone up rather than down since 1920. The islands matter for tourism but are subject to the same shift of population to urban centres as elsewhere.
It had become wet and cool. Next day we drove to the town of Korcula at the other end of the island, found a house that may once have housed Marco Polo, and got on a ferry for the short ride to Orebic on the peninsula which was almost part of the island. The peninsula was almost an island itself, a political island. Bosnia has its eight? ten? kilometres of coastline on its leeward side, meaning you must drive through Bosnia to get from the rest of Croatia to Dubrovnik and the rest of the south.
Mike and I had been saying to each other for six or more months, Dubrovnik on April Fool’s Day. We’d passed April 1 but we were in Dubrovnik after a visit to Mali Ston, the experience which had stuck in Mike’s dreams. The oysters came out of the sea but from the corner of a long and highly protected estuary so the shells were soft and the creatures enormous but without the piquancy of Pacific or Ceduna oysters. Clerical readers, there is a text for a possible sermon here; historians of the Balkans, an option for an extended metaphor which should not be passed up. What do we want? Soft shells and huge size; or thick hard shells and piquancy?
We were staying at Cavtat (suvtut) a few k.s past Dubrovnik in the Hotel Radovic operated by the eldest son of one of Mirjana’s relations. (Mirjana’s birthplace was near here in Herzegovina.) We’d also taken a Frletian detour to a winery and got a grip on the difference between the wine grown on the leeward (lighter, a little tart and lower in alcohol) and the windward (muscular, deep, higher alcohol content) sides of the very steep karst range in front of us. Dengac from the ocean side was our choice. And then Don decided to drive through the mountain. I suppose he knew it was there, but we found a tunnel and a road approximately 2.45 metres wide, a thrill a minute, which took us through to the Dengac vineyards. The vines are pruned to 40 cms. off the ground and apparently grow very strong canes and grapes with comparatively tough skins to accommodate this. Later in Italy we found vineyards where the grapes were grown and harvested well above head height.
Cavtat was a delight, a 1950s resort (and there’s nothing wrong with that) still with its own working domestic life and a magic longemare. ‘Promenade’ is both a noun or a verb and so was this, a lovely walk of perfect length next to the water around a headland. You got to the end wanting more. The local chaps were preparing for the season: new masonry for the food outlets which would line the walk in a month, more concrete platforms for the sunbeds, new concrete paths into the water so the rocks could be avoided. (It must be said. Australia does have very fine beaches.) As we walked I was thinking to myself how many centuries have people been enjoying this path doing exactly what we were doing, and the correct answer was a bloody long time.
The pace of the tour was telling. So much experience. So intensive. So rich. So much food. The boys and Dina went to bed early and Myrna and I had a sandwich made in the kitchen of the hotel. We were the only guests: lots of space, a relationship with the host, make your own stuff in the kitchen, windows that open, great views, cheap. You don’t want any more than that.
It is very beautiful from a distance. Up close it’s another old town with highly polished limestone streets, including the famous Stradun down its centre, and beautiful buildings. Ha! It rained, it hailed, it stormed. That may have influenced my judgment. Dubrovnik didn’t have as many tat shops as Venice but it had its share. We paid a lot for ordinary food. Despite its remarkable history as an independent and highly civilised state, we were at a tourist destination. In the recent war 3000 shells landed on Dubrovnik during the bombardment from the sea and the heights (all from about 8-10 k.s away from the city) and most seem to be remembered individually. You don’t have to go far to see photos of shell damage or a room devoted to death.
Why would you choose to smash up a World Heritage Site? For a bit of notice I guess, or because you’re dumb. To see how long you could get away with it maybe. Or because you’re so crazy you simply don’t care. Tanner writes: ‘The bombardment of a UNESCO-designated historic monument generated enormous ill will among people who had never heard of, and did not care about, the humbler towns and villages of eastern Slavonia.’ He is scathing about this. ‘While foreign journalists and European diplomats complained about the damage to the tiles and red roofs of the Old Town … the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries had a free hand in Vukovar to wreak a savage revenge on the Croats who had defied them for so long. More than 2,000 people died there and the old city was destroyed absolutely.’ One city at the finger tip of the arm, coastal, touristy, well known, obvious; the other at the point of the shoulder, little known, isolated, abandoned at least from an international point of view and utterly destroyed.
We talked about this. There’s a photo of Don putting me straight on a few a matters in the cloisters of the Franciscan library after we had examined a shell hole together. But we moved on. To where? Further south to Radovici, home of the Radovics, Don and Mirjana’s relations, and the parents of our host at Cavtat.
There were several men of the house but the middle-aged one had a building fetish, a man after my own heart. He had built ‘two-thirds’ of the hotel we had stayed in, no small task in itself. He had also built numerous extensions onto their house which were now crawling across (above actually) a road and into their huge and meticulously kept garden. We were taken to the ‘museum’ upstairs with its photos and art works, two enormous wooden side-boards and the family tree I’ve mentioned. The massive understorey of the building housed something like a commercial kitchen, not to mention a winery, not to mention an olive pressing plant not to mention the spit roast facilities. He also had a full-time job at the airport (Dubrovnik’s airport is at Cavtat). When I asked him how he did all this, he said, despite his wrecked back, he didn’t need any more than one or two hours sleep a night. I do, with the window open.
Don had one more thing he wanted us to see that day, the seacliffs. It was just on dusk, quite light still but the evening was drawing in quickly. The weather hadn’t improved much. It was spitting and the wind had turned very cold. We were wandering round lanes headed broadly in the right direction, starting to feel a bit tired and hungry. We found the lane we were looking for by asking a man who looked but probably wasn’t extremely old and who might have been alone or almost so in a very large complex of housing. This was an area where there had been heavy fighting. Some houses had lights in the windows; many didn’t.
We followed the track for a few kilometres down towards the coast. There were no houses at all near the cliffs which were as dramatic as Don had intimated, two or three hundred metres straight down with waves crashing at the base. The others had a look and went back to the van where we had found two abandoned pups which were whimpering but refusing comfort. There was a track down to the water cut into the side of the cliff by gifted amateur engineers and I thought I could run down there and back quickly and not hold things up too much. But as it turned out the engineers were probably professional and the reason they’d cut the path into the cliff and smeared it with concrete to hold it together and to help you stop falling off was that it led, just above a small beach, to a tunnel cut into the bottom of the cliff. This tunnel was used to drain the land on the other side of the hill. Epic. Croatian. But also strange. At that point in time it looked like a very lonely enterprise. And this might be a feeling, a feeling without much substance necessarily, some contortion of the mind, that grips a traveller from time to time, but a feeling that I was somewhere completely alien, somehow at the end of the world.
The twilight, the weather, the cliff, the rocks, the path, the tunnel — they all contributed. I found the workings for the path which had been left behind — coils of pipe, pools of cement wash, a dented pile of screenings, sand — as desolate as the soccer pitch with grass 30 cms high half a kilometre back down the lane. Or nowhere. Even though it had benches and shelters not just for the two sets of team emergencies but for the refs as well, no one except ghosts had played on it in years at a guess. When I returned Myrna had found some apple and Dina was trying to feed it to the dogs, and they were growling at her like some misfit children. Their fate was fairly certain and bleak, and if you were sitting in your house having tea with a fire in the stove it wouldn’t matter. It was another story looking at these bewildered young creatures and listening to them make noises that said at the same time go away, and we’re desperate and need help.
Over the lip of a hill was a car that hadn’t been used for some time either, still painted in the Croatian red-and-white chequerboard left over from the war. I wasn’t at the end of the world. I was at the southern tip of Croatia.
 Rebecca: ‘In Croatia we ate and drank enormously, and so well.’
 With a dish made from polenta and sour milk, and another which was a particular sort of cheese wrapped in minced lamb. We drank Babic wine, a Croatian family which is now making wine in New Zealand.
 upper lakes. Gora, mountain, same in Polish. Slavic languages are close friends.
 Ah the inventiveness of place names. Vela Luka old city; Banja Luka baths city; Dublin Dubh Linn black pool, across the Irish Sea opposite? Blackpool
 At this point consult a map.
 From a Serb website: ‘August 4 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Croat attack on the Serbian majority region of Krajina in 1995 that resulted in the expulsion of 200,000 to 300,000 Krajina Serbs. This was the largest population displacement during the Yugoslav breakup in the 1990s. It was the largest expulsion in Europe since World War II. Was it the largest act of “ethnic cleansing” since the Holocaust?
In 1997, the names of 1,542 Krajina Serbs killed in the assault were recorded. Over 73% of the houses of Krajina Serbs were destroyed. Was the Krajina expulsion an act of genocide not seen in Europe since World War II?
The US and Western media referred to it as an “exodus” and an assault to “oust” Serbian rebels, “Croatian Serbs”, the oxymoron propaganda term coined by the US State Department. It has been covered-up and deleted from the mainstream history of the Balkan conflicts because the victims were Serbs and because a majority population was destroyed and denied self-determination.’
 Looks like a problem but just click your tongue, krrrk. Same with trg.
 Truly great. We found several pieces of his work in the Italian National Gallery of Modern Art.
 ‘Mongol hordes’ in some accounts.
 Rhymes with ‘boom’ and can be considered a directive.
 One of these islands has a population of one. It would be a quiet life.
 I’ve spelt that wrong I think. The same concept with similar spelling exists in Italian.
 This figure may have something numinous about it. It is also the number of cannon balls believed to have fallen on the city from a Russian/Montenegrin fleet in 1806 during the Napleonic wars.
 The British and French attitude during the 1990s wars was at least initially, Croatia didn’t fight with us in WWII. Let it stew. It was the Germans who were most active and thoughtful about external intervention.
The initial and primary purpose of this trip was to visit the Balkans.
There were two reasons: Dame Rebecca West and Dubravko (Don) Frleta.
Rebecca’s real name was Cicely Fairfield and she was a precociously and prodigiously talented writer who became successful very early in life. She was 24 when George Bernard Shaw said: ‘Rebecca West can handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could and much more savagely’.
In her 20s she was included (ignoring the fatuity of such a process for the moment) in the New Yorker’s list of the 10 best writers in the world at a time when Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell were writing. She was an active feminist although one of her best known aphorisms is: ‘I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’
At the age of 21 she met H G Wells (via a savaging she had given one of his books) and became third wheel in a ménage a trois that was maintained for ten years. Wells at that time, however strange this might seem, was a leading public intellectual (and a very keen proponent of ‘free love’).
She had a child, Anthony Panther West (‘Panther’ being Rebecca’s pet name for Wells; some things are probably best kept private), who growing up was instructed to call Rebecca ‘Auntie’ or ‘Auntie Polly’ and Wells ‘Wellsy’, adding to the uncertain nature of nomenclature in this particular environment.
Anthony was alerted to his real provenance somewhere between ages six and eight. He became a writer himself and published a fictionalised autobiography which cast the mother figure in an unfavourable light. The actual mother managed to suppress publication in England until her death. This suppression brought their relationship to an end more or less as final as her death.
She married a banker, Henry Andrews, in 1930. It seems possible that their marriage was never consummated. She died in 1984 very wealthy and laden with honours. Public life eh. What a party.
In 1936, 1937 and 1938, auspicious years in Europe, she made trips to Yugoslavia. These trips formed the basis of her masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, all 1200 pages of it.
It has been referred to slightingly as a travelogue, but to quote another reviewer, himself borrowing: she has two subjects, Yugoslavia, and everything else.
And she certainly does: the history of the late Ottoman Empire, the nature of religious experience, the formative place of handcrafts in the life of a village, the education of girls and the wearing of school uniform, the particular colour of Trogir (toast or butterscotch?) and the musical quality of the Plitvice lakes (‘Mozartian’). She makes one of her travelling companions German, and Gerda makes a wonderful foil, blank of insight and full of unrepentant prejudice.
The real topic of the book is the intersection of western and eastern cultures and the mutual incomprehension that engenders. The west does not come off especially well.
She lets her characters talk about the mutual antipathy between Croats (the west) and Serbs (the east) — and that is its pointy end.
The book is ambulatory, awkward, contains wild and anachronistic assertions, is consistently overwritten … and is simply magnificent. I started reading about the Balkans during the 1990s wars and it kept coming up as a reference point. I read it then, and have since wanted to see for myself.
Dubravko Frleta (at left with his buddy Mike Rowland) has led a less public but at least as interesting a life. He signs his emails ‘Don’, and that may be his wish. But he’s one of those people who with an equal mixture of exasperation and affection get called by their surname. He’ll be whatever seems to sound right here, but that’s him.
On his own admission he had a childhood and youth littered with achievement.
He learnt Russian as well as Latin at school (the top stream school in Zagreb still teaches Latin and Ancient Greek to all), and his Russian and his cleverness with maths provided him, a long time ago, with a trip to Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg).
But in the ‘70s (called by some historians ‘the Croatian Spring’. Don snorts.) he came on exchange to Australia, to Latrobe University in fact, to teach in the faculty of Agriculture as an economist. In the course of this process he met Mike Rowland one of my closer friends and colleagues over the past 15 or 20 years. ‘It was January and I was in Glenn College dining room having lunch. There was no one there of course, being January. We might have nodded at each other. Anyway he came over and said hello. The next day we had a cup of coffee and that was that.’ They have kept in remarkably close touch ever since.
Friendship is one of Don’s articles of faith. (There are many others such as the correct order in which to drink wines, the length of time fish should be cooked, where bread should be stored, which cheese should be eaten with what, the correct paper for wrapping parcels etc. etc., and again etc.)
We met Darko and Katica Biljakovic on this basis. Darko is another mathematician and a very longstanding friend of Don’s. His childhood school sweetheart Katica is his wife of many years and Head of the Institute of Physics in Zagreb. We stayed with them at their ‘second’ house on Korcula and saw them later in Zagreb. Arranging for us to meet them was one of the many kind and insightful things Don did for us.
Dubravko began his career as an academic mathematician. Having been a student of his has become a requirement for being a senior figure in the current Croatian government.
After the break up of Yugoslavia he seems to have talked his way very quickly into the new opportunities for private enterprise, in his case the fledgling Croatian airlines. Since then he has worked for a number of companies and is now Direktor, Službe za vođenje projekata i brigu o korisnicima, Sektor za koordinaciju ICT for Agrokor. [In 2010. In 2014 a doting retired grandfather.] Agrokor is a conglomerate which has (from memory) 29 businesses including bottling and selling water, broad acre farming and providing ‘extreme’ experiences for tourists on trips down the Danube. Don’s job is to coordinate the systems, information and otherwise, of these disparate groups.
I got an insight into Don at work when he was trying to send us a gigabyte of photos. This didn’t work; that didn’t suit; the other was too hard for muggins (me). So he patiently probed until he found what would work. He was purposeful, single-minded, self-contained, but also wanting to do just what he wanted to do — not provide the 60 best photos, but the lot in the highest possible resolution.
I can hear him saying: If you can do that, why not? (Shrug, gesture, opening palms.) I think Don probably works very hard and that the two weeks he took off to look after us was the sacrifice of a very busy man. And that is to say as well, once he got into the swing of it, he enjoyed it as much as we did. He certainly loved seeing his friend Mike, and he was a dear companion to us all.
I haven’t mentioned that he has played tennis against John McEnroe and Henri Leconte and has the polo shirt to prove it. Corporate money can buy anything these days. But he has the lope of a tennis player, still plays twice weekly and is by all accounts, especially his own, more than handy. (You know: Croatians = sporting/ big/ good.)
There are his friends, and there is his family. Dina who was a most welcome adjunct on our trip, the official photographer, is 20 years old, a finishing secondary student (kids start and finish school two years later in Croatia), and Ivan who has a job with General Motors (and is as good? better? than his father at tennis). His wife Mirjana works as an accountant. All delightful and hospitable people.
And there is his cottage. Twenty minutes from his home in Zagreb on half an acre or so of land is a very stylish ’shed’. We don’t have a suitable term. He says ‘cottage’ and that is probably pretty close. The photos will illustrate. This is another of the loves of Don’s life. It is close enough to visit after work on longer spring and summer evenings, accessible enough to fool around with on weekends, undeveloped enough for there to be plenty to do for a man with tools.
Don had, in consultation with the customers, designed a two-week tour for us. Mike wanted to go back to Mostar where he’d been before and on to Kotor in Montenegro, and we both wanted to go to Sarajevo. This was accommodated.
How often have you shown other people your favourite things?
It doesn’t happen all the time. I’m sure one of the reasons is that you don’t want your perception of those things challenged. This will always be under threat if you invite an audience. I don’t know how many converts I’ve won for the big trees at Cambarville for example, but Lord knows I’ve tried often enough; shamelessly. Maybe Andy Webster, but Andy has a capacious and generous appetite and is reliable in that regard. That would be one of about 486.
Here’s a teacher’s task. How can I persuade you that, for example, European history (or physics or Latin or anything else that sounds hard, boring or remote) is a matter of personal importance and interest?
On the day we left Europe ‘The Times’ had on its front page a story about the decline of participation in second language learning in England, more or less the same report that I helped the Asia Ed Foundation prepare before I left about contemporary Australian students. Australian students are just not very interested in learning another language. They don’t have to speak one in their daily lives, probably won’t even encounter one despite the 168 languages which aren’t English that are spoken by more than one person as a matter of course in Australia.
Another reason which always turns up is the perceived quality of the teachers. Language teachers love their language but can’t teach and language classes are the ones you muck around in. I can imagine these poor creatures putting their favourites, their loved ones, their heritage, on the table and having these most precious of parcels rejected by callow brutes. And this is part of the core of a teacher’s work. It constantly entails risk. Will the students like it? Will they love it as I do? Can I communicate, and control, my ardour.
Don had his babies on the table. This is Don. At risk. With customers who claim to be happy with anything. But that in itself he might see as a weakness. They should only want the best — just incidentally what I want to give them — and know what that is both intuitively and as a matter of being properly brought up. I’ve got to say, that’s what we got. But then again, I’d be happy with anything.
One thing Don has up his sleeve, when he needs it, when he feels he needs it, when he can be bothered needing it, is a gesture owned by very good teachers, at once charming, disarming and inviting: an intent gaze, sparkling eyes but it’s no joke, face tilted slightly forward, a motion of the head which could be a nod, a slightly open mouth — saying: Come on. Respond. Think. Engage. See what I see. What a wonderful gift.
We watched him practice it with Bosnian police. We also watched him convincing Myrna that in a marriage equality is paramount, but that the man should always have two votes. Despite finding unilateral support for his views from a boatman at Visovac (with the useful additional information that Australian women are lousy lovers), the Bosnian police were pushovers by comparison.
•••••••••••••• For the story, read on here.
 A good review:
I achieved my goal of arriving at St Petersburg’s Finland Station (has no one read Edmund Wilson’s magnum opus?), but had difficulty attracting the attention of the hordes hungry for my direction and leadership. After a fairly dull seven-hour train journey through snowy spruce forest during which I fell asleep just in time to miss a sight of the largest lake in the world, Lake Ladoga, the mysterious Vyborg and much of the disputed Karelian isthmus, my delivery may not anyway have been pitch perfect.
The crowds were certainly present as was the platform where Lenin alighted in 1917 returning from exile in Finland. (When in Helsinki he lived close to our hotel.) I suspect the same platform, the same stones, the same grit, the same interminable length, and it was nothing like I imagined it would be. In my mind’s eye I had a steel-framed grand canopy filled with noise and smoke and scurrying people in perhaps amber light. But StP doesn’t do canopies, or verandas, or pergolas. Space is fully enclosed, in rectangles. Everything else is just outside, exposed.
It’s a big city, a touch under five million and spread out. Its ‘centre’ is about eight kilometres across. It was dusty and dirty and, even more than Helsinki, needed Spring. There was more grit than snow in the snow banks, not to mention the coke and vodka and beer bottles, the cigarette packs, the singlet bags full of last nights scraps, stray items of clothing and the other conventional detritus of city life. They’re in the snow; it freezes. It melts; they don’t. Men with twig brooms will eventually sweep them up after the thaw.
There are many things that make St Petersburg unsettling but I think the winner is its monumentalism. We are at the mouth of the Neva which works its way through all the island suburbs. Mature, shallow, boggy, slow, it must be six hundred metres across at the main bridges, maybe four hundred, but that’s wide enough. Nevsky Prospekt (Avenue, the main street where we were staying) must be at least 60 metres wide with six lanes of traffic and two lanes attending to other matters, runs two and half k.s dead straight, takes a five degree right and goes on for another dead straight kilometre. The main road to Moscow does not deviate from the centre of the city to Pulkovo about 50 k.s out of town.
What can one infer? a) flat; b) planned. Correct on both counts. Instigated by Peter the Great in 1703 to be a new more ‘European’ (stylish, grand, organised, comparatively peasant free and less ‘eastern’ than Moscow which, anyway, kept burning down because of its preponderance of wooden houses) capital of Russia, it was built on marshes. (Note comment below on the failing wall of the Church on Spilt Blood.) At one time it was claimed that most of the masons of Europe were engaged in its construction, and walking around its streets this is utterly conceivable.
The buildings are gigantic shoeboxes decorated with triangular pediments that have been brought in from the Grand Canyon where they have been used to span some of its narrower sections. The blocks are literally hundreds of metres long and the roads just do not turn. They are inexorable. This is the 18th century’s superhuman scale; not New York or Dubai which have superseded this scale by removing the human from superhuman, but a bigness that you can, and must, find unusual, but still can grasp and be impressed by.
The same can’t be said for the tower blocks where most of the inhabitants live. But we’re tourists, we’re in the centre. So it’s palaces, government buildings, churches, the huge six storey apartment buildings where plenty of people still live.
I tried to capture the scale of Gotiny Dvor, the shopping centre whose defences we tried and failed to breach, in photos and failed utterly. It just disappears like an exercise in perspective. Forty-six arches in a colonnade, each at least four metres wide and separated by double columns or pilasters at least three or four metres wide — and that’s one of four identical walls.
The Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s self-memorialisation, now an art gallery (so to speak; as Sydney harbour is a place to swim) has more than 3 million exhibits — in Lord knows how many rooms.
Yet the inhabitants of the palaces appear to have huddled together in small apartments. To keep warm? I guess so. The dining room in Yusupov Palace where the murder of Rasputin began must be only four or five metres square, besides being downstairs and out of the way with no window; and yet this was the customary dining room for the second richest family in Russia. That seems to be the story of St Petersburg, staggering facades with anything you can think of and much you can’t going on behind.
The story of Rasputin’s death is always worth retelling.
How much in reality is contested, but not that the instrument of his control was the ladies of the court (of Nicholas II, the last Tsar) and in particular the Queen.
Nicholas seems to have been an otherworldly sort of chap, given to ensuring the good order of the pens on his desk and not really given to major sorties into the world of political ideas.
It was sex, it was class (Rasputin was from Siberia), it was religion (he had it, perhaps in surfeit); and the masculinists of the court did not like him.
Felix Yusupov (aspiring masculinist only, but ferociously wealthy) organised a dinner party to which Rasputin was invited to discuss various matters — we’re going quickly here, there are many excellent detailed accounts — fed him cakes laced with arsenic which he initially rejected. With some encouragement he finally ate six to no discernible effect. Yusupov, now alone with Rasputin, panicked. He pulled out his gun and shot him twice at point blank range, went upstairs where his four fellow plotters were waiting to let them know what he’d done.
They all ventured down stairs and as Yusupov reached out to move the body, Rasputin grabbed his wrist, hauled himself up and made his way through the door to the courtyard beyond. (Great to see all this, on location as it were.)
Another of the plotters shot him twice more, once at least in the head it was thought. He fell. They wrapped him in a carpet and via carriage took the body about five kilometres away, across three major bridges and two islands and dropped the lot in a canal. The shots in the Palace had been heard and reported immediately and the body was discovered next morning.
The autopsy indicated that Rasputin was in fact dead, but that he had drowned. He had been alive when they dropped him in the canal. While his body was burnt to finalise its persistence and its continuing influence, his penis has been preserved and can be found in one of St Petersburg’s many museums. Debate continues regarding whether he was a prodigious sexual athlete or in fact impotent.
This seems to be a very St Petersburg story: full of illustrative inferences and implications.
Until volcanoes began erupting, this trip was very much about the company. Our friends Robin and Andre from Strasbourg met us in StP but the four of us were in the hands of Olga Miheyeva, guide extraordinaire.
I found her via the internet and we had been corresponding on all manner of subjects for five or six months. My underlying interest was to get her to understand, for us, that less would be more, that sitting with a cup of coffee talking about matters salient to our respective lives would be deemed a worthwhile way to spend time (and our money), that a walk around a local shopping centre for example would be a matter of high interest.
I did this in writing and also as I remember now spent an hour on this topic in the coffee shop of the Grand European Hotel (top rates: 92,000 roubles per night; divide by 26 for AU$. I know Dubravko, no one pays it. Still. I had to go and get more money from an ATM just to pay for the coffee.) and in any case may as well have been addressing myself to the marble slabs of which the National Museum of Russian Art (I think perhaps Nicholas II again) is composed.
It’s a cultural thing. The one thing about which I was insistent was that we couldn’t look at art for more than an hour or so because all perception just fails. At that point a cup of tea is required. That got through. It was reiterated with regret and the slightest hint that Australians mightn’t be up to much.
We arrived at StP in the early afternoon. Olga had organised a driver for the transfer. He was silent and exact. Our hotel was too hot and never got any cooler — this is just by the way, colour; heaven forbid I should enter the grumpy old man stakes; must take care here — and one thing we discovered was that the whole city is centrally heated by water heated by coal-fired power stations. So, firstly, the crap on all the cars was not just remnant winter sludge but included coal dust which, with the grit and the diesel fumes in the air, tended to make unaccustomed eyes very sore; and, secondly, the heat was hard to control locally. We were on the top floor. What does heat do? The temperature was about 6-12 degrees outside when we were there and most heaters still seemed geared to minus 10.
We went for a walk to reconnoitre an idea for dinner, always a strong prospect for disaster on the first night in a city. I had learnt the layout of the city from Google maps and I knew where we were going so turned right with great confidence instead of left as we left the hotel. In my defence Google maps had placed the hotel some distance and on the other side of the street from where it turned out to be. Let that be a caution.
We walked down one of these endless blocks, as it happened towards an extremely busy underground station that most of the population of greater StP was trying to reach at that very moment.And with what vigour! School girls, shop girls, shopping women, just women, girls encumbered with men, women less encumbered by men, women with relationships that could well have been resolved, lurching men, men not sticking with the rules of the footpath, men weaving precariously. All were direct in their approach to their goal. Why not? Why should you let tourists get in your way? It was a jostle, even when we were going in the same direction. And it’s a big city so there are pavement artists, portraitist and cartoonists, bag ladies, men and women with small toys that move and make noises. No Africans selling knock-off bags or sunglasses however.
Russian women are as varied as any of course, but we encountered a disproportionate number of charming, capable, gorgeous young things who made themselves enormously helpful. The look in the street: knee length boots, tight jeans, leather jacket, scarf, hair straightened, tortured and pulled back in a pony tail, lots of bronzing makeup, lots of competition. This wasn’t universal but it was in marked distinction to the men who tended not to put much work into their makeup.
We got a couple of k.s north and, following the mirror, turned left instead of right, but got an inkling we’d, alright, I’d done something wrong and found a street map to prove it with a big arrow on it saying ‘You are here’ in Cyrillic script. Cyril, and Methodius for that matter: why? Polish used to make me feel helpless because I couldn’t sound it out. With Cyrillic script you don’t even know what noises to attempt, and Russian is spoken of with such approbation by people who should know as a beautiful musical language of great subtlety and nuance. Who spoke English in St Petersburg? The clever young women of course. Anyway we could work out the map and we plotted our way to where the restaurant should have been.
I could go on at length about how I was led astray by the perfidy of Google maps. Suffice it to say we did not find the Café Ket, but we did walk 12 or so kilometres and we did see an untamed portion of StP not always offered to tourists. When we told Olga where we’d been she was a little shocked and said it wasn’t a very nice part of town and neither it was, but it was unquestionably interesting.
Did I mention the diameter of the downpipes? 25 centimetres in diameter, and they’ve all been hit by cars.
We also found the Café Singer as in the sewing machine. Literally. It was once a factory and remains one of the finest Art Nouveau buildings I’ve ever seen. Inside is a bookshop and a cafe. I drank vodka to keep up with them outdoors and was stopped taking a photo through one of its windows. I do have a photo taken a few minutes before down a canal with the lion bridge replete with lovers in the foreground with the recently re-gilded onion domes of Spilt Blood in the distance. Look at that and I swear you’d think it was taken in Russia. (See above.)
We walked the few k.s back to the hotel and discovered the Café Ket was in the street immediately adjacent to the back of the hotel. I don’t know how that happened, but think of the value of the error. Huge.
Robin and Andre appeared looking disappointingly young and healthy, and we strolled the kilometre or two to the adjacent street with the Georgian food. (Stalin was Georgian. It has a Mediterranean climate.) Think a deconstructed souvlaki accompanied by lashings of large spring onions and radishes. These appeared also in Zagreb as the salade du jour. No, we had little rolled up things as well and Myrna may have instructed them in the art of vegetable provision. We sought Georgian wine but were disappointed. When we started we were hungry, when we finished we were not. Is anything more required?
We met Olga in the morning. She had our day planned. The first task was driving across town for half an hour or so, StP traffic is heavy duty, to pick up Robin and Andre. All routes are mysterious when you don’t know your town but I had noticed that Nevsky Prospekt had no left turn (across traffic) in the direction we were going. I knew we had to turn left and I was intrigued to see what he would do. But he was good Andre the driver, silent and perfect. At the last possible minute we dodged right down a side street and he created his own cloverleaf bypass.
Our first stop was a Russian Orthodox cathedral, St Nicholas’s, just near where Robin and Andre were staying. It was Easter Sunday and I had asked Olga previously if we could go to a Russian Orthodox service. I had read about them in Colin Thubron’s In Siberia and they sounded a little out of my ordinary.
There are several dozen Orthodox cathedrals in St Petersburg, and St Nicholas’s was not the biggest but the historical heart, headquarters. It had two complete storeys. Downstairs was startlingly ornate, formidably gilded with an icon on each of its several hundred internal pillars. But then there was upstairs as well. Olga wasn’t so keen about us going up there but, drawn by the music, we went anyway. And what a spectacle.
The decoration made downstairs look like an anteroom. There was some additional concern for line of sight, and visually the most interesting thing was a sort of trompe d’oeil that suggested the main altar was ensconced at the end of some endless passage. This passage and the door into it were fundamental parts of the clerical dance taking place, rows of gorgeously arrayed clergy passing bits and pieces — rods, orbs, sceptres, books — to each other and moving round in sinuous lines in the centre of the church.
But the point of it all was the music.
In most practical ways the choirmaster is the Minister of the service. There are cantors, and more and less senior clergy all sing, but no one speaks. There are no spoken prayers, no homily, no intimations as my father used to say; the congregation is standing, and often moving or at least swaying a little, joining in the singing from time to time.
You can come and go, or have your own private service with your own favourite icon. But here was this swelling of sound back and forth, beautifully trained Russian voices cased in incense providing this luxury for the senses. Religion via transcendence with little concern, in this version of it at least, for rational transaction. It was a thrill. Second equal first best music heard while on tour.
By chance we saw another service, this time at St Isaac’s a few days later and another, the ‘big’ Easter service from Moscow, which was broadcast live on at least four television channels. In the last Putin, Medvedev and his wife were standing just behind the Patriarch with whom they exchanged gifts during the service. This happened also at St Isaac’s with local dignitaries. This is not a case of separation of church and state. Putin is encouraging the church with vigour in order, according to Olga, to shore up his popularity.
Olga disapproved. She doesn’t like church, she doesn’t like religion and didn’t think it should be encouraged.
What an opening! A gap a foot wide between bat and pad.
Myrna sent down her finest yorkers and began her series of queries about the nature of god and how god might be understood. That kept us entertained until the arrival at the cathedral of Peter and Paul in the middle of the original fortress (StP’s earliest building) on its own island in the Neva.
Here we found Olga in her element within her own religious order complete with endless saints, and smell of potential beatification in the air — the Russian royal family. Who would have thought? We worked our way from Peter to Nicholas II one by one, not so much stories as a most thorough recitation of genealogy replete with wives, children and mistresses. The vehicle for this process — initially at least, like all good teachers she had a range of reinforcement strategies — was moving from one block of marble to the next. Is it a tombstone if you aren’t buried under it?
Despite Andre’s persistence, we couldn’t quite establish whether or not there were actual bodies involved. Someone is memorialised by a massive block of red jasper and someone else by an equally large block of brilliantly green malachite. I found this interesting from a geological/semi-precious stone point of view.
Nicholas’s (II, the last Tsar) family had a vestibule of their own, and here tones were hushed. DNA evidence has now conclusively determined that the bodies found in a mineshaft somewhere in the Urals are those of the last Romanovs, and now they have been brought here, etc etc. I asked Olga if I could take her photo at the entrance given the significance it obviously had for her, and it was as though I had exposed myself, and perhaps I had. Outrage, shock, dismay.
Then, in a long anteroom, we had to do it all again, filing past portraits one by one of the dead souls accompanied with vigorous and searching questions. (Olga is also a teacher of English.) From memory Robin did quite well with the answers. Suck. Typical. I badly needed a cup of tea, and noted only, as I had previously in the Finnish National Museum, how very swarthy a Tsarina called Maria had been, and how difficult the drape in a gentleman’s tights renders full length, life size portraiture. I had Russian salad with my cup of tea and felt smugly appropriate.
Olga had many favourite pictures in the State Museum of Russian Art — a palace of course (the Mikhailovskys, I’ve checked) with many many many rooms.
As is often the case, the history of art proposed in a chronological arrangement of works is a version, sometimes pallid, sometimes interesting with its own twist, of precisely what was happening elsewhere. And that was the case here: religious art (icons in this case and more Byzantine than you might find elsewhere), great/rich person portraiture, iconic historical moments (some very grand gestures), landscapes, impressionists, cubists, expressionists, structuralists (except all the Malevic was on holiday somewhere else) and so on.
I have an indelible memory of the Van Gogh gallery in Amsterdam which holds dozens of his works, apparently completely original, perhaps pathologically so, unique (used correctly), so much not part of a school or a movement.
But these are placed in the context of his time and his peers and what they were producing. Dozens of these paintings illustrated how much he followed at least as much as he led. And there were works better or at least as good of everything he tried. But usually only one in each case, and by different people. Like Picasso, he was very good but he stuck at it for a (truncated) lifetime. Like great artists, and great sportsmen and women this may mean you end up personally somewhat one-dimensional. It may also mean that singularity of focus, contiguity and persistence are attributes required for publicly recognised success. But it also suggests that we all live within the same tides of social behaviour and that anything you’re doing someone else will be too. That was all here. We might have been in Russia; but there was a fair bit of Russia in us as well. That said, I’d go back to have a closer look at the work of Repin.
No Van Goghs at the SMRA, no non-Russians in fact, and no political art of any type which was a pity, and nothing much after the 1920s; but there were paintings of Scythians and I was quite excited about that because I’ve never come across anyone else who is interested in Scythians (say sithians). The Scythians lived sometimes across a very wide area extending even into contemporary Poland but based around the north of the Black Sea, dominating this area for hundreds of years and intermingling with the Sarmatians who, on some views, provide the foundations of Polish culture.
The Scythians are a matter of historical and archaeological record having left well-endowed burial mounds indicating their wealth and sophistication. But perhaps the most interesting thing about them is that they disappear without trace around the 6th century AD, one of dozens of racial/ethnic groups who have lived around the Black Sea challenging, as must inevitably happen in most of Europe, the idea of autochthony (original inhabitants, ‘sprung from the earth’, self sewn; in Malaysian bumiputra ‘sons of the soil’). Arguments from autochthony are often used as the basis for nationalist sentiment — see, for example, Milan Milosevic and the idea of Greater Serbia, or the very notion of Bosnia.
This is a central issue for Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and because of Australia’s location and history they have a case to put. But if established, as it must be in their case, what does it mean? You have a permanent, morally unarguable lien over the land? So if a Scythian turns up today in Odessa, can they go to court to get their several hectares? What are a Scythian’s land rights and how could that idea be constructed? And I ask that because later in the day a Scythian turned up.
With Olga in a swoon of nationalist fervour, we looked at (walked past) every painting in the gallery. It was way past my cup of tea time. But for her final card, she played the fact that there was a special exhibition by a Scythian sculptor that we could go and see.
Now there are a scatter of Scythian artefacts in museums of the world, the academic question being whether they were creators or collectors the material being so diverse, and they are almost always comparatively sophisticated. And lo and behold there were a number of Scythian objects there, utterly striking small statuary. But, dah dah, they appeared in the context of an exhibition by this guy and I can’t find his name anywhere which is driving me crazy (Disappeared off the face of the earth? Did I dream it?), but it was sufficiently exotic and unassignable to presume that on that basis he might have been Scythian. And his work was great — fluid and imaginative, very powerful and energetic animal forms. Lots of development around a small number of themes and strategies, and very high order technique and craftsmanship. But I was clapped out, and completely unable to make what I should have out of this experience.
But there was more. Just when you thought the last set of steak knives was on the table … the tour of political St Petersburg! Beginning at 6.00pm. 1800hrs. It’s late. After a big day, time for a cup of tea and a sit down, right? Yes I thought so.
However a tour of political St Petersburg, home of the revolution — unmissable. The Aurora from which the shot which started the final act was fired is still parked in the Neva. Lenin’s Palace/revolutionary office with its 30 rooms is compactly and conveniently located opposite the Winter Palace. It’s all there.
Into the van then, Andre to the wheel and we start driving round StP and receiving a short lecture on every building we pass. StP guides have to pass a range of exams and I suspect that Olga had done very well in hers and was now giving us an oral version of everything she’d ever learnt, possibly about anything.
Now at great expense to the management the four of us were going to the opera that night, to the Kirov/Mariinsky Theatre, potentially a big moment. It was after 6.00, the opera started at 7.00 and we were driving in the opposite direction with all the cars in StP between us and Puccini ‘… a statue of Lenin. You can see how his arm is raised. This is to summon the masses.’ I like to be on time for things, in fact as a rule I like to be a bit early to get my bearings and have the capacity to strategically manage things like queues, perhaps a glass of wine and certainly a good squizz at who else is there and what they’re wearing. Even more, I don’t like to rush. ‘… a number of people in this group were gathered around this house …’ Olga we really must go. ‘Yes we are going now. I will show you one more house that I think will interest you.’
We arrived at the Mariinsky at 6.59 on the dot (Russian Andre: silent, perfect) to see a curate’s egg of a ‘La Bohème.’ There was a very fine orchestra which nonetheless drowned the weaker voices, a couple of nice tenors without much power, a splendid Musetta whose tart-ish style mightily impressed our Andre, and a vin ordinaire sort of Mimi. The second half which should be the best was leaden and, despite one great motif, three terrific arias and one of the best duets in opera, the veil was lifted from what a ditzy and slender effort ‘La Bohème’ really is. We trooped out with the rest of the tourists looking for something to eat.
The next day I decided to make a stand. The Hermitage was first on the list, and we were all meeting first thing for coffee for some reason at the Grand European Hotel. (Who stays in these places? ‘People who don’t want to see anybody else.’ D. Frleta, 2010. StP has got plenty of posh shops. It might be poor but it has got tourists and millionaire apparatchiks.)
Deal: Olga picks her six favourite things in the Hermitage, shows us and tells us about them. We each pick two and do the same, then we have a cup of tea. (Incidental note: having a cup if tea is widely viewed as a medicinal process in continental Europe.) Then do something different like walk around the suburbs. Risible in retrospect, completely fall on the floor and roll about risible.
It worked for ten minutes.
If short on explication she showed us an icon and a gargantuan urn she liked, but after that it was room after room of masterpieces. Titians, Rembrandts, two Leonardos, a room of Impressionists so special they had to close for lunch. ‘I show you just one more room just one more room just one more room just one more room through these halls this room is the gold room and you can see most of the decorations are of this colour it is believed that Catherine the Great liked this colour …’ I liked the colour of the outside a lot, a sort of marine green offset by white cake decoration, and I liked a couple of the ceilings. But I’m buggered if I can remember another thing.
I won’t analyse my arenas of failure. They are too multivarious. But Olga’s failure was in the area of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. She shot straight for transcendence neglecting the fact that the various levels are cumulative. We had shelter right, but food, physical necessities?
The 34 schools in the remote communities study just completed by self all provide their students with breakfast, most provide lunch, and a good number morning and even afternoon tea. The reason for this is so the kids can learn without focusing on how hungry they are. This was Olga’s mistake. For some reason Mernz had not had breakfast this day and was moving past simmer. ‘Let’s go Olga.’ ‘I show you just one more room.’ ‘No let’s go.’ ‘Okay. We go through these rooms.’ Enough is as good as a feast. Add your own homilies, as many as you want. They all say the same thing: moderation in all things. ‘There is something to eat in the suburbs.’ Great. Can’t wait. Let’s go.
I went to sleep in the van missing much of the lecture on the 900 day siege by the Nazis, the consequent death of 400,000 St Petersbourgeois and destruction of much of the city including some of its most precious religious buildings (which before the war were being used for a range of revolutionary purposes: storing vegetables (Spilt Blood) or film sets in one odd case, markets, or museums. Only two cathedrals were operating according to original purpose.) I just saw, ever so fleetingly, what looked like a fabulous and unusual example of public art, the very dramatic monument to the siege. But I missed all the rest. The death marches, the thousands dying of starvation, the eating of rats and grass. I was too hungry.
We did go through the suburbs. We went along the very straight road to Moscow mentioned earlier. We went through 20 kilometres of tower blocks with the usual mysterious and unattributable stains, graffiti, frozen washing (it was much colder out of town), missing patches of stucco and derelict plumbing. But at their bases they did have Did-daks, a chain of bakeries, pizza joints, kebab shops … what am I turning into here? Some sort of uncontrolled omnivore? I hasten to add Andre drove very smoothly, the heat was up and I was tired, sated with art.
We arrive at Pavlovsky Palace, and this is the suburbs! A cultural misunderstanding. We’re in the mulga, if beautifully manicured gardens and a dacha of epic proportions could be said to be the mulga. A long way out of town, and its another bloody palace. ‘Pavlovsky Palace very beautiful.’ It had been destroyed by the Nazis during the siege or actually during the withdrawal. Never underestimate humanity’s capacity for turning up the screws to become complete arseholes.
Thanks to the philanthropic efforts of an English-Jewish noble person and a cabal of American Jews it had been restored. Robin called it kitsch. This may have been harsh, but seeing Pavlovsky Palace was nowhere on my list of things to do. ‘This is the dining room. I ask your full attention. You remember I tell you about Maria, wife of Pavel III, this is her favourite room.’
Olga had promised a cafeteria. This was closed. And this is not me, okay? My wife was verging on the homicidal. What time was it? 5 pm. A long time since no breakfast.
‘I have for you a restaurant.’ And this had been her plan the whole time, a delightful surprise for us. We were off. This joint was in the guidebooks, as in: Close to the Pavlovsky Palace is Podvoyre with a fascinating take on traditional Russian folk art …’
You want kitsch? This was so fabulously kitsch I would have been happy just to sit there and watch the evening unfold. There would have been some sights as the custom arrived in their Mercedes and Audis dressed in Eastern European splendour, old men with young women, newly-minted millionaires impressing their small children, slightly uncomfortable tourists. And it’s all highly varnished wood and plaits and gathered kerchiefs and free vodka on entry. And yes, the bear is holding the drinks.
But I was to be denied. Myrna demanded food in front of her in one minute. The stunned waiters produced some very nice pies to take away and we were driven somewhere else.
That night we had Uzbeki food. Think a deconstructed souvlaki accompanied by lashings of large spring onions, radishes and vine tomatoes with some little rolled up things for starters. We walked home, about five k.s but delicious.
Ed Shann recommended the Yusupov Place, and this like all his other recommendations turned out to be gold. It had a different sort of scale I think. More direct, more human, more interesting. There’s a wonderful use of light sources at the entry. It had countless rooms too, but we weren’t allowed to see them all. In fact it was all very strict indeed. Made Olga look like a wanton example of laissez faire.
The palace belongs to the St Petersburg Teachers’ Union, is a challenge to get into (Olga was very nervous about it), and is overseen with great definition by retired teachers who use all of their considerable group management prowess to keep visitors on the straight and narrow, isolated and quiet. This helped. Olga, slightly cowed, had no choice but to move on. And there was Rasputin of course.
Lunch was nearby — a pie shop, fabulous. The sun was out. God was clearly restored to the heavens. Outside St Saviour’s, the Church on Spilled Blood, a 20 year-old girl was providing a remarkably multi-layered version of ‘Spring’ from the ‘Four Seasons’ on her violin managing to sound like perhaps one quarter of an orchestra. Her performance went on the list of best music heard on trip.
From afar one can have no concept of the construction of these things; they just provide great visual impact. I wanted to see how they’d made them.
This is not an ancient marvel, but something whipped up after 1881 to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II who ‘died with a plan for freeing the serfs in his pocket’ — yeah yeah, heard that one before — but by all accounts, probably a decent chap as Tsars go. However he was killed on the edge of a canal, so one wall of the church is actually built in the canal and is sinking. Inside it is completely covered in mosaic, seven and one half thousand square metres with little bits and pieces stuck on. Try that on for size Ruth Smith! If rolled out on a fence 7.5 metres high — a kilometre long. A modern marvel.
What was there had been restored after various depredations especially the shelling during the siege; and what was there was like a cartoon printed by a five-colour printing press, five colours … okay maybe seven, and seven colours alone. With so much space to cover I think there may have been 16 Apostles and as many as 60 disciples but as they all looked pretty much the same it was hard to say. The exterior onions? Riveted plates of gilded metal on a clever but not startling wooden framework with the junctions and the planes clearly visible — best seen from afar. A fine contribution to the streetscapes of StP, but tonight one and half stars. (M. McRae: four stars.)
Olga wanted euros and I’d brought US dollars for her. No one else seemed to want US dollars either. St Petersburgers seemed very finely attuned to the vicissitudes of the money market, but money changed hands and life was good.
We wouldn’t have seen a tenth of what we had without Olga, we agreed on that — we saw like everything man. And what is a guide anyway? Not a driver, who is trying to guess what you might like. Olga would say a skilled and knowledgable person who has had to pass exams in Russian history, culture and art to become accredited … and that’s what you’re bloody well going to get.
Robin wanted a look at St Isaac’s and it was then, by chance, that we got to our second Orthodox service.
Eddie was on a 100 percent strike rate (subsequently maintained) so we took up his advice about dinner. Teplo was hidden away in a courtyard and underground down a short staircase and turned out to be room after room — ten? a dozen? — of very mixed but mainly young people enjoying food. It was run and served by equally young people.
Our capable charming etc waitress who spoke excellent English had been teaching in China for a year with her American boyfriend. The decoration was stunningly original and very bright: tartans, tapestries, wallpapers, cloth glued to surfaces. Smart, intriguing. The temperature was correct and the food delicious. Since you ask: haddock and asparagus with a pistachio sauce, a beef stroganoff (the rather grumpy-looking Stroganoff palace was nearby) without tomato or paprika, and some remarkable desserts. We walked home again through a series of small carefully lit set piece dramas, tableaux tres tres vivantes.
We had half a day next morning before the airport and performed our promenade to Cafe Singer. Myrna wanted to look at some shops so we made an effort to enter Gotiny Dvor, the big shopping centre. We may have entered it or we may not have. It is vast as I mentioned but only one small shop thick at its periphery. (Among other things, it has a vast subway station in its centre.)
And these shops sell things you don’t want to buy: high end cosmetics, watches, designer jeans, the same sort of stuff which envelops the global traveller. And, you can’t mooch into them and out again. There’s one door, they’re fairly small and there is a salesperson waiting to pounce. It is not a relaxing experience.
We were going that day and I may have had my fill of challenging experiences. Not visiting these shops seemed a small price to pay.
I varied the route home and we stumbled on ‘the most perfect street in the world’!
‘Precisely symmetrical’, the facades are as high as the road is wide, and although ending in a T-Intersection it is almost invisible. Classical, cream, precise, Doric capitals all lined up, sharp edges dirty from the muck in the air but all present and correct. Splendid.
A moment after, we were walking past a lane, the ubiquitous lanes that actually service the populace. That’s where the real shops are. They appear as small shanty towns selling diesel, water, fast food, soft drink, soap powder, vodka and other necessities of life. People are doing things with cars, hanging out washing, chatting in small groups, having a drink, and there is often a barrier or a gate with a guard where the lane enters the street.
Down the lane this old Lada was coming pell mell towards us, the driver drawing on his smoke with great insouciance. Unshaven, and almost as dirty as the car there were four big blokes, Albanians Dubravko would have said, could have been Chechens or Georgians, testing every bit of give in the suspension. No exhaust, both back panels flapping in the breeze (a commonplace in StP vehicles), they smashed their way past the barrier, may have just taken flight before landing in the street and howling off at right angles pedal to the metal. Faintly menacing. Dextrous. Thrilling.
What’s behind all those monumental facades in St Petersburg? Great art, a lot of history, gorgeous capable young women, and a fair bit of the other as well.
••••••••••• Head off here for more.
 Not worst, and best for context Orlando Figes A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
 But I have found an Australian artist who copies Scythian designs (an act full of assumptions in itself) not especially attractively. So who knows about this other character?
 So, exactly as I write this I receive an email from Olga with his name, Dashi Namdakov, and you can look at what he does:
She also indicates she ‘would be grateful if you could write your impressions of your St. Petersburg sightseeing and my guide service, which I will probably put in the Guestbook of my website.’ I’ve indicated my deep gratitude. Who knows? She may want to pay me to take her to see the penguins at Philip Island some time.
Sight-seeing, apart from the fact that he had already seen everything, had for him — a Russian and an intelligent man — none of that inexplicable importance that the English manage to attach to it.
— Vronsky, freed by living abroad, completely at liberty, in Anna Karenina (purchased at Singer bookshop in St Petersburg and read by Myrna in the Balkans).
On March 30 on our first night away we kicked our way through the snow banks round to a Helsinki restaurant called Karl Johan tucked away in a corner of Yrjonkatu. (It’s George Street, just George Street. No excitement. Foreign that’s all.) We were there at the suggestion of a woman who ran the deli round the corner in Kalevankatu, and it was very good: great food, cosy in a formal way, friendly enough with, although it wasn’t frequented by tourists, a waiter who didn’t mind speaking English. I had the ‘menu classic’: asparagus, steak with a pepper sauce and rhubarb pie.
Seven weeks later on May 15 after a very warm day — the hottest for three years, all of 25 degrees, which had the populace in spasms of delight, a stationary queue of 100 metres or so trying to get into an outdoor pool for example, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people shedding their clothes in the city and sitting in the sun drinking beer, the sun which set after 10 that night — we went again.
(I know now that it is next door to a uimihalli, an indoor pool where men and women take daily turns to swim optionally unclothed.)
The same guy wasn’t there. Unusually for Helsinki, the people who were serving were less enthusiastic about speaking English. And we’d brought our baggage along. We were off directly to the airport, but the gesture was deemed slightly uncouth.It’s a stylish restaurant.
I worked my way through the carte. It all looked good and, without reflection, ordered the ‘menu classic’: asparagus (which I preferred to snails), steak with a pepper sauce and rhubarb pie.
All that time and money, all those arrangements and epic moments and startling experiences. I had after all eaten bizot at Skradin, inter so many alia. And nothing had changed.
That is the question that which has been dropped in the pond of these pages. See what you can make of the ripples.
QUEEN OF THE BALTIC
A cup of coffee (cappuccino): €3.50 ($A5.25)
It was grey when we arrived, the grey of six o’clock in the morning and minus six degrees, abetted by tower blocks, airport concrete and snow banks full of road grit. Arrivals are easy targets, happy to be there but un-oriented and tuned differently.
I’m sure 90 percent of the really silly things travellers do happen within three hours of arrival.
But in this case the bus was where it ought to be, it had the right number and the right destination, it didn’t keep us waiting, it was warm, and took a generous route that let us watch a city waking up in the cold. It stopped where I thought it would and the main buildings and streets hadn’t moved. The walk to the hotel wasn’t far and they had a room free which in excellent English they were happy to offer us.
And minus six sounds a lot worse than it is. Brisk certainly, but not life threatening.
We reviewed the central station with its colossal art deco caryatids thinking how this stage of snow makes everything look like a building site, bought a three-day tram ticket, a map and ‘See Helsinki on Foot: 7 walking routes round town’ and considered ourselves settled.
The cafeteria had bits of fishy and other attractive substances on small roundels of rye. This made Myrna happy.
Being there was the rest I had hoped it would be — food without challenge, a comfortable bed, no language problems. The hegemony of English, I thought at the time, has taken new strides. This will be discussed further below in terms of the cultural and linguistic incompetence of the traveller and how embarrassing it is to be monolingual. But like a lot of things in Finland, Finns appear perfectly happy to be bilingual in English and that very exotic language Finnish (actually usually multilingual with Swedish and Norwegian as well and often Russian). There is no apparent fear that English will swamp and finish Finnish.
I’d like to know where that sort of cultural confidence comes from in a country that is not yet 100 years old as an independent entity.
For most of its 500 year life, Helsinki has been either a trading post for Sweden or a forward defensive post for the Russians of St Petersburg. It has been burned to the ground twice since 1730 and yet it has the look and feel of stability and permanence. Its current population is 530,000 with another 800,000 outside the municipal boundaries mainly spread along the coast line, but it plays smaller. Apart from its hugely maritime aspect its most distinctive physical feature is what you can’t see — the amount of it underground. In the central area the big shopping developments have about 1,700 shops below deck mined out of the pink and blue granite on which Helsinki is built. Often during the day you hear the phut of blasting. Finland’s population as a whole is 5.25 million; its other city of significance, Turku. It might have the same number of serious drinkers as Scotland, and that’s a lot. The weather-beaten rural type is at least as common as the straight-haired ice blond with piercing blue eyes.
En passant, we will note that Absolut vodka is made in Finland; that Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, won nine gold and three silver medals at three Olympics in the ‘20s; that Jan Sibelius was Finnish and that ‘Finlandia’ is self-referential; and that Finnish school students lead the world in most areas of international testing.
We were there because Isaac our travel agent has something going with Finnair, and I had been there briefly once before on a stopover and thought it seemed like somewhere worthy of further investigation. And so it proved.
It has a tram route that takes you to everything tourists are supposed to want to see, always an interesting set of decisions, but unreservedly I love a tram ride. We got off at the Temppeliaukio Church which is cut into granite bedrock and has classy auditory characteristics. More interestingly for me, it is adjacent to a kids’ playground where the toddlers were rolling round in the snow banks, oblivious to the climatic handicaps, happy as Larry. I am not attuned to snow; we aren’t it’s fair to say. It bleaches the colour out of everything and objects, shapes lose their definition, but it also must shift behaviour. Near the playground we walked past a dog obedience class which was operating as a dog obedience class does albeit in heavy snow. A little further away was a tennis court with about 10 centimetres of net showing above the icy surface. Had the net been there all winter? Had someone mucked up or is that just what you do? Maybe the net was made out of some sort of weather resistant high grade tungsten webbing or something. Was a big thaw anticipated the next day? Was the snow cleared daily at some stage so the court could be used? It didn’t look like it. But I’m not sure about snow behaviour. Whereas, if every year six to eight months were snowy, you’d know. You’d have a plan. You’d put your shops underground for example. But what an impact seasonality must have here, and, as we discovered two months later, what tremendous excitement for a warm, clear day.
We saw what we were supposed to from the tram. (Click on the photo to the left to see its significance.) But late in the day stumbled across a Marimekko store. An American temporarily teaching set design for film and television in Helsinki who shared a compartment with us on the train to St Petersburg described Marimekko as ‘hideously ‘70s’, but we thought what was there looked pretty good.
I know what he means. It’s a bit freehand and dedicated to the ecstasy of the spirit, but against the grey background of the winter environment it’s a splash, many splashes, of vivid living colour. It was better than anything else in the sad and dusty design museum which was kitted out with, more than anything else, uncomfortable looking chairs. (Finland. Design. Remember? Did you ever know?)
Next day we took a No. 4 tram to the end of the line and walked home, always a good way to see a place. It carted us off north to a different bay on the surface of which people were skiing and walking their dogs. This bay was quite sheltered and might have taken longer to thaw than the main bay which had a foot or two of ice encrusting it.
We stumbled across Seurasaari Island on which there is a large collection of old Finnish farm buildings (for heritage maintenance purposes) which, following the theme of survival in the cold, intrigued me.
About a quarter of them were from above the Arctic circle and all of them were constructed out of wood, just wood, not a nail or a sheet of iron between them. Just a stone hearth and backing for a fire. Such clever technology. See the photo of the hexagonal base of a wooden windmill as proof: 24 shaped logs all dove-tailed in three dimensions so to speak. Despite the ingenuity, I cannot see how these buildings would not have been freezing to live and work in.
That night we ate at a Finnish equivalent of a VET hospitality training centre. The importance of experience to culinary skill was confirmed.
Later again on the television (20 channels, lots in English (UK and US) and nothing to watch including the unbearably lightweight BBC World News) we ran into an Australian televangelist whose message was that Captain Cook and James Phillip had brought Sundays to Australia in 1770. He was emphatic on this point. It was central to his message which was that only one of the Ten Commandments was about time and thus was the only one which was proofed against time and context. (I think. He was going pretty fast for me.) Exodus: ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.’ Deuteronomy: ‘Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.’ But he had a riff about Cook and ‘James’ Phillip that he wouldn’t let go. And presumably someone was paying him for this. [For our overseas guests, Cook and Capt. Arthur Phillip never did anything together. Cook touched on Australia in 1770 but didn’t stop. Phillip arrived in 1788.]
Life, and perhaps travel life especially, is full of post modern ephemera. It wasn’t long after that we were sitting in a café in Zagreb listening to a Croatian sing, in Croatian, ‘I come from a land down under’.
I wanted to go to Suomenlinna (‘Fort of Finland’) partly because the guidebooks referred to it as unmissable and sometimes they’re right, but mostly to see how you get a boat, a smallish boat, through a couple of kilometres of ice. I took one look at the bay and assumed it wouldn’t be happening.This is a ferry trip to Suomenlinna, an island, six islands really, the two big ones separated by a narrow channel, several kilometres from Helsinki harbour. I was assured that this ferry goes every half hour 8am to 6.30 pm every day of the year, and when we wanted to go it did. Finland. Great.
We motored past the remarkable Russian Officers Club building on its own island [in the pic above] and five or six other insular oddities, banging and crashing for 30 minutes, lifting up on floes and then cracking them. I think the cold must provide wonderful opportunities for the skills and inventiveness of engineers.
An invulnerability fantasy in concrete form, the building of Suomenlinna commenced in 1748 and like many such things was intended to be state of the art, ie first line of defence against enemy intrusion/ domination of a body of water type art. The defensive line was Sweden’s eastern boundary and wickedness could be expected from the Russians to the east and the Teutons, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Danes and others to the south. To give the Russians the shits (note this is only 50 years after the building of St Petersburg commenced) France put a lot of money into the very substantial cost of building it. Very French one might say.
It’s a great site, an island in the south of the bay with a pointy bit that sticks out in the direction from which it might be assumed the enemy might come, but like all such affairs lacks something in the way of manoeuvrability.
I remember seeing a fort at Walbrzych in Poland that had been re-fortified, before, during and even after World War II, so many times people had lost count. More layers of concrete, lashings, another three metre thickness of stone, two more wings at differing angles. Let’s do it. The overwhelming sense that edifice provided was that it was at least as much about imprisoning its inhabitants as it was about impressing and seeing off invaders.
Suomenlinna took 17 years to build as far as it has been built, never finished, and most of the contents of the Swedish Treasury. At its peak 6000 workers were engaged in the construction. It was the life work of one Augustin Ehrensvärd who began as a lowly lieutenant when work started and rose through the ranks with his passion clearing the way to the top.
I suspect over time during the building some of the edge may have gone off the actual defence considerations. Officers’ barracks in a lunar crescent augmented by a central statuary, sure. Mini cathedral with a lighthouse in its spire, a requirement. The orchard would have provided essential food, well the non-ornamentals anyway; and, even if there are fewer of those, how about keeping plant diversity alive in the advent of an extrinsic holocaust? But the series of ornamental ponds and the arboretum might just have been for the officer’s wives.
No one took it on till 1808 when it surrendered 36 hours after being attacked. From Wikipedia: ‘The Russians easily took Helsinki in early 1808 and began bombarding the fortress. Its commander, Carl Olof Cronstedt, negotiated a cease-fire, and when no Swedish reinforcements arrived, Sveaborg [Suomenlinna’s Swedish name], with almost 7,000 men, surrendered. The reasons for Cronstedt’s actions remain somewhat unclear. But the hopeless situation, psychological warfare by the Russians, some (possibly) bribed advisors, fear for the lives of a large civilian population, lack of gun-powder, combined with their physical isolation, are some likely causes for the surrender.’ And also the fact that the fortifications weren’t pointed in the right direction.
With a good smearing of irony, the Russians made it their own until Finland’s independence in 1917. The only other time it came under strenuous attack was when, as a far distant part of the Crimean War, an Anglo-French fleet bombarded the Finnish coastline for two consecutive summers. The best that can be said from that series of encounters is that all the guns on Suomenlinna weren’t knocked out. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a playground, especially in summer, for Helsinkians.
It didn’t detain us at any length. We banged back across the ice and bought a fishy and leguminous feast at the market. Five guys — Lebanese? Algerian? Syrian? Sons of Shem anyway — were playing in the street outside Stockmann, a department store but also an institution. (It also has an enormous branch in St Petersburg.) Three saxophones and two accordions in a fabulous acoustic environment, and could they play or what! Awarded equal first place in the best music heard while on tour.
The strangest thing we saw in Finland was the film ‘The Blind Side’ with Sandra Bullock most sympathetically playing a rich, good-looking, suburban American lady, a stretch I know, for which she won an Oscar.
This has nothing to do with Finland but everything to do with narrative arcs. There wasn’t one. It went from 32 to 100 (if 100 is playing football in the NFL), maybe really from 62 to 67, directly, painlessly, without torment, complication or hurdle — a straight line of zero gradient. And I wonder if perhaps this is something new. True heart-warming stories consist solely of good news. Perhaps they are running alongside the one-dimensionality of video games in this regard. This might be the new world or yet another malfunction of mass education. Everyone gets it, but what are they getting? Even Mr Deeds (who came to Town rather than Washington) had some significant setbacks.
We ate cakes at Fazer and went home puzzled.
Kiasma, the modern art gallery, was sort of between exhibitions and had nothing to draw and catch the eye. That’s the polite commentary.
But there were 60 or so Eschers in the Amos Andersen Gallery. I have never seen an Escher in the flesh, and let me tell you they are small (considerably sub poster size) and tortuously perfectly formed. So perfect in fact that after 15-20 minutes you start to get dizzy and they hurt to look at — one in particular, ‘Inside Out’, which I’d never seen before. Focusing on one small point made possible one perspective only, but as soon as your focal point shifted even slightly the whole thing flipped and wherever you were looking was out of whack.
Escher was lionised by associations of mathematicians who were responsible for his early, and belated, success. His wife left him at 47 and the evidence is there in the work. (The Gallery is the six storey mansion of a very successful dead businessman who left it to the Helsinki Art Society as a venue to exhibit its work. It is a magnificent example of grand, restrained, tasteful comfort.)
We left Finland not one vowel worse off. (Helsingin Kauppapakaorheakoulun Ylioppilaskunta. I think the last word has something to do with ‘university’, the first ‘Helsinkian’ ‘of Helsinki’, the rest … . Kiitoss.)
•••••••••• To continue the trip, read on here.
 Helsinki – 60° 10” N., almost shares a latitude with Thurso – 58° 36” N.