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A Visit to Slovenia( or was it Slovakia?)

21 Oct

CONFUSION.

I think it was President George W Bush on a state visit to Slovenia, who famously said something like: “It’s great to be here in Slovakia.” I have witnessed the same confusion when I’ve told people about my holiday this year in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. Almost inevitably, the response has been: “Do you mean Slovenia or Slovakia? I’ve always got the two mixed up!” I suppose they do sound very similar.

HISTORY.

They are both small countries in central Europe that generally don’t feature in the international news. Both are populated by Slavs. Both used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire.  After the fall of that Empire in 1918, both Slovenes and Slovaks were pushed into uneasy partnerships with other national groups. The Slovaks were merged with the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia, while the Slovenes were combined with other south Slav peoples to create the new state of Yugoslavia. It seems that the international community at Versailles didn’t think these two small races were a viable proposition on their own. Both Slovenes and Slovaks fell under the sway of one-party Communist regimes at the end of the Second World War.

It was only in the early 1990’s, following the fall of the “Iron Curtain” and the collapse of communism in Europe that the Slovaks and the Slovenes at last tasted true independence. In Slovenia’s case, 1991 was the year when it finally controlled its own destiny.

As I was visiting it I have tried to make sense of Slovenia’s complex history by reading and by visiting the city museum of Ljubljana, its attractive capital. I have settled for just getting a rough outline. After the usual Neolithic stuff, the Romans arrived. Slovenia today is very proud of its Roman heritage. Next came the Magyars but they were pushed back by the German Emperor who had designs on the area himself. The Turks too were defeated so Slovenia never became part of the mighty Ottoman Empire like some of its neighbours. Thus today, Slovenia is a devoutly Christian country and it was on the Catholic side of the Orthodox/ Catholic schism. From the late 13th century, it became part of the Austrian Empire and therefore developed on largely Germanic lines. In the First World War the Slovenes fought fiercely on the Austrian-German side, especially when, in 1915, Italy was bribed to side with Britain, France and Russia after being promised Slovenian territory, including the important port of Trieste. It’s ironic that Britain, which joined the war to protect little Belgium, was now happy to cynically give away chunks of another small country in the interests of military expediency. Sadly many thousands of Slovenes and other Austro-Hungarian troops died fighting the Italians. The place where we stayed on Lake Bohinj was an important staging post for that campaign. The Italians also suffered heavy casualties in the mountain battles that ensued. One of the more sobering moments of our holiday was a visit to an Austro-Hungarian war cemetery containing over 300 graves from 1915 to 1917.

I now know enough to appreciate how proud the Slovenes must be to have gained their independence. It must be strange but exciting to be a citizen of a country that has existed for less than 3 decades.The guide who led our walking tour of Ljubljana said that everyone was pleased when the population hit 2 million. Out impression was that it is a very clean and environmentally-aware nation. We didn’t see a scrap of litter on the streets. I expected to see a poorer, still- developing Balkan -style country, maybe like Bosnia or Albania. However it is so sophisticated that at times it felt as if we were in Scandinavia. There were stylish designer goods, well maintained buildings and efficient transport systems. The buses ran on time, and in the city, people paid with an electronic card which they pressed on to a sensor.( like London’s Oyster card.) Only when we got out into the rural areas did we see cash being used. While in Slovenia, we had Euros in our wallet and purse. Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, three years after it was admitted to the European Union. It had been the most liberal and progressive of the former Yugoslav republics and had largely escaped the horrors of the Civil War after a brief, 10 day skirmish. The transition to a democracy and to capitalism was achieved fairly smoothly. In 2008 it became the first of the former communist countries to assume the presidency of the EU. Coming from 2017 United Kingdom it seemed strange to us that here was a country that was embracing Europe rather than turning its back on its  neighbours.

THE CAPITAL.

Ljubljana is a lovely city to visit. It is attractive, relaxed and cosmopolitan. It’s small enough to explore on foot. There is a variety of interesting architecture, pleasant riverside walks, a variety of cafes and restaurants to suit most tastes and just about everyone speaks excellent English. We asked an older lady for help at the bus stop. She not only told us which bus to catch and when it would come, but also explained how we should pay ( with the smart-card) and where to get off. All this was in decent English. Apparently, Slovenian is a very difficult language to learn. Ljubljana has a picturesque old town full of renaissance and baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are : statues, squares, fountains, interesting little alleyways, pavement cafes and stylish shops. Up above, on a steep hill, is a castle, accessed by a funicular. A river flows through the centre crossed by a series of interesting bridges. The most famous are the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge. The former is 3 pedestrianised bridges in one, furnished with Venetian style balustrades built in the 1830’s. The latter, built in 1901, is a flamboyant, Secessionist structure with 4 dramatic green dragons and ornamental lamps guarded by tiny griffins.

The main square, Preservov trg is flanked by the Triple Bridge, a huge, pink Baroque church, a Parisian Art- Nouveau department stall with a fancy, wrought iron and glass entrance, and a 4-storey Viennese-style Secessionist building. The square is a gathering place for tourists, locals and street entertainers. We were “treated” to a loud display of break-dancing which rather drowned out the poor man in traditional costume trying to sing his folk songs. We settled for a routine of strolling around, popping in and out of little shops and the occasional church, watching the river flow below the avenues of trees, and visiting pavement cafes. At the last mentioned we drank tea or coffee and ate strudel ( me) and chocolate cake (Chris.) For me, it’s compulsory to eat apple strudel if I’m anywhere in the former Hapsburg Empire. Ljubljana has shades of Vienna, Prague and Paris, but on a more intimate scale.

METELKOVA .

One day we strolled out of the main tourist haunts, into an area east of Presernov Square, which had a completely different feel to it. It was more informal and featured more quirky, alternative sights. We saw old music shops, zany art galleries, junk shops and whole walls of colourful graffiti. Virtually the first thing we spotted was a display of old shoes, boots and trainers hanging from a telephone wire slung across the narrow street. There were vegetarian cafes and erotica shops, though I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a connection between the two. We were on our way to visit St Peter’s Church, another extravagant baroque concoction. We virtually had it to ourselves as it was off the beaten track. We lit candles for our loved ones, sat in silence for a while and then wandered on.

In fact we ended up wandering into one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen — the Metelkova autonomous artist’s colony. ( That’s my version of its Slovenian name.) It’s a former Yugoslav army base that later became a squat. Today it’s like an alternative city within a city. In the words of one guidebook, it’s “the subversive heart of the city.”  It’s a rambling complex of bars, clubs, galleries, NGOs and a hostel. What is incredible is that the whole site is festooned with bizarre, vibrant graffiti, weird sculptures and strange installations. It is all anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, counter-culture stuff. As we walked in, our jaws dropping, the sounds of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” drifted towards us and the smell of weed pervaded the air. It was like going back to 1967/68. The vivid graffiti was the stuff of dreams ( and nightmares.) The whole scene was surreal. Metelkova has to be seen to be believed.

We enjoyed our week in Ljubljana very much. We made easy day trips to: a castle in a cave, halfway up a cliff ( Predjama), a huge, amazing complex of limestone caves, tunnels and caverns complete with a weird but wonderful array of stalactites and stalagmites (Postojna), and an attractive, medieval town surrounded by wooded hills ( Skofja Loka.) We enjoyed the trips but mostly just wandered the city, trying to scratch a little beneath its surface. We met a Chinese tourist later in the holiday and he couldn’t believe that we had spent a whole week in one place! In the same time-span he had visited 3 countries. He was only going to spend one quick day in Ljubljana seeing the “essential” sights. But, I have turned against this tick-list, rushing around sort of itinerary. I think our more relaxed schedule paid off, at least for us. If we’d visited for just a day, we would never have discovered the art market on the riverbank, the flea market with its Tito- era memorabilia or the wonderful Plecnik’s House. The latter was the home of Slovenia’s most eminent architect, Joze Plecnik. The guided tour was fascinating, revealing the great contrast between his grandiose projects and his modest life-style.

THE MOUNTAINS AND LAKES.

Our second week in Slovenia was a complete contrast. We travelled by public bus up into the north-west, an area of mountains and alpine lakes. It was very like Austria, the country just to the north. We stayed just 50 meters from the shore of Lake Bohinj, the country’s largest lake. It was created by glacial action. Mention “lake” and “Slovenia” to most travellers, and they’ll usually come up with the name “Bled.” Lake Bled is certainly the most famous of Slovenia’s lakes. ( some would say “iconic.”) But Bohinj is more beautiful, in my opinion. It’s an atmospheric, completely still stretch of water. Sensibly, no big buildings have been allowed on the lakeside, so the peace of Bohinj is maintained and its beauty unsullied. The peaceful lake is surrounded by wooded hills and massive, steep-faced mountains. It is a magical and magisterial sight. In winter it is so still that it freezes over. Last year people were able to skate on it for 2 to 3 weeks. That must have been quite a sight!

So we had a week of peace and tranquility. We walked the lake’s shores, sailed on a very quiet tourist boat, explored a dramatic limestone gorge and trecked for one and a half hours up through lovely autumn woods to the spectacular Savica Waterfall. This plunges from a cleft in the towering rock face, 78 metres down into a striking turquoise/green pool. The villages around were Alpine in character with little wooden houses and geranium decorated balconies. They were surrounded by bright green meadows and all had neat wood stores and old hay-drying racks. We half expected to see Heidi and Peter running down the slopes with their goat-herd or hear Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family bursting into exultant song.

This used to be a big, alpine dairy- farming and cheese making area but this has almost died out as the younger generation has drifted off to the towns and cities. Local cheeses can still be bought however. We saw old, black and white photographs of villages communities in the past wearing their traditional costumes. Each village had its elegant church with a tall bell-tower or slender spire piercing the air. We also came across wayside shrines with little statues of Jesus or Mary and strings of rosary beads.

Bohinj is an area rich in nature. Every spring it has a wild-flower festival. We came across: heron, dippers, wagtails, nuthatches and robins. We also heard a couple of red squirrels squeaking excitedly as they scurried up and down a tree, and saw speckled trout lazily swimming in the river that fed the lake. On our last full day we got the most sensational views of all, when we ascended on a cable car to the Vogel ski centre. We were treated to panoramic views of the massed peaks of the Julian Alps. Bohinj is part of the Triglav National Park, the only one of such parks in Slovenia. It’s a place to preserve and treasure. We really enjoyed our week there. Yes we stayed for a relaxing 7 days. The Chinese tourist would have been shocked all over again!

BLED.

We met the nice guy from Beijing on a side trip to Bled, a 40 minutes, cheap bus ride away from our base. Bled is beautiful too, but sadly it has been partly ruined. The culprit is mass-tourism and the commercialization that follows in its wake. Lake Bled is world famous. I’d heard of it long before I knew anything else about Slovenia.The usual image shown is of a graceful, old church on an enchanting island in a lake, with a backcloth of hills and mountains. Also impressive, is an old, red-roofed castle on a cliff soaring above the water. That’s all true. But the chocolate boxes, jig-saws and calanders don’t show the built-up mess on the other end of the lake. There’s the huge, ugly Hotel Park, which advertises lakeside views but ruins everyone else’s view. There’s the large, modern casino, plus the usual motley assortment of bars, souvenir shops, hotels and cafes, not to mention a busy road, constantly choked with traffic. The place is heaving with tourists from all over the world. When our bus from Ljubljana to Bohinj arrived at Bled, just about everyone got off. Bled, from certain angles, is very picturesque but with its swarms of visitors, it is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

We walked along the lake’s quieter, wooded shore and it was very pleasant. However, when we decided to sail across to the island and the church, it wasn’t as idyllic as I’d imagined. It’s good that there are no noisy launches ploughing up and down. One can hire a rowing boat, get a quiet but expensive electric boat or go on a pletna. This is a traditional, wooden stretched gondola propelled by a gondolier standing at the back. ( No, he doesn’t wear a stripy shirt or sing just one cornetto!) We chose the latter. 20 adults and 2 children all piled on, at the steep price of 14 Euros each. We had to squash tightly together on either side of the boat. What I thought would be a peaceful, serene experience, gliding across the water, never materialised because of my fellow tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of positions to take the best photos and then posing for numerous selfies with their friends and family. We had 40 minutes on the island which was crowded. Even though it was only a small island, containing a church and bell-tower, they have still found space to squash in a cafe, an ice-cream stall and a shop. We decided to visit the church which has lovely 18th century frescoes and other baroque adornments. However, we were shocked to find that we were expected to pay 6 Euros each to go in. This included the bell tower but we didn’t want to go up that as we are both nervous of heights. I cannot recall ever having to pay to go into a church before. The exquisitely frescoed medieval church of St John the Baptist near our hotel in Bohinj, is free. But we swallowed our indignation and “coffed up.” It was rather small but quite beautiful. Unfortunately, any hopes of enjoying a spiritual atmosphere were ruined by a constant procession of camera-wielding fellow tourists. They queued up to pull the bell-rope and make a wish. It has been dubbed the “wishing bell!” They posed in mid-pull for photos, with inane grins on their faces. Isn’t it funny how so many fall for such gimmicks? The bell-tower was entered through a modern turn-style activated by a bar-code on one’s ticket. The 18th century interior has been hollowed out and replaced with a modern zig-zag staircase. We didn’t bother going up. Any shred of historical authenticity had been sacrificed in the interests of making money( it seems.)

Our visit to Bled was rescued by a totally unexpected but brilliant Salvador Dali exhibition in the base of the casino. ( a private French collection.) We also enjoyed a small craft market and a display of vintage cars, incongruously parked along the lake-shore.

RADOVLJICA.

Our other trip from Bohinj was to Radovljica, a pretty, old town set in lovely countryside. It featured an exquisite old church, a beautiful, historic square and a grand, old mansion containing the delightful “Beekeeping Museum.” Keeping bees is a Slovenian tradition. The highlight was a wonderful collection of bee-hive panels from the 19th century. These were religious and satirical paintings to decorate the hives. They were another Slovenian speciality.

It was a great holiday — an interesting, attractive city followed by a week among the glorious mountains and lakes. Apart from the obvious tourist traps the costs ranged from cheap to reasonable. We found it to be a civilized and progressive country. Yes, it was an excellent visit to Slovenia ( or was it Slovakia?)

 

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Durham Coast Walk, Day 2 — Seaburn to Seaham. ( July, 2017.)

21 Aug

The second day of our long-distance walk announced itself with a cacophony of shrieking gulls rather than the usual melodious chorus of songbirds. It was a reminder that we were on the coast. After our 9 mile tramp from South Shields to Seaburn we were now ready to press on south to Seaham. The only problem was that a massive obstacle now stood in our way — the River Wear and the City of Sunderland! It wasn’t all going to be quiet bays and empty beaches. We were going to be sucked into an urban jungle and hopefully spat out the other side.

We ate a hearty breakfast at the excellent Mayfield Guest House with the proprietor, Vincent, quizzing us about our walking plans. Then we dragged on our boots and heaved on our rucksacks and set off. We were heading due south but first had to head the wrong way in order to visit Seaburn Morrisons for our lunchtime provisions. Not for the first time, we found that our large rucksacks proved to be conversation catalysts. They caught the eye of the lady on the till who also quizzed us about our venture. We evidently were not her average customers. Turning south out of the supermarket we headed up Seaburn promenade towards a gleaming white lighthouse standing on a promontory at the end  of the beach. This was built in 1856 and used to guard the end of the old South Pier at the nearby mouth of the Wear. The lighthouse now overlooked Parson’s Rocks and at low tide we could have scrambled over them round to the next beach. Unfortunately the tide was high so we had to climb up to the road and take the more conventional route. We were compensated for this disappointment by reading an information board about the geology of the area and spotting some small, wading birds scurrying about over the wet rocks. I guessed Dunlins but Catherine and her smartphone over-ruled me in favour of Turnstones. I must admit I had never heard of them.

We now arrived at Roker beach, complete with amusements, cafes, bargain shops and attractive, raised-bed gardens. Slightly faded information boards showed us how  popular and crowded with holiday-makers it had been in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. Roker was also the beginning of the Sunderland Sculpture trail. This had been created between 1991 and 2001 by a sculptor Colin Wilbourne and a writer, Chaz Brenchley, in consultation with local people. It had several interesting and/or attractive sculptures to distract and entertain us. The most memorable for me were “Taking Flight”, 5 steel representations of a cormorant taking off — a common sight on that stretch of water, and a large, twisting steel tree, apparently bending in the wind. On the concrete base of the latter were pictures of a lighthouse, a sailing ship and a local monster called the “Lampton Worm.” We were also intrigued by a series of 3 stone doors flanked by colourful stained glass panels. These represented the past, the present and the future. The footpath only passed through the door of the present.

By now, the trail had reached the river mouth and continued inland along the north bank of the Wear. Across the water we viewed cranes and industrial buildings. It’s not the most picturesque of river mouths because Sunderland was built on the backs of its industries. We walked round a marina, listening to the clanking of the yachts in the breeze. Schoolchildren in orange life jackets were being given a canoeing lesson, watched with interest by 2 old nuns, leaning on a fence. The weather was fine and sunny but dark clouds were approaching as we walked alongside the river. We passed the National Glass Centre which we didn’t have time to visit except to cheekily use their toilets! Then we passed Sunderland University campus which Catherine was interested in as she works at its Leeds equivalent. It had a symbolic, sculptured pile of  huge, stone books in front of it. As the river curved round to the right, our immediate goal came into view — Wearmouth Bridge, the last bridging point of the river before it reached the North Sea. Behind its graceful single arch was the city’s rail bridge.

A sudden, sharp shower interrupted us as we approached the bridge. I’m sure it contained sleet even though it was still July. We scrambled into our waterproofs but as soon as we had got them on, the rain stopped. We found this was a good trick to stop the rain. On several occasions, showers ceased the moment we had donned our rainproof togs. It’s called sod’s law. We passed below the ancient St Peter’s Church and climbed up a steep road to the bridge. Wearmouth bridge is a graceful, single- arched, steel structure built in 1929. Two earlier bridges had spanned the river at this site. Before that a ferry service had been in operation. The bridge helped Sunderland to grow as it united the north and south banks of the Wear. It looks like a smaller version of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne bridge, which in turn is a smaller version of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Walking across it, I was impressed by its spectacular array of criss-crossing girders. We were now assailed by the full-on noise of the city — cars, buses, lorries, trains and people. It wasn’t a peaceful river crossing. Down below we saw a shrine decorated with flowers, photos, hand-written messages and a red and white striped Sunderland football shirt. Suddenly we realized that this high, precipitous bridge was an ideal suicide spot. A notice from the Samaritans confirmed this suspicion.

We descended down a steep, slippery slope and  the brown ECP ( English Coastal Path)signs led us on a meander through the run- down city streets south of the Wear. We passed Sunderland’s oldest pub, the Butcher’s Arms, standing in a short terrace of  crumbling buildings that had somehow escaped demolition, through areas of post-war high rise flats, and round the grassy space of the Town Moor. Finally we were compelled to tramp along a noisy, busy road full of  heavy-duty traffic travelling to and from the docks. These docks were what was preventing us from heading straight back to the coast. As we trudged along the relentlessly noisy road, with no end in sight, we got very dispirited. It was one of the lowest points of the entire walk. At long last we turned left off the main road and headed down a quieter street that skirted the southern edge of the docks. Then finally we reached the sea again. We had made it to Hendon beach. We walked down a slope to a small promenade and settled on a low wall to have our sandwiches.

Hendon beach is not very pretty. At its northern end it is adorned with a collection of oil storage tanks and other port buildings. It is bordered by low grassy cliffs. The beach itself is a mixture of scruffy sand and stones. However it does have a series of well-weathered groynes which I always think add character to a coastline. They are low timber walls built to stop the sand drifting to one end of the beach as the tide invariably comes in at an angle. As we munched our little lunch I noticed something bobbing up and down in the nearby sea. It was a seal — our most exciting wildlife encounter of the day. It kept diving down for fish and then bobbing up again. We were so close that we could see its whiskers. It obviously wasn’t a common sight at Hendon as all the dog walkers commented on it to us. One chap took 10 minutes trying to get a photo. The other thing we discovered at Hendon beach was a new way to walk one’s dog. A man drove down to the prom, which was just wide enough to take a car. He then decanted 2 Dobermans who proceeded to chase after the car as their master drove it at speed to the far end of the prom and back. Then he let them back into the car again and drove off. Job done!

From Hendon we could see a pier and lighthouse way off to the south. This was Seaham, our destination. Saying good bye to the seal, we walked up on to the grassy clifftops and headed south. It was easy walking and such a relief to be appreciating coastal scenery again, now that the city was at our backs. We once again enjoyed views of deserted beaches, cliffs and pointy stacks. A couple of times we headed slightly inland to negotiate a dene, a wooded valley formed by glaciation at the end of the last ice age. Ryhope Dene was the prettiest. We waded through bracken and undergrowth and skirted woods before we were delivered back to the sea-coast again. The cliff tops were adorned with lovely meadows of wild flowers and tall grasses. One stretch of flowering thistles, rose-bay willow herb and vivid red poppies was particularly pretty. It was like a Monet painting. It was around this point that a mountain-bike rider caught up with us and stopped to talk. It was Vincent, the Guest House owner from Seaburn. We had inspired him to get on his bike and follow  our route. It was a now a lovely day for cycling and walking, with frequent sunny periods and that nasty shower just a distant memory.

Finally, after a walk of around 11 miles, we reached Seaham, announced by a car park, a busy beach and an ice cream parlour. ( Tony Minchellas delicious ice cream is the most popular in the Sunderland area.)  Now, at last, we officially left greater Sunderland and entered County Durham proper — “Land of the Prince Bishops.” Catherine took a picture of me by the road sign, instructing me to look like a Prince Bishop. I don’t think they carried heavy ruck-sacks in those days though. Soon, to our right, we could see an old church and the historic Seaham Hall. I’ve not checked but I guess it was built around the early 19th century. Apparently Lord Byron got married there to the daughter of a local landowner. The marriage didn’t last long but Seaham still exploits the connection by naming its shopping mall, Byron Place.

Seaham is an old coal town now trying to reinvent itself as a resort. It recognises its history through information boards and sculpture. We learnt about the coal trucks thundering down the hill to the docks. At the waiting staithes ( coal-loading piers), they would open-up at the bottom and decant their loads on to chutes that led to the holds of  waiting ships. A striking metal sculpture showed 3 miners ready to descend into the pit. It was titled: “The Brothers — Waitin’ t’ gan down.” The grandest building in the town is the former Londonderry Offices. From here,  the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry’s estates and coal mines were run. It’s a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bloomsbury or on the Liverpool riverside next to the Liver Building. The Marquess himself lived in the aforementioned Seaham Hall, which is now a spa and a luxury hotel.

However, the most striking sight in Seaham was a giant, steel statue of a British soldier at the end of the ordeal of the First World War. It’s called “Tommy” and was created by Ray Lonsdale. It stands 9 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 1.2 tonnes. The soldier is slumped in a seat, looking exhausted and traumatised, reflecting on the horrors he has witnessed and endured. He’s propped-up by his rifle and still wears his tin helmet. The soldier stares out at the viewer with blank eyes and a glazed expression. Originally “Tommy” was only going to be in Seaham for 3 months, as part of the town’s commemoration of the Great War a century ago. However, the towns- people, helped by donations from an increased number of visitors , have purchased it, so that it can act as a permanent memorial. ( and visitor attraction!)

The town is a hotch- potch of old and new. Near the ancient church of St Mary’s ( one of the 10 oldest in the country) is a new health centre. Near the modern mall is the original main shopping drag, Church Street, which is pedestrianised but quiet. At night all the shops are hidden behind metal shutters which hint that there has been a vandalism problem. We found our guest house with the help of some ladies in a hairdressing salon. One custoner, her hair glistening with red dye, phoned her husband up on her mobile and he put us in the right direction. The Adolphus Guest House, although in an obscure place ( Adolphus Street West) was comfortable and fine. It was run by a couple with 6 dogs but they kept them very quiet. Most of the eating places in Seaham are daytime cafes, ice-cream parlours or fast food take-aways. We ate at the only restaurant we could find — an Italian based in a converted pub just off the main square — Marinos. The food was delicious and the service very good. Finally we walked back to our guest house past the floodlit church and hit the sack. The second day of our trek was over.

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

No Peace at the Piece Hall!

2 Aug

1. HOPES IN PIECES.

Halifax was going to be the highlight of our summer 2016 bus pass tour of West Yorkshire.  We descended into it on the 503 double-decker from Huddersfield, talking to an old lady about her little dog, Doris. When I saw the town’s sign, the excitement started to mount inside me. Yes, I know you must think I’m daft as Halifax is not noted as a hot tourist destination, but I was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of ticking off a long-time resident of my British “bucket list”: the Grade 1 listed Piece Hall, built in 1779. It’s not everyday that one gets to see a major 18th century building. When the hall was built, the French Revolution was still ten years in the future.

The Piece Hall has been described as magnificent and unique, a huge building where thousands of pieces of woollen cloth were bought and sold over many years. It consists of 4 colonnaded sides, 2 stories high at one end and 3 stories high at the other.( it is built on a hillside, as most buildings are in Halifax.) The columns enclose a very large central space where the wool markets were regularly held. It’s like a Greek or Roman temple except it was devoted to industry rather than to ancient gods. Here, in 315 rooms, hand-loom weavers from the surrounding towns and villages would display and sell their pieces of worsted cloth. The Piece Hall transformed Halifax into the commercial capital of the whole region. It’s a miracle that such a historically and architecturally important building has survived the ravages of time for nearly two and a half centuries. And now, I was going to see it! I had given it the big build up to Chris and now it was only minutes away.

However, as we approached, there was obviously something wrong! The entrance was covered in scaffolding and was blocked by barriers. Inside, we glimpsed piles of rubble and dumper trucks were moving around in clouds of dust. A workman in a yellow hard-hat was turning some other disappointed visitors away.  Yes — the Piece Hall was closed. A major 2 year refurbishment which should have finished in the spring of 2016, was still very much ongoing. Our hopes were in pieces. There was no peace at the Piece Hall!

So what were we to do? We were tourists in a non-tourist town and the main place we had come to see was a no-go area. The man in the hard-hat explained that he wasn’t allowed to give us even a brief, sly peek, because of the dreaded “health and safety” rules. He had let some other visitors have a quick look but had been “bollocked” by his boss. Apparently, in the previous week, he had had to turn away a whole coachload of German tourists who had travelled to Halifax specifically to see the historical Hall. The work was running seriously behind schedule because of financial cut-backs of the Tory government’s “Austerity Britain.” Now, the “Leave” vote in the recent European Union referendum was going to pose another serious threat, because much of the money for this prestigious project comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund.

Back at the Premier Inn, the chirpy young lad at reception told us another big reason for the Piece Hall delay. While restoring the main courtyard, the workers had unearthed around 200 medieval bodies. So work had to stop while the archaeologists carried out their excavation. They found that the Hall had been partly built on top of an ancient churchyard!

The closed Piece Hall doubly snookered our plans as the Tourist Information Office was supposed to be in there, according to our Rough Guide of Yorkshire. We found out it was temporarily located in the central library, except that when we got there, we found out that Halifax library closes on Wednesdays. Guess which day we arrived on? Our hopes for Halifax were fading fast.

2. HANDSOME VICTORIANA.

But all was not lost. First of all, Halifax is, in my opinion, quite a handsome stone-built Victorian town. It has some fine public buildings. It is surrounded by a dramatic girdle of hills and moors.( the south Pennines.) We admired the stately, twin-turreted Victoria Theatre, named after a Queen who never visited it as it opened a month after she sadly died.( the opening was in February, 1901.)  The town has a spectacular Lloyds Bank HQ, yet another neo-Classical temple. Then we discovered the wonderfully atmospheric Borough Market ( 1896), a great place for people- spotting and sampling everyday Halifax life. Chris was very confused by the warren-like, old fashioned Ladies toilets. She entered through one door but somehow re-emerged through another. She still doesn’t know how she did it! The market has a decorative cast iron and glass roof, culminating in an eye-catching central dome.  Beneath this is an elaborate old clock guarded by 4 blue dragons. Around its base was a colourful, circular fruit and veg stall.

Halifax is not a tourist town. We didn’t see any postcards to send home to our mums. We struggled to find a decent café although I’m sure it has some secreted away. It is a busy, everyday town, which for me is part of the attraction. All the honey-coloured stone buildings contrasted with the sharp, shiny angles of the modern Halifax Building Society headquarters. ( now part of HBOS). It was once the country’s largest supplier of mortgages. Both Chris and I got our first home loans there. It is still one of the biggest employers in Halifax. In its large tinted windows I saw the reflections of its grand Victorian cousins.

3. SURVIVOR OF PURITANS AND VANDALS.

Leaving out the Piece Hall, the undoubted stars of Halifax town centre are the Minster and the Town Hall. We enjoyed visiting both. The Minster, first established 900 years ago, has many 16th and 17th century features. Outside it is smoke blackened, a legacy of its proximity to all those smoking mill chimneys of the recent industrial past. Being made of relatively soft sandstone, it has not been possible to clean it without causing irreparable damage. The Church of St John the Baptist, as it’s officially called, has a fine tower and dramatic, dark gargoyles sticking out from just below the roof line. A church member pointed out a deep dint in the wall near the entrance, caused by a parliamentary cannon-ball in the English Civil War of the 1640’s. Inside is a fancy Tudor font cover and delicately carved 17th-century boxed pews, a fairly rare occurrence. There were some Victorian and modern stained glass, but the most memorable windows were the plain ones. Puritan church rules in Cromwell’s time ( 1650’s) meant that the colourful glass had to be taken out. Nothing was supposed to distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. However, this planned back-fired somewhat in Halifax because the delicate  lead-tracery that holds the glass in place was(is) exquisitely beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Unfortunately, these lovely old windows have been damaged by vandals and would-be burglars 3 times in the past month, at great expense to the poor congregation. It seems that the iconoclasts did not exclusively live in the mid 17th century!

As we looked round the Minster, we were entertained by a musician practising for a recital on the very old organ later that morning. It had an impressive array of shining pipes. The music added to the spiritual atmosphere. We had trouble making our donations because the 2 volunteers were furiously making teas and buttering scones for the expected influx of visitors.

4. STAR TOWN HALL AND CELEBRITY ARCHITECT.

The other star of Halifax town centre is the Town Hall. built in 1863. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the famous architect of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was actually completed by his son, Edward Middleton Barry, following his father’s death in 1860. In 2008, it was voted as one of the top 10 Town halls in Britain by “Architect Today” magazine. It certainly is impressive. It is a masterpiece of the “high Victorian style” and was opened by the Prince of Wales( the future King Edward VII). No less than 85,000 people turned up for the Royal occasion. It must  have been one of the busiest days in the town’s entire history.

So why had a celebrity architect and the heir to the throne both been attracted to a small Yorkshire town which even today is not a tourist attraction? The answer is carpets! John Crossley, who commissioned the Town Hall, owned the biggest carpet mill in the world. It was in Dean Clough, a deep ravine just outside the town centre. His massive mill complex  ( in the end around 13 mills in all), is still there, in its restored form. They’ve done a great job, as it’s a spectacular sight, looking at it from the old iron bridge that still crosses the ravine.( along with modern concrete flyovers.) The mills are now used by modern businesses, shops, restaurants and galleries. We visited it during our stay. Crossley became very wealthy and influential through his development of steam-powered looms, clever use of patents and political activities. At its peak, in 1900, the business he created employed around 5000 workers. Crossley used his wealth and status to win a contest to build the town’s new Town Hall. He was able to attract a famous London architect to design Halifax’s most imposing public building. The road it is on is, not surprisingly, called Crossley Street. Crossley had managed to put his little home town on the map and secure his own lasting legacy.

The Town Hall has an impressive steeple with a clock and a carved figure on each of its 4 sides. The stone carvings represent :Europe, Africa, Asia and America, reminding everyone that at the time, Britain ruled the greatest Empire the World had ever seen. Inside is a grand staircase, a lovely blue and gold glass dome and ornamental plaster work with a repeated “H” motif. After we got past the rather gruff male receptionist at the top of the stairs, we stepped into the magnificent Victoria Hall. It has a stained glass ceiling featuring 12 little domes, marble columns and arch ways and a tiled floor featuring the town’s coat of arms in the centre. Here we met John the Baptist again.( remember him from the Minster?) He is the patron saint of wool weavers, a reminder of where all this wealth and splendour came from. On the fancy, wrought iron balcony of the upper floor, John’s severed head is frequently repeated. Beneath it are 3 vivid red drops of blood, a grisly reference to the saint’s fate at the hands of the spurned Salome.

Even the Gents’ toilets were magnificent. They had decorative tiles, marble sinks and urinals and shiny brass taps and pipes. I thought about taking a photo but didn’t want to get arrested! At opposite ends of Victoria Hall are large busts of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, looking over to their son Albert Edward and his wife, Princess Alexandria. Crossley was obviously very keen to ingratiated himself with his Royal patrons.

5. CELEBRITY FACE-OFF.

However, John Crossley wasn’t the only wealthy industrialist keen to make his mark and put Halifax on the map. In the mid-19th century, the textile town experienced a bit of a celebrity face-off! From our 5th floor hotel window, as I looked out on to the nearby hillside, I couldn’t help noticing a Victorian church with a very tall, soaring spire.  It’s the biggest church spire in Halifax. This is All Souls Church, designed by another celebrity architect from London: Sir George Gilbert Scott and paid for by another fabulously wealthy mill owner: Edward Ackroyd. Gilbert Scott had also designed the famous and still very impressive St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel in London. He always claimed that All Souls’ was his finest church. Like Charles Barry, he had been lured to this Yorkshire Pennine town by the money of a rich industrialist, desperate to make a name for himself and secure his legacy. Ego-tripping and celebrity culture are not confined just to the 21st century. The only difference is that in the 19th century, the “celebs” didn’t take to Twitter or pose in gossip magazines; instead they built town halls and churches and put up statues of themselves.

Edward Ackroyd owned textile mills in Halifax and nearby Copley. His mills produced worsted cloth, commonly known as “stuff.” The Ackroyds were the largest worsted manufacturers in the country. Worsted woollen cloth has parallel fibres which don’t trap air so it has a smoother, harder surface and was ( is) cooler to wear than other types of cloth. It’s surprising what you can learn when visiting museums! We visited the charming and quirky Bankfield Museum which used to be Edward Ackroyd’s Italianate -style mansion, built from the profits of his lucrative business. It’s grounds and gardens are now a pleasant and peaceful public park. Ackroyd’s statue stands in front of the church he commissioned in the High-Gothic style. Sadly, the church seems to be closed, a relic of a bygone era, when everyone wanted to ( or were expected to) attend Christian worship. Despite its magnificence, All Souls today looks slightly forlorn.

6. BENEVOLENT PATERNALISM.

On the slopes below the museum and church are the neat houses, shops and squares of Ackroydon, the model village that the mill owner had built for his workers. It’s like a smaller version of Saltaire which fellow industrialist Titus Salt had built in nearby Shipley. Akroyd wanted to look after his employees by giving them decent houses and facilities. However, this no doubt came at the price of individual freedom, as they would have had to follow all their employer’s rules and regulations. It’s another example of Victorian benevolent paternalism that can be found at Saltaire, at the Cadbury family’s Bournville, Robert Owen’s New Lanark near Glasgow , the Fry family in York and various others. It was another era. Sadly the man at the tourist office warned us not to visit Ackroydon after dark as it can be a distinctly dodgy area nowadays. Ackroyd’s vision has faded, his statue is largely ignored and his church lies empty. Still, Ackroyd, like Crossley, had his day and both helped to put Halifax into the national spotlight, at least for a while.

7. A REAL TOWN.

So Halifax has lots of interesting stories to tell and I haven’t even mentioned the infamous guillotine-style gibbet that stands on the edge of the town centre.( its a modern replica of the gruesome original which efficiently despatched many a thief and highwayman.) In spite of its lack of postcards and touristy tea-shops, it is a fascinating place to visit. It’s not on the regular coach tour itinerary or regularly featured in glossy  brochures, but that worked in our favour. We didn’t have to queue to get into places or run the gauntlet of souvenir shops. Halifax is still a real place, not an artificial tourist creation — and all the better for it. And, when the Piece Hall finally reopens, we shall visit it again.

 

 

 

 

Pennine Bus-Hopping — Huddersfield.

24 Jul

It all began when I read the unforgettable opening pages of J B Priestley’s great novel: “The Good Companions.” The reader hovers dizzyingly above the Pennine hills, which form the dark, “knobbly backbone” of northern England. Slowly, as if on some aerial computer image, we zoom in to focus on the central area of uplands, “where the high moorland thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” We hear the lonely cry of the curlew, sweep over brooding, dark peat-bogs and catch glittering glimpses of the moorland tarns. Finally, we home in on a town, a large mill town, with its “host of tall chimneys” and “rows and rows of little houses “climbing up the steep valley-side. This we find is “Bruddersfield”, a thinly disguised amalgam of real-life Huddersfield and nearby Bradford. Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Chris and I decided to visit Huddersfield to discover the modern reality behind Priestley’s classic creation, since he wrote those evocative lines back in 1929.

It was the second of our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass trips, pottering around the old textile towns of the south Pennines, using our free travel-passes.( one of the few perks of being over 60!) In our first odyssey, in 2012, we had explored the hills, moors and mill towns of east Lancashire. This time we were to visit their West Yorkshire cousins. I rather like the idea of holidaying in places that are not recognised resorts. They are not full of people taking selfies in front of famous landmarks but just consist of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I sneakily enjoy the look of incredulity on some peoples’ faces when we tell then where we’re going. I think it’s good to do something unpredictable and to test out my theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it. So Huddersfield it was, followed by Halifax, Hebden bridge and Heptonstall ( all the H’s!)

Thus, on a fine Monday morning in July, 2016 we found ourselves standing at the bus stop at the end of our street waiting for the service 5A to Middlesbrough ( we live in Cleveland on the north-east coast.) Inevitably it was a tense 9 minutes late. We worried about making our first connection. A friend in her car stopped to offer us a lift ( We daren’t tell her we were going to Huddersfield!) We declined her kind offer as we were determined that this was going to be a proper, eco-friendly public transport trip with no cheating. We would see local life, perhaps have impromptu conversations with complete strangers and feel part of a place instead of isolating ourselves in our private metal box. Luckily the 5A appeared at that very moment and we were off. At Middlesbrough we swapped our bus passes for our senior rail cards to take the Trans-Pennine train to Huddersfield via York and Leeds. True to form, it was a half hour late.( signalling problems in the York area.)

Nearly 2 hours later we arrived at a rather grand Huddersfield station and, after grabbing a street map from the info centre, stepped out into a spacious square, surrounded by large, stately Victorian buildings, including the Grade I listed station itself, built in 1846-50. John Betjeman described it as “the most splendid station façade on England.” To picture it, think– classical, Greek temple. At the top of St George’s Square are fountains and a statue of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 70’s, striding purposely forward ( but without his pipe!) He was one of Huddersfield’s most famous sons. To the left is the impressive George Hotel where Rugby League was born in 1895. The northern Rugby Union clubs decided to leave the Union because the largely more prosperous, public-school educated players, mainly from the south, had refused to allow payment of compensation for lost wages when playing. The split was acrimonious — an early example of the North-South divide.

On our first evening, we ate at one of the other grand buildings on the square: a former bank  which has now been converted into a very popular Kashmiri restaurant. it served one of the biggest nan breads I have seen!  So our first impressions were favourable. Maybe we had stumbled across a West Yorkshire version of Bath or Oxford full of historical, harmonious architecture? Second impressions quickly dispelled this however. We discovered the unattractive post-war buildings that took up whole swathes of the town centre. We saw, heard and smelt the road-works as a resurfacing operation was taking place. We experienced the heavy traffic grinding through parts of the centre near the bus station, and found the busy, noisy ring-road which encircled the centre like a tight, tarmac collar. We plunged down into a long, graffitied, concrete underpass! OK — I think you’ll have got the picture by now. The highlights of Huddersfield would have to be sought out — the “gems” amongst the “dross.” It was going to be fun! But first came the short trek to our guest house up the Halifax Road.

We couldn’t help noticing that most of the buildings on our road were substantial, fairly grand, stone mansions, sitting in their own grounds. Many had been converted to offices or hotels. One large, castle-like building was now a college, another a dancing school. Our guest house was in one of them, sharing it with a dental practice. Sadly, some of these mansions or villas are empty and in a state of neglect. It transpired that this area was once the comfortable, middle class district of Edgerton. It was a leafy suburb about a mile from the town centre on the Huddersfield-Halifax turnpike. The mill owners, merchants and other prosperous professionals would commute into town in their horses and carriages, before the age of the motor car. Sometimes there was a jarring clash of taste and style. One writer to the editor of the Huddersfield Courier in 1858 described Halifax Road as “too bewildering an affair to cope with; for you have Grecian temples, Swiss cottages, Gothic castles and Italian villas, all jumbled so closely together as scarcely to allow elbow room.” Many of these Georgian and Victorian residences were demolished to make way for a modern housing estate. ( I suppose they could squash a lot more people into the same area of land.) The survivors though, many in the neo-Classical style, are still impressive, bravely defying the relentless march of time, even though this once exclusive suburb has now been swallowed up by the town where all their owners made their money.

The wealthiest and most famous Huddersfield family was the Ramsdens.( nothing to do with the fish and chip shop chain, I don’t think.) They developed their huge estates agriculturally and then industrially, throwing up the textile mills that created so much of their wealth. They were responsible for many of the impressive civic buildings and also for the linking of Huddersfield to the burgeoning rail system as early as 1850. Later, in 1920, the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Cooperation for £1.3million, earning Huddersfield its nickname: “the town that bought itself.” Despite its large 160,00 to 170,00 population, Huddersfield is still only a town. It has never bothered to apply for city status, although it could easily do so. I read somewhere that it claims to be the largest “town” in Europe.

We started our heritage trail at the impressive, Art Deco, 1930’s Library and Art gallery. The art collection there is very good, including pieces by: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and L S Lowry. ( Huddersfield matchstick people scurrying around in the shadows of the giant mills instead of Salford/Manchester ones.) Outside, by the steps are two  symbolic statues of a boy and a girl, representing the spirits of literature and art.(“Youth Awaiting Inspiration by James Woodford, 1939.) Near the Library is the richly decorated stone Town hall (1881) which doubles up as a concert venue. However, just opposite the lovely library is the controversial, modern Queensgate Market ( 1968-70) which is pretty ugly. Local people either love it or hate it. Surprisingly it is a listed building . Inside are 21 unique, concrete roof-umbrellas, looking like giant curving shells. I was all ready to be impressed and entered the market with camera poised. Unfortunately the concrete shells were mostly obscured by the mundane market stalls, crowded around them. So it was an anti-climax. I’m sure most of the people buying cauliflowers, potatoes or second-hand jewellery don’t even notice them anymore. On the outside of the Queensgate Market however is another surprise. Who would have thought we would come across the world’s largest ceramic sculpture? It consists of 9, brown-toned, large panels, covered in abstract swirls, entitled:” Articulation in Motion”, whatever that means. ( Fitz Steller, 1969.) Once again, these were largely ignored by the locals as far as I could see, especially as they face on to the southern section of the busy ring road.

I think it was brave of Huddersfield to try to embrace the “shock of the new”, instead of just falling back on to its Victorian heritage. The roof-shells and ceramic panels are not really my cup of tea but are certainly more stimulating than the bland diet of uniform shopping malls and chain stores that many town centres, including parts of Huddersfield itself, offer up. Huddersfield, in my opinion is a mish-mash of the old and new, the original and the mundane. It’s just like most towns really. Maybe one has to have the one, in order to appreciate the other.

We explored a couple of old arcades with interesting, independent shops and had a quick look at the Parish Church, even though its pretty gardens were frequented by quite a few unfortunate down and outs. This is a side of a town not highlighted in the tourist brochures. We enjoyed visiting the late Victorian Wholesale Market, like a vast car boot sale under a splendid wrought iron and glass, curving roof. The actual open -air market- place was interesting too, with its market cross featuring the Ramsden Coat of Arms. It’s surrounded by fancy, old Victorian and Edwardian banks. Their ornate stonework and statues contrast with the flickering screens of their modern cash points.

Another gem we found nestling amongst the everyday, was the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Queen Street, built in 1819. One side of Queen Street is stately Victorian buildings, whilst the other is unbelievable taken up by a multi-storey car-park! Going back to the theatre, it had originally been constructed as one of the biggest Wesleyan Chapels in the country, following a visit from John Wesley himself. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Wesley seems to have passed through almost every town in England, judging from the number of plaques I have read over the years. Lawrence Batley was a local businessman who helped pay for the theatre conversion and thus immortalised himself, at least in Huddersfield. Our jaws dropped as we entered the foyer because we were met by a wonderful display of colourful fantasy costumes created  by the graduates of the adjoining University for their Leavers’ show.

Contrary to the traditional image of the gruff, brusque Yorkshireman ( and woman), we found Huddersfield to be an open and very friendly place. In fact at times it was a bit too friendly, as when we had to make an excuse and flee from the Oxfam book shop because a man was regaling us with all the gory details of an argument he had had with his wife because he had spent £250 of the housekeeping money on 3 military medals in a display box! We also found Huddersfield to be quite multi-cultural. We found Persian and Lebanese restaurants as well as the usual array of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian outfits. In the art gallery we saw an exhibition of photographs of refugees from all over the world being welcomed to Huddersfield, something that was very heartening in post-“Brexit” Britain, with its sharp increase in racial and anti-immigrant incidents.

Priestley’s dark mill town, with its cloth-capped working men trudging en masse to the football ground, has now changed beyond all recognition. For a start the football matches now take place in a modern, all- seater, out- of- town stadium, constructed for the convenience of the car. The woollen mills have closed, their chimneys demolished. The trams have bitten the dust and many of the hill-side terraces have gone. The motor car has taken over. For many travellers, Huddersfield is now merely a convenient short stop-over, just south of the M62. Most of the hotels and guest houses are situated near to the motorway. I imagine the town is less self-contained than in Priestley’s day, with many residents  commuting to Manchester or Leeds for their work and their bigger items of shopping. However, the town’s glorious past as a wealthy centre of the woollen textile industry has not been totally extinguished. All those fine Victorian civic buildings remain, as do the mansions and villas on the Halifax Road. Then there are the atmospheric, early 19th century alleys and courtyards off King Street, restored during the construction of a modern shopping mall on the opposite side of the road. This juxtaposition of old and new, existing cheek by jowl, perhaps best sums up the contradictions of the place.

One thing that will never change is the town’s setting, nestling between the brooding Pennine hills and moors. As we walked back to our guest house on our final evening, I looked beyond the rooves of the immediate town, to two, prominent wooded hills beyond. On one hill was a dark church tower, probably blackened by the belching mill chimneys of the past. On the higher hill we saw the stone Victoria (lookout) Tower, built in 1899 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s a landmark for miles around. Back in 2012, we had trecked up to a similar tower in the Lancashire mill town of Darwin. However, the Huddersfield tower is much further away and we are 4 years older, so we just admired it from afar. All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit and it whetted our appetites for Halifax, the next “H” on our bus- pass trip. Moreover, as soon as I got home, I searched the book shelves for my copy of “The Good Companions”, to re-read  that wonderfully evocative introduction to Priestley’s beloved “Bruddersfield.”

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.

Mad Kings and Mass Tourism.

2 Nov

Being a History buff, I’m a sucker for castles. Living in the north east of England I am spoilt for choice as there are numerous fine examples within an easy day trip. The Normans built them to consolidate their hold over the country they conquered in 1066AD and, in my neck of the woods, to guard against marauding Scots.  They are some of my favourite places, providing enduring fascination. Some are now museums, some are stately homes and others just picturesque ruins. Most of my castle visits have been shared with just a sprinkling of other people, the only exceptions in Britain being The Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle, which are both on the international tourist trail, and Warwick Castle, which has been transformed into a major entertainment venue by the Tussauds organisation. It seems to me that usually, castles are a bit of an acquired taste.

So it came as a massive surprise to find that when I decided to visit a German castle in the Alps of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world. At first I couldn’t understand why. It is situated in a fairly remote, rural area. It is a 3 hour journey by train and bus  from the nearest city (Munich). Even when  one gets to the village below the castle ( Hohenschwangau), there is a stiff 30 to 40 minutes walk up a hill, or one faces a very long queue to board a crowded bus or  horse- drawn wagon. The crowds are so vast that one can only visit Neuschwanstein on a guided tour and these have to depart every 5 minutes throughout a 9 hour day to accommodate everyone in the high tourist season. Even then, many people are turned away as they have arrived too late. One reviewer on Trip Adviser gave up his plans to visit the castle after learning that the queue for a ticket was 2 hours long and then there would be a further 5 hour wait before finally getting in. I had seen photos of the castle perched on a precarious rock , surrounded by mountains and had imagined a quiet, rather lonely place, cut off from the world in splendid isolation. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The place was heaving, and this was in September, outside the main tourist season. So I didn’t get much peace and there was little opportunity for quiet reflection. Maybe I should have done more research before going to Neuschwanstein. Even a cursory glance at Trip Adviser reveals mass adulation for the place. The last time I checked, it had attracted no less than 858 reviews!

So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this particular castle, tucked away in an obscure corner of Germany, attracted such a massive following? Every year it is visited by 1.4 million people. In summer, 6000 visitors a day stream through rooms only intended for one inhabitant. Neuschwanstein is one of the most popular castles or palaces in the whole of Europe. Why? What is even more astonishing is that it is not even a real, authentic castle. It’s a 19th century fake. In Britain, we would call it a “folly”, not the genuine article. It is actually the realisation of a King’s fantasy. Although loosely based on a medieval model it was largely conceived inside the King’s head, a product of his vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. That King was Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, and it is his colourful back-story that partly explains the castle’s immense popularity.

Many people these days don’t seem to mind if something is a fake or not. From imitation “Rolex” watches to false eye-lashes; from spray tans to tribute groups — people don’t seem to care so much whether something is real or counterfeit. So why worry if a so-called “medieval” castle was not actually built in the Middle Ages or that it has never been involved in a battle and was never intended to? This castle was an eccentric monarch’s fantasy home. Ludwig had a megalomaniacal passion for creating fantastic architectural projects. Neuschwanstein was never meant to be an instrument of war. It is a fantastical confection of towers and spires, spectacularly situated on a high rocky ledge above a river gorge.  It has the elements of a castle but is merely an extravagant invention. Since the arrival of gunpowder into Europe at the end of the 15th century, the original fortified castle had been largely made redundant anyway. I believe it is the fantasy element that has fascinated so many people and goes a long way to explain the great popularity of this place. People don’t just come to see the building, they come to hear about the “Mad King”.

Ludwig II was really a king without a kingdom as in 1871, Bavaria had been incorporated into the newly unified Germany led by Prussia. It was the King of Prussia who became German Emperor, not Ludwig. He was reduced to the role of vassal. Although Ludwig was convinced that he had been chosen by God to rule, he never had any real powers.  Disappointed with the real world, he began to have Neuschwanstein built in 1868. It was here where he hoped to escape into a dream world based on the myths and legends of the Middle Ages which he was so enraptured by. These were the themes of the powerful operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired. Wagner would give private recitals to the King in his other pseudo-medieval castle at Hohenswangau down in the valley. The new mock castle was dedicated to Wagner and decorated with large picture cycles based on the stories told in his operas. The interiors are thus adorned with medieval Kings and knights, poets and lovers. They also prominently feature the swan, the heraldic creature of the royal courts of Swangau and also the Christian symbol for purity. Ludwig saw himself as a pure, ethereal messenger of God, sent to earth on a divine mission.

Yet the Middle Ages appearance of  Neuschwanstein is just an illusion. Behind the medieval façade lies a very modern building for its time. It has hot- air central heating, running water on every floor, hot and cold water in the kitchens, flushing toilets, electric bells to summon the servants and a lift to carry the King’s meals up to his chambers. Beneath limestone cladding, the building is really made of brick, not stone like the original castles. The spectacular Throne Room which also doubles up as a chapel, incorporates a steel frame. I think this intoxicating mix of the new and the old is another reason why so many people are drawn to visit it. The Throne Room was inspired by Byzantine churches. It features an enormous chandelier, a cupola decorated with stars and a beautiful mosaic floor featuring plants and animals. It’s all a bit “over the top” and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there myself, but it makes for a fascinating visit.

Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a retreat. He allowed virtually no-one to visit him there. It is therefore richly ironic that vast numbers of people now come to visit what was supposed to be a private refuge. Here he lived out his fantasy life. From 1875, Ludwig lived mainly at night and slept during the day. He spent less time in his capital, Munich, and more and more time up in the mountains. He travelled around on elaborate coaches and sleighs. Sometimes he wore historical costume. Ludwig identified himself with Parsival, a legendary medieval figure who was famed for his purity. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s castle- building turned into an expensive obsession. He had several other castles built as well as Neuschwanstein. He got into great debt, and the foreign banks he had borrowed heavily from began to close in. The king’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre and erratic. Finally the Bavarian Government, supported by his family, declared him insane and deposed him in 1886. His brother has previously been certified as well. Ludwig was interned at Berg Castle. The very next day he drowned in mysterious circumstances in Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had declared him insane. They were found in only a few feet of water.  These mysterious deaths have never been properly explained. Did Ludwig take his own life because he couldn’t live with the humiliation and disgrace? Did he and his psychiatrist make a suicide pact? We will never know. It is this mystery that has added spice to the tale of “Mad King Ludwig”. I believe that it is this strange story with a mystery at its heart that helps to draw thousands of tourists to this remote place. It has certainly been hyped by the modern tourist authorities. You can now buy: Ludwig tea-towels, Ludwig chocolates, Ludwig mugs, Ludwig calenders, etc etc. This rather sad, deluded man has become a tourist cash-cow. People love a mystery, and to misquote Churchill, Ludwig is “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”

So, we’re beginning to get to the bottom of why this fake castle in Bavaria is such a massive tourist draw. It is in a spectacular mountain location. It was built for an intriguing, mysterious character( though never finished in his lifetime). It is an eccentric mix of the ancient and modern. On top of all this, it is a perfect fantasy version of a castle rather than being hampered with the imperfections of the real thing. But the biggest reason behind Neuschwanstein’s phenomenal popularity, I believe, is it’s connection with the Disney Organisation, which has made “fantasy” its stock in trade. Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the cartoon film of the same name. It was also the template for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks.  It’s image is replicated in the Disney Tourist Parks in the States, Hong Kong and Paris. The shape of Neuschwanstein also features on the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, Disney TV, Disney Music Group and Walt Disney Studios. In other words, it has been placed at the very centre of 20th and 21st Century popular culture.  I think this is the real reason why it is so overwhelmingly popular. People see it as the archetypal “fairy-tale” or “story-book” castle. Instead of a real castle, it is Disney’s imitation of an imitation that has come to represent a castle in the modern, global public’s consciousness.

I doubt  whether many of those tourists are serious students of history or architecture. Neither do I believe that many of those who flock to see Neuschwanstein have read the biography of so-called “Mad King Ludwig” and are desperateto to see where he lived. The mountain location is stunning but this is still not the main reason for the tourist stampede. I believe it is the power of  the Disney cultural empire that brings so many to this corner of Germany. I hate using the word, but this castle has become “iconic”. The hype of the Disney organisation has sold this imaginary image of a romantic, medieval castle to the world. It is an idea of a castle rather than the real thing. This is why when I went there, even though it was slightly out of season, I had to fight for space with fellow tourists from all over the world. I met Europeans, Americans, Australians, Kiwis and especially Asian people. That is why I counted 30 large coaches parked up by 11 am and noted that the small village of Hohenschwangau has 5 enormous car parks ( all full). This is why this tiny rural settlement has: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guesthouses, and all the other trappings of a mass-tourist hot-spot. It’s certainly not your average peaceful Alpine village. The bells of the cows in the meadows are drowned out by the drone of the traffic and the clicking of a thousand cameras. This is why I had to duck and dive amongst the selfie-sticks and queue for everything. The trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” The density of the crowds means that it  can be more like a rugby scrum than an historical or educational visit. Any vestige of a medieval atmosphere ( fake though it is), is extinguished by the pressure of the constant crowds.

Despite all this it was still worth the visit. The wonderful location, the fantasy nature of the castle, the mysterious back story, all make for a memorable occasion. Even the tourist hordes are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. I can also add that one can fairly easily escape the crowds by walking along the lovely shoreline of the nearby Alpsee lake. From here you can view both the upper and lower castles ( Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau), in their proper Alpine setting.

My wife, Chris, and I stayed in the nearby town of Fussen. It’s a picturesque, historical place, with attractive old buildings festooned with illusionist paintings, a monastery and its own castle. It had a sprinkling of tourists but when we visited the beautiful baroque monastery and the interesting schloss up on the hill, we virtually had them to ourselves. We met less than a dozen other  tourists in the whole of our 2 hour visit. Only 3 miles away the mass tourist hordes were pouring in to Neuschanstein. It’s the power of hype and the power of popular culture. That is why it has ended up on so many people’s “bucket lists” — a must-see sight that has to be ticked off. We met an American on the train down from Munich, who had come all that way just to see that one castle. He wasn’t interested in anything else and was returning to the city as soon as he had made his brief visit. Everyone to their own I know, but I find it difficult to understand this approach to travel. I like to stay in an area for several days at least and soak in the atmosphere. But many don’t stay. They flock to see this “fairy tale” caricature of a castle before rushing on to the next thing on their tick list.

It was a memorable experience for me but I cannot wait to get back to the genuine castles in my home region, where I will have space to breathe and where visitors are generally there for the history rather than the fantasy. It’s so strange that an out and out replica can become so much more popular than the genuine article. Still “that’s life”, as they say, or in this case “that’s Mass Tourism.” One can only imagine what “Mad King Ludwig”, so jealous of his privacy, would think if he returned to his former retreat today. At least all those tourists have paid off  his debts and have given his estate such a handsome profit which accumulates every year!