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Mersey Memories.

31 Jul

The River Mersey — one of Britain’s most famous waterways. It’s so big that it’s had a county named after it — Merseyside( though I’m sure most Liverpudlians still consider themselves as Lancastrians.) It’s so big, that when I first saw it as a kid, I thought its grey, choppy waves were the sea. I grew up in the land-locked county of Derbyshire so I didn’t get to see the real sea very often. It was on the Mersey that I first sailed on a large boat. In fact I travelled on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, between Liverpool and Birkenhead, many times before Gerry Marsdon and his Pacemakers immortalised it in their hit song of 1964/65. From the mid-50’s to the late 60’s our family travelled on it every year. To me, when I was a small child, the ferry seemed like an enormous ship, whereas when I see photos of it now, I realize that it was just a glorified tug boat. In fact, in the 1960s, there were 3 ferries, sharing the task of carrying people across the wide river estaury. They were called : Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch.

So why did this north midlands family visit Merseyside every year? Well, it all began in the early 1950s when I fell into a boating lake in Colwyn Bay. ( North Wales.) It’s my earliest memory. I think I was about 3 at the time. I had struck up a friendship with

another toddler, a little girl called Margaret. ( my first girlfriend?) We ran excitedly round the rim of the lake, sailing our toy yachts, until suddenly, I slipped and fell in. I still remember being under the water. It’s my earliest memory. Then I saw the blurred, reflected figure of my dad reaching towards me to drag me out. Out I came, shocked, shivering and sopping wet. It was then that my mum uttered the immortal words: ” Oh look, he’s still got his cap on!” She didn’t seem to appreciate that her son had nearly drowned! Well, the incident brought the two families together, as Margaret’s mum had run to the rescue as well. Actually, I think we were already a bit friendly because we were lodging at the same guest house. From then on, Margaret’s parents became my unofficial aunt and uncle. I always referred to them as Auntie Joyce and Uncle Bill. They lived in Wallasey, near Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. From that time on, we visited them every year. They sometimes came to see us but Uncle Bill was in a wheel chair, so it was much easier for us to do the travelling, especially as my dad worked on the railways and we could go on 5 free journeys a year. Neither family owned a car, something that was consodered a real luxury for most families in the 1950s.

The annual trip to Merseyside was one of the highlights of the year. We were lucky enough to have a seaside holiday as well but the trip to Liverpool was something different. Instead of sitting in deck-chairs, walking along piers or making sand castles, my sister and I now got a glimpse of a big city ( in fact 2 cities if you count Manchester on the way there), saw huge, glittering shops, ate at a restaurant and went on the aforementioned big boat. It was all very exciting and very different from our everyday life in the relatively small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield. Normally we never ate out as we couldn’t afford to. Eating out was for richer folk I thought. But as soon as we arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station we were whisked up to the top floor of Lewis’s, next door, and had a sit down meal served by uniformed waitresses. OK, it was only a department store cafe and we only had fish and chips, but to me at the time, it seemed very  grand. Even today I remember the waitresses’ frilly white pinafores and the bread that accompanied our meal being cut into neat, dainty triangles. To me, it seemed as if we were being dead “posh.”

Next came the walk through the big, busy city and then the queue to get on the ferry to cross the water. I remember crowds of people and being crammed on to the upper deck as the Liverpool shoreline gradually receded and  Birkenhead slowly came into sharper focus. This was pre- Beatles and pre-Gerry and the Pacemakers, so we had no pop music to accompany us across the water as happens on today’s tourist version of the Mersey ferry. It was a regular, run of the mill commuter service. I may be suffering from false memory syndrone but I seem to recall that we had to pay upon disembarking, an unusual arrangement, which meant queues again. Still it was all very thrilling and different for me at the time.

Even before the big city and the ferry, we had the excitement of the rail journey between Chesterfield and Liverpool. We caught 3 trains all pulled by steam locomotives, changing at Sheffield and Manchester. There were none of the “boring” diesel or electric units in the north in those days. It was the last great hurrah of the age of steam. Being an engine driver’s son, I was a keen trainspotter and here was a chance to spot all sorts of locomotives that I wouldn’t normally see back home. The last leg from Manchester to Liverpool was pulled by a tank engine and we were in carriages that had no corriders and no toilets. I remember my dad once having to hang my little sister out of the window because she was desperate for a wee ( when the train had stopped of course.)

The Liverpool trip got even more exciting as the 60s progressed. By now, I was a teenager and was getting heavily into pop music. In 1963 The Beatles suddenly exploded on to the scene, instantly dating the old rockers, crooners and trad jazz bands that had been dominating the charts. The Beatles of course hailed from Liverpool and all of a sudden it became the trendiest city in the country. Other Mersey groups and artists quickly followed in the Beatles’ powerful wake. Gerry and the Pacemakers had number 1 hits with their first 3 singles. Other hit- making Liverpool groups swiftly followed — Billy K Kramer and the Dakotas, the Big 3, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Fourmost, The Searchers — just to name a few. The music press dubbed it : “The Mersey Beat.” It seemed that any half decent artist from Merseyside could jump on the bandwagon and enjoy national success. And I’ve not forgotten Cilla Black of course. Liverpool’s Cavern Club became one of the hottest music venues in the country. The Fab Four had played there regularly upon their return from Hamburg. This is where they had honed and polished their act before they got a recording contract and hit the big time.

As a moody adolescent, I might have been expected to be reluctant to get dragged along on a family visit with my  “old-fashioned”parents yet again, but once The Beatles and co had taken off, I didn’t need any persuading to go at all. I was going to the centre of the action. Liverpool was “where it’s at” as they used to say in the 60s. I had  teenage American penfriends in Cleveland and Pittsburgh whose letters were dominated by endless questions about John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Who was my favourite? When was their next record going to be released? Were they going to come to the States?I was their passport to the very heart of the pop music scene. Just for the record, my favourite “mop top” was George Harrison, closely followed by John Lennon. I remember one visit when I was about 15. It coincided with the release date of The Beatles’ latest single: ” Can’t Buy Me Love.” It went straight to Number 1 as so many fans had pre-ordered it. Margaret, now a 15 year old Beatles fan, had pre-ordered it too and she proudly played it to me on the afternoon of its first day of release. It was a genuine thrill. If I had not gone to Liverpool that day I would have had to wait several weeks to save up my pocket money to buy it for myself.( which I eventually did.)

It was no fluke that The Beatles and their contemparies hailed from a major port city such as Liverpool. Soul, Blues and R and B records arrived from America on the trans-Atlantic ships. Much of the Beatles’ early repertoire consisted of covers of American records they had acquired and which were not commonly available in the shops. I can just imagine Lennon, Harrison or McCartney carrying home their vinyl copies of “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers or “Please Mr Postman” by The Marvalettes, as if they were precious trophies. Their city was more multi-cultural than many others, more open to new ideas and thus was a “melting-pot” of musical styles.

In it’s days as one of the great ports of the British Empire, many people passed through Liverpool on their way to the New Worlds of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1830 and 1930 as many as 9 million people emigrated from here. So it was a city of farewells, tears and hopes. Unfortunately, Liverpool was also a major port for the notorious slave trade until slavery was finally banned in the British Empire in the 1830s. In past visits I have visited moving and absorbing exhibitions about emigration and slavery at Liverpool’s excellent and free Maritime Museum on the refurbished Albert Dock.  The museum also has very good archives for private research. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while researching with my then girlfriend, the drowning of her father in the South China  Seas while working as a ship’s engineer on a White Star Lines ship in the 1950’s. We found the actual record of the voyage and a list of the ship’s crew. D’s father’s name was there, alongside the chilling words: ” Lost at sea.” He had sadly died while trying to rescue a colleague who had fallen overboard off the west coast of Malaysia.

I’ve recently been back to Liverpool to visit some exhibitions. It’s become an important cultural centre with its galleries, theatres and museums, including a major outreach of the Tate. I’ve visited the city regularly over the years. To me, there always seems to be a bit of a buzz about the place. There is invariably a great atmosphere. Most people are friendly, approachable and humourous. It’s days as a great port are over and much of its traditional industries have died out. I’m sure there is still quite a bit of unemployment and poverty there. But there is  a great spirit to the place. It took on the right wing Thatcher government in the 1980s, electing a radical left wing council which virtually declared Merseyide as an independent Socialist Republic. It inevitably lost the fight against the all powerful government but even Mrs Thatcher recognised  Liverpool’s plight and gave it the sop of hosting one of Britain’s first “Garden Festivals” and sending, her minister, Michael Heseltine to Merseyside on a charm offensive. Maybe, even the ruthless “Iron Lady” formed a grudging admiration for the cheerful stoicism and fighting spirit of the Liverpudlians. Who knows?

Say “Liverpool” to people in a word association exercise, and by far the most common responses will be “The Beatles” and football. Both still draw in the crowds today. The city has 2 premier League football clubs — Everton and Liverpool FC– the blues and the reds. Both command a huge fan base and generate great passion and loyalty. This applies not just in Liverpool itself but across the nation and even throughout the world. As Liverpool FC has enjoyed the most success over the years it has attracted the largest number of fans. Many people in Africa, Asia and North America, walk around, proudly wearing the red shirt of Liverpool. Probably only Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona rival them for world wide popularity. People are attracted to success so that they can extract a vicarious pleasure from it.  Liverpool FC has won the top English League, the FA Cup and even the European Cup ( Champions League) on numerous occasions. Back in the 60’s I adopted Liverpool as my second team. Chesterfield FC, my home town club were ( and always will be) my first love but they have perenially been stuck in the lower leagues of English football.  Peer pressure demanded that I support a top club. As most of my mates were pretending to be Manchester United fans even though they had nothing to do with Manchester, I decided to be different and eventually went for Liverpool, even though at the time of my choice they were actually in Division 2 ( now called the Championship.) With my backing they soon got promoted and quickly became one of the top teams in the country, and deadly rivals of Man Utd. I was impressed with Liverpool’s then manager, Bill Shankly and their energetic, attacking style of play. This penchant for Liverpool continued even when I went to college in Manchester, when I could easily have gone to see Best, Charlton and Law or the then stars of Manchester City. I only went to Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC ,once however.  It wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. It was a top of the table clash against United and I travelled on the train from Manchester with my “Red Devils” supporting mates. We ended up in a pub before the match ( I was about 17 or 18 at the time). We were having a quiet drink, looking forward to the action, when the place was suddenly invaded by Liverpool fans. Ironically, considering I had travelled all that way to support his team, I got spat upon by a Liverpool fan and called “United scum!” The match itself was a tense 0-0 draw but I had to stay very quiet all the way through it because I was stuck in the middle of the away end, and had to endure relentless verbal abuse from the “Kop” opposite us.

I went to Merseyside recently to once again enjoy the culture, the architecture and above all the atmosphere. There are 2 impressive Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, on opposite ends of the appropriately named “Hope Street”. Beautiful Georgian buildings grace the hillside above the centre. Three magnificant buildings, the “Three Graces” adorn the river front. They are the Port of Liverpool building, the Cunard Building and the Liver Building, topped by the famous mythical birds. Thanks to these, the Liverpool riverside had been appointed a World Heritage Site by the UN. Unfortunately recent adjacent , unattractive tower blocks have started to put this status at risk.

Tourism plays an increasingly important role in the city’s economy. The Beatles and the football have become the biggest draws. There are Beatles statues on the waterfront, Beatles taxi tours, Beatles open- top bus tours , a recreated Cavern club ( the original one was demolished) and a Beatles Experience museum. I think it’s over the top but plenty of tourists lap it all up. Yet, even I succumbed to the excellent ” John Lennon and Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy” exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  It was an absorbing 2 hour journey back into my youth, and was quite emotional at times. I never saw The Beatles live, unfortunately. The chance never came up. My wife Chris, saw them but didn’t hear a thing because of the constant screaming. The nearest I got to the “Mersey Sound”  was the Merseybeats, who were a support act to Traffic at a Chesterfield concert in 1966. However, I was a regular visiter to the city  when it was the “Mecca” of the pop music world. For a host of different reasons, I have been going back ever since. And it’s all thanks to a boating lake accident in a North Wales seaside resort.

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I’ve just been to Croatia, but was I really there?

17 Jun

I’ve just returned from a 10 day visit to Croatia, staying on the beautiful Adriatic coast. It was a relaxing, family holiday, linking up with my wife’s relatives who drove down from Milan.( Chris’s daughter is married to an Italian and so she has 2 delightful Anglo-Italian grandchildren) We all had a lovely time. I’ve been to Croatia before, when it was still part of the now defunct state of Yugoslavia. I’d taken 2 of my own children for the same sort of relaxing holiday by the sea with a bit of sight-seeing thrown in. That was in 1990, just a few months before the terrible civil war broke out and Yugoslavia started tragically tearing itself apart. Back then I was in Istria near the Italian border. A boat trip to Venice was one of the highlights. This year we were based in southern Dalmatia, staying in the Split and Trogir area on the coast. Both holidays were very enjoyable.

However when someone recently asked me what Croatia is like, I had to admit that I didn’t really know. This would have applied to my 1990 trip as well. On both occasions I had physically been present in Croatia, but apart from the landscape and some historical buildings, I cannot claim to have experienced much that was genuine or authentic Croatian. I didn’t even speak a word of the language, as conveniently, all the Croatians I met in the tourist industry spoke good English. I am actually a bit ashamed to admit I was so lazy. Even Chris’s grandchildren, encouraged by their father, said the occasional “hvala” ( thank you) and “dobar dan” ( hello) This always raised a smile from the waiter or shop-assistant who had been resigned to conversing in English and maybe a bit of German, Italian or French. It is a conceit of the British abroad that they expect every other nation to speak English, so that they can stay in their linguistic comfort-zone and not put themselves out in any way. They are just lucky that their language is spoken by Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and many others. The former British Empire has given us the convenient opportunity to be idle.

For the first few days we stayed in a small guest house on a hillside overlooking the centre of Split, Croatia’s second biggest city. It is a residential area and so one would expect that we would have experienced some every-day Croatian life. But this did not really happen. We were greeted in English and as soon as we neared the city centre most of the signs and adverts were in English too. We were in an area named Veli Varos on Marjan Hill. It was ( is) charming, with winding, narrow streets and quaint old buildings with tiny gardens and courtyards. But were we really in a real Croatian neighbourhood? A generous sprinkling of parked cars had Austrian, German, Italian and even Dutch plates. Many of the old dwellings had been turned into apartments and holiday homes. The most we saw of Croatia were a few old men chewing the fat on the street corners and the odd lean and lithe cat lazing in the sun. It seems that the old parts of Split are gradually metamorphosing into tourist zones. Thus they are slowly losing their original character and are ceasing to be genuine Croatian neighbourhoods. If this process is taken to its extreme then the Croatian tourist industry will be in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. This, in my opinion, is what has happened already in areas such as the Costa Del Sol in southern Spain. A beautiful coastline has been scarred by a procession of high rise, concrete hotels and apartment blocks, thrown up to pack in as many holiday-makers as possible. Many still flock there for their holiday in the sun, which is fair enough but are they really experiencing Spain? ( or do they actually want to?) Coming back to Split, we eventually discovered where many of the locals live — in ranks of Socialist-era tower blocks, marching up the hills that encircle the city. Needless to say, we did not visit those areas, merely affording them a brief glance as we sped past in a car.

Later, we moved west from Split to a lovely apartment near the historical town of Trogir. From our balcony, we had gorgeous views of the turquoise and blue sea punctuated by green islands. As we sipped our drinks we were entertained by a kaleidoscope of yachts and boats gliding and scurrying in all directions. Occasionally, usually after dark, an enormous, flood-lit cruise-ship would glide out of Split and weave its stately way through the picturesque patch-work of southern Dalmatian islands. Every evening we would prepare a meal in the summer kitchen and eat it in the garden. It was idyllic ( except for the pesky mosquitoes) and we all enjoyed it. But on this occasion we were not travellers, finding out about the culture and life-style of the country we were visiting. We were simply content to be tourists, having a relaxing time and enjoying the sun, the scenary, the food and the wine. We were enjoying our little slice of the good life.

The trouble with me is that I am a former history and geography teacher. Everywhere I go and in almost everything I do, I want to be learning stuff or be stimulated by new experiences. Apparently the Victorians had this approach to travel as well. ( well, according to Michael Portillo on his TV railway journeys.) For him and for them, travel was primarily an educational experience. This is the sort of travel bug I have got. It is both a joy and an affliction. It has driven me to visit all sorts of places, far and near to seek out exciting experiences and discover fascinating facts. It has led me to read extensively about the places I visit so that I can appreciate them and try to understand them in a deeper way. My aim is to scratch beneath the surface of a place and see what lies beneath. I have often said that “every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.” However, this approach also has its disadvantages. It means that I don’t often allow myself to truly relax and recharge my batteries. I am not one for lying on a beach or by a pool, sunbathing or reading a “page-turner”, day after day after day. I am usually wanting to get out and about to see the sights and experience the life of the place that I am visiting. Unfortunately this has led me to be a bit of a travel snob at times, unfairly looking down on people who go away simply to have a rest and a “chill out.” I now try hard to curb this attitude. My excuse is that being judgemental is an unfortunate family trait. Afterall, everyone can do what they want . Everyone to their own.

Having said all that, I am still a little disppointed that I didn’t see much of the real Croatia.( if there is such a thing.) The old centres of both Split and Trogir are World Heritage Sites because of their historical and architectural importance, but I didn’t feel as if I was experiencing something distinctive Croatian or Balkan. Both old towns have been turned into largely artificial theme parks created to amuse and service tourists. Sometimes they seem to be completely swamped by visitors, especially when an enormous cruise ship has docked. The tourists, decanted from their ships or planes, proceed to trawl around the old towns, passing a procession of historical buildings that have been converted into: cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, leather shops, jewellery shops, art and craft galleries, tourist information offices selling excursions and ice cream parlours. Does the local population like jewellery, crafts or ice cream so much that it needs such a dense concentration of shops and stalls? Do the locals never eat at home? Both Split and Trogir have some interesting old buildings, especially their respective cathedrals, and their, narrow old streets were certainly atmospheric, but a lot of the time, as I was walking around I felt it was an artificial experience. It felt as if I was in a cliched, fantasy world, divorced from reality. When I walk down the street at home I am never assailed by people wanting me to eat at their restaurant or go on their walking tour.

I travel to seek out the unfamilier, but this had more than a hint of familiarity about it. I had seen this sort of scenario in many places. I remember walking round an old town full of restaurants, jewellery and craft shops in Nice, France. I experienced it again on the striking Greek island of Santorini. There it was again in Benidorm, Spain and Sorrento, Italy. I call it “Tourist Land.” Tourist industries in countries like Croatia are extremely important because they contribute a lot to the local economy and provide a significant amount of employment. The tourist industry, by definition, exists to please tourists by giving them what they want. The danger is, in my view, that by supplying visitors with what they want and what they feel comfortable with, the individual character of unique and fascinating places is gradually squeezed out. In the end, tourists may end up with one homogenised experience after another. Every place they visit will start to resemble every other place.

On our penultimate evening on Croatia we left the touristy coast and headed inland for  just half an hour.  Giuliano, my wife’s son-in-law, had found out about a rustic, restaurant in the countryside that served a traditional dish called peka. It was potatoes and meat, slow cooked in special dishes in a wood fired oven, for as long as 2 hours. It wasn’t my normal cup of tea as I am a vegetarian. However, they kindly prepared a colourful and delicious dish of roasted vegetables in the same manner for Chris and myself. There was nothing else on the menu and no dessert. There wasn’t even any ice cream! But the food was great and this was the closest we came to a Croatian experience. There was even a group of Croatians eating there. As they waited patiently for their food, this group of local men drank beer and sang emotional-sounding folk songs in rich, 2 or 3 part harmonies. We imagined they were all about love and loss, or were proud, patriotic songs. It made a change from the western style pop music we had mostly experienced up to this point. Just for a few hours, it felt as if we had escaped tourist land to experience a little bit of the real Croatia.

So for that one evening I felt as if we were really in the country we were visiting. This was a very enjoyable, relaxing holiday. However, if I go to Croatia again, and I probably will, I’ll leave the tourist- dominated coast and head inland in search of more authentic experiences. In other words I’ll get as far away from the cruise ships as possible. It will possibly be a more challenging and less convenient holiday but, as I read on a t-shirt recently, life begins one step outside your comfort zone.

Out Of The Ashes.

6 May

Dresden, a city I’ve just visited, is famous for two main things. The first is that it was widely regarded as one of the most exquisite Baroque cities in Europe. It was dubbed “The Florence of the North”, because of its captivating array of delicate spires, soaring towers and magnificent domes. The huge stone dome of its premier church, the Frauenkirche, inspired by the domes of Italian churches, made it into the most significant Protestant place of worship, north of the Alps. The Bruhlsche Terrasse, an impressive riverside promenade along one bank of the Elbe, was known as the “Balcony of Europe.” It would be great if this Saxon city was famous just for being beautiful. Unfortunately, its other claim to fame is that in February, 1945, its historic centre was completely destroyed by three, devastating Allied bombing raids, towards the end of the Second World War. Its heart was ripped out by the British and American bombs, reducing it to a smouldering heap of rubble. Say “Dresden” to a random collection of people in a word- association exercise, and nine out of ten would  respond with “bombs” not ” Baroque” or “buildings.” As in many cases in life, it’s the negative association that usually wins out. This city now unfortunately stands along Hiroshima as the scene of one of the most infamous atrocities of the entire war.

The greatest catastrophe in the history of Dresden occured on the night of February 13th, 1945. Up to that point it looked as if one of Germany’s most picturesque and culturally important cities would survive the conflict largely unscathed. However, that devastating night changed everything. The sirens began to wail at 9-39pm and the first bombs rained down at 10-13pm. More than 750 British Lancaster bombers dropped their deadly cargo in 2 waves of attack, 3 hours apart. The next day, American bombers came in at midday to finish the job. It was grimly appropriate that the raids came between Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, because at the end of it all, Dresden’s historic Alstadt ( old town) was literally reduced to ashes. Incendiary bombs had caused a massive firestorm. The ashes fell on surrounding villages up to 35 kms away. Over 35,000 people perished. Many of them were refugees who had fled the advancing Red Army and were taking shelter in the city. The Soviets who later entered the city, claimed that 50,000 people had died. The RAF and USAF double attack on Dresden was the climax of a deliberately destructive bombing policy in which civilian populations and historic buildings were regarded as fair game. It was total war. The sheer extent of the devastation and the fact that thousands of innocent victims of Nazism were slaughtered, put this raid in a different class to all previous attacks. An area 20 kilometres square was virtually obliterated.

Many regard the bombing of Dresden as a war crime. Dresden had no great military or industrial importance. Others point out that the German bombing raids on British cities such as London, Bristol and Coventry were similarly shocking. The Luftwaffe also attacked equally beautiful British cities such as Canterbury and Norwich, in the so called Beiderbecke raids, although even the Nazis agreed to leave Oxford and Cambridge alone. If Dresden, along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki were  war crimes , no one was subsequently put on trial. This is because these particular deadly and devastating attacks were carried out by the eventual winners of the war. Only the losers are ever tried, as at the Nuremberg war crime trials. So “Bomber” Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command, never got to stand in the dock alongside Hermet Goering, leader of the Luftwaffe, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, even though both of them pursued similar policies and both were responsible for mass destruction and tens of thousands of  deaths. The idea behind both side’s bombing campaigns was to break the morale and fighting spirit of the enemy’s civilian population . According to a recent BBC ducumentary, the British did psychological studies of victims of bombing raids in Kingston upon Hull. The findings were that the bombing raids had actually strengthened not weakened  civilian resolve. However, these unwelcome results were kept secret because they would have taken away the main justification for Churchill and Harris’s bombing campaign against German cities and their non-military populations. Some argue that the bombing raids on German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden were justified as acts of retaliation and revenge following the  Blitz on London and other British cities. However, as my grandmother used to argue: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” All we can say in the end, is that the net result was that both populations suffered massively. A minute ago, I was talking about “winners” and “losers”. But, in a war there are no real winners. Everyone suffers.

My friend, Ian, and I visited Dresden as part of our Germany project. We have agreed to visit different parts of Germany, every year, for the forseeable future. I suppose you could call it our personal reconciliation mission. We are doing our small part to bring the 2 countries a little closer together. Two years ago we visited Lubeck, a beautiful Hanseatic city in the north, near Hamburg. It too suffered a terrible bombing raid in 1942. Apparently this was a practice run to see how effective such an attack on a mostly civilian population could be. Ian and I have noticed that many British holiday-makers seem to ignore Germany when it comes to choosing their destinations. Spain is easily the British tourist’s favourite overseas destination, followed, in no particular order by France, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Italy and the United States. Although Germany is a big, important country containing many interesting and attractive places of interest and it is one of our closest neighbours, it does not figure in these top destinations. Many are seduced by the combination of : sand, sea and sun offered by the Meditarranean countries. Germany has excellent beaches but they are all in the cooler north alongside the Baltic and North Seas. It gets plenty of sun, but its warmest climate is in the south, far away from the coast. So it cannot offer that magical combination all in one place.

I wonder too, if there is still a strong residue of anti-German prejudice left over from the World Wars of last century? The last one finished over 60 years ago and 3 new generations have been born since. However, a lot of national events and commemorations to do with the World Wars are still held in the United Kingdom. Someone commented that these days, the only time that the British are truly united is when they are reliving their victories in the two World Wars. It is important to remember those who sacrificed their lives for their country, but is it healthy to constantly stir up bad memories and ill feeling towards one of closest allies and nearest neighbours? When one of the home nations plays Germany at football, the tabloid press often refer to the German players in derogatory terms, such as the “krauts” or the “huns.” A constant stream of 2nd World War films and TV programmes similarly revive old animosities. Just last year, “Dunkirk” and “Churchill. Darkest Hour” were two of Britain’s biggest box office successes. The so-called History Channel is dominated by documentaries about the war, Hitler and the Nazis. A friend of mine was recently persuaded to go on a city break to Berlin. Afterwards he expressed surprise that the people he met were so friendly and helpful. I asked him why wouldn’t they be and he answered “Well, they’re Germans aren’t they?” Did he really expect to see goose-stepping Nazis on the streets of the German capital? I have always found the German people to be friendly and obliging and  many of them speak perfect English. It’s a mystery to me why more British tourists don’t visit.

It’s a great pity if Dresden and Germany are still being defined by the war. Both have rich and rewarding histories before that tragic conflict and both have undergone remarkable transformations since it finished. Dresden’s old centre is no longer a heap of rubble. It’s major baroque buildings have all been meticilously reconstructed such that, once again, one could be walking around in the 18th century. Out of the ashes, the spectacular palaces, churches and civic buildings of Augustus the Strong and his son have been miraculously reserrected. The “before and after” photos have to be seen to be believed. Today, the Alstadt looks much as it was in the days when Canaletto was painting it. At first the East German Communist regime deliberately left the most important buildings such as the Frauenkirche, in ruins to serve as war memorials. For many years the Frauenkirche was the focus of an annual pilgrimage on February 13th. The ruins also acted as a powerful propaganda tool against the western powers. However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of the two Germanys in the early 1990s, reconstruction has gone on at a pace.  Much work is still going on as we saw on our visit. It took great “skill” to take a selection of photos that all omitted the cranes, the dumper trucks and the scores of hard-hatted workmen. A large section of picturesque Theaterplatz for instance is still cordoned off as the reconstruction crews do their stuff, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists circling all around them.

The Frauenkirche, a “Baroque gem”, has now reappeared in the cityscape after an absence of half a century.  The original dome initially survived the raid, but then collapsed 2 days later. The reborn church was consecrated in the autumn of 2015 and represents the crowning achievement of the reconstruction efforts. People from all over the world, including the UK and the USA, made donations towards its rebuilding. These included contributions from Coventry, Dresden’s partner city. Alan Smith, the son of one of the bomber pilots, created the tower cross that sits on top of the dome. His work was funded by the British Dresden Trust. 80% of the new altar consists of 2000 original pieces rescued from the rubble. On the altar table stands a cross of nails which is a symbol of reconciliation. The church is beautiful and flooded with light. A central nave is surrounded by 5 symmetrical galleries. The magnificent dome and galleries are decorated with murals in light, pastel colours. The only problem today seems to be too many tourists, ruining any hope of a spiritual atmosphere.

Peace and reconciliation are prominant themes in Dresden. We saw another cross of nails donated by the churches of Coventry, in the impressive Hofkirche, Dresden’s Catholic Cathedral. The mistakes and tragedies of the past are properly recalled in memorials but the emphasis seems to be to move forward into a more peaceful and harmonious future. I saw very little stress on the terrible bombing raid, although this could well have been covered in the city museum which I didn’t have time to see. I felt no animosity when people found out I was British. To me, it all seemed very positive. Germany of course is a leading light in the European Union which it created with France after the war by enmeshing their two economies. The idea was to make large scale European war impossible in the future because the 2 countries and their neighbours would become inter-dependent. So far the plan has succeeded.

So, like a phoenix, Dresden had risen again out of the ashes. It stands alongside the similarly restored Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk, as one of the miracles of the post-1945 age. It is really 3 cities in one — there is the modern city, the Communist era GDR city and the 18th century baroque city of its golden age. Dresden began as an Slav fishing village in the shadow of its near neighbour, Meissen. Then, in 1485, the Saxon Royal family, the House of Wettin, turned it into its capital. Its glory period was in the early 18th century under Elector Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Although not a very astute political leader, Augustus loved art and culture. He encouraged top artists, architects, craftsmen, writers and musicians to make Dresden their base. The result was a flourishing cultural scene and the creation of some magnificent buildings such as Residenzschloss ( Royal Palace), several outstanding churches and the Zwinger, a Royal pleasure palace. The Zwinger is one of the most ravishing baroque buildings in the whole of Germany. We were god-smacked when we walked into it through one of its elaborate gateways. Luckily it was a lovely sunny day, so we saw it at its best. A huge, fountain studded courtyard is framed by fancy buildings and walkways festooned with baroque scultures. On the ground, well-manicured lawns are cut into symmetrical patterns, mirroring each other. Two ornate, exhuberant pavilions face each other at opposite ends of the courtyard . One, the Glockenspiel Pavilion, has a carillon of 40 bells, crafted out of Meissen porcelain. Along one upper gallery there is a giant carving of the Crown of Poland, supported by Polish eagles. The whole complex is stupendous. One of its palaces is used to house a rich, art gallery full of old masters, one of the dozen best in the world. The Opera House opposite ( the Semperor) is equally stunning. We attended an orchestral concert there given by the Saxon Staatskapelle, one of the world’s oldest and most famous orchestras established in 1548.

This is the Dresden that most people come to see. It’s the beautiful baroque city that has miraculously risen from the ashes of its wartime destruction. For a time it was a World Heritage Site but UNESCO have now had to take that coveted title away because of the construction of an unattractive road bridge across the Elbe which is completely out of keeping with its architectural surroundings. Ian and I enjoyed our time there and need to go back to visit the galleries and museums we didn’t have time to explore. It’s always good to end a visit wanting to return. Thankfully, we found out that Dresden is much, much more than the site of a war atrocity. It has risen from the ashes.

 

A Confusing Part of the UK.

22 Apr

Being a pedantic, former geography and history teacher, I still get a bit hot under the collar about people who don’t even know the name of their own country. It seems the simplest thing in the world to know where one hails from. The country I am specifically referring to is my own. To be fair, it is a bit confusing, because the names for it have changed fairly regularly over the centuries.

The Romans called it Britannia, with the people on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall being known as Caledonians. Later the various Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms united to form Angland ( Angle-Land) which later morphed into England. After the Danes or Vikings invaded, a sizable chunk of the east and the north was named the “Danelaw.” I once stayed in a lovely old guest house in Stamford, Lincs and the lady who ran it told me that the Danelaw border used to run through her back garden! This was exciting stuff for a history buff like me! Much later the English attacked and subjugated the Welsh and the Scots and the name for the new country was Great Britain.( the island consisting of England, Scotland and Wales.) Confusingly, the Scots had originally come from Ireland and had conquered the Picts. Next, after Ireland had been similarly invaded and conquered, the newly expanded country was re-christened: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Finally, after a large chunk of Ireland claimed its freedom in 1920-21, leaving only 6 counties of Ulster staying loyal to the Crown and the Government in London, the post Irish-partition country acquired its present name — The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is the grandiose name that still graces my passport. If someone abroad asks me where I come from, I say the U.K. for short. This usually works, except that one gentleman, who I met on a night train in Vietnam, concluded that I came from the Ukraine!

So I come from the U.K. It doesn’t sound very attractive does it? Get rid of the capital letters and see what you end up with — “uk” — an exclamation of distaste or disgust! No wonder the British Olympic Association decided to ignore the proper name of their team’s country. Instead they called it Team GB. Let’s face it — Team UK doesn’t have the same catchy ring to it. There is also the great temptation for some people to put a Y or even an F in front of it! Thus, Clare Balding, Gabby Logan and their BBC colleagues, working on the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia, constantly misrepresented their country as Great Britain ( GB), ignoring the fact that it is actually the United Kingdom ( UK.) I suppose this is because they work for the British, not the UK, Broadcasting Company. I wrote to our Olympic Committee about this big error when I first noticed it in 2012, but they ignored my letter, showing that they were as rude as they were ignorant.

I asked the perfectly reasonable and straightforward question — are Northern Irish athletes to be excluded from our country’s team because they don’t come from Great Britain ( England, Scotland or Wales)? I was also interested to know why the Manx cyclist, Mark Cavendish, was allowed to compete for Team GB when the Isle of Man is not a part of Great Britain. It’s a mystery — if Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man are officially part of our country, why are they not recognised as such in the name of our sports teams? It gets even more complicated when one comes to football and rugby, as each componant country of the United Kingdom competes as if it is a separate, independent entity. Thus we have England versus Scotland, Wales versus Northern Ireland and all the other permutations. These matches are actually all the UK versus the UK. It all sounds very incestuous, not to mention, very confusing. The truth is that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an artificial construct. Three countries and part of a fourth have been tied together by war and politics in the past. However, the populations of those countries still cling to their separate identities. The UK may technically be one country but it actually contains four nations. The Devolution movement of recent decades has recognised these differences, such that we now have parliaments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast  as well as in London.

I’ve just been to Northern Ireland for the first time in my life. I haven’t been before because of “The Troubles”, a 30 year period of bloody civil strife, that led to many atrocities, maimings and violent deaths. For much of my adult life, Northern Ireland has been a tourist, no-go area. When the British conquered Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, they pushed the local Catholic population on to poorer lands in the west and populated the better lands with staunch Protestant settlers shipped in from England and Scotland.  Thus were sown the seeds of trouble for centuries to come. When the Catholic King James II,  was expelled from Protestant Britain in 1688, he tried to make a come-back in Ireland where he was supported by the vast majority of the Catholic population.  However he met with fierce resistance from the Ulster protestants in the north-east of Ireland, inspired by the apprentice boys of Derry, who rushed to close the city gates against James’s Catholic army, uttering the famously defiant words: “No Surrender!” James’s army laid siege to the town but despite great suffering ( many died from starvation), it was never captured. King James’s forces were eventually defeated at the famous Battle of the Boyne by the army of the new British King, William of Orange ( William III). Orange was (is) an area of the Netherlands. William, the husband of James’s protestant daughter Mary, was invited over by the British establishment to defeat James II and re-establish Britain as a Protestant nation. Thus William, a Dutchman, became a hero of the Northern Irish protestant. I told you it was confusing! I have a friend Alex who came over to England to escape the “Troubles” in the 1970s. His brother stayed in Belfast and is now the head of his local “Orange Lodge”, leading his “Orange Men” with their bright orange sashes, on marches to commemorate the victory on the Boyne over 300 years ago. History still looms large in Northern Ireland. Irishmen celebrating the victory of a 17th century Dutchman. You couldn’t make it up!

I was recently in Dublin, the capital of the Irish Free State since its inception in 1920. The English or British found it impossible to subjugate all the countries of their huge Empire indefinitely. The Irish were one of the first in the 20th century to break free. After a long campaign for Irish Home Rule in the latter half of the 19th century, the situation erupted into open violence with the Easter Rising of 1916. The rebels commandeered the General Post Office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street as their HQ and it was largely destroyed in the subsequent fighting against the British and then in the Irish Civil War which followed. I saw the bullet pock- marks in the classical columns of the building which has now been restored. Although they ruthlessly and viciously put down the uprising, the British  reluctantly realised that holding on to a largely resentful Ireland was becoming more trouble than it was worth. So, once the small matter of the First World War was over, negotiations for Ireland to become an independent republic began. This was in line with the campaign, promoted by the American President, Woodrow Wilson, to grant peoples who had previously been trapped in Empires, their freedom. Wilson called it “self-determination.” Thus, many new countries were created, or recreated out of the defeated Austrian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The victorious French and British however, were not quite so enthusiastic about giving freedom to their own colonies and ultimately paid the price by enduring a century of trouble. For the British, that trouble began in Ireland.

The sticking point in the negotiations for Irish independence was the predominantly protestant population of Northern Ireland, the area known as Ulster. These were the descendents of the English and Scottish protestant settlers of earlier centuries. They wanted to stay loyal to the British Crown and remain part of the United Kingdom. Therefore Ireland, one hundred years ago, was bitterly divided between “remainers” and “leavers” just like the UK today, following the controversial EU Referendum of 2016. Back then though, the Remainers ( i.e. the Ulster Protestants)  were rewarded by having their part of Ireland partitioned off and kept separate from the new country of Eire, the Irish Republic. So the island of Ireland was divided into two for political and religious reasons. The partition seemed to be a neat solution to an intractable problem. However, partitions often cause terrible problems as we witnessed when the British broke up India and created Pakistan. The British also partitioned Palestine causing decades of trouble between the Arabs and the Israelis in the Middle East, the consequences of which we are still suffering from. The Americans have tried it in Vietnam and Korea with equally troublesome and tragic results. The partition of Ireland was one of the first and there has been trouble ever since. Even today, though the horrific violence has gone away, the issue of the (artificial) Irish border has become a major sticking point in the complex Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union. This is because the Irish republic is a member of the EU whereas the people of the UK have narrowly voted to leave it.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 partitioned the island. The Protestant Loyalists in the north only wanted to keep the 6 counties of Ulster where they commanded a majority over the Cathlolics. Thus Northern Ireland is a political not a geographical concept. It is not really a genuine country in my opinion. It is officially linked to countries across the Irish sea which it doesn’t have a lot in common with, and at the same time,  is artificially divided from the people and places it is naturally closest to. Once the Northern Irish protestants had their own province, they systematically excluded the Roman Catholics from power. The Catholics represented about one third of the population of Northern Ireland but were now a minority in their own country. They were rigorously discriminated against. The protestants had the majority in all the organisations of local government in the province and used it largely to look after their own. It was only in the late 1960s after over 40 years of discrimination that the Northern Irish Catholics, inspired by Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement in the USA, started to take to the streets to protest against their unfair treatment. Catholic marches were attacked by protestant/loyalists. On one march from Derry to Belfast, even the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, attacked the protesters. The lines were drawn and so began the latest chapter of the “troubles”. Both sides formed paramilitary organisations to do their fighting, such as the IRA for the Catholics and the UDF for the Protestants. There were many murders from bombings and shootings. People were knee-capped and tarred and feathered. When British soldiers were drafted in from the mainland to keep the peace, they too became targets and came under constant stress. During a Catholic march in Londonderry ( Derry) in January, 1972, troops of the Parachute regiment opened fire on unarmed civilians after being provoked by stone throwing and insult hurling youths. 13 people were killed outright and one died later in hospital. Many people were injured, some from bullets and others from being run over by armoured personnel carriers. Some were shot in the back. A priest with a white handkerchief had to intervene to get some of the wounded out. This notorious incident is known as “Bloody Sunday.” It hardened attitudes immeasurably, such that the province descended into a state of virtual civil war. One of a British soldier’s most dreaded postings was to Northern Ireland.

The “troubles” are hopefully over now. While we were visiting, it was the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement of 1998 brokered by the Prime Ministers of the UK and of Ireland and representatives of the United States sent by President Clinton. This was one of PM Tony Blair’s most commendable achievements. ( before his reputation was forever stained by the illegal invasion of Iraq.) While in Northern Ireland, my wife Chris and I visited Derry/Londonderry. The double name is a reminder that the issues between the two sides are still not fully resolved. In the Bogside area, largely populated by Catholics, we saw spectacular murals on the gable ends of houses, depicting scenes from the troubles including “Bloody Sunday.” Other posters and murals praised the “martyrs” who had died fighting for Irish unity. One mural, commenting on the current argument over the Irish border when the UK leaves the EU in 2019, simply stated — ” Hard Border. Soft Border. No Border. Irish Unity now.” It was produced by a republican organisation called the 1916 society. On the other hand, while walking round Derry’s medieval walls, we at one point looked down into a protestant/loyalist area. It had red, white and blue stripes painted on the edge of its pavements. Later, we drove through an area of Cookstown festooned in Union Jacks and pro-British posters. I think, just below the surface, the province is still very much divided. Hatchets have been buried and compromises made for the sake of peace but there is still a long way to go before the bitterness and divisions can be overcome.

We found Northern Ireland to be very much like the rest of Ireland. The accent is slightly different, the currency is different and road journeys are measured in miles not kilometres. But, in most respects the 2 parts of Ireland, north and south, are very similar. The coastal scenary is often spectacular. We went to see the world famous Giant’s Causeway on the very picturesque Antrim coast. In many ways, it was like the magnificent west coast of Donegal in the Republic, which we later visited. It’s called the “Wild Atlantic Way” and very special it is too. Another thing the 2 Irelands have in common is the fantastic hospitality of their people. The breakfasts in the guest houses are something else! Also in the pubs, on both sides of the invisible border, there is often the sound of fiddles playing Irish dance tunes while the punters drink their pints of Guinness. Most of the time, it felt we were in Ireland and not in Britain. The banks notes, although pounds not Euros, were issued by the Bank of Ireland ( not England.) The girl on the Asda till back home gave me a quizzical look when I passed a Northern Irish fiver on to her. I felt I had to remind her that Northern Ireland is part of our country. The confusion cuts both ways though. While in Antrim I watched a local news programme on television in which Northern Irish people were referring to themselves as British. They are not, they are Irish!

I’m pleased I’ve been to Northern Ireland at last. I’ve now been to all 4 countries of the so-called United Kingdom. It’s a delightful place to visit. I would like to think I have cleared up some of the confusion but I doubt it. It seems bizarre that politicians in London, Brussels, Belfast and Dublin are arguing about a hard border or a soft border between the 2 parts of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. When we were there, we crossed the border and didn’t even notice a thing. It will be a great shame if the United Kingdom pulls up the drawbridges and creates barriers between itself and its nearest neighbours following the Leave vote in the referendum. It wants to protect itself from foreign influence, even though it cannot protect itself from its own complicated history and even though many people don’t actually know the name of the country they are claiming to protect.

Masochistic Away Day.

23 Feb

It was another insane idea. I think I must be going a bit dopey in my old age. The choice was as follows: have a relaxing day at home or undergo 8 hours of train travel and hanging around draughty stations to almost inevitably experience disappointment. I chose the latter of course. I would travel from deepest Cleveland on the north east coast, to the far north west of England to support my team, a team that was next to bottom of the whole football league and had just lost 4 matches in a row. Many people would regard this as mad but I went because it was an adventure and I wanted to show support and loyalty to the team. I think support in times of adversity is real support. If you’ve read my previous blog you might understand this a bit.

I love travel as much as I love sport. Every journey is potentially an exciting adventure. In this case I was travelling to Carlisle but I was also journeying into the unknown. What would happen on the way? Would all my connections work out? What would I find when I got there? This is what happened.

It was an early start. The alarm clock rudely interrupted my sleep at 6-45am. This was like being back at work, a feeling I have largely forgotten since I retired. By 7.55 I was at Saltburn station, joining a small band of sleepy commuters going to work in the shops of Redcar and Middlesbrough. I huddled into my seat as our little, old diesel -railcar ground its way over the points, heading slowly west. I live at the end of a long branchline, and the first stage of any rail journey usually involves painstakingly trundling our way to the main line at Darlington, about 28 miles away. I settled into my book, hoping the miles would disappear more quickly that way. On this journey though, I didn’t have to go all the way to Darlington. I was routed via Hartlepool and Sunderland so had to change at Middlesbrough, and then have a slow but scenic train journey up the Durham coast. The changeover was only 10 minutes and soon I was on my way again. In 1 hour 20 minutes I would be meeting my fellow football masochist, Ian, at Newcastle Central station. Together we would catch the Carlisle connection.

However, you know what they say about the best laid plans. My second train went only one stop to Thornaby ( south Stockton) and then just stood in the platform. I found myself getting restless and started to wriggle around in my seat.After this had been going on for 10 minutes, the guard told us there had been a power failure in the main signal box and until it was fixed, no trains in the area were allowed to move. An electrician had been sent for ( there were none on site) and he had got stuck in traffic. I could see my Carlisle connection going up the swanee and even the one after that. Maybe I would miss the match altogether? Then, an idea started to form in my head. Out of the window I had noticed a regular stream of taxis coming down a drive into the station and dropping passengers off. As worry and frustration bubbled up inside me, I hit upon an escape plan. Seeing another taxi arrive, I leapt off the train, ran across the platform and knocked on the taxi man’s window as he was checking his money. The worst case scenario was that he wouldn’t accept me as a customer because I hadn’t made a proper booking, and then the train would suddenly depart with me stranded on the platform!  That really would have been “sod’s law!”As he wound down the window I asked the driver if he could take me to Darlington station and, thank God, he said “yes.” So in a few seconds, I was on my again, weaving through the rainy, grey streets of Thornaby, heading for Darlington and the main- line.

It was one of those chance encounters one sometimes experiences on journeys. I told the taxi driver where I was going and why, and he replied with stories of the travails of Darlington football club which had gone bust and dropped out of the league. His son had had trials there as a teenager and also at Hartlepool United, another struggling north- east football club. He hadn’t been accepted. The taxi man concluded cynically that success in football is about who you know not about what you can do. He said the whole system is corrupt and very harsh. I think I agree with him.

Within 20 minutes we were at Darlington station on the East Coast mainline. With a bit of luck, I would soon catch a fast train north to Newcastle. As I was paying the fare and saying my goodbye, another taxi man ran up and told my driver that he had a near flat tyre at the back. We looked and the rear passenger- side tyre was doing a good imitation of a pancake! It was only luck that had prevented us from having the flat on the A66 dual- carriageway a few minutes earlier and having to stop to change the wheel in the pouring rain! I caught an Edinburgh express within 10 minutes and as it glided out of the station I saw my taxi man still struggling with his jack and his wrench. I hope he got it sorted alright.

The express sped smoothly northwards only affording a brief glimpse of Durham’s magnificent cathedral and castle as we raced by. Soon we were crossing the Tyne on one of the 6 famous bridges. We swept round a corner and came to a smooth halt in Newcastle Central station. Ian was waiting for me with a welcome cup of coffee. ( I had texted him of my progress.) Meanwhile ( I heard later) my original train was still stuck at Thornaby. It was delayed for at least an hour. I would have been going spare by then!

The next stage of the journey took us along the beautiful Tyne valley and into Hadrian’s Wall country. A long gentle escarpment led up to the remains of the Roman wall and then dropped steeply away. It’s lovely empty countryside. Northumberland merged into Cumbria as we headed forever westwards. We caught glimpses of hill farms surrounded by grazing sheep. As we neared our destination we passed the shell of an old castle. Quite suddenly, the scenary switched from rural to urban as we were sucked into the suburbs of the City of Carlisle.

Carlisle is a border city. Scotland is not very far away. It has seen much conflict over the centuries. Coming out of the Citadel Station we immediately saw the 16th century round, stone towers ordered by Henry VIII to strengthen the city’s defences. Further in we came across the sturdy, red stoned castle that has witnessed much bloody conflict. Edward 1st had stayed there before going on to “Hammer the Scots.” In an earlier age Carlisle had actually been part of Scotland. It’s the only large English town not to have been recorded in the Domesday Book, ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1080s. It was left to his son, William Rufus to reconquer Carlisle for the English. One might expect that, given this troubled and violent history, its citizens would be tough, hard-bitten and wary of strangers. Of course, we found them to be just the opposite as the border battles and struggles  have now faded into the mists of time. Ian and I entered a nice little cafe near the station to have lunch. No staff were available to greet us but several customers encouraged us to sit down and told us the routine. When I thanked them, a lady commented :” No problem, we’re friendly in Carlisle.”

After our teas and toasties we had a bit of time to explore. Beyond the chain stores and coffees shops there was a very atmospheric and interesting historical quarter. Some streets were cobbled and we passed many old Georgian and early Victorian buildings in striking red sandstone. We strolled along narrow lanes and along a section of old town walls. The medieval cathedral and its close are magnificent. One feature is a spectacular barrel shaped ceiling painted in sky blue with golden stars. We made a note to return for a longer visit when football was not dominating the agenda.

After more helpful directions, we started to walk towards Brunton Park, Carlisle United’s football stadium. This took us up the busy Warwick Road and the leafy avenues that run off it. This is quite unusual as many of the original football grounds are found in more run down areas surrounded by humble terraces. One of the graceful Georgian town houses we passed had a blue plaque. It turned out it was the former home of the mother and grandfather of the American President Woodrow Wilson. He was one of the main architects of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. His mother, Jessie Janet Woodrow Wilson had been born in Carlisle and her father, the Reverend Doctor Thomas Woodrow, originally from Paisley in Scotland, used to preach in a nearby church. Carlisle was only a temporary staging post however, as the family subsequently emigrated to the United States where the future president was born.

Arriving at the football ground we looked at the fields and streets that had been severely flooded by Storm Desmond in December 2015 and January 2016. The nearby river had burst its banks. The pitch went underwater too and for a while, Carlisle Untied had to play their “home” matches in Preston, Blackburn or Blackpool. When the water eventually receded, all the community turned out to clear up the muddy mess in the ground. Even the players mucked in to help. The disaster had brought the team and the fans together in a united effort.

There now ensued a tense 20 minutes or so while we waited for Lesley. I had met Lesley at the Chesterfield box office a fortnight before when I was there for a home match. To my frustration she told me that the tickets for the match at Carlisle had not arrived yet, so could I pop in the following week? Not living in Chesterfield anymore, I said I couldn’t. So Lesley said she would bring my tickets on the team coach on the day and give them to me outside the ground before kick off. This seemed a neat arrangement but inevitably, when we arrived at the away supporters end of Brunton Park, Lesley was nowhere to be seen. We weren’t the only ones waiting and worrying. A small group of Chesterfield supporters who did not actually live in Chesterfield now gathered together. I met one guy who had travelled down from Glasgow. This was the closest he got to a “home” match. Thankfully Lesley at last appeared and we collected our tickets and entered the stadium.

Being in Brunton Park was like going back in time. We showed our tickets to a real person instead of introducing a bar code to a scanner. Inside I was surprised to see that both ends behind the goals didn’t have seating. People stood behind crash barriers just like in the old days. The opposite stand to us only had seats in the top half and the rest was for standing. I thought that since the Hillsborough disaster, all grounds had to be all seaters, but apparently, this rule only applies to clubs in the top two divisions.

Before the match, as we watched the players going through their warm-up routines, a strange thing happened. The Carlisle mascot came out sporting a fox’s head. Now I had always thought that it was Leicester City who were nicknamed “The Foxes”. But now it seems that Carlisle claim that name too. They used to feature a fox on their logo because of the local connection with the legendary huntsman John Peel. In 1976 for instance, the club badge featured a golden fox jumpimg over the abbrieviation CUFC. Later, a fox was shown jumping through a ring of stars. Not any longer is a fox featured though. Now the club badge shows the castle, a shield with the cross of St George and 2 red dragons. Maybe Leicester had threatened to sue them!

I was just digesting all this when the foxy mascot brought out a real stuffed fox mounted on a base and placed it in the centre circle. It stayed there until just before kick off, presumably to bring the team good luck. Football is full of these peculiar traditions and superstitions. I later found that the stuffed fox is called OLGA, which is an anagram of GOAL.

Finally at 3pm, the match kicked off. Chesterfield put in a miserable performance and were lucky only to lose 2-0, although we were very unlucky to have what looked like a good goal, ruled out for a marginal offside. Because this was real life and not on a telly screen, we were unable to watch slow-motion replays to check if the referee’s controversial decision was correct. For a moment we had all gone berserk, in a sudden surge of emotion, but now we returned to stoical acceptance of the inevitable. There was little atmosphere in the rest of the ground. Half of the Carlisle supporters seemed to be asleep. They only woke up when they scored or when there was a disputed throw-in near where they were sitting. There were just under 4000 of them and we numbered 248. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after Chesterfield’s famous and bizarre crooked spire. Even though we lost, I was pleased to be there, enjoying a couple of noisy, raucous hours amongst the Spireite faithful. The away fans nearly always make more noise than the home fans even though heavily outnumbered. Rather than acting like separate individuals they close ranks, feel the warmth of camaraderie and lose many of their inhibitions. A funny moment came when a Carlisle player finally got back on his feet after laying on the turf injured. Some of our number thought he was feigning the injury to waste time and break up the play. One Spireite fan lept up and sarcastically bellowed ” Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! He is healed!” So we lost and we trudged despondently out of the ground and into the darkened streets. I was disappointed with the result but had half expected it. I was still glad that I had made the effort to be one of the valient 248!

Ian and I walked back into the city centre and ate a tasty happy-hour pasta at a jolly Italian ristorante. Then we were back at the station ready for the long journey home. This time we were joined by gangs of Saturday night revellers — young people on their way for a night out in Newcastle. It was noisy but good humoured. At Newcastle, Ian and I parted company and I went on to catch 2 more trains, travelling south and then east. Some young lads I talked to had been drinking in Newcastle and then in Durham city. They were now on their way to Darlington for yet more drinking before getting taxis home to Bishop Auckland. They couldn’t believe it when I told them I had gone all the way from Saltburn to Carlisle and back to see a football match and had  not touched a drop of drink! I think they thought I was mad. It was the last interesting encounter on my long away day. Some may think of it as masochistic, others may think I was insane. Maybe they have a point, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I really enjoyed  it! It would have been even better if the Spireites had won but one cannot have everything!

 

 

Alone — in Sunderland.

11 Nov

My friend, Ian and I like visiting places that are not on the normal tourist radar. We have invariably enjoyed our explorations of towns and cities that are deemed dull, unattractive or not worth bothering with. We like to test our theory that every place is interesting if only one is willing to be interested in it. Thus we have found ourselves wandering round unpromising northern towns like Darlington, Doncaster, Stockton and Hartlepool and have always, so far, had  interesting and enjoyable days. It was in this spirit that we decided to visit Sunderland.

Sunderland is Britain’s newest city but apart from that accolade, it doesn’t seem, at first glance, to have much going for it. In the north east of England it is eclipsed in most departments by its close neighbour, Newcastle upon Tyne, at least from a tourist’s viewpoint. Its centre is a large, non-descript pedestrian precinct. I suppose the city got badly bombed in the war and lost many of its more distinguished buildings. Only a sprinkling of older civic buildings still survive, such as the Museum and Winter Gardens and the Empire Theatre. Since the war, the area has suffered from bad economic depression following the collapse of the coal-mining and ship-building industries. It used to be a proud boast of Sunderland that whatever ships were required, the Wearside ship-yards could “Makem” ( make them.) This has now become the nickname, often used derogatively, for people from the Sunderland area. (” Makems” or “mackems.”)  The current employment saviour of Sunderland is ironically Japan. Nissan has set up a big car- manufacturing plant in nearby Washington New Town. This is now the biggest source of employment in the area. I say this is ironic because it was foreign competition, including from the Japanese, that put paid to Wearside’s once prolific shipyards. Between 1939 and 1945, the Second  World War years, the Wear yards launched 245 ships, totalling 1.5 million tons. This represented a quarter of all merchant ships built in that period in the entire UK. Now all the shipyards on the River Wear have gone. The last one closed in 1988.

So we planned to visit what seems, on the surface, to be a very depressed area. Even Sunderland’s famous football team is now languishing at the bottom of the second tier of the English leagues, after suffering a humiliating relegation from the Premier League last season. It is only early November (2017) but they have already sacked their latest manager. The lights seem to have all been switched off at Sunderland’s so called “Stadium of Light.” Our proposed visit didn’t sound very promising, but at least it would be a good excuse for a get-together and a catch-up chat. Then, unfortunately, Ian informed me that he could no longer come because his mother was ill. I had already got my rail tickets so I was faced with either wasting my money and staying at home, or going to Sunderland, alone! My wife, who probably wanted to get rid of me, encouraged me to go.

So it was that a few days later, I found myself getting up on the 7am alarm clock in order to catch an early train out of Saltburn. I was reluctant to leave my warm, comfortable bed. But straight away, this potentially unpromising day threw up a lovely surprise. As I munched my cereal I glanced out of the window and witnessed a beautiful sunrise. Streaks of vivid orange, yellow and light blue lit up the sky above the rooftops. The next compensation came when I enjoyed an excellent toasted teacake and filter coffee ( breakfast, part 2) at Middlesbrough rail station as I waited for my connecting train. The day was looking up! The journey north, up the Durham coast was interesting and occasionally picturesque. Glimpses of cliffs, beaches, a pier, meadows, denes and ravines  reminded me of my sponsored walk down that very coast earlier in the year. The train passed through Stockton, Billingham, Hartlepool and Seaham before finally arriving at Sunderland.

Sunderland’s unprepossessing railway station is underground, in a dark, depressing tunnel. As well as mainline trains, it is also serves the Tyne and Wear Metro. I bought a ticket and travelled 2 stops north of the city centre to the seaside suburb of Seaburn. The train’s emergence from the dingy tunnel, out into the bright autumn sunshine, coincided with an eye-catching crossing of the Wear, the river that divides the city. The rail bridge runs parallel and in close proximity to a gracefully arched, iron road bridge.( Wearmouth Bridge)  It’s a wonderful array of green painted girders, running in all directions. It’s like a mini Sydney Harbour Bridge or Tyne Bridge. Soon, the Metro arrived at Seaburn station and my walk of discovery began.

A long, straight road ran down to the sea. Unsurprisingly it is called Sea Road! It was busy with traffic and banks of shops. These were mostly the usual suspects but I was surprised to find that Seaburn has a Swiss bakers. It’s called Mullers, if you’re ever in the area. Because I still had the Middlesbrough teacake in my tummy I didn’t go in and try its exotic wares, although I now think I should have done. After a 10 minutes brisk walk, passing row after row of terraced houses, I reached the seafront and the pleasant, leafy Seaburn Park. Beyond this was the promenade. At the end of the prom’s row of shops and restaurants is the large Marriot Hotel. This was my first port of call, because it was here, under its previous name of the Seaburn Hotel, that the famous artist, L S Lowry used to stay on his  visits to the north-east coast. Lowry regularly visited Sunderland in the 1960’s and always stayed in Room 104 at the Seaburn. ( Luckily, not Room 101!) Some of his seascapes and industrial scenes are exhibited at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Seaburn beach is long and attractive, sweeping round a shallow bay. On this bright, autumnal morning, it was largely empty, apart from a few dog walkers and the occasional jogger. At its northern extremity it merges with a cluster of rocks and pools. Two herring gulls perched on adjoining rocks and surveyed the scene. Nearby an unidentified wader poked its long, pointed beak into the soft mud, looking for a tasty, mid-morning morsel. I planned to follow Heritage Trail Number 7, produced by Sunderland Council — “Roker Seafront Circular.”  The Lowry hotel was my first stop. ( I wasn’t doing it in the right order.) Now I strode towards a gleaming white lighthouse, on a grassy stretch of the promenade above the beach.

It seemed to be a strange location for a light-house. They are usually found on headlands , on off-shore islands or at the ends of piers, in order to safeguard shipping.  But this particular lighthouse was set back, well away from any spot where it could have been any use to a ship. The answer to the mystery is that the lighthouse in question, designed by James Meick in 1856, had originally been placed on the end of Sunderland’s South Pier. When that pier eventually started to crumble, the Meick lighthouse was dismantled and re-erected here, on the promenade between Seaburn and Roker, in 1983. It’s an impressive edifice. Meick designed it in the form of a classical Tuscan column. As I looked up, I saw that the shining, white tower was topped by a round , wrought iron balcony and a large weather-vane. Inside, apparently, is an intricate, cast iron, spiral staircase. Its powerful lantern, that for so long safely guided ships into the mouth of the Wear, is now displayed in the Museum and Winter Gardens.

I walked back down to the sea and on to the beach.  The tide was out and I was able to walk round the headland that separates Seaburn from Roker. The flat, empty sands were backed by medium tall cliffs shored up by a stout seawall. On a slope leading down to the beach, I passed a little wooden shack – the Bankside Café. Clumps of people were gathered there, chatting and sipping from their mugs of tea and coffee. The smell of bacon drifted on the air. I was tempted to stop, but remembering, just in time, that I am a vegetarian, I wandered on. Roker beach and prom now stood before me, lined with cafes and amusement arcades. It being November, most of them were closed however, so I was faced with a row of shutters. 2 large back and white photos from the early 20th century showed how popular Roker beach used to be. The place had been packed. People strolled along the prom, others sat on their deck-chairs on the sands, while yet more holidaymakers paddled or swam in the sea. Ranks of tall, narrow changing- tents spread down the beach. Behind all this, the North Pier was also packed with people. Today the pier was empty, being fenced off by workmen carrying out repairs. That was a pity as I’d planned to stroll along it to get a closer look at its graceful, red and white striped lighthouse.

I left the lower promenade and climbed up to the upper level. Here was a rusty red Second World War naval mine ( 1940), now used to collect donations for “The Shipwrecked Mariners Society.” This had been founded in 1839 to help distressed sailors and their families. It claims to have helped over 1,000,000 people. On the side of the mine is the sad epitaph: ” There is sorrow on the sea.”

I was now in an area of the sea- front that used to be a military zone. In the world wars, big artillery guns were mounted there to help protect the entrance to the port. The beach would have been covered with barbed wire and the area patrolled by soldiers. Local people were moved back from the seafront and their houses turned into soldiers’ billets. This area, now known as Cliff park, had a series of defensive trenches dug across it during the time of the First World War. There had been guns at the ends of both piers. A badly faded map that I tried to decypher, referred mysteriously to a World War 1 U Boat and a torpedo battery, both just off the mouth of the Wear. Surveying the peaceful scene, I found it difficult to imagine all that menacing wartime activity. The gun posts have now been turned into seats.

Just across the green from the naval mine was what looked like an old Celtic  stone cross. It was on my heritage list. The cross was erected in 1904 in memory of one of the North-east’s most famous religious figures: The Venerable Bede. It had been paid for by public subscription, £300 having been raised in record time. Although fairly modern, the cross is decorated with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon style patterns and pictures. Birds, animals, leaves and berries are intertwined into swirling designs. The monk and scholar known as the Venerable Bede lived and worked at the nearby Church of St Peters 1300 years ago. This was one half of the famous Wearmouth-Jarrow Monastery, Jarrow being a little further north in South Tyneside. Bede was the greatest scholar of his day and wrote the first- ever history of  England, which is still in print.( “An Eccliessiastical History of the English People.”) On one side of the cross, scenes from Bede’s life have been carved, while on the other side are pictures of some of his important countrymen — Abbots and Kings. There is also an inscription honouring St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Bede’s Cross was dismantled and removed during both world wars to keep it safe. It was last re-erected in 1949.  I wander how many of today’s motorists or pedestrians notice it or give it a second thought as they hurry past. One good thing about being retired is having the time to stop and appreciate things.

Across the busy road from the cross is one of the upper entrances to Roker Park. A lower entrance is down by the beach and plunges one into a deep, dramatic ravine, which dissects the northern end of the park. I descended to a bridge which spanned  this ravine and looked down into a place that used to be the notorious haunt of smugglers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ravine has caves, one of which used to be the home of “Spottie”, an 18th century sailor whose ship was wrecked on the north-east coast.

The modern recreational park was opened in June, 1880 to cater for the many holidaymakers and residents of what had developed into the affluent suburb of Roker. It has all the usual amenities– a fine Victorian bandstand, a boating lake, floral displays, a miniature railway, a water fountain and a bowling green. As I pottered about, I spotted the surreal sight of Alice in Wonderland sitting on a low hedge in a bright, blue and white dress. Apparently Lewis Carrol had connections with Sunderland too. When I arrived at the lake there were no boats, it being out of season. A few strollers had stopped to feed the ducks or admire a couple of swans. However, it was what was happening in the middle of the lake that grabbed my attention. A workman was wading through the water, slowly gathering in a collection of large lamps that were sticking out of the water. His colleague stood on the shore trying to sort out a large tangle of electric cables. I was intrigued, so I asked the latter guy what was happening. It turned out that in late October and early November the boating lake had been the scene of a popular “sight and sound” show, which was part of Sunderland’s Illuminations. It seems that hordes of people had attended. The promenade had been lit up with sparkling displays and Bede’s Cross had shared its space on the sea-front with a lit-up big wheel, a traditional funfair and the inevitable food stalls. I wonder what the Venerable Monk would have made of it all?

Roker Park itself had been transformed into a Festival of Light with a Disney theme.( pass the sick bag please.) There were pirates, dinosaurs and fairies and other Disney characters. I know that a lot of people and especially children would have enjoyed it but I don’t see why all our entertainments have to be Americanised. The whole thing ended with a spectacular firework display on the seafront. It must have been great fun for some. Fantasy is our society’s great escape. I missed it all which is perhaps as well as I don’t like huge crowds. On the day I visited, all the excitement had evaporated and the crowds had disappeared. It was lovely and quiet. There was just me, a jogger, a couple of dog walkers and the council men clearing up. As a child I used to love our annual visits to Blackpool’s Illuminations but I have never been to Sunderland’s, even though I have lived in the North-east of England for nearly 40 years. Maybe next year…?

There were lots of big, nice houses in the area of the park. Roker is obviously one of Sunderland’s more prosperous areas. I walked on to St Andrews Church, which was next on my heritage list. Built in 1907, St Andrews is regarded as one of Britain’s finest early 20th century churches. It was also known as the “Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement” because of its beautiful, decorative interior. As I approached, my step quickened as I love buildings from that era. The church is very large and long, built of rather austere grey stone. It has a line of huge, arched windows and a crennalated tower that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a medieval castle. I looked forward to going in to see the famed interior. However, all that awaited me was a massive anti-climax. I couldn’t get in! The door was locked and when I rang the bell as a sign instructed me to do, no-one answered. The office was supposed to be open until 1pm and it was only 12-40. Obviously they had  knocked off early and done a runner, or whatever the term is. It was a big disappointment, but I’m already planning to return, after contacting St Andrews and making sure I’ll be able to get in next time. It’s always nice to have an excuse to go back.

The rest of my walk took me along the remaining  seafront to the mouth of the river. I then turned inland to walk the northern bank of the Wear back to Wearmouth Bridge and the city centre. I had done this walk before with my daughter on our long-distance trek down the coast of the old County of Durham. So it’s described  in my coastal walk blogs — the 2 piers, the sculpture trail, the marina, the National Glass Centre and Sunderland University. I enjoyed it all again, especially the series of shiny metal scultures showing a cormorant taking off from a small pier. I had lunch at the popular Snow Goose Cafe just by the marina. On the walls were old black and white photos and colourful tourist posters from Sunderland’s heyday. One of them, split down the middle, advertised the twin attractions of Seaburn and Roker Resorts with the slogan: “Gay and bright by day and night” It was obvously produced in a more innocent, less sexualised age! ( at least on the surface.)

So my day alone in Sunderland wasn’t so bad afterall. In fact it was very enjoyable. The weather was lovely and I saw lots of interesting things. Being on your own means you can go at your own pace and get lost in one’s own thoughts. And anyway, I wasn’t really alone. I got to talk to: the ticket inspector, the man at Middlesbrough station cafe, a dog walker on the prom, the councilworker in the park, the waitress at the Snow Goose Cafe and a lovely lady in the city centre who kindly directed me back to the station. I just stuck with that title because it sounded  dramatic, and I couldn’t resist playing the sympathy card! But rest assured, there’s no need to feel sorry for me —  I had a great day.

 

 

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?)