There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Shilin to Xingyi: Part 2 of China's Far Southwest

In the morning, we set off for Xingyi, three hours away and just across the border into Guizhou Province. Here we would part with Wang and Mr Ma and pick up a new guide and driver for the next part of the journey. As we left, the clouds parted, the sun shone and the temperature started to pick itself up from the floor.

This post is about a journey from Shilin in Yunnan Province to Xingyi in Guizhou
Setting off along another empty motorway, Wang started giving us dire warnings about the state of the roads in Guizhou, a province he regarded as at least ‘backward’ and quite possibly ‘primitive’. The three lanes of the excellent Yunnanese road were labelled – in English and Chinese – ‘Overtaking Lane’, ‘Main Carriageway’ and ‘Non-motor Vehicle Lane’. This third lane was well populated by ox-carts. The Chinese economic miracle is something of an urban event and oxen, clearly, still played an important part in the agriculture of relatively advanced, civilized Yunnan.

Mr Ma drove us past pointy Karst mountains, and terraced fields. Tobacco, the main crop, had just been harvested and the leaves could be seen drying on balconies. The small fields contained rice, which was just being cut, maize and many other vegetables we could not recognise.

Stooks of rice straw after harvesting, Yunnan Province
We entered Guizhou about 11 o’clock. Although the motorway did indeed end, we continued on a well-surfaced two-lane road.  Visiting China so often involves being whisked from one urban centre to another, and we were pleased to find ourselves in deep countryside winding through a series of agricultural villages. We overtook a string of packhorses hauling newly felled logs up to a village depot.

Ten kilometres short of Xingyi we joined a traffic jam caused by a village market. We left the car and walked down the street. While the traffic hooted and snarled in the centre of the road, the edge was lined with stalls of all kinds. There were fruit and vegetable stalls, baskets of live chickens...

Chicken in a basket, Village market near Xingyi, Guizhou
... and a trestle table laden with pieces of pig.

' a testle table laden with pieces of pig'
Village market near Xingyi, Guizhou
There were wads of tobacco like ginger wool and the strange local water pipes used to smoke it,... 

Smoking a water pipe, village market near Xingyi clothes and wooden ploughs and there were things we didn’t recognise or know the use for.

Ploughs on sale, village market near XIngyi
In urban China the time has long passed when foreigners were routinely stared at, but in this village Europeans features were still a novelty. One old man with a thin wispy beard stood in front of me, staring stony-faced. Realizing I was probably staring back I said, ‘Hello, ni hao, nice to meet you’ and stuck out my hand. He blinked and then his stare slowly turned into a beaming smile. He was a wizened old man, his Mao jacket hanging loosely on his thin frame, but the hand that shook mine was large and roughened by a lifetime’s hard work. I smiled back, not something my face does naturally, and wished him well. Unfortunately I had unwittingly ruined Lynne’s photograph by stepping in front of her subject, but I think it was worth it.

Tiguan were available at several stalls. They resemble turnips, except for apparently having a root at each end, but are actually a fruit that, like the peanut, grows underground. They are easily peeled with your fingers and although it is disconcerting to bite into something that looks like a raw root vegetable, they are sweet and juicy. They have a texture somewhere between water chestnut and apple and a flavour between apple and melon. The Chinese call them ‘underground watermelon’. I know of no English name; typing ‘tiguan’ into Google leads only to the Volkswagen Tiguan, which is not, I think, the same thing at all.

A cart full of Tiguan, Village market neat Xingyi, Guizhou
Xingyi is a strange shaped town, penned into a series of valleys between the karst hills. Entering through the industrial quarter it looked grim, but after a tunnel took us into the next valley, we found ourselves in a pleasanter if still down at heal central area. After much asking of directions, we eventually drove out to a posh recent extension on the town’s eastern edge.

Spice stall, village market near Xingyi, Guizhou
We had been looking, we discovered, for a particular eatery rather than a hotel, though when we found it, it seemed a small unexceptional family restaurant. We sat at a table, which had just been wiped with the usual filthy cloth and were handed a vacuum-packed plate, bowl and cup. It has become fashionable in the last year or two to take the crockery from the dishwasher – human or mechanical – and vacuum pack sets for each individual diner. It looks hygienic, maybe it is.

Wang took us into the kitchen and we chose some smoked beef, chicken, mushrooms and broad beans. It takes a remarkably small time to turn simple ingredients into dishes that are complex and full of flavour. When the food turned up, a huge bowl of soup and a dish of minced beef had been added to the order. Buying lunches was Wang’s responsibility and he felt the need to compensate for yesterday’s very moderate fare. ‘Never eat in hotels’ he said, ‘unless you have to.’ We knew how high the general standard of cooking in China is, but Wang wanted to prove a point, and we were delighted to let him.

With six dishes on the table, not to mention rice, Lynne, Mr Ma and I were full long before all the food had gone, but for some time after we had downed chopsticks Wang kept on picking a morsel from here and a bite from there as though he had not eaten for weeks. The driver thought it was as funny as we did but Wang just laughed along with us and kept picking away. He may have been slight, but he had a mighty appetite.
Well fed, we checked in to the nearby Haiyu Hotle (sic). The automatic doors had ‘Welcome’ etched on them, and less explicably ‘Feeling Sea Treasure’.

Our Guizhou guide, a rotund and eager young man, introduced himself as Dylan. ‘I was late for class the day English names were handed out, and it was the only one left.’ he explained. We never quite got the hang of his real name, so Dylan he remained.

We said goodbye to Wang, whose name was easier to cope with, and Mr Ma (Mister Horse) our cheerful and friendly driver and, a freshen up and a rest later, set out with Dylan to see Xingyi.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Kunming and The Stone Forest: Part 1 of China's Far Southwest

What follows is an extended and illustrated version of an email originally sent from Xingyi on 30/10/10

In The Stone Forest

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, China’s most southwesterly province, styles itself the ‘City of Eternal Spring’. We stepped out of the airport into an afternoon of cold, hard drizzle. Eternal Spring is, I suppose, much the same as Eternal Autumn, in a glass-half-empty sort of way, and at that moment Kunming looked a glass-half-empty sort of place; its 3.5 million shivering inhabitants apparently wandering around in search of somewhere warm.

We checked into our hotel and had a nap. After twenty-eight hours travelling and a seven-hour time change even the pneumatic drill in the adjacent building site could not keep us awake. Later we went for a recce to find an ATM and choose a restaurant for dinner before returning for a cup of tea, more rest and a discussion about what time the man with the drill might knock off work.

Bleary eyed and dog tired, but still eating -
what a guy!
Happily, drilling stopped before we went out. Most restaurants and many shops in Kunming are open-fronted and the main appeal of our selected restaurant was the wall between us and the elements. We sat down, eager to apply our limited knowledge of Chinese characters to the menu, only to discover there was no menu. Fortunately, our waitress rose to the occasion and led us into the busy kitchen. In one corner a young man wielding a fearsome cleaver sliced bacon from a large joint. Another youth twirled what seemed a lifetime’s supply of noodles in an immense wok using drumstick-sized chopsticks, one held in each hand. On a shelf at the side lay a selection of cabbages. We pointed at the bacon, cabbage and noodles and returned to our table.

Choosing the basic ingredients was one thing, but by the time they had been prepared, sauced and spiced they had, as so often in China, turned into a sophisticated and satisfying meal. For the first time that day we began to feel glad to be back in the country.

Next morning, wrapped up well, we set off to see the city. Finding a taxi is always easy, but today’s was the first we had encountered driven by a woman, and not only that but a woman who understood my verbal request to be taken to the Yuantong Buddhist temple – though she first felt the need to correct my pronunciation. The little bell hanging from her rear view mirror suggested she was herself a Buddhist. It ting-ed when she accelerated, it ting-ed when she braked and it ting-ed when she went round corners. Long before we reached the temple it had become quite an annoying little Buddhist bell.

' octagonal pavilion in a starlingly green pond...'
Yuantong Temple, Kunming
The most ‘important Buddhist site in north Yunnan’ is approached through an impressive marble archway, but we had to pick our way round a partially constructed new hall to find the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) temple. Beyond an incense burner an octagonal pavilion sits in a startlingly green pond. Circumnavigating the pond in the approved clockwise direction, we came across of group of pilgrims in a side room chanting as they processed round and round in single file. We stopped to listen and record before moving on to the main hall at the back. Here, two dragons support an ornate wooden ceiling over statues of the Buddha seated in front of faded thirteenth century frescoes. Behind the main hall is a newer, smaller pavilion where fearsome stone animals protect a gilded bronze Buddha donated by the Thai government.

All around people with burning incense sticks were kneeling before the Buddha and bowing in the cardinal directions. The Chinese are not a notably spiritual people – indeed Taoist devotion often seems entirely concerned with ensuring good luck - but Yuantong had a peaceful, even reverent air.

Having started in the north of the city, we walked southwards, through an area of modern apartment blocks and clean shops. We were heading for the Muslim quarter but found the promised maze of streets had been bulldozed and replaced by a shopping mall. A shiny new mosque stood next to an older Christian church dedicated to those who fell in the allied cause in the Second World War, 1937- 45. The Sino-Japanese conflict was an integral part of that war and it was a reminder that our 1939 ‘starting date’ is somewhat parochial and eurocentric.

'...crowned with a spire and a red star...'
Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming
The nearby Provincial Museum is crowned with a spire and a red star in the ‘Stalinist Gothic’ style we had only previously encountered in Russia. The museum should have been open, but the ticket office was deserted and the doors padlocked. Closer inspection, however, revealed another door hidden behind an advertisement for the ‘Accounting through the Ages’ exhibition. Inside, a notice told us that today the museum was free.

The journey from tally sticks to double entry booking was less than riveting, particularly told in a language I was too ignorant to read. The centrepiece was an elaborate cowry box, dating back to the Dian Kingdom, which ruled Yunnan two thousand years ago and used shells for money. Upstairs a much more interesting collection of Dian artefacts; bronze weapons, agricultural implements, grave goods and more cowry boxes, gave a fascinating insight into life in Yunnan’s earliest civilization.

The east pagoda, Kunming
Further south, we huddled on a bench in an open fronted restaurant. Choosing a dish of beef and chillies was easy, but ordering it presented a problem. It is well known by all educated Chinese that no Westerner likes spicy food, so the girl kept pointing at the symbol for chillies (one of the few we actually know) and I kept nodding my head and saying ‘yes’. Eventually she gave in and we enjoyed an excellent - and distinctly spicy - lunch.

Continuing our progress, we visited two Tang Dynasty (618-1206) pagodas, standing fifty metres apart near the city centre. Despite their age, they are neither beautiful nor particularly interesting. One stands in a small garden, the other beside an alleyway. There is little more to be said.

By this time we were flagging, so we taxied the rest of way to our hotel. We sat in the warm, had a cup of tea and listened to the pneumatic drill

Later, after a bowl of warming soup in another cold, open-fronted restaurant, we met Wang, our guide for the next day’s journey to The Stone Forest, and drove to the theatre.

Dynamic Yunnan - some of the cast
The Chinese government recognises fifty-five ethnic minorities living alongside the Han majority, many of them in the southwest. ‘Dynamic Yunnan’ is a performance extravaganza based on the traditional dance, music and costumes of the local minorities. Choreographed by the ‘world famous’ Yang Liping the show has toured China, Europe and the USA. It was certainly very professional with a lot of high energy dancing, screechy singing and very loud drums. The brochure quotes the New York Times on Yang Liping’s Peacock Princess Dance: ‘she dances so fluently like a spirit from nature, using her slim figure, extending her arms, fingers and legs, resembling a youth full of live (sic).’ She was extraordinarily graceful, but my first reaction on seeing a woman that thin is to administer an emergency bowl of noodles, not watch her dance.

It was not raining when we came out, so we walked back. Watching people bedding down in doorways, reminded us how fortunate we were to have a warm hotel room waiting.

The drive to Shilin (literally: Stone Forest) took a couple of hours. The roads were motorway standard and, once we had left the city, largely empty. Kunming’s spring-like (or autumnal) climate is the result of its warm southerly location and its 1800 metre altitude. Our journey through rich agricultural land involved a number of long straight descents and we passed several lorries with smoke billowing from their brakes.

Despite the drop in height, the temperature remained unchanged. At Shilin we checked into the only hotel and found our room had cooling but no heating. We mentioned this to Wang, then repaired to the unheated restaurant, which was full of tour parties from Korea, Taiwan and France. The food was mass catering and the duck was lukewarm but one dish was truly remarkable. Traditionally the Chinese have not used dairy products. In recent years, milk has been promoted as a health drink and is now frequently consumed at breakfast, but butter and cheese are unknown – except in Yunnan. The Yi (pronounced ‘jerr’) ethnic minority make China’s one and only cheese and Shilin is a Yi village. We ate a hard goat’s milk cheese pleasantly similar to Ribblesdale. The most exceptional thing about Yi cheese is that it is unexceptional.

The Great Stone Forest
Approaching Shilin the quality of the farmland had deteriorated and we had seen many fields containing tall stones, clustered like conferring menhirs. The National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers 350 km² but at its heart, the Great Stone Forest is an area of stones, typically 4 or 5 metres high, crowding together like trees in a forest. It is an extreme example of Karst geology and a truly extraordinary sight.

Threading our way through the stones on well-made paths, there were corners that looked like the approach to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ at Disneyland, and we had to keep reminding ourselves that that was fake and this was real. The crowds were reminiscent of Disneyland, too. We think of tourism in China as involving Europeans, Americans or Australians, but one by-product of the Chinese economic miracle has been the explosion in home grown tourism. The few Westerners were vastly outnumbered by the Chinese visitors who arrived on tour buses in their thousands, each group obediently following its flag-wielding leader who kept up a running commentary via a portable loud speaker strapped to their waist.

''the Chinese do so like a crowd...'
Shilin Stone Forest
The Chinese do so like a crowd, but Wang led us along quieter paths, past limpid pools and up low hills where we could see the forest without having to listen to five competing commentaries. In China there is always a crowd – and nearby there is always somewhere quiet and peaceful.

The 'Shadows' Walk'
Shilin Stone Forest
This area was once farmed by the Yi, and a difficult task they had wresting a living from this stony land. There is little or no farming in Shilin now. There is plenty of work for attractive young women who dress up in brightly coloured traditional costume and act as guides. Every Chinese tour group acquires one, though what they can tell them that their voice-amplified, flag-toting commissars cannot is a mystery. Older women work as photographers, snapping each member of a tour party in front of their chosen rock. Their menfolk park their motorbikes on the nearby road (‘they’ve got better bikes than me’ said Wang with a touch of envy) and rush the camera cards to the printers in the village, returning before the group leaves the forest. Every tourist carries their own digital camera, but for reasons deep within the Chinese psyche, the business thrives. Elsewhere, four young men strummed three-string guitars while strutting ‘The Shadows’ Walk’ (for those old enough to remember) and a group of girls danced a homespun excerpt from ‘Dynamic Yunnan’. The older and less comely members of the Yi community can be observed in dirtier and less colourful versions of traditional dress, sweeping away litter or hacking back vegetation, but you are not supposed to notice them.

Undoubtedly most of the Yi in Shilin are financially better off and have much easier lives than they did before the tourists came. Perhaps they sometimes wonder how living in a World Heritage Site came to destroy their heritage. I have no idea if they ever regret it.

We returned to the hotel to find a heater had been placed in our room. Whether any of the other guests had one, we do not know and decided not to ask.

Friday, 22 October 2010


With our fifth trip to China imminent, it seems an appropriate moment to write a paragraph or two about Huizhou, the city that started it all. Huizhou is pronounced 'way-jo'; pedants and scholars might care that the first syllable is second (rising) tone while the 'jo' is third (falling-rising). My inability to cope with tones doubtless accounts for the incomprehension that greets any attempt to deploy my very limited Mandarin vocabulary.
The Xiapu district of Huizhou.
Siân & James lived on the nth floor of one of these blocks

Huizhou has less than a handful of sites to attract tourists. Although it is hardly remote, 160 km east of Guangzhou and 60 km north east of Hong Kong, few foreigners ever visit; perhaps that is the best reason for going there. If you want to watch the Chinese going about their business undistorted by the mirror of mass tourism, then Huizhou is the place to go. If you want to see the Chinese economic miracle in a small city on the edge of the Special Economic Zone, then there is no better place than Huizhou. If you want to relax somewhere inexpensive surrounded by lakes and parks, then I recommend Huizhou.

Ren Ren Le, Huizhou's main supermarket
A city of 500 000 people is only a dot on the map by Chinese standards, though Huizhou is the capital of a prefecture of several million. Looking south and west from the upper floors of the Noble Jasper Hotel, it is possible to see the steep, wooded hills that mark the city’s edge. In other directions, the urban sprawl of Guangdong Province is more persistent.

Sitting on the confluence of two rivers and wrapped around two lakes, Huizhou is a city of water. Strolling round Nan Hu (South Lake) you can watch old men playing Chinese chess or listen to impromptu concerts, while in the early mornings half the population turns out for their daily exercises. Some merely stand among the shrubs twirling their arms, others practise the slow controlled movements of Tai Chi, while a group of ladies lunge and parry in carefully choreographed swordplay.

Choreographed swordplay by South Lake, Huizhou

The area surrounding the larger lake, Xi Hu (West Lake, no expense was spared in the naming) was laid out as a park during the Song dynasty (10th and 11th centuries). For a few Yuan you may stroll among the gardens, see a statue of the poet/administrator Su Dongpo and climb a wooden pagoda. From the top there is a fine view over the lake and the five-hundred-metre causeway that crosses it. The numerous right angle turns deny demons access to the central pavilion, while the small, marble humpback bridge was built by Su Dongpo in 1096.

West Lake, Huizhou
In 2004 I had never heard of Huizhou. Our daughter Siân, with a freshly minted MA in her hand and uncertainty as to what to do with it in her head, decided it might be interesting to go somewhere and teach English. With the whole world to chose from, Huizhou was where she and boyfriend James found jobs. They stayed a year, came home and got married, then returned for six months. Lynne and I visited twice, using Huizhou as a jumping off point for trips further north and west, and as a point of return before heading back to Hong Kong and thence home. It is special to us because Siân lived there, and because it was the first Chinese city we stayed in, its calmness a relief after the aggressive chaos of Shenzhen’s Lo Wu bus station.

Keeping Huizhou tidy

In Huizhou, under Siân’s tutelage, we learned how to survive as foreigners in China. We learned about buses and the etiquette of taxis and discovered that you can walk into the most basic restaurant, or occupy a table outside what seems only a hole in the wall and not only will you not be poisoned, but you will be served a meal that is skilfully cooked, full of flavour and extraordinarily cheap.

Frog cooked in a big leaf, Huizhou

The climate in August is far from ideal. It is certainly warm enough, the temperature reaching the low thirties, but it is usually overcast and often raining. Occasionally there is a storm, sometimes a typhoon. Even on sunny days the air is laden with moisture and to avoid being bathed in sweat you learn to walk slowly. Most things in Huizhou happen slowly, even the traffic.

West Lake, the pagoda from the middle of the lake, Huizhou
The city is nothing special, but it sowed the seeds of an obsession with China that has seen us return again and again. Despite the weather, I like the place.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Sofia and the Master of Boyana

Sofia, Goddess of Wisdom

When it comes to city breaks, normal people go to Paris or Rome or Barcelona. Wonderful as these places are, we decided that for spring 2007 Sofia would be the perfect destination. Are we a little odd? Possibly, but although only a blinkered Bulgarian nationalist would claim that Sofia was one of Europe’s great cities, it has more than enough to occupy a long weekend.

I enjoy visiting places where no one speaks English and it is a bonus if the alphabet is unfamiliar. Goodwill and the local words for ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are ample for survival.

 I am not proud of my ignorance, but we have, so far, practised illiteracy in Arabic, Chinese, Armenian, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. We made an effort with Cyrillic, but reading remained slow and painful. Sounding out words letter by letter was an experience I had not enjoyed since Mrs Knight’s class in 1957. When the words made sense (like spelling out кафе еспресо and arriving at café espresso) the sense of achievement was profound. Being barely literate was an improvement on our situation in some countries, but the Bulgarians throw in a unique confusion by nodding for ‘no’ and shaking their heads for ‘yes’. Aware that they are out of step, some Bulgarians helpfully revert to European standard when dealing with foreigners. At that point you are truly lost.

Getting fed in Sofia hardly requires a linguistic genius. The Bulgarians are grazers and street food is available in quantity, if not always quality. The best, a full range of the baklava-like filo pastry, nut and honey desserts normally associated with Greece or Turkey, we found in the Halite market near our hotel. The worst, Doner Kebabs (another reminder that the Eastern Mediterranean is not far away) were everywhere - and the less said about the pizzas the better.

The city has remarkably few restaurants for its size. It is possible that we ate in some of the best, though prices were modest by Western standards. Bulgaria has no great culinary tradition, but we were impressed by cooking that was not complex, but respected the high quality and freshness of the ingredients. Once or twice we encountered bilingual menus, which caused the usual amusement. Lynne ordered a dish of ‘lambkin’ mainly because of the translation, and was rewarded with a pile of small and deliciously tender lamb chops. Bulgarian wines, once apparently set to dominate the British market and now almost disappeared, combined high quality with minimal cost. As aniseed lovers we also enjoyed mastika, which looks like ouzo but tastes more like pastis. Salad is the universal first course, and with that it is customary to drink rakiya, a colourless brandy. All restaurants offer a range, based on grape variety, and served in a tulip glass on a tall thin stem. It seemed an unusual way to start a meal, but the Bulgarians having been doing this for generations, and a little experimentation suggested they know a thing or two.

Boulevard Vitosha, Sofia
Sofia seemed in good repair, with the assortment of boulevards, parks and fountains that are mandatory for a capital city. Mount Vitosha, still snow covered in late April, could be seen from almost everywhere, bringing a sense of openness to the city. Traffic was orderly, though the cars tended towards the venerable. Bulgarian registration plates were often stuck over German or Austrian plates, suggesting the cars had been imported second hand. I hesitate to comment on fashion - with good reason - but even I noticed that much clothing looked cheap and poorly made, some young women adopting a style we also saw in Russia which I can only describe as 'streetwalker chic'.

First settled by the Thracian Serdi tribe, the city became Serdica under the Romans, Triaditsa when part of the Byzantine Empire and then Sredets under the Slavs who renamed it Sofia in the fourteenth century.

The Rotunda of St George, Sofia
The Roman Rotunda of St George is the oldest church in Sofia and contains some interesting and ancient icons. Although a pleasing little building, it has suffered from over-enthusiastic restoration.

The Aleksandar Nevski Church, Sofia
The Aleksandar Nevski Church, completed in 1924, is neither old nor small. Squatting like an enormous toad, it dominates its eponymous square and the surrounding gardens. It is impressive, according to some the finest building in the Balkans, though I found it difficult to like. Inside it is dark and sombre. The large pewless space - Orthodox congregations stand or kneel - is sufficient for 5000 worshippers, though the only activity we witnessed was an old man vigorously pushing a broom.

The Banya Bashi Mosque, Sofia
Other religions have equally monumental accommodation. After five hundred years of Ottoman rule, it unsurprising that the Banya Bashi (Big Bath) Mosque is large and prominent. It is still used by today’s much smaller Muslim community. It stands in front of the thermal baths, the Banya Bashi themselves, which were closed for renovation. The warm, brackish water is available from taps in the square. Locals cart it away in buckets, but I contented myself with washing my hands.

Less than 100m away, the bulky synagogue is now disused. Bulgaria backed the wrong side in 1939, but deliberate procrastination in the rounding up of Jews, meant that most of Bulgaria’s Jewish population survived, although emigration to Israel means the community is now virtually extinct.

Compared to its religious monuments, Sofia’s secular buildings are low key. The presidential palace is modest, more a presidential apartment. Two guards, in the sort of uniform favoured for such tasks, are changed periodically in a goose-stepping display that sometimes has to weave between passers-by. Parliament sits in an unassuming building behind an equestrian statue of Prince Aleksandar Battenberg. A nephew of Tsar Alexander II of Russia he became the first modern ruler of an independent Bulgaria in 1879, after his uncle helped drive out the Ottomans. Deposed in 1886, he was exiled in Austria, returning to Bulgaria only to be buried. Just round the corner from parliament, the Battenberg Mausoleum is disappointing. I had hoped it would be covered in marzipan.

Monument to the Soviet Army, Sofia
Now a member of the EU and NATO, Bulgaria seems in denial about its more recent history. The Communist Party headquarters may once have been described as forbidding, but now resembles any other government office block. The monument to the Soviet liberators stands in a park.  With the impressive backdrop of Mt Vitosha, a soviet soldier on a pillar heroically protects a peasant, a woman and a child. Below, skateboarders weave across the flagstones, and part of the park has been boarded off, leaving ample scope for charmless graffiti. It has a sad, neglected air.

The embalmed remains of five* communist leaders have been put on show for their adoring public. Stalin’s body was removed decades ago, but we have seen Lenin and Chairman Mao and hope to visit Ho Chi Minh one day ['one day' turned out to be March the 31st 2012. See here]. Georgi Dimitrov, who ran Bulgaria from 1946 until his death in 1949 was the fifth. Sadly, we were too late to see him. His body was moved to the city cemetery in 1990 and his mausoleum demolished ten years later. We stood on the now vacant site and wondered at the folly of humankind.

If all these sights seem a touch mundane, Sofia does have one little known trump card. The tiny church of Boyana is not only a World Heritage Site, it is an unexpected gem that left me slack jawed with amazement.

Boyana is, theoretically, a suburb of Sofia, but we had left the city for the wooded slopes of Mount Vitosha before the taxi dropped us outside the entrance to a small churchyard. Just a little concerned as to how we might get back, we bought tickets and collected an elderly guide who seemed delighted by an opportunity to practice his English.

Boyana Church
The eastern part of the church is a tiny tenth century chapel. The larger central part was added in the same style three hundred years later.  In the nineteenth century, an even larger lobby was built on the west end. I cannot imagine who thought that was a good idea. From outside it looks like a charming medieval church ruined by nineteenth century meddling, but the real glory of Boyana lies within.

We entered the darkened lobby and waited for our eyes to adjust. Then the main church was unlocked and we stepped into an interior completely covered in frescoes. Some of the work in the older chapel is crude and medieval, but it is the new extension, painted in 1279, that takes away the breath.  The chapel is circular and we stood in the centre, turning slowly to absorb the wealth of detail. The work of a man known, until recently, only as the ‘Master of Boyana’, it represents a break with the flat-faced icons of Byzantine orthodoxy and forms a stepping-stone between medieval art and the Italian renaissance. Recent renovation has revealed that the painter’s name was probably Vasiliy, but I think he should still be known as the Master of Boyana, because that is what he was.

Biblical characters are depicted in medieval dress, the last supper is Bulgarian peasant fair of radishes, garlic and bread. The figures are so lifelike you expect them to move, and each has a real face, probably recognisable to the people of the time, that would pass unremarked in the streets of Sofia today. The king and queen are shown with haloes, and Boyana’s patrons, the Sebastocrator Kaloyan and his wife Desislava hold the church in their hands. ‘Sebastocrator’ is a Byzantine designation meaning ‘venerable ruler’. Kaloyan is the only Bulgarian known to have used the title, which I find strange. If I had been a medieval Bulgarian nobleman, I would have fought anybody and everybody to be able to style myself ‘sebastocrator’.

The lighting is dim and the temperature and humidity controlled for conservation purposes. We were allowed ten minutes, which was not enough. Photography is not permitted, but clicking on this link gives an idea of the interior. The camera rotates, just as we did, to reveal painting after highly coloured painting.

We had been the only visitors, but as we left, a taxi drew up bringing two more and solving our problem of how to return to the city. Like so many places, Boyana could be ruined by too many visitors, but at present it receives far fewer than it deserves.

No, Sofia is not one of Europe’s great cities, but does it provides a fascinating glimpse into the Slavic, Balkan world not so far to our east. It was also the home of the Master of Boyana, and that is almost worth the trip on its own.

* Update - there were, I learn, six. Klement Gottwald, President of Czechoslovakia was on display in Prague from his death in 1953 until 1962. At that point the authorities discovered their embalming technique was not as good as they thought. The mouldy and rather smelly Mr Gottwald was then cremated.

Further Update. Make that 8. We saw Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2013

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Algarve: Depredations and Delights

First published on the 6th of October 2010, this post now has several updates and many later pictures
Links are to other Algarve posts on this blog

The unhealthily pale old man and the sea, Algarve Oct 2010
We have just returned from our seventeenth [24th as of October 2017] trip to the Algarve. It was simply a holiday; unless you hail from Ulan Bator or the Kamchatka Peninsula it is impossible to pretend you are a traveller in southern Portugal, there are only locals, expatriates and tourists.

It was different thirty years ago when my father retired and bought a house by a golf course in the new development of Vale do Lobo. In 1982 we drove through the scruffy town of Almançil, skirted a sun blasted vineyard and passed several shepherds watching their grazing flocks before reaching the half finished ‘luxury resort’. There we left Portugal and entered never-never land. It is a long time now since that road has seen a shepherd. New villas, a dozen restaurants, an outbreak of tennis courts and a chic garden centre jostle for space where once there was only dust. Freshly painted Almançil is today packed with estate agents’ offices, banks and golf equipment shops. The N125 – the main road running the length of the Algarve - by-passed the town centre long ago and has itself been reduced to the status of a country road by the construction of the A22 motorway. Val do Lobo is no longer half finished, but runs into Dunas Douradas, which runs into Quinta de Lago, equally upmarket but becoming more and more characterless with each successive building phase.

That house on a golf course and a much younger me
Val do Lobo, April 1992
And it is not just this corner of the Algarve that has seen the developer’s bulldozers. Villas have sprouted from Vila Real on the Spanish border to Sagres in the west, leaving only windswept Cape St Vincent untouched. New resorts like Vilamoura and Praia de Rocha have sprung up, while old fishing towns like Albufeira and Quateira have blossomed into major holiday centres.

My parents’ house was sold years ago, and Lynne and I now rent a comfortable ground floor apartment with a pleasant garden in Carvoeiro. Situated in a narrow ravine running down to a beach that is little more than a breach in the cliffs, Carvoeiro has managed to retain more of a village feel than its larger neighbours. But even here, in defiance of geography, villas have climbed the walls of the ravine and spread along the cliff tops. In the streets you hear more English and German than Portuguese and in the summer the locals, as in much of the Algarve, are a minority in their own town. Even in winter there is no relief as the extensive and largely grey-haired expatriate community – British, German, Dutch, Irish, Scandinavian – avoid the rigours of the Northern winter in a region where frost is virtually unknown and even in January temperatures reach 17°.

Carvoeiro Beach
It is not just their languages the tourists bring with them, it is also their food. Carvoeiro’s out of town supermarket sells sliced white bread, baked beans and marmite. The village boasts an ‘English Restaurant’ and other establishments offer ‘all day English breakfast’ or ‘traditional Sunday roasts.’ ‘Pubs’ sell beer to foreigners and entertain them with all the premiership football matches that Sky Sport can provide.

And do the locals complain? They must do, it is human nature, but they do so quietly and among themselves. Within a generation tourism has turned the Algarve from a forgotten backwater of Western Europe’s poorest country into a thriving, prosperous province with a quality of life outsiders envy.

In the 1980s old ladies wore black dresses and thick woollen stockings. Little black trilbies - always a size too small – perched on their heads and were secured by a scarf tied beneath the chin. Picking one’s way through the potholes - a major feature of any road other than the N125 (and of that, too, west of Lagos) – the sight of horses pulling brightly painted traditional carts was commonplace. Back then, the carts were painted, but little else was. Buildings were usually grubby and dilapidated, chipped azulejo tiles and sagging roofs were normal. Now the black dresses, trilbies, potholes and carts have gone. Even the remotest village has a good road, and the houses are gleaming with white paint; tiled façades are grouted and washed, one wall often painted in a pastel blue or pink.

The old cuboid fishermans' cottages of Olhão, now all smart and clean (2010).
There are improvements every year. Loulé market, traditionally our first port of call from the airport, was closed in 2006 and 2007. It reopened in a bright, clean and airy new building. Everything was back as it was, only its soul was missing. Between 2008 and 2009 the centre of Carvoeiro was extensively remodelled. Even this year, when Portugal has theoretically run out of money for public works, we arrived to find Loulé’s main thoroughfare closed and workmen busy laying the grey cubical cobbles that are Portugal’s favoured surface for pedestrian areas.

Carcoeiro's new centre (Oct 2009)

I preferred the old unimproved Algarve, the Algarve that did not pander to north European tastes, the Algarve where it was possible to feel like a traveller not merely a holidaymaker. I must not be unreasonable, deprivation may not have been abolished but you have to look hard to find it, and I cannot expect people to live in picturesque poverty to please me. But something has been lost in the process.

So if the Algarve has been comprehensively built over and ruined, why do we continue to visit? Why have we been there every year for the last eleven years? [18 years as of Nov 2017]

Because despite the depredations of the developers, despite the efforts of those tourists who arrive in a foreign country and try to make it exactly like the one they just left, most of what made the Algarve great remains intact.

Maria’s restaurant, which has stood on the beach at Dunas Douradas for over thirty years, provides a fine example. In the early nineties, as the picture shows, we approached the then isolated beach hut via a cliff top path. By 2000, erosion required us to take a route through woods behind. One year we arrived to find building plots staked out among the pines and a year later Maria’s had become fully integrated into the urbanizacão.

The path to Maria's in 1992

In 2008, we went there after our first visit to the newly reopened Loulé market. ‘I expect,’ I said, in jest while driving through Dunas Douradas, ‘we’ll find Maria’s has been knocked down and rebuilt, too.’ And, of course, it had. The old wooden hut had been replaced by a new structure, still wooden, but no longer a hut.
Until 2008 Maria's was a hut, then this happened
What has never changed, though, is the quality of the food. Maria’s grilled squid, so fresh it could almost swim, so perfectly cooked the flesh is firm, yet yielding. Served with boiled potatoes, a glass of white wine and a view of the sun sparkling on the sea, it is a simple yet deeply satisfying pleasure. [Sadly, Maria's changed hands and name in 2012. The magic went and we no longer go there].

Maria's same food in a smart new building (Oct 2011)
The year before Maria's sad demise

And then there is the climate. The Algarve enjoys more sunshine than anywhere else in Europe and in autumn, when we usually visit, the temperatures reach a pleasant 25°. A laze on the beach and a dip in the sea are quite possible well into November. Then, just as autumn becomes chilly, spring arrives; there is no winter. But it is not only temperatures. The gentle blueness of the sky and the extraordinary quality of the light lift the soul, while the white painted buildings shimmer in the sun, and bougainvillea trails a purple blaze across the walls.

Bougainvillea on a vila in Carvoeiro - its not all purple (2010)

The very air is a delight. I know of no other country where it is a pleasure simply to breath. The scented air is obvious from the moment you step from the plane, even over the jet fuel smells of the airport. Wafts of scent pass over you everywhere, and if you become habituated during the day, just walking into the early morning garden provides an instant reminder that you are living somewhere special.

Ferragudo 2007
To get away from the coastal strip and drive along a country road is a journey among delights. Nothing matches an orange orchard in spring, but the warm woods - eucalyptus, figs, olives, pines, and, higher up, the gnarled cork oaks - are a pleasure to the eye and nose in every season. Huge cactuses and prickly pears cling to old walls and villages bask in the sun.

Away from the coast and off the beaten track, October 2011

‘Traditional Sunday roast’ may be available, but the overwhelming majority of the Algarve’s many hundreds of restaurants are more tipico, specialising in fish as fresh as it can only be within minutes of the fishing port. After so many visits we have inevitably developed favourites. Sardines are always eaten at Dona Barca in Portimão. The décor is functional - they retain the once typical long communal tables - the fish are barbecued outside in the square and the prices are low enough to be reminiscent of the good old days.

Sardines at Dona Barca with Mike and Alison (Oct 2016)
I am delighted to say that since we first ate here in 2003, the prices have risen (but not by much) and nothing else has changed. Why should it when they are packed on a Thursday lunchtime
At Dois Irmão in Faro, another venerable restaurant, I usually chose the pork and clams, an Algarve speciality, while Lynne opts for the grilled cuttlefish. Somewhat exceptionally, these restaurants are frequented by locals as much as tourists.

Lynne and a cuttle fish Dois Irmão, Faro (Oct 2013)

Elsewhere the fish of the day – usually sea bass, or golden bream - is reliably excellent as are swordfish or tuna steaks. Fish stews and cataplanas using the wonderful Portuguese refogado based on olive oil, tomatoes and garlic should not be ignored, nor should chicken piri-piri. Salt cod - the local staple - is also worth a try. I shudder at cafés offering ‘all day English breakfast’, but mainly I feel sorry for their customers. When it comes to the pleasures of the table, the Algarve ranks with the best in the world.

Fish Cataplana, Restaurant Vimar, Carvoeiro Oct 2011

You do not have to eat in restaurants to eat well. Every town and village has a market selling the freshest of fish. Chourição (sausage) and presunto (air dried ham) are wonderful, the scrawny looking chickens have more meat than you could imagine and taste like chicken used to. There are olives and salted almonds which go down so well with a glass of port, as do the cheeses which range from the mildest, youngest goat curd, to curado cheeses matured to a rich stinkiness.

A light lunch of Chourição, Cheese and salad
Portugal’s inexplicably underrated wines are available at all prices from negligible to eye-watering. Even the wines of the Algarve, long ignored (and with good reason), are improving. I am not a Cliff Richard fan, but his Quinta do Cantor has started a trend that is benefiting producers and drinkers alike.

It may be grossly overdeveloped, but nothing can change the sunshine and the scented air and nothing has changed the Algarve people themselves. Quiet and unassuming, without the tendency to arrogance of their Spanish neighbours, they treat the vast occupying army of tourists with good humour and courtesy. With rare exceptions they deal honestly and fairly with all – which cannot be easy, given the profound ignorance and ingrained idiocy of some tourists. For all its imported faults, the heart of the Algarve still beats strongly. As long as there are squids at Marias in the sea we will return and return again. [OK, Maria's went 5 years ago, but we are still coming back. Martin's in Carvoeiro grills a pretty fair squid]

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