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…..

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Out to Lunch in Corsica, Tamil Nadu and the Western Desert

I do like eating. I also have a sad tendency to photograph my lunch, or have myself photographed eating it, or to photograph my companions eating theirs. It may be mildly weird, but it is (probably) nothing to be ashamed of, so here come three lunches Lynne and I have enjoyed in various places at various times.

Spiny Lobster, Cargèse, Corsica, July 2006

It is hard to believe this blog has reached its 77th post and this is the first mention of our nearest neighbour. We have probably been to France more often than any other country, but we have visited less often of late, being seduced by more exotic locations - Vietnam, coming up next month - or previously unexplored parts of Europe - The Baltics last year, the Balkans next May.

And now I have turned my attention to France, it is not to the mainland but to the beautiful if occasionally rebellious island of Corsica. I cannot be certain that Corsica is the only unspoiled Mediterranean island left, but I know of no others. Corsica has its own language (though everybody speaks French too) and its own very distinctive cuisine.

Cargèse, on the west coast of Corsica
Unusually for an island, the traditional Corsican diet did not involve fish. With the low lying east coast a malarial swamp and the rocky west coast plagued by pirates the Corsicans turned their backs on the sea and lived among the mountains. The chestnut forests provided their flour and polenta, the sheep provided their pungent cheeses, several of which the UN have officially designated as WMD, and their meat came from the demi-sauvage black pigs which roam everywhere - and from wild boar in the hunting season.

Pirates and malaria, though, are problems long banished - from the Mediterranean, a least. The island’s capital is no longer the hill town of Corte, but the port of Ajaccio, and seafood has joined pork on the island's dinner tables.  In the small coastal town of Cargèse, some 30 km north of Ajaccio, spiny lobster features on the menu of every restaurant. It is never cheap, two spiny lobsters and a bottle of Corsica’s crisp, clean dry rosé cost over €100, but it is good to treat yourself occasionally. And you do at least get a long lunch for your money; it takes time to ferkle out all the meat from the various parts of the crustacean, even using the special ferkling instruments provided.

About to tackle a spiny lobster

It is a weird looking beast with plenty of spines, but no claws. It may be the size and – very roughly – the shape of a lobster but it actually tastes more like a crab – and that is no bad thing.

South Indian Thali, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Feb 2009

Most of the citizens of India’s southernmost states are vegetarian, and a Thali is a perfect introduction to the local cuisine. A thali consists of a tray holding several (in this case eleven) small metal bowls each containing a different vegetable curry. Rice and a poppadum or chapatti are dumped in the middle, the rice being replenished as often as required. Thali is available everywhere and costs anything from 50 to 500 rupees. The quality of the food varies little, the difference relates to the surroundings in which you eat. More upmarket restaurants will also sell beer but elsewhere you make do with a bottle of water. For a little extra upmarket restaurants offer meat or fish thalis, which means a slice of meat or fish is balanced on top of the rice. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with most vegetarian dishes cannot be improved by a slice of ham, but thalis are an exception to that rule; they are absolutely complete in themselves and need nothing extra.

Eating a Thali, Paristhuram Hotel restaurant, Thanjavur
Posh enough for a beer and a table cloth, humble enough to be cheap

It is not always entirely clear what the vegetables are, partly because many are unfamiliar, and partly because they are less important than the spices. The difference in spicing from bowl to bowl, the richness of the combinations and the subtlety in variation is a delight. One bowl usual contains what might be called a dessert, often tapioca sweetened with jaggery and laced with cardamom.  I remember being given tapioca pudding as a child and hating it; it has long disappeared from the menus of childhood but if it had only been this way, then things might have been different.

Lunch at Cleopatra’s Restaurant, Bawiti, Egypt, Nov 2009

Bawiti is the main settlement in the Bahariya Oasis some 360 km across the Western Desert from Cairo.

The morning commute, Bawiti

Apparently Cleopatra runs a restaurant there now, which must be less stressful than being Queen of Egypt. It is not a big restaurant - indeed this is the only table - nor does it have much of a menu, offering a choice of ‘meat or chicken.’ There is also rice and potatoes, salad and bread. No one would accuse the cooking of being complex or innovative, it is simple stuff but done as well as simple stuff can be.

The table at Cleopatra's Restaurant, Bawiti
Lynne with Mohammed (our driver, near camera) and Araby (linguist, egyptologist and all round good egg)

The vegetables we buy at Tescos - or wherever - are varieties bred to look good, be disease resistant and of a consistent size. They are then treated to ensure they have the maximum possible shelf life. Nowhere in the process is consideration given to how they might taste. I have no idea where Cleopatra’s patron buys his supplies, it may or may not be the El (or Al) Senbad Supermarket, but wherever it is, it is somewhere that lacks the ‘benefits’ of Tescoid civilization. His potatoes tasted like potatoes, his cucumbers like cucumbers and his tomatoes were not just a glass of water in a shiny red skin.

El Senbad Supermarket, Bawiti

Friday, 10 February 2012

Three Favourite Synagogues: Krakow, Kochi (Cochin) and Sofia

Synagogues are different from the other places of worship in this series. Churches, mosques and temples maybe dedicated to to the glory of God, but they are most usually built by the powerful to demonstrate their wealth and power. Other than in present day Israel, Jews have always been a minority. Synagogues have not been built by the powerful, and there has always been a feeling, even in times of security, that an ostentatious synagogue would be a hostage to fortune.

We have come across surprisingly few synagogues in our travels, and even fewer that welcomed visitors. We have been inside only two (two of the three in this post) and neither were functioning synagogues. But this little thread on religious buildings would be incomplete without them, and they so often have interesting, or terrible, stories to tell.

1) The Old Synagogue, Kazimierz, Krakow, Poland

In medieval times Jewish and Polish citizens of Krakow lived together peaceably. Relations deteriorated in the 15th century and in 1495 the Jews were expelled from Krakow and sent to the nearby city of Kazimierz. The Old Synagogue, built soon after, is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. Damaged by fire in 1557, it was promptly reconstructed in Renaissance style.

Lynne outside the Old Synagogue

 Krakow expanded and absorbed Kazimierz, which became a Jewish suburb. Co-existence was sometimes more, sometimes less peaceful, at least until 1939.

The Old Synagogue is now the Museum of History and Culture of Krakow Jewry. It charts a steady progress from the middle ages to the early 20th century. The later pictures show prosperous and confident people, pillars of Krakow society. The people in the pictures had no idea how the story would end, those of us looking at them could think of little else.

Next day we went to Auschwitz; you can read about that here. We revisited Kazimierz that evening. The Jewish community numbered 70 000 in 1939, today there are 150. With Krakow’s tourist boom Kazimierz is enjoying a renaissance and restaurants serving Jewish food surround the old square. We sat outside the Café Ariel eating jellied carp and tcholent stew. It was Friday and men wearing yarmulkas strolled in the square greeting friends. As dusk fell they drifted towards one or other of the two remaining synagogues. I wondered why they had stayed in Krakow, but I had neither the language nor the impertinence to ask. Even in the worst days there were oases of sanity, the factory of Oscar Schindler lay just across the river from where we sat.

Outside the Café Ariel,

As night fell children danced outside the synagogue singing traditional songs in a joyous affirmation of their ancient culture; proof enough that the ‘final solution’ had failed.

2) The Pardesi Syngogue, Kochi, Kerala

Matancherry lies immediately south of the old colonial Fort Kochi. It contains the rather understated Raja’s Palace, the largely redundant Kochi International Pepper Exchange – spices are now traded on-line - and the Pardesi Synagogue.

Matancherry, Kochi

Built in 1568 and rebuilt in1664 the synagogue is famous for its richly decorated interior with its hand painted blue and white Cantonese tiles. Sadly photography is not appreciated inside.

The Pardesi Synagogue, Matancherry

This may be a synagogue unconnected to the Holocaust, but that does not mean that Kochi maintains a thriving Jewish community. It was never large and somehow, over the last century or so, Kochi’s Jews have either drifted away – often to Israel– or become assimilated by the local community. They have left their synagogue as a reminder of their presence.

3 The Central Synagogue, Sofia, Bulgaria

Having sidestepped the Holocaust for number 2, there is now little option but to return to it. I could have written about the slaughter in the Baltics and included the last surviving synagogue in Vilnius, or the chilling preserved remains of the Great Synagogue in Riga, burnt down in July 1941 with over a hundred worshippers inside. Instead, I have chosen a different Holocaust story.

Sofia’s central syngogue is a large, solid building; a construction of confidence and permanence. There was some justification for the confidence, but permanence was not to be.

The central synagogue, Sofia

The Bulgarians chose the wrong side in World War Two, though less out of conviction than political necessity. Jews had always lived peacefully in Bulgaria and even the fascist government saw no good reason to change that. When ordered to round up and deport Bulgaria’s Jews to the death camps they prevaricated, prevaricated again and kept on prevaricating until the war was over.

The communist regime that followed proved less than sympathetic so after watching the Holocaust sweep round them but not over them, Sofia’s Jewish community upped sticks and set off for Israel. There is enough of a community left to maintain and look after the building, but not so many that it can remain a functioning synagogue.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Images of Mao

Although the Communist Party remains very much in control, China today is Communist in name only. Unlike the Russians, who have never really embraced capitalism and will often express nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the Chinese are natural entrepreneurs and too busy prospering to ever glance backwards. Most Russian towns still have a Lenin Street and a Karl Marx Street, and their statues are easy to find, but for the Chinese, Mao Zedong is more problematic.

Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s lengthy biography Mao: The Untold Story presents a man without ideology, without vision and without charisma.  It is easy to accept that Mao’s attitude to his people was inhumanly callous, and he was indifferent to the mass starvation caused in the 1950’s by his Great Leap Forward, but it is hard to believe that a man with absolutely no personal qualities beyond a certain low cunning could have attained the pre-eminence he did.

The Chinese do not readily talk politics with foreigners, but anyone will happily tell you that the Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao in 1966, was a disaster. The current leadership has no truck with personality cults and are perhaps conscious of Mao’s shortcomings, but they cannot bring themselves to ditch him completely. Officially he is not even to blame for the Cultural Revolution, the aging leader was led astray by the Gang of Four.

Image of Chairman Mao on banknotes

Nobody in China brandishes Mao’s Little Red Book any more, but everybody carries his portrait with them, indeed several portraits, as his face appears on every banknote from 1 Yuan up.

Mao on the 100 Yuan note
Image of Chairman Mao outside the Forbidden City, Beijing

He also smiles down on Tiananmen Square from the entrance to the Forbidden City – no longer forbidden, provided you can afford the entrance fee. I have no idea who the other man in this photograph is, but he is in my holiday picture, and I am in his. Good luck to him.

Mao, me and another bloke, Tiananmen Square, Beijing

At the other end of the square Mao lies embalmed in his mausoleum and we paid him a visit in 2004. Since then we have seen Lenin in Moscow and plan to visit Ho Chi Minh next month [Update: We saw Ho, read about it here. And in 2013 Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in North Korea]. I will produce a single ‘Three Embalmed Leaders’ post in due course [still waiting for that one].

The queue for Mao's Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square

China is a huge country and there are large parts of it we are unfamiliar with, but in our Chinese travels we have encountered three statues of Mao.

Statue of Chairman Mao, Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

Kashgar is as far west as you can go and still be in China; it is due north of Pakistan and as near to Beirut as it is to Beijing. Kashgar is in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region where the inhabitants, are largely Uighurs, a Turkic people of Central Asia. They do not look Chinese, they do not eat Chinese and they do not speak or read Chinese - the Uighur language is written in Arabic script. The purpose of the colossal statue is to remind the often rebellious Uighurs exactly who is in charge. His clothing might be appropriate for the harsh Kashgar winter, but we were there in July when the temperature was nearer 30, and he looked distinctly overdressed. As a sculpture it seems crude (and why is he staring at his hand?) but the message is obvious.

Chairman Mao, Kashi, Xinjiang Uigher Autonomous Region
Mao in Kashgar, wrapped up warm and staring at his hand

Statue of Chairman Mao and Kurban Tulum, Hotan, Xinjiang Uigher Autinomous Region

Driving a couple of hundred kilometres east with the Taklamakan desert to our north and the foothills of the Tibetan plateau to our south, brought us to the ancient silk making city of Hotan. Much of the old Uighur city was redeveloped in 2004 but its centrepiece remains this statue of Mao with a man called Kurban Tulum.

Mao and Kurban Tulum, Khotan, Hetian, Hotan
Mao, Kurban Tulum and me, Hotan
Born near Hotan in 1883 Kurban Tulum had lived his life under the yoke of the Qing emperors and then under a series of warlords, so was delighted when Mao won the civil war and established communist rule. To show his pleasure he loaded his donkey cart with fruit as a gift for the Chairman and set off for Beijing. Only at Urumqi, 1500 km later, did he encounter his first paved road. His efforts so impressed the local party chief that he wired head office and Kurban was promptly flown to Beijing to meet Mao. Whether they forwarded what must by then have been his rather wilted fruit is not recorded.

To the Chinese Kurban Tulum is the model Uighur, to the Uighurs he is a model traitor. To a neutral, anybody from Hotan who sets off for Beijing with a donkey cart full of fruit sounds a sandwich short of a picnic.

This statue in Hotan, and a smaller replica in Kurban Tulum’s home village, are, reputedly, the only statues in China where Mao ever shared a plinth with another human being.

Statue of Chairman Mao, Chengdu, Sichuan Province

The statue in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is the only one we have encountered in a Han dominated city. It was retained when the city centre was remodelled and Mao stands rather aloof, ignoring and being ignored by the circling traffic. He is probably being eaten away by pollution, which may be symbolic, but I am sure he will stand there for many years yet.

Mao in Chengdu