War and freedom

It is difficult for a conscientious traveller to pass through central and eastern Europe without reflecting on the wars, tyranny and oppression that have characterised this region for much of the last one hundred years. The anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014 serves as a timely reminder that the peace and freedoms we enjoy today came at a devastating price. Whether we believe in the necessity of war or we are confirmed pacifists, I believe we should never forget the sacrifice and suffering of the millions who fell in battle or were persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, disability, political beliefs or sexual orientation.

The Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin provides a comprehensive and unsensational account of Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing National Socialist (Nazi) regime until its collapse in 1945. This same period is also the subject of the permanent exhibition at the Documentation Centre in Nuremberg located in the former Nazi Rally Grounds. The Rally Grounds were intended to be the centrepiece for the regime, a 11 km2 complex of parade grounds, stadiums and deployment areas. While a number of large rallies were held there, the project was never completed and today only the unfinished colosseum-like Kongresshalle bears witness to the site’s ignominious history. Kim and I visited the Kongresshalle after dark (hardly a place to linger at night) and we both felt an eerie sensation knowing that eighty years prior Hitler had delivered addresses to the party faithful from the balcony before us.

What I find most striking is the pace of the Nazis’ rise to power in terms of how rapidly they were able to enact significant political and social change. For example, the book burnings and Jewish business boycotts began within months of Hitler becoming Chancellor and after only one year in power, the Nazis had succeeded in transforming Germany from a democracy (albeit an unstable one) to a totalitarian dictatorship without any effective political opposition. Six years later, they had convinced the German people of the necessity to go to war for the second time in 25 years. How they managed this remains a mystery to me. I understand how Germany’s economic situation in the 1930s created a fertile breeding ground for far-right nationalistic ideologies and I pay some credence to the notion of the ‘personality cult of Hitler’ on account of his supposed transformational leadership style. However while these factors may account for Hitler’s popularity during the early years of power, they do not satisfactorily explain to me how millions of free people could allow themselves to become subjugated to a state which practised evil on a scale rarely seen before or since. The worst of this state-sanctioned horror was the systematic extermination of an estimated 11,000,000 Jews, Poles, Romani, Sinti, political opponents, people with disabilities and homosexuals. One and a half million of these victims died at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

We visited Auschwitz on a bright but bitterly cold day in December. Walking under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign silhouetted against the clear blue sky, it is difficult to imagine the barbarity that occurred here. The buildings are still standing, the grass between them is green and lush and the barbed wire fence looks almost harmless in the midday sun. It is only when one steps inside the exhibition rooms that the true horror of what went on here is unnervingly revealed.

Two images from Auschwitz will stay with me forever. The first is an untidy heap of shoe polish tins that were confiscated from inmates on arrival along with all their other belongings. For me, this symbolises the intolerable cruelty and the wicked deceit practised by the Nazi regime. They lied to their victims, telling them to pack the possessions they would need to start a new life elsewhere. It is heartbreaking to imagine how those people must have felt at the moment when they realised that instead of polishing their shoes to go to work they would instead be taking them off to be led to their deaths.

The second image is of a large white house just beyond the perimeter fence. Camp commandant Rudolf Hess lived here with his wife and young family and it is said that he chose the location so that he could look out from his window and see the white smoke emanating from the bodies burning in the crematorium attached to the gas chamber. At what stage did Hess forget that those smouldering corpses were once human beings, many of them children no older than his own daughters?

Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) is 17 times the size of Auschwitz occupying an area of 265 hectares (about 360 soccer fields). Its scale has to be seen to be believed. While the Nazis tried their hardest to destroy the evidence of their evildoing, row upon row of chimneys are still visible in every direction and the remains of two large gas chambers can be seen beneath the rubble. The creepy watchtowers continue to provide 24 hour/ 360 degrees surveillance although the sadistic guards and machine guns have long gone.

After the end of the Second World War, the residents of central and eastern Europe were liberated from Nazi occupation only to be immediately subjected to a new oppressive regime this time controlled by the communist Soviet Union and lasting for 45 years. In Berlin, we visited the Stasi Museum to get a feel for what life would have been like for people living in the DDR (the former East Germany) during this period. The Stasi were the secret police employed by the Government to spy on and persecute its own people. At the peak of their powers, an estimated one in ten East Germans were employed by the Stasi in some capacity, most of them as paid informers supplying information on their neighbours, colleagues, friends and family.

The lengths to which the agents would go to collect information is almost laughable: listening devices hidden in wallets, pens and tie pins and secret cameras the size of milk cartons hidden in handbags seem amateurish and crude in comparison to today’s high tech surveillance methods. And yet for those unfortunate people who fell foul of the Stasi, the consequences were often very serious: imprisonment, solitary confinement and, in some cases, execution. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, most Stasi officers were not arrested but simply assimilated into everyday life. In many cases, they continued to live, work and socialise with the very people they had previously persecuted creating challenges for both aggressor and victim alike, as documented in Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland.

The nightmarish conditions of living under a totalitarian regime akin to the DDR was accurately presaged by the Czech writer Franz Kafka several decades earlier (we visited the fascinating Kafka museum while we were in Prague). Like Josef K., the central character of Kafka’s novel The Trial, a citizen of East Germany could be apprehended by ‘the authorities’ at any moment and imprisoned without trial or explanation. Orwell also saw it coming: the world of total surveillance he described in 1984 has many striking similarities with the East Germany of the 1960s and 1970s.

The DDR was obsessed with recording every meeting, conversation and movement made by its citizens to the extent that by 1989 it had amassed 111km of paper stored spine to spine, more than 1.4 million photos, videos and audio recordings and 39 million index cards. I think is important to note that this information was rarely collected for any practical purpose: evidence has little value if the right to a fair trial is denied. However, the knowledge that every aspect of your life is being monitored, captured and stored and might, at some later stage, be used against you is extremely effective at creating a climate of constant fear. The DDR is perhaps one of the best examples in history of how a governing elite was able to employ fear as a tool to achieve control over its people.

It is easy to dismiss the DDR and the Stasi as anachronisms, manifestations of twentieth century communism that have become irrelevant in our globalised neoliberal age (North Korea remains a notable exception). I take a different view. The DDR was first and foremost a totalitarian regime and its primary goal was to exert absolute control over its citizens. Communism was merely a convenient excuse for the governing elite to raise itself above the masses; one only need witness the plushness of the former offices of the Stasi directorate or gaze on the beautiful mansions of Pankow where the DDR leaders could escape out of sight from the workers to lead their comfortable bourgeois lives to understand their true motivations.

Throughout history, those who acquire power seek control. There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator. In my view, it is always wrong when those with more power try to exercise control over those with less regardless of whether their method is outright aggression (cf. the Nazis), covert surveillance (cf. the Stasi) or any other way they can find to suppress human liberty. The means never justifies the end. While central and eastern Europeans nowadays have high levels of basic freedoms, it is saddening to know that many people living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are subject to oppressive, and in some cases, barbaric regimes.

In Australia and other western democracies, we enjoy individual liberties that are the envy of much of the rest of the world which not surprisingly makes us an attractive destination for those people fleeing persecution from oppressive governments. I will never forget how fortunate I am to live free of tyranny and war. However, this is not to say that the spectre of totalitarianism exists solely away from our shores. Recent revelations from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have demonstrated that an emerging nexus of governments and corporations are plying a far more insidious form of control, playing on our fears and trying to convince us that we need our liberties curtailed in order to protect us from evil in the form of crime, terrorism or anarchy. Moreover, modern methods such as internet surveillance and unmanned drones are available to anyone with sufficient money and/ or political influence and are a far cry from a 5kg camera lodged inside a watering can. Over the last two decades, intelligence agencies have gained extraordinary powers to monitor, apprehend and hold without trial any Josef or Josefina K. suspected of wrongdoing.

Fortunately, awareness of what is happening is growing. The internet may have become another tool of control in the hands of the powerful (NSA, anyone?) but it is also an excellent means of organised resistance against oppression whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head. Groups such as Avaaz and Change.org have repeatedly been successful in elevating the needs of ordinary people over the wishes of the powerful elite all over the world. Hopefully in the future we will no longer need to fight wars to defend our liberties but instead harness the power of social media and crowdsourcing to achieve change. In the meantime, we can choose to live without fear and remember that vigilance against complacency is the price we must continually pay to secure our freedom.

Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood. Let the smell of wild flowers flow free through my blood. Let me sleep in the meadows with the green grassy leaves. Let me walk with my brothers and sisters in peace. Let me die in my footsteps before I die down under the ground. (after Bob Dylan)


The entrance to Auschwitz I

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Auschwitz I


Gate and railway track at Birkenau


Birkenau – the scale has to be seen to be believed


The women’s huts at Birkenau

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Memorials to the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau

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Remains of one of the gas chambers


One of the countless watchtowers

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Former Stasi headquarters, Berlin (now the Stasi Museum)

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Hidden camera inside a jacket


Buttonhole camera


Camera hidden in a wallet


Camera hidden inside a bag. The lens is behind the clasp


Bugging device hidden in a plug socket

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Camera hidden in a tree stump

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Camera hidden in a watering can


Scent jars. Collected from chairs once the target had vacated his or her seat (yes, seriously)

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Majakowsring in Pankow, Berlin, where the DDR leaders led their comfortable bourgeois lives. The house once belonged to Chancellor Erich Honecker


Berlin: believe the hype

In a recent email to a friend, I wrote that Berlin ‘felt like High Street (Northcote) but with the vibrancy slider set to 100 and on a city wide scale.’ I certainly had high expectations of Berlin. Back in Australia, people had told me that it was like Melbourne, only better. Moreover, Berlin is justifiably world famous for its edgy street art, vintage styled cafés, trendy design boutiques and über-cool bars and clubs. However, this city is much more than a post-industrial mecca for hipsters, artists and clubbers. For a start, Berlin has witnessed more history over the last one hundred years than practically anywhere else in the world (maybe Moscow would be one notable exception). I find it amazing to think that there are Berliners alive today who have lived through post-World War I economic hardship and political turmoil; Hitler’s rise to power during the 1930s; the Second World War; the surveillance state of the communist DDR (East Germany); and the re-emergence of a free, unified Germany post 1989. And yet despite an abundance of fascinating museums and monuments which bring this gripping history to life, Berlin today resolutely refuses to sell out to its notorious past. For this is a city which lives in the present, its beating heart painted on every graffitied wall and political banner and its streets and tower blocks imbued with an inimitable sense of organic, creative renewal.

Berlin’s relative compactness meant that I was able to explore large chunks of the city on foot or by bike. My tours included both the former West Berlin (Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Schöneberg and Tiergarten) and the East (Mitte, Treptow, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg and Pankow). Everywhere I saw things on the streets that were interesting and I mean interesting in a way that truly engaged one or more of my senses and fired my imagination: unique graffiti and street art, installations and sculptures, community gardens, raspberry canes growing in bathtubs, libraries carved out of tree trunks, black and white photo booths, satellite dishes decorated with stretched canvas. In Treptow, I cycled around the enormous Spreepark, a long abandoned amusement park complete with brightly painted ferris wheel, miniature train and life-size dinosaur statues poking their heads out of the rapidly encroaching undergrowth. On our first day, Kim and I walked through Oranienplatz which had been occupied by refugees and their supporters playing football, warming themselves over open fires and living in makeshift tents that flapped in the cold December wind. We saw the Hüttenpalast in Neukölln, a former factory that has been converted into an undercover all-year campground (complete with caravans, trees and campfires) for artists and creative people who cannot afford the local rents. Also in Neukölln I walked through the Lohmühle, a strip of no-man’s-land by the canal which now houses a community of caravan residents who generate their own power from the sun and the wind, grow their own produce and stage concerts and film screenings in the summer. In Kreuzberg, close to where we were staying, I stumbled across a post-apocalyptic flea market with fires burning in rubbish bins and thrash metal screeching out from a small stage which forms the centrepiece for the transient community of punks who live in the surrounding gypsy carts, ex-army vehicles and dishevelled tents.

Like any city, there is significant social disadvantage in Berlin and we saw plenty of this. The city’s popularity has led to an influx of foreigners over the last decade which has impacted on rental affordability while at the same time the government has been selling off social housing at a frenetic pace. In 2006, 9% of dwellings in the west and 24% of dwellings in the east were categorised as social housing compared to 30% and 50% respectively in 1997 (for an excellent account of the rise and fall of social housing in Europe albeit with a strong British focus, I can highly recommend ‘Estates’ by Lynsey Hanley). These changes have no doubt driven some of the more creative (and desperate?) housing solutions which I mentioned above. Moreover, there is concern amongst Berliners that the culture of their city is being eroded by the twin forces of gentrification and tourism (this is a topic on which I have written about previously in Spain and England). This may yet prove true but what is different about Berlin is that there is an honesty and authenticity to the German capital that I find is lacking in, say, Paris, Barcelona or Melbourne. With Berlin, what you see is what you get, warts and all. It is not pretending to be anything it is not nor is it dressing itself up to compete on the world stage. The drug pushers at the U-Bahn stations, the spray-painted recycling bins, the protestors occupying public space, the derelict buildings – love them or loathe them, they are part of the city and in Berlin they are on full view, not hidden away, jet-washed, forcibly removed or screened off by building glitzy oversized showboating paeans to Mammon in the form of stadiums, shopping centres or casinos.

I also love Berlin because it is an anarchic urban planner’s paradise. Apart from the very central retail core around Unter den Linden, it does not look or feel like a planned city and this is exactly why I think it works so well. In my opinion, many Western cities suffer from a heavyhanded and top-down approach to planning whereby an external vision is imposed (sometimes unwillingly) on its citizens and the form and shape of every minute facet of the urban environment is subject to the scrupulous mercy of bureaucratic analysis and over-design. All too often this results in bland sterile places that over time become indistinguishable from one another (I have written about this effect previously, for example, in England).

In Berlin, planning can mean spontaneous, organic, collaborative and bottom-up. For a professional versed in the rigidity and conservatism of the Melbourne planning system, I found this communitarian and creative approach to urbanism refreshing and mind-blowing. The Hüttenpalast and Lohmühle, for example, both happened because local residents took it upon themselves to develop something they felt was needed for their community. Similarly, Berliners do not necessarily wait for the authorities to develop a streetscape strategy or urban design framework, instead they go out and create their own roadside community gardens and street art. One night over dinner, our wonderful host Christos told me that every month there is a public meeting to which everyone from his micro-neighbourhood (I think about 100 households) is invited. The meeting is an opportunity for attendees to exchange ideas about how to improve their local area but also crucially provides a forum for disgruntled neighbours to voice their concerns about the behaviour of other residents. Quarrelling neighbours are encouraged to seek resolution during the meeting while another resident acts as mediator. This dignified and truly empowering approach to dispute resolution could hardly be further from the combative and adversarial principles that underpin the Melbourne planning system.

Orwell wrote that the first duty of intelligent men is to restate the obvious (he was supposedly an unashamed misogynist). I am not sure whether I would have qualified as intelligent in Orwell’s discerning eyes, however to me it is plainly obvious that it is local residents not bureaucrats, town planners or architects who know what is best for their community and their neighbourhood. Similarly, I believe that true authenticity comes from the ground up and must include all elements that constitute the urban fabric of a place, not just those features that are likely to be more attractive to prospective visitors and investors. Berlin may have shaken my faith in the planning profession but it has also strengthened my belief in the goodness of everyday people and this, I would consider, is a worthwhile exchange.

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Berlin’s living history.

From top: the Brandenburg gate; remnants of the Berlin Wall at Zimmerstrasse; the East Side Gallery; the Jewish Path leading to the Jewish Cemetery off Kollwitzplatz; Stasi museum; Stasi museum.

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The abandoned Iraqi embassy in Pankow


Majakowsring in Pankow, where the DDR leaders escaped out of sight of the workers to lead their comfortable bourgeois lives.

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The Bücherwald, a library made out of tree trunks near Kollwitzplatz

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What to do with those unwanted pots, pans, books and typewriters? Transform them into street sculptures of course!

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The wonderful and colourful world of Berlin street art

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Spreepark, Treptow Park

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The stage at the Lohmühle (wind turbine in background)


Refugee protest camp, Oranienplatz


Community garden, Prinzessinenstrasse

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Spotted on Kastanienallee

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Sculpture on Potsdamer Strasse bridge

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Spotted at Checkpoint Charlie


Raspberries growing in a bathtub outside the Hüttenpalast

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The author taking a well-earned break in a trendy vintage-styled bar


We spent three weeks in Italy during October 2013 as the long warm summer gently gave way to the cool crisp colours of autumn. We loved Italy – we found it romantic, beautiful, cultured and everything one would expect it to be. Yet there is more to this country than the guidebooks let on. The people are friendly, helpful and welcoming and I love how passionate the Italians are about food, politics, sport, art, culture and life. There also seems to be a greater sense of community and respect for ‘local’ than many other places I have been whether in the rural mountains of Le Marche or in the bustling centre of Rome.

Like anywhere, there is another side to Italy but unusually it is often in full view and not swept away under a gentrified carpet. The prostitutes line the highways in broad daylight making little effort with their attire to disguise their occupation. Similarly, the shanty towns to the south of Naples are clearly visible to anybody catching the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. There are large numbers of newly arrived immigrants with seemingly few options but to sell fake handbags, watches and mobile phone accessories in every conceivable tourist destination. But Italy is also a land of opportunity for some; on the train from Rome to Naples I chatted to a man who arrived from Ghana a few years ago with nothing and was now living and working in Parma. He had started a family and was hoping to send his children to school in England.

Le Marche

Our Italian travels began in the rustic mountains of Le Marche which lie to the east of Umbria. We stayed for three wonderful nights at La Tavola Marche, a cooking school run by two warm and vibrant Americans, Ashley and Jason. On our second day, we were fortunate to experience a private cooking lesson with Jason who apart from helping us to cook a delicious four course feast (which we subsequently devoured) taught us how to properly hold a knife, slice an onion and chop a carrot. Jason is a proponent of the Slow Food Movement and his kitchen ethos resonated with our own values. Never again will we fry vegetables when they can be sweated instead to retain texture and flavour…! We have had plenty of opportunities since to practice our techniques and try out some of Jason’s delicious recipes.



La Tavola Marche Cookery School


What we cooked…yum!!


Chefs in training!



After three days in the eternal city, Kim and I declared that Rome was our favourite European city visited to date. Yes it’s difficult to get around, sure it’s full of tourists (including us, of course :)) but Rome has charm and wonder aplenty. There is history everywhere and the city centre is a checkerboard of archaeological digs and imposing edifices, not to mention fantastic contemporary art galleries, quirky museums and trendy restaurants. Despite the bewildering number of police officers in Rome, civil disobedience is still part of the fabric of city life; the walls are daubed with subversive slogans and popular protests are commonplace. Rome is a city I could fall in love with again and again.




One of countless architectural excavations in the middle of the city

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The many faces of Rome’s urban fabric



In a word, Capri is amazing. Yes it’s expensive but there is plenty to do for free if you have a little imagination (notwithstanding the extortionate amount charged by the monopolistic ferry company to get you there in the first place). The island is small enough that you can pretty much walk anywhere and the tiny laneways that run between the millionaire’s villas, luxury hotels and exquisite terraced gardens are very charming.

We climbed up from the Marina Grande and arrived in the main square (called the Piazzetta) from where we wound our way through the backstreets to the Augustus gardens. We stopped to stare and marvel at I Faraglioni, three rocks in the sea that have come to symbolise the island and adorn many a dated postcard. From the gardens, we zigzagged our way down Via Krupp and then took a left turn through a blocked off gateway to find our way to a quiet little cove with crystal clear blue water. “This is the most beautiful place I have ever swum in my life”, Kim exclaimed and I was inclined to agree. We encountered a man there who told us it was the last paradise in Capri, the only place to escape the unending wave of tourism that occupies the island for eight months a year. Fortunately, he did not seem to mind us being there though…

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The Marina Grande in the morning and then at sunset


I Faraglioni, symbol of Capri

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Via Krupp and our beautiful swimming spot below


The bluest sea in the world



Ravello oozes romance and it is not hard to understand how the town has inspired a host of famous artists, musicians and writers over the years. Situated high on the Amalfi coast with stunning 360 degrees views, it feels quite magical, almost like a fairytale.

Ravello is famous for two of the most impressive gardens in Europe, Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. We found Cimbrone the better of the two and for me I think it is probably my favourite garden in the whole world. Certainly there are gardens which are far better laid out and others which have more interesting designs and plantings but I found the combination of history, artistic heritage, breathtaking vistas and romantic atmosphere to be irresistible. Wagner cited Villa Cimbrone as the inspiration for his wonderful opera Parsifal and he wrote that ‘the view from there, for me, is the most beautiful of all’.

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Positano, where we stopped on the way to Ravello

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Villa Rufolo

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Villa Cimbrone



We ended the Italian leg of our trip in Martina Franca in Puglia in the southeast of the country (Puglia forms the ‘heel’ of the boot of Italy). Martina Franca is a charming small town situated in pleasant rolling countryside interspersed with dry stone huts with conical roofs known as trulli. Trulli are only found in the Itria Valley region of Puglia and were constructed during the 19th century as temporary field shelters or storehouses and in some cases as dwellings for agricultural labourers. Nowadays, many of them have been modernised and are in high demand as permanent accommodation and ‘characterful’ holiday lettings. A little too characterful for our tastes, they looked like a cross between a hobbit house and a brick kiln. We stayed elsewhere…

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A trulli near Martina Franca

A small town in Spain

Dedicated to the memory of Don MacDonald.

Some names in this blog post have been changed. 

During September and October, we spent four weeks in a rustic townhouse in Gaucin, a whitewashed village and former Moorish stronghold nestled high in the mountains of Andalucia in southern Spain. We had the good fortune to spend some of this time with our friends Nerys and Fraser, Cathy and Brewster and Donna and Craig.

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Two views of Gaucin


Every morning, I would climb the stone stairs to the roof terrace to look out on the vista that patiently awaited me. To the west, the magnificent twin peaks of Reales (the king and queen) would wear the sun like a crown while in the east El Hacho shone like a golden pyramid. On the horizon, the Rif mountains of Morocco would poke their flat wide heads through the ocean mist while the Rock of Gibraltar stands tall over the Spanish coastline. Against this spectacular backdrop, I would roll out my yoga mat and meditate to the rhythm of the countryside slowly coming to life backed by a farmyard orchestra soundtrack of crowing roosters, barking dogs and braying donkeys. I was never quite sure whether my subsequent state of relaxation was due to my yoga technique or the pungent aromas emanating from El Dopo, our neighbour’s two metre tall marijuana plant…


View of Reales from the terrace (evening)


View of El Hacho from the terrace (morning)

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View of Gibraltar from the terrace


Sunset from the terrace


This part of Spain has been hit very hard by the GFC. A short drive to the coast reveals row upon row of half-built apartments and townhouses while many of those that have been completed are architecturally weak, unsympathetic to their surroundings and most often empty. The 40km stretch of Costa del Sol from Marbella to Sabinillas looks like an unfinished Gold Coast, one behemoth apartment complex or characterless hotel after another surrounded by empty lots and punctuated by advertising hoardings, golf shops, strip clubs and supermarkets. As is so often the case, the development boom came first long before any consideration of urban planning or social amenity. Given the frenzy of development activity that occurred here only a few years ago, the lack of construction activity is startling: there are no cranes, hardly any building sites and, most significantly of all, there are very few people working. The unemployment rate in Andalucia is 31% rising to 54% amongst the under 25. Given these economic challenges, it is not difficult to understand why the wealthier regions of Basque and Catalonia are seeking to excise themselves from Spain and conversely why Madrid is so intent on denying them their independence.

The overdevelopment that characterises much of the Costa del Sol is largely absent in the mountains but there are more insidious forces of change at play in places like Gaucin. The population swells with tourists in the summer and approximately 10% of the permanent residents are expats, mainly from Britain. Our neighbour Pilar has lived in the same house for 78 years. She described to me what the village was like before the foreigners arrived. It was quieter then, there were fewer bars and restaurants and there was no electricity or running water. It is still quiet now (es muy tranquilo as the locals like to boast) and Gaucin for the most part feels like a sleepy, rural village where everyone goes to church on Sunday, the policia knows the whole town by name and the local melon farmer (the ‘melon man’) sells his wares from the back of a truck. Yet there is a disturbing undercurrent here that every now and then rises to an uncomfortable pitch before dropping back down again into the background hum. It is a tension that I have felt already on this trip in England and previously in Australia, namely the inevitable conflict that arises when bourgeois urban values are superimposed upon a rural working class setting. It occurs, for example, whenever an expat speaks disparagingly of a tradesperson in a condescending tone that borders on racism or equally whenever a villager despairs at the unaffordability of property prices. ‘The Spaniards are always trying to rip you off, they never turn up on time and they do a bad job’ warned a neighbour. Meanwhile, Pilar expressed to me her frustration about the local property market. ‘Alquiler! Alquiler! All the houses are rented out by extranjeros. My children cannot even buy an apartment here.’

Some things, however, have not changed. Every morning at dawn, Pilar’s 80 year old brother Alfonso eats a breakfast of bread, cheese and wine and then trudges off to the fields to work 14 hours a day like he has done for all of his adult life. When he returns in the evening, he tends to the chickens that he keeps in a derelict house opposite. I never asked him, but I imagine that Alfonso would not even know what the GFC was let alone suggest that he had been affected by it.


Images of Gaucin


Gaucin has been the only destination on our trip to date where we spent sufficient time to get to know some of the local people with varying degrees of success. On arrival we got hopelessly lost navigating the nailbitingly narrow nameless streets and so I stopped to ask the way of a passing villager. In spite of my reasonable command of the Spanish language, he answered every question with ‘No comprendo, no comprendo’. Annoying though this was, I could take comfort in knowing that I was not the first person to have experienced it. In his book ‘Driving over Lemons: an Optimist in Andalucia’, Chris Stewart remarks that even after spending many years living in Andalucia and having learnt to speak Spanish fluently, he would still encounter locals who insisted they could not understand anything he was saying.

We were fortunate to meet Luis during our first week in Gaucin. Luis is the wonderful and warmhearted proprietor of a beautiful antiques shop in town and we would always stop by for a chat whenever we were passing. On one occasion, I commended him on his taste in furniture and art and I suggested to him that his house must be beautifully decorated. He looked up at me with doleful eyes. ‘Ah’, he sighed ‘It is a problem. You see, I like the Baroque but my husband, he loves the minimalist’. I felt uneasy for a second or two thinking I might have offended him but then suddenly his eyes lit up and he laughed uproariously.

During our time in Gaucin, we heard there was a man who lived a few doors down on our street who kept five dogs and 17 cats in a small townhouse. I am ashamed to say that based on some misinformed accounts from others, we had formed a prior opinion of him that could not have been further from the truth once we had the opportunity to get to know him. Quiet, unassuming and deeply compassionate, Jim is one of those rare people who is so full of goodness and integrity that he could restore a misanthrope’s faith in the power of humanity. Raised in America, as a child he had the good fortune to visit Spain on a number of occasions and fell in love with the country, the culture and the language. As a young man, he turned his back on a promising career in law and enrolled in a Spanish Masters, much to his father’s chagrin. He subsequently became a Professor and expert on Spanish history and literature before retiring to Gaucin fifteen years ago where he avidly collects beautiful artworks and rescues animals from neglect and abuse. On our last evening we stopped by for a drink at his beautiful and immaculate house and we were rewarded with Jim’s warm hospitality and an interesting intellectual discussion. We loved meeting his dogs and cats, all of them well behaved, well groomed and very well cared for.

We would have happily chatted all night with Jim but we had a dinner date booked at our favourite restaurant in town. We had eaten at El Lateral on two previous occasions, once with Cathy and Brewster and again with Craig and Donna, and both times it had been delicious. The husband and wife proprietors, Carlos and Lola, were as adorable as ever and treated us like old friends. After a fabulous final meal, they expressed their regret at our imminent departure from Gaucin and presented us with a beautiful handmade card with the inscription ‘Lots of love and the best for you both Kim & Paul from El Lateral, Lola y Carlos xxx’. Needless to say, tears were shed 🙂

Some of our encounters were more fleeting but we cherished them all the same. On our frequent walks to the castle (which has guarded the town since the 13th century), we would see a man sitting in the cemetery who we had assumed to be the caretaker. One evening, we saw him limping and crying with pain. We stopped to ask what was wrong and he told us that he had been lifting a couch and it had fallen on his foot. He was very distressed and so we helped him to walk back towards his house and I tried to offer as much comfort as my Spanish vocabulary would permit. We mentioned the incident to Jim and in his mild and non-judgemental manner he told us that the gentleman’s name is Ramon, he is an alcoholic who lives with his mother, also an alcoholic. He is not in fact the cemetery caretaker, he simply hangs out there to drink and sleep without being disturbed. First impressions can be deceiving…


El Castilo de Aguilar (the castle)


As we wheeled our bags to the car on our final morning, we passed a man who stopped to speak to us. He revealed with some excitement that he had built the plunge pool in our courtyard and he was sorry that we were leaving and would not get to enjoy it any more (in truth, it was way too cold!) As we waved goodbye, I caught a flashback to my fruitless encounter on our first day with the villager who could not or would not understand me. Was this indeed the same man? And therefore was this proof that we, as foreigners, had finally been accepted into the village? Certainly we had made some friends and I am sure that we would be made to feel most welcome if we were ever to return. And yet perhaps our capability to choose to leave and return precludes us from ever truly belonging. As a traveller, one is free from the financial, family and other ties that bonds one to a given place and this affords both a wonderful freedom and a responsibility to respect the lives and traditions of those people that remain when we move on.

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Travels in Andalucia (and beyond)

Kim and I spent four weeks in Andalucia in southern Spain during September and October. We stayed in the picturesque whitewashed mountain village of Gaucin (I will write more on Gaucin in a subsequent blog post) and were fortunate to share some of this time with lovely friends: Nerys and Fraser, Cathy and Brewster and Donna and Craig. We were able to use Gaucin as a base to visit Ronda, Granada, Gibraltar and Tangier.

Ronda, like Gaucin and Granada for that matter, is a former Moorish settlement and it was one of the last strongholds of the Nasrid dynasty before the Catholic conquest in 1492. Nowadays it is known primarily for the awe-inspiring Puente Nuevo bridge which seemingly rises out of the cliffs to span the 120m deep chasm below. The bridge is certainly worth a visit and for the best views I would recommend walking down to the gorge and looking up in order to appreciate the full scale of this magnificent feat of engineering. There is plenty more besides the bridge to fill a day trip: the Plaza de Toros (which we did not visit) is said to be one of the most impressive bullrings in the country and was a favourite haunt of Hemingway. The Moorish Baths and the palace of the Moorish king are also worth a look. Nevertheless, one cannot help wondering whether Ronda has to some degree become a victim of its own success. it is very touristy and personally I found it difficult to lift the omnipotent veil of commercialism to really feel the city, discover its charm and revel in its history.



Puente Nuevo


Guadalevin River Gorge



Nerys and Kim by the gorge


View of Ronda from the Moorish King’s palace

Of all the places we visited during our stay in Andalucia, Granada was our favourite. We loved the bars, the cafes, the shops, the food and the wine. We marvelled at the beauty and grandeur of the Alhambra at night time and then again during the day. And we loved the cosmopolitan and laidback feel to the place. We had two days and two nights yet we would happily have spent longer soaking in the atmosphere, exploring the city’s treasures and receiving free tapas whenever we order a drink (Granada is one of the last places to offer this in Spain).


One of Granada’s fabulous tapas bars


Granada street life and cathedral


The Generalife gardens, Alhambra


Views of Granada from Alhambra


Nasrid palaces, Alhambra


Worst Translation Ever…?

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory nestled at the tip of Southern Spain looking across to the Rif Mountains in Morocco and has been in British hands for exactly 300 years. The territory is dominated by the Rock of Gibraltar (the Rock), a 426 metre high landmark that towers over the surrounding coastline.


Rock of Gibraltar

For anybody considering a visit to Gibraltar, don’t. Rarely have I ever felt a greater sense of disappointment arising from the mismatch between my prior expectations of a place and the grim, depressing reality. On crossing the border, I had imagined I would be entering a subtropical yet quintessentially English paradise complete with palm trees, colonial architectural treasures, afternoon tea on the terrace and of course the infamous monkeys. However what I found was more Barnsley than Barbados, a curious place that somehow manages to blend the worst of the Costa del Brit with the aesthetic of a northern Council estate and the dreary blandness of a chain-ridden English high street (see my previous post here outlining my despair at the increasing homogeneity of English towns). Many of the buildings are in disrepair, the city is difficult to get around on foot and there appears to be a sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots. Walking around the run down neighbourhoods and poorly maintained streets, I felt that Gibraltar is the town which Britain forgot. I therefore find the UK somewhat hypocritical in that it is prepared to zealously defend its right to own a corner of another nation’s land yet it allows its poor subjects to continue living in what appears to be some of the most squalid conditions under British rule.


Gibraltar from the Rock


Typically decrepit Gibraltarian building

In fairness to Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians, the Rock was shrouded in a thick grey cloud during our visit which I am sure made it appear more drab than usual (mysteriously, the cloud lifted as soon as we re-entered the Spanish mainland). And there were monkeys (strictly Barbary Macaques) – lots of them in fact and we really enjoyed getting up close and photographing them. Nevertheless, my overwhelming feeling on leaving Gibraltar was relief and I can confidently say I won’t return.


Barbary Macaques


Throughout our stay at Gaucin, the Moroccan coast was visible from our roof terrace and the prospect of stepping foot on African soil became ever more tantalising. So, a few days before our departure from Andalucia, we drove to Tarifa and boarded the fast ferry to arrive into Tangier on a warm, still and sunny Thursday morning. We checked into the Hotel Continental which overlooks the port and backs onto the Ancien Medina. For those of you who have seen the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film, you will have some idea of what I mean when I say that the Continental’s prevailing aesthetic is one of faded colonial grandeur. For those who haven’t, think wide sweeping staircases, hidden alcoves, dusty antiquities, eclectic artworks and mosaic tiling. What the hotel may lack in amenity (there’s four storeys but no lift and we could not find the hammam as advertised despite our best efforts), it compensates for with excellent service and wonderfully eccentric furnishings (the wardrobe in our room would easily have transported two dozen children to Narnia).



Hotel Continental


Kim on the hotel’s roof terrace (supposedly out of bounds but if the door’s unlocked…)


Views of Medina from hotel (yes they are sheep on the roof terrace of an adjacent building…)

On leaving the hotel, we were immediately accosted by a young boy who offered to guide us to the Medina. Even though I had no doubt at all as to how this clichéd episode would end, we found ourselves powerless to stop it and after ten minutes of winding through a maze of metre-wide passageways, we arrived into the open arms of the lad’s father, grandfather or uncle who just happened to own a carpet store which, of course, had just received a new shipment of rare stock that, would you believe it, could only be purchased on that day. After the first of several sugary mint teas for the day, we settled down to business. His business was trying to sell us a rug at the most exorbitant price imaginable; our business was to avoid adding a 5kg carpet to our already maxed out luggage allowance. It looked like we were winning until I made a faint whimper of interest regarding a small rug not much larger than a bathroom towel. He seized upon this with an opening bid of 465. Thinking he meant Dirhams (10 Dirhams is approximately 1 Euro), I expressed a small amount of enthusiasm until he clarified that his price was 465 euros and I nearly fell off my chair. Once I had recovered, we made several aborted attempts at leaving before finally arriving back onto the street. As we briskly walked away I heard the carpet-seller yell out from behind us ‘Ok, ok. 50 euros!’

Like the Continental Hotel, Tangier has a whiff of faded glory to it. The heady days of the 60s and 70s when the city was a popular destination for beatniks, hippies and alternative types are long gone and it’s hard to imagine Bob Dylan writing a song today about a former lover who ‘might be in Tangier’. Nevertheless, the city has a certain charm, the people are friendly, the food is excellent and it was oddly refreshing to be roused at 5am by the call to prayer rather than the backyard roosters that we had become used to in Gaucin! We felt perfectly safe during the day if a little uneasy; at night we kept to the main streets and had no problems. While it is not necessarily a place we would hurry to return to, Tangier was able to offer us a small slice of African exoticism amidst our European travels and for that we are grateful.


Tangier at night


Kim and I enjoyed a week in Catalonia in north eastern Spain during early September. 76 years earlier, George Orwell came here to fight on the Republican side (against General Franco’s Nationalists) during the Spanish Civil War. He spent time at the front fighting for POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), an anarchist organisation, and was later caught up in the May Days events in Barcelona following which he was forced to escape across the border to France to avoid persecution from the ruling Communists. Orwell wrote an account of this period of his life called Homage to Catalonia which I thoroughly enjoyed reading as we travelled through this beautiful corner of Spain.

In Homage, Orwell theorises that the Soviet-backed Communist-led Republican government betrayed, imprisoned and murdered their former Anarchist allies because of the latter’s support for the continuation of the 1936 revolution which had seen the peasant class rise up against their bourgeois landlords, forcibly transfer land into their own possession and introduce egalitarian and localised self-government. Orwell’s reasoning is complex (although clearly articulated in Homage) and involves both political and ideological considerations. In the face of an increasingly powerful and hostile Germany during the late 1930s, Stalin was keen to build alliances with Britain and France. An anti-capitalist people’s revolution would necessarily include the nationalisation of foreign-owned businesses, a move which would be very unpopular with the British and French and therefore, according to Orwell, the Spanish Communists destabilised the Anarchists to prevent this from happening. From an ideological standpoint, the communitarian socialism model espoused by the Spanish Anarchists was sharply at odds with the totalitarian brand of state-sanctioned communism that had developed in Russia under Stalin. In Orwell’s mind, the revolution was too left-wing for the Communists. While Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War is still contested today, it is generally accepted that the infighting on the Republican side during the Civil War contributed to Franco’s eventual victory.

For me, Orwell’s version is convincing because it makes sense. History has shown, time and time again, that popular revolutions do not work and it is only a short matter of time before elites regain control either insidiously from within the revolution or externally. One only need look at the rise of Napoleon after the French Revolution, the long history of failed popular uprisings in England over the last one thousand years (The English Rebel by David Horspool gives a good account of this) or more recently the events in Egypt following the Arab Spring. Moreover, it is reasonable to presume that Stalin would have been concerned that a successful socialist (i.e. Marxist) revolution in Spain could inspire similar events in the U.S.S.R and even lead to a re-run of the 1917 Russian Revolution, something he would have been very anxious to avoid. Finally, it is impossible to ignore the unique historical context of the time. Stalin’s concerns about the rise of Germany were justified given that in two years’ time Hitler would invade Poland and trigger the Second World War and then in 1941 Germany would declare war on Russia.

When one reads Homage to Catalonia, it is not hard to understand how Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War influenced his later work. Animal Farm is a thinly veiled satire of the rise of Stalinist communism whereby Orwell’s first hand experiences at the hands of the totalitarian Communist regime in Barcelona in 1937 lay much of the groundwork for creating the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty Four. What is more difficult to comprehend is the extent to which we have allowed Orwell’s vision to become reality, particularly during the last decade. I read Nineteen Eighty Four in the mid 1990s (i.e. pre-Internet) and I took some comfort in thinking that Orwell’s nightmare had not yet come true. How times change. A few weeks ago I was discussing the book with a friend and we agreed that the world of Newspeak, thoughtcrime, Big Brother and perpetual war has been with us for some time now. In fact, the technology exists today to create a totalitarian state far in excess of what Orwell had imagined. At the same time we continue to allow governments and businesses to erode our civil liberties and privacy on a daily basis. One need only consider the response to Wikileaks, the PRISM affair or Tony Abbott’s  proposal to ban consumer boycotts as recent examples.

George Orwell is fondly remembered in Catalonia and there is a plaza in Barcelona named after him. Meanwhile, the revolutionary spirit appears to live on amongst the Catalans: on the day we arrived in Barcelona, reportedly hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest for Catalan independence. Whether their motivation was ideological, historical or purely economic self-interest (Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain), I am uncertain. However, I noticed that the Catalan flag in which many of the protestors had wrapped themselves was ominously absent from the wealthier parts of town. Elites and revolutions don’t mix…;)


Our Catalonian adventure began in the small seaside town of Llança on the Costa Brava after an epic 11 hour journey involving a car trip with the wonderful Max and Michael, three trains, a bus and a taxi. In Llança, we enjoyed swimming in the delightful coves looking for fish and hiking up the surrounding mountains to see the fabulous Sant Pere de Rodes, a former Benedictine monastery built on the site of a previous Roman settlement.


Llanca main beach


The natural pool where we swam at the end of our street

IMG_0901 our swimming beach

Our favourite swimming beach


Llanca harbour

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Walk around the headland

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Sant Pere de Rodes monastery


Crescent moon

From Llança we took a slow train to Barcelona and arrived to light rain and a city draped in the yellow and red of the Catalan flag with people everywhere protesting or simply enjoying the Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National Day of Catalonia). We enjoyed walking around and getting a feel for the vibrancy, history and atmosphere of the place. We did not enjoy trying to find somewhere to eat on a public holiday nor did we enjoy getting ripped off buying a plate of gristly jamon and unpalatable manchego in one of the few places serving food!

We walked up and down La Rambla, ambled through the old town, wandered around the backstreets of La Barceloneta and took the funicular railway up to Montjuic to see the excellent Joan Miro museum. We  loved the Gaudi buildings: La Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Parc Guell, Casa Vicens and, our favourite, Casa Batllo. We agreed that two days was not enough to do the city justice and we promised each other that one day we will return!

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Barcelona street life

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La Sagrada Familia


Casa Vicens

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La Pedrera

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Casa Batllo

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Parc Guell


Joan Miro museum, Montjuic

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Barcelona Metro

Basque country

At the end of August, Kim and I were lucky enough to receive a guided tour of the beautiful Basque country from my good friend Tom who is working there at present. The Basque country comprises the autonomous communities of Pais Vasco and Navarre in Northern Spain and the Northern Basque country in adjoining France. Nobody is quite sure as to the origin of the Basque people but there are records of Basque tribes from Greek and Roman times. Moreover, the Basque language (actually, not one language but many different dialects) is believed to be the last remaining descendant of the pre-Indo-European languages in Western Europe and is therefore far older than the Latin-derived languages of French and Spanish. The Basques were able to resist being conquered for far longer than many of their neighbours but whether this is due to their legendary physical and athletic prowess (don’t ever try to keep up with a Basque cyclist) or their isolated mountainous location is uncertain.

During the Spanish Civil War, despite significant ideological and religious differences, the Basque nationalists sided with the Republicans against Franco because they believed (perhaps erroneously) that a Republican government would deliver a greater promise of Basque independence than a Fascist state. The campaign for Basque nationalism has had a long and bloody history culminating in several decades of violence, largely carried out by the separatist group ETA, in the latter part of the 20th century. Today, the region enjoys a relative peace following announcements in 2010 and 2011 by ETA that it intends to cease activities permanently and disarm.

It is perhaps testament to the tenacity of the Basque people that the region enjoys relative economic success and remains a strong manufacturing base in spite of its mountainous geography that does not naturally lend itself to large scale industrial development. The downside is that almost every piece of flat land available has been developed with little thought for ‘good’ urban form or planning and this is quite evident as one hurtles along the motorways at 120km/h to get from one place to another.

Our tour began in the charming seaside town of St Jean de Luz. While technically within the Basque region, I felt that St Jean is unmistakably French in appearance and atmosphere. We stayed in a very quirky Airbnb in a former casino on the seafront with long dark empty corridors that reminded us of The Shining! I loved swimming in the calm, clear and somewhat brisk Atlantic ocean and walking along the delightful promenade in the evening.

We enjoyed a wonderful hike in the western Pyrenees that criss-crossed between France and Spain around the Col d’Ispéguy (672m) taking in excellent 360 degrees views of the surrounding mountains. The walk include the ascent of Hautza (1306m) where on reaching the top we were surprised to find a vast graveyard of jagged stones, many with inscriptions in Euskara or Spanish. Beautiful and eerie.

Day three took us into the heart of Spanish Basque country and to the breathtakingly beautiful Gaztelugatxe near Bakio where after climbing a large number of steps one is rewarded with the opportunity to ring the monastery bell, buy a cold beer and marvel at the sublime perfection of the location.

Our next stop was Getxo, a beachside suburb of Bilbao, where we enjoyed a fantastic meal of raciones under the trees in a delightful little square accompanied by a glass or two of Txakoli, the local sparkling wine.

Bilbao, the largest Basque city, has undergone massive regeneration over the last couple of decades but remains a working city at heart. What it lacks in charm, it compensates for in liveability – the food is excellent, there is a thriving arts and culture scene (including, of course, the Guggenheim museum) and housing is relatively affordable. We stayed in an apartment in the city centre rented by one of Tom’s friends and we were impressed with its scale, artistry and grandeur. While in Bilbao, we also enjoyed our first taste of pintxos  – delicious and addictive!

Our final destination was Donostia-San Sebastian. Justifiably a major tourist destination, San Sebastian’s myriad charms are difficult to compress into one day but we tried! We loved the beautiful old town and the fabulous beach, the music everywhere (jazz by the port, a concert of film music in the main square, a cellist playing underneath our window), the views at sunset and of course the pintxos, pintxos, pintxos! Thanks Tom, you were an excellent guide – we will be back!

The bland and the beautiful (plus a few Banksys…)

I am reading Real England by Paul Kingsnorth (London: Portobello).

It is an angry, frustrated and indignant book that seeks to understand why everything that was once unique, local, diverse and colourful is being replaced by ‘something bland, manufactured, placeless and impersonal’. It is very much an English tale concerned with characterless chain pubs, gentrifying canals and disappearing village shops and yet it has a global message: our built, natural and cultural heritage is gradually being eroded by the forces of profit and progress. I am only as far as chapter four and it has already transformed the way I think about planning, development and that buzzword of planners the world over: neighbourhood character. It has also caused me to reflect on our travels to date and what it really means to be a tourist – more on that later… 🙂

Kim and I have spent the last three weeks traversing my green and pleasant homeland, visiting friends and family, exploring and having fun. We have marvelled at the beauty of the Derbyshire Peak District; revelled in the splendour of the Cumbrian Lake District; indulged in the quaintness of the Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire Cotswolds and delighted in the gentle charm of the Sussex Downs. I have also developed a new appreciation for the rural landscapes of Norfolk in spite of their familiarity (I spent the first 18 years of my life there and return often to see family). Here is a small selection from our many wonderful and fascinating journeys through England:

Chatsworth park
Chatsworth view

Chatsworth House (Derbyshire)

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Rydal Water (Cumbria)


Grasmere from Loughrigg Terrace (Cumbria)


Blind Tarn from Dow Crag (Cumbria)


By Angle Tarn (Cumbria)


Bibury, once described by William Morris as the most beautiful village in England (Gloucestershire Cotswolds)


Ditchling Beacon (East Sussex)

Old Buckenham windmillOld Buckenham sunset

Old Buckenham (Norfolk)

Kingsnorth writes bitterly about how traditional ways of life are under pressure from seemingly unstoppable market forces, especially in rural England and no more so in places like the Cotswolds which by virtue of its proximity to London has undergone significant gentrification over recent decades. There is a real danger that these places cease to be thriving, local communities and are instead transformed into exclusively middle class havens in which ‘every nook and cranny is being made safe for the wealthy urban bourgeoisie’. And I think that we, as tourists, are part of this puzzle. We appreciate the comfort, quality and safety of the gastropubs and we stop to photograph the quintessentially English stone cottages and terraces which are more likely to house weekenders from London than local workers. Bibury, although undeniably beautiful, felt a little too much like a theme park. Our heritage, which was once living, is becoming commodified. Even poor old William Morris, father of the arts and craft movement and libertarian socialist if ever there was one, seemingly cannot escape from the restless tide of capitalism:


We have seen some of British urban life too from the indefatigable coolness of London and the trendy backstreet vibe of Norwich to the cosmopolitan grittiness of Bristol. I had been to Bristol once before many years ago but prior to the Banksymania which has since swept the world. Banksy, probably the world’s best known street artist, grew up in Bristol and its city streets and buildings became his first canvas. Most of his work has been removed by ‘the authorities’, painted over by other artists or in one case allegedly destroyed by Banksy himself to stop a landowner from profiting from having it on his wall. However with the help of an iPhone app we were able to track down four of his best remaining works – the Paintpot Angel; Wall Hanger; the Mild Mild West; and the Thekla Grim Reaper painted onto the side of a boat:


I think that the story of Banksy in Bristol has relevance to what Kingsnorth writes about in ‘Real England’. Banksy’s work was edgy, unique, risky and above all local (or what we planners nowadays like to refer to as place-based). He was doing something different to the urban environment, something that regardless of ones’ aesthetic taste, could hardly be condemned as bland, safe or sterile. It was, however, illegal and often included anti-authority or anti-establishment messages which not surprisingly brought him to the attention of Bristol City Council who showed considerable zeal in their efforts to control him. The local media were no fans either, branding him a ‘hooligan’. Banksy responded to this opposition by producing ever more daring and audacious pieces culminating in the fabulous Wall Hanger (see above) which was painted directly opposite the councillors’ offices in City Hall. The more daring he became, the more the public loved him until all of a sudden Banksy became mainstream. Instead of removing his artwork and issuing criminal charges against him, the City Council invited him to exhibit at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (his pieces included the Paintpot Angel, still on display – see above). The show was a phenomenal success and Banksy went from public enemy to favourite son almost overnight. Nowadays, Bristol embraces and celebrates its street art from tiny stencils to pieces that cover entire sides of multi-storey buildings (see below). There are areas of the city that are designated graffiti zones and the city runs street art tours for visitors. However while I appreciated the artistry and creativity of the many works on display, I could not help thinking that it was perhaps a little too controlled, a little too manufactured.  The romantic in me likes to cast Banksy as the hero of this story, the little guy who took on the big bad authorities and won. And yet the city council managed to achieve what it had set out to do all along – to exert control, initially via enforcement and when that failed by legitimising what had been a previously subversive activity. Ultimately it is up to us, as tourists, to assess whether Banksy’s street art legacy has genuinely contributed to the vibrancy and uniqueness of the place or if it is merely another triumph for blandness and safe, controlled homogeneity.


Street art in Bristol


Chatsworth is renowned as being one of the finest stately homes in England and yet despite long holding a voyeuristic fascination for these bastions of wealth, power and privilege I had never been there prior to this trip. Grand in scale, proportion and ambition, it is impossible to ‘do’ Chatsworth in a day; we were there for an evening and an afternoon and yet we ventured no further than the gardens. There is already talk of a return trip in the Winter 🙂

Nothing remains of the original Elizabethan mansion that once occupied the site except for a hilltop hunting lodge and the ruins of Queen Mary’s Bower – one of several places of imprisonment for Mary Queen of Scots, the unsuccessful Catholic claimant to the throne during the reign of Elizabeth I. The present house was constructed during the 17th century by the 1st Duke of Devonshire and his heirs still occupy Chatsworth today. It is somewhat confronting knowing that our considerable entrance fee contributed towards the upkeep of the present Duke and Duchess’s home even if at the same time it is preserving a slice of England’s heritage for the nation.
Chatsworth lakePaul & Kim at ChatsworthChatsworth parkChatsworth houseChatsworth view 2Chatsworth house 3Statue and house

We were very fortunate to time our visit to take in a one-night only open air performance of Pride and Prejudice in the garden – great fun on a beautiful balmy evening under the stars despite the ham acting! It is reputed that Chatsworth was the inspiration for Pemberley, the Derbyshire home of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s novel and it is not hard to see why. The house exudes wealth with its gold leaf window frames and magnificent setting beside the idyllic river Derwent in one of Derbyshire’s most picturesque dales. And if she was looking for an example of pride, vanity and arrogance to draw upon to create the character of Mr Darcy, Miss Austen needed look no further than the Dukes of Devonshire. One of the earlier dukes (with the help of celebrity landscape architect of the day, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown) relocated an entire village of 200 inhabitants and re-routed the river because he believed they gave a displeasing outlook from the house. No community consultation in those days! The 6th duke, Miss Austen’s contemporary, was obsessed with creating a garden that was the envy of his peers and his extravagance knew no bounds – this is a man who ordered that a 50 metre cascading waterfall be moved 6 inches to the right to align exactly with a garden path (surely moving the path would have been easier…) A bust of the 6th duke atop a three metre high plinth in the gardens reveals that he bore an almost impossible handsomeness matched only by unconquerable vanity and imperious superciliousness. I took some small guilty pleasure from imagining how disgusted the proud duke would be if he were to see his beloved Chatsworth today overrun by us odious peasants 🙂
Pride & Prejudice
Elizabeth Bennett in white, Mr Darcy in black

Crowd 2
Yes, somebody brought a candlestick to enhance the romance of the occasion even further 🙂

Paul at Pride & Prejudice

Today, the gardens are a delight to explore and experience and for this we owe much to the 18th century vision and brilliance of Joseph Paxton, the 6th duke’s gardener extraordinaire. The kitchen garden is without parallel in my opinion; the rock garden is playful and intriguing; the maze is both fun and a little bit scary. For all their indifference and at times downright malevolence towards the needs of the lower classes, there is a beautiful irony in that by creating their private utopia of opulence the Dukes have ultimately bestowed a wonderful treasure on the people of Britain.

Vegetable garden
The kitchen garden

Topiary as only the English know how

Rock garden
Paxton’s magnificent rock garden

Outside the Maze
The hedge maze enclosed within a wall

One of many contemporary sculptures hidden within the grounds. This is my favourite.

17th century water feature
When is a tree not a tree? When it is a 300 year old metal water feature designed to soak unsuspecting visitors when gravity fed sprinklers are secretly turned on!

Kim and sculpturePaul at Chatsworth 3


TomatoesKim and gate

Peacock Butterfly 2

Bee and wasp 2

Messing around with bikes in Alsace

Cycling in Strasbourg

Strasbourg’s urban form, with its cobblestones, narrow streets, confusing road layout and at grade tramways, does not intrinsically lend itself to cycling. And yet, in the city centre and surrounding areas, cycling is the predominant mode of transport (apart, perhaps from walking). While there are undoubtedly many factors that make this so, I am certain that the excellent cycling infrastructure plays a key role. As an urban planner (and a keen cyclist), the interesting question then is what came first – did high levels of bicycle usage generate demand for better infrastructure or did the improved infrastructure encourage more cyclists on the road? Or is it simply that in Strasbourg cycling is fun, easy and safe? Traffic speeds and volumes are low; bikes can essentially go anywhere – on roads, designated cycle paths, pavements and even the wrong way down one way streets; and in some places, pedestrians and cyclists have formal priority over cars:
Cycling priority

Bike Trip #1 – Rhein-Rhon canal (Saturday 13th July)

During my time at Strasbourg, I had hoped to rent a road bike, mountain bike or at the very least a touring bike to explore the surrounding Alsatian countryside. As I have found out in other parts of the world, this is rarely a straightforward task and when you add in the unpredictability of French opening hours, it becomes nigh on impossible. Thankfully, my generous hosts were happy to lend me one of their bicycles although I have to admit that at first glance I was not certain it would be up to the task:
My trusty steed

Prior to embarking on my trusty if somewhat sluggish steed, some essential maintenance was necessary. Tyre inflation is a typically straightforward procedure however two separate tyres with two different valve types requiring two different pumps makes it just that little bit more interesting. Adjusting the seat required the use of my multi-purpose bike tool which in a few minutes justified its previously questionable inclusion within my very tight 20kg luggage limit from Australia! I also removed the dynamo which was scuffing against the back wheel, tweaked the brakes so that they were not permanently locked onto the front wheel and then finally I could turn the pedals so that the bike actually moved forward with relative ease. Hey presto! I lasted all of about five minutes in the saddle until I was forced to pull up somewhere in Petite-France because the bike was sounding like an elephant dragging a sack of tin cans along the ground. A quick inspection revealed that out of the three chainrings, only the largest one could safely be used without putting myself at risk of being stopped by a passing gendarme for disturbing the peace. As a result, the number of gears available to me instantly dropped from 18 to six. I also noticed that the rear mudguard had come loose but I could not tighten it without taking the wheel off and so I was forced to improvise. After several unsuccessful attempts to wedge paper and card between the loose screw and the mudguard, I took out one of my dried fruit performance gels, broke off a small piece and applied it to hold the screw in place. It worked a treat and I was able to enjoy a rattle-free ride for the rest of my trip. Heartened by this DIY success, I carried on and after getting lost several times I eventually managed to find myself on a path by the beautiful Rhein-Rhôn canal:

The Rhein-Rhôn (in English, Rhine-Rhône) canal is 224km in length and traverses the delightful Alsatian countryside through timeless cornfields, cute little villages and ancient forests:
Alsace ViewCornfield

Originally intended for transporting freight, today the canal is a haven for barges and other pleasure craft in the summer months and is well frequented by anglers, swimmers, joggers, walkers and cyclists. The infrastructure is generally excellent with a sealed towpath for most of its length and frequent and informative signage. At each of the locks, the original gatekeeper’s cottage (ecluse) still stands, although most have been converted into holiday gites (perhaps not this one judging by its near original condition):

Apart from the canal history, there are a few other points of interest along the route including islands, weirs and this fort dating from the 1870s built by the Germans to keep out the French after their (re-)occupation of Alsace following the Franco-Prussian war:

After about 30km hugging the canal, I turned off to the west towards Diebolsheim and then wound my way down quiet country roads to reach the Rhine:
German Rhine

The Rhine is the second longest river in Europe and serves as the border between France and Germany in this region as well as being an important freight route. By this point I had almost run out of water and to make matters worse the next 12km stretch up to the German border was in full sun so I was getting a little worried and started thinking I might have to dive into the river to get a drink! Never fear, literally seconds after crossing into Germany (for some reason I was surprised there was no border control!), I stumbled across a tiny Stübe selling about ten types of beer (as you do in Germany, apparently) and, more usefully, mineral water. Here’s me after downing 500ml of mineral water in record time:
Paul at Stube

I love that while the prevailing architecture and town names are the same on both sides of the river, the Franco-German border is an impermeable barrier as far as language is concerned. Step to the east and you’re speaking German; step back to the west and you’re speaking French. I probably should not be surprised but nevertheless it really struck me.

I crossed back into France further upstream and stopped at Markolsheim (which I renamed Macklemore because I could never remember the name!) for another mineral water. By this point, I had covered around 70km and I was tired and sore. Not surprisingly then, the return journey along the canal was, at first, arduous and by the end, tortuous. With about 40km to go, my bottom was so sore that I could only sit on the saddle for about a minute at a time before standing up. With 10km to go, I had run out of water and my legs were killing me. I was slightly delirious when I finally ventured into a supermarket in Strasbourg to rehydrate and must have looked quite a state. All up, I had covered 120km on a bike that was probably more suited to 12km but it was a fun and memorable day that will stay with me for some time.

Bike Trip #2 – Mont Sainte-Odile and Route des Vins (Monday 15th July)

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of Saturday, I did my research beforehand and found that I could rent a mountain bike from Obernai, a short 20 minute train trip from Strasbourg. A ten minute walk from the station brought me to the Cycl’Hop bike shop only to find that, contrary to the information posted on the internet, the shop was closed on Mondays. Yet again I was undone by the unpredictability of French opening hours but not to be deterred, I ventured back to the tourist information centre where I was informed that there might be mountain bikes for hire at the campsite, 15 minutes out of town. Off I trotted to the camping ground where the stressed but very polite receptionist regrettably announced that they only had standard bikes available to rent. So, despite my best research and planning, I was stuck once again with a bicycle that was entirely unsuitable for the use I had intended it for. Clearly, the only thing to do then was to head straight up the nearest mountain on a bicycle that had been engineered for flat city riding (!) The climb up Mont Sainte-Odile (760m) took me about an hour in first gear almost all the way and, apart from the satisfaction of reaching the summit, the only pleasurable part was seeing the perplexed expressions of cyclists on their super-expensive road bikes whizzing past as they descended. At the top, I walked around Hohenburg Abbey, a monastery/ convent which was founded at the end of the 7th century although the existing building has long since disappeared. I also took in the magnificent views of the Vosges mountains and the valley below:
Mt Saint Odile - viewMt Saint Odile view #4Mt Saint-Odile MonasteryMt Saint Odile view #3

After a relaxing lunch break, I made the long and exhilarating 8km descent into Barr which was superb fun although some of the hairpin bends were slightly terrifying! From Barr, I found my way onto the Route des Vins which is a gorgeous and well marked cycle route through stunning countryside, beautiful vineyards and picture perfect little towns. Mittelbergheim offers quaint old world charm while Andlau lies in an almost incomparably beautiful setting at the foot of the Vosges mountains and surrounded by lush vineyards on all sides:
Mittelbergheim #4Andlau #2 Andlau

A network of roads reserved only for farm vehicles and bicycles navigates through vineyard after vineyard where the only affront to the senses is the occasional waft of sulphur coming from the organically grown vines. I left the Route des Vins at Scherwiller where I stopped for a drink and a bite to eat and to dip my feet in a stream to cool off:
Paul at Scherwiller

The route back was less inspiring and considerably more tiring and I was very glad to arrive back in Obernai after another long day in the saddle. I settled down in a local restaurant to enjoy a petit pichet of the local pinot gris and the house speciality of escargots d’Alsace (snails done the Alsatian way):
Escargots - Obernai

At around 8pm, I trekked back to the train station only to discover that I had misread the timetable and had consequently missed the last train back to Strasbourg! I enquired with several locals about other options (bus, taxi) but without success and so eventually I called my hosts César and Josefina to explain what had happened. Without hesitation, they offered to come and pick me up, a 45 minute round trip for them and a lifesaver for me. I am extremely grateful to their generosity and consider myself very fortunate to have chosen such wonderful and kind people to stay with during my time in beautiful Strasbourg and the Alsace.